Writing Diversity: How Can We Avoid Issues?

by Jami Gold on October 22, 2015

in Writing Stuff

Purple eye and green hair with text: Avoiding Mistakes with Diversity

The real world is filled with diversity, and I’ve often said that our stories should be the same way. That’s not an agenda, just a truth.

Even within our own culture (whatever that is), we’re likely to find diversity simply because we all have different experiences and backgrounds. Some will be poor, and some will come from a broken home. Some will be educated, and some will be religious. Some will struggle with disabilities, and some will identify with a non-default gender or sexual orientation. Etc., etc.

This is a good thing when it comes to our characters, especially for characters with diverse elements, as there’s no definitive black, gay, disabled, whatever experience, and therefore there’s no “one right way” to portray those characters. There are, however, wrong ways to portray diversity.

For some writers, the fear of “getting it wrong” discourages them from including diverse elements. Yet the subjective nature of reading and everyone’s unique experiences (which can lead to different levels of sensitivity) means we can’t avoid all issues or make everyone happy no matter what we do.

Although I strive to be aware and listen and learn, I still make mistakes. But I think there are steps we can take to minimize—as much as possible—the potential of “getting it wrong.”

Let’s talk about some of the basic tips to keep in mind, as well as my advice for the best way to ensure our words and our intentions won’t get us into trouble. *smile*

Tips for Portraying Diversity Respectfully

  • Don’t Make Excuses: No matter our genre, our characters don’t all look like us and have the same background (gender, class, education, living conditions, etc.), and we can broaden our choices to include diversity the same way.
  • Avoid Quotas or Agendas: On the other hand, there are no “brownie points” for meeting an imagined quota. Rather, we can add diverse characters simply by holding “open casting calls” in our head instead of falling back on our defaults.
  • Beware an “It’s the Right Thing to Do” Attitude: Including diversity isn’t like eating our vegetables or taking our vitamins. For most stories, it’s logical to include diverse elements, and no one deserves a pat on the back just because they’re being logical. *smile*
  • Recognize that “Diverse” Isn’t a Genre: Our stories don’t have to be about the diverse element. A story about a gay character can be about anything, not just about them coming out.
  • Ask if the Story Is Ours to Tell: If we don’t have direct experience with the diverse element, a story that centers on the diverse aspect might suffer from disrespectful negative stereotypes or breathless, isn’t-it-inspirational-how-they-overcame-those-obstacles “positive” stereotypes. (Note that treating a character’s diverse element as a problem to overcome isn’t actually positive.)
  • Avoid Stereotypes in Our Characters and Story Premise: A story premise that requires an all-white cast of good guys and an all-minority cast of bad guys is likely problematic.
  • Develop Three-Dimensional Characters: Our characters shouldn’t be just about their diverse element(s). They should be fully developed with a rich history, filled with beliefs, fears, values, strengths, weaknesses, etc.
  • Keep an Eye out for Diversity Combinations: There are many types of diversity, and each of those can intersect with others. A character with disabilities who also belongs to a racial minority will likely have a different experience from a character with disabilities who grows up in a privileged family.
  • Listen to Our Characters: If our characters are three-dimensional and unique, we can avoid many stereotypes by being true to them.
  • Research, Research, Research: To eliminate stereotypes that creep in without us knowing, we should research any history, religious beliefs, cultural or societal issues, current status, notable updates or research, etc. that might affect or tie in to our story.
  • Be Open-Minded: There’s no shame in being unaware—no one can know everything—but we have to be willing to listen and learn without defensiveness.
  • Watch Out for Disrespectful Worldbuilding: Current beliefs of non-Christian cultures aren’t playgrounds to treat like ancient myths or fantasy elements (i.e., Twilight‘s treatment of the Quileute tribe).

The Value (and Limitations) of an Accuracy or Sensitivity Read

A common suggestion to avoid being unintentionally disrespectful is to seek out someone who shares that diverse element (or at the very least, has direct experience with it) and ask them to read our work and point out issues.

Even with the best of intentions, we can make mistakes that only someone with cultural or societal knowledge can point out to us. We might intend our words to mean one thing, but cultural experience or subtext might imply a different meaning. We might have included stereotypes without meaning to. Etc., etc.

In other words, getting insight from someone deeply “in the know” is an important step…with a couple of caveats.

  • Positive feedback doesn’t guarantee a lack of problems. No group is a monolith, and something that reads fine to one person might be offensive to another.
  • Allow time to find a willing reader and receive feedback during our beta read or developmental edit stage so we’re still at the point of being willing to make big revisions.
  • At all costs, avoid becoming defensive at any feedback. This is a time to listen and learn.
  • No one owes us their time, so requests should be made with the utmost respect.

Tips for a Respectful Request

The hero of my upcoming release Ironclad Devotion is a member of the Navajo tribe. However, he’s dismissive of his heritage, so I was…um, extremely concerned about the story coming across as being disrespectful of Navajo beliefs. *smile*

So I wanted to get a “sensitivity” read from someone knowledgeable and experienced with the culture. I was lucky enough to work with V.S. Nelson, who isn’t just Native American, but she’d also lived and worked on the Navajo reservation for nearly two decades. I’ve known Virginia for years through our local writing chapter, but if we don’t know who might qualify as a reader for our story, we should ask around.

Here’s how I made sure my request was respectful and non-defensive:

  • Don’t assume potential readers would be willing to read or have the time to read, but you can ask for other names and leave it open for them to volunteer themselves.
    For example, in my initial approach, after giving a short description of the premise and characters, I said: “I want to make sure I’m not in any way misrepresenting, disrespecting, insulting, etc. the Navajo culture with this story. It’s important to me that I get it right. Do you know of anyone with the cultural knowledge who might be willing to read/review those sections and let me know where I need to fix things?”
  • Word your messages with the assumption that there are issues. Don’t assume you have it right. This helps set the tone for honest feedback by showing how you wouldn’t be defensive.
  • Once you have a reader lined up, make it easy for them by giving a summary of every relevant section, just in case they want to skip to the pages that might have concerns rather than read the whole story. (i.e., Chapter 1, Pages 4-5: Character is introduced as… He states… He thinks… Others respond by… Etc.)
  • Feel free to explain your intentions for each section, but explain your goal for including that information. (i.e., Make it clear that the explanation isn’t about being defensive.)
    In my message with the summaries, I said, “After each section, I’m adding in italics what my intentions were for the actual writing, in case that helps figure out if my intentions are off-base and need to be rethought or if the specific word choices, etc. aren’t matching my intentions. If you come across a problematic aspect, these descriptions may help figure out where the problem lies.”
  • Reiterate that you really want honest feedback about anything and everything that might be an issue, and ensure they understand that you’re fine with making major changes.
  • Thank them profusely for their time.

There’s Not Always a Right Answer

Just as reading is subjective, what we want to accomplish or get across with our story and writing is subjective too. Sometimes, just as with any feedback, we might choose to ignore the suggestions and stick with what feels more true to the character.

I don’t hold up my stories as perfect examples of how to “do diversity right,” as there’s always room for improvement, and I’m sure I screwed up in multiple ways. However, I want to share a couple of examples to point out how subjectivity plays a part.

In my story, Pure Sacrifice, the hero has dark skin, so I wanted to describe the heroine’s skin color too (so that white wasn’t assumed the “default” color). In her point-of-view, she mocks her lily-white skin.

However, sometimes a phrase like “lily-white” implies “perfection.” (Think of the old fairy tales and the type of wording they’d use.) So the phrase could be taken as bragging in a “this character is good and the other characters are bad” type of way by some readers.

Yet to be true to the heroine’s character, I had to include the words. I hope it’s obvious from her self-mocking that she doesn’t intend the phrase to give an impression of superiority. But at the same time, I can’t control that some might be sensitive to the usage.

For an opposite type of example, editing feedback made it clear that the word choice for one character went over the line. Although the words were true to the character, they were so strong that they stole the focus from my goal for the scene. So I decided to change the dialogue so the overall scene would create the impression I wanted without making readers focus on specific word choices.

On another occasion, I allowed a setting of a neighborhood to conform to stereotypes, as the racial makeup and housing market details were based on the real-world neighborhood in that location. Was it wrong to include the stereotypes? Or was it right to remain honest about the reality?

