Who gets to be a villain?

As a child, I loved the Disney movie Sleeping Beauty — but probably not for the reason I was supposed to.

I suffered through Aurora’s sappy yearning for love. I yawned at the Prince (. . . um, Erik?) and his earnest escapades.

I loved the Flora, Fauna, and Merriwether of course — who doesn’t appreciate a gaggle of adorable witchy aunties who are just doing their best at adulting?

But I watched Sleeping Beauty for my idol.


She had power. She commanded minions. She was fierce and strong. She did whatever the hell she wanted.

Yes, cursing a baby to die is pretty terrible — especially when her beef was actually with the parents. But as a child I remember feeling awed by her strength, confidence, and casual assumption of power.

She was a boss bitch, and she was amazing. I’d rather be her than boring, sappy Aurora crying on her bed any day.

As a girl, I felt like I was offered two choices in Sleeping Beauty: sit around waiting to be saved, or turn into a literal dragon and set some shit on fire.

I wanted to be the dragon.

Cue Sirens…

A few weeks back, I mentioned Sirens Con, the feminist SFF convention I recently attended.

The theme of the conference was villains: Who gets cast as villains in our media? How are straight, cis male villains treated compared to female, nonbinary, and LGBTQ+ villains? What does a villain need to do to have a redemption arc? What does it mean to be morally gray?

Nearly every panel and talk touched somewhat on the theme. As a writer of sci-fi crime stories about space gangsters and pirates, you can bet I have a LOT of thoughts on how these topics relate to my own work.

My attempt to sit and write a quick recap of Sirens for you turned into a multi-part series of essays.

This specific blog post won’t have any spoilers for my books, but I did dig deeper into my world and characters in other essays — so I’m only send those to readers who are actually curious. (Read on for details.)

But first!

Maleficent didn’t become a villain by accident.

(And, no, I’m not talking about her character backstory, or the recent retelling with Angelina Jolie.)

Her character design in the animated film was deliberate, influenced by a Prohibition-era set of rules called the Hays Code — which we learned about at Sirens in a fascinating keynote talk given by Sarah Gailey.

The Hays Code was provided in 1927 by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America — it listed things that should not be included in movies, such as profanity and nudity, but also things like relationships between people of different races, scenes of childbirth, and the positive portrayal of sexual depravity.

The idea is based on something I completely agree with: stories expand our experiences and help us empathize with other perspectives. Stories teach us, whether we’re aware of it or not.

What the Hays Code said, though, was that we should only be teaching audiences to empathize with certain people.

As Sarah Gailey pointed out in their talk, the Hays Code wanted audiences to empathize with “model citizens.” White, Christian, straight, and hard-working.

Anyone who didn’t fit that box could only be portrayed in a negative light. They got to be villains.

No one empathizes with the villains, right?

Well, no one except for us misfits.

You’ll notice sexual depravity on the Hays Code no-no list, of course. Loose women and women who are confident in their sexuality obviously fall into this category — hence the trope of the femme fatale, or the voluptuous vixen who gets a humiliating downfall.

And, of course, the gays. Start listing off old movie villains in your head, and just notice how many are butch women and effeminate men.

Sticking with Disney villains for a moment, take take Ursula the sea witch, another of my Disney favorites. Sarah Gailey pointed out that Ursula’s character design, expressions, and movements were literally based off the famous drag queen Divine.

The Hays Code was generally abandoned by the 60s for the rating code we use today (at least in the US), but the reverberations linger.

Imagine it.

  • Think of the gay kids who are only ever allowed to glimpse themselves in Scar or Ursula or Javier Bardem’s depraved Bond villain.
  • Think of the Muslim kids who are only ever allowed to see themselves as terrorists.
  • Think of ambitious girls who are only allowed to see themselves as psychotic, power-hungry madwomen.

As a girl, I wanted to be the dragon.

In real life I’ve actually become the witchy auntie who’s doing her best at adulting — but Maleficent still inspires me.

I have a figurine of her on my desk, a gift from my sister. Every time I catch a glimpse of it, I remember that it’s okay for a woman to be a bit monstrous if it means advocating for herself and fully coming into her power.

And it reminds me to pay attention to the worlds I’m writing, and the implicit lessons I’m sharing about who can and cannot be a hero.

How about you – do you have a favorite villain?

Let me know in the comments!

Want to read the rest of this essay series?

Oh — and as I said, Sarah Gailey’s talk at Sirens was one of many many presentations that sparked a lot of thoughts for me.

