I’m tying all of these updates to the guidelines page for whichever anthology they’re written for (at the bottom of the page), so all the updates are listed together for easy reference.
So I just had a query on the Start a Revolution guidelines page, the second part of which relates to something that a lot of you (from what I’m seeing in the slush pile) are struggling with. And I’m going to highlight it because this comes after a long conversation with several other editors and authors last night in which the spread of points below, in relation to the anthology, also was discussed at length, so all of this is very much on my mind right now.
Now, the submissions question that triggered this today was:
Are you intending the QUILTBAG aspect of the story to be primary and the speculative aspects secondary, or is there flexibility for this?
Many of the stories, in fact the majority, that have been submitted to Start a Revolution have assumed one of several things, sometimes all of these:
First, that having a QUILTBAG protagonist means the story has to be about them being QUILTBAG–a la the bulk of LGBT fiction that concerns itself with characters discovering they’re gay/lesbian/trans*, and that’s the entire point of the story.
Which really needs to stop being a focal point of QUILTBAG fiction now, because it’s antithetical to how you actually introduce diversity in fiction. And I wish that so many people responding to this open call had not run with the idea that a story about personal revolution meant a protagonist figuring out their sexual and/or gender orientation, and the story’s climax being “Oh my god! I’m X category of QUILTBAG! This now directly informs every aspect of my life!”
No it doesn’t.
Your gender and sexual orientation informs some of your social interactions. Also various societal interactions, because we are, by nature, a species of xenophobes, and we have adopted a mythology about “normative” cultural representations (more on that later). But no one is defined by one aspect of their existence. There will be other people who will over the course of your life attempt to circumscribe to you only that much space and no more, but why in the name of all that’s profane would you possibly want to do that to yourself?
Which leads us to the second assumption. Many submissions have attempted to handle discussing QUILTBAG characters by having those characters actively self-define in dialogue, or do so directly to the reader, or through other highly polemic and artificial means, including more than one example of writers putting in brackets behind one of the QUILTBAG terms some explainer text….
This is not how you introduce diversity and representation of real, three-dimensional people into fiction. Because in order to introduce and represent diversity you don’t highlight (read: exoticize, or other) it, you normalize the presence of characters in an environment. You write real, three-dimensional people into a story, who just happen to be whatever their gender and/or sexual orientation, race, nationality, or other concern is. And the rest takes care of itself because:
The world is composed of multi-cultural societies, in which we live and interact with peoples of diverse definitions (in some countries and societies more than others, I grant you). But the point is that there is no such thing as a default gender, sexual, racial, or national basis for identity or self-definition. No such thing. It doesn’t exist.
And the failure of most fictions attempting to write diverse narratives from a forced perspective is that they assume the default of a white, straight protagonist, living in a culturally homogeneous society.
Writing diversity is really easy. You know how you do it? You write books with people in them who aren’t white and straight (in whatever non-combination thereof), ideally protagonists as well as a large basis of diverse secondaries, and you don’t make the fact that they’re not those things the focus of your story. Then you situate your protagonist in a world full of other equally well-realized people doing interesting things. And hopefully you have, you know, a plot in there somewhere.
But that’s it. That’s all you have to do.
Characters who are isolated in a narrative for their ethnicity, their orientation, or other single-focus factors, and exist in that story solely because of that factor, are subject to the token effect: that thing that happens when a non-white and/or non-straight character exists to be non-white/non-straight, and is exoticized or dehumanized for being so. Often without any kind of evidenced identity or personality to boot. The Magical Negro effect is one particular aspect of the problem. And a variant of it crops up as disabled/queer/QUILTBAG protagonists being magical because they’re different, and being so gives them awesome powers other people don’t possess! It’s the flip side of curebie (this character is broken, and a burden on everyone else, and won’t it be wonderful when they’re fixed) stories.
I’ve had several Magical QUILTBAG stories show up in the slush pile. And at least one Magical Disabled Person story, too. Nothing to do for them. Or with them for that matter:
The lack of a plot, or cessation of plot just as thing start up, is difficult to work around. Primarily because though you can write stories whose entire point is that things are coming to a head, stories that come up to a cliff and then don’t jump off it more often than not just aren’t finished, or are otherwise unready.
Which brings us to the third assumption:
Wow but a lot of you took that anthology title literally.
Your story doesn’t just have to be about the inception of a revolution. Really it doesn’t :)
Which, actually, leads into the fourth assumption:
The prevailing idea that seems to have cropped up in the slush pile for this anthology is that having “QUILTBAG” and the word “revolution” in the same title means that the revolutions under discussion must be revolutions about being some orientation of QUILTBAG or a related self-definition, or that the greater revolution is somehow a war between being QUILTBAG and not.
That being not at all the basis of the book. I will stress again that the idea of both QUILTBAG anthologies (Start a Revolution and This Patchwork Flesh) is to introduce readers to characters who are in a naturalized, non-exoticized, context QUILTBAG protagonists. It is about correcting underrepresentation, and also about showing people who are QUILTBAG readers and who do not find a wealth of books featuring protagonists like themselves the opportunity to say “Hey, this story has a person who looks/feels/self-defines like me and they’re represented as a real, three-dimensional human being.” Or gives them the opportunity to say “Oh. This is what that thing I’ve been looking for a name/way to discuss/way to understand myself is referred to as. And it’s part of a spectrum of ways of being.”
It’s about giving people a wider sense of inclusion, and for those who don’t know it yet letting them know that they’re not alone.
This is why we keep having the conversation about diversity in YA, and PoC and QUILTBAG representation there: because the conversation is about depicting the actuality of the world for people who are still engaged in their formative years and need role models and a sense that they are not being ignored by the world–a position I would argue we never actually grow out of (and the conversation in adult fiction does overlap with this, but it has different foci). But, yes, it’s especially important to find like stories when we’re still finding ourselves and trying to understand who we want to be.
At this point I’m not going to go into statistics with this post. I’ve spent enough (literal) hours on it now, writing and rewriting the above. And I’d not intended to do one of these update posts right now, but the above needed saying for those who have yet to submit something. Especially as we’ve got a little less than a couple of weeks to go on the submissions window.
Over the course of that submissions window, I’ve seen a lot of work that is unintentionally heavy-handed, thankfully very few pieces of which have been trunk stories, and despite a fair number of beautifully written stories I’ve seen a lot of work that doesn’t manage to treat being QUILTBAG as a normalized function of being a person.
I have been trying to come up with a better way to put this, but in the end I’m just going to repost here my response to the question I highlighted at the beginning of this post:
Both the QUILTBAG orientation of the protagonist and the speculative elements of the story are just structural components of the story–you don’t want them to be the focus. You want the interesting story–the *reason* you’re telling the story–to be the focus of the work, and everything else should just be background and feel natural for the story you’re telling. Play with the story, have fun telling it, and write interesting characters who just happen to be of various gender and sexual orientations.
It really is that simple.
And the last thing I will point out in this update is that subtlety is always a better storytelling approach with me, and will give you a much better shot at getting into the anthology. And I’m just going to explain that in musical/visual shorthand right now:
Many of you are doing this (and a story going this blunt had better be doing a hell of a lot of interesting things with itself):
You really need to be doing something like this to have a better shot at getting in: