Stay in your lane…

I was listening to a well-known author talk of how to succeed in the writing world. I try to keep learning, and sometimes there are things you’ve missed forever. Now, fair enough, the author’s background is trad publishing, his advice was based largely on the idea that you would want to succeed there. I’m not sure if you want to, or should want to.

Let me start by saying that I wrote a book, first person, from the point of view of a rather timid, urban female priest. Not my ‘lane’: I am none of the above. Yesterday I spent an hour chatting to… a visiting rather timid, urban female priest, and her also female church-warden friend who wanted to talk, because they’re busy reading the book. Which, by the way, they keep nicking from each other, as they only had one copy and are both reading avidly. Human nature remains true even in two very religious ladies.

(the picture is a link)

Now, as it happens, I rescued these two when they were lost on a mountain on the island. They went for a hike, missed the trail and ended up blundering for a mile or two into dense bush where they had no idea where north, south or east or west were. They weren’t sure where they’d been.  I think they still knew up from down, but that was it. So they ‘phoned the list of Parish Council people, working their way down the list. My wife happened to be second on that list, so we got the local SES (because I know from personal experience that conducting search and rescue in the dark is vile, it was late afternoon, and yes, people can be lost for days in our bush) and headed up there ourselves. I only had me to organize, so I got there first, left Barbs to be comms at the trail head in case they got back, stuck to the trail, and walked up calling, until I got a rather plaintive reply near the top. I marked the trail with a rope across it, contacted the rescue coordinator, told him where they were, what mark I was leaving, and – marking my track every 10 paces – homed in on their voices.  They were in fact only seventy or eighty yards from the track. I contacted the Coordinator and Barbs, and, following my signs had them back on the path, re-hydrated and walking down soon enough.

They knew, therefore, firsthand – that this is not my lane. They’d seen enough to know it’s not my wife’s lane either. And why did they want to talk? Because they really wanted to know who I used as a model for my character. Basically the priest – and her friend, wanted to know how the Hades I had known how she thought, reacted and coped -because both of them thought I got it so very right. How had I written so incisively about someone I had never met? Was someone else that similar to the lady?

Well, there are a lot of similar humans, of course. I had indeed struggled with writing this – it is very different in style, type and POV from anything I had ever done.

Their ‘problem’ with the story – having met me, was not that it was ‘wrong’, but that they couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that someone from so very far outside their ‘lane’ could get it right.

Let’s just state that again in summary. The problem was not that someone from outside their ‘lane’ did a bad job. To the contrary. The problem was THEIR expectation that someone who was not in their ‘lane’ would not get it right.

So: listening to the advice of this respected author (and I respect him too – I just differ on this issue) and he spoke about the current fashion in Trad of demanding authors stay in their lane. If you’re gay you can write gay characters and if you’re Black or Chinese you can write characters who are Black or Chinese. If you’re male you can’t write a female POV. Because you can’t possibly get them right.

The author felt they had a point.

Hmm. Tell that to the little lady priest or the friend who thought I must have been describing her.

Sigh. Look – ever noticed the one defining feature of this ‘stay in your lane’ thing? It’s that it is one way traffic. No one says to a black female author ‘you can’t write male white characters, you can’t get them right.’ Or to gay authors ‘you can’t have heterosexual characters, you can’t get them right’ or to young female authors, ‘you can’t write older male characters, you can’t possibly get them right’. It’s a ‘rule’ with a hierarchy of ‘exceptions’ who can use any lane they like.

If it were a universal rule (and not ‘rules for thee, but not for me):

  • You’d really only be able to write about yourself (and even that you’d get wrong).
  • In about 10 minutes every ‘exception’ above would say ‘that’s a stupid rule, of course I can. And even if I get them wrong, so what?
  • Universal compliance with the ‘stay in your lane’ would particularly destructive to small groups or those even tinier little intersectional subsets of ‘special perks’ people the US far Left like to signal their virtue by championing. Let’s face it, if your little subset is 0.02 of the demographic… a book which only has characters from that little bubble is going to have to be very special to sell to the general audience. Effectively, they’re excluding themselves from much of the market. That – if applied equally seems to hamstring the very people they claim to want to support.

“Oh but it’s different. They have experienced living with people outside their subset. It’s you who don’t know how they think, feel and behave. They know all about the ordinary people.”

