Monday, January 29, 2018

My #ownvoices is the voice of mental illness

Many agents require some information about the author in a query. I have no publications so I assume I should include a little about my day job, but I am torn on including more sensitive information.
I am about to start querying a book with a LGBTQ focus, and thus I am focusing on agents who want diverse books. Many of these agents also say they want diverse authors. I am a very private person, but I am willing to disclose that I am bisexual if it will help.
However, I am also bipolar with an anxiety disorder, and I am concerned that this could be an issue either at the querying stage, if I mention it, or later if I were offered representation.
It's easy for agents to say they want authors with under-represented voices of all kinds, but I feel like mental health is an issue most people don't even want to touch.
Will agents automatically write me off as a crazy person that will be too difficult to deal with?
Should I conceal this information? Or should I be upfront about it? And if so, when?


We talked about what and how to to disclose this kind of information generally back in 2016, but it's a good time to talk about specifics in a query.

You are not obliged legally, ethically or by "best practices" to disclose any information about yourself that you don't want to. You can't lie but you don't have to strip down even metaphorically.

Mental illness comes with a whole host of negative stereotypes, incorrect assumptions, and fear. It's a tough illness to have because people can be ignorant and cruel before they learn to be sympathetic.


I think you're right to be cognizant of the stigma that comes with a mental illness.
I think you're right to be careful how you disclose.
I know you're right to understand some agents will shy away from your work solely because of this.

If you want to disclose you're going to need more than a line in a query. You might consider putting something on your website about what your diagnosis is, and how you manage it in your daily and creative life.

In your query you might say "I am one of the six million Americans who have a mental illness diagnosis. I have specific information about it on my website" and include a link.

If you want to keep this information to yourself at the query stage, that's totally ok.
If you want to hint with #OwnVoices in the description of your book, that's ok.

If you want to tell me when we begin discussion representation, that's ok.

If you never want to tell me, that's ok too.

If you think your diagnosis may have an impact on your professional life, tell me what you can and cannot do. The WHY you can or can not isn't relevant. If you can tell me the WHY it will help a lot if you can tell me BEFORE it creates a problem for you (I know, that crystal ball doesn't work as well as the reviews on Amazon led you to think.)

You do not owe me the details of your life.
You owe me great writing and professional deportment.






25 comments:

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

We do not have to strip ourselves naked for anyone.
And that is from someone who's essay, article and column writing central character is often me.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I have zero idea what to put in the bio section of my query myself. I do not think I would disclose this kind of thing in the query unless I was presenting something in my writing about mental illness in a more non-fictional sense. I might hit the #ownvoices bit however. Maybe. If it gets you a closer look by rhe agent then why not?

OP, lots of writers struggle with various mental illnesses - I would wager more than general population. Writing is great therapy after all. Take our queen’s advice on this. I do not think it will hinder you career wise.

In high school, I wrote all the time -stories, songs, poetry. The other students thought me unhinged - scary even. Tattoos, piercings, grunge before it was cool, and a girl that played a screamimg guitar who was clearly not towing the line of socially acceptable norms in a fancy private school. It grated on them how high my test scores and grades remained despite the outer drama.

One of my English teachers told the other students that writing made me crazy. I told him it was the other way around- the crazy made me have to write. This was ages ago, when any mental illness diagnosis was heavily stigmatized so I self-medicated severe manic-depression with fiction, booze, and self-mutilation. It’s easier now days. People are way more informed and treatment far more sophisticated.

Most of the agents I have run across are really decent people, and as long as you write well and can be professional, following her Majesty’s advice, you will be good to go.

Adib Khorram said...

I suffer from major depressive disorder myself, and though I didn't mention it in my query, I did discuss it during my phone calls with agents and editors. (Granted, MDD also plays a role in my novel, so it came up organically). OP, I encourage you to be honest and upfront about it if you feel safe to do so. The way we fight the stigma around mental illness is to talk about it.

Also, if an agent is prejudiced against people with mental illness? Don't just walk away. RUN. You don't want that agent.

