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Posts by Everett Maroon
It’s been a blast writing for the good folks and readers of Gay YA—I believe in the core of my being that young readers need these stories, especially as there are so many nincompoops out there who would slam the entire genre and dismiss our hard work out of hand. Those naysayers are not our audience, after all.
I hope you’ll come and see me over at my blog, Trans/Plant/Portation, and elsewhere around the net. And I do suspect I’ll be back here from time to time, as the powers that be are inclined. Happy reading, and happy summer!
Eighth grade, 1984. Enough of spring had popped through the soil that the scent of daffodils trickled up to the third floor of the Princeton primary school, which was set right up against busy Nassau Street. As the building was nearly 200 years old, we relied on cross-breezes for air conditioning, which, given that each classroom had windows on only one side of the room and given that New Jersey air does not come pre-conditioned, meant that we were all overheating on a regular basis at some point after April 6. Our core temperatures, however, to a great degree reflected our disparate uniform code: boys could wear thin polo shirts once winter was over, but the girls’ dresses were heavy and scratchy, not much of an improvement over their woolen vests and kilts. More >
I’ve looked at stories, characters, plot devices, layering, the writer’s mission, and some of the tropes around gay YA and genre fiction this past month or so, but left to examine among many other aspects of writing is audience. Not all writers seek publication, and that’s fine, but for those of us who want to get our words communicated to the world outside our heads should understand our options, the market, and readers’ expectations. In no particular order:
Get your work in line with your mission—Looking to write crossover or mainstream YA novels? Then there needs to be cross-market appeal. But if sticking to LGBT themes and characters is your priority, be prepared to work only or primarily with smaller niche markets. I had a novel (I’ve since trunked it for a later day) that used santorum the substance, not the politician, and was told by a very big, helpful editor, that I needed to change it if I wanted to get big markets to go for it, or stick to gay publishers. We’re the writers; we need to see these moments as the choices they are.
Learn the lingo—Colleen Lindsay, who was an agent for years and now works on the Book Country project out of Penguin, told me that they’re not “LGBT” books, they’re “YA books with LGBT themes.” This signals to potential agents and editors that we’re professionals and we know how to market our projects and work with the folks in publishing. Conferences and agent blogs are a great way to pick up the ways in which the industry categorizes its products.
Be a good writing citizen—Sure, there is plenty of evidence that if you start a blog, it shouldn’t be all about writing, although I resist the notion that avid readers aren’t interested in how we do what we do. I know they’re out there because they’ve tugged at me and waved. Let’s make sure we don’t swing the pendulum too far against writing about writing. If we share some of our experiences—meaning our failures and successes—we create a better writing community than if we isolate ourselves in our endeavors. Consider being a beta reader for someone else’s project, and eventually, you’ll make some trusted writing friends. Also, there are too few avenues into publishing not to share our connections with each other. Supporting other writers helps us take a little more control in our own hands for gaining advocates for our own work.
Listen more, talk less—Watch conversations like #litchat on Twitter, which runs MWF at 1PM Pacific Time. Sure, throw in your opinion from time to time, but pay more attention to what others are saying online. Follow your favorite agents and editors in the social networking sites they frequent. Don’t barrage them with questions; the last thing an emerging writer needs is to make a bad name for herself, so that when the agent sees the name on the query, she rolls her eyes in fatigue. That guy who sends out the same query every day to 200 agents—yes, he exists—is NEVER going to get an agent. Learn what’s going on in the industry beyond the doom and gloom narrative—maybe a part of your writing time each week could be spent reading Writer’s Digest, or Writers & Poets, or Chuck Sambuchino’s blog, for example. They give very helpful, actionable advice.
Find LGBT-inclined markets—Canonball blog, Expanded Horizons, Original Plumbing, and other journals feature or prioritize LGBT stories and writers. Duotrope dot com lets writers search for relevant markets and manage when they’ve querying and what outcome they’ve received. You’ll also find out via my earlier points where the LGBT-friendly folks are, and meet the audiences who are reading these markets. Let hyperspace be your guide. What do these journals list on their blogrolls? Are there other Web sites associated with any commenters to short stories you like? Check them out and their submission guidelines, and get involved in some of those conversations. This also has the added benefit of keeping you on top of contemporary LGBT-themed fiction, what kinds of fiction different markets produce, and where your work may best be accepted.
