Writing While White: Sensitivity Readers

First, I offer a scene in a current WIP of mine:

He thinks over the question. Does everyone hate him? Betsy’s voice talks in his head, telling him “hate” is too strong a word – she works with small children after all – but in truth, he doesn’t see much difference between hate and any other of the similar emotions that express dislike. If someone says they don’t like onions, then they avoid them at all costs, which seems pretty much like hating them, too. If a co-worker tells his boss that they hate working with him, but still does, he doesn’t see how it makes much difference.

As far as he knows, only one person in recent years has actually gone to his boss with such a strong complaint. Maybe everyone else feels the same way and his boss hasn’t told him. Justin usually keeps most of his thoughts to himself at work and imagines his own dialogues where he gets to say anything he wants and ask all the questions he wants to make people talk clearly. He already imagined the conversation between himself and colleague that hated him. It went something like this:

“I hate you.” (He realizes that this conversation already clearly marks the difference between his fantasy conversation and reality, but isn’t the sentiment clear? This way he can simply accept the statement and move on. It’s not that he is happy that this person hates him – or dislikes him or wants to avoid him like onions – but it’s not altogether pleasant to hear much more after such a declaration.)

“Okay.”

“Do you want to know why?” (He figures some reality is necessary. He’s not going–)

“Justin?” Lucia’s voice cuts in, pulling him back outside of his head.

“What?”

She smiles. “You kind of disappeared for a moment there.”

“I’m right-” he stops and punches his leg before he can reveal that even now, at age thirty, he still mixes up literal and metaphorical uses for verbs. He was going to say “I’m right here. I could not have disappeared.” But obviously that isn’t what she meant.

“Yes. I do that sometimes. I don’t know if everyone hates me. They haven’t told me.”

She nods as though she miraculously understands. “I’d rather just hear someone tell me how they feel rather than them being all passive-aggressive about it.”

She only sort of understands, but it’s something. He tries to ignore the slight lift of his heart.

“Well,” he says, “I wouldn’t know if someone was acting passive-aggressively. I’m not very good at figuring out emotions that aren’t obvious. For example, I really have no idea if your comment just now was passive-aggressive. For that matter, I don’t actually understand what ‘passive-aggressive’ is. I mean, I know what it means, but whole concept still confuses me.”

This character, Justin, is one of two protagonists in this piece. Some might have guessed that he has some degree of autism. Have I done him justice? Fairly? Balanced? Without stereotype? I’m trying to do so, but as a neuro-typical writer, I can’t be sure. Naturally, I have lots and lots more research to do before this even gets out of discovery draft stage, and then after that, when this finally gets to penultimate draft stage, I will be in search of what is called a sensitivity reader for one of my beta readers.

What is a sensitivity reader, you ask? Author Natalia Sylvester gives a lot more detail and useful information in her post on Writer Unboxed, but basically is someone who is a part of a population that you are not, but you have written about. For example, when the time comes, I will want at least one person – preferably male – who has autism to read my manuscript about my character, Justin. That reader can help flag areas that don’t ring true and more importantly, let me know where I’ve gone off the rails and leaned too heavily on inaccurate stereotypes or other biases.

You see, as a writer within the dominant population groups (neuro-typical, able-bodied, cis-gendered, straight, white) I need to be especially aware of how I am portraying my characters who are from marginalized populations because really, how irresponsible is it to just mix it all up and misrepresent? How many times have you picked up a book and gotten angry at how the author has gotten you all wrong? If you are reading this, and you aren’t white, I know this happens All. Of. The. Time.

A friend of mine shared this meme awhile back on FB, and while it is an obvious exaggeration, I’m pretty sure many female readers can relate:

o8sjxcx

Do you see how this feels? Can we imagine something like this for a black reader always reading about how he is big, intimidating, and so often the bad guy? Can we imagine something like this for the Asian-American girl who is always portrayed as small and meek? If something as basic as a male writer constantly sexualizing his female characters can annoy us as female readers, what must it be like for a reader in a twice marginalized population where they are put inside a box that symbolizes years and years of misrepresentation?

Writing the Other and doing it well has gotten a lot more attention recently, and even better is that the concept of hiring sensitivity readers for our manuscripts has made it to public news. NPR had this article about growing use of sensitivity readers, and the last bit of it is my takeaway line from it: “Because people don’t realize the power of words and the power of bad representation — it can haunt people.” And before that there was this one from the Chicago Tribune – “[Dhonielle] Clayton, who is black, sees her role as a vital one. ‘Books for me are supposed to be vehicles for pleasure, they’re supposed to be escapist and fun,’ she says. They’re not supposed to be a place where readers ‘encounter harmful versions’ and stereotypes of people like them.” The key in there is understanding the word “harmful”, as in, doing damage in how we represent a population that is different than ourselves.