In other words, everything is a choice, but not necessarily a right or wrong kind of choice (even if we get reviews picking on it). The point is to think through the decision, so we’re not falling back on defaults, assumptions, or stereotypes.

Subjectivity Is Inevitable with Every Story Element

As those examples show, we as authors are still in charge of our story. Right and wrong choices aren’t always clear or set in stone. And no matter how hard we try, we’re likely to receive negative feedback, but we shouldn’t take it personally.

If someone doesn’t connect to our character because they don’t think a cop would act that way, we don’t vow to stop writing cops. If we set a book in New York and a local points out issues with our setting details, we don’t swear off ever setting a book in New York again.

We listen to see if our police officer did act out of character, and then if we decide we were true to the character, we shrug. We take notes about how we didn’t research our setting well enough so we do better next time.

In other words, when we run into non-diversity-related problems with our story, we don’t take it personally and decide to avoid ever trying again. So when one person thinks such-and-such doesn’t ring true for a diverse element in our story, we shouldn’t give up on including diversity either. *smile*

Have you seen books that included diverse elements in problematic ways? Could any of this advice have fixed the problem? Can you think of other steps we can take to avoid issues? Have you ever run into problems with including a diverse element? Was the problem one of subjectivity or one you could have handled better?

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45 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Davonne Burns October 22, 2015 at 7:11 am

I can tell you put a lot of thought and effort into this and it is very much appreciated. This point in particular:

Ask if the Story Is Ours to Tell: If we don’t have direct experience with the diverse element, a story that centers on the diverse aspect might suffer from disrespectful negative stereotypes or breathless, isn’t-it-inspirational-how-they-overcame-those-obstacles “positive” stereotypes. (Note that treating a character’s diverse element as a problem to overcome isn’t actually positive.)

Even as a member of a couple of intersectional minorities, I know that some stories are not mine to tell.

There are some great resources for authors looking to add diversity in unproblematic ways. I run a blog that focuses on how to write LGBT+ characters (mogaiwriters.tumblr.com). There is also the Writing With Color blog (writingwithcolor.tumblr.com) which will answer specific questions. I’m also available to answer questions regarding mental health and living with a chronic mental illness.

The single biggest issue I’ve encountered in books has been the ‘happy’ ending of the diversity issue being ‘solved.’ Diversity is not an issue that requires resolution. It’s a state of being and integral to a character’s self-identity. Yes this even applies to mental illnesses. ^_^

Thank you so much for addressing this, it’s something that you don’t see discussed so openly and honestly very often among the writing community.

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Jami Gold October 22, 2015 at 8:33 am

Hi Davonne,

Thanks–yes, this post took far longer to write than usual. LOL! So I’m glad the effort was worth it. 🙂

Thank you for sharing those resources and for your offer to answer questions! I’ve learned so much just from watching complaints about stories pass back and forth on Twitter. 😉

Stories with disability and mental illness are very susceptible to that “solved” issue, which creates the subtext that “solving” those is required for a happy ending. Not the kind of story many readers would appreciate. 🙁 Yet the vast majority of stories with that type of diversity I’ve seen have fallen into that category because so many might not have thought through the subtext. That’s why awareness is so important. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins) October 22, 2015 at 2:22 pm

I know what you mean, Davonne.

There are stories about the African-American experience in the U.S. I don’t approach for that very reason.

Just because I’m black doesn’t mean I’m the right person to tell the story, unless I was willing to be immersed in intensive research and find people within the experience willing to cross-reference points with. Or co-author with someone who has info I couldn’t get otherwise on my own.

While research does matter in fiction, I’m not wed to it the same way than if were writing a nonfiction book on race relations, where there are more variables and study points of reference that frankly would make even the greatest minds of our time freak out! (LOL)

Plus, truth be told, part of why I write pseudo-anthro animal stories is because I don’t have to face the ethnicity issue as much.

Not the only reason, mind you, but that’s part of it. It’s hard enough to tell a gripping story, harder still when you’re wrestling with the weighty matters like the politics of human diversity and ethnicity.

That said, I do have to speak to what you said here-

“The single biggest issue I’ve encountered in books has been the ‘happy’ ending of the diversity issue being ‘solved.’ Diversity is not an issue that requires resolution. It’s a state of being and integral to a character’s self-identity. Yes this even applies to mental illnesses. ^_^”

I’m not offended by this (Just to clarify!) and I agree with you, but it’s hard to live with when it makes an already challenging life even harder.

But like you said, it’s not positive to view one’s ethnicity and/or mental illness like a zit we pop, and know we shouldn’t trivialize either.

But speaking as someone who lives with a mental illness, and lived with a parent with a mental illness FAR WORSE than mine, that last part is HARD to own.

These days, my being black is an afterthought, whatever the color of one’s skin, whatever our socioeconomic status is, mental illness hurts the same.

That said, those of more “privileged” backgrounds might have better access to better schools and long-term care (if needed), but it’s still challenging.

But those from less financially rich backgrounds do struggle from not only the lack of resources and treatment (which isn’t JUST about meds, BTW) but also basic respect in the community.

Not because I’m denial, but I don’t want it to define me in ways that are not only untrue, but DANGEROUS to assume.

It doesn’t mean that most portrayals of the mentally ill, whatever the character’s race or socioeconomic status, are these jerky crooks and sadistic slave drivers.

I’m not saying they don’t exist, period, but they don’t speak for ALL OF US. Yet if that’s all the wider world sees in media (esp. film and television) it perpetuates not only a hurtful stereotype, but it stigmatizes the afflicted to the point where they don’t get help for fear of further harsh treatment.

Society damns the mentally ill for whether we get help or not, especially not, forgetting that we damn them for getting help, too!
(Forgive my language, but I can’t say it another way)

I honestly believe more people would admit to their mental issues and more likely get whatever help they have access to if we broaden the views in fiction especially.

There are a lot of great memoirs and documentaries tackling this, but we need more positive or at least more nuanced mentally ill characters in the world of fiction, where a lot of these stereotypes if not originate, are popularized.

I might be overly sensitive, but I seriously weep inside every time I hear about a school shooting or a rape story when I hear the perp is ID’d as having a mental illness (on top of the normal grief that decent people are killed like it’s no big thing, whoever they were), because it makes the stigma that much worse.

I’m certainly not saying we should pretend it’s a non-factor, since as Davonne said, like race, our mental stuff is part of our identity, just that whenever something negative or tragic happens, we’re suddenly X mental illness, we’re no longer part of humanity. THAT’S what I take issue with.

I hope more people will one day understand that these specific individuals don’t speak for all of us.

Most of us are decent, normal people, who have to face abnormal challenges because of our inner nightmares, (I hope “Inner Nightmare” that’s a nicer reframe for “demons” as that can get overblown, even outside the context of Paranormal stuff Jami writes) and we want what most less mentally challenged folks want, to live a respectful, wholehearted life.

At the end of the day, those of us with varying degrees of mental illness are really not that different than anyone else. The problems can mount when our family and/or friends aren’t supportive or think we’re making this up to “get attention” which is so thoughtless.

I know sometimes we say some people are so desperate for attention, they’ll take it however they can get it, even if it’s negative, there is some truth to that, especially kids and teens who people have callously written off as “bad” or even “Satanic.”

We’re not less human than anyone else who don’t live our inner nightmares every waking hour of the day.

The problem is that too often we’re portrayed in the negative.

The fact that the most famous (fictional) mentally disturbed folks are Hannibal Lector, Batman’s Joker, and Spider-Man’s Venom and Carnage kind of adds to the problem.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not hating on these specific characters, just that I’d like to see a middle ground between their extreme (entertaining as it may be to read/watch, but NOT actually live!) and what most people face and who (At least TRY to) stay within the law.

Is that so much to ask? (Sigh)

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Davonne Burns October 22, 2015 at 6:35 pm

Taurean (may I say I love the name!), I completely understand where you are coming from and I apologize if my comment might have struck a wrong note.

“I honestly believe more people would admit to their mental issues and more likely get whatever help they have access to if we broaden the views in fiction especially.” I think this right here gets to the heart of matters. I HATE it when villains are painted as schizophrenic nut jobs (I’m bipolar schizophrenic). Accepting how an illness changes you and your life can take years and, for better or worse, they do have a hand in defining us both internally and externally.

