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The Big Damn Writer Advice Column

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It’s that time of the week when I answer your anonymous questions about writing and all that stuff connected to it. Every Thursday, I’ll be answering two questions from the Big Damn Writer Question Box.

Q: This is a question abut sales and audience building. If you are trying to build a readership as a new author, do you make characters that people want to see themselves as or in (or both)? To be blunt, does attractiveness of your protagonists matter? I know you are super body positive, and don’t give in to “fat-shamers” so this isn’t a judgment…I’m genuinely curious…but ive noticed despite your beliefs, your characters are still conventionally attractive in looks and build. I can’t help thinking it’s because that sells more? I’m writing about a bigger woman, and am concerned that no obe will want to read about her. Her size has no impact on the story, and is mentioned maybe twice. If it’s not a plot point, would it be better to just have her not discribed?

I feel kind of crappy asking this question, but thanks for reading, if not responding. 🙂

A: This is a good question, and I was just talking about this kind of thing on Twitter yesterday! This is going to be long. Bear with me.

Let me start off by saying that in general, the physical appearance of your characters is probably not decided by you, the writer, unless that appearance is noted as being unique or a part of the story, i.e. how this character got that scar or why that character has always hated being less attractive than their twin. That kind of thing. We all kind of have our own internal casting directors when we read, so even if a writer describes a character one way, we might see them in an entirely different way. For example, The Girl On The Train. When I read that, I imagined the narrator to be fat. I mentioned to someone that I was disappointed that Emily Blunt had been cast in a role that should have gone to a fat person, and the person I mentioned it to said, “Rachel wasn’t fat.” No, I was certain that Rachel was fat. I went through to look up where she was described and…she wasn’t. She mentioned she had gained weight and had a puffy face due to her alcoholism, but I couldn’t find any descriptors of her as a fat person. Since I had no idea what Rachel looked like before she was an alcoholic, weight gain told me nothing about her size. But I’d cast her that way in my head and greatly admired the way the author didn’t make a huge deal about her being fat. Now I realize that’s because she’s not actually fat. My bad.

As for my characters always sporting classic romcom looks and body types, there’s a personal reason there. I have written fat heroines before. One of them was the heroine of a Cinderella retelling. The cover concept had a thin woman on it. When I reminded the publisher that the heroine was a fat woman, the artist just stretched the perspective on the thin model. Like, they took a picture of a thin model and stretched her sideways. It was a beautiful cover, and you’d probably never be able to tell that it was created that way simply by looking at it, but because I had seen the original packaging, it just didn’t sit right with me. The second time I wrote a fat heroine (in a steampunk novel), she wasn’t depicted on the cover at all. I got a general impression that fat wouldn’t sell, or that I was cheating readers by tricking them into reading a fat heroine.

Let me stress that I do not feel this way about it now. But writing is very personal. I received criticism about my fat Cinderella, with one reader going so far as to tell me that it was “unrealistic” for the handsome prince or the hero of the story to find her attractive. I can’t remember the exact wording (probably because I was in shock that someone would make that comment to me, a fat person, like it wasn’t the rudest thing ever), but it was something like, “Why would they want her when they could have any woman they want?” The idea was that it was unrealistic because men only settle for fat women. They never choose them. That was a real confidence shaker, not just about my writing but about my appearance and self-worth. On the other end of the spectrum, there was a fat-girl erotica boom a few years ago, with a lot of books where a fat woman lands a super hot and idealized man who can’t get enough of her because of her fatness, not in spite of. I didn’t find that empowering either, and I didn’t want to participate in it. I don’t find fetishization all that flattering, and those authors were still getting the “that’s unrealistic, nobody finds fat people hot” comment.

Obviously, the solution would be for me to write fat characters who are believable and just going about their lives while being fat, without making the story about them being fat, right? Well, the thing is, no matter how open and honest I am about my size, I don’t necessarily like the idea of inviting criticism of my fiction writing to mingle with criticism of my body. I just don’t feel like I have the energy to defend myself in both arenas, especially considering my past experiences. But just because I can’t personally bring myself to do it doesn’t mean no one else should; the fact that you’re saying, “Does it matter if this character is fat if it’s not a plot point?” is proof that people are out there who can write these depictions. You were comfortable creating a fat character whose life doesn’t revolve around fatness. Let me tell you right now: there is most definitely an audience for it. In fact, you’ve got a better chance of growing your audience with a portrayal like that. If a fat person reads your book and goes, “Holy shit, I’ve never seen a fat character in a story that’s not about fatness,” they’re probably going to tell other people to read it. I know for a fact that I would.

Maybe one day I’ll be in an emotionally healthy enough place to write fat characters but I want to stress that marketability is not a factor in my decision not to. Overall, I think you’re much more likely to alienate an audience by crafting characters who are constantly stared at by passersby because they’re so beautiful than you would be by presenting a character who is fat but whose life isn’t defined or controlled by fatness.

 

Q: You have experience with traditional publishing and self-publishing. On balance, which do you prefer, and why? (Personal context for the question: have been published by a Big 5, didn’t have the best experience, trying to figure out whether to keep plugging away at that route or go it alone. But I hope your answer will be useful more generally for people too.)

