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The Big Damn Writer Advice Column

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It’s been a while! I have no excuse for the lapse in BDWAC posts except the fact that I often forget what day it is. All of that aside, this is the time of the week when I answer your questions about writing and other things. Let’s get started!

Q: In the high school reading list book, “How to read Literature like a Professor” it’s stated that if your character has a disability, there’s a reason for it. (Example, Tiny Tim pushing Scrooge to be more generous)
But nowadays, people are pushing more diversity in their works, including disabilities, asking that the character should be more than their disability.

So my question is, do you believe there should be a reason a character is disabled?

A: First, we need to tackle the idea that reading literature “like a professor” is somehow of greater importance or intelligence than reading it like the unwashed, uneducated masses do. There’s a reason we believe that doing something “like a professor” is a more valuable modus operandi: professors are more likely to be white men. Some of these white men are, I assume, disabled, but hopefully not any of the ones who would think that all literary characters should be default able-bodied, neurotypical, or mentally healthy unless it serves the plot. If the majority of professors in the United States were anything other than white, male, and able-bodied, we wouldn’t equate “professor” with “desirable role model for aspiring minds.”

We hear a lot of griping about “diversity for the sake of diversity,” as though it’s unconscionable that anyone would write beyond the defaults of white, able-bodied, cis, and straight:

Author: “My character has epilepsy, like me!”
Reader: “…but why?”
Author: “What do you mean, why?”
Reader: “Is it like, magical epilepsy? Does she have like, visions?”
Author: “No, this isn’t paranormal or anything. She’s just a detective.”
Reader: “Oh, okay. So like, there’s a big chase scene and she can’t pursue the suspect because they go into an arcade full of flashing lights, right?”
Author: “No…”
Reader: “So, like, she’s after the guy and then she has a seizure and he chooses that moment to abduct her, then she becomes a potential victim and her partner has to rescue her? That’s so cool!”
Author: “No, nothing like that happens at all.”
Reader: “I get it now. Her partner learns something about himself and the way he conducts his work because of her epilepsy.”
Author: “No. And I can’t even think up a scenario in which that would be applicable.”
Reader: “But…if there’s no reason for your character to be epileptic, what’s the point of making her epileptic?”
Author: “Because I never see epileptic characters in anything, and if I do, it’s magic epilepsy or it’s a plot point that holds the character back. I wanted to write a character who had something in common with me, but without turning my disability into a special talent or a narrative device.”
Reader: “But that’s just diversity for the sake of diversity!

This conversation could easily be rewritten to be about gender, sexuality, race, religion…it’s not enough to be formed by your experiences as a person if you’re not the straight, white, cis, able-bodied default. It’s not enough to be a person in your own right, shaped by that. There has to be a reason–and the reason must always benefit those who are the default–for someone to exist outside of what is considered desirable or normal. And these requirements are never applied to traits that could be held within the default:

Author: “My character is a white man with blue eyes, like me!”
Reader: “Oh. Neat.”

Nobody asks why a character is white, cis, able-bodied, straight, male, etc. As a quick example, I’ve had lots of people ask why I decided to make Neil, the hero of my book, The Boss, bisexual. I’ve never had anyone ask me why I decided to make him white.

Disability–like race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality–often doesn’t serve the plot in real life. If I were a character in a novel and the plot had to revolve around my disability, the book would be incredibly boring. But that doesn’t mean the conditions I have aren’t a part of who I am and how I live my life, and that I couldn’t be an interesting character if a plot ever did wander along. Whoever wrote How To Read Literature Like A Professor doesn’t see a need to include characters with disabilities because they don’t see disabled people serving their own needs in real life, as evidenced by the example given. It’s not enough for this author for Tiny Tim to exist and walk around and have feelings and needs and experiences of his own; he must provide something of value to the able-bodied protagonist in order to have a right to exist in the world. And that’s an attitude that disabled people face every day. Throw that book in the trash and burn it.

 

Q: Looking through old Big Damn Writer answers, I saw you said it takes anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 to self-publish. What all does that get spent on?

A: On one of my books, the breakdown goes (in approximate values):

  • $600 for content editing
  • $400 for line editing
  • $40-$100 for cover art

That isn’t factoring in stuff like software that I had to buy that I use on more than one book, or advertising because I very, very rarely advertise. I don’t find the ROI on advertisements is quite as good as just buying prizes for a giveaway. And since many editors charge by the word, longer books cost more to edit than shorter ones. If A Song Of Ice And Fire was a self-published series, George R.R. Martin would not arrive in the same price neighborhood.

