Thursday, June 15, 2017

Writing With My Own Voice

Lately I have been spending a lot of time sending queries to literary agents, looking for someone to represent my work. This means I've been spending a lot of time reading agents' websites, particularly what they are and aren't interested in reading; it's a waste of time and shows a lack of professionalism to blindly send out queries without doing your homework first to find out whether the agent is interested in the type of book you're trying to sell. A common thread I see among many agents, particularly those who represent young adult literature, is a desire to find #OwnVoices authors, meaning authors who come from a minority class and write books with protagonists from that same minority. Many agents will tell you to put the #OwnVoices hashtag in the subject line of your query email, with the promise that they'll give your query higher priority.

I have conflicting feelings about this trend. On the one hand, I absolutely agree with the motivation behind it: all readers, but especially children, deserve to see themselves represented in literature, both by the characters and the authors. We've had hundreds of years of western literature primarily written by straight, white, cisgender men, and it's vital for the health of our pluralistic society to make room for other voices. On the other hand, I'm a white cisgender man and (a) I also have stories to tell, and (b) many of those stories I want to tell are about people who are different from me. Of the two books I'm trying to sell right now, one is about a Hispanic Mormon girl and the other is about a straight black boy with a speech impediment. The next book I'm anxious to write features a Native American trans lesbian as the protagonist. I struggle with questions of authenticity--I have legitimate fears that Hispanic, black, or Native people will read my books and say, "Who the hell are you to represent my identity?" I include a rather self-conscious line in one of my books where one black teen accuses another of talking as if he were speaking dialog written by a middle-aged white dude, because my usual response to discomfort is making a joke of the thing that makes me uncomfortable. At the same time, I don't want to be boxed into writing characters who are just like me. For me it's important that literature--whether I'm reading it or writing it--is as much a window as it is a mirror.

The real sting comes in the fact that I have a legitimate claim to minority status thanks to my sexual orientation, but I'm not capitalizing on it. As I mentioned last week, although I pretty much always include gay supporting characters, most of my protagonists are straight. Of the eight books I've written so far, only two have gay protagonists. This is partly because of what I was saying above, that writing characters who are different from me is important to me, but also, I think, because when I started most of these books ten to fifteen years ago, I was still in a place where I was figuring out what being gay meant to me. When I tried to write gay characters during that time, I found it extremely difficult because the subject was too raw to me--I didn't have enough distance to gain any perspective.


I'm in a better place now, though, and if writing gay characters will make me more marketable, then that's what I need to do. I'd feel cynical coming to this conclusion if it were really just about marketability, but it really isn't. Writing gay characters is very much in line with my personal mission as a writer, and I'm looking forward to exploring what it's like to be a gay teenager, now that I have some perspective. So I've decided the next book I polish and shop around to agents will feature a gay protagonist. I could polish up one of those two I've already written with gay protagonists, but neither of them is speaking to me at the moment. I could write a brand new book--honestly, I could claim #OwnVoices with the trans lesbian book I've been plotting, especially since her two best friends are a couple of gay Mormon boys--but it's important to me to polish up and sell the books I've already written, so that I don't end up spending my life writing rough drafts and never finishing anything. My husband suggested I just make the protagonist gay in one of the two books I'm shopping around now, and I considered it, but it doesn't feel right for either of those. But that made me think of the next book I was planning to revise, and making that protagonist gay works quite well. He already has a girlfriend and a gay best friend, so I just need to switch their relationships so that it's a boyfriend and a female best friend. And his coming out process will fit quite nicely with the existing themes of the book.

And if, at the end of the day, all those years of gay teenage angst pay off in making me a more marketable author, I won't complain. I deserve something for going through all that.

