My scheduled post for yesterday has disappeared into the ether. I’m not going to have time to find it until tonight!
I’ve been thinking a lot about making maps lately, probably since I’m creating a map for a “new” secondary-world fantasy project. I really enjoy making maps, possibly to an unhealthy degree. I love everything from researching Earth geography to give myself ideas, to the process of penciling lines and features, to shading the final version in the colors that will later remind me what topography is where.
I have some idea of what a map is going to look like before I start drawing, but I also discover things about the setting as I’m going along. Every line I draw on paper comes with several whys: why is this border there, where was it before, who decided that this was the border. I think about the human geography while looking over the borders and topography. I think about where the borders might shift as the setting changes.
This is all super fun and exciting for me. But apparently it isn’t for everyone, because I know some people who don’t make maps. That these people exist blows my mind. I know that words are our art as writers, but how can you visualize more effectively than having a visual?
It’s a rhetorical question. I don’t want to know the answer. I love making maps so much that if an alternative exists, I don’t even want to know about it.
This is not an article on how to”write the other” (a phrase that’s a short trip down a depression slope for me as a queer woman). This is about the importance, as a white writer, of trying to do as little harm as possible while writing people of other colors and cultures.
It’s more or less a direct response to V. Roth’s recent whitesplain about how she didn’t intend Carve the Mark to be racist. Intent doesn’t matter: I don’t have to intend to harm to do harm. And a lack of intent doesn’t excuse the harm that is done.
So. Writing while white.
To write while white means we are going to screw things up. Privilege blinders are a very real thing, and we’ve already hurt people enough with our history of colonialism, enslavement, past and present racism, and so on. Fantasy settings aren’t exempt from ways we can do further harm. We take our biases in with us, we take them out of the story with us, and harmful rep is just as harmful in speculative fiction as anywhere else. Fiction is not a license to reinforce harmful stereotypes.
Fiction writers still need to educate ourselves about harmful tropes so that we can avoid them. We need to listen when people tell us what we’re doing wrong and, if they’re feeling charitable, how it’s harmful. We need to educate ourselves to avoid mistakes others have repeatedly made.
As hard as we try, we’re going to screw up. We are going to do unintentional harm. But that’s not an excuse to not try. If anything, it means we need to try HARDER.
I’m not going to make a list of tropes to avoid simply because I’m not an authority on this topic. You’re better off getting those lists from black people, brown people, First Nations people, and other people who have a wealth of lived experience that I don’t. The way to do this is to read their writing on the topic, learn from them, and accept that when someone says “this is harmful,” it is, so try to avoid it.
And none of this is an excuse to avoid writing diverse characters. I have a whole continent in the Tattoo Magic Universe. Parts of it are near the equator, parts are near one of the poles, so it’s just not going to be racially homogenous. Therefore, I need to teach myself, try to do the least possible amount of harm, listen to criticism, apologize when I screw up, and do better. If all white writers listened more and tried harder, the world would be a better place.
(PS: My goal in writing characters of color isn’t to give people of color representation–they do a fantastic job of this without my help.)
I’ve become very intimately familiar with one moment in the query/rejection cycle. It’s the moment where I see that I have a response to my query and try not to get excited when I open it, or crushed when I see that it’s a rejection.
I can describe it pretty faithfully at this point. There is an initial surge of adrenaline, followed by the faint disappointment and relief that this time it seems to hurt less, like I’ve actually gotten inured to this over the course of however many scores of these I’ve gone through. But then about a second later, my skin starts to tingle. And I have dread at that point, not because anything is wrong yet, but because I know it will be. About five seconds later, depression will punch me in the stomach so hard that I’ll probably be nauseated for the rest of the night.
And then it’s time to deal with it. It’s actually a lot like dealing with period pain: yes, it really hurts quite a lot, and I have to just acknowledge that and keep breathing and walk through it.