 

Bonus Question: Hi! I’ve seen you talking about the pomo sprint method on twitter, and I was wondering if you could explain it a little? The wikipedia article was not overly helpful. Thanks!

A:  The Pomodoro Method is a time management thing. I found out about it from an article about tips for coping with adult ADHD that I really wish I could find again. Basically, how it works is, you work with a lot of focus for short bursts. I believe the traditional length of time is twenty-five minutes, but I adjust that when I’m doing it. So, what you would do is say, for example, “At the top of the hour, I’m going to work for twenty-five minutes.” Then you focus and work during that twenty-five minutes, knowing that at the end you’re going to stop and get a break. It works really well for me because I’m a person who feels like they can’t stop until something is finished. Since I write books, working without stopping until the thing is done really wouldn’t work. It just wouldn’t be physically or mentally possible. Knowing I can’t finish a task in a single session really crushes my productivity. Breaking a project down into chunks of time, rather than simply “complete” or “incomplete” takes a lot of pressure off. There’s a “Tomato Timer” (the Pomodoro Method got its name from the tomato shape of the timer its creator used) available here if you’d like to try it out!

 

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

16 Comments

  1. E Roach
    E Roach

    Stacey McGill and diabetes!! Sure, there was one book in which she passed out and had serious complications, but more importantly her diabetes was there to educate readers about a condition that some people happen to have but can live with. A kid in my third grade class was diagnosed with it and it was so easy to see ‘Hey, you’re a normal kid, you can go to school and travel to New York and baby-sit just like anyone else!”

    November 30, 2017
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    • Of course! I think that Babysitters’ Club might have also been the books that normalized families with divorced parents for me (grew up in a small town, had very few friends, yadda yadda.)

      November 30, 2017
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  2. Bookjunk
    Bookjunk

    A similar question popped up recently on another website. There was an awesome article about why diversity was a good thing and that the thing that makes a character different shouldn’t be the point of the character, but just a part of the whole. Inevitably, comments in the vein of ‘huh, I hadn’t really thought about that. It doesn’t matter to me what a character’s skin colour, sexual orientation, etc. is, so I don’t get all the uproar about diversity’. No, and you’re obviously not going to try to understand it either. God, this has to be so frustrating for minorities.

    November 30, 2017
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    • Jemmy
      Jemmy

      “It doesn’t matter to me what a character’s skin colour, sexual orientation, etc. is, so I don’t get all the uproar about diversity” – see this is me but I think in the reverse of how it is usually meant. It honestly doesn’t matter to me, which for me means I’m totally fine with non white, non cis, non able bodies stories and characters. I don’t understand why people complain about anything that is not ‘default’. I don’t get why people get so worked up about the differences. The world is full of different people, it makes zero sense stories are stripped of that diversity.

      Seeing all the BS minorities have to go through just to exist is awful.

      December 1, 2017
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      • Bookjunk
        Bookjunk

        Yeah, I don’t care either. But at least we understand the need for more diversity. When you look at books and think ‘well, I don’t care who I read about, so I don’t get why people want more diversity’ that’s almost willfully not getting what the “uproar” is about. And the not-getting it or pretending not to get it, is super annoying and BS.

        December 1, 2017
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  3. Liz
    Liz

    What’s wrong with diversity for the sake of diversity? Positive representation is a big deal, especially if you’re writing for children. Way too many people equate diversity with preaching and moralizing to readers. A character doesn’t need a plot-related reason to have a disability anymore than they need a plot-related reason to have a certain hair color or religion.

    November 30, 2017
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  4. Jay Selene
    Jay Selene

    Thank you so much for tackling the question of “diversity for the sake of diversity”. I’ve heard people comment that they don’t notice, think about, or care about reading different skin colors or sexual orientation or religions — and it feels like they only need to say that after expressing surprise or confusion when reading characters that deviate from the default. I’m thrilled when I find books with casual representation that don’t use minorities as a plot device. Representation in art is so important because it makes you feel seen, or less alone. People who don’t understand why it’s necessary have clearly never experienced that type of isolation. Don’t complain we’re polluting your novels with unnecessary descriptions of our differences and thereby exposing you to other experiences. Instead, read and write MORE diverse stories.

