Gender & cultural analysis paralysis

Listening to podcasts such as Galactic Suburbia has elevated the profile of speculative fiction gender issues in my thinking recently. I never considered myself to be particularly biased in my reading or writing, but it has been very confronting listening to commentary making the point that if you’re not actively supporting gender and cultural diversity in the genre in your purchasing, reading and writing habits, you are effectively engaging in passive discrimination.

I’m not intending to deconstruct the wide range of diversity arguments in this posting. Many clever people have done so much more eloquently than I ever could. Suffice to say that I have probably been guilty of not paying enough attention to who I’m reading and I do agree that you should attempt to read more widely than the traditional white, middle class male science fiction writers of yore. As mentioned in a previous post, my foray into writing has helped me expand my reading range and that has included paying more attention to the authors that I am reading. At the end of the day you will like what you like, but at least you’ll be making an informed choice knowing better the full range of work that is out there.

Of course all this commitment to diverse reading habits is predicated on the assumption that no one is going to make me read the Twilight series. I think that’s fair.

(As an aside, if you are wanting to read some excellent Australian female speculative fiction authors then can I suggest the Twelve Planets series coming out of Twelfth Planet Press, a small Australian publisher. Three of the planned twelve books out so far, all excellent. I believe the fourth book, Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti, has just been released and is hopefully making its way to me in the mail now – can’t wait).

However, I have found one unexpected impact of all this enlightenment. Recently I’ve found myself a bit paralysed in my writing when it comes to representing female characters, or characters from different cultures. I’ve been told that so many things are wrong/insulting/biased that I can’t keep them all in my head. For example every time I put in even the smallest physical description of a female character I worry that I’m sexualising or stereotyping when I don’t mean to. When you get beyond the basics, some of the arguments about what is and isn’t offensive are sometimes a little esoteric (I keep having to look up the “stuffed into the fridge” (1) concept for instance) and don’t come to mind naturally – especially those that talk to unconscious biases that can be deeply ingrained in the culture you grow up in.

I got to the point where I became so concerned that I would end up offending someone that I haven’t wanted to write anything at all.  Then I started getting concerned that by not writing I was committing horrendous sins of omission.

So, I’ve been giving this some thought over the last few weeks and I’ve come to some conclusions.

  • Conclusion 1: I’ll start from a position that a broader perspective is not only good in and of itself, but will improve my ability to tell a story

Yes I know, the road to hell and all that. But I think it is important to acknowledge up front that your intention is to take all this stuff into account because…

  • Conclusion 2: It’s highly likely that I’m going to offend someone at some time

I have accepted that I’m unlikely to write the perfect culturally and gender aware novel/story. I’m likely to get things wrong and despite my best efforts, someone is going to get cranky with me. That leads me onto…

  • Conclusion 3: Don’t worry about it too much in the first draft

In the same way that I gave myself permission to write crap in order to get writing at all, I’ve decided that while I’ll always try to keep gender/cultural issues in mind when writing, I’m not going to worry about my unconscious biases too much in the first draft stage because…

  • Conclusion 4: The second and subsequent drafts are my friends

This, I’ve decided, is where the self editing/polishing phases need to come into their own. As well as other editing tasks, I’ll be looking at my own work with a specific gender/cultural awareness perspective and also asking my inner circle of readers to do the same and then trying to rework any problematic parts. But despite all that excellent effort…

  • Conclusion 5: Something will slip through the net

Whether because it wasn’t caught by me in the writing process, or it is a bias that no one in my reading circle had recognised and brought to the surface, or I’m misunderstood somewhere down the line or because I’m just plain stupid, something will get out there written by me that genuinely and legitimately offends a group. I’m not talking about people just disagreeing with an opinion of mine – fortunately the world is too diverse a place to have everyone agree on pretty much anything. No, I mean I’ll represent a culture in a way that wasn’t meant to be offensive but is or inadvertently say something stupid and stereotyped about a female character.

In that case, I’ll acknowledge I’ve made a mistake, try to learn from it and not do it again in future work.

Re-reading this post, most of my conclusions seem like simple common sense. But there are a lot of well meaning people out there making valid observations about the biases and injustices that exist in the writing world, and it is easy to let it all overwhelm you.

So that is all. No great insights or worthy additions to the conversations on diversity in writing. Just some fairly simple musings on how these issues have impacted my writing process.

Have you had any paralysing moments in your writing or reading? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.


(1) “Stuffed into a fridge” – just so you don’t have to look it up (it can be disturbing what you find in Google when you type in something like “stuffed into a fridge”), the term refers to a plot device where a female character is killed off solely to further the journey of the male hero.

This one is of particular concern to me, because at the start of one of my stories the male character does indeed lose his wife to the bad guys (I was trying to think of the worst possible thing that could happen to him to send him into a downward spiral with little to no support – that was it). And 60,000 words in it is kind of a key element of the plot. And I’m struggling to think of a different way of achieving the same effect…

Writing process – getting started

A lot of people seem to ask writers about the process they use to write. My first piece of advice about the writing process would be to seek out the advice of people that have been published and are generally successful. For instance, Richard Harland has published a whole website on writing tips, any page of which is going to be more useful than anything I can tell you.

If you’re still reading, the one thing I thought might be useful is a brief discussion about getting started. Most authors who write about writing have a certain level of success already. They have a writing process that has been proven, that works for them. They reflect on the end result of their writing evolution. But all of that isn’t necessarily helpful when you’re attempting to get started. Especially if you’re also working full time in an unrelated career.