Well… now ‘ordinary’ people… when you scratch the surface often turn out to be extraordinary too.  And, frankly, there is no evidence the ‘ordinary’ people are actually any better or worse at it than the tiny subsets are. Some people are just keener observers of human nature, behavior and mannerisms than others. It’s not determined by genitalia or skin color. It’s a skill and to some extent a job requirement for successful writers – you must be able to get into someone else’s point of view… or your books end up losing readers, because all your characters are either you or cardboard cutouts.

People seldom fit neatly in pigeon-holes.  We all share traits, and while some traits are more common in some subsets, you get, for example, people who are good cooks and interested recipes in every skin shade under sun and every one of the 59 ‘genders’. If your character is a cook, and you know your food – you probably have a very good idea of what they think on that subject, no matter how different in other respects they are.

Yet the prevalent trad publishing demand is that you must have all the ‘flavors’ of ‘diversity’ (of skin color and/or sexual orientation, not thought) in your work…. but you can only write them if you’re one. Spot the modern ‘No Irish/blacks need apply’ equivalent sign on trad publishing’s window.

What is true is that this expectation can exist: It may be complete illogical crapola, but it does sometimes exists). Perhaps — fair enough — one needs to manage that expectation (use a pseudonym?) if it affects your sales not to. But I for one plan to continue to write in as many damn lanes as I please. If I get it wrong – those readers won’t buy my work.


58 thoughts on “Stay in your lane…

  1. I will note that my aged papa, an Anglican priest of 60 some years who disagrees completely with the concept of lady priests, enjoyed the book and said he thought you nailed parish life.

    Amusingly he briefly misread the name of the town as “felixstowe”, which a major British port not too far from where he lives

  2. “Some people are just keener observers of human nature, behavior and mannerisms than others. It’s not determined by genitalia or skin color. It’s a skill and to some extent a job requirement for successful writers – you must be able to get into someone else’s point of view… or your books end up losing readers, because all your characters are either you or cardboard cutouts.”

    So much, this. Here in Texas (and even growing up in California) I was marinated in the Hispanic culture; not that there’s anything particularly clandestine about it all. When we came to write the Luna City series, wherein several major characters are Hispanic/Tejano, one of our neighbors (who is Tejano and fiercely proud of it!) marveled at how accurate we were; apparently we had channeled several of his older female relatives. He is convinced that under our sternly Anglo outer shell, there are a couple of chicas waiting to come out…

  3. FWIW, I find it easier to “write what I know.” I was a Marine infantryman. One of the characters in my WIP is a Marine colonel, and I find writing him easy; the words fly onto the page. Writing a character as closely related as a Marine tanker or artilleryman I find much more difficult, and as far as Marine brass slugging it out in the Pentagon Reindeer Games for budget bucks, I’d easier write some alien species. My hat is off to writers that can accurately portray “Others.”

    1. My nonhuman characters live rent-free in my head; I know them exceedingly well…. and yet the buggers still surprise me, and refuse to do anything they wouldn’t properly do… *sigh*

      The natural inverse of “you should only write what you know” is “you should only about people like you.” Oh wait, isn’t that what lefties claim they want to do?? have they not heard of autobiographies?

      1. Reziac,if some other former Marine wants to and can write about Pink-haired anti-fa groupies, I admire his/her/zey ability to transmogrify. There are some non-me characters I think I could successfully write. Se3veral of the characters in my WIP are female. I think I can write them, because I have known some, some quite well. The major hurdle to writing a tanker or arty dude is that they have a specialized vocab and lingo I don’t know, and can’t realistically simulate, without a truckload of research. IMNSHO, a writer’s ability to write convincing non-him or her folks is contingent on the intersection of his/her life experience with that of the character depicted. I think ANYONE should be allowed to try if the writer cares to, and the SJWs can go take a flying flick at a rolling donut.

        1. So find a tanker and an artilleryman to question (hopefully not on the rack). That will at least get you over the hump with your WIP. Can’t help much else, but I was armored cavalryman in the Army and a forward observer in the National Guard in a previous life. Contact me if you’d like some help

          1. Jason, thx for the tip, but my comment was more to point out how it might sound inauthentic to write characters even closely related to your own. Mainly because you wouldn’t know the slingo (slang/lingo). I ran a naval gunfire spot team in ANGLICO (Air and Naval Gunfire Liaison Team)) in the last few years of my time, but my only contact with the gun bunnies was over the radio calling for fire. So, while I know a lil’ bit about them, I don’t imagine I could write one without some arty dudes saying “That guy wasn’t no gun bunny.” It’s not so much as me saying something WRONG, (max range of an eight inch gun, and which kinda ordnance it shoots) as not talking like one.OTOH, I can write a font door/back door SEAD mission in my sleep. It’s all about what you know/don’t know.

