Diverse Books & Myths of Success

People will tell you that all it takes to be a successful (as in lots of people have read your book and paid you decent amounts of money to do it) author is to tell a great story. They will say to you, “Authors cannot claim readers won’t support diverse books. Readers will support any well-written story.”

Why do people tell us that all we need to do is write a “great story” when in reality that’s absolute bullshit?

  1. Willful ignorance. They’re afraid to see it any other way. They might screw up their worldview about how all people (readers especially) are not bias. “Bias isn’t a thing. Anyone telling you bias is a thing are just making excuses for their crappy work.”
  2. Profit. They are self-promoting and optimism sells better than the truth. Telling authors that everything is going to be fine gets more RT’s and less vitriol in response.
  3. Manipulation. They want authors to write diverse books, so they’ll say whatever makes that sound like a good idea.

Just a reminder: I write diverse books. I have written and published books with many different characters: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, Black, White, rich, poor, autistic, and with mental illness. I do not like to write expected, cookie-cutter stories. I prefer to write about interesting people with lives not usually represented in fiction. This is a choice I make because I *want* to write these stories and am privileged not to need book sales to feed my kids. I do not write these stories because I believe every reader will welcome them.

I have been booed whenever I’ve said, “If you want more diverse books, you have to be willing to read books that are not about you. Authors can not afford to write books if only people like their main character will read them.” I get told “That’s a cop out.” Well, I’m not copping out of anything, am I? I am actually still writing diverse books. I am actually doing the thing people beg authors to do. And I promise, my own experience shows that some people refuse to even read my books because “two girls together doesn’t do anything for me.” Well, uhm… I guess if the only reason you read a book is to get turned on, then… I mean, what is there to say to that?

So, I know first hand what happens when you write diverse books. People who identify with the main character read them. My friends read them, friends who usually never read LGBT fiction. They loved my stories and it didn’t matter that the characters were gay (or whatever). So, it is actually true that a great story will be great regardless of what label is attached to the character. I do not dispute this part of the argument. But in order for someone to know a book is great, they have to be willing to read it in the first place.

Getting mainstream readers to buy diverse books is a challenge when bookseller categories already ostracize such books into their own little group. LGBT fiction gets put into a category all its own, often with subcategories separating gay from lesbian as if books can’t have both. These are categories most straight people seldom wade into. There is an idea that LGBT characters are written for LGBT readers, each letter for itself (L for L, G for G, etc). Sorry, but my books aren’t written that way. They are diverse in their entirety. So, where do I place them? Can I convince gay men to read my story with lesbian characters? (On rare occasions, yes I have). Can I convince lesbians to read my story about bisexuals? Do Whites think of books with Black main characters as “Black books” for “Black people”? There are many questions just like these, just interchange the labels. We are a society of separations and booksellers make it easier to keep the walls up than to tear them down.

When people say, “I need diverse books so that my Asian son can see himself as the superhero.” I understand this need. I agree that such a book, (actually many books), should exist for him. But the math is fairly simple here. If you write a book with a minority main character and the only people who buy the book are people within that minority, then the profits are going to be very small. To be a “successful” book, readers of all races must want to read it. Regardless of our wishful thinking, it isn’t going to matter if the story is good or bad if a large portion of readers will not even pick it up to give it a shot.

People in minority groups have been reading characters unlike themselves all of their lives. I don’t need to tell that Asian mom that she should be willing to read characters unlike her son in order to support the diversity movement. She already does. And so do members of the LGBT community. They read the books that big publishers publish, which are mostly centered on white, straight, cisgender characters.

Of course not every reader does this. There are readers who read a variety of characters and appreciate the diversity. Of course this is not meant as a scolding of “all you people”. I’m only pointing out that there are things society needs to do better. Honestly, if you have found your way to my blog and are even reading this, you probably aren’t the problem.

So what *is* the problem? The problem is that expectations are too high, both writers’ and readers’, and frustration ensues. Writers think that because “Diverse Books” is such a big movement that they are going to find a huge readership waiting for them if they just write a great story about a minority character.

