Writing outside my lane

Image from Unsplash.

So I did something sneaky. In this year’s New Years Resolution post, I only listed ONE action item:

I hereby resolve to use my planner.

When it comes to the planner, so far so good. The “sneaky” part comes from what I didn’t say, the one or two other ideas I didn’t share.

For instance, I vowed to take a writing class, something I’d have to commit to and that I’d learn from. I kept that resolution secret, a little something just between me and my laptop because I didn’t have a firm plan at New Years. In early January, however, I stumbled over something good.

I found Writing the Other: Deep Dive into Diverse Characters, which is a month-long class given by Nisi Shawl, Tempest Bradford, and Piper J. Drake.

The foundation for this course is the book Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl. (I’ve linked to Amazon but it’s available from B&N and the publisher as well.) The course teaches character development through a framework that strives to avoid stereotypes and offensive characterizations when working with characters of different gender, race, &/or orientation.

Here’s a bit from the course description:

Representation is fundamental to writing great fiction. Creating characters that reflect of the diversity of the world we all live in is important for all writers and creators of fictional narratives. But writers often find it difficult to represent people whose gender, sexual orientation, racial heritage, or other aspect of identity is very different from their own. This can lead to fear of getting it wrong–horribly, offensively wrong–and, in the face of that, some think it’s better to not even try.

But representation is too important to ignore. And it is possible to write characters who represent the “Other” sensitively and convincingly. This four week course will provide authors  with a solid foundation in how to craft characters from any background, no matter how different they are from you.

I’m sharing all of this both because I’ve learned a lot so far and because growing my skill at writing outside my own experience is a crucial part of my development. I’ve published nine novels/novellas with gay or queer protagonists, so I’m working outside my lane all the damned time. I need to make sure I’m not stepping on people’s toes – or damaging their sense of self – when I do.

We’re only halfway through the class, and so far I have a couple of take-homes. First, I think some – possibly younger – people are a lot more comfortable with labels than I am. In the course introduction, we were asked to share how we fit the dominant paradigm and where we differed from it.

All my intro said was “I am the dominant paradigm.”

I’m a cis-het white woman with no chronic health or emotional issues. I’m neurotypical and I’ve never I experimented with alternative lifestyles or genders. Compared with most of the other intros, mine was SHORT.

Having the language to identify yourself as queer or neurodivergent and the comfort level to share ongoing mental health challenges is a truly beautiful change in our culture. I grew up with a much more limited vocabulary:

You were straight or (whispers) gay, a boy or a girl, and if you felt bad you went to a therapist but you damned well didn’t talk about it.

My theory – based on observation alone – is that it’s a generational thing, but I could be wrong. Either way, I count it as progress.

The other take-home from the course has to do with the how of it. How does an author avoid creating hurtful characters?

Do your homework.
Ask yourself honestly if you’re the best person to write this story.
Diversity is important, but I’d be very careful of writing a PoC character where the story was about their experience as a PoC. You’re not here to save anyone.
Get to know people who belong to the group you’re drawing from.
Read and research, looking specifically for works created by group members, not by others writing “authoritatively” about them.

Hire a sensitivity reader.
Although it’s not one person’s job to speak for the many, a good sensitivity reader can help you avoid the most obvious pitfalls.

Respond to feedback with an apology and a promise to change.
Because you’ll make mistakes. I sure as hell have. In one of her comments, Tempest said their goal is harm reduction, and that’s about all I can hope for.

Taking this course has slowed down my word-count, but it’s time well spent. I choose to write outside my lane for a complex mix of reasons, but since I’ve made this choice, I want to do the very best job I can.

I don’t want people hurt by the stories that come from my heart.

Here’s another link to the Writing the Other website. In addition to the Deep Dive course, they have a number of different offerings that I encourage you to check out.

TL;DR: Wanting Diversity Won’t Hurt You

There’s a very strange argument going around on book twitter right now. Meaningful, important, but strange. And I don’t want to be silent about it.

TL;DR – Only a white supremacist or a bigot would see people wanting more diversity in popular fiction as a personal attack on them.

For a while now people have gotten better and better about being louder and informative about the issue of the lack of diversity in mainstream books. While a lot of us can remember reading diverse books in high school (for me, The Pearl and The Good Earth stand out as assigned by teachers. And stolen from my mom’s shelves, I remember Sacred Ground, the Valdemar books, and Elfquest), if you look at books on the shelves that are more for pleasure reading, popular books that have a lot of publishing house money behind them, giving them more media coverage, there is a startlingly lack of POCs, LGBTQs, disabled, religious, etc diversity.

Now. No one is forcing anyone to write any one thing. No one is saying anyone HAS TO write characters with different skin colors, ethnic backgrounds, various religious beliefs, or sexual and/or gender differences. All people are saying is it is important that we allow people who are writing these things a fair space on those shelves and maybe try to do a better job of portraying the real world we live in.

