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Faux Diversity in Fiction

With increasing frequency, I'm seeing a certain word in Tweets and blog posts about publishing: diversity. Agents and editors clamor for books in all genres featuring diverse characters. They want books that represent a wider range of human experience than "mainstream middle-class protagonist faces first-world problems."

This is a fine goal, but it's harder to realize than you might think. Most writers and publishing professionals are mainstream middle-class intellectuals, including yours truly. When we attempt to portray fringe voices in fiction, our own experiences and cultural conditioning undermine our efforts. In the end, we don't create diverse characters. We create mainstream middle-class characters wearing skin of a different color.

What Is Faux Diversity?

When a writer puts a solidly mainstream character in a diverse costume, I call it faux diversity. A certain fantasy we'll call Silence is an example on multiple fronts.

The premise: The heroine, Fang, lives in a completely isolated Chinese village without sound. The population lost the ability to hear generations ago. Soon the villagers start to lose their sight, too. Then one night, Fang wakes up to a sound. Using her newfound "magic" ability, she courageously leaves the village to explore the outside world and save her people.

The reality: The heroine, Fang, is a feisty Western girl with an Asian name. One Goodreads reviewer says, "If I dressed up in traditional Chinese clothing for Halloween and started calling myself Ling, I would actually be more Chinese than this book." (Ouch...but accurate.) And though sound is but an old legend to everyone in the village, Fang thinks like a person who lost her hearing late in life. She constantly bemoans that nobody can hear, which is like someone who grew up with bedtime stories of magical ancestors constantly bemoaning that no one can fly.

The author probably had golden intentions when she set out to write Silence. Her editor probably had golden intentions when she okayed the manuscript. But because neither of them were familiar with either Han culture or deaf culture, they thought giving the heroine black hair and putting the dialogue in italics would cover all the bases.

The Problem with Faux Diversity

In the case of Silence, the author's missteps were mostly harmless. She disappointed and alienated a lot of potential fans, including me, but at least she didn't portray Chinese or deaf culture in a negative light. No readers will close that book with new prejudices or erroneous assumptions they didn't have before.

However, in other cases, well-meaning authors have done more harm than good by writing about groups they didn't understand.

Another book we'll call Shadow Bride is a historical Japanese retelling of Cinderella. All right, cool. The fairy godmother character, Hikaru, is a beautiful concubine ("Shadow Bride") who turns out to be trans. Also cool...until Hikaru tells her backstory.

"I was one of many, many children. Some strange accident of fate gifted me with this face and this slender frame, and my parents knew that a child who looked like I did would be valuable. Of course, I would have been more valuable as a they raised me to talk, move, and even think as a girl would. I barely realized that I was any different from my sisters. When I was eight, they sold me to a kabuki theater....

"One of my patrons was a minor lord who thought it would be a very fine joke to arrange for me to dance at the Shadow Ball....I was convinced I would die. A man pretending to be a woman in the Moon Prince's chamber....I asked [the prince] if he ever wished I had been born a real woman. He said that my heart was a real woman's heart, and that was all he was concerned with."

Aw, how heartwarming. And how utterly infuriating!

According to this sweet little story, Hikaru has a "real woman's heart" because her parents brainwashed her into thinking like a woman. Therefore, if her parents had given her swords instead of silk fans, and told her to take a wife instead of a husband, she would have grown up to have a "real man's heart" instead, right?

The natural and insidious conclusion: all trans women in the real world must be acting that way because their dads let them play with Barbies.

I'm alarmed that no other readers are bothered by this. At least nobody complains about it on any site indexed by Google. Readers also say nothing about this frightening exchange at the end of the novel, after the heroine runs away from the palace with her love interest, Ochieng, an African nobleman.

"Ochieng," I said abruptly, "what would you have done if you had come here but I did not change my mind and agree to go with you?"

"Gagged you, thrown you over my shoulder, and taken you anyway," he said promptly. "I have some ropes braided around my waist. Actually, I do not know whether to be relieved or disappointed that it is not necessary."

And this threat of sexual violence is...funny? Flirty? Ochieng is super hot and adorable, according to reviewers—especially when he physically grabs and shakes the heroine in anger, kisses her without her permission, and otherwise acts like a big sexy African brute.

How to Avoid Faux Diversity

Just like you can't stick heroine in combat boots and call her strong, you can't simply stick a label that says "Asian" or "African" or "LGBT" on a character and call it diversity.