Readers, for their part, want books with characters like themselves to be more than simply written. They want those books to be bestsellers, to win awards, and be in the hands of their peers. They don’t want to have to sift through an ocean of books to find the indie-author writing what they’ve asked for. They want the book they want, but they want it to be popular, easy to find, and mainstream. Authors alone cannot make that happen, not even with a kick-ass story.

There is a lot of work involved in changing our world into one with diverse books. Authors begin that work by creating the stories. But that is only a tiny part of what happens next. The people holding the most power are the readers begging for diversity. Our success depends on whether or not they are willing to seek out, support (as in pay money for), and promote the stories they want. Are they willing to suggest a book with a minority character to someone not in that same minority? I hope so.

I hope we all grow as readers. I hope, as an author and a reader, I push a few hesitant folks into enjoying stories about characters not like themselves. I hope more authors will create diverse worlds in their books, worlds which reflect our own reality. I hope this movement grows until there is no longer under-representation of any group.

But I will not lie to you and say good stories will sell no matter what. I will not tell you, readers, that you have no role to play here. Slowly, we authors will gravitate toward diversity as the mainstream audience slowly comes to meet us halfway. It takes both of us and it won’t be easy for either. But we’ll get there.

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I’m Writing an Autistic, Gender Nonconforming Character

I frequently put off writing my work-in-progress. I began writing this novel during the summer of 2015. I took a break at the end of October and wrote a completely separate Christmas novelette, which I had published by the first of December. So it isn’t that I have writer’s block. It’s that This Project is ominous. This Project is both extremely needed and extremely likely to upset someone(s).

I am writing this blog post now in hopes that airing my concerns, which for the longest time I remained in denial about, will finally set them free and out of my head. Hopefully, I can write this and move forward with my work.

The hangup is this: an important character, though not the main character, is a gender nonconforming autistic teenage boy. I do not know the specifics of how he feels about his gender because I have only now (as of yesterday) introduced him. I have put off writing about him for months because of how problematic his existence is likely to be.

There are many ways a person can be gender nonconforming. There are many words to use to describe a person as they appear and as they see themselves. There are also many words to avoid at all costs. I want to allow this character to define himself as the story unfolds, even for me as the author.

But here is the problem: gender nonconforming characters are rare. Representation in fiction is rare. There are a thousand different ways to present oneself within transgender, genderfluid, genderqueer, and other communities. Some desire bodily changes. Some desire appearance changes. Some see the world as the problem because society has mis-defined gender in the first place. These beliefs fall along a spectrum of degrees and not every person in these communities believe the same way.

To sum up my concern: I cannot write about a gender nonconforming person and have them represent an entire complex group of people.

Multiply this by 2 because the same thing applies about this character being autistic. There are thousands of ways to be autistic because autism is a spectrum disorder (even the word disorder is objectionable to some). My character is only being his own autistic and is not trying to be a poster boy for all of autism.

When writing a character who falls into an underrepresented category, people unfamiliar with such groups tend to think that character is, in fact, a poster boy. Look at what has happened with Rain Man. It isn’t that Dustin Hoffman did a terrible job acting his part. It’s that people assume every autistic person is like Dustin Hoffman’s role in the movie. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Every person who does not act in a way that is socially accepted for their birth-assigned gender *will not* fit into the same box and that shouldn’t even be expected. Why is there a box?

Every person who is autistic *is not* the same. They do not have the same struggles, strengths, or coping mechanisms.

So, why am I writing this character at all if it’s so difficult?  If this character was real, he would likely be very misunderstood by the general population. And even within the groups he would most identify with, there would be people not quite believing him. Okay… so maybe they would believe him, but would they believe *me* as I tell his story? That is what I don’t know.

I have an autistic son, but not an autistic teen. I care about autistic representation in fiction, but I am not writing about my son. This character is his own person and no one I know in real life.

I know well a number of gender nonconforming teenagers. I care about how this subject is represented in fiction, but I am not writing about the teenagers I know, nor am I writing *for* the teenagers I know. This character is his own person and this story comes from within me.