Remember you’re part of the audience—Be willing to look at your own writing with a critical eye. Have you criticized a book’s opening when you have a similar beginning in one of your projects? We know more than we think we do. I know it’s challenging to be confident when you’d rather give up, but not exaggerate your capabilities. If you know what you like as a reader, chances are there are many other readers who like that same kind of thing. Sure, writing is a process and a labor of love, and sometimes it’s part of our social agenda. But it’s also a product, and if we’re seeking a route toward traditional publication, we need to understand our projects need to be sellable and marketable by publicity agents (and ourselves). So turn your reader’s eye, not your nervous writer’s eye, to your work when it’s time for rewrites, and it will come out a lot cleaner when it’s time to query.
Find whatever outlets for your writing that you can manage to support—Is there a call for unpaid guest bloggers? Think about throwing your hat in the ring; you’ll likely find new readers. Then engage people who respond to your posts with replies, making the readers feel appreciated and the editors taken seriously. Does one of your writing buddies need a last-minute 500-word post? Write one up. Paid blogging or writing gigs are even better. Once you’ve established a solid reputation, you can use your connections to see if larger markets are interested in an idea or pitch of yours.
The good news is that even in this economy book sales—especially ebooks—are still doing reasonably well, and more titles than ever are on the market. There is room for us in Gay YA. We need to be our own, friendly champions and if we stick with it long enough, our hard work will more than likely pay off for us.
A little explosion happened on the Internet this weekend when Meghan Cox Gurdon, writing for The Wall Street Journal, took aim at contemporary young adult literature for what she saw as too much gruesomeness, violence, and “darkness,” which defies specificity so much as to be next to meaningless. I’d like to unpack some of what was offered by Ms. Gurdon and respond. And because I was gearing up to write about mentors in gay YA before her article came out, I’ll try to include a bit of that here, too.
- The world is significantly different in 2011 than it was in 1971—Forgive the understatement, but pointing to books like Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret as standard bearers for what YA literature should be today is the ultimate in naivete. Isn’t part of the point of YA as a genre to connect to where young adult readers are now? I’d love for this generation to read old Judy Blume, Paula Danziger, and Lois Duncan books, but honestly, I’d rather they just read voraciously, and I wish Ms. Gurdon prioritized this too.
- Young adult audiences have been reading dark, morbid, haunting, violent narratives for decades—Insisting that any one genre could be responsible for teenage behavior is to misread the autonomy that young readers have and underestimate their capacity to absorb material without internalizing it. I for one read a lot of Stephen King, who is almost never described as an author of “light” material, and I had a lot of peers who, back in the day, devoured his work, as well as Peter Straub’s, Dean Koontz’s, and countless other horror writers’ work. Pointing a spotlight on the YA genre is only possible because there is a YA genre. So everything else is off the hook for the messages that may be contained therein?
- Speaking of which, young readers are capable of reading anything, whether it’s called YA or not—To suggest that it’s only YA writers and books who are beholden to a narrow frame on topics, violence, gore, and mood, well, that’s a strange line to draw in the sand. Sure, movies, music, and video games have their age-designated hierarchies, but is that a good idea and does it really work to protect young consumers? I’m ready to walk away from the concept that kids are only ready to expand their content horizons when they’ve reached certain ages. Every individual is different, n’est-ce pas?
- Focusing on some elements of a book as negative erases the parts that are positive, and ignores the overall messages that are present—The Hunger Games, which Ms. Gurdon dismisses as “hyper-violent,” is a meditation on war and the trauma it causes children. How would an author pick apart war, death, and loss without violence? In trying to envision a non-grotesque way to handle such heavy topics as incest, abuse, and international conflict, I’m drawing a blank. Either we make a space for controversial and taboo subjects in all of literature—including YA—or we burrow our heads in the proverbial blinding sand. Katniss has her mentors and supporters and learns she can find strength in a morose, chaotic world. Even Harry Potter himself learns (again and again) to trust his elders (tip of the hat to Dumbledore!) and friends, as each book in J.K. Rowling’s series gets darker and darker.
- There are plenty of YA books that are humorous, fun, or “light” on the market—Pretty Little Liars, anyone?Any of Percy Jackson’s adventures? YA novels cover the gamut of topics, tone, characters, settings, eras, and so on. Readers who don’t want to read about gaybashing—not everyone does, certainly—need only choose another book. I’m sure I’m in good company in resisting what looks like a call for censorship at the book procurement level.