Friday, June 9, 2017

My Catalog

I don't love talking about writing. It feels so pretentious to talk about myself as an author when my publishing credits include only a handful of short stories, personal essays, and scholarly articles. I fear I come across as some delusional dreamer with an over-inflated sense of self-importance. One thing that separates me from the average Joe who calls himself a writer but hasn't actually written anything is that I have written quite a bit--I think more than most unpublished authors--but that claim begs evidence to back it up, and I despise talking about things I've written even more than talking about writing in general. My stories are so close to my heart, and attempting to sum them up in short taglines invites scrutiny that I'd rather avoid; I fear that no matter how good the actual book is, my attempt to describe it will just sound dumb.

That said, a necessary step toward becoming a published author is selling my work--to literary agents, publishers, and eventually readers. To do that I need to be able to describe it, to catch people's attention with a very short pitch. So, as an exercise in learning to sell myself, I give to you my catalog of unpublished novels (each is complete beginning-to-end, but some are more finished than others):

  • Temporal Integrity (2002- ). Sixteen-year-old sci-fi geek Mike learns that until a time travel accident massively damaged the timeline, he was actually in his twenties, married to a beautiful woman, and working alongside her as an agent of Temporal Integrity Maintenance and Enforcement, whose mission was to prevent just this type of disaster. Or, possibly, he's just crazy. 
    • This was the first novel that I finished. With that in mind, it wasn't great, but I loved the story enough to rewrite it from scratch in 2012, approaching it as a more experienced writer. This will be the next one I polish and shop around to literary agents. 
  • Don Quimby of BYU (2002-2006). College freshman Adonis Quimby becomes convinced that he has superpowers and drags his roommate, Santiago Pérez, along for his quixotic superhero misadventures. 
    • I wrote this with a Mormon audience in mind but had no luck with LDS publishers. I still think it's a fun book but I doubt I'll ever put in the effort to rewrite for a general audience. 
  • The Posthumous Adventures of Charles Dickens (2003-2005). The ghost of Charles Dickens visits his descendant, fourteen-year-old Joey Dickens, and dictates to him the sequel to one of his most beloved works: The Posthumous Adventures of David Copperfield. The book is good enough and Joey's claim about its authorship controversial enough to propel Joey toward fame, until Joey has to decide between claiming that fame for himself or standing by the truth he knows. 
    • This novel was my master's thesis for my creative writing degree, which means you can find a copy of it at the BYU Library
  • A Little More Than Kin (2004- ). While directing his high school's production of Hamlet, Rick Sorensen devises a plan to get revenge on his uncle-stepdad Hal for supplanting Rick's father at home, at church, and in the community. 
    • I haven't touched this one in ten years but I think it has potential so I'll likely return to it eventually. 
  • Xscape (2004-2017). Remy Johnson is the only powerless child of the Johnson Five, a family of teen superheroes who rose to fame three decades ago. When Remy's uncle J.J. is killed in action, Remy embarks on a quest, along with his superpowered cousins, to discover the truth behind J.J.'s death--and his life. Along the way, Remy will also uncover secrets about himself, and learn whether he has what it takes to be a hero, with or without powers. 
    • This is the book I most recently polished, and now I'm shopping it around. 
  • Sacred Fall (2005- ). While on a Boy Scout camping trip, Jacob gets lost in the mountains of north Oahu along with one of the Scout leaders--who Jacob happens to be in love with. 
    • Pretty much all my books have gay characters, but this is the only one so far with a gay protagonist. (EDIT: Ha ha, that's totally a lie. Kenji from Freerider and Boost below is also gay.) We'll see if I feel inspired to return to this unpolished draft after returning to Hawaii this summer for my high school reunion. 
  • To Zion: A Love Song (2006-2017). Dora Pérez wants nothing more than to sing on Broadway. When Dora’s little sister Toto stows away on her trip to New York, Dora gets swept off on a cross-country adventure in search of Olyvia Zion, a reclusive pop idol Dora’s never heard of, and before she knows it she’s part of a hip-hop/metal/folk fusion band and competing in a nationally-televised talent competition.
    • Recently polished and currently shopping around. Incidentally, Dora is the little sister of Santiago, one of the main characters in Don Quimby above. I like the idea of my books existing in a shared universe. 
  • Freerider and Boost: The Beginning of the End (2008-2010). After discovering an ability to telekinetically control--and talk with--his snowboard, Kenji Nakayama joins a cult of superheroes preparing for the end of the world. 
    • This is meant to be the first in a five-book series, my personal Harry Potter. After polishing it I shopped it around a bit, but gave up pretty quickly. I should probably try again, but feel like I should do another revision first, since I'm a different writer now than I was seven years ago. 
  • Alice's Restaurant (2017- ). This one doesn't belong on this list because I haven't written even a rough draft yet and I'm not ready to talk about the plot, but it's the first new concept I've been excited about in years. I've been plotting it for almost a year now and I'm anxious to dive in to writing something brand new, after focusing so much on revision lately.  
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Thursday, June 1, 2017