    I love romance novels but, as an asexual, I felt like a total freak growing up because I didn’t experience romance the way it seemed everyone around me did. My sister was the first one to show me a label that fit comfortably, and an internet community of people like me so I didn’t feel like the only one going through this. I’m blessed with a Family or weirdos that have a different sexuality, religion, mental or physical disorders form the norm. And we’re all just…living our lives. Diverse characters should be included in books because diverse people exist in life. And we’re not here to make you a better person — we’ve got our own shit to deal with.

    November 30, 2017
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    • Yeah, it’s amazing how hurtful it can be just to . . . not see yourself. Anywhere. It makes you feel like you must be unreal somehow, because you don’t seem included in the definition of humanity.

      One of the things that really gets me is the lack of depiction of fatness and body diversity in fiction. I rarely see or read about fat women and AFAB people who are just run-of-the-mill protagonists, having adventures because that’s what humans do.

      November 30, 2017
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      • Amy
        Amy

        Im asian and it annoys the fuck out of me when I read an asian character who is nothing more than the “asian character”. The majority of books that have asian main characters are always about concubines or immigration or some shit like that.

        like you, the only time i read about a fat (female) character, their story is ALWAYS about their weight.

        November 30, 2017
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  5. River
    River

    I don’t write much but still find these posts interesting and helpful. The first question brought to mind Handbook For Mortals where at the beginning she makes a deal out of being dislexic but then it is never mentioned again. It doesn’t impact her subsequent life in anyway. It seemingly is random highbred of “plot device, look at me/this is simply who I am” but didn’t serve a purpose nor is it used to round her out as a person who also happens to be dislexic. So it doesn’t do either what professors say it should or how Jenny (rightly) describes writing real characters. Am I thinking of this correctly?

    November 30, 2017
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    • Amy
      Amy

      I think the problem people have with HFM was the fact a LOT of people who have dyslexia have never experienced or heard it described the way Lani did. One reviewer on Amazon was actually contacted by Lani, and Lani said this is how she had in fact experienced her dyslexia.

      I’m not dyslexic, so I have no strong thoughts about it, however due to Lani’s poor writing skills, instead of it coming off as a character trait, it comes off as a quirk in the same way liking thunderstorms and high places is a “not like other girls” quirk.

      I do have glasses though, and when I write a character who has glasses, I am aware they have to clean the glasses, push them up their nose, how easy they are to fall off my face. Little things like that will be added to the narrative. But when Lani wrote about dyslexia, it was never mentioned again, so you wouldn’t know Zade had dyslexia unless you were specifically told. Maybe in the scene where Zade is reading over her contract, she could mention a time when reading would’ve given her anxiety.

      November 30, 2017
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  6. I’m doing my own cover art for my book, and so far it’s only cost me $30 in art supplies and about 40 hours. (Hollow, sobbing laughter.)

    November 30, 2017
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  7. falalala
    falalala

    Oh man, thank you for that first reply. Very little drives me crazier than people who make the argument that if a fictional character is anything other than a straight, white, cis, able-bodied man, there has to be a REASON for it, because “people who are not straight, white, cis, able-bodied men exist in real life and should therefore also exist in fiction” never seems to be a sufficiently good reason in their eyes.

    (Also, I will never understand why “diversity for diversity’s sake” is supposed to be a bad thing. Even if absolutely my only reason for making a character trans or Native American or deaf (or all of the above!) were “I would like trans and Native American and deaf people to be able to see themselves represented in the media they consume,” that seems like a pretty good reason to me.)

    December 1, 2017
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  8. AH
    AH

    I mean, I was almost driven to tears when I saw a comic that portrayed big chest in a realistic way (I have a G-cup) because the lack of proper physics in most visual media is partly at fault of my giant issues with it and a good deal of self-hate, so I can only imagine how it must feel when it’s something that is essential to your identity.

    Diversity matters. Proper portrayal matters.

    December 1, 2017
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  9. Rowan
    Rowan

    You know what was the greatest? When the little kid in REsident Evil: Retribution was deaf and NOTHING SNUCK UP ON HER BECAUSE SHE COULDN’T HEAR IT. She was just a deaf kid. Whose parents could sign, because that’s what you *do.*

    (I’m sure it wasn’t perfect. But her disability wasn’t plot-central, it was just part of who the character was.)

    December 2, 2017
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