Deep Dive Into Building Inclusive Worlds

Building Inclusive Worlds

When: October 2 – November 1, 2020
Where: Online — Available everywhere and at your own pace
Price: $500

Worldbuilding for speculative fiction or SSFnal games can be a daunting task; even moreso for writers who want to create or explore inclusive cultures filled with diverse characters but without unconsciously replicating colonialist structures and viewpoints. This class offers writers a deep dive into key aspects of building inclusive worlds — Creating Cultures, Ideology, Religion, Cosmology, Sociobiology, Research, and more — with a plethora of outstanding builders of speculative worlds: Steven Barnes, P. Djèlí Clark, Jaymee Goh, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Nilah Magruder, Pam Punzalan, Rebecca Roanhorse, and Nisi Shawl.

This four-week class includes video lectures and interviews plus extensive discussion and Q&A on each topic. Students will leave the class with a deep worldbuilding toolset and resources for further study.

Required Text

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Course Format, Schedule, and Time Commitment

The class does not have set meeting times. You can access lectures, other class materials, and group discussions at any time from anywhere in the world as long as you have an Internet connection. All Q&As and class discussions will take place in a private online forum.

Students will have exclusive access to video lectures and interviews (closed-captioned with transcripts available) diving deep into issues around worldbuilding and inclusion. In weeks 2, 3, and 4 students will have the opportunity to ask our participating instructors questions based on the lectures and interviews or students’ own works in process. See the schedule below for details. NOTE: Some of the lecturers will not be available for Q&A this session. In addition to the lectures, there will be discussion posts, writing exercises, and analysis of published fiction.

The last week of class includes a final chance to ask all participating instructors questions.

Full Schedule

Oct 2: Video: The Bones of the World: Ideology, Genre, and the Foundations of Story lecture by Max Gladstone
Oct 3: Video: How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy Cultures Without Using Analogs lecture by Kate Elliott
Video: Sociobiology and Worldbuilding interview with Steven Barnes
Oct 4: Video: Creating Religions and Cosmologies interview with Nisi Shawl and Andrea Hairston
Oct 10: Q&A and in-depth discussion with Steven Barnes, P. Djèlí Clark, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Rebecca Roanhorse, and Nisi Shawl
Oct 16: Videos: Writing Positive Portrayals of Asexual Characters and Building a World Without Love Hierarchies lectures by Lauren Jankowski
Video: Historical Research Sans Colonialist Frameworks lecture by Jaymee Goh
Oct 17 – 23: Q&A and in-depth discussion with Jaymee Goh and Nilah Magruder
Cultural Appropriation Q&A with K. Tempest Bradford
Oct 24: Q&A on Inclusive Worldbuilding and Game Creation with Pam Punzalan
Oct 31 – Nov 1: Final Q&A with Steven Barnes, P. Djèlí Clark, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Nilah Magruder, Pam Punzalan, Rebecca Roanhorse, Nisi Shawl plus Max Gladstone, Kate Elliott, and Lauren Jankowski.

The time commitment each week will depend on your level of participation. Lectures run from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours. Discussion threads tend to be wide-ranging, so students should try to check in at least once a day or every other day and set aside up to an hour for participation. Readings will be short.

Worldbuilding Lectures & Interviews:

The Bones of the World: Ideology, Genre, and the Foundations of Story with Max Gladstone

Storytellers tell stories in traditions. We write about psychics or magic swords or unicorns because we grew up reading about them. But when we write our own stories, we must not unthinkingly follow in the footsteps of tradition. To gain mastery, we must know what those stories and their forms meant when they were first deployed, and what purpose they serve. Sometimes a storytelling tradition may perpetuate ideologies to which we don’t subscribe—or operate in a deeply damaging way. Also, if we do not understand the ideologies underpinning a story world, we may not understand just why it spoke to us so persuasively. This lecture will analyze the underlying ideological structures of worldbuilding—and encourage students to engage with those foundations in their own writing, producing new, vital perspectives on genre.