Writing “diversely” – or what would be nice to start recognizing as writing authentically – continues to ride the forefront of critical issues facing fiction writers today, and some authors and writers are expressing fear of even trying to write authentic worlds. What if we get it wrong?

Well, without question, we’ll get it wrong. We’re always going to get something wrong, but that shouldn’t stop us from doing the best we can. In truth, this fear is a good thing, because it gives us more motivation to do our due diligence with characters and situations that are not within our immediate life experience. It means we absolutely should avail ourselves of sensitivity readers to help us get as much of it right as we can.

Publishing is already skewed towards white authors, which is hugely problematic as it is, so if we are going to skate on this privilege, the absolute least we can do is to try to offer the most authentic representation we can in our stories.

I cannot deny that I, too, am worried about how my stories will be received by readers who fall into the marginalized populations. One of my manuscripts features a main character who is trans-female and another who is a bisexual, Latino male. One of my beta readers is transgender and that was absolutely by design. His feedback was essential. I have another manuscript where the protagonist is Latina, which is core to that story. Numerous times I have debated with myself on whether or not I have a right to tell her story – because let’s be honest, Latina authors do not need me to tell their story, and many would never want me to. I have a couple of people in mind to ask (hire) as sensitivity readers when the time comes, and maybe that will help me decide whether it should even be presented for public consumption.

In other words, I feel that same fear that other authors and writers have expressed. It’s a good thing. I mean, it shouldn’t paralyze us to the point that we don’t even include Other characters in our stories at all, because that’s counterproductive. But it does ensure that I put in the effort to get it right – or at least as right as I can. Having reservations is okay. How we deal with those reservations is key to producing the best manuscript possible. It prepares us for the inevitable criticism… which will then help us do better the next time.

As a final note, a resource: Author Justina Ireland started up a database of sensitivity readers for hire. Lots of possibilities and ever so helpful in trying to connect with one. Fantastic resource and many thanks to both Ireland and those who have been entered into the database.

Thoughts? Or maybe you have criticisms for my writing sample at the beginning? Feel free to give me what I need to hear on that, too.

This song is so appropriate for many things right now, and it works for this, too. History has its eyes on us, let’s not be willfully ignorant and mess it up, eh?

 

 

 

 

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Commit – Continued.

 So, January happened.

forrestgump

I considered writing a post about “how to write while the world is effed up”, but there are already lots of posts out there like that and let’s be real, though they might be doing wonders for others, they aren’t actually helping me. Advice, have I none.

Instead, I’m remembering my one-word resolution, “COMMIT”. It’s time to put words to the page, even if it’s only a few words a day. I know writing helps me. I know it. So, time to commit.

I’ve got my current manuscript playlist going as I continue my efforts to put running in as a regular routine – or even walking – and I will get there.

Perhaps I should re-open a manuscript I started a while back, but set aside. Maybe starting fresh will be the way to go. Maybe gleaning some optimism that my current manuscript doesn’t need a major overhaul is enough to energize me. Who knows? All I can do is commit to trying.

And the beautiful thing about writing is that reading is a necessary part in developing the craft. How lucky that I have several books to recommend as a result of so much studying!

Dark Matter – Blake Crouch (A) (my Goodreads review)

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie (A) (my Goodreads review)

I Was Here – Gayle Forman (YA) (my Goodreads review)

Funny Girl – Nick Hornby (A) (my Goodreads review)

And so, a few words at a time, with books to nourish, I commit to the writing thing that has known, positive results.

And if you are lost, may you find your way again soon, too. I am rooting for you!

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The One Word Resolution – 2017: Commit

Things that make me especially happy and a bit grateful today:

  1. My whole family and I having today off.
  2. Having another week before I start a class.

As one who works in education, I am also ever grateful for winter break and even more thankful and appreciative when a district opts for a calendar that allows for 2 full weeks off. I am not currently in a position where I desperately need this full 2 weeks, but I remember the days of teaching in the classroom and noticing a huge difference at having 2 weeks off instead of a week and a half or even just over a week. I know that in many ways this time off is a privilege, but I’m not going to back away from the ever-present argument that teachers put in gobs of hours and in order to serve our children best, this perk is well-deserved.