Specifically, I want to dive more into Fonda Lee’s discussion about morally gray characters, and into the idea of villain redemption arcs which was discussed by multiple presenters.

However, I drew a lot off my own work, and I didn’t want to spoil anything for those of you who haven’t read all the Bulari Saga yet.

If you have read it — or don’t mind a few spoilers — I have another few emails I’d love to send your way. Click here to get a series of three more emails over the next three days:

  • Navigating the morally gray world of the Bulari Saga
  • What makes a good villain (and can you redeem them?)
  • And a super secret surprise 😉

Want a deeper dive on Disney villains?

Photo by Norbert Buduczki on Unsplash

Black Lives Matter

I originally sent this out to my newsletter subscribers. You can read the full newsletter here. Also, big shout out to the readers who emailed me back — you’re all rad. I appreciate the conversation.

Hey there.

Every once in a while someone tells me that the society I created in the Bulari Saga is unrealistic in its inclusiveness. Yeah, I know. But I wanted to explore a world that didn’t have systemic barriers in place to exclude people on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation, ability, or race. 

As I’ve cheekily put it in the past, I wanted to create a world where anyone who wanted to could excel as a space criminal.

The world of the Durga System isn’t an even, merit-based playing field though — it’s very stratified when it comes to resources. In the Durga System, poverty will hold you back, but nobody cares about the color of your skin. Your gender. Who you love. 

If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you’ll probably see where I’m going with this.

I tried to erase those systemic barriers in the Durga System world because I believe in writing the world you want to see — but that’s not the world we live in today.

I always hesitate to talk politics. I figure my books can speak for themselves, and there are more informed people out there sharing their opinions. But I’m also very aware that I’m a white woman who’s succeeded in part because of the very systems that people in Minneapolis are protesting against — which makes my silence complicity, whether I feel comfortable speaking up or not. 

And seriously.

In the space of a month we’ve seen white folks with AR-15s storm into state capitol buildings, while Black folks gather peacefully in the streets. One of these groups was allowed to peacefully protest, while the other was treated as a threat and met with tear gas, riot gear, and armored vehicles. 

Police chose to react with restraint when white people protested, and chose to react with violence when Black people did. 

Like, you can’t miss that. 

Our country’s racist infrastructure is showing.

If I put that in a sci-fi book, you’d be like, “Damn, Jessie. That’s a pretty unrealistic and heavy-handed way to demonstrate your story’s society is racist, maybe be more subtle about it?”

The short version of this post is this:

Black lives matter, and I stand with the protestors. 

The long version of this post, below, is meant for any of my white readers who want more information on how they can help dismantle the systemic barriers that are keeping us all from being the successful, plucky space criminals we deserve to be.

Peace, friends.

To my white readers

If you’re still reading, yes. I hate the destruction and the looting. I wish the police would choose to deescalate rather than incite violence. I wish police allowed peaceful protestors to remain peaceful — and I wish peaceful protests were better at accomplishing societal change.

Is this level of anger an appropriate response to a militarized police force that killed 1,099 people last year without repercussion — most of them with black and brown skin?

Yeah. It is.

[Related reading: The Police Can Still Choose Nonviolence (the Atlantic); Police Erupt in Violence Nationwide (Slate).]

The property destruction sucks. The impact that racially-motivated police violence has on black communities sucks way worse, though. 

I’m immensely privileged in that I will never truly understand how angry Black communities are at the killing of George Floyd. I’ll never understand the fear a Black man has of being pulled over, the fear a Black mom has for her kids. 

The other day I was talking with a white friend and her Mexican husband about all the gorgeous flowers that are in bloom in our neighborhood. He finally said, “You two can just stop and take photos of someone’s yard. I can’t even slow down and look or they’ll think I’m casing the house and call the police.”

I’ll never understand what it’s like to live with that reality constantly in your mind. 

But I can empathize with it.

If you’re white, here are some things you can do to help.

1. Educate yourself

You’re reading an author’s blog, so I assume you’re a reader. Rejoice! The first homework assignment is reading. Read more books by authors of color. Watch their films. Seek out their art. (And support them financially!) I’m not just talking about racial studies books like So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahesi Coates. Reading fiction and watching entertaining films (say, reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower or watching Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing) is a great way to educate yourself and increase your empathy.

(Here’s a great list of 5 fantastic Black sci-fi writers to get you started.)