- Reading should be about pushing boundaries, learning about faraway lands and new concepts, and enjoying a good story—It is entirely too huge an assumption to state that reading about specific behaviors or choices “normalizes them.” Ms. Gurdon uses the example of cutting, self-injury some partake in to get a rush or release tension. If we could point our magic wands at every book with cutting in it, would that decrease the incidence among today’s youth? I presume they could also learn about it on the Internet, in texts from their classmates, on Facebook chats, etc. Wouldn’t reading about it in a context of character and that character’s decisions be less problematic, not more? With such free-flowing information swirling around all of us today, there is little to nothing that young adults won’t hear about.
I’m glad WSJ ran this article, honestly, because to see the outpouring of support for YA authors and readers was heartening. Those of us dedicated to producing the best written stories for young readers are a tough lot.
Must be all those scary novels I read as a kid.
There’s a fight going on, but not many people know about it. It boils down to what most fights look like after a long time simmering and evaporating away their unnecessary parts—the right to tell a story. Like many other battles this one is about a people, power, and ownership.
I’m talking about where transgender comes from, why it occurs, and what meaning to draw from it.
If we left it up to The New York Times and David Letterman, transgender people, all, struggle with being the wrong sex in the wrong body. Chances are they know it early on, they suffer tremendous amounts of angst and depression, and they demonstrate their trans-ness by loving every activity ever singled out for the opposite sex, the one they want to be so dearly. And anyone else who feels a bit differently—a person who doesn’t always feel totally female every day, a man who still loves to wear pink, someone who doesn’t feel the need to go on hormones—they become invalidated. They are not authentic transsexual people, or they would be marching in lockstep to the narrative of the greatest biological trick ever hoisted against human beings, hemophilia and cystic fibrosis notwithstanding.* Somehow the whole conversation reminds of people from different Christian denominations arguing about who’s going to heaven faster or better.
The whole thing is a red herring, folks. There is no single narrative that describes the emotional and physical nature of being trans, and there is especially no singularity with regard to how one understands coming to identify as trans-anything. Call those statements generalizations, but I see them as opening up a space for people to be their authentic selves without impinging on anyone else’s identity, and so I’m comfortable with saying that.
Okay, why does this matter to the YA writer? Two quick reasons:
- Readers infer what writers imply, so if we regurgitate this story about pelicans bringing the messed up trans babies into the world, we give it more power and presence.
- We need to be prepared as writers for criticism from transfolk about how they are portrayed in our work. This is particularly important given the overall dearth of transgender characters or ideas in YA fiction.
What do I propose about this? Well, namely that we create characters who are whole people but don’t fit “the narrative.” This doesn’t mean that we need to debunk the narrative—there are many people who believe it describes them and their history, and that’s fine for them. And us, I presume. But let’s not stop there. It’s actually better for us as writers to be able to use the full reach of our imaginations in writing stories with trans themes, elements, and characters. We should explore gender for a YA audience in new ways:
- Put the trans character front and center, not as a sidekick
- Show mentors in the story who have struggled with their gender identity or expression
- Use the genre to push transgender themes
- Invent new gender paradigms (maybe there are 5 genders that are self-selected at a certain age? a town in which everyone dresses androgynously and never thought about gender?)
- Talk about gender via another coming-of-age moment, or as part of understanding other emerging parts of the character’s identity (how being trans affects playing on the basketball team, for example)
- Show characters who aren’t afraid, hateful, or ashamed of their past gender history but who are trans nonetheless
Regarding criticism, if we stay away from stereotypes about transfolk (and other communities), and allow for multiple paths to trans-ness, I think we’re on solid ground as writers. At the end of the day, if we are able to say we opened up space for readers to see themselves or understand each other, we’ve had a damn good day.
*That’s tongue in cheek. I wish more trans folks thought about what taking up disability rhetoric meant for people with disabilities.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about creating multi-layered characters as one of my goals as a transgender writer. I was talking about LGBT characters at the time, but pulling back a bit on those parameters, I think the dedication to crafting believable, complex characters should extend to every personality in the narrative. And if we’re going to support well rounded character development as writers, we should remember to support intersectionality while we’re at it.
All I mean here about intersectionality is that I want to include a liberatory understanding of the differently positioned, race, ethnic, class, gender, and sexual orientation-related communities while I’m writing, playing against what are either tropes in literature or stereotypes of culture. It doesn’t do my writer’s agenda any good if only the LGBT aspects of the book are well thought out and explored. Besides, and this is a mammoth besides, many LGBT people are also in other communities—they may be people of color, working class, resident aliens, Buddhists, and so on—and if there aren’t enough YA books out there with LGBT characters, there are certainly fewer of them with minority LGBT characters. So, some of the things I try to think about when I’m drafting my character sheets:
Stay away from racial stereotypes and genre tropes of that stereotype—It’s a no-brainer to avoid racist overtones like writing about “dark villains,” but there are less obvious problematic characters, like having very religious characters be Hispanic or African American. Science fiction has even taken on the trope of the “magical Negro,” at times executed as an extension of religiosity. I’m not saying we can’t have wizards of color, but we need to create a context in which those characters aren’t present just to help a white protagonist (I’m looking at you, Bagger Vance).
