Novel Update: Ace of Arts

I’m pleased to announce that I did indeed start writing my new novel on November 1. Having 3600 words of a new book done is pretty badass.

Also, I doodled a Megan.

Blurry doodle
That thing on her nose is a nose ring, btw, don’t know if it’s clear

I got a better “look” at her in this first chapter, and though there weren’t any surprises for me about how she came across, I’m not sure how we’ll I’ll handle someone with such a pessimistic world view for an entire novel. I don’t want the book to be about her becoming an optimist or anything–it’s more about learning the circumstances under which it is beneficial to broaden one’s horizons and which it is beneficial to stand one’s ground–but I just hope the complaining and negativity doesn’t get grating for the reader. I guess that’s something I’ll only find out about when test reader time comes.

My first chapter is about Megan going to a gallery showing in which she has a piece. She’s clearly there reluctantly, but is also curious about what people think of her work. I managed to establish a few constants of her life: that she does not expect to ever “actually” make anything of herself or go to college or succeed as an artist; that she has a complicated relationship with her older sister; that her art teacher has been in her life for a fair amount of time and knows details about her living situation; and that there’s something mysterious about how she comes upon the subjects of her drawings.

I also established a few tone and setting details through background details. At one point her teacher pulls out a phone, which suggests it’s in modern times or thereabouts because otherwise she wouldn’t have a mobile phone. (This is kinda significant because the old short story from which I stole the characters was written in 1999, and nobody had cell phones.) And one of the art projects Megan looks at in the gallery is a humorous depiction of the artist’s coming out as gay, which suggests she’s going to school in an area that would allow such a piece to be part of a high school art show. And Megan gets to the gallery on a city bus and has no plans to get home (the buses stop running while she’s still out); her “plan” was just to stay out all night until the buses start up in the morning, which makes it pretty clear nobody’s following up on her safety or making sure she’s taken care of. (She’s also clearly not intimidated by the idea of hanging out in public places during the wee hours, which suggests she does not consider herself particularly vulnerable.)

I think the next chapter will involve some introduction to her artwork method and some interaction with her sister. And by Chapter 3 I definitely need to introduce Brady, who’s really important to the rest of the story–a boy in her homeroom who is instrumental in her figuring out the rest of her life. I’m really looking forward to finding out how it all comes together. 🙂

Writing the Marginalized

Here’s something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to: writing about characters from marginalized groups.

With the (somewhat) recent push for more diverse literature (see We Need Diverse Books and some great interviews at DiversifYA), it’s clear that the landscape of publishing is tilting toward a desire to include both characters from underrepresented backgrounds and authors who are of those descriptions themselves (regardless of whether the characters and stories they publish feature narratives that mirror their own lives). But I have also seen, almost across the board, a message to “majority” authors: don’t be afraid to write The Other, and don’t always default to writing People Like You (because it is NOT a neutral choice to do so) . . . but if you try to do it, you have a responsibility to do the research and get it right to the best of your ability.

I’m thinking about this now because I wrote a story about a trans girl a few years ago and I recently started submitting it to magazines, and it just got accepted.

Why do I, a cis woman, want to write about a trans girl? Especially since the story is almost entirely about her quest to be recognized as a girl by her alternate-world gender-segregated culture?

I mean, that’s not my struggle. That’s not my narrative. Why was I led to “hijack” that story as my own for purposes of fantasy coming-of-age literature and use it to forward my publishing career?

That’s obviously not how I was thinking of what I was doing, but I’m sure if someone wanted to ask leading questions about my motivation, they could sound like that.

My reason, I think, is that I have a fair number of trans people in my life and in my community; as an asexual person who’s active in asexuality awareness activism, I see tons of interaction with and intersection with trans folks, some of whom are also asexual. And what I’ve seen is that there isn’t much science fiction and fantasy (or much literature at all) that puts trans people at the center of their stories. They’re almost always a symbol of something, or a learning experience for someone else, or a background character, or (worse) a joke. When I wrote my story, I was (and still am) dedicated to hearing more trans people talk about their experiences, and I have both sought those viewpoints out (in literature and in blogs/videos) and listened to my friends talk. These were the people and messages I was surrounding myself with, so it seemed natural that out of the more than two dozen short stories I’ve written, a trans person would pop up in one of them.

Old sketch of the protagonist at age 8

But I do worry, as a cis person who has written a trans girl’s story, that when my short story is published, it may let people down or disappoint them. I don’t worry about this the same way I do when, say, I write about male characters as a female author, because male people are not generally a group that is oppressed for their maleness (unless it is in association with another identity, like how black maleness is processed as more dangerous than white maleness in so many of these tragic stories in the news lately). I worry about doing it right in the case of writing a trans girl because the last thing trans people need is a cis person repackaging their struggles and getting all the nuances wrong.However, I do know that some readers will automatically turn their noses up at anything that doesn’t mirror their experience and tend to have outraged reactions. I even had this with my asexuality book in the editing stages even though I was writing as an asexual person; one of my readers in particular wrote me a heated letter accusing me of presenting my own experience as the only true asexual experience because my introduction (the only personal content in the book) gave some of my background, and one of my later readers implied that I was “appropriating” language (from my own community?) because I just wanted to make money. You absolutely can do everything right and still have people go into reading your work absolutely certain that you must have screwed it up. But because I am far more concerned with actually doing a good job than I am with getting my Feelings Hurt over people thinking I suck, I would rather listen to even the criticisms I find uncharitable and see if there’s anything I can learn to make my work better.

