What Today’s YA Is Still Missing: Ace Spectrum and Non-binary Characters

When I came out as demisexual (someone who can’t feel sexual attraction without a deep emotional connection) four years ago, it did not go well. I was told that I wasn’t what I thought I was and given evidence why, as if another person could know anyone better than they know themselves. This person was a dear friend of mine; I had known them for over 13 years. I thought they were right. It made me feel like I was wrong, as if there were something inherently incorrect in how I viewed myself. It also made me keep quiet about the fact that I didn’t feel like a man or a woman, but something in between. 

At the time, I didn’t know the terms non-binary or demisexual existed, let alone what they really meant. I didn’t have anything or anyone to tell me about them. There were no books back then that featured someone like me. I took care to avoid writing about characters who were me. I wasn’t gay. I wasn’t trans. I had never had body dysphoria. Clearly, I didn’t belong at the queer club. In the end, I did come out. I found myself, it just took another two years. And in the process I terminated a friendship. It’s a wound that still hurts. It doesn’t really stop hurting; you just meet other people and remind yourself that you matter. That your story matters. 

Queer characters are in everything I’ve written. My espionage series features a gay Russian spy and a bisexual American spy, working together to take down a secret organization that has managed to penetrate the KGB, set in 1965. It’s not a romance, because I wanted to give queer men the ability to see themselves in action adventure. I want them to kick butt just like the straight boys do, better than even. I have two projects out on sub, one a YA horror lead by a pansexual boy, and a NA low fantasy/post apoc lead by an asexual and aromantic girl. Today, I’m finally plucking up the courage to do the one thing I never thought I would: write an Own Voices novel. 

This new project is a YA low fantasy set in the Ozarks. It’s a blend of folk magic and horror in the working poor setting. It’s a story about first loves and family and the lengths we go to save them. Last summer, in watching Sagas of Sundry Dread, I realized it was something more: its the story of two genderqueer punks who fall in love. It’s Riley, who is non-binary (someone who identifies as neither male or female) but doesn’t know it yet, and Chase, who is demisexual and thinks gender concepts are bullshit altogether. As I began to outline it, I grew excited in a way I had not in a very long time. I’m drafting it now, and I think this might be the book. The landing an agent book. And its because I took the leap to make it queer that I think makes it so, makes it more than just a folk magic horror story. 

It has not been an easy story to write. Riley is not an exact copy of me; far from it. But there are lines which she is told about how she presents herself that are word for word what I was told growing up. The difference is, Riley will have Chase, who for all of his flaws and mental health issues, loves Riley wholly and completely. It’s Chase who pushes her to be herself, however that means she/they presents. Doing it under the guise of punk subculture gave me a lot of room to play with presentation. Chase wears makeup and nail polish. He dyes his hair a lot; helps Riley cut and dye hers. Chase has 99 problems but toxic masculinity ain’t one. 

Ace spectrum, of all areas of the LGBTQIA, needs rep that isn’t just characters who are asexual to the point of being cold, aloof, and uncaring. There needs to be diversity across the board. Like gender, asexuality is a spectrum. All gender and sexuality is a spectrum and we should stop pretending like this is some modern concept invented by millennials. It’s not. Gender binary is a modern principal; gender as a spectrum is the concept of old that we’ve tried to bury with the nuclear family–the need to simply make children which cropped up from world wars one and two. 

We especially need these stories to be told in YA, where so much of the literary landscape is whirlwind romances. Ace spectrum still happens, even in your teen years. But how can teens know what they’re feeling is real and not a mental health condition (it was part of the DSM as a mental illness as late as 2013) if they don’t see themselves represented? We need more stories about these gentle, slower romances, especially where one character is ace spec and another is not. This way, teens can learn how to navigate these waters from both sides. 

Riley’s story will take time to make it out into the world. This year I’ll have to get the draft done; if I’m very lucky it will be agent-ready by next summer. But I will keep at it and I won’t give up until I’ve sold it and given it every opportunity to get in the hands of as many readers as I can. Because asexuality is part of the queer community, as is being non-binary, and I want teenagers to know it. I want them to read this story about love and sacrifice and see that you are not broken, and you are loved. That being who you are does not make you somehow undateable. Riley and Chase’s story is epic, and yours is too.

Women Edit, Men Write: The great gender divide of the publishing industry today

It is a commonly known fact that women are the curators of the man’s work, ingrained deeply into the United States from stereotypes crafted in the early 1900’s and onward. Though the nuclear home ideal is as dead as dead can be with the Millennial generation, in numerous publishing and literary careers women dominate the field.

