What I won’t write about and why

Forgive me if I’ve never been to Walmart, if I can’t quote from TV shows or know one presenter from another, if I’ve never been to high school or a prom or a Starbucks, if I’ve never eaten a hot dog or been to a diner, if I don’t know it feels to drive for hundreds of miles and think nothing of it or fly hither and thither to drink coconut flavoured drinks by the side of hotel pools, if I never say awesome or know anyone who does, if I don’t find it cute to dress up animals in clothes and if I would rather have all my finger nails pulled out one by one than visit fecking Disneyland, that I would rather walk across a sodden field littered with cow pats than through a crowded shopping mall, that I would rather listen to the least talented blackbird than Mariah Carey, that if I die without ever visiting a MacDonald’s I will not consider myself unfortunate.

Forgive me if the diversities that surround me are not the current spotlighted diversities of sexual orientation and mental health syndromes that have suddenly been discovered because vampires and dystopias have begun to pall, but the diversity of misery and poverty, the fifty seven different varieties of homelessness, of rough-sleeping, of handouts and begging, it’s the hundred different ethnic origins, the languages spoken, the colours and styles of dressing, it’s in the thousand different kinds of oppression fled from, the welcomes or the abuse received, the million different kinds of violence to body and soul.

Forgive me if I cannot get worked up or want to write a book about the torment of the primary school kid who can’t decide whether to use the girls’ or the boys’ toilets, or which colour to dye their hair or paint their nails, if I don’t meet so many transgender cross-dressers that I know and understand their daily purgatory and wish to populate my novel with similar characters, that if I create a similar character, with as much respect and love as any other, it is on the understanding that in the world I know, (dull and boring no doubt since I have never met one), that they form perhaps one per cent of the population, and to pretend otherwise is not serious.

Forgive me if my world is so dull and boring and so last century that it does not contain such variety and diversity, that the children I see in the streets are not concerned so much about anxiety as about surviving the abuse of their next customer. I write about what I know and understand, or at least try to understand from the point of view of limited experience.

Forgive me if I can imagine how I would feel on landing on a different planet, stepping through the portal into a different world or time, but I cannot step outside of me. I cannot know what it is to live a life of total misconception, where no one understands who I am or what I feel, when I don’t understand it myself. Who can unless they have been there? I have been cold, hungry and unhappy. Is that not enough? Is that not valid unless there is a veneer of some other ‘difference’ to coat the misery in a more acceptable form?

The acceptance or not of adolescent sexual orientation impinges on individual happiness and well-being, hard to bear for the one involved, but limited in impact. How much vaster are the implications, the geopolitical reasons to blame, for the wretchedness many of us see on our doorsteps. Could it be the number of Big Macs, the fracking, the gas-guzzling, the waste and excess of our privileged lifestyles? Could it just be that we are indirectly to blame for the abused kid washed up outside the supermarket door? That if we stuffed our faces a little less, cut out the XXXL steaks, the bumper portions and cheap cheap cheap lamb chops that fewer children would have to trawl through the steaming mountains of rubbish outside New Delhi and Cairo to survive? It’s all connected, our good life in exchange for the wretched, and that is tough to accept.

The abuse of all minorities in some countries, whether sexual, religious or political, is inhuman. In many countries all you have to do wrong is to be born female. So, without minimising the unhappiness and misunderstanding of the children lost between genders or mental states, let’s get this in perspective, please. All you who want real, true life, gritty, no holds barred novels about real people, who want to prove how open-minded, tolerant and humane you are, who want to propose books that will reflect the real world we live in, will you stop pretending that the real crux of the matter is which toilets we use?

 

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Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

97 thoughts on “What I won’t write about and why”

    1. I’m just rather pissed off by what agents say they are ‘really hungry for’. A few months ago it was circuses. Now it absolutely has to be about teenagers with off beat sexual orientations. Why don’t they just say they’ll read books about ANYTHING as long as it’s interesting?

      1. I’m sure they don’t want salacious. They only want YA which means it has to be suitable for kindergarten sensibilities. One swear word and you’re out! They’re that real.

      1. They want stuff that sells. When one fad (vampires for instance) starts to pall, they send out these daft requests for way out, wacky stuff hoping something will stick. They tried mermaids and we had a lot of those, then they had circuses, now the watch word is ‘diverse’ which is another way of saying take a trope, set it somewhere nobody knows anything about like Outer Mongolia, add some trans romance and you’re golden.