Note: Max Gladstone will ONLY be available for the final Q&A this session.

How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy Cultures Without Using Analogs with Kate Elliott

Analog cultures — human cultures whose history and culture is a thinly disguised version of an historical Earth culture or non-human races in speculative fiction who have a small set of distinguishing cultural characteristics that seem analogous to a known human culture — litter the fantasy and science fiction landscape. When authors do this well it can provide powerful analogies and metaphors in their work. When they do it badly, allowing unconscious or conscious biases to lead to cultures mired in offensive stereotypes, it harms both readers and authors alike. This lecture analyzes how analog cultures have been used in SFF, and offers strategies for how to create cultures that aren’t badly or offensively done.

Note: Kate Elliott will ONLY be available for the final Q&A this session.

Sociobiology and Worldbuilding: an Interview with Steven Barnes

Culture, psychology, economics, mating rituals, rules, and laws all relate to survival and reproductive imperatives within a constructed world. While a culture is more than “mere” reproduction and survival, a huge amount of what we are today can be traced back to this single aspect. When the environment or technologies change, the social inertia can take generations to catch up. Change a single factor, and it will ripple through the rest of the culture, influencing religion, language, mythology, and more. Sexism, racism, tribalism, homophobia…all these and more can be traced back to this single aspect, and understanding how this must impact your worldbuilding requires that you understand how our ancestors “got here” in the first place. In this interview, Steven Barnes talks to K. Tempest Bradford about how having your own theory of how cultures develop in response to this pressure gives writers a killer foundation for their worldbuilding.

Creating Religions and Cosmologies with Nisi Shawl and Andrea Hairston

Cosmology is a model of the universe: how it’s made, what it’s made of, how it works. Religion and spiritual practices are how people live their lives in light of their cosmology. Even if you think your world doesn’t need religion, the cultures in it still need a cosmology. Whether you’re creating cosmologies, religions, or spiritualities from whole cloth or basing them on existing cultures, it’s important to understand why and how they develop and to avoid colonialist and stereotypical foundations in your conceptions. In this interview, Nisi and Andrea discuss non-dominant religions and cosmologies, exploring their roots and fruits and riffing on how their representation looks.

Note: Andrea Hairston will not be available for Q&A this session.

Historical Research Sans Colonialist Frameworks with Jaymee Goh, PhD

This lecture will offer tips and tricks on the practicalities and pitfalls of doing historical research. We will go over the definitions of concepts like colonialism, Orientalism, and whiteness, grounded in academic research. We will also discuss types of texts, and the best approaches to dealing with them. The aim of this lecture is to provide a clear definition of the unconscious biases and problems that come up, both in the researcher and in the research.

Building a World Without Love Hierarchies with Lauren Jankowski

There has been a push to get more asexual and aromantic representation in literature, particularly in the speculative genres. However, with this push, we’re still seeing the same tired romantic tropes playing out. Authors are frequently plugging ace and aro characters into romances, thus creating characters who are ace and aro in name only.

In order to accurately represent asexuals and aromantic people, authors need to tackle the issue that has dogged both communities: love hierarchies. How does one do that when we live in a world with an incredibly narrow view of what love is and what sort of love is important? This lecture will help writers understand how to build a world that isn’t reliant on love hierarchies. It will touch on ways characters can platonically show love to each other and challenge students to face their own preconceived notions of love in the worlds they create.

Note: Lauren Jankowski will ONLY be available for the final Q&A this session. Questions on this topic will be answered by Nilah Magruder during Week 3.

In addition to the lectures, the class also includes:

Inclusive Worldbuilding and Game Creation Q&A with Pam Punzalan

How we play and what we play already says so much about us. What we build on the pretense of playing alone or with other people says even more. The game worlds we build are direct reflections of who we are and the contexts we are in. Beyond that, there are critical points of difference between games writing and other narratives that don’t often get discussed. In this Q&A, queer indie game designer Pam Punzalan will offer wisdom on what students learn in lectures to game creation, gameplay, and game systems.