I don’t know if people are going to read my story about a trans girl and get mad that I as a cis person want to tell a trans person’s story (especially since her transness is so central to the story), but I do hope they understand I am not presenting her experience as universal. (Especially since she lives in an alternate world where there’s elemental magic.) Everything she sees and feels in association with her trans experience is something I’ve seen expressed or explicitly stated by a trans person more than once, and the traits and presentations I’ve chosen for my character are kind of a mixture of typical and less typical.

Here is a weird little self-analysis of elements of my story divided by how common they are in stories about trans people.

Pretty typical: 

  • The protagonist, Lihill, was identified as male at birth based on genitals, but knew from early childhood that she had a feminine gender identity.
  • Lihill prefers to play with girls and does very typical “girly” things like playing house, playing with dolls, enjoying cooking and sewing, and liking hair accessories.
  • Lihill feels very strongly about having her hair long.
  • Her father is aggressive and many of his appearances in the story involve him shaming Lihill for her tendencies. He’s not portrayed as a nuanced character; he’s an uncomplicated, blunt man with strict ideas about gender.
  • Her father continues to misgender her even after her identity is public and established. Her grandmother makes reference to how she “used to be a boy.” Her sister expresses that it’s weird to not have a brother anymore.
  • Her mother misunderstands her identity, believing she just doesn’t want to be a “tough guy” like her dad rather than the reality that she isn’t a guy at all.
  • She doesn’t fight the binary her society is divided into; she just wants to be sorted into the other side.
  • While thinking about things she hates about her life, she does once wonder whether she actually hates herself.
  • She gets bullied at her school (though it is based on a misconception that she is making the other kids in her class look bad by association rather than directly because she said she wanted to go to the girls’ school).
  • She’s terrified of maturation because she doesn’t want to get a beard.
  • There’s no specific indication of what her sexual orientation is, but because of a couple places where she seems really disturbed at the idea of having a wife, she seems to assume she is straight.

More nuanced/less typical: 

  • She does not try to change her name (“Lihill” is a masculine name in her alternate world culture) and doesn’t have a “secret” name for her girl identity.
  • She never expresses that she hates her body.
  • She doesn’t like the “born in the wrong body” idea–it just doesn’t sit right with her.
  • She actively enjoys some of the things her culture tells her are masculine, like climbing trees. She also gets in a fist-fight at one point and feels like she did pretty well considering she was outnumbered.
  • When presented with the idea that she might want to help other trans people once she finds her own way, she admits to herself that she doesn’t want to be “inspirational”–she just wants to be left alone to be a girl.
  • The story’s ending suggests she will continue to have a difficult life and that being read as a girl will become more difficult as she gets older. (There is no medical transition available.)
  • Every ally Lihill has, no matter how sympathetic, misunderstands at least one thing about her and makes mistakes; she has no one perfect supporter.
  • Lihill is not automatically a natural at everything feminine she tries to do, and she is actually good at some masculine things she is assigned to do.
  • Apparently in her society the possibility of a child being born intersex is more widely accepted and acknowledged than the possibility of a child being transgender.
  • Lihill doesn’t buck the system consistently right from the beginning; she goes through a pretty long phase of survival-oriented going with the flow while becoming more depressed about it.
  • Though she does say she can’t picture herself even having a future sometimes, she doesn’t explicitly consider suicide or self-harm. (“I’d rather be dead than the wrong gender” is certainly something some trans people think about, but it didn’t fit this character at all–her idealism and desire for survival was too strong for her thoughts to veer that way.)
  • Instead of there being one “male” set of ways and one “female” set of ways, there are actually four in this society, associated with elements. Two of the elements, Fire and Water, are the extremes of masculinity and femininity (respectively), and Air and Earth are the center-masculine and center-feminine (respectively) elements. Though there’s no neutral in the society, they do recognize gradations. (However, Lihill actually identifies as the “most feminine” element; she doesn’t consider herself an “in between” or “middle” identity.)

As an author who thinks it’s important to write about those with marginalized identities, I consciously chose to avoid some tropes while incorporating some very common trans narratives, and I was aiming for a good balance of both (rejecting some overdone “tragic trans person” elements while adopting certain bits that many many trans people whose stories I’ve read have described as part of their lives). I agree with some others that it’s very important that authors don’t consider ourselves restricted to writing only viewpoints we’re personally living or have lived. We do need to step out of our comfort zones and consider presenting characters with minority or marginalized identities as worthy protagonists with stories that aren’t just “for” reading by those with the same identities. We need stories by those with marginalized identities too, and we need to make room for them since they are guaranteed to have perspectives that will be valuable and probably new to those who don’t have their experience. But I think it would be wrong to say only trans authors can/should write trans characters, and those authors who attempt it without personal experience simply need to do their best to present it responsibly and sensitively. I hope my story has done that.

