Update 5/3/19. The author and I are both surprised by how much this has taken off! She (and I) are grateful for the real, thoughtful discussions you’ve been having around this. I do want to note, though, because I’ve had lots of comments (which I have chosen not to approve) from white folks using this as an opportunity to say they should get to write other folks’ stories. A lot have been specifically talking about how they, as white authors, want to write POC struggle stories. That’s not the conversation we’re having, and that wasn’t the point the author intended to make, so please don’t take it that way. We believe in #ownvoices stories. We don’t believe in white folks taking over the space that POC authors inhabit. The author’s story was one of a person in a position of power (an agent or editor) policing her marginalized identity. It wasn’t about non-marginalized folks telling the stories of marginalized folks. The discussion that can happen here on this blog is going to center around , and the author the imbalance of power, the devaluing of her marginalization, and the problem with an agent asking someone to out themselves. Thank you. (:
Hey friends. This post is a little different than what you usually see from me, and it’s actually written by a friend who wanted to remain anonymous when she shared her story. Her words broke my heart, and her courage and resilience inspire me. I’m so honored to be able to share her story here. — Mary.
In the months of research I’ve done, I’ve learned a lot about querying. From the stories I’ve heard and the experience I’ve had, this is how it tends to go:
Step One: Write the perfect manuscript. This will be hard and will require many revisions. Get some smart people to read that manuscript, get feedback, and revise some more. This, they tell you on all the blogs, is the hard part.
Step Two: Craft the perfect query letter. Well, actually, because agents all have different specifications, you actually have to craft the perfect pitch package: that’s a query, a pitch, a short bio, a long bio, a short synopsis, a long one, and a perfect, professional website with an updated blog. Remember, the goal is to convey seriousness about your intended profession. Do it all perfectly, or else an agent will subtweet about your materials on twitter. You will recognize yourself in a snarky tweet. You will be mortified, drag yourself to the kitchen and pull out some ice cream for a heavy emotional-eating self-loathing session and wonder if you just wasted the 9 months of hard work that you just spent doing “the hard part.” But you’ll still need the whole package even if you get represented, so yes, you do need to do all of it. Perfectly, remember.
Step Three: Send queries and receive some requests for full or partial manuscripts, or receive rejections. Mostly receive silence.
Step Four: Receive an email from an agent who loved your book. Hooray! Set up a time for a phone call. Hip hip hooray!
Step Five: You now have a long-term business partner who values your worth as an artist and works hard to get your stories out into that big world.
Note: at any moment at all in the querying process, it’s totally possible to get ghosted, or get several R&Rs at once, resulting in dramatically different versions of the same manuscript, or realize that the manuscript just isn’t working, despite all the revisions you’ve done, (querying authors are characteristically tenacious about these) and shelving it until the winds of the market change again.
As you can probably tell, I have firsthand experience with 100% of these snags. But that’s where my background as a rural-poverty-raised farm girl comes in handy: I never made a habit of feeling sorry for myself. I can hear my grandmother now: Quit your bellyachin’ about it and get back up.
So I knew writing was tough and querying was tough, but hey, so am I. I can handle it.
I could handle it. I was handling it. But then, to my surprise, querying went and ignited an existential crisis.
See, I’m bisexual. I’ve known it forever, but growing up south of the Mason-Dixon line, I kept it hidden. I stayed in the closet, coming out only once to a friend. I told her that I fall in love with a person, not just a boy, and that if I recognized the sparks flying and the vibes flowing, I could just find myself in love. A beautiful state that is much simpler than people like to believe it is, with only two needs from me, really, two intense desires: to spend all of my time close to that person, and to make sure that I did everything in my power to fill that person’s cup of happiness.
She didn’t think it was so simple. She pulled back from our friendship and started in on the whisper network. I insisted to everyone that I only liked boys, and that she had misunderstood me.
In college, I never told anyone. I did get “wild” at a party or two, making out and sometimes going to bed with women, but the story was always the same the next morning, with the same language used by all parties involved: “Last night was wild. You’re crazy.” As a woman, I found those words so useful as a shield against facing my true orientation. Later, I’d tell myself that it would all have to stop eventually, and I’d have to be “normal.”
After college, it was time to see the world. I never had the money to study abroad but had always wanted to, so I went to Asia, where they’d pay me the most to teach English. And I fell in love again, this time with a woman who shared my orientation. She was just the coolest: she drank gin and tonic with a cucumber in it instead of the much-too-common-for-her-tastes lime. She liked fantasy novels and indie music, she was extremely knowledgeable about astrology, and she was cute as hell to boot. She was simply too much for my bi little heart, and those two desires sprang forth: I needed to be with her, and I needed to make her happy.
So we were. I did, or at least I really tried to. Our relationship lasted almost a year, and though everything felt right deep down, it was hard the entire time. We were in an Asian country where, to this day, same-sex relationships remain illegal. She was Asian, metropolitan, and had grown up with high expectations and intense education, and I was an American country girl who’d gotten through her first and only real experience with education by the grace of waitressing and Sallie Mae. We had to untangle myths about sexuality we’d been taught from two different cultures, pretend we were just the best of friends in public, deal with the emotional abuse of her family, lie to mine. We had a little LGBTQ+ community in the city where we lived, and most of them didn’t try to pull the “You’re not really one of us” card, but in the end, it wasn’t enough. I told her the truth: I loved her and always would, but that this was just too hard for me.
I never ventured into another same-sex relationship. Later that year, I met the cis man who is now my husband. That was almost ten years ago now. We have kids. We go to church and food pantry drives and community Easter egg hunts. We fit right into the heteronormative narrative.