Look at how intersectionality affects reality for the characters—Often, when faced with a crisis, our protagonist will seek help, from the people around them and from places or institutions they know about. We could show something interesting if it’s only the private girl’s school that has the rare book in the library with the clue to a secret past and our heroine attends public school in a low-income neighborhood. Then just “passing” to get into the school and find the book becomes something of a challenge. Friends of the protagonist may relate to each other across differences in their backgrounds, or bicker over those differences. For YA characters, there may be “first” moments captured in the story—the first time they were denied some kind of service, the first time someone said something derogatory to them because of their background, etc.
Remember that everyone has race, everyone has gender, and everyone has a class position—When a character has privilege with regard to one of these power vectors, that needs to be explored, too. Those girl’s school students may be more aware of their class standing than a middle class white character understands their race privilege, but these awarenesses can be part of the story, too. Writing in the affects of all of the characters’ social positions, and not just the ones with minority status or who are oppressed, will make the story stronger and move it away from reinforcing problematic ideas about race, class, and gender.
Think about how intersectionality affects LGBT identities—All kinds of adolescents worry about how their families will react when they come out, but there are different specific concerns depending on the cultural history of the family, and its standing in the community. Maybe a working class Latina girl and a wealthy African American boy find ways to come out to their parents because of seeing how each other is negotiating their own journey. Or a young trans woman with Roma parents discovers an unlikely mentor in the form of her art teacher, who is an Asian gay man. What kinds of disparate experiences could be brought together, and what kinds of lessons could they learn from each other?
I value diversity for just such a reason: we live richer, fuller lives when we open up to each other, respect our differences, and work together to improve our lives. I love to see those messages in stories, and I think acknowledging and working with intersections of these communities makes those narratives more accessible to all YA readers, and more interesting to boot. Next week I’ll present a short story of mine with these goals in mind.
I write speculative fiction, usually somewhere between soft science fiction and magical realism, and often, though not exclusively, with LGBT themes and characters. I suppose I could write more mainstream stories, but I like to twist things up and mess with the universe, and besides, I’m a genre geek. I swear this is less from a God complex perspective, and more about playfulness and political intent. Metaphors for transition, coming out, family acceptance, and the like can replace a description of the real thing, and in so doing, open up some space away from angst so more time can be spent appreciating some of the other aspects of these moments.
Personally, I’m over angst, having racked up enough of those moments through two whole puberties! But as a writer for young adult and crossover audiences, I’m invested in finding ways to depict all of that cortisol-inducing stress, especially as it relates to LGBT themes. So I opt to find a different geography, a reinvention of time, nifty gadgets and alien species to push, instead of resolve, tension. Ideas for getting at LGBT themes through spec fic include:
- Changing bodies—Characters who leap into a different body as a corporeal haunting, time travel to a different epoch, cyborg modification, or alien journeying to Earth all provide opportunities to write against expectations for gender and sexual orientation, especially if they make a shift from their original gender or begin to occupy lives that are in a different kind of relationship than they were in previously. In my work-in-progress novel, the protagonist accidentally jumps back in time to the 1920s and finds himself in a young woman’s body, which is just one of many foreign experiences to which he must adjust, especially as he tries to deal with the sexism of the era.
- Being a good host—Introducing a visitor from a faraway place, say, the Andromeda galaxy, to Earth customs and habits provides a good premise for questioning the validity of those customs, and of course this is the foundation of many, many science fiction books, but using it to validate LGBT people is still uncommon. It also allows room for a begrudging protagonist or main character to grow and become more accepting by the end of the story. And the twist on this dichotomoy—a tolerant human and an intolerant alien—can also work to examine LGBT lives.
- Relying on audience knowledge—Dystopias and post-apocalyptic stories do this well, in showing what’s happened to civilization. The City of Ember and The Hunger Games series are good examples of relying on the audience’s knowledge of our world to mark the separation with the world built in the story. Here any critique of homophobia or transphobia is more subtle because it relies on what the reader knows about LGBT and the content of their opinions. Conversely, the distance between real world society and the one of the narrative can be played for laughs, and is one way to write LGBT characters against type.
