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.

Writing Healthy – It’s all about routine

Routine. The most hated and feared word of people everywhere.

Routine? Routine is the essence of boredom, the same thing being done repeatedly day-after-day, a life restricted to steps in a process. Who the heck wants a routine?

One might argue that part of the reason writers write is because of a distaste for routine, they want to rise above the normal human condition, to share the depths of their imagination and revel in the unknown. Routine? Pshaw. That’s for mere mortals, not us author types.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but routine isn’t a four letter word. It’s seven. I checked.

As a writer, you’re likely a victim of routine without even realizing it. Pounding your fingers into the keyboard, generated word after word and page after page, handing things off to betas, passing them along to your editor, cover designer, revisions, it’s all baked into you so much that you don’t even realize that you, too, are part of a routine.

Why should your health be any different?

Yummm CAKE

I would argue that getting (and staying) healthy are just as important as putting down those 1,000 words first thing in the morning. I mean, after all, the longer you live, the more words you can put down going forward, right?

There was a point in my life when I tipped the scales at 325 pounds. I was a big guy and pretty much always had been a big guy. Breakfast was Egg McMuffins at McDonalds, lunch was a Whopper at Burger King (or a cheeseburger at Wendy’s if I really wanted to mix things up), all washed down with copious amounts of soda and french fries. My body was a temple – one of those old Aztec temples that’s crumbling into dust.

So I decided to make a change. In 2002, I told myself that I was going to designate an hour in the morning to exercise and I was going to pretty much blow up my entire diet and start over.

And I did. And have been. For sixteen years. I’ve lost nearly 150 pounds, but more importantly, in my mind, I’ve built a (scary word coming) routine. A routine where I carve out an hour a day in the morning to exercise.

I know, I know – exercise in the morning? That’s unpossible!

You can DO IT

I’m a forty-four year old guy, married, two kids, a full time senior management job, and I’ve written 1.1 million words so far this year (publishing 15 books so far in 2018). Trust me when I say it can be done. It’s all about the routine.

I wake up at five, get ready for work, get the kids lunches ready, type for a few minutes if I can. By seven I’m dropping the older kid off at school, then I come straight home and from 7 – 8 I do whatever exercise I can. Most of the time, I run, getting in around 5 miles if I time it just right. When I can’t (or don’t want to) run, I lift weights, ride a stationary bike, or other forms of cardio and high impact. It’s nothing special, but it’s a routine. And hey, for what it’s worth, nothing sparks my creative mind like running… I can almost always work through a challenging scene or sequence when I’m out on the trail, the wind in my face.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand, not everyone can do this. Some people have trickier morning schedules. But the key is, you need to form a routine and set aside a time every single day to follow it. Some days you’ll miss it, and that’s okay, but focus on the next day, and promise yourself you won’t miss it two days in a row.

Exercise? Nobody gots time fer that!

Some days you can use that one hour to exercise. Some days you can use that one hour to meal prep. Some days you can use that one hour just to get an extra 1,500 words in. The important thing is to carve out that one hour and tell yourself that’s your hour to maintain your health. Then stick with it.

Of course, as the old saying goes, you can’t outrun a bad diet, and I’m going to say it here, too. Health starts in the kitchen. You’ll notice I mentioned meal prep up there, and I did that for a reason. Focusing on real food is going to save you money and save your body, and I’d argue the single most important thing I did for my health was to actually start thinking about what I’m putting in my body. Even if I don’t always stick with it, I am ALWAYS thinking about it, fully aware when I’m making bad choices and ticking off in my head how I’m going to make up for it in the future.

Two for one at McD's!

Oh, by the way… losing 150 pounds, changing my eating habits, basically reinventing my lifestyle is the single hardest thing I’ve ever done. But the key to it is routine.

Get in the habit of avoiding fast food, you’ll be surprised how quickly the cravings go away. Get in the habit of not drinking so much soda, you’ll be surprised at how soon the bubbles hurt your throat on the way down. Get in the habit of burning a few calories at designated times during the day, you’ll be surprised at how damn good you feel afterwards.

Habit. Routine. The words aren’t fun, but they might save your life. And if you miss a few hundred words a day because of it, well, you’ll make those up with the extra years at the end.

Tracking The Words

This came up recently on the Facebook page and the timing was pretty good as I’d been thinking of writing about this topic anyways.

Up until recently I didn’t track my daily word counts.  Didn’t really see the need.  I knew I needed to write everyday to get the kind of production I needed to hit the publishing schedule I wanted.  What I want to do is pretty expansive. Lots of series, lots of releases.

And to do that I needed to up my production levels.

I knew that but it still wasn’t coming.  I’d always say “let the words just come” and that is true but to meet my goals, I needed consistency.

So I went through everything I had written since publishing my first book The Skeleton Stone (May 2016) and tallied it up. Lots of writing, not that high a word total.

No wonder my production was so slow.

I saw people churning out books after books after books and I was struggling to keep up with an every-other-month novella series.  Something had to change.