I had taken the LGBTQ+ test, and I had failed it. I had failed her. How could I ever claim to be a part of that community again? In my life, I am as basic as they come: cisgender, white, married, Christian. But art is a tricky thing: you can’t hide who you really are there. Making art requires you dig deep into what you really believe and put it on the page. So it probably comes at no surprise when I say that queer characters often turn up in my stories.
Still, I don’t want to claim the label. There are so many more people that deal with so much more than I ever experienced: being out can put some people, in some situations, in real danger, and the people who are out about their orientation have my deepest respect. They’re courageous in a way that I didn’t think I could be.
So now we come back to the issue of querying. In the publishing world, we’re eager to read stories with the #OwnVoices label—this means that these stories are written about marginalized people by a person who shares that marginalization. Because of the choices I made, I do specify that one of my characters is queer, but I do not claim that it is an #OwnVoices story.
This week, though, I got an email reply to one of my queries in a day. Here’s what it said:
Are you gay, like your character?”
And then his email signature.
I had actually never been asked that before, and I didn’t know how to respond. My queer characters are two preteens from the turn of the century in Ireland, so our experiences are definitely not the same. But the timespan from writing the first line of my book I’m querying to now has been a full 15 months, and I am ready to get out of the querying trenches. So instead of ignoring him, or telling him to go fly a kite, like I probably should have, I answered, taking a chance that he’d understand. I told him I was bisexual, and so was someone else in my life whom I really loved, and that seeing more LGBTQ+ characters in media, I believe would have really helped both of us growing up. I was honest about being married to a man. I told him that I’d had a sensitivity reader, an openly gay man, go though certain passages to make sure I wasn’t being unintentionally insensitive. Everything else I kept guarded, because I didn’t really want to recount my entire queer resume, nor answer for the choices I made almost a decade ago.
He responded in about an hour:
“Thanks for the clarification. Publishing culture is in such a PC time right now, so I really think this should be #ownvoices. Hope another agent feels differently.
His email signature again.
Cue up that existential crisis.
I’m very fortunate in that I have access to an incredible group of querying and agented authors to talk me through it, queer friends to be angry for me, and a book that I’m genuinely proud of. My first thought was in gratitude for these things: if this was going to happen to anyone, I figured, it might as well have happened to me. But then I realized: if the publishing world is policing my #ownvocies story (even though I don’t claim that label) they’re policing others, too.
There are many of us who walk the line between orientation, races, nationalities, religions, cultures, and more. You wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell just by looking at their (perfect!) website photos and reading a bio. I like #OwnVoices stories, and I pride myself on reading them and promoting them, but what if an unintended consequence of this label is stopping genuine stories from being read? Are unrepresented authors really supposed to parade around our pain just for the sake of getting published?
One of my friends said that she has two different versions of one query: one that specifies that it’s #OwnVoices, and one that doesn’t. Guess which one elicits more requests.
It’s an open secret that most positions in publishing are held by the white, straight, and educated. The cynic in me worries that that the people in these positions are treating diversity the just as they treat vampires in the dark, monsters in the house, the husband who was actually the killer the whole time—titillating reads from the safety of their own homes. And #ownvoices stories are great, too, because it takes all responsibility away from the publisher and puts it all on the author. It’s like they’re saying, don’t like how this marginalized group has been represented in the past? Joke’s on you—this was WRITTEN by one of them! Don’t blame us. Look away.
But since I’m a gemini and have a dualist nature, (there’s a pun in there somewhere) the optimist in me sees something else: the beauty of readers reaching for stories that feature experiences outside of their own. None of us know everything, and most of us know how important reading widely is for developing empathy and gaining a deeper understanding of humanity. #ownvoices, #DVpit, #weneeddiversebooks, and more movements like these are amazing in their essence and should be preserved. But how can we do that when there is no code of ethics for the people profiting off of them?
I did not want to stand up to the world of publishing and call bullshit. Hell, the reason I’m seeking representation is to gain a partner who is more knowledgeable and professional in this world than I am! All I really wanted to do was to bring queer books into the world, to seek readers who would see themselves represented and who, hopefully, would have an easier time figuring out who they really were than I did. I want to talk about my book. You know, that book I worked really hard on and think about getting represented every day for the past six months. That one.
I do research on everybody I query, but only in terms of past projects and sales—it’s hard to know if someone is going to be an empathetic person or not. It’s not like agents have their personal #ownvoices policy spelled out on their websites. I’m okay with the notion that it just won’t click for some, but I never thought before to be afraid that my identity and integrity would be called into question. Trust me, querying is hard enough without all that.
Without a policy, we may be forced to answer all kinds of questions from agents seeking to avoid responsibility: Are you gay? Are you, yourself, fat? What race are you, exactly? Were you food-free weekends poor, or just free-and-reduced-lunch poor?
Marginalized writers should not be expected to share their painful experiences with strangers for the sake of sales. It’s wonderful that so many people are out and open and yes, we need those authors, too, but no matter who wrote it, it’s the story that really matters.
So I have several full manuscripts out now, and to be honest with you, I feel a little sick about it. Remember, I’m looking for a long-term business partner, and I’ve been querying for six months, so I likely will not have the luxury of turning away an offer if it means my book will get into the hands of middle grade readers.
Agents and editors: you can’t change bad actors, but you can make sure your personal policy is visible to authors. Authors, I’m afraid we’ll just have to keep doing what we can’t possibly stop: write. Refresh the inbox. Check the junk folder. Post anonymous blog posts calling bullshit. Write some more.