I never talk about this as it’s happening. No one ever just says, “Wow, that really sucks, want a hug?” There is always some sort of positive-sounding platitude to try to console me with. See examples. But I’m not ready for positive thinking yet. It actively makes me angry. So I’ve learned to do this on my own.
Tomorrow, I’ll pick myself up, dust myself off, and keep going. But today, I just need a few moment to feel how badly this sucks.
When I’m describing what I write, I prefer to say that I write speculative fiction with LGBTQ+ characters. There is at least one queer character in everything I write (including my short fiction–check your perceived defaults, people), but the story does not focus on the character’s queerness. I do not write queer romance, coming out stories, internal discovery stories, or transition stories, though my stories may involve those things.
I write horror stories, or fantasy stories, or science fiction stories, where the characters just happen to be queer. And as with any writing, who the characters are informs the fiction. But the stories are not about the fact that they are queer. We’re just people navigating life like anyone else. And so are my characters.
This distinction is very important to me.
There was a kerfuffle in the queer YA writer Twitterverse a short while back about some service that was offering a sensitivity beta reader service who was paying the actual readers some ridiculously low percentage of the fee they were proposing to charge the authors. I’m glad that sensitivity beta readers are becoming more widely utilized, but this just illustrates that where there is a need, there are people who will want to profit off the backs of marginalized people.
When I hired a sensitivity beta reader for Surviving the Plague for feedback on my biracial character, I paid about $80, which was less than I thought the reader deserved but literally all I could afford at that time. For Flight (when I get the revisions done… when I get the revisions started…) I have someone lined up for $200, which makes me feel a little better about myself as a human being. Ideally, I’d have more than one, but since I’m not making money at writing yet I just can’t afford to.
I know a lot of us who aren’t actually making money at this yet don’t really feel like we can afford sinking ANY money into people to read for us. But from the other side, a lot of us who are trying to write for a living are trying to pull in money in whatever way we can. And when you’re looking for someone to give you honest feedback based on their lived experiences, to point out your bias, when they do not know you, not only paying them to educate you, you’re paying for their bravery while doing so. It’s a tiny bonus that you’re supporting other marginalized writers trying to make a living.
So if you are looking for a sensitivity beta reader, I’d strongly encourage not cheaping out on this. Pay someone directly. A lot of writers have blogs where they advertise additional services. Or at the very least, go through a reputable connections site. Justina Ireland over at Write In The Margins has a sensitivity reader database that is legitimate.
At 31, I often catch myself wondering if I’m too old for this. Especially when my queer YA Twitter feed is filled with talented younger people like Camryn Garrett, people about my age who have already ‘made it’ like Chelsea M. Cameron, and on and on and on.
A lot of times when I start feeling down about writing and about the fact that I decided I could actually Do This Thing relatively late compared to other people starting their careers, the well-meaning descend with the platitudes: so and so got so many rejects, a lot of people didn’t start writing until their 50s, etc. I’m lucky to have so many friends who want to cheer me up. I know that what they’re saying is supposed to make me feel better about myself, but they really don’t. By and large, they’re things I already know. And my mind doesn’t work well with generalities.
I was reading a recent article that was no doubt linked to me on Twitter about the ages of various debut authors. If I could find it again I would link it here for reference, but I can’t, so alas–it’s something that comes up fairly frequently, so I’m sure a Google search could find you a wide variety of similar articles. But seeing the actual debut ages of authors that inspire me made me feel a lot better about myself. My brain loves specifics. Long story short, I’m re-convinced that I’m not too old for this.
As I mentioned in my last progress update post, I applied for the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat last weekend. The application fee by itself was $25, but room and board for the week are $800 each, and I would also have to fly out to LA and physically get to the retreat. There’s no guarantee that I will be accepted. But even if I am accepted, why would I shell out upwards of $2,000 in room, board, and traveling costs to do some writing?