  4. Growing up, I read a lot of “gosh the author totally nailed what it is like to be a Girl Coming Of Age!”


    NEVER did any of them click. Heck, I’d probably be closer to them kicking now, when I’m what use to be middle aged and is now basically grown up but don’t make the grandparents feel old.

    A lot of the “gosh what an insightful novel!” that was pushed when I was the supposed target demo was just pervy, when it wasn’t depressing and stupid. (Yes, kids do stupid stuff. Not when they’ve actually GOT the information the characters were given, though, not unless there was a lot of added distraction to fluff it out.)

    You’re right on target about how it’s amazingly one-direction.

    F the demographics of the author– gimmie stories, and let them sink or swim on their own!

    1. I hated those books. All of them. The only girl I was interested in reading come of age was Honor Harrington.

      1. Princess Cimorene, here.

        Not because she was like me, but because she was at least dealing with stuff with humor and grit.

    2. True Grit had a coming-of-age heroine that clicked with me. The boy Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper in Taran Wanderer, too.

      Those Judy Blume books? Angst-ridden trash. On the other hand, Paul Zindel’s characters were a hoot, like the boy-girl duo from The Undertaker’s Gone Bananas. I didn’t even mind that his characters were more than a couple decades out of date.

        1. *searches for author name*

          Oh…wow…. I recognize those books. Don’t think I ever read them, and nobody was crazy enough to try to get me to, but they were near the Nancy Drews.

          The summary sounds like it’s ladies magazines in book form– not for me, to be sure.

    3. Likewise, as a young teen, I found the 80’s boys YA market to be mostly dull and puberty obsessed and a touch pervy. Happily, this was when Tom Clancy was writing his best works, and Michael Crichton had just put out Jurassic Park, not to mention many others. So, I put childish things behind me, and read stuff that was far more interesting and way more exciting.

    4. I stuck to Christopher Pike and the like. I preferred reading about teenagers who had exciting problems: “how did I end up a ghost?” or “what do I do about the ancient monster in this lake?” Much more satisfying.

      1. Susan Cooper. “OK, here’s the pattern, maybe, if we can figure it out. Now, how do we stop the Looming Dark?”

    5. Anne of Green Gables for me. Also I lived teenage angst; I didn’t want it in my fiction.

    6. The Mark of Conte, by Sonia Levitin. Better living through hacking, in the late 1970’s.

      The bad thing is that it made Hermione’s class schedule not a mystery, although her method was somewhat different. The good thing is that it is a great morality slice-of-life that is also very funny.

  5. Wait.
    There’s a road?
    With lane markers and everything?
    (Hides machete behind back)
    Um, pay no attention to the holes in the shrubbery.

      1. Look for the road first. Wheels don’t really work well over earth not prepared for them. Indeed, wheels can be of limited use even given roads.

  6. Not to mention writing drunken Rats and kamikaze Bats.

    Perhaps we need to go all New Age on them. “But in a former life I was a Black Lesbian who questioned her identity . . . “

  7. I suppose I could write entirely about Ukrainian-Canadian Caucasian male fortysomething protagonists* living in the early 21st century, but I suspect that the Woke Cult would hate me for my lack of diversity . . .

    *None of the fictional characters I have ever written fit in this category.

  8. And of course, Dorothy Sayers:

    “A man once asked me … how I managed in my books to write such natural conversation between men when they were by themselves. Was I, by any chance, a member of a large, mixed family with a lot of male friends? I replied that, on the contrary, I was an only child and had practically never seen or spoken to any men of my own age till I was about twenty-five. “Well,” said the man, “I shouldn’t have expected a woman (meaning me) to have been able to make it so convincing.” I replied that I had coped with this difficult problem by making my men talk, as far as possible, like ordinary human beings. This aspect of the matter seemed to surprise the other speaker; he said no more, but took it away to chew it over. One of these days it may quite likely occur to him that women, as well as men, when left to themselves, talk very much like human beings also.”

