Dalila joins the war disguised as her brother Don, taking his place, in order to save him. If they find out she’s not actually her brother, she’ll be executed, but it’s more likely a soldier, magician, or dragon will kill her first.
That’s one of my current pitches for The Girl in Man’s Armor, the YA fantasy manuscript I’ve been querying since last September, and which I started writing in 2016 while I queried a manuscript that is currently shelved.
Boy, this project has become dear to me. It’s my second finished English YA SFF manuscript; but, without my intention, it has become an ownvoices project.
You see, I tend to write parts of myself into my main characters. Reading and writing stories makes for a great escape, but when readers don’t see themselves represented in those stories they start to have questions and feelings that are not very pleasant. Do I not belong in fictional stories? Can I not be the hero of my own story?
And so, I wrote my own stories, where a person like me was the hero(ine).
Now I know many people don’t care to see themselves in fiction. At least, that’s what they say. But if you’re white, straight, cis, allo, neurotypical etc., then you already see yourself in fiction so often that you don’t have to worry about it.
Me? I’m white, yes. But I’m also autistic, queer, and I have (social) anxiety and depression. And I am scared to read other people’s books containing (main) characters with these marginalizations. Why? Because it can be harmful. And with my anxiety, I always avoid negative things.
I can feel some of you judging me already, but that’s okay. I have grown used to that stigma. After all, when I first worked with beta readers and CPs on TGIMA, people told me my MC Dalila:
– was too pessimistic
– was too insecure
– self-esteem was too low
– was too passive
And I was like …
But that is me.
I am insecure, pessimistic, passive, have low self-esteem. Do I not make for a good main character?
I discussed this with one person, explaining the ownvoices thing. And she said this: I read to escape, and I want to read about strong female characters, not insecure characters like yours. That’s a personal preference.
Now, I have a tendency to want to please everyone, which is impossible. But how is Dalila not strong? She fights anxiety and depression every day while also dressing up as her brother to join the army in his stead. Yes, she has lots of self-doubt along the way, but she’s a fighter! She is strong.
Am I not strong?
That’s the risk in writing ownvoices, I guess. Criticism of the ownvoices aspects of your manuscript feels like criticism of yourself. At least, it does to me
Another instance where I received hurtful criticism was when I received a personal rejection from an indie publisher.
At least it’s not a form letter, right?
I queried the publisher because they were looking for queer stories. Just not a story like mine, it turned out later.
You see, I’ve only been figuring out my own identity recently, including my sexual and romantic orientation. I talk more about that later in this post. Basically, I usually say I’m queer, but so far I know that I’m attracted to men and women and that I am probably somewhere on the ace and/or aro-spectrum.
I wrote Dalila that way. My goal was mainly to show that romance and sexual attraction in books is not a must. But we’re talking about YA here, so many beta readers and CPs were disappointed to find that Dalila wasn’t involved in any kissing scenes and the like.
Wow, bummer. Have you ever thought about the fact that maybe not everyone is interested in such things? That not everyone feels romantic and/or sexual attraction?
Yeah, this one is a bit sore to me, for reasons mentioned here.
Anyway, I feel like society forces love and relationships onto us too much, and doesn’t focus enough on other types of relationships and attraction. Friendship, family, aesthetic and emotional attraction were things I tried to include in my manuscript. But my CPs and betas just kept shipping my main character with male characters, who were often nothing more than friends to Dalila. Yes, she felt aesthetically and emotionally attracted to one or two of them, but nothing more.
Am I spoiling my manuscript here? No, but I don’t want to make false promises.
Which is why I’ll also add that the focus of Dalila’s story is on personal growth and self-acceptance. She doesn’t really think about her identity in The Girl in Man’s Armor. Instead, she thinks about survival and doing what’s best for the people she cares about: her friends and family. Those are important to her. That’s where the focus is. But where was I? Oh yes, the queer publisher. They replied saying that my main character’s queerness ‘didn’t come forward enough.’
What? It’s true that she doesn’t come out or mention it explicitly, but do all queer stories need that? She doesn’t say she has depression or anxiety either. She just does. And I hear you thinking, but if it’s not named on the page, how can it be canon?
Here’s where showing versus telling comes along. I try to show Dalila’s marginalizations, without stating them overtly, the same way one would not name an emotion, but describe it. I’m not pulling a J.K. Rowling here. She didn’t really give any hints about the fact that Dumbledore was gay, except for a relationship with Grindlewald, which many people would probably interpret as friendship (I know I did, as a kid). Just … say they were in love. It’s not that hard. Although that can’t be changed, I guess.
Lastly, my manuscript started out as nothing more than a writing prompt. I took my favorite scene from Disney’s Mulan and changed it to my own, built another story around it. The beginning of my manuscript is similar to the movie in plot and premise, but that soon changes as it progresses.
I worry about cultural appropriation and whitewashing all the time, since I took a story from Chinese culture and made it my own.
But my characters aren’t white. My setting is similar to the (eastern part of the) ancient Mediterranean World. The people who lived there weren’t white, they were POC, their skin colors varied from yellow and gold tones to red and brown tones. Though this is me trying to calm my own anxiety, because I don’t have the money to hire sensitivity readers.
Now for something positive: One small publisher said my manuscript was too mainstream for indie publishing, and better fitted for traditional publishing. Okay, this isn’t entirely positive, but it is for me considering I’m a pessimist.
If The Girl in Man’s Armor was traditionally published, I would do anything I could to make sure the story is not harmful. And that’s genuine, I’m not just saying this because I want a cookie. (I do like cookies, but I’ll just buy them or get them from friends and family.) I know what it’s like now to see yourself in stories, and I also realize that especially POC suffer with this, as well as a number of other marginalizations – some of which I am a part of, some of which I’m not – and I just want to do it right.
My dream would be for a reader to tell me they finally saw themself on-page, finally found a character they could relate to in aspects that not many authors write about. Because that’s what I would tell the author who’d managed to capture many parts of me — the good and the bad and the in-between. So that’s what I would love to hear.
Even though I’d probably get emotional if someone told me that, but crying isn’t a weakness.
Thanks for reading this.
The Graceful Goddess
(In case you’re wondering, graceful goddess is meant ironically. It’s my alter-ego. I am not graceful nor a goddess, haha)
*Note: If you don’t know any words used in this post, please Google them. My book is meant to share a story only.