1. Research the culture.

Last year or the year before, somebody submitted a query for a middle-grade novel to a critique blog. The premise: the principal of a junior high asks a young Asian girl to organize the Chinese New Year festival. But the girl isn't Chinese...she's Korean! Incensed, the girl decides to sabotage the festival to teach the school a lesson. Hilarity ensues.

The problem: the lunar new year, Seollal, is actually one of the biggest holidays in Korean culture. A real Korean girl in this situation might be miffed that the principal assumed she'd make a good organizer just because of her ethnicity, but she wouldn't fly off the handle because she's "not Chinese." Most likely, she'd be proud to share her heritage with her classmates.

If the author of this manuscript had done some cursory research about Korean traditions and holidays, she wouldn't have made such an embarrassing mistake. Since she was clearly not Korean herself, she should have at least watched a couple of Korean TV shows. Just like most of our sitcoms have Christmas episodes, most Korean family dramas have at least one Seollal episode in which everyone makes dumplings and dresses up in traditional clothing, and the young people bow to their elders to earn their red packets.

2. Question cultural assumptions.

I admit that it's better for a writer to assume diverse characters are "just like me" than it is to assume they're totally different because they have a different skin color, religion, or gender identity. I'd rather people erroneously portray Chinese characters like individualistic Americans than like buck-toothed caricatures in old movies who start every sentence with "Confucius say..."

But still better would be for these writers to question their assumptions. People tend to think their values are the only values in existence.

For example, we in the West grow up watching countless movies and TV shows that teach us standing up for ourselves is "strong" while smiling for the sake of harmony is "weak," so we assume Chinese characters would think the same way. We're annoyed by real Chinese characters who lower their eyes to abusive elders.

Or we're dependent on our hearing to communicate and the thought of losing that ability scares us, so we assume a deaf character would be angry about her condition and long for sound. We're shocked and appalled when people in the deaf community don't want their children to undergo surgery to "fix" their hearing.

Or we all agree that marriage should be based on true love, so we think arranged marriages are horrifically backwards and misogynistic. When we write books or movies about young Hindi or Muslim or Orthodox Jewish women, we tend to go on and on about how put-upon they are.

3. Rethink what "diversity" means.

Do the agents and editors asking for "more diversity in fiction" mean, "I want to see more arbitrary Latinos because that's where the money is?" No. (Well, maybe for some unscrupulous trend-chasers, yes. But you don't want to work with those people, so ignore them.)

What "more diversity in fiction" really means is, "I want to see new and interesting perspectives." Adding diversity to publishing means writing about a variety of characters who see the world in different ways, who have different values and beliefs and face different unique conflicts.

If everyone sees the world the same way but wears different hats, that's not diversity.

How to Stay Sane in an Insane Industry

Last Saturday I sent out a half dozen queries to literary agents. Bright and early on Monday morning, I woke up to a rejection in my inbox.

I knew this was going to happen, and I know enough about the publishing world not to take rejection of a query as a judgement of my work. But even with many years of rejection notched into my writer's belt, it's still difficult to stay upbeat and confident when reading emails like, "After reading your letter I'm afraid I just wasn't hooked enough to want to ask for more."

A cold, hard fact of the publishing industry is that a "hook" is everything, and quality of writing means little. While a writer's number one concern is whether readers will enjoy a story, a publisher's number one concern is whether readers will buy the story.

When seasoned agents and editors evaluate manuscripts, they don't ask themselves, "Is this a good story that will make readers happy?" They ask, "Does this premise sound sexy in a single sentence? Can we convince Target to put this book on the shelves in a five-minute sales call? Will people see this title at the checkout counter in Kroger and grab it impulsively?" In other words, "What's the hook?"

So what, exactly, does it mean when an agent says she "just wasn't hooked enough"? It could mean many different things.

  1. The premise doesn't sound like a sexy mega-bestseller in a single sentence.
  2. The book doesn't fit into any of the specific slots publishers are looking to fill right now (e.g., "Realistic contemporary YA featuring diverse characters.")
  3. The agent is already representing a client with a similar project.
  4. The genre or subject matter was "hot" with publishers last year, but it's gone cold now.
  5. Nothing at all. This is an auto-generated form letter the agency sends to everyone with the click of the Decline button.

What "wasn't hooked enough" seems to imply, but does not necessarily mean, is that the query isn't well-written or the book isn't interesting.

More cold, hard facts about the publishing industry: advances for debut and midlist authors are shrinking to nothing. Even bestselling authors are getting "eBook only" releases. A novel can be a thrilling page-turner, a poignant masterpiece, a memorable story that readers will want to relive over and over for many years...but still no publisher will buy it, because it doesn't fit into a free "slot" and the author isn't named Danielle Steele or James Patterson.