Not to imply that real life humans have not informed me about who this character is. I have listened to many people’s grievances about how they are misjudged and stereotyped. I have thought about these problems on a very personal level because of the people in my life. I do not want to do harm to any community by the way my character is represented to a mainstream audience.

It’s a fine line, one I feel confident I can figure out how to walk. It is important to me that I do figure it out. But, it is also terrifying because I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that someone(s) will feel I did an injustice in the way I created this character. He will be picked apart no matter what.

And that is why I struggle to make myself write him into life. And maybe this speaks to why many other authors simply write cookie-cutter characters instead of risking having their characters unintentionally speak for entire groups of people.

I am not perfect.

My character is not you.

I love my character.

I love you.

And I hope some good comes of it all.

We Need Readers of Diverse Books

There has been a cry for diverse books. People, both children and adults, want to see themselves represented in fiction. They want to see people like themselves as heroes, princesses, achievers, and romantic love interests (maybe not all in the same book). Not every hero in real life is a White, cisgender, heterosexual, attractive man without any disabilities. Why should every hero in fiction be that?

The cry is for authors to write main characters and families which are not stereotypical, and to include a range of characters that reflect the diversity that exists in the real world.

There is also a cry from activists within commonly oppressed groups of people for the authors of these stories to be as diverse as the characters. All authors are not White men, but most who find success in the current system are White men. Do we want White men to tell all the stories about Black mothers, Native heroes, or Autistic experiences? Or would we prefer to have a Native author find success in writing from a Native point of view?

It seems simple if you look at it from a distance. “If Blacks do not like the books that are on the shelves, why don’t they write their own?”

Well, they do. But in most cases, there are not enough personal funds to get those books on library shelves. This is true of most indie-authors. We can write all day, but it takes money to get the word out. Or we can rely on publishers to offer contracts and hope they offer them to those diverse authors. But publishers only care about diversity to a certain point. Ultimately, they have to make money, and they aren’t going to make money if lots of people don’t line up to buy the books they offer.

So it comes down to the demands of readers; and it must go beyond demanding to see yourself in the pages. This is an example of why:

When I wrote my first book series, Winter Seedlings, it was never intended to be a book shelved in the gay fiction section. It was an answer to the call for diverse characters and it was intended to be sold as general fiction. I wrote it for everyone.

But, with two female main characters falling in love with each other, it was easily mis-categorized. I put it in gay fiction, then lesbian fiction. My mind was on the cry from people wanting to see themselves in the pages. I wanted to say to them, “You are in these pages. I’ll put this book in your category so you can find it.”

Winter Seedlings didn’t really belong there, though. I moved it to Women’s Contemporary Fiction, then moved it out after observing how buried it was in erotica (which Winter Seedlings is not). It is currently parked in Coming of Age fiction and Psychological Thrillers.  Truly, it hits a lot of topics.

Unfortunately, sales dwindled outside of the LGBT categories.

I have come to believe that most people buy books with the expectation that they will identify with the main character. It is obvious that a lot of heterosexual people DO NOT WANT under any circumstances to think they can relate to the experiences of a lesbian, gay, or bisexual character.

I have seen similar issues play out with cultural and ethnic diversities. Privileged groups like to see that privilege represented in stories, but not called into question. Even if the main character is unlike them in some way, they can still relate as long as the background noise hums the same as their own background noise. So, many non-Black readers might enjoy reading a story about racism and the harm done to Black communities, even if the hero were Black as long as it stayed compatible with the White narrative. But they would shy away from reading a book written by a Black author with an all Black cast of characters portraying the world around them without a nod to the White narrative. That kind of book would be labeled “African American” and shelved somewhere away from mainstream novels.

Maybe it’s okay to segregate our books that way so readers can “find themselves”. Do you think so?

The trouble is that in order for publishers to invest in minority cultures, the majority of people must be willing to read varying narratives. If not, there will be little money to be made.

This paradox plays out all the time. Authors struggle to find the balance of writing an honest story about an underrepresented culture in a way which will be appealing to a large audience without feeding stereotypes or oppression.

