Monthly Archives: September 2017

A man writing about heroines offers an explanation

A Man Writing Heroines

Here’s a story about D&D, listening and trying to be a good ally.

Why am I, a man, writing about heroines? Let me tell you a story.

A friend told me about a game of Dungeons & Dragons he’d played. The Dungeon Master was keen to create a diverse world, so he made a point of making sure there was a roughly even split of genders amongst the NPCs (non-player characters – basically all the extra and supporting cast played by the Dungeon Master). Sounds reasonable, right?

Clearly, though, the players weren’t exactly used to the sudden preponderance of female pronouns in the stories they consumed. So they immediately jumped to the conclusion that all these female-presenting people must have done something to the menfolk.

I like that story a lot

Because 1. I find it pretty bleakly funny and 2. It illustrates (anecdotally) something that a lot of studies have backed up. As a society, we tend to assume male voices/characters are the default. And when they aren’t the default? We assume that the female voices are taking up way more space than they actually are. And addressing this, for me, is a big part

And addressing this, for me, is a big part of what being an ally is. It’s about helping to make spaces where female-presenting people and female voices are not seen as a surprise. It’s about signal boosting. About listening and encouraging a culture that listens. And it’s about speaking out in ways that do not drown out or take credit for the female voices that are saying the same things. Being a good ally, I would argue, is both a task that involves dismantling your privilege and weaponising it.

How does this relate to Heroine Chic?

When I first started to think about ‘heroines’ as the theme for this collection of stories, I asked myself three questions.

  1. Am I taking away an opportunity from a writer who knows these experiences better than me? Am I taking away a chance for a marginalised person to tell their story?
  2. Will me telling these stories in this way do any good? If I believe that we understand the world through stories (spoilers: I do), then what world do these stories create?
  3. Am I writing these stories from a place of understanding? Given I am writing the experience of people other than myself, can I do justice to those experiences? I.e. can I pull this off in a way that isn’t a bit shit?

These answers, if you’ll forgive me, require a bit of backstory.

The backstory

You see, most of the stories that you’ll find in the book are stories that I originally posted online on my Tumblr and on my facebook. Why did I start doing this? Honestly, mainly that classic writerly combination of vanity, self-doubt and the struggle for motivation. Posting stuff online provided me with the validation and accountability that I craved – and that I needed to be productive. Then I realised that people were actually reading them. And I realised that, for some people, it was helping them. A big turning point was when someone told me that my words helped them on their ‘grey days’. Another big turning point was listening to my friend, the very talented writer Lucy Ayrton, talk about the power of fairy tales in her show Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry. These things made me ask questions about what I wanted my stories to accomplish. About the worlds I wanted to create.

So I kept listening. I listened to my friends and loved ones when they talked about their experiences. I did my own research. I did my best to educate myself. And then I started to put the things I’d heard into my stories. I started considering what the monsters, the magic and the fantastical in my stories were metaphors for – the themes they tapped into. I challenged my own assumptions about what genders characters should be.

Fresh eyes

I think, to an extent, most of my favourite writers are ones who make you see the world afresh. Who shows you the magic in familiar things. To be a good ally, my stories had to accomplish two things: they had to have experiences in them that people could recognise as their own, and they had to contain the wonder of something new (to be more than just parroting people’s experience back to them).

Then, once I’d written the stories … I had to keep listening. I had to take on board feedback. I had to work out which stories seemed to help people. I had to keep improving.

And to answer my two questions above…

Yes, it seems from the way people have reacted to these stories that they do some good. It seems that they imagine a world that folks might want to visit. They imagine heroines who might be a bit inspiring.

Yes, it seems from what people have told me, that I have captured at least a version of their experiences. That I have been the magic mirror I wish to be – the kind in which you see yourself but also see something new.

Deconstruct the default

To take it back to that first story: I don’t want to be the kind of Dungeon Master whose NPCs are all male by default. And I want to help create a culture in which a diverse fictional world is not a surprise.

This means I have to try and write experiences outside of my own. It means I have to try to be a good ally.

And to be a good ally, to write as a good ally, you have to know when to listen. You have to know when to speak.

And in Heroine Chic, you will find what I have heard. And you will find what I have to say – what I am using this platform to try and speak about.

I hope you find that it is something worth hearing. I hope it makes some difference. And I hope you really enjoy it.

It's time to make our voices heard

Stop Talking About Diversity In Books

“The importance of diversity in books”, “diverse characters – tokenism or important?” and my personal favourite, “is diversity really that important?”

Every time I see a convention panel discussion with a name like this, my eyes roll so hard I end up chasing them across the floor.

Let’s be honest, here. The publishing world is very, very good at talking about things that matter. Unfortunately, when it comes to doing something about it, we tend to hold up our hands and say “we’re swamped already!”

That’s partially true. In a world where the average author royalty payments barely cover the electricity for their laptops, publishers (especially small publishers!) have to work overtime just to be heard above the razzle dazzle of the latest Big 5 bestseller. Just look at how long it took for the Big 5 – with all of their resources and full-time employees – to fully embrace eBooks. It’s only been in the last few years that their websites have been even remotely pleasant to visit.

But this has to start changing. Now.

To answer the above in order, “Very”, “Important”, and my personal favourite, “No shit.”

We all know that representation matters, not just in the boardroom or on convention panels, but actually in the books that we work so hard on. We have all experienced the power of reading about a character that’s like us without being a gross tokenism.

But look at all the LGBT, PoC books out there now!

You mean the ones that are marketed solely because of the sexual orientation of their main character? Or the fact the clever, handsome protagonist is black? The ones where the publisher expects a pat on the head and a biscuit and told that they’re being sooo progressive?

(There go my eyes again!)

Okay, I should clarify here. All of those titles are important. I’m not denying that for a microsecond. But while we’re still hung up in amazement at this handful of books, we’re perpetuating the fact that these books are not normative. (After all, there’s a difference between being vocally supportive of these books, and acting with astonishment every time a big publisher deigns to print an inclusive title that isn’t then marketed as ‘edgy’ or even one of their ‘next big hits’).

But Inspired Quill isn’t perfect!

Honestly, the whole inclusivity thing has never been something we’ve given much active thought to until pretty recently. It was always part of the stories that our authors told – right from the beginning. That this view on inclusivity is in our DNA as part of our core values makes it easier for us to wipe the sleep from our eyes and start being more vocal about the how, why, and what of this side of our process.

So what can we do?

As I said above, it’s time to stop talking about diversity, and actually start to do something about it. Publishers, authors and readers have an obligation to move the stagnant ‘status quo’ forward. And yes, all readers and all publishers and all authors.

I’ll be writing many more blog posts in much more detail over the coming months, but here’s one simple idea to kickstart the process.

Ask people what they’re doing about it.

Whenever you hear someone start talking about diversity in fiction, or asking whether it’s important, this comment has served me well. “No shit. Of course it’s important, so what are we actually doing about it, other than sitting around preaching to the converted?”

As a first step, the mild shock and (usually) indignation is enough to start the ball rolling. “I’ve been commenting on cast diversity whenever I review a book,” or “I choose every character’s ethnicity instead of defaulting to white,” or even, “I haven’t mentioned the LGBT character in this book we published in the primary marketing materials.”

Bonus Request

Oh, and let’s actually stop asking “Is diversity in books important” as well, shall we? Just asking that question suggests the possibility that it might not be important. Quite frankly, that shouldn’t even be up for debate.

It’s 2017 folks, let’s move on. The devil has enough privileged advocates already.