One literary agent wrote that, statistically, a new writer has a higher chance of getting struck by lightning than she does of getting published. If she does get published, she'll be lucky to get a $5,000 advance. Then she probably won't earn out that measly $5,000, publishers will label her a bad investment, and she'll never sell another book again.

Knowing all this, how do we stay positive? How do we keep writing, keep hoping, keep sending those query letters to their doom, instead of burning our lucky writing pencils in abject despair?

A lot of people do succumb to despair. They give up and stop writing or, even worse, turn into vengeful banshees who haunt the Internet, shrieking about gatekeepers. How can we avoid becoming those people?

1. Adjust your expectations.

When it comes to the arts, people have a bizarre expectation that the economy will work differently than it does for every other industry. They think quality and creativity will trump all else, when that's not the case for any other product in existence.

Does Old Navy stock thin, scratchy shirts made by kids in Indian sweatshops because those are the most comfortable and flattering shirts available? Does Lowes sell nine-foot-tall blow-up penguins because those are the classiest Christmas decorations they could find? Does Fred Meyer throw Hershey's Milk Chocolate Hearts in your face the second you walk through their doors because those are the most delicious candies ever made?

Businesses will sell what makes them the most profit, period. Publishers know they'll profit from any book with Danielle Steele's name printed on the cover, regardless of the words printed inside. They know it's very difficult to get people to buy a book with an unknown name on it. When consumers have a choice between cardboard-like, chemical-tasting Chips Ahoy they grew up eating, vs. gourmet cookies by some new brand they've never heard of, which do you think the majority will pick? Only adventurous cookie connoisseurs will take a chance on the new brand.

We writers want to believe that if we write good stories, we will be swiftly rewarded. Publishers will fight over our manuscripts. The New York Times will rave over us. Hollywood A-listers will Tweet about how desperately they want to star in the movie adaptations of our books.

This is a fun fantasy to imagine while drifting off to a peaceful sleep at night, but it's silly to be disappointed when it doesn't come true. When I go to work each morning, I don't expect the college president to suddenly rush at me and say I'm the best librarian she's ever seen, and she's promoting me to director right away. I expect to keep going to work every weekday for many years, slowly building my resume and earning the respect of my colleagues, until one day I'm lucky enough land the directorship of a tiny library in Nowhere, Oregon. Why would my writing career be any different?

2. Stop assigning blame.

The current situation in publishing is nobody's fault. It just is. Both writers and publishing professionals are just trying to survive in an insane world.

The shrieking banshees want to believe everything is somebody's fault. They grumble that literary agents are brainless twits who couldn't recognize a masterpiece if it bit them in the derrière. They opine that editors are greedy vultures who care more about soulless numbers than beautiful words. "Just take the gatekeepers out of the equation," they say, "and Great Stories will reign once more."

I wonder if there's an unpublished manuscript called Zen for Writers somewhere in the world, because we all need to read it and chill out. I imagine this manuscript would have calming lines like, "To rage against the publishing industry is to rage against the sea. One cannot control the market trends, as one cannot control the tide."

Blaming people for your publishing misfortunes might make you feel better temporarily, but the bitterness gnaws away at you. Soon you're spending all of your writing time crafting barbs about twenty-something interns in New York, instead of crafting new stories. If you want to remain sane, happy, and productive, you're going to have to forgive the universe for not playing fair.

3. Make contingency plans.

So you can't sell your books, it's not your fault, it's not anybody's fault, and there's nothing you can do about it.

Now what?

This is why no one should depend on writing to make money. Just like the visual arts, theatre, and music, writing is a career for a lucky handful and a mildly lucrative hobby for everyone else. I believe every aspiring writer should build a career in something other than writing, for many reasons. Here are the reasons pertinent to this post.

  • Even if/when you don't win the publishing lottery, you can still pay the bills without worrying.
  • Every weekday morning you must close your laptop, make yourself presentable, and leave your house. You will be forced to accomplish things for the next eight hours, instead of stalking agents on Twitter and obsessively refreshing your Gmail to check for more rejections.
  • You'll build a network of colleagues with whom you can share your publishing woes in the breakroom. These colleagues will cheer you on and tell you how awesome you are for writing a whole book, and they can't imagine how you found the time.

When you finish a manuscript and send out a batch of queries, of course you'll hope to finally win the lottery this time. But you should formulate a contingency plan for what to do if you don't.

  1. You can self-publish.
  2. You can submit directly to small presses.
  3. You can drop the project and move on to new ideas.