      2. I also self publish. I sell my art myself and not through galleries. Amen to being in charge of yourself. And that my voice has some chance of being heard. That’s all I’ve wanted. But still I understand the frustration you are facing, Jane, I feel for you. I am sorry it hurts like this.

      3. If I was any good at promotion I’d go the self publishing route every time, but I’m not. I write a lot and begrudge time spent just fiddling around with collecting email addresses, pestering, badgering, nudging etc etc and I don’t have any money to spend on it at all. Since I don’t have any money I need to justify the time I spend writing by earning something and I don’t. That’s the main problem. Husband works while I fiddle around with not earning. It’s not fair and I feel guilty.

      4. This same thought process bedeviled me for quite a few years. It stole my pleasure in my work and also stifled creativity and satisfaction. I set parameters and expectations as coming from my husband that he never had (all he wanted was me to be happy at what I was doing and he always said only that, no more). If it had been a case that our family needed more money, I could justify my ideas, but it never was. It was me thinking that only by earning money could I show my worth. I didn’t give any thought to all the other things I added to our family that no one else could, but that they depended on. So, to me, if you really need money, or if there are other circumstances that come into it that I don’t know of and am not considering, that is one thing, and what I’m saying is irrelevant. Please ignore me! But if it’s not, I hope that you can save yourself the years and years of the beating myself up that I did, feeling deficient, when you are so clearly and emphatically not. Hope you don’t mind this little speech, but I felt I was hearing my own voice out of the past.

      5. You just said what my husband says. If I’d been brought up to assume that my husband would go out to work and I would stay at home and deal with the household stuff I’d say, yes, I did that and still do the essentials for whoever happens to still be in the nest, so to do my own thing as well would be my just deserts. But I was brought up to expect that I would have a career, be half of the economy of the household and do half of the household tasks. I do feel guilty about not earning, but if I’m honest, if I was really plagued with guilt, I’d be working harder at the selling side and ease up on the pleasurable writing side. I should just accept that husband is happy with the situation, I’m cheap to run, take up little space, and provide entertainment and meals 🙂

      6. I went out into the world with similar ideas as to what you said, but it didn’t work out that way, and I found art and poetry instead. If you are fulfilling your obligations to the others in your life, then you may be satisfied with yourself on that matter, and then go on to be the best you can be at the pursuit you have chosen, to honor your self and your family, and the gifts you have. It has taken years for me to come to this realization and to understand that this seems to be what I am meant to be doing in this world. I wasted a lot of time thinking otherwise. Now I try to set myself to doing my best work.

      7. You are completely right. When I’m lucid I apply the same argument to myself. One of my children, the one who is ‘difficult’ accused me of spending too much time on my writing and not enough with my children ie her. I told her that I had spent twenty seven years of my life trying to have children, then having them, dragging them to school, fielding bad comments from teachers, encouraging, feeding, washing and cleaning for, working outside to earn money for, and now that the older ones (the complainer included) were old enough to sort themselves out, I was taking a little time for me. The others have never begrudged it, I have to say.

      8. Sometimes there is no way to answer such statements and feelings, is there? You hope that time heals or at least gives perspective. Meanwhile, you, well, you keep going, don’t you, and that includes writing.

  1. I was wondering, too, about this until I read the comments. It seems strange that they’d want “off beat sexual orientations” (whatever that is), but not use a curse word.
    I’m with the others. You’re a good writer, and you should write what you want to write. I know I’m no help though.
    You are certainly a champion ranter! Perhaps that could be the next “in” thing. 😉

    1. They call it ‘diversity’ but it’s a very limited idea of diversity. As if nothing is interesting if it isn’t marginal. You should be able to write about anything without having to make it exotic. It’s a way of dumbing down, seems to me, that the novelty value is more important than the writing. Thanks for the compliment though, and I’ll try to let it all wash over me 🙂

      1. Everything and anything can be diverse.
        I’m laughing because one of my diverse cats is rubbing himself against the wine bottles in the new rack my husband built. The other is bothering me to feed him. 🙂

  2. I don’t know where to start! But I applaud you. I hate all these ‘bandwagons’ we are expected to jump on. A good book is a good book, it’s that simple. Everyone reads across genres, even young adults. Why are agents and publishers constantly trying to pigeonhole them, and writers? If they want diverse, why are they being so narrow minded about it? A great post. Btw… have you really never been in a McDonald’s? Not that you’re missing anything at all, at all. But I didn’t know that was possible… 😂😂😂

      1. You shouldn’t admire me. I only do what I like because I have a husband who doesn’t nag at me to get some paid work even though we need the money. Anyone else would have divorced me by now.