A: There are pros and cons to both. Being able to release books quickly, and to release multiple books a year, that’s something that self-publishing can offer that Big 5 generally can’t (or, if they can, those multiple release spots are generally held for authors who are guaranteed big sellers). In self-publishing, you have a lot more freedom over content in terms of themes and what elements you want to include. I firmly believe that First Time would never have seen the light of day if I hadn’t self-published it. Other issues include royalties and income; my first contract had a total advance of $18,000, paid out in increments that stretched over three years. My first royalty check came three years after I was initially contracted, and it was something like $15,000. That was 6% of the cover price. I’m not sure what publishing houses are offering now, but I know that I could not write for a living if I made 6% off my current annual salary. Self-publishing, I receive between 40% and 70% of my sales. On the other hand, I have out of pocket expenses for editing, proofing, print galleys, and cover art, so each of my books generally costs between a thousand or two thousand dollars to produce. I also have to pay for my own promotion, and obviously, I don’t have the budget a Big 5 house does. Which can be frustrating when you see someone’s traditionally published book being splashed everywhere and hyped all to hell while you’re out there like, “I have a book coming out next week. I’m begging you to tell your friends.” That happened a few times when I was freelance editing; I would work on someone’s book, it would go to a traditional publisher, they would hit the NYT list and I would be sitting here like, “Oh. My latest has sold twenty-five copies since release week.” It wasn’t a great feeling, but that’s one of the drawbacks of self-publishing. I know writers who’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to promo their books to great success, but that’s not practical for most people.

Don’t rule out the option of hybrid publishing. If you can produce one or two books through a publisher (even a small press) while self-publishing other books, you’ll probably see your audience grow faster and you’ll get the benefits of both traditionally publishing and self-publishing.

 

Bonus Question: Do you have any tips for writing POC? The last thing I want to do is fall into the trap of using overgeneralized tropes.

My advice here would be to seek out resources on this topic that were written by marginalized people. They’re going to have better advice.

 

Wanna see your questions get answered (or just wanna air a grievance?) Put it in the box!

9 Comments

  1. Tom
    Tom

    As someone who is not a fiction writer and has no intention to be one, I read this column not because the advice is useful to me, but just because your perspective on issues like this are fascinating.

    April 20, 2017
    |Reply
    • Maya B.
      Maya B.

      Same goes for me. The only fiction I’ve ever written was for some high school essays. Reading your answers sheds light on a whole new world, which usually remains hidden from the readers. And that’s really interesting for me.
      Keep the answers comin’, ’cause I’ll definitely keep on readin’. 🙂

      April 20, 2017
      |Reply
  2. Meags
    Meags

    Interestingly, I initially pictured Sophie as plus-size when I started reading The Boss, and had to reorient when she was later described as thin. Not because of any particular reason, but because I’d been following you on Twitter since the Buffy recaps and I knew you were an advocate for fat people.

    April 20, 2017
    |Reply
  3. Writing With Color on tumblr is a super helpful resource.

    April 20, 2017
    |Reply
    • anon
      anon

      + 1 for recommending Writing With Color (I follow the blog). I would not go so far as to say they have every single possible culture and harmful trope covered, but reading them will go a LONG way to educating you about the common ones. (I *think* they got their backlog down enough that they’ve started taking new asks again, so if there’s something specific you need to know that ISN’T covered in the extensive archive, it may take a bit but you will hopefully get a useful answer. Make sure to at least skim the FAQ’s and archive first, though, because they understandably get annoyed at askers who don’t.)

      For starters: “exotic” should be killed with fire, so should using food words to describe non-white skin tones, if you have some white and some PoC characters make sure either everybody gets a racial description or nobody does, and a whole bunch of other things that show up in a ridiculous amount of pro fic and make even (obviously white) me want to capslock scream when I see them.

      (Also, first writer: I”d *love* to see a book with a fat main character that didn’t revolve around their fatness, so there is an audience for that I promise you.)

      April 20, 2017
      |Reply
    • Emily
      Emily

      I just came down here to recommend that blog. They have a wide variety of mods from multiple ethnic backgrounds, and the blog itself is well tagged and easy to use.

      April 26, 2017
      |Reply
  4. I see it might not be the same for every genre but I don’t find the appearance description necessary at all. Do you want to write another story about a woman who thinks she’s ugly but her man shows her she’s beautiful? That’s teenage perspective and adult writers can do much better.
    The only reason where the appearance matters is, I think, in stories like Bridget Jones Diary. And even then you don’t have to be very precise because every reader will just imagine someone like them anyway. Just describe how they are perceived (elegant, sloppy and so on) and their posture maybe. That’s my two cents.

    April 21, 2017
    |Reply
    • Mike
      Mike

      I can’t agree that it’s “teenage perspective.” Beautiful people who don’t consider themselves beautiful aren’t only teens, after all.

      It’s not always necessary to always describe every character in a novel, but it’s usually not in itself a plus that we don’t know what they look like. Sure, describing somebody’s pants and shirt and shoes and hat can get tedious, but it’s good to have some sort of guideline to what we’re supposed to imagine.

      And people who “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and other books like that are definitely not necessarily going to imagine Bridget looking like they do. When I read it in my high school days, I didn’t imagine her to look like a teenage boy, and if an old black woman reads the book she’s not going to imagine Bridget Jones as an old black woman. So what you’re saying only applies to readers who are roughly the same age as Bridget, and the same ethnicity, and the same sex. And even then, far from always.

      April 21, 2017
      |Reply
  5. DS
    DS

    I loved your Cinderella and steampunk stories. It’s frustrating that people can’t see the heroes fell in love because of the heroines’ personalities as much as they found them to be physically attractive. It’s a package deal. I’ve never landed a Brad Pitt of my own but personality can go a long way in making someone attractive to me even if he wasn’t “handsome” or ripped with six-pack abs.

    April 22, 2017
    |Reply

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