I apologize for not being more clear in my statement above (rushing through a post on a topic like this is not recommended). But, you are very right and unfortunately mental illness isn’t the only thing that’s often portrayed badly in fiction. That’s why I appreciate Jami’s post. I think too often we forget to look outside ourselves when writing because we often put so much of ourselves into our characters. (All my characters are somewhere on the MOGAI spectrum. I can’t seem to write heterosexual characters as anything but villains) XD

Thank you so much for such a thoughtful comment. I really appreciate it.

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Jami Gold October 22, 2015 at 8:00 pm

Hi Davonne,

This comment string between you and Taurean brings up some great points. I love what you said about the need to look outside ourselves when writing sometimes, and I think this ties in with the happy ending point you made above.

Someone outside a marginalized group might make assumptions about what a happy ending would look like, and those assumptions might lead them to portray an ending that creates a life more like theirs. But those in different groups might define their happy ending differently.

Going back to the example of mental illness, rather than being “cured” by the end, a happy ending might be reaching a point where the illness is dealt with in healthy ways, or is accepted, etc. (Others could probably come up with far better examples than I can. 🙂 )

I just wanted to point that out for anyone who comes across this post and wonders how to portray a happy ending if the mental illness isn’t something to “cure.” (Unfortunately, I’ve heard of plenty of books doing the same with physical disabilities as well–a magical ability to walk or see or have children again. *sigh*) Thanks so much for bringing this up!

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Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins) October 27, 2015 at 3:28 am

Thanks for replying Davonne (You too, Jami!),

I know that lots of things are mishandled in fiction as you elude to, Davonne, but this imbalance of how people with varying degrees of mental illness are viewed in fiction is for me just as heartbreaking as mishandling or ignoring ethnic diversity, and besides, I focused on this point because my comments around here go long and I get in trouble when I try to get too broad.

Believe me, I know there are other ways people and situations can get stereotyped in annoying ways.

Besides, I think most readers are aware of wish fulfillment and things particularly, but there’s a BIG difference between that and ignorantly narrow views of how people with mental illness are portrayed, and while there’s excellent nonfiction giving the science (and HEART) this needs, we need more fiction that brings dignity and respect to those with various forms of Autism/Mental Illness.

I think as long as there are prominent stories of more nuanced portrayals of mental illness, the caricatures won’t have the divisive weight they do now, and I believe we can get there, how long that will take is anyone’s guess, though, but my overall point is that it HAS to start somewhere.

What you said here is a BIG part of why I don’t write about mental illness in my fiction-

“Even as a member of a couple of intersectional minorities, I know that some stories are not mine to tell.”

While you cited this in terms of ethnic bias, it also applies when writing about specific challenges to the autistic and mental challenges of those like you or me.

Just like ethnicity, no one has mental illness the same way, you, me, and my own mother are living proof of that.

It’s why watching Elyn Sak’s TED talk was so poignant and inspiring for me, like my mother she has a form of Schizophrenia, but she managed to achieve the kind of success my mother could not, but again, as Ellen said her talk, “My experience is unique, and every faces mental illness in their own way” paraphrasing here (if you haven’t seen the talk, I highly recommend it) but that’s the gist of it in relation to this topic.

It’s one thing to talk about my individual experience, quite another to write a multifaceted and nuanced character, and I don’t want to add to the problem, but I do think sometimes this happens not of our ignorance or malice, but just not quite hitting the right notes, sometimes a great story is complicated by less than great nuance and sensitivity to certain issues and people.

Whenever I read about a novel that mentions a key character is mentally ill, I cringe, because I fear yet another “Psycho” or “Hannibal Lector” type, and also a form of self-protecting myself.

I know some of my writer friends (who knew about my Asperger’s before I went more public with it) have praised/recommended the “Joey Pigza” series by Jack Gantos for being a non-offensive portrayal of the title character having mental challenges, but I’ve been too chicken to read it.

That’s my problem more than the books themselves.

While I do want to see more non-psychos respectfully represented in fiction, I also don’t want my reading and writing to be defined SOLELY by what I have to live, and witness, in the frame of mental illness.

Just because I had a “Difficult Mother To Love” (Partly because she has schizophrenia, a more severe case than yours, based on what you’ve shared here, which in her gives her the maturity of a three year old, and she’s 50-Something) doesn’t mean every mother I write in fiction needs to be a version of her, if that makes any sense.

Sometimes we need/want to write the opposite of what we lived in life, both to broaden our outlook as writers, and frankly out of hopeful desperation to have something different and less lonely.

It’s probably why I have a hard time with writing external conflict in my fiction.

I tend to be more in tune with internal conflict, and I have hard time lining them up without sounding extremist.

It’s also why I probably get annoyed the “Orphan” and “Abusive Parent” trope common in children’s and YA books.

Especially for kids and teens who didn’t live in an open-minded and whole-hearted family, they NEED to see what they didn’t get in their life, so they can create for themselves and other later in life. If all the parents they read about are neglectful and even abusive, that’s not sending a positive message if that’s all they read about in the wider world of literature.

I hope more writers can eventually realize you can still put your kids and teens through the proverbial ringer and still have a “Good Enough Parents or Parental Figures.”

Of course, there are people who sadly have to face this, and they need well told stories that reflect what had to live, and they’re a great way to start ultimately healing conversations, but those same kids and teens (Adults too) need to see books where they can imagine and actualize a better reality for them and others.

I love there are so many great picture books that give nuanced and modern portrayals of fathers and nontraditional or LGTBQ families, but for kids beyond preschool, there aren’t nearly enough, and I hope some of my books can be part of the needed new wave of kidlit.

As writers and people we’re often told to “Embrace Discomfort” we have to realize that comfort and complacency are not the same, and thus not interchangeable.

I think when people say to “Not be comfortable” to grow and improve, it’s better to reframe “Comfort” with “Complacent” IMHO.

You CAN be “Comfortable” without being “Complacent.”

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Jami Gold October 27, 2015 at 7:54 am

Hi Taurean,

You’re not alone in many of your concerns. I know a reader with disabilities who has to work up the courage to read stories about characters with disabilities because she’s seen it done poorly SO many times. I also know authors of color who choose to write white characters because they have their own reasons for writing “diverse” from their situation.

Especially in cases where there might be personal wishes for a different life, there’s nothing wrong in choosing to write stories without those elements. Just because we have direct experience with something doesn’t mean we want to explore that topic in our stories, whether that’s race, mental illness, or being a victim of rape. Despite our direct experience, we might not feel up for (or qualified to or interested in) delving into the topic.

We often talk about readers reading for an escape, but the same can apply to authors too. As I mentioned in the post, sometimes I choose character elements or settings that I want to learn about. So writing can be a form of escapism for us as well, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t “owe” anyone certain stories, and I think we all should be allowed to write beyond our experience. 🙂

So I understand the distinction you’re drawing between comfortable and complacent. We want to push ourselves to grow and improve–and thus not be complacent–but we don’t have to feel the need to write about things that make us uncomfortable. Great point and thanks for the comment! 🙂

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Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins) October 24, 2015 at 3:22 pm

I wasn’t at all offended by what you were saying, Davonne, I just wanted to expand on it from both my life experience, and what I’ve read and watched about how our experience is often one-dimensionally portrayed.

Even though I know it’s not realistic on a cerebral level, I sometimes wish I could pop my mental issues like a zit, because what I lose in being more adaptable and less tunnel-thinking, and better controlling my emotions-doesn’t balance out whatever I gain from having the mental struggles I do.

Sometimes that wish fulfillment is appealing to me. However unrealistic.

It’s hard to see the positive side of a difficult situation because it feels like what you gain from having X mental challenge doesn’t begin to compensate from what you lose and have to live every day in return.

My Asperger’s makes me feel positive and negative emotions far more intensely than the average person.

(It’s like having MLP Pinkie Pie’s boundless optimism juxtaposed to Pooh’s Eeyore’s negative outlook, with a dash of anger in the form of a raging dragon) It also contributes to my struggle with change and compromise (Particularly when I’m FORCED into it).

But I’m back in counseling and would consider medication if needed.

I do recognize there are good things that my mental challenges gave me, I just want it to better balance out the less-than-good things my mental challenges give me and those in my life who try so hard to help me in the ways they can.

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Jami Gold October 22, 2015 at 7:41 pm

Hi Taurean,

Thank you for sharing your experiences with the intersection of race and illness so honestly! As you so insightfully point out, dealing with mental illness is a minefield for those struggling, especially with the stigma that exists for getting help or for not getting help. I think you’re right that a better, nuanced representation in fiction might help reduce that stigma.

I think your point about how in the case of mental illness–just as with any element of what makes up an individual (race, gender, class, etc.)–those with the same element don’t speak for the rest. We see this time and again with every aspect: one black criminal doesn’t mean all blacks are bad, one Muslim terrorist doesn’t mean all Muslims are bad, and one mentally ill shooter doesn’t mean all mentally ill are bad. Our culture “gets” that with whites, and we need to expand that understanding to all. Thank you so much for great comment!

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Serena Yung October 22, 2015 at 12:03 pm

Davonne, thanks for sharing that blog link! And from reading one of the articles, I just found out I’m a demisexual! Good, I don’t need to keep saying I’m a “kind of asexual but not quite” anymore, lol. And yes, I agree that giving us a name “demisexuals” gives us a sense of identity, community, and that we’re not alone and not “weird.” 😀 Strangely enough, I only just found out recently that most people are more sexual than I am (lust even for people they don’t have a close emotional bond with, which I find hard to understand as a demisexual…)

This may explain why I have such a surprisingly large number of asexual characters, where some are romantic and some are aromantic. The majority of these asexual characters are male too, maybe because I’m a bit of a tomboy and also feel slightly more male than female. Well, to be precise, I feel gender neutral but with a slight male bent, and for some reason I feel emotionally closer to my male story characters…

Yeah, gender identity and sexual orientation are interesting topics!

I also agree with the idea that members of the queer or “non-standard” sexual orientation community, are people all the same, with their own personalities. One of my closest friends is a hyposexual gay male, and you wouldn’t be able to tell just by interacting with him. He’s a person just like everybody else. Just as demisexuals like myself are just people too.

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Davonne Burns October 22, 2015 at 6:40 pm

Sure, I’m glad you found it useful! And congrats on discovering your orientation! It can definitely feel a bit freeing to know you share something in common with other people. I myself am demisexual so I totally get the not understanding lust thing.

And I totally agree with you that people are people first and foremost. While race, ethnicity, gender identity and sexual orientation are important and make up a large part of how a person identifies, they are only one part of a whole person. ^_^

Happy Assexual Awareness Week!!!

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Serena Yung October 23, 2015 at 6:54 pm

😀 Happy Asexual Awareness Week to you too!

Yeah, demisexuality had me quite confused. Some friends had in the past asked if I was asexual, but I said no because I do for example enjoy reading sex scenes in romance novels, lol! But later this year, some of my friends (both male and female) talked about having sexual urges for their acquaintances or casual friends. So then I started thinking hey maybe I’m asexual since I don’t feel anything sexual towards anyone lol. But demisexuality fits me even better than “asexual” because there is indeed that one exception where lust can possibly appear. It does feel a bit strange since it’s not “mainstream”, nor is it LGBT, nor strictly asexuality. But yeah I could see it as part of the asexuality umbrella including Grey As. (And so demisexuality could be a part of LGBTQA or LGBTQ+.)

And argh, I wish I found out I was a demisexual before graduating from university last year, because there’s an LGBT student group that includes asexuals. Well, I will hopefully get into grad school and perhaps I can find an LGBTQ+ group there to join!

The questioning process can be very confusing so yes indeed, as Jami said, it’s very liberating and comforting to know that there are others with similar experiences. And on the fiction side, no wonder I can empathize with both asexual and sexual characters ! Lol.

Oh on a general point: I know the idea of not labelling people or putting them into categories, but it’s interesting if the person herself wants to give herself labels and categories. Some friends don’t understand why I have to spend time thinking about how to accurately label my sexuality and psychological gender identity, and one guy friend said, well, I just see you as a girl and girls can be themselves in any way! Yes, and he probably meant well, but I still feel more true to myself if I call myself “gender neutral with a slight male bent”. Friends may think I’m overanalyzing or giving unnecessary thought to naming myself, but yeah after reading the articles above, I now understand that it’s about helping to clarify my identity to myself, and to feel a sense of belonging to a social community. Yes, I enjoy being free and idiosyncratic too, but sometimes it’s nice to connect with others and have that “sense of belonging/ membership”. 🙂

Sorry, my reply is so long, haha. But the above may explain why some people want to identify themselves as their ethnicity, nationality, religion, etc., even though it might seem to others that they’re pigeonholing themselves. I used to be quite detached from my ethnicity and nationalities, but now I feel a tiny bit of a sense of belonging towards them, so I feel fine calling myself Chinese, Canadian, and from Hong Kong now, haha. And of course calling myself those names doesn’t imply that I’m putting myself into stereotypes either. ^_^”. It just gives one a clearer identity and may make you feel better about yourself, especially if you feel positively about the group you are identifying with, haha.

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Jami Gold October 24, 2015 at 3:05 pm

Hi Serena,

That’s an interesting point. 🙂 Yes, I think to some extent, defining ourselves can be empowering because it’s a confirmation that–as you said–we’re not alone and that we “belong” to a community of sorts. However, if others define us, it can feel limiting, as though they’re not seeing our other aspects. (We know our other aspects, so we don’t worry about that issue with us. LOL!)

That’s a great point, and I think that’s part of why knowing how to be politically correct can be difficult. We can see others define themselves and thus think it’s okay for us to define them that way too, but it’s often not. Sometimes people get grumpy about that, but if we think of it from this perspective of whole and belonging vs. limiting, it makes sense. 🙂 Thanks for bringing that up!

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Serena Yung October 24, 2015 at 8:46 pm

Yes indeed! Us defining ourselves as X feels nice, but someone else using the same term to define us may not feel so nice. However, there are some terms I don’t mind others calling me, like writer, Pokemon fan, psych geek, Christian, artist, science geek, etc.

Btw I just joined an LGBTQIAA thread on Nanowrimo! It was awesome to see that there were many other asexuals and demisexuals, so I’m definitely not alone. 🙂 There was one commenter who is not involved in the community so didn’t know the terms Ace of Spades, Ace of Diamonds, Ace of Hearts, and Ace of Clubs. That made me feel better because I was not previously in the LGBTQA+ community either and am only just learning the many terms. It’s also really interesting as an intellectual topic how sexual desire, sex drive, and sexual attraction are three different things! Though in common language, we may see them as pretty much the same thing. As an asexual /demisexual, I can see how the terms are different, haha.

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Davonne Burns October 25, 2015 at 8:51 am

Awesome! I totally forgot to even look there for other aces.

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Serena Yung October 25, 2015 at 11:22 pm

Yeah these online communities are awesome! There was a guy on the thread who was surprised there were so many Aces. Haha it is really nice to see many others like you, especially if it’s sort of a “minority” group like the asexuals or demisexuals.

Jami Gold October 26, 2015 at 5:30 pm

Hi Serena,

Very true! Some labels don’t strike us as “loaded,” so we wouldn’t take offense unless we knew the person meant to offend–and sometimes not even then. (I can’t imagine a tone of voice possible that would make me take offense to “writer.” LOL!)

I’d never heard the Ace terminology before, but that might describe a character in a book I’m currently planning. So it’s nice to have a “label” that might help me understand him–even though he might not be aware of the terminology. 🙂 So thank you for sharing those insights!

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Jami Gold October 22, 2015 at 8:02 pm

Hi Serena,

Yes, putting a name to something can be so empowering. 🙂 I’m glad you found what clicked for you!

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Debra Johnson October 22, 2015 at 1:08 pm

I appreciate the complexity of this topic and the comprehensive discussion. I particularly found 2 tips noteworthy: Recognize that diverse isn’t a genre, and Ask if the story is ours to tell, as two important points.

Additional thoughts:

The current push for diversity will encourage many writers to become more inclusive in their stories. That is both a plus and minus. Writers who are also people of color, know white culture intimately. White writers MAY be far less knowledgeable about the cultures of “Others”.

It’s equally important to understand we all have a culture. The easiest way to define white American culture – the majority culture that immigrants are expected to adopt. It includes language, customs, religious beliefs, political ideologies, dress, etc. considered to be appropriate/acceptable.

Research is a great tool. However, you might want to check who created that source. Sources written by the majority culture about “Others” may carry internal bias.

My suggestion is that you read books by diverse authors in your genre.
By reading and supporting diverse authors you can accomplish two things: 1-access an authenticate voice/resource, and 2-you will do more than simply appropriate the cultures and experiences of others.