Women as librarians.

Women as the editors.

Women as literary agents.

I’ve worked as both a librarian and an editor, and I can tell you, finding a man in either one is a rarity. In my three years as a tech services assistant in my college library, I knew two men who worked there, in a staff of thirty people. I was at an Editorial Freelancers Association meeting recently for the Diversity Initiative group; no men.

Even among indie authors, I see far more women and NB folk who wear both hats to pay the bills. They offer competitive but doable rates, and are generally approachable folks. The men I know in writing? Rates so high that you’ll never be able to afford them, and that’s why they are that way. So they don’t have to be bothered.

So why is that? Why is that the men folk rarely work in publishing beyond writing the book, or being a literary agent, or running the whole publishing house?

I honestly don’t know for certain. I’m no expert. But if I had to take a stab at it, I would say that it probably has something to do with the fact that women have always been in the caretaker position. Editing, librarianship, even being a literary agent–all jobs which fall under that category. You are not the one creating the art, rather you are the one looking after it. You’re the one who’s making sure the contract is sound, the manuscript is error-free, and that the books are cataloged correctly to insure access.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s the job you want. Except when I get paid a lot less than a man does, just like every other woman and non-binary person working in every industry. Then we have problems.

Despite the rise in numbers of female and non-binary authors working today, these statistics are still largely skewed by genre. Men still dominate some of the biggest genres around, including horror, SFF, and action adventure. Women who write within these genres are often either pushed to write romance, or shoved into that category entirely due to marketing. During my short time managing an indie bookstore, I became frustrated with the female authors having their works shelved in Paranormal Romance, while the male authors got to go to SFF. In the end, I created an urban fantasy section. Sure enough, sales picked up, because the books were finally where they should be.

I’ve worked throughout the many stages of publishing and the life-span of the written word, from library, to book store, to now freelance editing and indie author. I would love to say things are getting better, but only to a point. I’m a born-female, androgynous identifying person, writing and publishing LGBT Action Adventure. I don’t know anyone like me, not in my genre. Sarah Gailey probably comes closest, but she’s more SFF than my espionage leanings.

That’s it. A single author.

I knew well and good that I would be playing a man’s game the moment I decided that I wanted to get into writing espionage. Yet in the last three years, I’ve not seen any traction in the action adventure genre at all. It worries me, and it frustrates me. It forces me to title my books under initial, rather than my full name, because there is still major push-back for a non-male author to write a book with male leading characters.

But it also drives me. I write in this genre because I love it, always have. I was reared on Ian Fleming and campy action movies. My feel good films are the Shadow, the Phantom, and From Russia With Love. I am not going to stop playing in action adventure just because I’m one of a handful of LGBT and non-male folk here.

Women get to be caretakers, but they also get to be whatever the hell they want. Same goes for trans and non-binary folks. You have a choice. Break up the boys’ clubs. Kick the door down if you have to. You deserve it. You are worthy. Anyone who tells you otherwise, clearly doesn’t know what you’re capable of.

LGBT Representation: What it Is, What it Isn’t, and Why it Matters.

photo by Christian Sterk

By definition, LGBT representation involves having characters of the LGBTQIA spectrum play a leading role in a story—or all of the roles. LGBT folk tend to travel in packs (I can say this from experience) so it’s pretty easy to write them in. Proper LGBT representation means making your queer character overtly queer, even if your book doesn’t hinge on it. You can center the plot around their LGBT identity or not; that’s entirely up to you and the type of story you want to tell.

Currently, we’re seeing a much greater push for characters whose LGBTQIA identity is evident, without being the basis for the plot. For example, you have a main character who’s a bisexual man, but the story centers around him solving crimes as a PI in a corrupt town where the cops can’t be relied on because they’re crooked as hell. The main character in this case is queer, but the book is not a coming-out story or an issues book (a story that revolves around confronting the numerous problems present in and around the LGBT community). An example of an issues book would be a story where the main overarching conflict centers around the lead character’s struggle with being LGBT.

If you can’t tell a character is gay without the author saying so during an interview, that’s not representation, and they’re not writing a diverse book. Their queerness has to be present within the text, not just a footnote the author keeps in mind.