      1. Except for white males. 😉

        On the other hand, white males are especially evil. 😈

      2. “Yep, ordinary human beings. Trouble is that we live in a time where people think everyone is special.”
        I would add “but they are themselves extraordinary.”

  9. I will, for the sake of argument, dully grant that MAYBE in TradPub/Fine Lit there -might- be a road, with lane markers, and it -might- be a thing to stay in your marked lane.

    But in science fiction? We are off-road racers, my friends. We are going 100 miles per hour across virgin desert, touching the ground maybe half the time.

    Current WIP, today I’m writing about a distributed AI that has a robotic woman’s body and also a big combat scorpion body. Simultaneously. This AI has got a crush on a hefty 45 year old straight white lady from Texas. A woman who’s so mean she could peel the chrome off a Harley with a harsh look. She lives on TV dinners, chips and moonshine. The AI thinks the sun rises and sets on her. Texas lady is mightily confused about the fabulous robot supermodel living at her apartment, eating her chips and stealing the covers at night.

    I don’t even know any mean ladies from Texas (hefty or otherwise), and there’s no such thing as a combat scorpion, so it is going to be a little tough to stay in my lane.

    I will also note at this time that the #OwnVoices crowd has a very narrow set of things they are allowed to talk about, and if they wander off a little the shirtstorm will come for them. The examples of Visible Minority authors getting their tradpub books cancelled by the Twitter Mob are many.

    1. When the real goal is social power, the most vulnerable to cancelling are the first against the wall.


      When the Requires Hate thing was going on a few years ago, it was exposed but not excised. None of it went away and none of the foot soldiers were reformed.

      1. The only reason Requires Hate got shamed was because she targeted her fellow social justice weasels. If she had focused entirely on, say, Puppies or the Puppy-adjacent, she’d have a shelf full of awards by now.

        1. Nah, they always target SJWs– she got shamed because she lost, at least partly.

          Got to pick the weakened targets first. That’s why they were willing to take her out.

          1. Thing is, Foxifier, Requires Hate et al (she had a pack following of eager acolytes -all of whom suffered no consequences and continued ‘in place’ in various publishing houses and blogs etc.) DID attack various non-SJW targets. They do all the time – but as their weapon was principally to threaten non-acceptance and expulsion by the SJW, and the target had to WANT to be part of the herd. not loathe them… and be hardened against their endless attacks and sabotage – it didn’t work very well. It worked gang-busters on their own -and thus became a route to a younger clique of SJW gaining power, picking on the weaker, making themselves powerful and feared by the other SJW. The established clique took action not because the bullying and vile behavior were unacceptable — they’re the norm there — but because they were a threat to those in power in SJW circles.

            1. *nod* Crowd control.

              They attack out, yes– but they’ve got to keep their own in line, too. So they destroy their own vulnerable.

              It worked really, really well when they could get folks to believe there wasn’t any option. Doesn’t matter if you want to be part of the group if there isn’t any other game in town.

            2. Right, right. It doesn’t work to attack people who aren’t (or aren’t very) vulnerable. Of course there’s a fair amount of building and creating dependency in that dynamic that leads up to individuals having the power to make those demands and punishments as well.

              No body else will ever love you. Where will you go?

              What I don’t know is if it has anything *necessarily* about staying in your lane or if that’s just peripheral. Because “doing it wrong” comes down just as hard or harder on people who are 100% in what can only be considered their own lane.

              Of course no one could make the argument if they used those cases as examples. So they use the examples that might seem reasonable on the face of it, maybe. Or seems reasonable so long as empathy and common human experience is simply ignored.

              Gah. It gets deeper and more recursive the more I think about it. Maybe to just keep it simple as possible:

              Come to the Dark Side. We have cookies.

        2. Yeah, they are still kicking those Puppies. The flopping camel and China Mike seem to have alerts set up because they show up whenever “puppy” is in a comment. On those blogs where they aren’t banned, anyway.

          Funny how little effect they’re having. Almost as if they were irrelevant…. >:D

        3. I believe they were pretty explicit about that. When the whole shemozzle happened, I remember seeing charts and graphs about how many women she attacked, how many “people of color,” how many gays, etc. The clear implication was that if she’d just stuck to straight white men, she’d have been cool. There were a few people who tried to point out that being abusive is still being abusive even if it’s towards the right targets, but the response was generally, “hmmm, ha…punching up…mumble mumble.”