Other resources: First Nations-http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com. Ms. Debbie Reese who writes the blog reviews books for children for diversity issues in portrayal of Native Americans.
Writing with Color on tumblr was mentioned in another post.

Jami, thank you for a thoughtful discussion.

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Jami Gold October 22, 2015 at 7:14 pm

Hi Debra,

Great point about checking the sources on any research we do! Sources outside of the culture might frame explanations with an “othering” focus, which won’t help us avoid that issue in our work.

I love your tip too about how to recognize culture: what an immigrant is expected to adopt. So clear and easy to understand. 🙂

I also love your tip about reading books by diverse authors. In so many ways, supporting diverse authors themselves is far more important. What I can do in my books is just a bonus to that, and as you said, that’s also an authentic voice for the culture. I’ve recommended following the @WOCInRomance account on Twitter, as they share links to romance books by diverse authors, and I’d love to hear of any others. 🙂 Thanks for sharing that great advice!

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Marcy Kennedy October 22, 2015 at 2:17 pm

I appreciate how you’re willing to address the tough subjects and that you try to do it in a balanced way. For example, you mentioned religion and culture in this post rather than just focusing on racial stereotypes, which is sometimes all that’s talked about when we look at the topic of respectfully approaching the diverse elements of our world in fiction.

I’ve seen this done well, and I’ve seen it done poorly. I won’t name the book or author (because I don’t think it serves a purpose), but a few years ago, I read a romantic suspense where every Christian character was an abuser and/or adulterer and/or murderer. Since I’m a Christian (and also attend a church of the same denomination as the characters in the book) it was also really obvious to me when the author made mistakes in the belief system. It hit my buttons because it seemed like the author intended to make every character of my faith a hypocrite and evil, and that they didn’t even take the time to make sure they got some of the fundamental beliefs correct. The world the author portrayed didn’t reflect my reality at all.

I use that as an example because it’s one I’ve personally encountered and felt the sting of, but I find it just as upsetting when an author paints any group of people with a broad brush, failing to acknowledge that there are good people and bad people, hypocrites and the sincere in any group, and that it doesn’t help anyone to misrepresent an entire group of people.

(Sorry, I hope that didn’t come off a ranty. I didn’t intend it to be 🙂 )

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Jami Gold October 22, 2015 at 7:27 pm

Hi Marcy,

Yes, there are many ways to marginalize someone…unfortunately. 🙁

And I don’t think that was ranty. 🙂 Especially because even if we’re in a non-marginalized or privileged group most of the time, if we can see how the things that hurt us are related to what marginalized groups experience in a more overpowering and oppressive way, we might have more empathy for listening and not dismissing their experiences.

As you point out, the issues with lack of research and stereotypes are something we might all be able to relate to, which might help us become more aware in general. Thanks for sharing your insights!

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Marcy Kennedy October 23, 2015 at 5:06 am

Exactly. When it’s not something you normally experience, it can be all too easy to be blind to it. But if we remember a time that it happened to us, then we’re much more likely (I think) to be sensitive to what others might be facing on a regular basis.

But I think there are still definitely stories I would never try to tell because, as you said, it’s not my story. I don’t have the necessary experience to write it.

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Jami Gold October 23, 2015 at 6:21 am

Hi Marcy,

Agreed–I don’t have the necessary experience or insight to write it. Obviously, as I write paranormal, I have to write characters all the time that I don’t have the experience for. 🙂

But as I don’t force diversity into my stories or aim for quotas, I also don’t force myself to write characters until I hear their voice in my head–and thus feel some measure of connection that I can relate to and gain insight from or into. Well-done research can help us fill in many blanks, but nothing can replace insights that we feel deep inside. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Deborah Makarios October 22, 2015 at 4:15 pm

I so agree about not trying to fill a quota. Tolkien has been criticized for not having a lot of female characters, but at least he stuck to what he was good at.
Unfortunately the writers for the Hobbit movies felt the need to “fix” the paucity of female characters by introducing a spunky kick-ass she-elf who trades suggestive banter with the guy from the wrong side of the tracks; forms a love-triangle etc, etc. It was all too fan-fictiony for me, and I couldn’t even manage to summon up the willpower to go and see the final installment.
Writers should be interested in all kinds of people and how they experience the world, but that doesn’t mean that every story needs to include every kind of person. Serve the story, not the statistics.

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Jami Gold October 22, 2015 at 7:43 pm

Hi Deborah,

LOL! Yeah, I watched all the Hobbit movies and enjoyed them for what they were, but it definitely didn’t feel like Tolkien’s Hobbit. 🙁

Love the final sentence: Serve the story, not the statistics. 😀 Thanks for sharing!

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Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins) October 29, 2015 at 12:40 am

For my upcoming debut novel “GABRIEL” the cast is predominantly male, but I didn’t do it consciously, and certainly not to “diss” girls and women in any way, but I was simply doing what many writers do, write the book you want to read.

Part of why I had (and kinda still do…) such apathy toward YA books was that outside HP (From “Prisoner of Azkaban” onward) most of them had male characters that weren’t reflective of how I was.

Since most of the 100+ beta-readers I’ve had for “Gabriel” over an 8 year period (Before it sold in 2012) were women, and none of them took issue with the male-centric cast, or the few female characters in the story that I did my best to be sure they’re not one-note stereotypes.

Of course, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, many of these women who beta-read this book were mothers of sons who I felt were overgeneralizing their opinions of why boys wouldn’t respond to “Gabriel” because he’s not the “typical boy” their sons are, meaning rowdy and wild all the time.

Yes, they gave me advice I could use and made the book better, but I could’ve done without the commentary of their narrow views of what boys will read, and especially what’s “too sophisticated for boys, yet not for girls the same age.”

While they may be some truth in the “Girls mature quicker than Boys” thing, I don’t think it’s the “Mars and Venus” polar opposite extremes that’s often hyped.

Just like how women can be assertive and powerful in the corporate world, there are boys who aren’t the token “Bad Boy Misfit” archetype popularized by Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, to Dennis The Menace, Horrid Harry and Greg Heffley (Wimpy Kid) I’ve considered myself a hopeless romantic since I was 8 years old (I was also one of the few male Sailor Moon fans in the ’90s, without needing female friends or relatives to “convert” me, and yes, I’ve been collecting the remastered Blu-Ray limited editions from Viz, part 2 of Sailor Moon R should arrive today or next week), and that’s even truer now that I’m 28 (even though I’ve yet to have my first date, don’t ask)

Even with Rum (my antagonist “Frenemy”) who looks to embody the rascally boy archetype, I worked hard for him to be a well-rounded and nuanced character. He isn’t some petty, dumb thug, he isn’t the one-dimensional bully.

In that respect, I’m glad it took as long as it did to get “Gabriel” to the state it was in to sell, because Rum started as a hodgepodge of every bully I had growing up from grade school to a short-lived high school experience.

I first wrote Gabriel when I was 16, and it wasn’t until my 20s that I could give Rum the depth three-dimensional life he deserved.

I had to get out of my bully victim mindset and see Rum as a character who at his core is good, but made mistakes, and let his grief warp him into something he isn’t.

I could’ve have given him that nuance at 16. So that’s why I get a bit intense when Jami and other writers (such as our mutual writer colleague, Janice Hardy) advise to not be stuck in a revision loop.

Sometimes books take longer to get right, and as true as it may I couldn’t escape the near decade of revision “Gabriel” took for the simple reason that on top of the SPAG stuff I still struggle with because of the learning curve all writers have, it took that long to get the characters where they needed to be.

As much as I don’t want to be a “one book wonder” sometimes writing “The Next Book” isn’t the answer.

That’s why I don’t subscribe to the popular “draft and revise only two or three times before querying and writing the dang next book” approach.

I wish I had been able to write other books I could shop around.

I will also admit that I did give “Gabriel” too much of my time, and while I tried to write other books while revising Gabriel (and it’s dozens of query letters) I could never finish the first draft of those books because I ran into issues that were in Gabriel and didn’t know how to fix, no matter what craft books I read and advice I got.

So, I think it’s important to not give new writers especially the impression that just blindly drafting one book after another is the answer.

You have to be able to persevere working on a book beyond the first draft or two, and the advice to “Assembly line” draft books I feel can send a fatal mixed message.