People are asking publishers to acknowledge that these books are just as good (if not better) than some of the books we see again and again.

I mean. I love witches. And I love vampires. They’ve been written again and again and often look and feel similar. But if there are authors out there with different viewpoints, different backgrounds who can bring a fresh perspective to these two types of stories, I want to see them!

Books should be innovative and different and that means we, as readers, should be open to reading about characters who might not look like us. Because they look like other people, people we know, people in our world who want to see characters who look like them. We all deserve that chance to find that book that resonates with us, no matter the genre.

Obviously everyone is entitled to write their own story. And, if your story happens to look like the cast of Pleastantville, then fine, but if your cast of characters looks like Sense 8, maybe publishers could give it a fair shot too.

I don’t understand why that thought process is controversial. And for most people, it’s not. So here’s where the strange part of the argument comes in. Some people are super pissed off that other people are asking for fair representation. Yep. They’re hearing “we’d like our voices heard too” or “please at least try to write a realistic representation of our city/state/country/world” as “you must write this way!” or “you must write this kind of story/these kind of characters!” or, even worse, “you’re being unfair to white people!”

Which is not true.

You don’t have to write anything in particular. No one does. But what’s wrong with wanting to show the world as it really is? I mean, listen, I have not been the best at balancing my casts of characters. I try to. I have tried from book one to include POCs and LGBTQ people, but I won’t lie to you and tell you my books are balanced. Yeah, I’m more than a little scared I’ll screw up the representation, but still I try and I’m trying with each new story to represent more, to do better. Because that is the world I live in.

I went to a high school where the majority populations were Latino and Pilipino. As a matter of fact there were such a small percentage of white kids at my school that we were lumped in with the other smaller percentages of races at my school as the “other” ten percent. So, while your mileage may vary, for some of us, seeing POCs as the majority is already normal.

I know it’s a little scary for some people. They see it as erasure, but for some reason can’t see the irony there. Trying to keep people from publishing books with characters that don’t look, think, and act like them is actual erasure. All people want is a seat at the table. And I promise, there is room. You acting like they’re trying to take something away from you is bullshit, plain and simple. White people have taken a lot of things from a lot of people and white people have an abundance of representation. You will be fine.

I know I’m lucky that I grew up reading diverse books. Hell, I didn’t even think about it at the time. I read books by Jewish authors and Native authors and black authors and they wrote characters that looked like them. I didn’t even give it a thought, if the story was good, that’s all that mattered. And it helped evolve me, helped me see other people I might not have experience with as no different than me. And I think that’s the ultimate goal; to raise a generation that doesn’t treat people differently for who they are, where they come from, what they believe, but at the same time celebrates how everyone adds to the tapestry of our world.

Now, I can remember which books I read when I was younger that featured LGBTQ characters because there were so few and honestly I think they were just LGB, no Ts or Qs. And, sadly, I can’t recall reading any books that featured a disabled MC. I wish I had. I want kids and teens to get to read like that—where it’s just normal to see all of these types of characters because it builds empathy in real life. People are people and just want to be accepted for who they are. Books help us with this process.

So calm down. If you don’t want to read books with characters that don’t look, act, or think like you, I promise, there is no lack of books for you. They’ve been published a lot and will continue to be published. But stop freaking out at people who want the people who control the money to know we will buy these books, we will read them, we will go see their film adaptation. They will get a return on their investment. And you will be fine, it won’t hurt you one little bit.

Now, if you’re on Twitter go check out these hashtags to start building your TBR lists. #ownvoices #istandwithdiversity

If you want to leave some book recs in the comments, please do! I can give a shout out to a few I’ve read recently: An Ember in the Ashes, This is Where it Ends, and the Don’t Get Mad Series. And speaking of witches, I’m excited to pick up Labyrinth Lost.

Let’s hear your recommendations!

How Do You Decide What To Write?

rainbow

If you spend any time in the parts of the internet that readers and writers inhabit, you’ve likely seen #WeNeedDiverseBooks, the hashtag for a grassroots non-profit dedicated to raising both awareness and money to promote diversity in children’s literature. (Jump HERE to take a look at their mission statement or HERE to check out their Tumblr.) This fall, We Need Diverse Books undertook an Indiegogo campaign with a goal of raising $100,000.

They raised $181, 676.

Their appeal clearly resonated, and their goals are long-term and multifaceted, designed to change the white, heterosexual culture that dominates bookstores. WeNeedDiverseBooks is focusing on children’s literature, which makes sense because if you teach children that diversity is the norm, chances are it’ll carry over to the rest of their lives. A quick look at the New York Times bestseller list of hardcover fiction for this week shows you a young Jewish girl growing up in early 20th century Boston, and a scientist with Aspergers. Most of the rest are spies and cops and special forces-types.