Very few of my stories involve autobiographical viewpoints. In my short stories, I have only ever written one asexual aromantic protagonist (and she’s in a queerplatonic partnership, unlike me). That one’s in consideration by a magazine right now and we’ll see if it hits. This story about a trans girl just got accepted and will be published soon. My other two stories that have found success have a protagonist whose gender is not revealed (with a focus character who is agoraphobic), and a protagonist whose orientation is probably bisexual–maybe homosexual demi-heterosexual would be more specific? (with a focus character who is lesbian).

I also have a fair number of male characters and romantic characters and characters who have beliefs I don’t share and people far younger or older than I am and characters who are married or engaged or are parents. Some of those identities didn’t require much “research” because there are so many presentations of them in our society that any one I choose will probably be pretty close to accurate and won’t reflect on the group as a whole as a rare representation of those identities. And some of them did require more reading and checking for understanding with readers who have lived those experiences. It depends.

But I do want to say for the record that I don’t write characters with diverse backgrounds because I’m trying to do the right thing for diversity in a trend, or because I feel like it’s my cis able-bodied neurotypical white girl responsibility to champion these voices in mainstream venues, or because I have a weird outsider’s/ally’s fascination with any one of them. It’s because I know people with these identities who are part of my daily life and whom I love, and because they are part of the fabric of my reality, it naturally occurs to me sometimes that my characters might be like them. Some of my decisions about how to frame my characters have been deliberate and some have just evolved from how I understand the people in my life and in my communities. However, at the end of the day, characters are their own people, and they are never explicitly based on people I know. Experiences my friends and acquaintances have moving through the world with less common and marginalized identities do help inform my understandings of their challenges and triumphs, but I don’t outright appropriate them to tell some kind of hijacked, oversimplified, distorted amalgam of their stories. I am still telling the story of a fictional character every time I write something like this.

But I know ignorance can cause good intentions to do more harm than good sometimes, and it’s hard to know what you’re ignorant about. I guess what I’m saying by expressing my anxiety about this is that I acknowledge that I’m not perfect, and that my story may not be perfect, and that I understand why some trans people can be wary of cis people writing trans characters, and that I know better than to guarantee that my story isn’t one of the bad ones. I also think the story legitimately isn’t about much beyond an “issue story” of my character fighting to be recognized as her gender, though I do think we need explicit “issue stories” as well as stories in which characters are just incidentally trans. I hope it’s valuable to readers, or that it at least entertains and does not actively damage.

I guess I’m probably overthinking the importance of this, but as I’ve said before, some of us are our own worst critics.

Character doodle for Stupid Questions

I have this problem when I write first person . . . I tend not to know what my protagonist looks like until or unless someone else comments on it, unless it’s significant. So in order to figure out what people look like, sometimes I have to draw them.

In celebration of completing my book yesterday, I completed this doodle of the main characters. It came out pretty cute. And now I know what my protagonist looks like (though I already knew what the girl looked like since, you know, he likes her and he mentally comments on/observes her a lot).

They’re texting each other because the story is mostly about a long-distance relationship. 🙂

I might try drawing something in color sometime, but this was my first crack at drawing them and I like the way it looks in black and white.

Bad Fairy: Class Picture Day

I don’t do much in the way of visualizing characters when I’m writing, but I think most readers are more visual than I am, and they tend to appreciate at least a little description.  But except for the major characters, I hadn’t done much description of anyone in the book, and there were a ton of minor characters whose names were probably mentioned once—primarily Delia’s classmates in her fairy school.  So I decided I should try to draw them so I could get an idea of what she’s seeing every day.

So here’s my “fairy class picture day,” ignoring of course that they lived in a time without cameras. Haha.

The teachers are the ones standing on the stage, and the fairy students are all on the ground—I drew the graduating class of that year.

Fairies are obviously a pretty homogenous bunch, given how consistently they seem to have curly blonde hair and light skin.  A few of them have a little more red or a little more brown in their hair, but it’s rare.  So you can see why my protagonist sticks out a bit.  (That and she’s tiny because she’s four years younger than the next youngest student.  And, well, a few other things.)

I had a lot of fun figuring out what everyone looks like.  It lets me flesh them out more when I write about them in the book.

Bad Fairy: More Writing Woes

Oh my dear lord. I just did a word count on what I’ve got so far of the first Bad Fairy book.

It’s like 115,000 words already. PART ONE IS 115,000 WORDS. And there is still a lot to do before I can close the stupid thing. Delia! You’re only ten years old right now! How the hell do you have this much to say about your life??

I think she’s taunting me. What do you think?