An obvious example of a series with no LGBT representation is Harry Potter. Dumbledore doesn’t count as queer representation if none of us knew that he was gay until JK revealed in an interview that he was in love with Grindelwald. That would have been a huge addition to the series, but it’s never brought up within the context of the story, so it doesn’t count as queer representation. Leaving it ambiguous—e.g., the character does not have a history of queerness nor is the sexual identity explicitly stated—also does not count. This follows the same vein of leaving someone’s skin color entirely unsaid. The idea that the reader will assume the character looks like them is false: readers will almost always assume a character is straight, cis-gender, and white until proven otherwise, because this is the type of person they are used to reading about. The lack of diversity in publishing throughout history has created this trap, and to ignore it is to play into it.

One of the biggest gaps we are trying to fill presently is the absence of LGBTQIA male characters in genre fiction. This is due to an age-old stereotype which persists today: queer women are more masculine, and therefore can take on roles in SFF and action-adventure, while queer men are more feminine and thus relegated to roles in rom-coms. This is a problem that exists across the market. As an LGBT writer, I often catch flack because my series—which is LGBT paranormal action-adventure—does not feature romance. My gay men are a little busy saving the world to fall in love. And yet I get asked how, without that romance, can my gay men really be gay? If Alan doesn’t show evidence of having relationships with men and women, is he really bisexual? If Yulian doesn’t make out with a guy, is he really gay? At what point can we say that gay men do not have to be falling in love with someone to be considered gay within the context of the story? At what point can we finally say, without question, that queer men don’t exist just to tell rom-com stories?

This is why LGBT representation matters. In putting out book after book after book with cliché queer male characters, publishing makes it harder for those who are queer to be able to divorce sexuality from gender stereotypes. The two are not the same, nor do they necessarily influence one another. Gay men are not necessarily feminine. Gay women are not necessarily butch. Not to mention the fact that there are numerous gender identities between the two, because gender is not binary.  And yet, publishing outside of young adult literature has yet to wrap its head around this fact. As I’m writing this, there is a professional publishing conference going on with a workshop centered around writing novels specifically for a cis-het audience, with exact beats, simply to sell more books. (Picture a skeleton for a book—you already have the structure and you’re just picking out the flooring and fixtures.)

I wish I was making that up, but here we are. It’s 2019, and we still have to explain to industry professionals that a large number of readers will not be straight. That a book can feature LGBT characters without it being an issue, or becoming a book about issues.

LGBT representation matters because queer characters have other stories to tell, and queer men in particular have lives and identities that exist outside of romance. They don’t need to look a certain way or talk a certain way or have a favorite member of the Fab Five. Having an LGBT lead will not subtract from your work of kick-butt genre fiction. It adds. Diversity shows us human beings, and that makes the story real. It lets it resonate and hit home. It makes the impossible, probable. If you want to write a great story, then fill it with whole, fully realized characters, across the spectrum of gender and sexuality.

Queer Men In Speculative Fiction–Where are they?

It’s weird that I have to ask this question. It’s the year 2018, and I can’t give you a list that is strictly male and doesn’t involve a romance as a focal plot point.

However, the why is answered fairly quickly the moment you walk into a SFF convention. If you haven’t, have no fear, there’s a scene from Brooklyn 99 that illustrates it perfectly: a panel on Diversity in SFF and its all straight middle-aged white guys in various states of dress. As always, one of them is wearing a leather bomber jacket. Cause he’s not like those other SFF authors, he’s a cool SFF author.

Spare me.

Do I have a personal problem with romance in SFF? Gods no, read what you want, write what you want. But it shouldn’t be the only place I can read about queer men. And it is the only place I can read about queer men. Every book I’ve come across involving a queer male character in a leading role–not a supplementary character–is romance. And what that translates into is, unless they’re falling in love with someone, queer male characters don’t have stories to tell.

Which is, ya know, bullshit. Obviously.

But this is what happens in a genre dominated by straight white men; they’re going to write either straight men or queer women. Because that is both what they know and what they view as attractive.

So how do we go about writing queer men in SFF? And why is it so hard for so many writers to wrap their minds around?

First, you take every trope you remember from the 90’s and you set them on fire. Never approach them again. Don’t even look at them. They don’t exist. Then you build that character, just as you would any other character, and add in but they’re gay as an afterthought. How minor you want it to be and how you present that will depend on the level of acceptance in your world setting, and the character’s age. Are they younger and naive, or are they older and have seen various laws and politics surrounding the LGBT community rise and fall? And how does that affect their worldview?