After I decided I wanted to do some writing, I faffed about for a long time doing not very much writing at all. I thought about stories. I did a bit of planning, trying to outline structures. I read some books on writing. In short, I danced around the writing process without actually putting finger to keyboard. At the time of penning this post I’m about 55,000 words into the first draft of a novel and have written a few short stories. Nothing I hasten to add that is good enough quality for publishing. And that I guess is part of my point. This post isn’t about producing good quality writing or publishable material. It is about producing anything at all! You can’t even start the journey to publication if you haven’t written a word.

So what changed? How did I go from virtually no output to at least making progress. There were a few key points that made the difference for me.

  • Realising that any writing was good writing

I’ve heard others say this as well so it is not a particularly unique insight, but one major revelation for me was realising that what I wrote in the first instance didn’t have to be encumbered by little things like talent or quality. Any time I would start writing I’d get a couple of paragraphs in and I’d start to worry about whether it was any good. I’d wordsmith, rework, craft and shape trying to turn those couple of paragraphs into something “worthy”. And weeks would slip by. When you’re working full time and are balancing the other aspects of having a life, you don’t actually have much time to write. The loss of momentum created by that kind of fiddling creates huge problems with actually feeling like you are getting anything done (this is very related to the design vs build section below).

So, giving myself permission to write a piece of crap first draft was a big turning point for me. Suddenly I didn’t have to worry about using too many cliched phrases or whether my plot was too derivative. I didn’t have to worry about whether my dialog was too stilted or I was doing too much telling instead of showing. I just had to worry about writing and actually getting things down on page. And that was incredibly freeing.

  • Do it your way

After a career spent typing on a keyboard I’m not a great freehand writer. I find I can’t keep up with my thought processes when I write with a pen and paper. Also while I carried around a notebook and pen with me as much as possible, I found that at times when I might have found 1/2 hour or an hour to write I often didn’t have writing materials to hand. And then when I used scraps of paper etc, I found myself not really collating them or putting them together into anything coherent. All that is a long way of saying that I wasn’t comfortable with the way I was writing and that put road blocks up for me actually producing output.

For me a big change has come with the recent significant increase in the portability of computers. I’ve always like the concept of the laptop but never found the reality lived up to the promise. When the laptop weights a few kilograms and you have to carry it plus a bulky power cord, mouse etc around, it is not realistic to assume you’ll take your computer with you most of the time.

Enter the recent “ultrabook” trend that started with the Macbook Air. I bought an Air a little over a year ago and it has made a massive difference to my writing productivity. With 7 hours worth of battery and weighing not much more than a kilogram, it is entirely feasible for me to take the Air with me to work every day. On those days when I have time to take a lunch break, I take the Air down with me to a cafe and get 1/2 hour writing in. I can’t always predict which days I’ll get to write but now I don’t have to. It has made a huge difference.

(I got a Macbook Air partly because it was the only ultra light laptop around at the time and partly because I really like the Scrivener writing program which is only available on the Mac – although I believe a Windows version is close to coming out. Most manufacturers have been playing catchup and there are a series of ultrabooks with similar weight/size characteristics coming out now if you prefer Windows)

Of course computers aren’t everyones preferred method of writing first drafts. I guess my general point is that you need to find a way of making writing time available to you more often in a form that works for you. Like the “any writing is good writing” point above, it is about creating momentum in your work.

  • What a difference a week makes

Most of the podcasts that I listen to and articles/books that I’ve read by successful published authors talk about having daily word targets. I tried that for a little while, but I found it incredibly frustrating. Life doesn’t always let you sit down and write every day. It would be nice if it could. Perhaps if I was single or at least didn’t have kids it would be different, but I found that even setting a very modest daily target (say 200 words) just wouldn’t happen. And then I’d get discouraged and feel that I wasn’t living up to my goals.

I wish I could remember which podcast I was listening to (it was one of the Sydney Writer’s Centre podcasts on writers and writing), but it was one of the rare ones where the author in question was discussing juggling full time work and writing. And they said “set a weekly word count target”. A simple adjustment but it made all the difference in the world. I set a 2,000 words target per week, to be achieved by Sunday night each week. I started keeping a little log each week listing my word target and the actual word count I achieved. I reviewed the targets each month and if I was ahead of schedule I’d reset my targets to prevent coasting.

It made a huge difference. Sure, some weeks I don’t get there and I have to do some catchup work the next week. I’ve had to do some creative things to find time to work, sometimes working a lunchtime, sometimes locking myself in the study for a few hours on the weekend to make up for lost time. But generally I’ve stuck to the 2,000 word target and it has created some real momentum in my work. Having a week as my basic unit of time rather than a day has created some much needed flexibility in my schedule, and now I feel good about my progress as opposed to always feeling guilty about not measuring up.

  • Design vs build

In my early career I wrote a lot of software. I’d see fellow programmers get stuck in what we’d call “analysis paralysis” where they would rehash the design of their software system over and over again trying to get it perfect. And like any plan, it wouldn’t survive 5 seconds of actually being used. No matter how much time was spent on the design, once you tried to build the software you would have to go back and revise.

In the software world I gravitated towards design methodologies which essentially had you do an 80% design in a very short period of time and get started writing code as soon as possible. This worked as long as you scheduled in time to put your head up and revisit that design during the course of your work to make sure everything was still hanging together.

I have found myself taking a similar approach to writing. I do my “80% structure” up front, but get writing as quickly as possible then rework the structure as I go. I make sure I take time on a regular basis to take a step back and revisit the overall structure. Applying this approach helped me break out of some initial “analysis paralysis” and actually get writing.

And even if your first draft has structure holes, well that is what a second draft is for.


Look, this was just a few of the hurdles I had to getting started writing and how I overcame them. Your issues will probably be different. I’ll add to this post as I think of more things and try to keep it up to date. Leave comments below about your own experiences – I’d love to hear about them. And don’t forget, this isn’t about getting published or writing award winning work. This is just about writing anything at all!