Cultural Appropriation Q&A with K. Tempest Bradford

Most writers want to avoid Cultural Appropriation but worry that they don’t fully understand what it is or how to ensure their work doesn’t include it. Students will have access to resources that explain what cultural appropriation is and is not, the difference between appropriation and exchange or influence, and strategies for depicting cultures sensitively plus an opportunity to ask detailed questions about the readings.


The lecture videos are closed captioned and transcribed; the text will be available to all students. The private forum uses WordPress with a theme specifically geared to accessibility and compatibility with screen readers. We strive to make all classes as accessible as possible, but if you need any extra considerations or have a question about accessibility, please contact us.

Who Should Take This Class?

This course is specifically designed to benefit writers of speculative fiction — Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and all sub-genres, interstitial genres, and weird fiction — whether you write for Adult, YA, or Middle Grade audiences. This class will benefit writers across multiple mediums — Prose, Playwriting, Screenwriting, Comics/Graphic Novels, Games — at any point in their career from newbie to professional. 

Full and Partial Scholarship Opportunities

Help Us Offer More Scholarships

Donate and sponsor a scholar today!

Five $100 donations gets us another scholarship spot. Two $250 donations gets us a whole other scholarship spot! One $500 donation will completely cover a scholarship spot. W00t!

Thanks to the generosity of donors and the continued support of our Patreon backers we are offering 10 20 full and partial Vonda N. McIntyre Sentient Squid Scholarships for this class. (If you’d like to contribute, you can make a donation on the right.)

If you do not have the financial means to pay for all or part of the registration cost for this class, we encourage you to apply.  We have a broad definition of financial need that ranges from writers who do not have the money at all to writers who have the funds but can’t afford to use them for a writing class. We especially encourage writers who have been financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic to apply. Wherever you exist on the financial needs spectrum, don’t self reject! (Still not sure whether you should apply? Read this post.)

If you can afford to pay for part but not all of the registration fee, please apply for a partial scholarship. Under this financial aid plan you can let us know the amount you can afford. If you cannot afford to pay at all, please apply for a full scholarship. 

To apply, please fill out this form by 11:59PM Pacific September 20, 2020. You’ll be asked to provide:

  • A brief (300 or fewer words) statement of financial need. If you’re applying based on COVID-19 financial hardship, we will not ask you to provide proof of impact.
  • A brief (500 or fewer words) description of a work or works in progress that you hope the class will help you create.
  • If you identify as Black, Indigenous, Native American, First Nations, or any other Persons of Color, or you may indicate that if you wish, though it’s not a requirement. (We set aside some scholarship spots specifically for students who identify as BIPOC, though we do not limit the number of scholarships we’ll give to BIPOC applicants.)

Deadline: 11:59PM Pacific September 20, 2020We will notify all applicants of their standing by September 26. If you have any questions, please use our contact form to ask!

Participating Instructors

Please note: instructors may change.

Steven Barnes

Steven Barnes is a New York Times bestselling, award-winning novelist, screenwriter, and creator of the Lifewriting writing course. He has been nominated for Hugo, Nebula, and Cable Ace awards, won an Emmy for the “A Stitch In Time” episode of The Outer Limits, and an NAACP Image Award as co-author of the Tennyson Hardwick mystery series with actor Blair Underwood and his wife, Tananarive Due.

Steven has written three million words of published fiction published in seven languages, including comic books and over 20 novels. His television credits include BaywatchStargate SG-1, and Andromeda. In addition to Lifewriting, he teaches webinars on Afrofuturism and Black Horror.

P. Djeli Clark

P. Djèlí Clark is the award-winning and Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy nominated author of the novellas The Black God’s Drums and The Haunting of Tram Car 015. His stories have appeared in online venues such as, Daily Science Fiction, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Apex, Lightspeed, Fireside Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and in print anthologies including, Griots, Hidden Youth and Clockwork Cairo. He is a founding member of FIYAH Literary Magazine and an infrequent reviewer at Strange Horizons.