EM is right. Most agents really are decent people, and chances are good they already have one or more clients with mental illness.

Kathy Joyce said...

British author Matt Haig, one of my new favorites, speaks out about his own depression and anxiety, and is a great advocate. His latest novel, How to Stop Time, just came out in US. (I got an early copy, great book!) I haven't read it yet, but his previous book, Reasons to Stay Alive, deals with mental illness. Multiple reviews and tweets say something like, "This book literally saved my life."

Our writing can be more important than we know.

I didn't get around to recommending How to Stop Time in yesterday's thread, when people talked about being teachers. The MC is a history teacher with a disease that makes him age very slowly, so he's 400 years old, and has lived the history he teaches. Haig has great words and insights about teachers and teaching.

Ann Bennett said...

With one in five people at any given time suffering from mental illness, you would think there is less prejudice. That is not true; ignorance and cruelty go hand in hand.

I don't agree with Janet's advice about putting this information on your webpage unless it is something you want to discuss. I have hemorrhoids. I don't discuss them because they are my personal business. I would encourage anyone to not discuss their mental illness or other health matters to the general public unless they are prepared emotionally.

If you seek treatment, you are probably more self aware than the average person. There is nothing wrong in sharing with a receptive audience. Just don't toss your pearls before swine.

You also don't need an agent who cannot handle good writing from an imperfect human being.

BJ Muntain said...

Unfortunately, we often have to keep things quiet to avoid being judged for something we have no control over. But do be honest - with your agent and with yourself - about what you can't do. Your health is of utmost importance, and you need to take care of yourself.

Twenty years ago, I bought a house, ended a long-term relationship, and went back to university. Even after a diagnosis of depression, I kept pushing myself to keep going as normal - until something broke. I could no longer think properly, and had to drop out of school. It took years to find the right medication that allowed me to concentrate enough to go back to work.

If something causes more stress than is healthy for you, be honest about it with your agent. But you don't have to do this in a query. Save it for a quiet conversation, when you feel it's the right time.

Take care of yourself, OP.

Ashes said...

I think there is probably a corresponding relationship between how prominently mental illness factors into the story and how much it will help you to disclose.

If it is more of an in-the-background subplot, then I'd wager that disclosing your personal medical history early on won't be worth the risk of making someone hesitate.

If it is the main focus of the story, like Brain on Fire (bad example, because that's non-fiction, but it's also phenomenal, and you should read it) then it would be a huge selling point, to me, that you have first-hand experience of what you're trying to explore. In fact, as a reader, I am sometimes looking in the author bio to see if a topic referenced extensively in a novel is mentioned in the bio.

Mister Furkles said...

"If you never want to tell me, that's okay too."

I vote for this. OP, it's you private life. You need not to divulge any of this when applying for a job. You shouldn't need to divulge anything you wouldn't need to when applying for employment.

The exception is if you must have a national security clearance to get a job. Then you must disclose past drug and alcohol treatment as well as psychiatric treatment. You must also divulge whether you have ailurophobia because you can't trust people who hate cats: they're all evil.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

This is such a hard thing to balance. Janet's advice is, of course, completely excellent. I know exactly what you mean about being private, and I'd hate the idea of having to disclose something I wasn't comfortable with in a query.

Gigi said...

I don't have anything to add to Janet's always-excellent advice, but in case it's encouraging, here my own experience of querying with mental illness:

My book is #ownvoices and after spending quite a lot of time talking it over with people I trust and figuring out what I'm comfortable with, I put in one line toward the end of my query "It's [the book is] also #ownvoices for neurodiversity.

I chose neurodiversity because I like how the term creates positivity and new perspective on mental illness and because while I wanted to let the agent know that I was taking things on from a personal, lived perspective, I also didn't want to spend time explaining in depth.

Full disclosure, for the last four or five years, I've been writing publicly from time to time about my mental illness, slowly building up my comfort level with talking about it because I feel like it's an important thing for people to talk about. So when I'm feeling up for it (and that's the key), I've written about what it's like, how I cope, etc. etc. and that info is something an agent may find if they choose to Google me anyway.