But if I don’t use tropes or make the effeminate, how will people know they’re gay?

Oh buddy ol’ pal, that’s the beauty of it–you can reveal that little tidbit whenever you want. You can add it into a conversation, slip it in casually, or make it a big statement. For example, I came out to my DnD group last week when someone asked if my character had a crush on a party member and I said “No its not like that, Malachi’s like me. He’s demisexual. He doesn’t feel sexual attraction to others without very intense romantic feelings and a deep level of trust.”

Or you can flashback to it. Have it brought up in a memory. That’s how I introduced Yulian as being gay in the Silver Bullet Affair. It’s barely one sentence. And for me, that’s all I needed. I wanted my readers to know that Yulian is gay, has always known he was gay, and is living in a country where being gay was accepted and legal for quite some time before rulers changed hands (he’s Russian, by the way).

But who’s allowed to write about queer male MCs?

Anyone whose willing to give it due diligence, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. For example, if you’re doing an SFF in a previous known time and place in history, or even a current one, you need to do your research on how the LGBT culture functions. If it’s made up, you have to make a backstory for that culture. How has it stood the test of time? Have different regimes of rulers made it illegal or otherwise legal? Did it start out as being acceptable but became worse as the power to rule changed hands, or is it the opposite? A writer should always write what they know, and the the beauty of the modern world we live in today is that what you know can easily be remedied. We have at our fingertips access to first hand accounts and primary resources with which to utilize to write anything accurately, so long as you put the hours in.

Queer men can kick ass, and save the world, and not have a romance define their entire place in a story. They can be effeminate or masculine, have great taste or a terrible fashion sense, because a person’s sexuality isn’t a clothing style or a series of mannerisms that dictates how you present yourself. Queer men, like all human beings, are individuals first, sexuality second.

For a fine example of queer men kicking ass, check out the Silver Bullet Affair, book one in the Bulletproof Spy series, available now on Amazon.

Become the Client your Editor Cherishes

Whether you’re a first time client or a repeat customer, getting ready to have your story professionally edited takes a lot more than just finalizing the latest draft or having your plot notes organized. If you want to become the client your editor puts other clients on hold for, you need to be ready in every way possible. From an editor to my future clients, here is the wish list of things I hope and pray for everytime I download my latest project manuscript.

Be in the right frame of mind.

I’ll say it once, I’ll say it a thousand times–your editor does not hate your book. I have never had a single book come to my doorstep that I deemed trunkable. Some need more work than others, some need work in other areas, but every book I have come across can be saved. Nothing is worthless, nothing is useless. HOWEVER, you need to be prepared for it to be imperfect, for its flaws to be pointed out, for the often very long editorial letter of improvements that need to be made. Again–I don’t hate your book. Nor are you somehow a bad person for sending me a manuscript that needs a lot of work–that’s what you hired me for! I like your book and I like you; my list of improvements is me helping you to make it the best damn book it can be. And I’m very, very good at making kickass books.

Know what you need.

Sample edits exist for a reason, and that reason is not just for the client to give me a test drive–it’s me taking your book for a spin. They are an absolute necessity for first time clients, and they become vital whenever I hear the phrase, “I’m not in a writing group nor have I had any critique done, but my friends all say its really good.” That’s great, I’m glad that your friends are supportive of your work; it’s important to have a support network as an artist. However, your friends are not editors, and their opinions aren’t always helpful.

Before you hire an editor, do your homework. Find out what your book really needs. If you don’t know, tell your editor when you hire them to suggest one after the sample edit. This lets me know that you are aware of the work that might need to be done–such as full developmental overhaul and copyedits to follow, rather than just a run through of line edits–and puts my trust in you that you and I can work together.

There is nothing more frustrating for me, and terrifying for me, than the moment I have to tell my client that no, you’re wrong, you actually need this much work done and it will cost you x amount of dollars. I’m not a car mechanic, I’m not trying to take your money by making up extra work. If I tell you the book needs another stage of editing, it’s because it needs another stage of editing in order to do well in the competitive publishing market we all work within today.

Have a financial plan.