Raising Wonder Woman in Man's World, Redux

Wonder Woman opens in theaters this weekend and I'm excited for a number of reasons: Gal Gadot was the best part about Batman v. Superman, so an entire movie devoted to her sounds fantastic; early reviews suggest that the DC Cinematic Universe finally got one right on their fourth try; and this film leads us toward this fall's Justice League, which I've been waiting for since I was twelve. Above all, however, I'm excited for Wonder Woman because, nearly forty years after Richard Donner's Superman and nearly thirty years after Tim Burton's Batman, it's about damn time the boys stepped aside to let their female counterpart shine.

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I haven't always called myself a feminist, mostly because I wasn't sure I had a right to the title. I read Xavière Gauthier in college and applied her theories to feminist critiques of Batgirl comics and E.M. Forster novels, but in my mind I was an outsider borrowing ideas from someone else. When a feminist critic publicly attacked me for perceived misogyny in essays I published in 2005, I was flabbergasted because gender equality is a concept so deeply ingrained in my value system, but still in defending myself I didn't dare to call myself a feminist, for fear of being called out on my ignorance of the full body of feminist literature. I didn't understand at the time how diverse feminism is, or that not even the most educated feminists have read all the literature. 

I don't remember how or when, but eventually I came to realize that, despite the fact that I'm a man and despite the fact that I don't know everything that every feminist theorist has ever said, I can still be a feminist. To me, being a feminist means that I believe men and women should be treated equally, and that I recognize the many ways we are not treated equally. It means when I see injustice I speak out and do what I can to change it, even especially when that injustice favors me. It means I question the assumptions we as a society and I as an individual make about gender. 

At some point in my process of coming to identify as a feminist, I published an essay that I'm still quite proud of, "Raising Wonder Woman in Man's World." At the time I was in a mixed-orientation marriage and, ever since that feminist critic had attacked me five years earlier, questioning how my decision to marry heterosexually would be perceived by others, particularly my daughters. I was worried about inadvertently sending a pro-patriarchy message when that was the opposite of my intent, and concerned that my life was too enmeshed in patriarchy to successfully teach my daughters anything but. In the comics, Wonder Woman was raised on Paradise Island among the Amazons; how could I raise girls to be strong like her in my world of men? 

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THIS is not the version of Wonder Woman I wanted to raise.

Seven years later, I can't say that my home, headed by my husband and myself, is any less of a Man's World. We do our best to teach gender equality and oppose patriarchy, but at the end of the day it's two men calling the shots. Nonetheless, our daughters and our son seem to be doing pretty well when it comes to understanding the wide range of options available to them. The conclusion I came to in my essay still holds true: I do what I can, and where I fall short others step in. My children have a number of great female role models, between my ex-wife, my husband's ex-wife, aunts, grandmothers, school teachers, music teachers, dance teachers, church leaders, and friends. And now they have a kickass live-action Wonder Woman to look up to as well. We still have a long way to go, but today is a good day to be a feminist.