But at the end of the day, the ability to increase the diversity in books lies with the readers, not the authors. We have to believe that it makes us better people to place ourselves in the shoes of others by reading works created by groups we do not identify with. We have to believe the sky is not going to fall if we enjoy a book about two women in love. We have to believe that diverse books are not something created FOR oppressed groups, but for all of us.

As much as I strive to include a broad range of characters in all my books, and attempt to avoid sensationalizing them or making them tokens for consumption, I am still a White author. As much as I try to get right the various POV, I am still coming at the art of writing with my own privilege. I am not the one to speak for anyone but myself, nor do I attempt to do so.

My latest novella, Silencer, deals with racism, but the main idea of the story is how suicidal thoughts can be like a dangerous drug which can both comfort and kill those dealing with depression. I feel I have done justice to the issues of depression, suicidal thoughts, grief, and racism. And though two of the most important characters in the book are Black, this book does not qualify as being outside my demographic because it is mainly about a White woman’s POV.

As a reader, I search for books by authors writing about subjects close to their hearts, subjects which reflect their own experiences in life. I find them much more rewarding because they have a believability which goes beyond the typical White-author-looking-in-from-outside kind of fiction. That doesn’t mean that all authors should fill every book with people like themselves. But authors have a point of view which is going to come through no matter how they dress up their main characters. That point of view is going to reflect the culture in which they grew up and surround themselves.

Reading diverse books by diverse authors helps us, as authors, broaden our points of view. Reading books by diverse authors helps ensure those authors can afford to keep sharing their important perspectives. So, I challenge you, and myself, to seek out diverse authors, even more so than diverse characters. Value those perspectives which originate from within a culture. And most importantly, don’t be afraid of discovering that you can, in fact, relate to two boys being in love. That won’t make you gay, but it just might you a better human being.

Stereotypes and Book Diversity

I’m from east Tennessee, from “the foothills of the Appalachian mountains”. Yes, I know the Appalachian mountains go way north to Canada and come all the way down to Georgia. But, I grew up in southern thick of things,  near the Tennessee/Virginia/North Carolina borders. We pronounce it as Apple-latch-un. If you say “lay-shun” instead of “latch-un”, you might not be welcome anymore.

I grew up with some racists, both the self-proclaimed kind and the in-denial-but-obviously-inclined kind. Generally, it was a distrust of anyone not in the family. There wasn’t a lot of coming and going out of my region, and families were intertwined like royalties, spread across towns. I could walk for miles and miles and still not be too far away from a distant kin’s house in an emergency. As kids, we did walk those miles. Our parents trusted the neighborhood because the neighborhood was family and of course, absolutely, without a doubt, those distant kin neighbors are “just like us”, “safe”, “upstanding citizens”.

Except the few who were drunks, perverts, or both. Shhh, about that now.

Despite the propensity for proclaiming whites to be superior, many of the families in my neck of the woods had mixed ancestry. There were the Cherokee who hid in the mountains to avoid relocation, marrying whites, and having mixed families. There were the Melungeons, a tri-racial people descending from Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans. However, there was an ugly time in history when admitting to being anything other than lily white would get your land confiscated. Generationally, we aren’t that far away from the trail of tears. In this regard: My mother can speak to me of her time spent with her grandfather. He was born in the 1866 by an unwed 16 year old girl. His mother told him they were part Cherokee. However, when his mother married a very white man and had other children, she did not reveal the Cherokee link to them. If she did, the information stopped there and the next generation were never told.

Most of the kids I grew up with thought they were of 100% European descent.  We never went to school with a black kid until 6th grade. But, by that time, I had already secretly been in love with Charley Pride and obsessively kissed Michael Jackson’s face on the Thriller record cover. To say I didn’t see a difference between black and white would be wrong. I saw a difference, and I thought dark skin was beautiful, and brown eyes intoxicating. I had family members tell me that it was wrong for whites to marry blacks. This was in the 80’s when I was twelve, because they had to instill the idea early (not early enough, folks). Another family member repeatedly said I would grow up to marry a black man (though he used the N word). In high school, I dressed like Prince because he was what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had girls call out as a walked down the halls, “N____ lover!”