Anyway, all that to say, I've started querying with the above line about #ownvoices and I have what my more experienced writing friends tell me is a good request rate. It doesn't seem to have slowed anything down.

Again, none of this is prescriptive of what you should or shouldn't do. As Janet says, it's really up to you. But I thought I'd share in case it puts your mind at ease to hear that someone else has included that kind of #ownvoices line and still gotten a healthy number of requests.

Craig F said...

I think that the only reason to bring up your own problems in a query is if your book is about that subject. If your own plight lends credence to to your premise it might be worthwhile to bring it up. So few books that I have read portray mental and emotional problems properly. It might show that you are capable of doing that.

Sherry Howard said...

The last few days of posts have been so open and honest that it’s a tribute to the safe space people feel this is.

morganhazelwood.com said...

They say 'write what you know' and I think #ownVoices is a great way of getting new stories out there.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Colin Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Colin Smith said...

My view is, Business Need-To-Know. If you look at the query letter as a business letter, what does the agent need to know? In short, who you are, and what's your story. #ownvoices, #mswl, and so on are good and useful, but they *should* never change a "no" to a "yes." If your query/story sucks, the fact that you were a NASA scientist, just like your MC shouldn't change anything if the agent doesn't like your novel and/or doesn't think she can sell it. Where it ought to matter (again, in my view--and I'm not an agent, so I suppose you can skip this) is when an agent is on the fence about requesting. Or if she feels the novel has great potential, and the author can write well, but it needs work. She knows the fact it's an #ownvoices will be a selling point, so she is perhaps a little more inclined to invest the effort.

As others have said, never feel obliged to share anything of a personal nature to anyone except those that need to know (e.g., your doctor, or significant other). An agent might need to know if your particular mental condition could impede meeting deadlines. That way, if your agent is asking when the ms will be ready, you can just say, "Sorry--I'm having a bad day." The agent will then understand and say, "No problem. Just let me know when you're ready. Look after yourself." Or words to that effect. But you should never have to divulge information on that level in order to get an agent or sell a book.

dellcartoons said...

My first impulse is to say: if your agent can't deal w/ your illness, then you don't want that person as an agent. However, given how tough it can be to find an agent, to get accepted as a client, I understand why you might not agree

Depending on your type and severity of illness you might be able to hide it. Again, my first impulse is to say "don't hide", but again, depending on your personal situation, this has to be your choice. The people in my life, my family and friends, even my boss at work, are supportive, but I know not everyone is that lucky

I will say, however, that a literary agent who cannot deal w/ people who are "different" in any way is in the wrong business

I'll also say that all this stuff I have so much trouble w/ now, stuff that's so embarrassing and humiliating now, will look really cool when they do my biography a hundred years from now!

Kathy Joyce said...

Craig, "I think that the only reason to bring up your own problems in a query is if your book is about that subject."

I read similar advice. Then, I sent a query to a professional for comment. She said, if you do that (i.e., say that the MC has autism, and that my kids have autism), it may lead agents or editors to think I have an ax to grind.

Do whatever feels right to you. There are no rules that matter to everyone.

Lennon Faris said...

Sounds like fair advice.

What do you plan to tell your future readers, OP? If you open up about your struggles, it could help decrease the taboo aspect of mental illness (a very worthy cause!). BUT it would open you up to a lot of potential haters. People are so 'brave' behind a screen!

The reason I bring it up is that might alter what you want to say to your agent.

I like the idea of making a difference, but I'm also a very private person. I want to make a difference with my writing, not my personal life.

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Part 1:
OP, I'd like to help you! I too have a mental illness (OCD), made an #ownvoice novel of it and am in the middle of querying. I don't want to advise you on what to talk about and what not, because in the end it is you who must decide.

I like Janet's advice because that's what I'd say as well.
I've chosen to be open now, but I used to hide my OCD 100%. This is just as hard as coming out for me. Maybe harder!