This was definitely a question I asked myself as I was filing out my application, while I was looking at needs-based scholarships that I’m sure I wouldn’t qualify for, and applying for an Editor of the Anthology Scholarship/position that I’m not sure I’ll receive. So it’s very possible that I will end up being accepted and pay out of pocket to attend. So why.
In the first place, I don’t have a lot of opportunities to get together with people who are specifically writing what I am writing (YA with queer characters). I get a lot of writing energy from networking online with other queer writers, and I get a lot of writing energy from networking with other writers generally in person, so I imagine the energy from meeting queer writers in person will be immense. In the second place, I saw that the mentor for the YA group was Malinda Lo several months ago when I began considering the retreat. That is really what tipped me over the edge. In the third place, the organization is Lambda Literary, instead of a for-profit writing retreat. Not that I think that for-profit writing retreats are bad, writers gotta pay their bills, but the purpose of the organization definitely played a part in deciding to apply.
In the fourth place, think of how much work I can get done while having all that fun!
So in the end, I talked myself into doing it. This is probably not something that would become a regular thing for me, if only because I couldn’t afford it to. But I think something this targeted, with a good organization, is something I can save up and make an exception for.
It’s January. I’ve finished a new manuscript, which means it’s time to query on my old one. Why does it mean that? Because I’m full of the finished-novel high and it’s a time of boundless motivation and energy. So I’m putting the to good use to conquer something I dread.
I hate querying. I hate trying to sell my work, and myself, to people who don’t know me. I don’t like random contacts and I feel like everything about these interactions is judged, even though I know that in reality there’s probably just some tired agent on the other end shrugging and sending a form rejection. I invariably screw something up (like the first query, in which I typoed my word count at 77,000 when it’s really 70,000, whoopsie) and it gives me something to beat myself up about for the rest of the day.
But I keep doing it, because I haven’t given up on traditional publishing yet, and if I’m doing traditional publishing, I want a professional to help me sell my work. I think this is the lawyer in me. Sure, you CAN represent yourself in court, but you really really REALLY should have a professional do it. They know all the sticky little rules and procedural stuff.
So here I am, assembling my list and paring it down and sending out my queries to the professional representers in the writing field.
When I hear of authors querying hundreds of agents, it boggles my mind. This year, my list of agents I’m looking at for Surviving the Plague is… eight. Eight whole agents in the entire world who I feel like would be a good fit for this manuscript based on their stated interests and the story I’m trying to sell. Eight letters before I shrug, set aside Surviving the Plague for another year, and wait for the rejections (or hopefully maybe the lucky R&R but I’m not holding my breath but man that would be nice) to roll in.
I have prepared my querying materials, the basic body of the cover letter, the synopsis, the sample chapters, anything they might ask for, long in advance. Long enough in advance to revise those just like I have revised the story itself, trying to polish until they shine. So really, Query Hell is just three days of research and querying, while I’m at my highest of novel highs, and then it’s over.
I can do this.
As well as being utterly down and out from the flu while having to work my day job from home because Things Are Due And I’m The Only One Who Can Do Them, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about writing.
I have a lot of short stories in my stable, and a lot more that I want to write. But the time and energy I put into shopping them around to an ever-decreasing supply of professionally paying magazines is really not paying off. Even doing a simple numbers crunch, if I sold one of my stories at a market rate (rather than accepting the below-market rate that many ‘but you get exposure and you’re published!’ places offer), I’d be making less than a dollar an hour in most cases.
I honestly think I could do better self-publishing these stories on something like a Patreon. Because I love writing short stories, and I have so many other short story ideas floating around in my head, but the amount of energy I put into marketing them is not only not worth the payoff, but it detracts from the amount of energy I have to market my novels. Which, honestly, that energy is at a premium right now.
If I did that, would I only publish short stories on it, or would I move my blog over there as a ‘perk’ of supporting me in my writing? And what about my idea to pass a part of the proceeds on to other deserving artists? These are all things I’d have to think about before doing an official Patreon launch.
But the seed has been planted. And I think I might water it and see what it grows into.