I realize now I misread what Janice meant when she told me this, but I still see that push-pull between necessary revision of drafted books, and writing new books all the same, but I wish I had her ability to “Move on” from one book to the next.

I also don’t think you have to see your books as “your babies” to get frustrated or struggle starting a new one when the last one can’t work or isn’t salable for whatever reason.

We’re supposed to put ourselves in our work, from a passion standpoint (not always in the literal sense, as you know, Jami) and it’s HARD to do that and then not be able to place it.

That’s why I say there’s a difference between drafting 10 books and those same 10 books being equally high quality. Indie authors especially are pressured to put quantity over quality and I feel that’s dangerous.

I know Janice often told me to take what I learn from one book and just apply it to another, but sometimes that isn’t possible, at least at the level I’m at now I can’t always see this progression I get told occurs.”

I also think especially because I’m a semi-panster, I don’t see things as pragmatically as other writers, and part of me is a bit jealous of writers who broke in before 2008 because they often talk about their process and how they don’t see their writing a in a pragmatic fashion, yet in the “New Normal” of publishing, I can’t get a foothold in without being a “master of my craft” just to be considered.

I still don’t see how you can “Master” anything when there’s always more to learn.

How can you be a “Master” in a world that screams “Never Stop Learning?”

If that’s not a contradiction in terms, Jami, why does it feel like it is? (Whether or not you’re a perfectionist)

Even if you’re not a perfectionist as you describe it, Jami, the pressure to know our craft is greater

This is also why I get huffy with the “Story Trumps All” ideology.

Plus, I strongly believe that you can suck at writing queries, but your actual books aren’t bad despite any issues it may still have. But because we have to write query letters (if we’re going the trad. route) we can internalize not writing queries well means our actual book must be even more sucky

That’s why I challenge the query a litmus test for how well written the actual book is. Sometimes that’s not the case. Again, not saying that means we should take queries (or indies writing their almighty cover copy) less seriously, just to remind writers that this discrepancy between writing about books versus actual books doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, period.

After all, not everyone who does advertising/marketing for a living can write a great novel, why should struggling with writing queries and cover copy mean we can’t write what we’re trying to sell to agents, editors and readers?

Writing about a book isn’t the same as writing the ACTUAL BOOK, and I know from my own experience that those who read my attempts at query letters only versus those who read part of all of the actual book didn’t have the .

This is why I wish I could hire someone to write my query letters for me.

I don’t say this to belittle or make light of why queries are important, and of course indie authors have to write about their book, too.

But I say this to give writers solace that sucking at writing about their books doesn’t mean your actual books suck, even if they need more work than you frankly wish was the case.

Even in early drafts, many beta-readers found Rum more compelling than Gabriel, and largely that was because he had a more

I think it goes back to the “Human Nature” thing Jami talks about a lot.

Granted, Rum, Gabriel and most of the characters in the story are rats, but figuratively speaking, humans can dwell on the negative because it’s hardwired in us to be alert to danger our primal ancestors faced.

So perhaps because Rum’s “Hard Knocks” life made him more aggressive and outspoken, Gabriel’s more open-hearted and introverted nature looked dull in contrast. But eventually I was able to give Gabriel a backbone without being barbaric.

The problem with characters like Gabriel is that shy or introverted characters are often misread as passive or flat, just because they aren’t extroverted dynamos, or their labeled snobs because they’re not into what others in the peer group are.

I certainly feel out of place in writer circles where I’m often the only man, the only non-parent, and the youngest one by at least a decade.
That said, I don’t mean that in a negative way, but just like women can feel alone in a male-dominated environment, it’s the same for men in a female dominated environment, it’s just few men are willing to admit because of a narrow-minded sense of pride that may or may not have chauvinistic/misogynistic overtones.

I have a lot of respect for how Fluttershy is portrayed in “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” because while she certainly lives up to her name on the surface, she’s come a LONG way since the series first started.

Plus, in the times when she pushes past her quiet and unassuming nature it doesn’t feel forced because she builds on her various experiences, and just like how powerfully assertive dynamic characters (such as Rainbow Dash, has moments she doubts herself) Fluttershy can and will stand up for herself and those she cares about, even if it manifests differently from the other lead characters on the show.

For those who know MLP: FIM, Fluttershy embodies kindness, and that sometimes being kind means knowing when to get tough on yourself or others, without changing your being in ways that aren’t healthy (The Episode, “Putting Your Hoof Down” is a prime example)

Gabriel (who is partially based on me, though he’s far more mature in certain ways than me!) isn’t anywhere near as soft-spoken and reserved as Fluttershy, but the challenge is the same.

I wanted Gabriel and Rum to learn from each other, while still being true to they are and what makes them different.

Gabriel can be assertive without being a close-minded jerk. He can be proud of being creative and passionate about his inventing, without being a snob, or showing off in a petty way.

Rum can be sensitive and thoughtful without being any less brazen, courageous and tough in the face of adversity. His aggressive nature can certainly get him in trouble, but even a shy soul like the boy I once can find Rum’s ability to take (and give) a punch pretty cool.

I don’t say that to glorify violence, which I certainly didn’t do in the book, just that the principle of not letting others walk all over you is universal (even if the methods differ), and while I don’t subscribe to the “Macho Myths” that still marginalize boys and men outside that mindset (esp. in certain family, cultural, and/or community dynamics), I can recognize the allure a little.

There is a part of me who’d like to be that seasoned warrior who no one dares mess with. But at the end of the day, I’m proud to be the emotional, introverted, passionate person I am.

Sometimes the introverted are taken advantage of by the extroverted. But introverts can (and will) stand up for themselves and extroverts can (and will) look out for those more vulnerable than them.

I hope when “GABRIEL” finally comes out, it will reach boys who often felt invisible because they weren’t the sports fanatic, or the “Type A Academic Marvel” or even “The Class Clown.”

I’m probably not going to attract the boys who love “Diary of A Wimpy Kid” or “Captain Underpants” but they aren’t the only guy readers in town, at least I hope so.

I know I can’t be the only one, but having met few of them personally, it’s hard to believe sometimes.

It’s very much a “You can’t be what you can’t see” thing.

Though, in my case, I retrofitted the saying to being
“I’ll create what didn’t exist for me” and many great things in our world’s history were created because they didn’t yet exist, or at least not on a wider scale.

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Jami Gold October 29, 2015 at 6:48 am

Hi Taurean,

I think you make several good points here. First, when beta reading or editing, I try to mention when suggestions are based on marketing issues vs. writing craft issues.

As you alluded to, sometimes stories with diverse aspects might be seen as “less marketable,” and feedback along those lines can make us doubt ourselves even more than we already are. So maybe as writers–especially if those who provided feedback don’t specify the why of their feedback–we should keep that variation in mind and not feel the need to “fix” marketing issues.

Some of those “issues” might be the reason we wrote the book (such as in your case). Just because someone doesn’t understand our goals for our story doesn’t mean we should feel pressured to conform. 🙂

I think it’s great that you were able to include so much more depth to your character as you matured in your understanding. And I understand your reticence to set that book aside.

Just a note, though, that I’ve never spouted the draft and revise only a handful times perspective. I broke that “rule” myself. 😉

That advice might work for those who already have writing craft under their belt, but for those of us who need to learn the basics, I’m not convinced that’s the best advice. I used one story to learn almost everything on–probably to the tune of triple-digit editing passes. No joke.

But I was still learning that whole time, so it’s not like I was wasting time or in an endless loop. Would it have been better to have a half-dozen broken stories in my wake while I was learning? I don’t think so. Now I just have one story to go back to and fix later when I feel up for the challenge rather than six. 🙂

(And I think I want to do a post about this topic after NaNo, because you’re right that it’s important to give nuanced advice to new writers. Thanks for bringing it up!)

Anyway, I think you’re right that “diversity” should include the idea of writing stories for those who fit outside the box in various ways. So I applaud your determination to make your story work. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Kassandra Lamb October 22, 2015 at 6:14 pm

Great post on an important topic, Jami! Since I’m a pantser I do have characters pop up occasionally who are Hispanic, African-American, gay, transgender, etc. I strive to let all my characters evolve organically in the first draft, but then I definitely try to find a beta reader(s) who can check my attitudes and beliefs about the diverse character.