- Reinventing nature—I admit that this concept has been done, and done to cliche, but it is a part of science fiction and it remains one way of validating LGBT identities. The world in which individuals lose, gain, or change gender, or have what we would consider alternative kinds of relationships—these recalibrate the idea of normality.
These approaches, all reliant on speculative fiction genres, ease some of the pressure on dialogue and character to handle LGBT issues and themes, and can make bringing them up easier for a YA audience. They can also decrease the likelihood of preachiness by moving the exploration of LGBT topics to plot, world-building, narration, and even setting. Of course YA benefits by offering LGBT themes across genres and mainstream literary narratives. But for me at least, there’s a special rapport between spec fic and LGBT stories. For one example of this, check out a flash fiction piece posted last week at the amwriting.org Web site.
Like many writers I know, I took a meandering path to this writing profession, starting out confident and then dedicating a long decade in quicksand—I think it’s called self-doubt—after which I think I found myself in the center of the earth, and let me just say, it’s hotter than I thought it would be down there. During this long break I suppose I opted to have a sex change, and then I realized that I needed to write about my transition. I didn’t want to relate a tale of anguish and grief. Instead, I focused on the ludicrous situations that popped up as I navigated through gender roles, gathered information on doctors, civil courts, and resources, and klutzed into whatever manhood I now find myself. Where I have ended up as a writer is not where I estimated I’d find myself, but I understand now that all of my wanderlust has made me a much better storyteller. And along the way, I’ve identified my audience in young adult readers, in whatever stripe of gender and sexual orientation (or questioning place) they may be. I now have a good idea of my goals as a writer of transgender and queer experience.
1. Write believable characters who aren’t all about being LGBT—Nobody is simply the sum of the aspects of their identities. When I write out character sketches for my characters, I make sure not to prioritize their queerness; I may begin by thinking about how much they hate their trumpet practice time, or what vegetables they despise, or whether they wake up before their alarm clock sounds, anything to make them more layered as people. That doesn’t mean the LGBT isn’t significant. To the contrary, I’ll spend time working through those issues, writing up back story about how they identify, when they first thought about being L, G, B, and/or T, and what emotions they feel about being different. Are they defensive about it? Do they use humor to deflect attention from it? Who have they told about their feelings? Because I want my readers to be able to identify with the protagonist and other characters, I try to get as good a fix as I can on the whole perso, with specific attention paid to where and how they fit into the LGBT world.
2. Write against type in character and situation—In my humble opinion, there are enough narratives out there about how awful life as a queer teenager or young adult can be. I’m not espousing a rose-colored lens on the world here, but I don’t feel the need to recreate The Well of Loneliness, either, with all due respect to Radclyffe Hall. I’m interested in young trans women characters who are smart and sassy, young trans men who don’t reinforce macho stereotypes, gender bending characters who won’t be pinned down, and gender nonconforming kids who help illustrate where the boundaries are between expressing one’s gay or lesbian orientation, and one’s gender identity. I don’t need to write the transsexual as serial killer or Ms. Lonelyhearts, especially not for a YA audience.
3. Envision novel universes that help push an exploration of LGBT issues—My latest novel, which is nearing its last revision before I peddle it at summer conferences features a time-traveling epileptic teenager who shifts genders as he slips into Prohibition-era Kentucky. Jumping into the body of a girl is the last thing he thinks he needs, but by the end of the book, he makes some interesting choices after growing as a character. I was interested in making orientation and gender so fluid in the narrative that it would even be difficult to assign a pronoun to the protagonist. And I hope that the action-adventure tale brings a playfulness to the more grounded LGBT questions and keeps the reader absorbed while they have a chance to rethink issues of queerness.
4. Give LGBT readers someone to identify with—I remember contorting myself around mainstream YA novels when I was an adolescent, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was often left alienated or disappointed. It was hard not to see big parts of myself in books by Paula Danziger, Judy Blume, and others, especially when friends gushed about how great they were. I turned to science fiction and fantasy, which at least created worlds in which I could lose myself. What if YA books hit all bases? Great story, great characters, great lessons, and inclusive of LGBT and questioning youth? I want to provide all of that.
I’m excited for the opportunity to explore some of these questions here at GayYA over the next several weeks, and I hope to see dialogue in the comment threads. I post over at my own blog, Trans/Plant/Portation, write popular culture commentary at I Fry Mine in Butter, and in June and July, will return to Bitch Magazine’s blog to look at the early campaigning for President. Because as part of my indirect writer’s path, I focus on all kinds of things. Thanks for letting me spend some time here, and howdy.