(And here’s a fantastic post by author Catherynne M. Valente about how reading builds empathy.)

1a. Follow people of color on social media and listen to them. LISTEN to them. They’re going to say things that make you uncomfortable, and that’s fine. That discomfort is a gift — sit with it and try to understand why you’re reacting the way you are, rather than responding defensively. 

1b. If you have questions, try to do your own research before asking people of color to help. They’ve got enough on their plates without explaining racism, even if you mean well. Can’t find something? Email me and I’ll help you look. This document also has a bunch of great resources (by Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein).

2. Examine your own biases

Remember my Mexican friend from a few paragraphs ago? I was recently riding my bike down the street when a Latino kid passed me on his. He was looking at people’s yards as he rode, and my first thought was “Hmm, what’s that kid up to?” My second thought was, “Oh my God I am that white lady my friend is afraid will call the cops on him.” 

Our knee-jerk reactions aren’t always great, but we can do better. We’ve been conditioned by growing up in a society that actively teaches us racist stereotypes, and it’s work to recognize and deprogram those thoughts. Do that work. 

2a. Oh, and hey. Don’t call the cops on your neighbors. If they are in trouble, find another way to help — calling the cops in this country is all too often a death sentence, especially if they’re not white. 

3. Donate

It’s not all reading and self-reflection, ha! People are out there right now trying to make a difference. Here are some ways to support them financially if you have the means.

My friend and fellow Portland author T. Thorn Coyle is curating a list of organizations that need your help

3a. Feeling uncomfortable donating to protest support without doing more research? Totally get that. Donate to a local Black-run community organization. Donate to an organization like We Need Diverse Books. Support educational opportunities for the next generation — I just started an annual scholarship for graduating seniors at my old high school (majority Latinx) to help give other kids from Wapato, WA the same chance I got at going to college. 

4. Be actively inclusive

Look for ways to make space in the majority-white places you take for granted. Your book club, a conference you’re attending, a professional association, your workplace, your friend group. There’s a difference between not excluding people and making a space actually inclusive. Work towards the latter. 

The Making a New Reality research project by Kamal Sinclair has a lot of nuanced discussion about this. This article is a good place to start. 

5. Keep the conversation going 

I started this post by saying I hate talking about this stuff. I still do — but I also know that if I want to see the sort of equal-access world I write into my books, I need to start shouldering some of the work. And that means talking about it even when I’m uncomfortable. Black lives matter. Pass it on. 

<3 Jessie

Writing a World in Glimpses

Two years ago, I wrote the short story that gave me my first glimpse into the Durga System. (It was published in the second volume of Bikes in Space, a fantastic series of feminist bicycle science fiction edited by Elly Blue.)

In that story, Willem Jaantzen was the villain — but as I expanded on the premise of the original short story I became more and more fascinated by him and his crew.

(If you’ve read Starfall, you’ve been introduced to Starla already; if you’ve read Negative Return you’ve gotten to meet Manu.)

Since those books came out, I’ve written another novella, a novel, and a short story — all set in the same world. Each dips into Willem Jaantzen’s story, especially exploring his relationship with his goddaughter, Starla Dusai. 

Writing these books has been like solving a puzzle. The entire world is one massive picture, and every book or story lets me shine a light on another small portion of that picture. 

And, believe me — I hear my readers! I read the reviews that say “I want more story!”

I’ll be releasing more stories soon. 🙂

Ultimately, my goal is to structure the Durga System books like this: one central series of full-length novels centered around Jaantzen and his crew, bolstered by a constellation of character-specific novellas and short stories that shine the flashlight on fascinating parts of the picture that aren’t within the scope of the main series.

One such story that’s just come to light is the moment that Willem Jaantzen meets Starla’s parents, the famed space pirates Raj and Lasadi Dusai.

When I was asked to write an exclusive short story as part of a giveaway (more on that in a second), I knew that was the story I wanted to write.


“Rogue” takes place many, many years before Starfall, when Jaantzen is just getting his feet underneath him.

A tricky job is starting to go south — and it only gets worse when he comes face-to-face with the most notorious space pirates in the Durga System.

Of course, every story I write introduces me to new facets of the world that I’d like to explore. After writing “Rogue,” I’m beginning to suspect I may have to write a side series featuring Raj and Lasadi’s adventures aboard the Nanshe

Stay tuned — more Durga System stories are imminent. In my next post I’ll be revealing the cover of my next novella, Deviant Flux!