Your comment about being sure it is your story to tell really resonates with me. Mostly my characters’ diverse features are not integral to the story; they’re just part of who they are. This is because I’ve always felt reluctant to address issues that I haven’t experienced and would have trouble relating to accurately. Thank you for giving me the words to explain that reluctance. Those issues are stories I haven’t felt were mine to tell.

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Jami Gold October 22, 2015 at 7:48 pm

Hi Kassandra,

Yes, I’m with you on the pantser, organic character development. 😀

Like you, my characters often don’t make a big deal of their diverse elements. I worried for a while if I should have done more–and I love how you worded your reluctance, so you helped something click with me to drop that worry too. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Rona Courtney October 24, 2015 at 1:24 pm

I think a point that needs to be reiterated is that you’ll never get everything “right.” People will always find fault with your representation and will condemn you for it, not knowing the amount of time, effort and research you put into it. What’s disheartening is to see authors use that as a reason to stop including diversity of any kind, and “stick to what they know.” As writers, we inherently go outside of what we know, it’s part of what’s so amazing about the job.

Another thing to think about is that readers will often make assumptions about the race of the writer they’re reading, without looking deeper into it. Not every writer puts his or her picture up, so readers make assumptions. I had no idea that one of my favorite gay romance authors is a straight black woman until recently, and I was thrilled. Her characters are all (thus far) white, and I’d made the assumption that the author was a white woman, because the vast majority of authors I’ve read in that genre are. That said, I’m also a straight black female who writes gay romance, and it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do their stories justice because of my race or my sexuality. It amazes me how that assumption occurs in one area (I’m white and can’t write characters of color) and not in another (I’m straight and can’t write sexuality other than my own).

I grew up as an only child, in a two-parent household, with an upper middle class income. I went to a private high school (without aid), had a college fund, and my parents owned two homes. If you give those stats, most people will assume I’m white. If you tell them my real name, most will assume I’m male. If you know where I went to college, you might assume I’m gay, and if you know where I went to law school, you’d likely assume I’m either in government or at a large firm. NONE of those are true, but those are assumptions people will make. Everything people read is colored by their life, their upbringing, their worldview, and authors get so scared of offending that they don’t reach outside of their comfort zones, and THAT’S sad. I have a character coming up in a book that’s Rastafari, and my first thought was “oh crap, there’s no way I can write that.” Then I thought, “why the hell not?” As Bill Belicheck would say, “Do your job.” And that means doing the research, the interviews, gaining the understanding, to do the story justice. That’s our job as writers, not to hide behind shells and be afraid to dip a toe in other waters.

So that was long and ranty, and not my intention. I just want to encourage everyone out there who does want to include diversity, of all kinds, to go for it.

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Jami Gold October 24, 2015 at 2:45 pm

Hi Rona,

Agreed. People can find fault with anything and everything, but that shouldn’t be a reason to stop trying.

I love your litany of reality vs. assumptions for your life. 🙂 I feel the same way: if anyone heard just about my living situation as a child, where I went to school, who my friends were, the color of Santa in the local mall at Christmas, etc., they’d assume I was black. I’m not offended by that assumption, but it does speak to stereotypes and why assumptions are so problematic.

I agree completely about how it is sad if people don’t reach beyond their comfort zones based on fear–especially when this fear doesn’t carry over to writing male vs. female, or settings other than their hometown, or jobs they haven’t held, etc. It’s a fear specifically about offending others. And while it’s good from the perspective of not wanting to offend others, it’s bad for being so limiting.

“As Bill Belicheck would say, “Do your job.” And that means doing the research, the interviews, gaining the understanding, to do the story justice. That’s our job as writers, not to hide behind shells and be afraid to dip a toe in other waters.”

Love it! 😀 Well said! So thank you for the rant and the comment! LOL!

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Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins) October 29, 2015 at 6:13 am

While I get where Rona’s coming from, there is such a thing as “Research Overload” and sometimes it’s better to draft now, research later, and I say this a writer who has a hard time finding “The Next Book” in me.

Also, unless we’re writing nonfiction, we have to sometimes pick and choose what research works for our story, and I’m not talking about things like getting street names right, or accurately quoting real life historical figures, but we have to allow for some retrofitting some research.

Part of why I write fantasy is because I can make up my own worlds, without being wed to certain geography and historical pinnings.

Of course, if it’s not set on Earth, the world-building’s harder because you don’t want to come off like a travelogue , but you also have to give the reader a sense of the world when it’s not “The Bronx” in New York or a Kansas suburb.

For writers of animal fantasy like me, we have to decide how “real” our nonhuman characters are, and whether or not the world has humans or is animals only.

Just because I research the mating habits of baboons doesn’t mean it belongs in the story I’m writing, and I tend to be in the middle between of naturalistic and anthro, and as such, it’s hard to convey that in words, and why I hope to commission an illustrator to help combat this, and to have visual representation of my characters for promo/social media to be more personal.

While I know some inside authors like Julie Musli, aren’t fond of crowdfunding, sometimes it’s the only way if you’re short on finances, your publisher can’t help, so in general I wouldn’t knock it, especially if your finances are tight like mine are.

That said, I do wish more indie authors (who have the means to publish themselves at the pro level without needing to crowdfund) would be more mindful of the fact that not everyone can finance publishing themselves all on their own, and not make light of it, and I know you’re not like that, Jami, but I do fear some indie authors (Julie M. Aside) lose touch with that discrepancy.

The alternative was to give up, and I refuse to do that, and while I don’t want to turn to crowfunding for EVERY book I do, in this case it was necessary because unlike Jami and other writers I know, I don’t have multiple income streams and until I find some way to earn additional income, this is what I have to do at this point in my career, unless my finances improve beyond what I can see in the near future, it’s either crowdfunding or it won’t happen, because I’ve worked too hard on “Gabriel” to give it some chintzy cover.

This isn’t a “Can’t please everyone” thing.

This is about seeing my work for the quality product it is, on the outside. While I agree a great cover and illustrations (if your books needs them) won’t fix a poorly written story, no one will ever give it a chance if it looks like something out of Playskool, if you know what I mean.

So even though I don’t want to spend another decade getting “Gabriel” to a published state, I’m also not going to give anyone an out to say “This is a poorly produced book” solely based on how it look from the outside. I also think we need to put reader subjectivity in perspective.

Even authors who could fund something themselves, through crowdfunding they can aim for a higher level of quality, and because I compromised on going with a small press, I need to make up for with the quality of the book’s outside matter (Heaven knows the inside’s being worked a lot), and it can foster community, especially if the author has a loyal and sizable readership.

But even bestselling authors I’ve seen on Kickstarter don’t always succeed the first time out (Laura Numeroff is a good recent example, she did fund her campaign the second time and the book is out now I got signed copies for helping with the campaign, not just by chipping in some money but spreading the word to my small community), so it’s not easy for anyone, but the way I see it, if even Laura Numeroff can struggle crowdfunding, but still succeed, why can’t a new author like me not achieve my goals via crowdfunding?

That’s the way I try to view, despite the fear, frustration and self-doubt lots of authors grapple with.

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Jami Gold October 29, 2015 at 6:30 pm

Hi Taurean,

Absolutely! And that’s why we each have to measure advice for what fits best for us. Only we can know what applies to us or not. 🙂

I haven’t run into the over-research problem too often, but enough that I know it is a possibility. LOL! And as you said, sometimes we need to draft first–explore ideas–before we know enough about what we want to write.

Great point about how much genre plays a part. Yes, I write paranormal fantasy, but my stories are set on Earth for the most part. Others will have different requirements for worldbuilding and realism.

I’ve mentioned to you before that my beta buddy crowdfunded her debut, so just because I wouldn’t/didn’t go that route for myself doesn’t mean I’d knock it for others. But that’s kind of my attitude about most things. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins) October 30, 2015 at 5:15 am

I know you don’t make those assumptions, Jami, but I do think there is a perception problem between authors in my position with limited finances and publisher support versus a trad. published or more seasoned indie author who had the means and connections to not need crowdfunding (when it started to become a viable option) and adds to the author divide at times.

But apart from what Julie Musli replied to a comment I made on Janice Hardy’s blog recently, I felt I needed to speak to what echoed for me in Rona’s comment above.