I personally suggest number three. If the project didn't work out, it didn't work out. Maybe the next one will. I'm not of the camp that endlessly revises and resubmits the same stories, hoping small tweaks will suddenly make the project more appealing to agents.

If no agents or editors are interested in Whacked in the Stacks, I'll probably skip the sequel. I'll send CreateSpace paperbacks of WITS to family and friends to enjoy, but I won't try to self-publish it for money. Too much headache, too little return. That time would be better spent diving in to the Xing Dynasty trilogy instead.

Yes, I'm dubbing my fantasy wuxia project the Xing Dynasty trilogy. Xing ("star") is a silly play on Qing ("clear") and Ming ("bright," with the radicals for "sun" and "moon"). Also, I can abbreviate it to XD.

Thinking about what you'll do if your book fails might be depressing, but then if the worst happens you won't be left adrift. When you receive that rejection from your very last hope, you won't feel like your whole world is falling apart. You'll be hurt, you'll be angry at the universe, you'll eat a ton of raspberry cheesecake gelato...but then you'll sigh and say, "Well, on to Plan B."

Thoughts on Serialization

Last week I finished book one of the Rainie Day Mysteries, Whacked in the Stacks. This week I revised it based on feedback from a beta reader, a.k.a. Sweetie. Next week, I start on book two.

I've never written a sequel before, but I've read hundreds. I can count on one hand the number of standalone mysteries I've read—all of the others were installations in series. As I prepare to dive in to book two, tentatively titled Crushed by the Classics, I've been thinking about what works for me as a series reader, and what rubs me the wrong way.

What Rubs Me the Wrong Way: Recycling

Recycled Introductions

I don't need to re-read the heroine's life story in chapter one of every novel. I don't need to re-read the life stories of all her friends and relatives, either.

Imagine if every episode of Castle began with Richard Castle rambling for ten minutes about who he is, what he does, where he grew up and where he lives now. Every time his mother Martha sashays into the kitchen, a voice-over explains that she's a glamorous Broadway actress who lives with Castle because her ex-husband absconded with her life savings. Every time his daughter Alexis pops in to say, "Hi, Dad," another voice-over informs us that she's eighteen and a student at Columbia University, and her mother Meredith is off her rocker but Alexis is a sweet kid who's wise beyond her years.

Though novels aren't TV shows, info-dumps like these are just as boring on the page as they are on the screen. There are certain mystery series that I adore...from about chapter three on. First I have to get past the recaps in chapters one and two. The authors might be afraid that new readers won't know what's going on without brief bios to introduce every character, but readers aren't stupid. They can figure out who characters are and how they relate to one another from their dialogue and behavior.

Recycled Jokes

I'm reading Laura Levine's Jaine Austen mysteries right now. Levine wrote scripts for classic Hollywood sitcoms like Laverne and Shirley and Three's Company, so all of her books are amusing...but her wit is a lot less impressive after reading four books than it was after reading one.

Levine recycles the same comedic material in every novel. Jaine lives in the slums of Beverly Hills. Jaine is a struggling writer whose most noteworthy project to date is a motto for Toiletmasters Plumbing. While all of the size-two fashionistas in SoCal eat a lettuce leaf and call it lunch, Jaine wears elastic-waist pants and her best friends are named Ben and Jerry. Jaine's love life is a disaster, and her most persistent admirer is a lecherous octogenarian from the Shalom Center. Jaine's cat Prozac is a terror who pees on Jaine's pillow when she doesn't get her daily serving of Fancy Fish Guts.

I have now read each of these jokes at least a half dozen times across four books. The count for variations on "fish guts" and "In a rush to flush?" has probably topped a full dozen. Levine is whip-smart, but I wish she'd do something new with that intelligence.

Recycled Conflicts

Mystery authors often leave one or two loose threads untied at the ends of their novels, in order to entice fans to read the next one. The most common class of loose thread is the romantic subplot.

I don't mind "open endings" in early installments of a series, but I get tired and annoyed when the same loose thread drags on book after book. The heroine and her love interest recycle the same conflicts in every novel: he says he loves her but he won't commit, she knows he's bad husband material but she can't resist his charms, she saw him with another woman and she's not sure where they stand anymore. Over and over. There's only so much "will they or won't they?" a reader can take.

I also get tired when a heroine knocks heads with the same archenemies over the same petty issues. I put a series down immediately at the first whiff of a Never-Ending Love Triangle. (Just pick one already!) And it's exasperating to see a heroine make the same dumb mistakes and land in the same tubs of hot water in every novel. (Why does Jaine never learn to close the door when she's dressing for a big event, so Prozac won't sneak in and destroy her new clothes?)