With this kind of grace period, the desire to make New Year’s Resolutions grows. I’ve written before about my take on New Year’s Resolutions – and I haven’t really changed my stance on it except that a couple of years ago, I remember reading about the idea of a single-word resolution. The idea is to find a single word that you can focus your energy around that might make all list-style resolutions act as stepping stones.

Two years ago I chose invest. I was in a company that I started to feel uncertain about and had a role that was one part rewarding, one part draining. As a firm believer in “you get what you give”, I knew that the more I put into making the job better for myself, the more I would get out of it. Invest. It applied to a lot of other aspects of my life, too.

I seemed to have skipped it last year, but I wanted to come back to it again this year. My word this year? Commit.

I feel like I’ve been sort of wishy-washy with some of the areas in my life in the past months and recognized that I needed a change. I’ve already enacted some of this in the past month. For example, I’ve been wanting to become a runner again, so 3 weeks ago I started taking advantage of the indoor tracks at my district’s high schools and dove into a Couch-to-5K program – I’m in week 4! I’ve also enrolled in a class to start on a path to an additional licensure and there are a couple of other areas I really want to simply commit myself to so that I can make things happen.

When I originally read about this idea, it was suggested that you write the word down somewhere you can see it easily and frequently, to encourage you to keep on track. That’s my next step today.

commit

What about you? What one word will you use for your year-long resolution? I’d love to read about it below in the comments!

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Saturday Summation – 10 December 2016

Bits and pieces of things that caught my eye not only for my own interest, but enough to want to share with you, too…

This is kind of a minimalist summation post. I’ve struggled with writing anything at all in the past month, even these more basic Summation posts. So I’ve plucked a couple that have really stuck with me and threw in some recent recommended reads:

Reading Stuff:

Buzzfeed had an article Alanna Bennett that talked of the generation that grew up with Harry Potter and its current relationship with the HP world. I felt it gathered my thoughts pretty well – as a writer/author, I totally get the desire to continue in a world that gave you so much back in so many ways, but personally, I kind of feel like Rowling might have done better to leave it all well enough alone. And yet… I read the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child script and mostly enjoyed it (there was one key point that I didn’t like as well, the foundation for the story in the first place – it’s a little tired), and I went to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them  – mostly because my youngest was soooper excited to see it. I enjoyed it more than I expected, but am still troubled with Rowling’s lead up to it with her American magical lore and co-opting, unsuccessfully, Native American/First Nations ideas. So you see, I’m conflicted and basically continue to circle back on “how about concentrate on your Cormoran Strike series, instead” camp. What do you think?

Writing Stuff:

Kate Moretti shared a post a while back on preserving our creative selves in times of trouble that spoke to me. I haven’t been overly successful with her suggestions, but I appreciate them and even though words have not been making their way back into my routine, I have dedicated energy into different endeavors (especially professionally) that has helped.

Recommended Reads:

Echoes of Family – Barbara Claypole White (A) (my Goodreads review)
The Moon in the Palace – Weina Dai Randel (A)

When the Moon Was Ours – Anna-Marie McLemore (YA)

Currently reading: Exit Signs by Patrice Locke, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and listening to my first Jack Reacher novel: Killing Floor by Lee Child

Song of the Week:

Yesterday, at the end of my walk, a song from the playlist of one of my novels came on that I had only recently added and it was a catalyst for ideas on how to revise that particular one. I set it on repeat during my drive home from the indoor track in order to keep the brain going. And now I have hopes that soon – maybe this weekend – I’ll actually get some words down to support those ideas.

“Be Here Long” – Needtobreathe:

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Nature and Music: Nurturing the Writerly Soul

I meant to write this up and post it last Monday – you know, back when I felt hope and optimism – but since this little writing story started with music and ended with music, and because more music came my way this weekend, it’s coming to you now.

A couple of weekends ago, I had the unexpected pleasure of spending the day on the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire campus to read, write, walk, and hang about while my oldest son rehearsed with many high school peers from around the state (and beyond, obviously, since we’re from Minnesota). It was a gorgeous weekend as we’ve been having unseasonably warm and sunny days this fall.

I’d been struggling with finishing the current draft of a novel. I was THIS CLOSE to the end, but could not quite get the words out. The first thing that helped (although, admittedly it was more helpful for how to transition into Book 2 of this duology than with how to end Book 1) was my son’s high school Gala concert. It’s a yearly fundraising concert that features the top band, orchestra, and choral groups. In other words, some beautiful music.

