Friday, August 09, 2019

yes, there are idiot agents out there

If this has ever happened to  you, let me know.
I like to keep track of the idiots in the field.

Suggesting you whitewash your characters is not only rude and patronizing, it's terrible advice.
Almost everyone I know is looking for fresh voices and new stories.
#OwnVoices is a very hot ticket right now.

If an agent anyone EVER suggests this to you, please rise from your seat, affix him with the Shark Stare of Death and say "We're done here." No need for cursing, spitting, or pouring a drink on the agent. We'll lock them in a closet with angry bees later.


E.M. Goldsmith said...

Yep, had a sort of similar experience although no ruffled feathers. It was not an agent or anyone that I would even normally speak with if they were not working in close proximity to me. I was talking about trying to add some depth to the central romance in my book with a beta reader. This busy-body heard us talking.

Without being asked, they flat-out said they would not read a book with a same sex romance. Both the beta reader and I gave this person a shark-eyed glare and located the rest of our conversation to a closed office elsewhere. I don't know what rock this person had been living under, but I doubt there are that many of these creatures left in the world. Not enough to spin the hamster-wheel.

If an agent or editor said something like this to me or what that young writer was told, I would be dumb-founded. Especially if they said some character or other of mine must be "white" in my fantasy novel where humans are varied and sometimes have multi-colored stripes.

Truly, this young writer should persist with her own story in her own voice and disregard these narrow-minded folks giving her terrible advice. Write what you write. Not all feedback is valid.

DeadSpiderEye said...

MC, POC, is that CFB or JAFETCE?

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Wow! With all the talk and the desperate need for diverse books, really? It's good to be forewarned. I hope the young writer friend keeps querying agents until s/he finds one who can handle POC in the story.

K. White said...

I know a writer who received feedback from a Big Five editor asking if the author was Asian-American. When told no, the editor suggested changing the 1 Asian character to be white, because the editor was worried about the backlash of a white author appropriating a non-white character. When the author declined to make the change, the book was rejected.

Fortunately, a different Big Five bought the novel later, all characters intact.

Melissa said...

This is an unfortunate result of the Twitter witch hunts over YA titles. It's causing a freezing effect where agents and publishers are worried about blowback. There's been a few canceled books and those are written by POC. Amélie Wen Zhao is a sad example.

LynnRodz said...

Good to know. I haven't started querying, but one of my two main characters is a POC. If I get that type of reaction, I will have my SSD down pat although I hope I won't be needing it.

Craig F said...

As a puchica gringo, I should have sense enough to keep a ten foot pole between me and the subject, so I'll sidestep.

Just about every other query I have seen lately has #Other Voices tacked to it, even when the manuscript doesn't do much in that direction. It seems to be heading towards an attempted door opener. That is not cool either.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Could I, should I, would I write a book with a main character that is a twenty year old black NASA Moon-Watch station worker in Olifantsfontein, South Africa?
Does my life experience qualify me to tell how he lived and how he died?
His name was Jon.
He was trampled by an elephant. Not where he worked (which means elephant's water place) but elsewhere?
Jon was smart, well liked and respected by station workers.
At that time as a twenty-year old blond American I was steered away from Jon because it was in the time of apartheid.
I did not write the book and until this moment I have never written about Jon.
But I did paint his portrait from my memory of him and a single photo after he died.
I entered the painting in an art show.
“Portrait of Jon” won First Place. He was awarded a gold ribbon.

Don’t let anyone else tell you what to write, paint or sing. Always dance to your own tune.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

This has worried me.

I've heard that I am not "allowed" to write characters not my own ethnicity ... But also that there are way too many books starring my ethnicity out there ... So where does that leave me? Taken to its logical conclusion, it leaves me not allowed to write.

In actual fact, my novels are set 12,000 years ago, well before the present races developed. And i'm not writing YA, which should help.

Still, it's a worry.

D.H. said...

Melissa, Zhao is releasing her book now in November. She cancelled the release but took the time to look it over and, in the end, decided the critics weren't correct.

Zhao's a great example of a writer who is willing to listen to feedback but also determined to see her vision.

LynnRodz said...

Craig, you're right. I started writing this story long before the #Other Voices became popular. My character just happens to be a POC, but I have no intentions of using that as a selling point to open doors. I will, however, give anyone a Shark Stare of Death if they ask me to change that character to white.

JEN Garrett said...

Why would an author who was writing in her own culture be told to whitewash her characters? Were they acting too "white"?

