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.