What Works for Me: Fresh Ideas

Maybe writers who recycle the same material for every book think they're giving their fans what they want. They think readers liked the characters in the first book and want them to return exactly as they were, with no growth whatsoever. They think readers liked the "will they or won't they?" tension, and the series will go the way of Moonlighting if the heroine and her love interest actually work out their problems.

But fans of a series don't keep coming back because they want the exact same story retold in future books. They want new books with new stories that make them feel the same way the first one did. Recycled jokes and conflicts will not make them feel the same way a second time around.

A sequel needs fresh ideas to be as interesting as its predecessor. The tricky part is incorporating these new ideas into the story world you've already created, so fans will feel like they're returning to a favorite place and meeting old friends, while at the same time getting a fun new reading experience.

Introduce New Settings

Cozy mystery writers often blog that their readers want to return to the same settings in every book, because these places feel like home. This is partially true, but these "same settings" are much bigger arenas than you might think.

For example, in Rhys Bowen's Royal Spyness mysteries, the setting fans like me look forward to visiting is "Glamorous Interwar Europe." That can include the heroine's childhood fortress in Scotland, the family townhouse in London, a spooky castle in Transylvania, or sunny mansions along the French Rivieria. I would have bored of the series long ago if every novel took place in the same handful of buildings in London.

On a smaller scale, Miranda James sets each of her Cat in the Stacks murders in different locales within Athena, Mississippi. One book might center around the local college, where the hero works, another at the public library, and another at the home of an eccentric book collector. He spends a lot of time at cozy old haunts, sure, but we also get to go to costume galas at Antebellum mansions.

Make Characters Grow

In the Jaine Austen mysteries, Jaine's friends and relatives never change. For example, in every book her neighbor Lance and her best friend Kandi find new loves of their lives. By every epilogue, they find out these loves are cheating finks. All relationships between the characters conveniently reset, and Lance and Kandi are ready to chase new loves of their lives in the next book. Neither of them ever mature, settle down, move up the corporate ladder, have kids, or change subtly over time like real people.

In the Cat in the Stacks books, many of the characters do change over time. The hero's son comes back to town an angry, disillusioned young lawyer, but then he picks himself up and studies for the Mississippi bar, gets married, and becomes a father himself. The hero's recurring nemesis/ally, the deputy sheriff, starts out hostile and ambitious, but then she assumes more responsibility at her job and mellows out. Boarders move in and out of the hero's house, find partners and get on with their lives.

The great thing about change is that it introduces new conflicts. Characters don't just spin their wheels, rehashing the same old issues. When the hero's son meets his future wife, he has to deal with personal traumas that make him push away attractive women. When they get serious, he has to deal with his meddling future father-in-law, who also happens to be his boss. Then his meddling future FIL wants him to take over the law practice, but he's not ready yet. And so on.

Use New Story Structures

This one is the most obvious, and the hardest to pull off. Readers of sequels want new stories, not the same old story with cosmetic differences.

The basic story structure of a cozy mystery is this:

  • Sleuth finds dead body.
  • Sleuth snoops for clues.
  • Sleuth solves murder.

Within that simple structure are infinite possibilities for variation. Yet as writers, we tend to fall back on a few comfortable tropes, instead of exploring those possibilities.

I'm not sure I'll continue with the Jaine Austen series, because Levine seems to have gotten stuck in a Murder She Wrote rut. The heroine simply goes around interviewing a string of suspects until she figures out the culprit. Then she exposes said culprit in a thrilling confrontation. Roll credits.

When mystery lovers pick up a novel, they look forward to twists, turns, and surprise curveballs. Real curveballs, not ones they've seen a dozen times before. The victim's husband was having an affair with the hot housewife next door? I'm shocked. The victim was blackmailing a coworker for embezzling from the company? Gosh, never seen that one before. The culprit is actually her sweet, long-suffering assistant who seemed like she couldn't hurt a fly? Well, blow me over with a feather.

Shocking subject material doesn't necessarily make for a shocking twist. A twist is shocking when the author manipulates readers into seeing the story world a certain way, and then the revelation of the truth turns that world on its head. The last author to successfully shock me was Dorothy L. Sayers, in Murder Must Advertise. She tricked me into believing a certain event was just a humorous anecdote, when it was actually the key to figuring out the entire nefarious plot. The nefarious plot itself wasn't all that shocking, but the fact that I had been completely bamboozled was a delicious surprise.