I had a main character with a learning disability based on a several actual people with the same disability. I was told by a beta reader that it wasn't believable because the character didn't act/write like he was disabled. The beta readers who shared the disability swore that the character was authentic.

Prejudice is something to be aware of, but not to give into.

Brenda said...

Amelie did the only reasonable thing. She revised her manuscript. I predict that her book will walk off the shelves.
We ain’t Steinbeck, folks. This is genre fiction and we have to consider the impact of PR.

Laura Stegman said...

It's interesting how many of the answers to this thread are giving examples that are the direct opposite of the example in Janet's post. Yet I too have an example of someone I know who wrote a middle grade book that attracted an agent, who eventually told the writer that he couldn't sell the book because the MC was a POC (based on a person who was close to the writer) and the writer was not. Eventually the writer went to an indie publisher, sold it to them, and it's doing very well. But is that a happy ending?

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...


You are allowed to write characters not of your own ethnicity. But please don't be one of those authors whose writing about POCs will reinforce the negative stereotypes and further the very real disenfranchisement of these POCs.

Sometimes, in the hands of less discerning writers, creative license unintentionally results in microaggression.

I am commenting here knowing that the Reef is a safe space. These are not fighting words. I love you all. Peace.

Melissa said...

D.H. I haven't read Amelie's book to know whether or not her changes were necessary. I only bring her up as one example of a social media mob forcing a book out of the market before it even was in. Right or wrong, this is what is making some agents and publishers more hesitant. I have been on several forums where people are expressing fear at including POC in their story because of these examples.

Whether the complaints of these books are justified, I can't say. I am only speaking to the effect on the broader market.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

Love to you too Cecilia!

Barbara Etlin said...

2NNs, I hope you do write about Jon.

I think anyone can write about whatever/whomever they want, if they do enough research, which may include a sensitivity reader.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...


Again, I love you guys here but please,please when doing 'research' about us POCs go to the direct source because we're all here waiting, wanting for you to understand us. Research is not reading another work of fiction, not watching TV or movies with POC characters, or a blog by a non-POC person who interacted with POCs. We are more than the sum of our stereotypes.

Craig F said...

Cecelia: I would rather warn people about who to approach. It is too easy for someone to see such questions as the "where you from" Types of assholic bigotry that is floating around.

Many people have a right to be paranoid when you ask background questions.

Rio said...

I agree with those who say it's totally okay to write characters from other cultures. I don't mind at all if people write about my culture. I might have a good laugh when they get a detail wrong (like a character eating hot chile then drinking water to quench the burning. Water!! Good grief, no! That's like putting out an electrical fire with lighter fluid!), but I love them for the effort.

I'm sure I get details wrong all over the place, when I'm writing about a location I don't know as intimately as the locals do, or when I'm including a subject I'm not an expert in. (I have no doubt, when my current WIP is finished, my physics professor will hang his head in shame for what I've done with everything he tried to teach me.) No one gets it right 100 percent of the time. What matters is we care enough to dig those few extra feet beneath the surface. Therein lies the treasure.

Selerial said...

Cecilia, it’s actually nice to hear someone say that, because I’ve come across people who get pretty angry about being asked questions. “Go do research, I’m not your google.” It’s important to know who to ask, too. :) People like you are in demand!

I write fantasy, but no plans on making everybody white there either, despite my own DayGlo. I’m hoping nobody asks me “why not make her white instead” because apparently the closet of angry bees will be occupied...

Sarah said...

Cecelia, thank you for your comments!

Grace Lin (I think it was her!) did an excellent job of explaining the idea of #ownvoices. She made the point that a while ago, it became popular to have strong female main characters (especially after Katniss). Everyone tried to write them. Male authors who had consistently written male MCs decided to write to the trend. Some created believable female MCs. Some didn't.

But Grace (I think!) made the point that it might have been far better for those authors to continue to write male MCs in a story that also included strong female characters. Showing male MCs interact with a strong girl in a positive would be just as valuable.

In the same way, it might be better to show my characters interacting well with diverse characters. It still requires research and empathy, but it doesn't assume that I speak for that person.

It's not a rule, by any means. But for me it was very illuminating.

Konnie Enos said...

First, I agree with E.M. Goldsmith. Not everybody is going to like the same things and just because one person won't read certain types of books doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of people who will.

I personally won't read certain types of romance, don't care for mysteries at all though I have read and like some cozies. BUT I have writer friends who DO write the very stuff I won't read. "Go for it. That's your niche, I'm not your audience."