      2. That is a tremendous gift—thank you! There could be something in that, you know. The power of encouragement. I’ll revise my next query letter with that in mind. Power thoughts 🙂

      3. Right? As a non believer I truly believe in this and a form of positive prayer meaning sending out positive belief in those you care about. It works with disease and love is scientifically unexplained so I truly think the faith of others in you goes a long way. I have that faith in you. Many others do too. I see you very differently from how you see you. Xx

      4. Do you actually have a vision of yourself though? Do you question what you do because you can see yourself doing it? I don’t, I don’t think. I’m like a spectator. It’s as though I’m not there. I watch and I see people looking at me, talking to me, but it never occurs to me to wonder how I appear. Is that weird or normal?

      5. Very good questions. Do I have a vision of myself? I think so. Not anything ‘fancy’ but I feel uncomplicated for the most part which may seem surprising or be incorrect but it’s how I feel (given that we’re inevitably subjective, even so we may be partially on the mark) the apropos quote of ‘I yam what I yam’ being so accurate. Do I question what I do because I can see myself doing it? Yes. That’s called being responsible, which you are too. So when you say you may be judging, you’re worrying/wondering if your ‘opinion’ is too harsh, if you have the ‘right’ and that’s healthy because otherwise you might be too up your own arse as many who are judging, but you are NOT judging you are critical at times, as anyone with a brain has to be else you’re abdicating your role, and being no more than soap suds and you’re a lot more than that. You are a spectator in your life but you are also there because when you write you are not just a spectator (you are in terms of observation) you are a participator by writing it out. I do think anyone who is self-aware and aware outside of themselves is in part a spectator though so I get what you mean and I think I feel that way too. But you are ‘there’ (wherever ‘there’ is given that our awareness is at best, fragmentary and prone to change) and as for how you appear, well it’s probably good/healthy not to be too self-conscious (I can be horribly self-conscious and I see NO good coming of that) or to worry over-much what others see/feel because that may only serve to weigh you down (as you know I have let that get under my skin and it’s just a waste as you pointed out rightly so) so how you appear doesn’t really matter except when someone who appreciates you and thinks highly of you corrects your opinion that it’s all for nothing or that you are not in some way more than you think you are. In that moment then their real trumps your real. I made that rule up and I’m keeping it 🙂

      6. I can see that, and I like that neat phrase you just coined 🙂 It’s make a case of being brought up short occasionally when someone deviates from the polite conversational forms and points a finger, digs, makes personal comments, that we start to wonder, what did he/she see or hear? It knocks our self-confidence out of kilter and makes us question the image we project of ourselves.

      7. Yes very true. I have experienced that and did think exactly that. You wonder, is there a side to ourselves that others see that we are unawares of, acting badly or betraying secrets? I suppose the answer lies in being as honest as is realistically possible, then you never need worry something is being let out inadvertantly, but realistically there are opinions we should for self-preservations sake keep to ourselves that’s just part of life, someone who doesn’t have that, probably doesn’t hold very strong opinions. So if someone reacts, I often think they had an agenda that preceded me, something that they were fuming over, and I reminded them. Sometimes it’s as simple as a name (I HATED a girl called Candice!) or an accent (I LOATHE girls with English accents!) or a mannerism. Some people dislike for example, candor or kindness. I recall a saying that goes something like, you cannot hope to be universally liked if you have an opinion and this stands true. I would rather, given the choice continue to hold an opinion than be universally liked. It does knock us for six when we are challenged, that’s normal and maybe if we’re open minded it will give us food for thought though likely as not it’s about them and not us.

      8. Yes, you’re right. If you have a strong opinion about anything, but especially about something controversial, you’re bound to make enemies. The think to do I suppose is not to take it as a personal attack but as an attack on an idea.

      9. Right. I agree. Good words. An attack on an idea that you yourself probably did not ‘invent’ but agree/disagree with. I personally admire those with strong opinions who are open-minded, but those who have no opinion? Well that’s a bit of a cop-out but saying that could offend someone who was ‘proud’ to have no opinion! argh! Anyway you have a strong mind, this is a GOOD thing and one reason your writing is consistently addictive and good and why you as a person are so full rather than shallow. I suppose again that condemns those who are shallow, but if we are so PC as to not state the obvious, we’re liable to go mad 🙂

      10. PC has a lot to answer for. From possibly the best of motives, protection of minorities etc, it has made people sign up the silliest opinions simply because to say what is obvious or common sense could be taken as offensive. Seems silly to be offended by a statement that is not intended as an insult, simply a statement of fact.

      11. Right. And even if your statement of fact differs from someone else’s why is the immediate conclusion that you or they are somehow prejudiced/racist etc? I think the knee-jerk means we’re not thinking and I so admire those who can dialogue about something close to their heart without resorting to simply over-reacting.

      12. The essential is that it has to come from the heart, a basically humanist sentiment not a feeling based on what I think is best for me. Hard to judge one’s reasoning sometimes.

    1. My kids would tell you I’m insufferably opinionated, but I call it just having firm opinions. There is a lot of clap trap associated with publishing, and like Claudia says, with anything to do with creativity. The people who sell the stuff do just that, they don’t create it. They can toss off requests for the most outlandish-sounding plots saying they’ll rep it if someone writes it as if just writing ( like in the next couple of weeks because I’ll have thought of some different quirk by then) a book about a travelling circus in the Himalayas as a background to a trans romance is enough, regardless of how well or how realistically it’s written.

      1. Claudia and you are so right. It has little to do with creativity and mostly to do with fake people doing fake things. That’s why it’s harder to be someone like you but SO worthwhile on a creative level.

    1. I do hope you like it, Claudia though I have to tell you that I never got round to doing a print version of the last book of the trilogy. It was such hard work getting the formatting and the cover right that I got rather despondent about it. There’s only a kindle version, I’m afraid. The idea that someone I know is reading it makes me very happy too.

  3. The art world is that way too–they want what they think will sell. It’s commerce, not creativity. I don’t know the answer. (Circuses…really??) It’s like when I worked in the garment center and someone somewhere decided what the hot color for the year was. In the end, blue always sells the best, no matter what they say (or if you’re in NYC, black). Just keep on keeping on…well I know you will!

    1. The fashion industry is a very good example. I read that the colours and styles are decided at the latest a year in advance now, and the sad thing is that everybody goes into ecstasies over the new look, pretending they don’t know that by the time the sales come round at the end of the season they won’t want it anymore. It’s instant gratification and constant novelty as in everything 🙂

    1. If you’ve got to the stage of meeting an agent, you’re doing something right, so don’t worry! You’re on the right lines. Congratulations! I’ve only once been asked to send in the whole ms, so you’re doing a whole lot better than me 🙂

  4. Hi Jane – love the rant and I know exactly what you mean. I have a nagging feeling my writing isn’t ‘diverse’ enough because I don’t have enough gay people or folk from a variety of backgrounds. But then I am a white middle aged woman and while I love the idea of diversity and inclusion I don’t like tokenism and don’t want to write about something that comes across as false. It’s tough.
    Have you tried Swoonreads? I stumbled across it recently. Run by Macmillan Publishing, it’s exclusively for YA novels. You put your work on there for six months and their YA community reads it. If you get enough good feedback / create a buzz around it, you stand a chance of getting published.
    The idea is that with the increase of self published successes, someone at Macmillan realised that agents and publishers might not always like the same thing as their readers. It’s reader led – that’s what I like about it. Cuts through the idea of the ‘gate keepers’. See what you think. I’m considering putting my own YA novel on there.
    https://www.swoonreads.com/

    1. That sounds like a good idea. I haven’t got a finished YA to tout at the moment, which is a shame since more and more agents are asking for YA (on certain conditions of course). I’ll have a look at it anyway see what age group they consider is YA. There was a long twitter rant I saw about all these women (oldest was in her forties) saying how they only read YA and agents should take that into account. I wondered what exactly they meant. Anyone can read kids books, but that doesn’t mean that writers of kids books should write in material expressly for the adults who will be reading, does it? Seems pretty muddled thinking to me.

      1. Yes, you’re right. I’d heard that many of the readers of YA were adults too. But surely, they’re drawn to YA because of its existing style, subjects etc. If publishers start writing to what they think middle aged female readers of YA fiction want … Well, I’m not sure where that will lead us in all honesty 🙂

      2. Sounds barmy. I don’t know what point they were trying to make. Since YA for the US market is excessively clean and ‘safe’, what a forty two year old mother of two is getting out of an exclusive diet of YA boggles the mind.

      3. I’ve read a fair bit and some of it is fantastic – I love Patrick Ness and would recommend him to anyone. But some of it is pap, of course. Just an odd concept – tailoring YA to middle aged women

      4. There was a lot about the Chaos Walking that I liked, some I didn’t. Somehow I don’t think it was Patrick Ness and Melvin Burgess they were talking about…

  5. *applause*

    Hear hear. I had an agent tell me once that she ‘really liked my concept for a book, but the market for paranormal women’s fiction was already so full.’ Well, excuse me then, I’ll just go and write about zombies or cancer sufferers or whatever’s trendy. I’m sure my Muse won’t mind (heavy sarcasm, obviously).

    1. You know, I’m beginning to think of literary agents in much the same way as estate agents and sales reps. So many of them are just sales people. A few years ago they all decided there had to be more women mcs. They got them. Then it had to be kick ass women mcs. Then there was dystopia with kick ass women mcs, then shape shifters, vampires and werewolves, then erotica, then they tried to kick start mermaids, then it was circuses for a while, and for the last few months we’ve had ‘diversity’ and almost all YA. They’re not looking for writers or books, they’re looking for fads and people who will produce something to feed the fad. Absolutely bloody ridiculous.

      1. Yes. Yes to all of this. I’m so glad we have the option to self publish, at least. But, like you’ve said before, I find the promotion side of it more difficult. I just want to write stories.

      2. I have written an awful lot, stories and novels that are just sitting on my hard disc. I don’t have the money to pay to have them professionally edited, or to pay for publicity once they’re formatted and up on all the different sites, and I don’t have the time to do all the collecting of addresses, writing newsletters, pestering reviewers, keeping up the presence on social media stuff. When would I write? And when I have an idea that needs putting down, should I leave it and flog the stuff that’s published instead? I don’t know what to do, to be honest. I haven’t had any luck with small publishers and the big ones have these estate agent gatekeepers. When I’m being hopeful I tell myself there is a sensible, sensitive agent out there and she’ll love my books. I just wish I knew how to contact her.

      3. I feel the same, to be honest. I have a lot of story ideas at different stages of development and I’d love to spend more time on them, and the social media thing is overwhelming at times, to the point where I have to step away. Yet it’s the only way I have to tell people about my writing. I also don’t have an endless pool of funds for editing etc. I hope you find your sensible, sensitive agent – you’re too good a writer not to. I hope I find mine, too 🙂

      4. When you read all the good advice about how to be ‘visible’ once you’ve written your book, you quickly realise that you have to be an extremely dedicated self-publicist with a lot of time at your disposal, or you’ll sink to the bottom of the pool with the catfish.

      5. Yep. I always think I do a fair bit, then I see what other people do and wonder how the hell they manage it all, not to mention feeling entirely inadequate. So I guess that puts me with the catfish haha. Oh well.

      6. Join the pond life 🙂 It isn’t much of a consolation to know that success seems to depend much more on can do than on literary talent. There’s also no accounting for taste. I know of really bad indie novels that have sold masses just because the writer has done all the right things publicity wise. I don’t know if it’s just that a lot of readers are very undiscriminating and gullible, but they will certainly say black is white if you tell them it is for long enough.

      7. It’s cool down here, isn’t it? 😉 I’ve seen books like that too – they are just everywhere. It boggles my mind. I keep hoping for some sort of quiet revolution to take place, but I’m not holding out much hope.

      8. I can’t think how it can get easier since the number of books written increases phenomenally every year, and while some, maybe many will be good, an awful lot will be bad if not terrible. They all end up on Amazon and the reader has an ocean to trawl through looking for something good.

      9. Yes, it really is a deluge now – one of the downsides of being able to self-publish is the growing level of competition. While I hope for change, like you, I’m not sure how it could happen.

      10. I don’t agree with those who say self-published books drag the market down, that they are badly written and edited and distract from the ‘good’ stuff. There are a lot of really good self-published books and a lot of rubbish and not always well-edited rubbish from small publishers. I just adds to the quantity so to be noticed, you have to spend money on advertising. It always comes back to that—time and money. You can flog anything if you have the money and the perseverance. Conversely, if you have neither, your book just won’t sell.

      11. Yes, absolutely – there is some marvellous self-published content, yet I’ve read books from publishers and wondered how on earth they were selected for publication! Like you say, it’s the quantity of material available that makes it so much harder to stand out. And it costs money, most of the time, as well. Perseverance I have, but money is a little shorter in supply.

      12. I daren’t stop writing to query. There’ll come a point when I get that rejection too many and I just pack the whole thing in. Head down and write is my mantra at the moment.

      13. Oh, those rejections sting so! I’m the same, like Dory in the cartoon ‘just keep writing, just keep writing.’ Besides, it’s what I like to do best 🙂

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