Born in New York and raised mostly in Houston, Texas, he spent the early formative years of his life in the homeland of his parents, Trinidad and Tobago. When not writing speculative fiction, P. Djèlí Clark works as an academic historian whose research spans comparative slavery and emancipation in the Atlantic World. He melds this interest in history and the social world with speculative fiction, and has written articles on issues ranging from racism and H.P. Lovecraft to critiques of George Schuyler’s Black Empire, and has been a panelist and lecturer at conventions, workshops and other genre events.

At current time, he resides in a small Edwardian castle in New England with his wife, infant daughters, and pet dragon (who suspiciously resembles a Boston Terrier).

Jaymee Goh

Jaymee Goh is a writer of fiction, poetry, and academese from Malaysia. Her creative work has been published in Strange Horizons and Lightspeed Magazine, and her non-fiction has appeared in publications such as Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution and Science Fiction Studies. She co-edited The Sea is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia and edited The WisCon Chronicles Vol. 11: Trials by Whiteness. She is a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing Workshop and holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Riverside. Her dissertation was on whiteness and multiculturalism in steampunk, a topic she has written and presented on at various conventions across North America, and she blogs about postcoloniality and steampunk at Silver Goggles.

Alaya Dawn Johnson

Alaya Dawn Johnson is the author of seven novels for adults and young adults. Her most recent novel for adults, Trouble the Saints, is out now from Tor books. A short story collection, Reconstruction, is forthcoming from Small Beer Press. Her young adult novel The Summer Prince was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, while her novel Love Is the Drug won the Andre Norton Nebula Award for Middle Grade/Young Adult fiction.

Her short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015, A Phoenix First Must Burn, Feral Youth, and Zombies vs. Unicorns. She lives in Mexico where she received a master’s degree with honors in Mesoamerican Studies at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, for her thesis on pre-Columbian fermented food and its role in the religious-agricultural calendar.

Nilah Magruder

Nilah Magruder is a writer and artist based in Western Maryland. From her beginnings in the woods of the eastern United States she developed an eternal love for three things: nature, books, and animation. 

She has written and storyboarded for television studios like DreamWorks and Disney. She also illustrates children’s books, including the Dactyl Hill Squad series by Daniel José Older from Scholastic. Nilah is the author of M.F.K., a middle-grade graphic novel from Insight Editions and the winner of the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity, and How to Find a Fox, a picture book. She has published short fiction in the anthology All Out (edited by Saundra Mitchell), in Fireside Magazine, and for Marvel Comics. When she is not working, Nilah is watching movies, growing herbs, roller-skating, and fighting her cats for control of her desk chair.

pam punzalan

Pamela Punzalan (The Dovetailor) is an independent game designer, geek journalist, events organizer, sensitivity and cultural consultant, editor, and community lead from the Philippines. Her personal projects are explorations of queerness, femininity, the fringe, rebellion, and reclamation.

Beyond being included in multiple Kickstarters and doing collaborations with friends across multiple tabletop gaming spaces, she has been published in Spire. The one major project she can discuss at the moment is Sina Una, a pre-colonial fantasy Philippines for Dungeons & Dragons.

Rebecca Roanhorse

Rebecca Roanhorse is a New York Times bestselling and Nebula, Hugo, and Locus Award-winning speculative fiction writer and the recipient of the 2018 Astounding (Campbell) Award for Best New Writer.

Her novel Trail of Lightning won the Locus Award for Best First Novel and was a Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy Finalist. It was also selected as an Amazon, B&N, Library Journal, and NPR Best Book of 2018, among others. Storm of Locusts was a Locus Award Finalist and was longlisted for the Hugo Award. It also received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist, and was named an Amazon, Powell’s, and Audible Best of 2019. Her novel, Resistance Reborn, is part of Star Wars: Journey to The Rise of Skywalker and a USA Today and NYTimes bestseller. Her middle grade novel Race to the Sun for the Rick Riordan Presents imprint was a NYTimes Bestseller and received a starred review from Kirkus. Her next novel, Black Sun, has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and Library Journal is out in October.