I've lost a very well-paid job back in 2006 because of my OCD. I had started that job pretty well and then something happened and I became useless (yes, from a business point of view that's what it was). Was pushed into resigning and so I did.

I had two bosses at the same time, one very understanding (but he was leaving) and one who was less understanding and pushed for my departure. He said "You should have been open about your OCD when we interviewed you!" Me: " Well, I could have thrown myself in front of a train then - same thing. You'd never have given me the job! I didn't mean to become dysfunctional and tried my very best. I believed I could do it."

He was probably still human enough to realize that I was walking into nowhere without a job but I did even have understanding for him and his position: He was under pressure himself and needed results.

I always try to not forget the other people around me who 'have to' deal with my OCD. If they feel sorry for me and do me a favour, they may have to forget about themselves and possibly take on part of my problem, which is the illness. That shouldn't happen, because at the end of the day everybody needs to think of themselves first. YOU, a literary agent and even a partner. So, yes, Colin, mentioning mental illness should not turn a "No" into a "Yes". It's tough for us but I totally understand this.

My boyfriend has ALWAYS been loving with me. In 2014 I dared to ask about his view on marriage with me. I got the answer that he couldn't do it. Because of my OCD. I was devastated. Just devastated.
With a little bit of time, I developed understanding. I couldn't expect he'd promise to stick with me forever if he wasn't sure that he could take me and my OCD on forever.
(BUT: He's proposed to me last November... AWWW... emoji with hearts on the eyes and all over the face...)

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Part 2:
If it's okay to post, Janet, here is my bio of my query which talks about my mental illness (I don't know if it's a good or bad one, Janet and other agents have rejected my project... it's impossible for me to say if it's because of my mental illness or my possibly garbage writing or not a good enough story):

"I have lived with OCD for 30 years and am tired of people judging who I am solely on this condition. ONE OF US HAS TO GO is my way of lending an authentic voice to an illness that affects millions. I have been able to turn my struggle into a winning fight, and I’ve written an OCD story that’s experiential for the reader."

Maybe you can use these same sentences and replace certain words for your benefit (again, I don't know if this is any good, you decide for yourself). I have the same worry that an agent may think I cannot meet deadlines. Somebody recommended saying that I still struggle a lot these days to emphasize my own voice, but I chose not to because (1) it's not even true anymore and (2) I don't want them to think that I am a mess.

I mention Own Voice in the very first sentence.

I'm glad Janet mentions a website. I won't copy the link to mine in here but maybe it's google-able. Use my name "One Of Us Has To Go". There is an about-page which explains what OCD is. You could do the same for yours. There is also a blog (mmm, don't like it too much, need to edit) with stuff about OCD. I've interviewed my own boyfriend (he's 'Roger' there and in my book; names changed) about how he feels "suffering with the OCD-sufferer". I try to use my book for more than just a book.

You can use it as an example if you want to build a website, too (if you haven't already done so).

I could go on, but stop here, to leave the rest of this space for the other nice folks here :).

All the best to you, OP. Stay strong!

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Part 3:
I promise not to comment tomorrow unless Janet opens another can of worms ;) !

AJ Blythe said...

Not being #ownvoices myself makes it hard to comment. But I think the advice offered here is wonderful. Just remember, OP, to not do anything that makes you uncomfortable or adds anxiety to your life. Best of luck with your query!

One Of Us Has To Go said...

I'm worried now that I have put you down somehow with my comments, OP. Maybe they weren't supportive enough on your side and too much about my personal realism.

It's only ONE opinion, mine, so please take in all the others!

I'm worried about having caused you even more worries.
Please stay positive. Please keep querying and don't give up.

Best of luck!

John Davis Frain said...

Well, I wrote a response and then went back and read the comments. Now I've deleted my response. I'm no expert (on anything, according to my kids) so listen to the brilliant advice from Janet and from above.

You've already proven you're strong, OP, by the fact that you finished. And the fact that you wrote and sent the question to Janet. Stay positive. The world is a surprisingly kind place some days. And when it's not, come back and swim a few laps at the reef. We'll build you back up again!