And so, the following Saturday, I was determined to squeeze the words out, no matter what. I settled in at the UWEC student center – Davies Center and stared at the page. Then outside. Then the page. And then, a student started playing the piano on the second level. It was perfect. “Hallelujah” and “How Great Thou Art” and something else that I didn’t recognize. It was perfect. My main character finds solace in a piano and it seemed quite fitting. I tweeted this out:

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-4-50-15-pm

I found out later that the university chancellor favorited it and retweeted it, which got me a lot more favorites, but even more interesting was this follow up tweet:

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-4-50-37-pm

Sorry, Chancellor Jim. Didn’t mean to stir things up.

(Here’s the piano in question, by the way. Not gonna deny it does look like a nice one, though I don’t know much about them…):

piano

And so, with that inspiration, I changed over my playlist to my David Lanz one on Pandora.

Was that the cure?

Well, no.

I had lunch with my son, tried some more, with no success, and then decided to take a break. I went on a hike at the nature preserve:

trail

Stopped to walk out on this jutting out rock:

juttingrock

And stared at the cool pattern in the river for a bit.

coolwater

Kept going and saw this ahead:

 

annecopse

Doesn’t it remind you of a space that Anne and Diana (of Anne of Green Gables) would play in? That then encouraged me to take a break on this bench and read for a bit:

bench

The book: When the Moon Was Ours by Anne-Marie McLemore (I recommend)

Now, I thought, now I am ready. I headed back to the student center and, well, I’d like to say the words suddenly flowed out, magically, but they did not. I persevered, however, and managed out 1200 words, which is great, if only it hadn’t taken all day.

The temporary reward, though, was listening to this group play:

writingday

And the good news is that the next day I DID finish. Boy, I needed that because just two days later was the election, and I haven’t been able to write anything at all since then. I’ve not even wanted to try.

And now, I want to try. Words are my fuel and they are my voice. While I cannot always express myself in the ways I want to in essay or verbal form, I can do it in fiction. I am not sure what will happen when I put myself in front of a blank page again, but after another Honor Band concert at St. Olaf College this past weekend…

stolaffestival

…I have hope again that I can do this writing thing.

For my song, I could have gone with a piano version of Hallelujah, and I do love that song, but I’ll go with the other from that day, How Great Thou Art.

 

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Saturday Summation – 22 October 2016

Bits and pieces of things that caught my eye not only for my own interest, but enough to want to share with you, too…

 

Writing Stuff

There’s all kinds of great advice in Chuck Wendig’s “Quick Story Tips” – which includes both “dos” and “don’ts”. I’m glad he didn’t spend too much time on #3 regarding secrets and lies. These are good for your new reader, but tiring for your experienced one. It also requires a fine balance. If the whole conflict is resolved by one character simply revealing the truth early on with far fewer consequences, then an author has relied on it too heavily and leans towards lazy storytelling, I think.

If you’re a writer, you might have people in your life that keep you from feeling like it isn’t serious for you, that it’s just a hobby. I have been super fortunate to be surrounded by family and friends who understand my passion and mission with writing, which helps a lot with my momentum (not that I don’t lose it every once in a while, but that’s all on me and no one else!). Nancy Johnson reminds us to self-talk: “Think of writing as your career. Even if you’re not getting paid for it. Yet. It’s not a hobby. It’s not the magic that springs from your muse. It’s your job.” Read more on losing the mythological muse.

So let’s say you’re writing and hit one of those many obstacles that make you wonder, now what should happen? How can I up tension? Lisa Cron says too often we search for an external factor that doesn’t fit with the story at large. She reminds us that instead, “The story doesn’t come from the external events, it comes from what those things mean to your protagonist.” Her post on Where Drama Really Comes From walks us through a great process on recognizing this issue and how to work through it and resolve through knowing our characters and story already, vs pulling in something new.

Just for fun: a Never Have I Ever “drinking game”, writer’s edition:

 

Reading Stuff:

Quite a while back, I wrote a couple of posts about the importance of not only details in our writing, but accurate and authentic ones. I started with details vs story and continued later with realistic vs authentic details. This past week, Kimberly Sullivan asked if sloppy research – ie, getting the details wrong – in a story drives you crazy. How much is too much when it comes to slipping on this research and getting things obviously wrong vs. forgivably wrong?

 

 

Publishing Stuff:

Have you ever wondered what it means when an author gets an advance? Probably the biggest misunderstanding is that it is money outside of royalties (sales profits) – like a bonus. However, this is not the case. Susan Spann describes the nature of advances (and understanding that it is what we more logically should connect it to – as though it was an advance on the next paycheck) offered through publishing contracts.