“Rogue” is available for a limited time as part of the Distant Worlds Giveaway over at Bookwrapt through the end of August. Go get it before it’s gone!

For Your To-Be-Read List

An Oath of Dogs


by Wendy Wagner

(I recently devoured this fantastic far-future colony adventure with a dash of mystery by local Portland author and all-around delightful human, Wendy Wagner.)  

Kate Standish has been on the forest-world of Huginn less than a week and she’s already pretty sure her new company murdered her boss. But the little town of mill workers and farmers is more worried about eco-terrorism and a series of attacks by the bizarre, sentient dogs of this planet, than a death most people would like to believe is an accident. That is, until Kate’s investigation uncovers a conspiracy which threatens them all.

Find it on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound

Want to help me write my next novella faster?

Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash

(This is the first post in a series about how arthritis affects writers, and what we can do about it. TL;DR version: I’m doing a writing fundraiser for the Arthritis Foundation and you should donate here if you want to read my next book sooner.)

One night, after a few glasses of wine, I signed up to ride my bike 70 miles a day for 3 days to support the Arthritis Foundation.

70 miles a day — for 3 days.

(I’d really better start training.)

The intimidating distance aside, I’m really excited about this fundraiser. Why?

As a writer, arthritis research is important to me because if I lose the use of my hands, I use my livelihood. And it’s not just a thing to worry about when I get old — more than 52 million adults (1 in 5) and 300,000 children are living with some form of arthritis in the United States.

I’ve dealt with repetitive strain injury in my left wrist since I was in high school. At times, it’s been so bad I couldn’t type — a terrifying feeling for someone who makes a living with her words.

I’ve worked on ways to reduce the strain of my job through dictation and strength training.

I’ve cut out certain activities that exacerbate it (playing bass guitar, waiting tables, knitting as much as I used to).

But I’m well aware that if I don’t manage it now it could become debilitating.

The Arthritis Foundation does amazing work toward finding a cure for arthritis, as well as supporting and providing treatment access to adults and kids who are living with it. As a writer and a cyclist (and a human), their work is super important to me. That’s why I’m doing this fundraising ride, even though I’m terrified of fundraising and am super intimidated by the distance.

Here’s where writing comes in.

(And where you come in.)

Since I launched Negative Return, I’ve gotten a few emails that go something like, “I loved this book! When’s the next one coming out?”

My response is always a polite, “I hope this fall,” to the soundtrack of silent screaming inside my head because I wish I could write faster and had more time.

In particular, my hangup is the first draft. I love editing, but getting that first draft written is really tough for me — so I tend to procrastinate, wasting time noodling and plotting and re-plotting rather than just banging the damn thing out.

So I’ve decided to combine my fundraising efforts with the one thing people seem to want from me these days: another Durga System novella, stat.

Here’s the deal:

My fundraising goal is to raise $1,500 for the Arthritis Foundation by August 15.

My novella goal is to write 30k words.

I vow to you: For every dollar I raise, I’ll write 20 words.

That means for a $75 donation, you can purchase about 1500 words — or roughly a scene at my normal pace. For a mere $10 donation, you can purchase a snappy dialogue exchange, or maybe even a short-n-scrappy fight!

(Feel free to leave a comment on my donation page specifying what kind of thing you want me to write with the words you bought, and I’ll do my best to accommodate. 😉

If I reach my fundraising goal by August 15, I’ll have a completed first draft of the novella, and you, dear reader, will be that much closer to reading it.

To sweeten the deal, three lucky donors will win signed print copies of all three of my current published books! (Winners chosen at random after August 15).

I’ll also have a special Crew of Honor section in the next novella and on this site to thank donors.

How about it? Ready to crack the whip on my writing schedule, and do some good in the fight against arthritis?

You can donate here.

And thank you thank you thank you from the bottom of my heart. You’re supporting incredibly important work.

And sci-fi gangsters.

Which are also important.


Camp Nanowrimo, Day 1 – and a request

Have you ever done Nanowrimo? It’s National Novel Writing Month, which happens every November. People around the world take on the challenge of writing a novel (50,000 words) in one month.

I participated years ago and enjoyed the challenge of writing daily – plus, the excitement of hearing everyone else’s progress is really enlivening!

About a week ago, I heard about Camp Nanowrimo. It’s the “summer camp” version of Nanowrimo, where you can set your own word count goal, then shack up into digital “cabins” with other writers in order to share encouragement and feedback.