Based on the blurbs, there’s enough conformity to suggest WeNeedDiverseBooks has their work cut out for them.

When I went to the Gay Romance Northwest Meet-Up last September, diversity was one of the themes many of their speakers addressed. And not just diversity from a how do we get the general public to read queer fiction? perspective, but also is there a place in queer fiction for trans, lesbian, bisexual, non-binary, and other voices? All the publishers who participated in a panel discussion said they were eager to contract well-told stories from every possible perspective. They encouraged the authors who were present to write and submit stories featuring every facet of the lgbtq rainbow.

But here’s the rub. If nonprofits encourage diverse stories, and writers write them, and publishers publish them, will readers read them?

According to this Tea Time post on the Prism Book Alliance blog, the answer might be a little disheartening.

Maybe by the time today’s kids are able to make their own buying decisions, groups like We Need Diverse Books will have taught them to expect variety  in their reading. In the meantime, there’s a lot of white out there, and most of it is heterosexual.

Which, hey, you know, some of the nicest people I know are white heterosexuals. Like me, for instance. For the last year or so, I’ve been both reading and writing romantic stories about gay men (and we can save the issues around middle-aged women writing m/m romance for a different blog post, okay?). My stories tend to start with a spark, then come together in big chunks. At the risk of sounding all cheesy, they come from the heart.

The reason I bother to write them down, though, is so people can read them, and I worry that if I fall too far from the status quo, they won’t get read.

Even a subgenre of romance like m/m has trends. Rock stars are big, as are cowboys and college students. Chefs are popular, the serious foodie type. Historicals and shapeshifters make the list, too. I don’t want to write a book that’s just like a dozen others, but will anybody read my cute little m/m romance set in 1955 Seattle, starring a handsome trumpet player and the coach of a women’s synchronized swimming team?

That book is almost ready to send to my agent, so I’ll soon know if it’ll find an audience. I’m almost ready to decide what to work on next. I expect it’ll be another m/m romance, and I expect I’ll try to capture the diversity I see in real life. Conventional wisdom says not to write to trends, but geez, there’s safety in numbers, you know?

So where do your stories come from? To restate the title of this post, how do you decide what to write?

Peace,
Liv

 

A Few of My 2014 #WeNeedDiverseBooks Reads

I was going to write something about my current writing process and do a little introspection on my debut novel and the one I’m currently working on for this post, but it was going to be a little dreary for the holiday season. So instead I’ve decided since it’s the end of the year and people love year end list type thingies, why not do a little retrospective on some of the stuff I read in 2014?

One of the great happenings in the publishing world during 2014 was the rise to prominence of #WeNeedDiverseBook, a social media movement and non-profit organization dedicated to increasing the breadth and scope of diverse creators and characters in fiction. Their focus is mostly dedicated to kids books, but there has also been, and should continue, many diverse offering in adult books, especially SFF. So why not take a look back some of the most diverse books I read over the last year?

My first novel was pretty much a traditional Euro-centric fantasy, and even with that setting, I’d like to think there was decent amount of diversity in it, though. I’ve tried to be mindful in my current projects to have real meaning representation in each of them, not just diversity for the sake of diversity, but give true purpose and agency to LGBT and PoC characters.

So in that spirit – here’s four of my favorite diverse reads from the past year – two novels and two comics, because OMG there are so many great things going on in comics right now and we need to talk about them.

And I swear, really I do, every post I write here at the Scribes is not going to be a list of some kind.

Ms Marvel

MS MARVEL

One of the breakout surprises in comics this year was G. Willow Wilson’s MS MARVEL. It’s the story of Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teenager from Jersey City, who inexplicably finds herself with the power to change her size and shape. She decides to take up the mantle her favorite superhero and idol, Ms. Marvel, to defend her neighborhood against villainous elements that have taken root in her backyard.

As much a slice-of-life story as it is a superhero yarn, Kamala’s exploits are a poignant coming-of-age story about a girl trying to find her place in the world. Kamala feels like a outcast because of her Muslim faith and her overbearing parents, and at first uses her powers as a means to acceptance, thinking if she becomes a hero, she won’t be seen an outsider by her peers. But she soon discovers its not the powers that make her special, but her own love for her family and friends.

Kamala is one of the best new comic characters to come along in years. I think she’s the modern day Peter Parker. While she doesn’t have the tragedy (so far) that drove much of Peter’s transformation into Spiderman, she is an outcast like he was, trying to find her place in the world. Like him, she finds a purpose in her powers, something that can give direction and focus to a life adrift. She’s an inspiration for a new and more diverse generation of comic book readers.