As a reader, you might not care at all about who has published the books you read, but as a reader AND a writer, it becomes ten-fold more interesting! This graphic came out recently that shows the intricate web of the many, many imprints that fall under each of the “Big 5” publishing houses. Super helpful.

 

Video of the Week:

Both kind and entertaining, Canadians tell us Americans that we ARE great. I hope they’re right – and not just because politics are making us doubt it right now. I mean, I think of how often we get messages from citizens in other countries that support us in times of crisis or messages like this one below and I sure hope we have lots of American citizens doing the same for citizens in other countries because it sure is encouraging and what keeps my hope alive for world peace and cooperation.

 

 

 

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A Writer’s Brain Under Duress Is Still a Writer’s Brain

One of my critique writing partners recently told me that she liked reading my post about my parents’ divorce because it reassured her that one doesn’t have to have suffered in life to be able to write dark or gritty material in fiction. (And if that seems weird to correlate to my parents splitting up, then you’ll have to go read that post to understand better.)

It’s true I certainly believe a writer will do better having some sort of experience with a difficult situation (coupled with good research), but it certainly doesn’t have to be first-hand experience.

On the other hand, direct personal experience obviously is a boon to a writer looking to include it in her story. “Write what you know” may be a broad statement to include “what you know of the human experience”, but it clearly includes specific knowledge, too.

My past week has included two trips to the E.R., both resulting in overnight stays in the hospital, among other things. Sure, there’s a lot I can pull from that (in fact, at one point they moved me to the hall because they needed my room, and I was only waiting to be admitted. I told E.R. staff that it was writer’s gold for observation.), but where I decided to really dig in was what followed the most recent hospital visit.

Cardiologists added a new medication to my regimen and a side effect is headaches. Let me tell you, I had that side effect in spades, that side effect took over like a Penguin-Random House merger. If you suffer from migraines, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you much for you to understand.

[SIDE NOTE: Very fortunately for me, this side effect will ease away as my body adjusts, which is not something migraine sufferers or anyone else who has chronic pain can say. Also, I recognize that while my experience was intense, I was still able to think through it. I don’t want to minimize the pain that those who suffer from chronic episodes of any sort that rate 9-10+, disabling them from any kind of functional activity.]

One night the pain was so intense, it radiated out from the front of my head, down the back of it, down both sides of my neck, and into my forearms. Regular pain medications couldn’t keep up.

There wasn’t much I could do at that point to distract myself imaginatively from that pain, but after some of it receded and decided to just have a romp only in my head, I let my writer brain go to work. Maybe I couldn’t make lemonade, but I sure could squeeze something from that experience, right? And maybe distract myself in the process?

How could I effectively describe the pain without using “throb” or “pressure” for example? How, in the future, can I help my readers feel the pain with my characters?

It felt like bolt gun practice.

Yep, that was a good start.

And obviously we can use the thesaurus.

“Throb”: beat, pound, thud, drum

“Pound”: beat, batter, pummel, hammer, clobber

There are some good ones there, but hey, we can do better than that can’t we? We’re writers, not middle school students working on a grammar worksheet.

Let’s see.

Margie Lawson might suggest twisting a cliché for “fresh writing”:

My head pounded. < — Total cliché.

My head pounded as though there was a construction competition and the current event was a jackhammer contest: who could break into my head or out of it first?

The Incredible Hulk squeezed my brain while Captain America pushed back with his shield to keep my head from exploding. (I live with a bunch of Marvel superhero fans.) 

Some people love fireworks. Try having all the dud ones explode in your head at the same time and you might change your mind.

Donald Maas might suggest emotional detail:

The pain in my head curled tighter, tighter around until I no longer cared about who wronged me or what those wrongs were. All I could feel was the physical necessity of pushing through the bolt gun firing in my head. (I had to put that bolt gun in somewhere…)

Have I given you a headache yet (in more ways than one since these examples aren’t thrilling me, either)?

How about the relief?

As my head became unshackled, I smiled, too tentative to bound in joy, knowing how quickly the chains could cuff me again.

Wait, that’s only partial relief, isn’t it?

Well, now you know where I was at when I wrote this post. 😀 😀 😀

Let me hear from you – what are fresh ways to describe physical pain? Or what about the release one feels when the pain passes?

For this post’s song, I thought I’d better go with something soothing rather than headache-inducing – maybe that will further loosen the creative juices…

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