I am literally the most understanding editor you will ever meet, because like you, I am broke as fuck 99.9% of the time. However, I’m also hiring editors, cover artists, and PR to self publish my own novels. As a professional author, financial planning is something you need to get used to as part of your day to day work. So! While I will help you to put together a payment plan that doesn’t empty out your wallet all at once, I still need to be paid and paid on time. Because I too have bills to pay and they are all planned around my editing schedule. I’ll break huge editing job payments up into quarters or even more if I think it’ll take multiple months (it’s rare but it happens, think monstrous epic fantasy that needs to be broken up into multiple books–that kind of edit). Be sure to have money aside to pay your editor on time, and I will jump a bike through a hoop of fire into a swimming pool if you ask me to. Your editor will remember a great book, but they will love you for paying them on time. That’s how you actually become The Favorite Client.

Make the time.

I am not the only doing the work here; it’s up to the both of us to get your book done and done on time. If you’re just doing copy edits, this means going through and approving or denying all of my changes on Word via the Track Changes system. Takes a couple of hours depending on the length of the novel and how picky you are about each and every word of your book. Some clients will go and look over every single change before they approve it, and some clients are what I call Trust Fall clients, who trust that I know grammar far better than they do and simply approve everything without even looking. Either way, you can do it in a weekend at most.

But say we’re doing a full comprehensive–that’s three to four stages of editing we’ll be doing in one month (two if you have a monster novel), one week per stage if its under 100k, two weeks if it’s 100+, not counting time between stages for you to go over my work and make any changes that are needed. As a client, you have to be prepared to make yourself available to do the work that needs doing in a timely manner. Plan your calendar accordingly. Schedule out social events, don’t take double shifts for a few weeks–you do what needs to be done. Because as your editor is doing exactly that for you, we expect the same in return.

Know what your next step is.

Where are you going with this book from here? Do you plan to self publish it? Are you looking into publishing houses that are more along the lines of small to mid-sized indies? Or are you thinking about shopping it out to agents? Knowing what your plans are for putting this story out into the world is not only a huge part of knowing what you need, but it also helps your editor to determine the type of client you are or will become. If you’re self-pubbing a memoir, I’ll probably only see you once, and maybe I’ll get referrals from friends. However, if you’re writing a series, that means I can compile the style sheets for this story together with proper tags for hunting it down later. That way when you come back in a few months and say, “Hey, I have the sequel to that novel we worked on back in January,” I can pull up the style sheet, add the new places and names in, and make a flawless consistency check that keeps up with all of your work in half the time.

What I will also do for those who are looking to get into independent publishing is try to point you in the right direction. That is not something all editors do; it is something I do because I want to see your book succeed and it’s just nice to help people. I know quite a bit; sharing that knowledge means maybe you, my client, can tell someone else about The Good Places to shop their book around and avoid the hellscape pub houses that make up the naughty list of Absolute Write’s Water Cooler. Have a plan in place before you send me your initial email, and I can advise and make my own plans accordingly.

 

I know I’m asking for a lot here–I get it. I’m asking you to plan your finances, your social calendar, your mental state, and your writing career all in one go. I can tell you as a writer and editor both, publishing ain’t easy. You thought writing the book was hard–it’s not. Writing the book is easy; the only thing standing between the book and completion is you. Getting the book out in the world is not easy, it takes a lot of money, a lot of work, and usually a bit of sanity. For some crazy reason, I love it. Even when I want to rip my hair out that the client ignored my comments on a dragging plot line, I love it all. But I want you my client to know what you’re getting into.

“But what if things go south,” you say. “What if something goes horribly wrong and I can’t get the work done on time?”

Well, that’s when you put on your big kid pants, and you write me an email all about it. Tell me what’s up, what you need me to do, and when you need to reschedule for. Or if you’re rescheduling at all. The worst thing you can do to your editor is “ghost.” This happens when a client vanishes, doesn’t answer my emails, and leaves me hanging with a whole empty week–or worse a month–that I put aside for you and am no longer making money on. Until I get the email from you saying what’s up, I won’t rebook it. Because for all I know, the moment I take on a new client during what should have been your time, you’ll pop up with the edits all done and wanting to get through the next stage ASAP.

Trust me when I say, I get that things go wrong. Your dad goes to jail, your grandfather has a stroke, your basement floods and you spend ten hours straight working to clean it up–I get it. That is all crap that happened to me in the past year. Life does not alway bend to the will of our publishing schedules, so just tell your editor what’s going on and let us try and help. I will do anything in my power to make accommodations for you, it’s quite literally my job.

Editing is not a hire-out procedure, it’s a team effort between author and editor that requires hours of work and a great deal of compromise. But like all team efforts, when you work together towards a common goal, the results are incredible.