Discover more from Erica Drayton Writes
N.K. Jemisin's MasterClass | A Review
I learned more than I ever thought I would about sci-fi and fantasy
Continuing my desire to soak up as much knowledge from the “masters” in their field, my next visit into the writing section of MasterClass is with N.K. Jemisin. Now, full disclosure: I have not read any of her work. I know this is a terrible thing that I do intend to rectify as soon as I decide where to begin.
However, having said that, I am not unfamiliar with her work. What I mean is, thanks to LeVar Burton, I have heard one of her short fiction stories and of the dozens that he’s read on his podcast, this one is my favorite. If you have not checked out the LeVar Burton Reads Podcast, consider this my shameless plug to go do so and to listen to Cuisine des Memoires that he read, written by N.K. Jemisin. I want to say it’s either in the 6th or 7th season (he’s currently releasing season 9 of the series) and the 85th episode? I could check but I’m writing this and don’t want to click away. Just listen to them all and thank me later!
Now, back to this MasterClass. Up until this point I had only watched the full MasterClass of R.L. Stine and LeVar Burton (my review pending). In both instances, as I figured, I got a wealth of knowledge. Also in both instances I will fully admit I’m not a Middle Grade or Young Adult author, like R.L. Stine and I’m not trying to be a great public speaker (though I do want to get better at auditory storytelling) like LeVar Burton. I just don’t find myself to be all that charismatic! But that doesn’t mean they didn’t provide me with tools I didn’t even know I needed.
In the case of N.K. Jemisin, she is speaking to what she is most known for: fantasy and science-fiction. These are the genres where she is most celebrated and most known for occupying space in a big and bold way. As a black woman, this is a huge deal. Especially, in a field such as writing and a genre where the predominant authors happen to be white and male. For me, hearing her journey as well as getting her insights on the act of worldbuilding and research were what I got the most tools to add to my toolbox.
PROMISE OF THE PREMISE
Nora makes it very clear in the beginning that she is not just going to talk about how to write fantasy and science fiction as if it’s cookie cutter with rules we all must follow. Instead, she approached it from a place of expanding what these genres used to be (white, male-dominated) into what they are becoming and the trends they are currently taking which is to highlight the marginalized in ways that was not possible before. This is what her MasterClass is. And threaded throughout is the ways in which myself (a member of the marginalized thrice-fold: black, gay, female) or anyone else can depict characters like myself or different from myself but to give them voice. It is clear that Nora feels these “others” who had no voice before in these particular genres should have them now and in many ways it is my duty to give them voice.
To say she doesn’t deliver on this goal of hers is false. She really drives it home and gives amazing examples to her approach in not only her own novels but in both the entertainment and literary world. She also goes into worldbuilding, something she loves to do and how to avoid living in that space for all eternity. She discusses character and POVs and it was in her discussion of this area in particular that I found myself reevaluating my own story to see if my “go-to” POV was right.
Yes, she speaks a lot about the marginalized and how to include them more and that can seem to some like she isn’t teaching the basics. But if you pay attention, she is teaching the basics of not only storytelling but storytelling within fantasy and science-fiction just with the point-of-view of a character who typically wouldn’t be thought of as the main character or hero of the story. Because it’s what she believes we must do and makes for more interesting storytelling. And I must say, I agree with her reasoning. These genres are over-saturated with white male hunky heroes. Let’s give the “other” a shot for once and share their story. Speak their truth. Who knows, we just might learn a little about ourselves and that other person along the way that we didn’t consider before.
WHAT WE HAVE IN COMMON
I honestly didn’t expect to have much of anything in common with N.K. Jemisin and that’s because she is not just an author but in many ways she is an activist with the work she produces. She knows it goes against the norms and you can argue she does so intentionally, not to cause a fracas (that would happen whether she did something intentionally or not) but to make space for those who come after her to feel free to write about whatever or whoever their “other” is and have a hopefully easier time of it.
In the area that she and I are most in common would be in the area of short fiction. She, like me, started out writing novels. She felt that short fiction was a completely different medium and beast to undertake (and it is) but it doesn’t mean someone who wants to write novels should never tread those waters. In fact, I feel, and she might agree, that novelists should spend some time writing short fiction even if it never sees the light of day. I discovered many years ago that short fiction was a great way for me to teach myself certain writing styles and use the practice as “studies” in writing POVs better or just using my words more wisely since I had less space to work with. Short fiction is very constrictive in the rules whether self-imposed or imposed by the publication or contest you are entering. Stray outside the lines and you effectively no longer have a short fiction piece by its very definition. This often scares novelists who like the freedom to tell their story as intended without limitations. But think how much better we might all be about getting to the damn point if we all learned how to write short fiction, which basically insists we get to the point quickly and waste no words along the way.