I’m not a fast writer. I know that.  I’ll never have the production of a full novel every month. And that’s okay.  But I did need to consistently produce.

Working up a spreadsheet I figured out a daily word count minimum that I could hopefully sustain.  Most nights, I only get about an hour to actually write so had to factor that in.

My goal is 1,500 words a day (not an hour). Any project, or any number of projects, but I needed that minimum.  30 day month, that’s 45,000 words.  I figured if I hit 40,000 for the month, wanting to do more obviously, but I’d be satisfied.  At 40k a month, that’s 480,000 for the year.  Still not that high compared to others (there are people that do 1 mil halfway through the year) but at 40k minimum for a novel (according to Science Fiction And Fantasy Writers of America) that would translate to twelve short novels.  One a month.

(for the record SFWA has word counts as: Short Story – up to 7,499; Novellette – 7,500 to 17,499; Novella – 17,500 to 39,999; Novel – 40,000 and up)

That’s a lot of work produced in a year.  I shoot for 30k words for a Novella and 60k+ for a novel.

Now knowing what I needed to produce, I had to start doing that.  Setting the goal, having a tangible record via the spreadsheet, forces me to write every night.  I switch projects when hit a wall on one, start new things.  But I’m writing around 1,500 words a day.

I play “games” with myself.  Some nights end up writing less if something else is going on (kids not sleeping for example) so I make it up another night and can see I planned in for non-production days (the 45,000 a month vs 40,000).  Since I started tracking on 10/18/18, I have generated 33,982 words.

Not bad for only 15 days or so.  Half a month and I’m already pretty close to my ultimate goal.

That’s all the evidence I needed that tracking your word counts works.  If you aren’t, I would suggest that you do so.

It seems a minor thing, tracking word count every day, but having that goal that need to hit does wonders for the motivation.

I’m thankful I started going it.

Now just need to make sure I can maintain that pace.

NaNoWrimo Write-Ins, your novel and you!

 

So with NaNoWrimo just mere weeks away, it’s time to makes plans! Plan your novel! Pants your novel! No one cares if it makes sense as long as you get the 50k in the kitty before November 15th it’s all good!

Also, plan to go to a write-in.

Wait, what’s a write-in?

A NaNoWrimo write-in is a public gathering of NaNoWrimo participants. Among many things done at these write-ins is participants type away on their laptops until they all get sick of each other or their work in progress.

Yes, you heard me, writers gathering in groups and typing away.

This may sound odd but it’s fun and you’ll find you get more work done in the end.

A brief background on myself, I started NaNoWrimo in 2004 in Rhode Island and gradually worked my way up to becoming an Municipal Liaison (ML) and in 2014 or 2015 stepped down so someone else got the fun job.

An ML’s job is essentially to herd cats, er, participants, send out emails to the region, hold a mandatory Kick-Off and Thank God It’s Over (TGIO) parties and schedule write-ins even if no one shows up.

A write-in is essential to your NaNoWrimo experience for several reasons.

First, so you know you’re not doing this alone. The comradeship helps as November rolls on and the writers who were hot to trot three weeks ago all of sudden dwindle to nothing by the time Black Friday comes round.

Second, because coffee shops.

I was never a really big coffee drinker in junior, high school and college. I’m one of this morning people that can roll out of bed at 6am and start working without the caffeine.

So, when I started to frequent places like Panera, Reflections, Brewed Awakenings, the now defunct Borders Café, Blue State and Elephant Room (now Schastea) and so on, I figured out what I liked and what I didn’t. This helps later on in life when you’re writing to make a buck and can’t get any work done at home.

Besides the drinks, being an ML is meant looking for places where if need be the entire group of writers (10-15 on a good night) could de-camp for three hours and write without ticking off the owners. Doing these events taught me to look for several things like seating, electrical outlets and parking.

Along with all this, I learned to keep a surge protector in my bag at all times just in case which has saved me on more than one occasion.

Thirdly, write-ins are fun because if you hit a brick wall you get to people watch and listen to for instance a comedy stand-up act about Muppets and fisting.

Lastly, it’s fun to see your fellow writers and swap war stories about losing a thousand words or how many words they gained. Word Wars are started this way and it’s fun to have someone nipping at your heals. This hobby can be very lonely at times unless you manage to hit pay dirt and begin a professional career out of it.

It’s what helped create the writer group I started some eight years ago and out of the core group, myself included, five of us have gotten short stories published or in my case published novel that took me seven years to finish because as much I as I thought I was writing it I wasn’t put my ass in seat, cut the cable tv, the PS4 and the twitter feed to finish it.

So, when November rolls around as it does every single year, check the regional calendar and see if there’s a write-in. Bring your laptop, the charger and your noise canceling headset and go to write-in. Get a lovely NaNoWrimo sticker for which the ML should have many and start typing.

You’ll surprised at how much writing you’ll get done with everyone else is tapping away on their keyboards.