      2. Requires Hate is still out there as I understand it, still doing the same schtick under her real name. Good luck with that.

        This type of thing is why I think Science Fiction is the place these political dorks have finally hit the wall. We write uncharted territory. We have to, its SCIENCE fiction. All you have to do is extrapolate any trend and you exceed the Approved Social Justice parameters almost immediately.

        Ultimately this is what will pull them down, too. Let’s say you extrapolate the cell-phone trend. You end up with a phone that’s smarter than you are. What gender is that phone? Can phones have a gender?

        And there I am, off the reservation already. Well, lets say I decide to be -really- subversive, and I make the story fit allllll the SJW parameters so well that it is boring and stupid like all the other Approved Literature from the Ministry of Social Justice. If I do it right the READER is going to say “That’s stupid, it wouldn’t be like that. What if the phone decided to do something Against The Rules?”

        Now my reader just read themselves right outside of the approved box.

        That’s the real purpose of Science Fiction. Some scold is telling me to stay in the SWM lane, and even if I do the readers are all thinking how great it would be if they did a wheelie in the median, or jumped the fence like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape and rode off to the mountains.

  10. Dave Freer, I wonder if you’d be able to write a convincing SJW. I suspect their perspective is more alien than those of naturally transsexual Male to Female transsexuals who need to return close to their birthplace to reproduce.

      1. No thanks. I mute that every evening when the national newts comes on.

        (Yes, I’m cranky. It’s Monday.)

    1. I don’t want to think it is all that impossible.

      I have a viciously manipulative shrew to write sometime in the future.

    2. It’s the inherent lack of logic I would struggle most with Ori. Not all these folk are all bad. It’s the herd following and willful blindness I find hard to get myself into the headspace of.

      1. I loved Joy Cometh….

        I had a roommate long ago who belonged to a religion that said all religions were right. This used to pretzel my mind. I came to see that in general when people give up on logic they hold onto something that guides their decision. And I think that idea really most often is, *****what I do is, by definition, right*****

        I told you I loved you and married you and now I met someone better? Obviously You aren’t any good.

        Pregnancy that I don’t want is not a baby. Pregnancy that I do want is a Baby. Etc.

        I read a book like this long ago but it was a horrifying experience. Oddly, a friend of mine didn’t see it until I pointed it out to her . Then she was mad because she had liked the book and now couldn’t unsee the gross selfishness.

      2. I’ve thought about adding a really obnoxious SJW character, but the closest I’ve come is an environmentalist in a SmartCar yelling at Alice about her truck. You know the guy, “Coexist” bumper sticker on the SmartCar, yelling at her and giving her the finger because “You’re killing the planet with your car!!!” (She leaves him at the stoplight in a black cloud of diesel soot. Juvenile but satisfying.)

        I realized I can’t write that character. He’s more alien to me than the crazy robot scorpion. I cannot model the thought process that produces those behaviors. It’ll come out stupid if I try.

        Another good reason not to is it is unnecessary roughing of potential readers. The book isn’t about petty politics and social engineering, so why throw in a cardboard stereotype that will only piss readers off?

          1. Thanks! ~:D Its fun knowing people read it, and liked it.

            You know, really what it is for me is life is too short. Why would I bother dropping one of those people into the story? It wouldn’t be any fun. I’d rather spend my time researching crazy physics.

      3. This is why I wondered if you could even do it. It’s easier to follow the rational thought process of an alien who merely has different starting assumptions.

        I think a lot of SJW-ness is Stockhold Syndrome.

        1. I often think about that old poem, Children Learn What They Live. In a lot of cases, the oppressed were parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, and like a blood feud or self-fulfilling prophecy that sense of being wronged gets transmitted from one generation to the next. I don’t know how we break that cycle.

  11. I heard “write what you know” since I was a youngster, and then “observe people and write what you see and hear” when I was older. It’s a good combination.

    I do understand, to a certain extent, wanting feedback from person “in the lane.” Just over two years ago, I finished a draft about a boy and his robot. I put it away for a while and am slooooowly polishing it. I want to get it good enough to show my former teacher, who is a poet and who introduced me to lots of SF.

    1. Posted too soon! I meant to add that some of my characters rely on poetry to keep themselves human. I think my prof would be a good person to critique my work in that area.

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