I recently chose to put a pause on writing short fiction while I am working on my novel but watching this MasterClass has reminded me that while I may not be writing short fiction now, it will be something I will always return to in moments of pause in between writing a novel because I do thoroughly enjoy it and someday I do hope to have my short fiction appear in publication. How awesome would that be?!
I learned so much from this MasterClass that I found myself having to stop watching every 3 - 4 lessons just so I could absorb what I heard and apply it to my own current project before I forgot it all. And watching this when I chose to right now couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I started my research in my present novel back in April and after spending close to two months building the world I started writing. About one month in and twenty-thousand words written something wasn’t right. My main character somehow disappeared and I wasn’t finding it increasingly difficult to find him or his voice again. I took some time away and now have come to a point where I’m ready to return. Only this time I know what went wrong and the solution came in part from R.L. Stine’s MasterClass but mostly from N.K. Jemisin’s.
Her discussions on the Macro and Micro levels for building the world helped me to have a better understanding of the kind of research I should’ve done that would’ve been much more beneficial than the lazy approach I now realize I had taken back in April. I didn’t realize just how many “easy routes” I had taken in my research so I could just start writing but now that I know, I’m rectifying that and going back to the drawing board effectively.
This is also my first time writing a story where 99.9% of the characters look like me. Meaning they are all dark-skinned. Some characters will also be gay in subsequent sequels to this first novel. There will also be a few disabled people that aren’t thought of in that way in my world but in our world would be. I’m doing a lot of things I wouldn’t normally do in my writing and taking myself out of my comfort zone so I am forced to pay attention and not be so lazy about the story or the characters or the world. I love writing but I feel the energy and joy I had with writing shorter fiction, while a great asset to have in my arsenal, has rendered me almost terrified now to approach a much larger piece of fiction. Can I expand the story now that I’m so used to getting it all out there and quickly? I have the space to breathe but I’ve never felt more closed in by it!
Her MasterClass has taught me how to approach telling the story I want to tell of the marginalized, how to lean in but not too far, and how to just enjoy the journey of character arcs and concepts that may not be welcome in the fantasy genre but are beginning to be. Adding my voice and my face will make them even that much more normal and hopefully make what is now still considered an “other” and just have it be what it is…another great story to read.
My final thoughts are that anyone who watches this MasterClass, really any white person who watches it, should be open-minded. You may feel as if she is not speaking to you at all with how often she discusses or advocates for the marginalized to be the main character and the most interesting story to tell. And in many ways you may be right in that assumption. I do feel she was talking to me and anyone else like me who isn’t white or male writing fantasy or science-fiction. But in a lot of ways she is also talking to those who aren’t me and at least giving a cogent argument as to why the stale white male hero isn’t going to be enough anymore today. Readers want more depth in their characters. Readers want more of themselves. No, not all characters have to be black or non-white. I don’t think that is what she’s saying. In fact, she’s saying they need to just be more real and less generic. We need to stop defaulting to the characters we see 100% of the time and simply start acknowledging there are more shades in the world. Even if you’re just coming at it from the point of view that certain kinds of people are darker because of the climate they have lived in for generations. That’s scientific and truth and just because they are darker or lighter skinned doesn’t mean they can’t have struggles or flaws within their immediate environment just like anyone else.
I also want to briefly mention the instructor guide that comes with this MasterClass. It must be mentioned because unlike the R.L. Stine guide which seems to cover almost word-for-word what he says in his lessons, the one for N.K. Jemisin is the opposite. The topics are the same but there is content contained on the PDF that she just doesn't even go into or really mention at all in the lessons! I almost overlooked the guide because I fully expected it to be what I had already heard her say. The only reason I downloaded and opened it was because I was hoping the screenshots of certain images I took while watching on my iPad would be found in the guide and possibly in better resolution. What I found instead was much more valuable and a whole other level of planning I hadn't considered. So yeah, if you're like me thinking you don't have to check out the guide that is provided, think again!
This was not just a great MasterClass to learn the art of writing fantasy and science-fiction on a micro level but on a macro level it made me realize that to write the marginalized doesn’t mean I’m “writing to market” (though in today’s society one could argue I totally am) or that I’m trying to push an agenda. I’m just simply choosing to tell a story that could easily be told with 99.9% all white characters but their not. They are more real than that and who they happen to be in this particular story I’m writing is one I’m probably going to be most proud of having written. And to think I came to this realization from watching an N.K. Jemisin MasterClass.
She may never see my little unknown blog or read this post but on the off-chance she does, I just want to say thanks, cause this gay black girl is about to tell her story.