As a white writer, how do I write characters that represent ethnicities, genders, orientations, etc. that I’m not? The real world is a melting pot, but I’m terrified of getting something wrong and being blacklisted.
Dear Scaredwriter, this is a question that begs for a much larger conversation about authenticity, representation, and who has the right to tell which kinds of stories.
I, being a white cishet lady writer, am conflicted about this subject because my characters are far more varied than my own identifiers. I have what I would consider a healthy amount of fear and you should too, because the consequences of “getting it wrong” can be dire, even more so for the readers seeing their race, culture, religion, sexuality, etc. misrepresented.
I’m from Florida and for whatever reason, people love to shit on the state of Florida which irritates me to no end. It also hurts my feelings. If anyone is going to shit on Florida, it’s going to be me. And it isn’t going to be some one-line flippant joke taken out of context; it’s going to be a fully thought-out and researched essay and critique.
Now, imagine that was my gender or race, religion or sexual orientation. Even if we reject racism, misogyny, Islamaphobia, anti-Semitism and homophobia at face value, we are still part of the fabric of our society where these ideas are so ingrained into everyday life that we may have bias we aren’t even aware of that come through in our stories and character development. Even the smallest things like word choice can be affected by these societal ills.
To that end, I can’t really tell you how to write stories and characters outside your own immediate experience except to say that you need to do the work and make sure your characters are fully realized representations and not caricatures that feed harmful stereotypes or reaffirm the prejudices we are trying to overcome as individuals and as a society. (And if you are, you’d better have a damn good reason for it.)
In short, don’t be lazy.
All of this takes work, research, immersion and making sure you have a team of readers/agents/editors you trust who are also qualified to tell you that you’re being insensitive or coming from a place of bias, which in itself is an entitlement not afforded to everyone.
You must also be prepared to be told, no. The “whites,” and euro-centric stories have dominated and controlled the narrative for centuries (here in the United States of America), and we are finally seeing a ray of awareness to the voices that have been silenced and shunned historically and in present day publishing. The Industry is cracking the door a tiny bit and if they determine there are only x number of slots for stories about x, y, or z, yours might not make the cut. You might have a good story, but that doesn’t mean you’re entitled to get it published by mainstream, especially when there are others who may have lived these experiences. There are other avenues to getting your story in the hands of readers and if you believe in your work, you should pursue them, knowing you may not have the same screening procedures and must be even more vigilant in your self-evaluations.
Finally, ask yourself why you want to write from a historically marginalized perspective or about people from marginalized backgrounds, and if it’s because it’s trendy, then reconsider.
Writers, in general, need to be prepared for critical conversation about their work, no matter the subject. The term “blacklisted” like the term “witch hunt” seem at times an exaggeration by the dominant culture when questions are raised, as a means to silence very valid criticism.
All of this is to say, don’t despair, Scaredwriter, but do think critically about the reasons why you want to write these stories and characters and how your words will potentially affect readers.
As I said above, this is a much larger conversation and I am only one (white, cishet, lady) voice. I welcome readers to add your thoughts or offer debate in the comments below, especially those from nonwhite, non cishet backgrounds. These are important conversations about representation we need to be having, not only in publishing but in all spheres of industry, culture, society and politics.
How do I know when to give up on an agent who has my full manuscript? After three months? After six? Is there a protocol for handling the silence?
Dear Queryingforlife, it certainly seems that we are querying for life, doesn’t it? The mainstream publishing industry moves at an unnervingly glacial speed, which is one of the reasons many of us turn to indie or self-publishing. But as to your question, if the agency requires a full manuscript at the onset, then I would follow the agency’s terms and conditions on their website. Among those rules should be some guidance as to how long to wait after a query’s been sent to inquire as to its whereabouts.
Agency responses are by no means standardized and can range from a polite rejection form letter 5 seconds after you send your query to absolutely nothing at all, ever. If the specified time has gone by (usually eight weeks), I would go ahead and send a short, polite email inquiring about the status of your query. Agents and their assistants field hundreds of emails daily and some get overlooked. If you don’t hear from the agent after this inquiry, I would assume they’re not interested.
Now, if the agent responded to your initial query and asked you for the full, I would give them 4-8 weeks (depending on your level of patience) and follow up. If they requested an exclusive read, I would put a deadline on its exclusivity upon sending. And if at any point another agent makes you an offer, I would update them as well.
I’d also keep a record of your interactions with agents/agencies, ideally in the form of a spreadsheet where you can track their responses along with their level of professionalism. Agent-author relationships seem at times like arranged marriages where both sides are being asked to place a lot of faith in their partners before signing a contract. Therefore, conduct yourself with the utmost professionalism and expect the same from your agent-to-be.
If the agent asked for your full and doesn’t have the courtesy to give you even a simple yay or nay after your nudge, I’d say that reflects poorly on them and I would consider them a no.
And here I will pontificate a little bit more from my soapbox. Remember that friend of yours who had really bad taste in men and kept hooking up with total assholes with the refrain, “But he loves me.” As writers, we are conditioned to accept rejection as a fact of life, and this acceptance can turn into chronic feelings of failure and unworthiness (as if creatives needed any more self-loathing), so think about what you want in an agent, instead of worrying about if they love you or not. And remember you are the creator here and the inventor of original worlds and awesome characters. It’s okay to get down about rejection, but remember that your genius is the reason agents, editors and the publishing industry exists. So, don’t settle.
I truly believe that if you keep trying and improving upon your craft, that one day, your prince will come.
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Laura Lascarso is the author of several young adult novels including THE BRAVEST THING, which won a 2017 Rainbow Award for best gay contemporary romance and COUNTING BACKWARDS, which won a 2012 Florida Book Award gold medal for young adult literature. If you have a burning question about writing or publishing, please tweet @lauralascarso and include the tag #dearlaura
Learn more at www.lauralascarso.com