Second, in my sci-fi (set in distant future and space) Two of my main characters are POC and I have a number of secondary characters who are too. Then again I also have actual aliens (this is sci-fi). I've never considered people might not accept my story because some of my characters are POC and I'm not. Of course, I didn't even realized the two main characters had to be POC until I'd finished my second or third draft. I wasn't describing skin color so it just didn't dawn on me until I realized their dark curly hair and brown eyes was a give away.

But then, back to my first point, some people aren't going to care that I have POC characters and read the story just for the tale I weave.

Konnie Enos
Smile. Make the day a brighter day.
Instragram @ konnieenos

Steve Benton said...

I actually had an agent ask if the female, twelve-year-old protagonist for one of my YA manuscripts was a lesbian. When I said no, and that she had a crush on a boy in her school (who is very much a part of the story) the agent said she wasn't interested.

I can understand wanting different voices in literature, but limiting yourself to "anything but" isn't a very good business model.

Isn't it all about selling books? There's a market out there for everyone.

Casual-T said...

I would have so much to say about this, but will keep it plain and simple... Anybody should write what they want to write in exactly the manner they want to write it in. Some people may get offended – So be it. Some may like it – So be it. Some may not care one way or another – So be it. If I don’t like a book, I put it down and read something else, but I don’t get my panties twisted in a bunch and start getting the pitchfork ready. People are way too easily offended these days.

Of course there is a big difference between writing a book and selling a book. And whatever sells right now might not sell next week. But this constant droning on about skin color, sexual orientation, and diversity for the sake of diversity is becoming nauseating. All I want is to read a good story, presented in an interesting fashion. I simply couldn’t care less whether the heroin likes to kiss girls, or whether the hero is black, white, green, or checkered... Just my two cents.

Ellis Tandy said...

Casual-T - I mean, you're entitled to care as little as you like about representation, but at the end of the day visibility is important in not only giving marginalised groups their voice, busting stereotypes and opening readers to 'new' worlds but in normalising non-straight/white/male perspectives, which have dominated storeytelling for millennia. These are admirable goals, and if diversity in fiction proliferates for a time merely 'for the sake of it' until it gains traction and breaks the stranglehold that whiteness/straightness/maleness still holds on the mainstream publishing industry, I'm cool with that personally.

Casual-T said...

@Ellis... I much appreciate your response. Often people cover their ears and start yelling “REEEEEEE!” the moment anyone says anything contrary to the current narrative.

Having said that, I’m actually with you in regards to visibility and representation. Of course it is important. That’s really my point... Let ANYONE write what they want. But ANYONE actually means ANYONE, including me. I do not at all agree with the agent in the tweet Janet had pointed out. There shouldn’t be any need to make the main character white, if that’s not what the author intended. But at the same time I also do not agree if someone were to tell me, my characters need to be bisexual Asian midgets (if that’s not what I want them to be). I should have the right to write whatever it is I want, and my story should be judged merely on its own merit, independent of my skin color/gender... or the skin color/gender... (if any) of my inventions.

I was married to a black woman for 13 (very long) years, lived in the not so savory parts of Brooklyn, way before Brooklyn was “the thing,” and raised two checkered boys whom I love dearly. So what if I decide to write about my experiences? A white man writing something bad, possibly stereotypical (but true) about a black woman? Writing something bad about the black hustlers and drug dealer on the corner? ...Get the Twitter mobs ready... At the same time it seems perfectly alright these days, to say that I’m [insert negative opinion/stereotype] because I’m a straight, white male. It is precisely this group think and this identitarianism of us against them, white against black, straight against gay, majority against minority (which, in new speak, is marginalized), which does what it claims to fight against: It divides people.

I also wholeheartedly reject the validity of the idea that because “straight/white/male perspectives [...] have dominated storytelling [sic] for millennia” I now have to pay the price. I have nothing to do with that dominance. I’m just a guy who’s trying to tell a story, hopefully in a way that intrigues people... It is just as unwarranted to say lesbian/black/women are [insert opinion], as it is ridiculous to say straight/white/males are [insert opinion]. I was under the impression that the whole point of equality of opportunity is for everyone to be afforded... well... equal opportunity. So how is it OK to say we’re all equal, except for those straight, white guys over there? And to claim that the reason for this is... because past times.

Thanks for reading.

...I have now spent 4 cents.

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