Willow Wilson, a Muslim woman herself, as become one of the rising stars at Marvel because of the success of this book, and Adrian Alphona, who hasn’t done much work in the industry since RUNAWAYS in the early 2000s has found a new lease on life. His dynamic artwork, unlike anything I’ve seen in comics provides Wilson’s cast with a distinct look and livelihood apart from every other book on the shelf.

Killing Moon

THE KILLING MOON

This one was on my To-Read pile for way way too long and I finally picked it up earlier this year. I shouldn’t have waited so long, because it was fantastic. The story follows the exploits of a pair of Gatherers, an ancient guild of that kills or heals by invading people’s dreams and extracting Dream Blood from them, as they try to unravel a conspiracy within their ranks and try to prevent a war between too nations.

Jemisin’s world building is really tremendous in this novel, the diversity and scope of the society and its various faiths and peoples is truly awe-inspiring. For example, instead of the traditional Euro-centric fantasy setting, this novel takes place in a Middle Eastern and Egyptian style environment. It also features a cast of entirely PoC characters, as one would expect from such a setting, but as we’ve seen even just recently in the movie EXODUS, whitewashing is still a thing.

The main character of the story is Ehiru, a male Gatherer, but the female protagonist Sinadi is a WoC who is given as much importance and agency as he is. She’s really the bond that holds the whole story together, and unites the major plot threads together. She’s also a stabilizing element when the chaos of the novel’s event overwhelms the Gatherers and threatens to unravel everything.

Rat Queens

RAT QUEENS

One of the silliest things I’ve ever read when it come to diversity in fiction is that it’s too difficult to write diverse characters in a traditional fantasy setting because ‘that’s not the way it was back then’. Yeah, I remember the time Joan of Arc rode a dragon to battle an army of orcs at the Siege of Orleans too.

Rat Queens follows a band of female mercenaries as they hack and slash their way to notoriety in a traditional Euro-inspired medieval setting. The main characters are diverse in gender, race and orientation, making for an extremely well rounded group of representation and breaking the mold of what we usually expect from a traditional fantasy setting. And this book does not pull any punches, either. Gratuitous violence, sex and profanity are abound in Rat Queens. This is an actual quote from one of the issues:

We are hosting a party tonight. I want to get drunk. I want to get high. I want to have sex with Orc Dave. They can happen in any order or all at once. Any objections?

It revels in the boldness and the sexuality of its characters, where many times in fiction, especially in comics, female sexuality is used merely as a means of titillation or distraction to the other male characters or the reader. Not here. In Rat Queens the character’s sexuality emboldens and empowers them.

Rat Queens was an unexpected sensation in comics this year, picking up critical and fan acclaim and even an Eisner nod. Regretfully, this momentum was stunted when the former artist , Roc Upchurch, was arrest for a domestic violence incident this past fall. Writer Kurt Weibie did the right thing and removed Upchruch from the book, as it would have been completely toxic if he stayed on, in my opinion. I would have liked a female artist brought on in light of this incident, someone like Amy Reeder or Rebeckah Issacs would have been perfect, but it was announced that Stjepan Šejić would be new artist a couple weeks ago. I think he’ll do a fine job, his art really captures the sexy sword and sorcery style of the Queens.

Ancillary Justice

ANCILLARY JUSTICE

I just finished this one up a couple of days ago, and it was really unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Real Talk – I read more of the F in SFF that the SF, but all the positive buzz about this novel made me pick it up.

And wow.

The plot revolves around Breq, a wayward Ancillary (corpse soldier that’s part of an AI (!!!!!)) and the last remaining piece of the spaceship, Justice of Toren’s, AI system that was destroyed many years ago. She’s on a quest for revenge against the parties responsible for separating her from Toren. Basically the ships in this novel are comprised of multifaceted AIs, spread out across various Ancillaries, Breq being the only piece of this consciousness that survived the ship’s destruction. It’s really wild and high concept stuff.

Remarkable, aside from the big ideas presented in ANCILLARY JUSTICE about artificial intelligence and the nature of one’s self, is the fact the entire cast is female. Even Breq, who it not technically human, but a corpse reanimated with genetic and technological enhancements. What I also found quite interesting was that even though all the characters are present biologically as female, depending on the culture they’re interacting with, not always are they referred to with female pronouns.

For a good portion of the novel, Breq and her companion Seivarden are on distant planet, where Seivardian, while presented as female to the reader, is referred to with male pronouns by some of the planet’s inhabitants. Similarly there a various points in the novel where Breq pauses to make sure she’s using the proper pronouns when addressing other characters. I found this a great way to weave awareness of present day differentiating gender expressions and norms into a far future world in a way that RAT QUEENS was able to do for modern race and sexual orientation awareness in a traditional fantasy setting.

So, my friends, what kind of diverse reads did you all enjoy this year and what ones are you looking forward to in 2015?