I wish I could say I was a born anomaly, a ray of light in the dark. But every single stereotype I was told about as a child had to be worked out of me by years of observation and self-reflection. I did not instantly deny the truth of racists comments. I had to work out the truth about blacks, Hispanics, gays, the rich, the poor, and myself. But, I was surrounded by generations of the same family network, similar incomes, similar religious and political beliefs. Where would I feed my desire to learn the truth? Or to validate my own differences?

Lately, we have heard a lot about a need for diversity in children’s books because children need to see people like themselves on the pages. The only blacks in my elementary school textbooks in the 80’s had been slaves or savages from Africa, yes… they were portrayed as uncivilized. I have no doubt that these limited representations of black history hurt black Americans. But, I also know that it hurt all of us.

The lack of books representing African American true life stories was a void which was filled by ignorance. And those of us willing to take a stand felt too unknowing to do so. What did I know about African American life? Where was my credibility? I had none. Even knowing I was part Cherokee, I could not tell you anything about Cherokee customs which weren’t portrayed as savage.

When my oldest daughter was born in 2001, I knew I would do things differently. We did not assign race to anyone. People had black skin, brown skin, dark skin, pink skin, brown hair, blond hair, etc. But people were not ever called Black, White, Mexican, Asian, etc. Our neighbors had a daughter from Nigeria. She was “from Africa”. She was never “black”. Now that my girls are older (12, 10, 8), they hear the terms for different races by their peers and other adults.They know what race is. But, because grouping people together by race isn’t something they were raised to do, they don’t hear it the same way as other kids and they don’t use it themselves unless referring to the sordid past of the US.

This doesn’t mean that I deny to my children that different cultures exist or that I think they shouldn’t. It just means that I do not assume that every person who looks a certain way IS a certain way. It muddies the water and makes it harder to see the heart of a person. That is the lesson I want my girls to take away from being raised not to see race first. It might mean everything to a person, or it might mean nothing. The only person who can tell you how much their race defines them is the individual.

The people from my part of Appalachia are often viewed as backwards, racist, dirty, and ignorant. If you read only the first part of this blog post, you might be thinking I haven’t done them any favors. But, they are just another example of the hurt caused by judging by stereotype and not by the heart. Many kids who leave Appalachia find that it comes with them like the color of their eyes. They speak with a slow drawl and are assumed to have been barefoot most of their lives. The stereotype of ignorance overshadows every word they speak, often from their own minds. Their hearts could be full of love and acceptance, curiosity and a desire to change the world. But, they struggle to overcome what they feel the world projects onto them.

A book about Appalachian culture would be true if it included some stereotypes. But, it may not leave room for individual differences which do not fit the stereotype. Diversity acceptance happens when people are presented with a large varying collection of stories from a group of people all previously believed to be the same. It happens one personal story at a time and isn’t achieved until many are heard.  There is no reason not to start writing yours now.

Will publishers publish it? It depends on what people spend their money to buy. You can start showing your support for authors who write about minority characters by buying their self-published works, even if those minority characters do not reflect your specific lifestyle. Readers can’t ask for diversity and then only buy books about themselves.

Be curious. Don’t settle for stereotypes. Find and value authors brave enough to tell a true story.

 

Love and Listen, on the topic of Nature vs. Nurture

I’m not an expert on dividing and labeling things as caused by ‘nature’ vs. ‘nurture’. But, I have four kids. And what I believed about the nature vs. nurture argument has steadily changed with every new addition.

Let me quickly give you a glimpse into my personality as it relates to motherhood. When I was in elementary school in the 80’s, I loved my Adopted Dolls. I pretended to teach them to read. When I was in middle school, I still played with them. When I was in high school, I started clipping news articles about raising children and child psychology. This all means that: parenting mattered to me. I wanted to do it “correctly” so that my future children could reach their highest potential. I loved them way before they were born and I had no intentions of letting them down.