I also felt such a general apathy toward crowdfunding that I felt I needed to add some nuance here (my personal journey aside) because lately I’ve seen this attitude in authors who didn’t have to crowdfund were coming off a bit snobbish about the practice in general, and I don’t want authors struggling financially to be needless discouraged because

While I know I takes things too personally sometimes, I really feel sometimes authors at a different stage in their careers (who again, can afford to publish themselves at the pro level, sans crowdfunding) were losing touch with the fact that’s not possible for everyone, which doesn’t mean they don’t take their work any less seriously than you, and certainly aren’t less professional than you in how they see and want their work portrayed.

Just because I wasn’t some high-powered corporate “darling” in a former life doesn’t mean I’m incapable of having a business mindset AT ALL. IT’s just not the ruthless corporate mindset.

After all, just like not all black and Latino people think the same, neither do all businessmen and women.

My broad point has always been that I just don’t see books as products in the way toothpaste and nail polish are, that’s not the same as saying “Book are not products AT ALL” is that so radical to believe?

It’s also why I get concerned when more “Old School” business people talk about publishing, they make the assumption that us non-corporate folk have no concept of business because we’re not some detached, monotoned monolith about the process.

Making books is not like making cement to paper clips. You have to put HEART into it. That’s all I’m saying. I don’t see how that’s denouncing “Seeing oneself as a business” just because I care about how it’s made.

Sometimes finding or knowing how to reach your audience isn’t straightforward. Especially in the Children’s book field. Unlike YA/NA/Adult markets, I have to work with educators and parents to get to the kids my books are targeted at, and navigating both those worlds at once is HARD, and because of my “less than ideal” experiences with some narrow-minded parents/writers in the early days on my author path, I’m still working through the aftershocks of that.

If I ever become a parent, I want to be careful not to see all kids solely through the filter of mine, because that feedback from some parents/writers/teachers (most of those parents were moms, and teachers women, whether parents or not) it made me feel the way some women feel some men see them, from a narrow lens.

But none of the few men who’ve read “Gabriel” (and its MANY query letters), two of which were fathers of sons, and one a teacher in a co-ed school, had the same reservations.

Despite the issues girls and women face in media at large, at from my experience, I sometimes I feel out of place in publishing because most that I interact with are women, teachers, and mothers (or any combo thereof), and again, I don’t mean that in a judgemental way, but I don’t feel that “It’s a Man’s World” vibe women often point out regarding publishing in particular, and that’s before we even get to the matter of diversity as Jami’s post above touches on.

Not only the authors and illustrators themselves (and their stories, if applicable) being diverse, but the people who are the editors, art directors, cover artists, and CEOs of the publishers, Big 5 or not.

That doesn’t mean I don’t think it exists, period, I’m just speaking to my experience here, just to clarify. I don’t always feel comfortable in a “Man’s World” either, despite being a man, so there! (Playfully sticking my tongue out)

It’s also probably why I might misread mothers in general sometimes.

On top of having my own mother not in my life because of her mental stuff, I also had the experience of some mom writers early on in my career, seeing boys and men (even outside the context of my stories) from a more narrow filter, like just because their son/brother/husband/father was like this, it speaks to all.

Yet they would NEVER tolerate their daughter/sister/girlfriend/mother be boxed in that same way.

It’s also why I view the term “No Nonsense” more negatively than most people do, as to me, when someone is described as “No Nonsense” I interalize it to mean-

“They’re scary, super strict, always have to be right, and have no use for fun.” That may not be true, but that’s what it came to mean to me.

I also feel writers can confuse “Pleasing everybody” with simply “Trying to find my readers” and there is gray area between these two points.

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Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins) October 30, 2015 at 5:23 am

I also felt such a general apathy toward crowdfunding that I felt I needed to add some nuance here (my personal journey aside) because lately I’ve seen this attitude in authors who didn’t have to crowdfund were coming off a bit snobbish about the practice in general, and I don’t want authors struggling financially to be needlessly discouraged because “experts” are making them feel like shady beggars on the street, just because they didn’t have to make a similar choice for their books.

Not all authors do this, of course, but I have seen some who do, and I do think without meaning to, authors who can fund their own publishing at the pro level lose touch with those who can’t.

I’m certainly not saying crowdfunding’s the best and only way, but for some of us, it’s either crowdfund or give up, until we can be in a position where we can stand on our own without it some of the time.

I’m speaking for authors in that position, not the authors who have the means to pro indie publish themselves, they have that option/right, many authors, myself included, don’t.

But we’re no less “professional” than you, or we would just put out some chintzy amateurish looking rag that no one but pitying friends/family would buy. I know jerky scammers exist, I’m not pretending they don’t, but don’t lump us all in the same dang box, that’s all I’m saying.

Okay, I’ll shut up now. (Sigh)

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Jami Gold October 30, 2015 at 8:50 am

Hi Taurean,

I know you’ve struggled with this issue, so I understand the need to vent. 🙂

Bringing it back to the topic of diversity with this post, I think the issue of crowdfunding is relevant because books that fall outside the “norm” often have a harder time fitting into typical marketing and genre paths that provide support from the industry. And you’re right, the only authors put into this position are the ones that care about doing a professional job–otherwise they’d just slap their work out there. Thanks for sharing!

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Serena Yung November 11, 2015 at 2:55 pm

Jami! I’ve just come across a great example of writing a diverse character well! I’m so thrilled to share this. 🙂

I just read the Maze Runner series by James Dashner, and one of the main characters is Minho, who is the only Asian in the whole story!! (At least that we’re told of in the books.). He also happens to be my favorite character and my latest character crush. Yet despite that Minho is a racial minority, everybody in the story treats him like a normal person (a fellow teenage boy and good friend), rather than as some exotic species (“oh my gosh, an Asian!!”) I don’t mind that much when people exoticize us Asians, but I do feel weird when some non-Asians find me so fascinating just because I’m Asian. Uh…I’m just an ordinary human being just like you, you know? ^_^”. LOLL. And Maze Runner never even talked about the issue of race. Plus, after we finally got to know Minho’s name, which was very soon, we don’t even hear the word “Asian” ever again; he’s only referred to as Minho from then on. Surprisingly, I’ve never even heard of other racial names, like “black,” even though I think some of the characters were black.

It was also really nice to see that Minho does NOT fit into the Asian stereotype of the “quiet nerd who can solve quadratic equations in his head”, as one commenter in a Goodreads thread mentioned, haha. Instead, Minho is this really cool, bad-ass, charismatic kid who has a great sense of humor, is very sarcastic, and has a very short temper. He is a good fighter, but not in the stereotypical martial arts way, but in the rough and tumble, street brawl kind of way. XDD I was really happy to see that quite a lot of readers have Minho as their favorite character too. So Minho just sounds like a normal person rather than some racial stereotype, which probably contributed to his success as a character (in that he’s a popular favorite). Haha, as a Chinese friend of mine put it, “I love normal Asian characters. They’re the best.” Hahaha.

Not that I have anything against Asian math nerds or martial artists in stories. They’re great too, but it’s nice to see some different personalities.

And oh man, I was so relieved that James Dashner didn’t randomly throw in grammatical mistakes into Minho’s dialogue either. Especially as certain grammatical mistakes are a part of some racial stereotypes, yikes.

Also, I was very pleasantly surprised that Minho got to be one of the four main leaders in the story. I believe I’ve heard of stories with a black boy leading a group of mostly white boys before, but never have I ever heard of an Asian boy leading a group of mostly white boys, and everyone respected Minho too. So that was very nice and refreshing to see. And I think the first leader of the boys we saw was black.

But just to clarify in case someone who doesn’t know me well is reading this comment: I am NOT suggesting that Asians and blacks should rise up and rule the world, lol, just saying that it’s cheering to read stories with leaders of different ethnicities leading characters who are of different races from them. (Oh speaking of ethnicities, Minho is Korean, and I’m Chinese, so maybe I can’t really claim to be an “ingroup” member to him, lol.)

Oh one more thing that is kind of a spoiler though you probably already expected this: a friend told me about horror movies where the Asian characters all die. Well, Maze Runner is dystopian fiction, so there are a lot of deaths, but Minho never dies! He’s one of the final survivors. 😀

Haha hope you found this example of diverse characters in fiction interesting too. ^_^

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Jami Gold November 11, 2015 at 4:00 pm

Hi Serena,

I haven’t read that book, but I understand what you mean. He was treated like an individual and not a stereotype, and that’s exactly what we’re talking about here. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

P.S. And I fixed the edit. 🙂

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