I decided to sign up on a whim because I’ve been really floundering in my fiction writing habit lately, and I needed a good kick in the motivation. I set a goal of 30,000 words for July (or, about 1,000 words a day). With that goal, I should easily finish the next Durga System novella, and probably get started on some other stuff, as well. I already met my 1k goal for today, so there’s one day down!

Here’s where the request comes in.

I’m trying to get some accountability for my writing, and I’m thinking of starting a standing #1k1hr challenge on Twitter weekday mornings. Probably 8am Pacific, since that will motivate me to get up and get those words out before I get deep in email and client work.

Wanna play? If so, tweet me at @jkwak and let’s write some words together!

The anti-Nano: Bikes In Space novel revisions

While other writers are hoping to add 50,000 words to their manuscripts this month, I’m on the mission to delete 10,000 from mine.

Yes, I’m revising.

I’m currently hard at work making sense of the first draft of my Bikes in Space novel for Elly Blue and Microcosm Press, which will be published in spring 2017. It’s based on the short story I wrote for Elly’s second Bikes in Space anthology, although the world of the novel has certainly grown and shifted from what I first imagined in that story.

(Want to read that story for free? Head here.)

Revisions are tough, but it’s one of my favorite parts of the writing process. As much as I try to plot things out, I’m very much a discovery writer. I’m constantly suppressing myself with what my characters say, or what they find when they open doors. These little discoveries and mysteries are delightful, but stressful at the same time. Why won’t my characters behave? Why do they make me sit and re-outline my plot every other chapter?

Granted, I think these little surprises makes for a much better story than what I originally thought of. But it does seem like instead of writing the story down in the drafting process, I’m making the material out of which I will pull the story later.

I’m creating the clay that I will use to sculpt a story during revisions.

Since I’m still digging into the plot I’m not quite ready to talk about it yet, but I have created a Pinterest board to collect all my visual inspirations. Here’s one of my favorite images:

anime stars:

It’s by illustrator Akaya Suda, and I think it’s just gorgeous. You can find more of Akaya’s work here.

If you’re curious to get a taste of the Bike Caper Novel (name still TBA), check out the Pinterest board, and sign up for my mailing list (in the sidebar) to be the first to know the news!

Follow Jessie’s board Bike Caper Novel on Pinterest.

The Art of Collaboration

This post was originally published on at Four Windows Books, a project I’m working on with my friend Christine Smith.

The Novel Incubator

A while back, I interviewed Lucrece Borrego about her Brewery Incubator project in Houston. The project met a need – home brewers who were interested in getting into commercial brewing, but didn’t have the capital or expertise to dive right in unsupported.

The Brewery Incubator would give them the space and equipment to work on their craft, as well as connecting them in to a community of beer enthusiasts who could give them feedback and encouragement as they started their journey.

The project wasn’t for dabblers. It was for those who were willing to put in the elbow grease to start their career.

In a way, Four Windows is a Novel Incubator.

It’s that safe space for novelists who maybe have felt they lacked the support or motivation to write the novel that’s been brimming inside them. Here, they’ll find the support and encouragement they need, along with a collaborative spirit that helps them hone their craft.

At our first critique session last week, Andy Gaines put it way: “Writing a novel is huge. But writing a novel that’s already supported, and with the feedback from other good writers, seems doable.”

Instruction by public consumption

A key ingredient of Lucrece Borrego’s Brewery Incubator is that of public input. Brewers participating in the incubator project get a chance to pour in the taproom, which is open to the public. Consumers get a chance to taste and give feedback to the fledgling brewers, and the brewers get a chance to build a following.

By publishing our novels serially, the authors of Four Windows get a similar experience. We’re not just getting the feedback of our peers, we’ll be getting it from our readers along the way. We’re not brewing our stories in a vacuum – we’re brewing them with the input of our readers.

Two of the biggest stumbling blocks in writing a novel are these questions:

“Will anyone like it?” – and – “What the hell will I do with it when I’m done?”

With Four Windows, those questions hold no power. You’ll know as you’re writing whether or not anyone likes it, and as for what will happen once you’re done writing?

Well, your novel will be published.

Belly up to the bar

The inaugural team of Four Windows authors are hard at work, shoveling inklings of plot and whispers of characters into the mash tun to boil. Pretty soon we’ll be ready to pour you a heady sampler tray of stories – to get in on the first batch, please check out FourWindowsBooks.com.