I was a bit obsessive.

Before my oldest daughter was born almost 13 years ago, I stimulated her brain in the womb. And then she was born and every single time she did a wrong thing, I was right there to correct it. Her entire ability to function among other humans rested entirely in my hands. If I did not guide her along the good path, she would later fall in with the riffraff and be ruined. (Even though, at the time, I did not believe there were “bad people”, but I wasn’t about to let my daughter fall in with “people whose parents don’t care about them.”) Every move she made, I was watching her. And she as a toddler had better have made decisions like the all-knowing 30 year old woman I was at the time.

So, I find it hard to be too angry at mothers I see doing this same shit to their kids. And they brag about it. They say things like, “[2 year old] ran to the door with his toothbrush and I popped his butt and said, ‘toothbrushes go in the bathroom’.”

Because if a toothbrush leaves the bathroom, she had failed as a parent. I wish I could see them now.

When my second and third daughters were born, I realized that my first baby was not THE BABY. All the advice I had doled out over her short little life amounted to a pile of poo. But, I still continued to put my foot down with her, like the time she walked into the bedroom with a plate of chicken nuggets. They were sliding around and I could just see them falling onto the floor at any minute. That was bad. So, so very bad! And I still continued to get frustrated at my inability to mold her into a 2 year old adult, so much so that sometimes I threw things and screamed and looked like a monster.  They day she laughed at me at the peak of my rage was the day I stopped thinking rage was a solution.

That child, my oldest, I learn so much from her.

But, I had more revelations as my younger girls began to talk. I allowed them to disagree with me. We argued. We debated. I asked for their input. And I learned very quickly just how complex and different they were. I treasured these differences. One of my girls is sensitive, yet strong willed. Another wants so much to be accepted, but loves to be shocking. There is not a single parenting plan that would work for all three of my girls, other than this: “Love and Listen”.

I was proud of how far I had come as a mother. I still screwed up sometimes. And don’t think my girls didn’t point it out when it happened.

So, when my son was born, I didn’t worry so much. I thought, “He will tell me what he needs if I just love and listen.”

But, there was a problem with that.

We didn’t know it until he was 15 months old, but my son was autistic.

So, when he was a baby, if he turned his head to stop nursing, I assumed he was full.

If he didn’t ask for juice while I was at work on Saturdays, my husband assumed he wasn’t thirsty.

He could go long periods of time with a dirty diaper because he was contentedly playing with his magnetic letters and made no indication anything was wrong.

Once, I walked past the living room and saw him standing in his chair by the widow with blood on his hand and more pouring out of his mouth. He had fallen and his tooth cut through his skin, but he wasn’t crying at all.

His ability to express his needs at that time was nonexistent.

My listening skills were failing me, and I had to learn a whole new way of listening to a child who could not communicate.

Humans… You… hello, reader, you… are complex. Why do you do what you do? Why do the things that make you happy make you happy? Why are you afraid of the things you fear?

Of course, my failures and successes have shaped my children’s outlook. The way they see the world is very much related to how they see their parents. But, what we are able to actually do with that feedback about the outside world has so much do with what we were born with inside of us.

This all relates to how I view most political discourse. Sure, there are a lot of people who believe that you can go get a switch and take it to the behinds of every person that has done wrong and suddenly the world will be a better place. Right? Someone needs to spank those damn kids. Teach them right from wrong. Keep them on the “good” path, which is “my” path, because I’ve been on this path my whole life and I am so, so good.

It means nothing. That kid is going to sit down and laugh at you because they have something inside of them that you aren’t hearing.

That person that you disagree with is going to sit down and laugh at you because they have something inside of them that you aren’t hearing.

You are sitting down and laughing at them because you have something inside of you that they aren’t hearing.

I can’t tell you where to draw the line between nature and nurture. But, I assure you that nature matters. It matters in parenting and it matters in our friendships. It matters in how we view people who do things we can’t believe anyone would do. Nature does not excuse hurting people or doing truly bad things. But often, it is in the name of Nurture that most harm is done.
Love and Listen.