She lives in Northern New Mexico with her husband, daughter, and pup. She drinks a lot of black coffee.

Nisi Shawl

Nisi Shawl is the author of Everfair, Talk Like A Man, and dozens of short stories, many of which can be found in the James Tiptree, Jr. Award-winning and World Fantasy Award-nominated collection Filter House. Nisi is the co-editor of Stories for Chip, Strange Matings: Octavia E. Butler, Feminism, Science Fiction, and African American Voices, and most recently New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. They edit reviews for The Cascadia Subduction Zone, a literary quarterly from Aqueduct Press. They are a founding member of the Carl Brandon Society and have served on the board for the Clarion West writing workshop.

Nisi developed the Writing the Other workshop with Cynthia Ward, and has taught it for over a decade in person and online.

Contributing Lecturers

Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott has been writing science fiction and fantasy fiction and non-fiction for thirty years. Her twenty-seven books include her recent YA trilogy Court of Fives, the Afro-Celtic post-Roman alt-history fantasy adventure with lawyer dinosaurs the Spiritwalker trilogy (Cold Magic), the science fiction Novels of the Jaran, the Crossroads fantasy trilogy (Spirit Gate), Black Wolves, and the massive and complete seven-volume epic fantasy Crown of Stars (King’s Dragon), as well as a short fiction collection. Her work has been nominated for the Nebula, World Fantasy, RT, Norton, and Locus Awards. Kate was born in Iowa, raised in Oregon, and now lives in Hawaii, where she paddles outrigger canoes and spoils her schnauzer, Fingolfin, High King of the Schnoldor.

Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone is the author of the Hugo-nominated Craft Sequence and critically acclaimed works of interactive fiction. He regularly consults as an interactivity specialist and has given talks at Google and Pixar on generating novel approaches to political, economic, and social problems through defamiliarization and research. He has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia, wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat, and sung in Carnegie Hall.

Andrea Hairston

Andrea Hairston is a playwright, novelist, and scholar. She has published three novels: Will Do Magic For Small Change, a finalist for the Mythopoeic, Lambda, and Tiptree Awards, a Massachusetts Must Read, and a New York Times Editor’s pick; Redwood and Wildfire, winner of the Tiptree and Carl Brandon Awards; Mindscape, winner of the Carl Brandon Award. Lonely Stardust, a collection of essays and plays, was published by Aqueduct press. Andrea has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. In her spare time, Andrea is the Louise Wolff Kahn 1931 Professor of Theatre and Africana Studies at Smith College and the Artistic Director of Chrysalis Theatre. She bikes at night year round, meeting bears, multi-legged creatures of light and breath, and the occasional shooting star.

Lauren Jankowski

Lauren Jankowski, author of Sere from the Green and other books in The Shape Shifter Chronicles series, is the founder of Asexual Artists and co-founder of Pack of Aces. She holds a B.A. in Women and Gender Studies from Beloit College. Her presentation on asexuals in media, “Where are the Asexual Voices,” debuted at C2E2 in 2016.

Refund Policy

If you find that you need to drop the class, you may do so by contacting our GMail or emailing via the website.

If you drop by September 1, 2020, you will receive a full refund minus a service fee.

If you drop by September 10, you will receive an 80% refund minus a service fee plus a chance to enroll in future Writing the Other classes at a discount before general tickets go on sale.

If you drop by September 18 you will receive an 40% refund minus a service fee plus a chance to enroll in future Writing the Other classes at a discount before general tickets go on sale.

If you drop on September 19 or after you will not have your registration fee refunded. However, you will be able to use the registration fee as credit for future classes.

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