Saturday, 9 February 2019

Check Your Privilege Before Changing Lanes - A White Author Reflects on Diversity

By Nick Cross

Photo by Gerry Machen

Diversity. Inclusion. #OwnVoices.

Terms like these seem ubiquitous in publishing at the moment. I’ve been spending a lot of time researching and submitting to US agents, and nearly every one has a prominent statement about how they’re keenly looking for diverse writers, characters or themes. Simultaneously, white writers are told to “stay in their lane” and not attempt to cross cultural boundaries by writing about non-white characters. Faced with this kind of evidence, some white writers may freak out, imagining that minority groups are coming to take away their opportunities and livelihood.

Some of this overreaction is ignorance or racism, pure and simple. But there’s also a lot of misunderstanding involved. We writers tend to be emotionally fragile types, whose earning opportunities have been continually eroded. Getting a foothold in the publishing market is extremely difficult, and staying there is harder still. Very high quality writing can fall by the wayside, while opportunistic celebrity-fronted filler rushes up the sales charts. So, after a while, every new change to the market can feel like a threat, even when it's something absolutely vital like increasing diversity.

Let’s be honest though, we are way overdue a change, particularly in the UK market. The CLPE Reflecting Realities report, published last year, uncovered the following statistics:
  • Only 4% of the children’s books published in 2017 featured BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) characters
  • Only 1% of the children’s books published in the UK in 2017 had a BAME main character

As someone working in publishing, these statistics make me feel genuinely ashamed. If you consider that the Department of Education reported in 2017 that 32% of school-age children were of minority ethnic origins, the stats look even more appalling. We are failing a huge number of children here.

Why has this happened? A lot of people have pointed their finger at the composition of the UK publishing industry itself. I’m a white, middle class person employed by a medium-sized publisher (with a small children’s list), and we absolutely have a diversity problem. Rather than just be part of that problem, though, I’ve spent the last year trying to figure out how to be part of the solution.

Photo by Lydia

The external impetus for change in publishing has mostly focused on ethnic and LGBT diversity. Readers and writers from marginalised groups have been lobbying for representation for many years, but the advent of social media has meant that their voices have begun to be heard. Within publishing however, this external pressure doesn't seem to have had anywhere near as much impact as the publication of the gender pay gap data. Publishing is a heavily female-dominated environment, which has meant that employees who are already inside the industry have been able to quickly put pressure on upper management.

From these small beginnings, I've found it fascinating to watch how anger over the gender pay gap has catalysed into a broader movement for good. In my company, awareness of the gender pay gap led to a discussion of other pay gaps: between white and BAME workers, or between employees of different class backgrounds. A colleague set up a diversity and inclusion (D&I) group in our department and I joined in. In a few short months, we've tackled subjects such as unconscious bias in recruitment processes, improving outreach to minority groups and making sure the employees we already have feel included. Company-wide D&I groups have since followed, and I’m involved in those as well.

I certainly wouldn’t claim to be a D&I expert, and I’ve got used to sometimes being the only white guy in the room. But that’s fine - my role is to listen and learn, not to talk over everyone else. My years spent being the token male in a room full of female writers were obviously training me up for exactly this task...

My most important takeaway so far is that most white non-diverse people (myself included) have a LOT to learn. We have all sorts of ingrained privilege and unconscious bias to work through, a process that’s bound to throw up some very uncomfortable realisations about ourselves. We must confront the fact that we didn’t reach our station in life through personal merit alone, but that the scales were always tipped in our favour.

All this soul-searching might sound terrible, but I’m here today to tell you that it’s great. Really great. Because, as a writer, a large part of our success comes from the ability to empathise. And like charity, empathy begins at home. The better you know yourself, the better you can know others.

Understanding your blind spots is an essential prerequisite to moving out of your lane. How can you hope to write truthfully about people from other cultures, unless you can override the unconscious assumptions you make about them? It’s not enough to just flip a character in your story from white to black and assume everything will just work out. Because that character carries your unconscious biases onto the page with them. Know thyself and then do thy research. A lot of research.

The diversity debate is, I sincerely hope, not going away. Certainly, it’s going to take publishing quite a while to change its ways. Which means there’s going to be plenty of opportunity for all of us to learn and grow and become better writers in the process. One thing I’ve found is that the deeper you get into D&I issues, the more overlooked groups you find. What about the physically disabled? Or those with mental health issues? Or those with autism, Asperger’s or other non-neurotypical conditions? There is enough human variety to keep any writer busy for a lifetime.

After all, how many more books about white middle-class children does the world need?


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Finding Your Voice 2

by Em Lynas

I'm still experimenting with voice, see here for the first post on Finding your Voice.

This post it's the storyteller voice - and my mentor text is Anthony Minghella and Jim Henson's The Storyteller. It was a family favourite both for the videos with John Hurt's superb narration and the book by Minghella because it's such a delight to read aloud.

I've been analysing the narrative techniques Minghella used and, as imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the best way to analyse and learn, here's a story.....

In the days of before, and before the tomorrows, a young husband and a wife lived alone. They lived in a house of cosiness, warmth and welcome, where all was peace and smoke rose into the chimney and never clouded the air or coughed the lungs. All was happiness and all was loveliness and all was togetherness until one day...

I am loving using the power of three and getting a bit of imagery in there. And that word all, all is this and all is that. Good word. Plus, I'm a great believer in...

...there was a knock on the door. Now this was no ordinary knock. This was a powerful knock, a knock that makes Husband and Wife jump, a knock that makes Husband and Wife look at each other with startled eyes and say in unison, "Who can that be? Look at the time? Shall we answer it?"
 They shake their heads with matching shakes and don't answer the door but the knock is knocked again and again and again until the knock is in their heads and it won't stop and they have no choice but to open the door. So Husband unlocks the lock and Wife draws the bolts and Husband lifts the latch and Wife creaks the door open and...

Loving the escalation of anticipation that you get to write with the storyteller voice - and and and and...

...there's no one there.

A reveal!

But there's a whoosh of the wind past Husband's ears and a sniff of the cold past Wife's nose and a tingle of fear runs through both of their beating hearts as the door slips out of Wife's fingers with a slam and a lock as who knows what invades their house of cosiness, warmth and welcome.

Getting in a bit of a repetition going with a refrain.

"Oh, I don't like to think of what might have just come in to our home," whispers Wife and Husband's head nods a nod that agrees with the words and they huddle by the door and wait and watch until...the rocking chair rocks.
Husband gasps and whispers, "The rocking chair is rocking, my love, and it shouldn't be because you're not sitting in it."
"No," whispers Wife, "but something is, look."

I had a break at this point to research what the heck could be sitting in the rocking chair. I'm finding these books very useful at the moment.

A boggart? A brownie? A flibbertigibbet? Ooo, yes. Flibbertigibbet can mean an impish child. A chatterbox. Perfect. It's incredible what people have believed. Are we really so gullible? So superstitious?

Anyway, back to the story.

Wife grabbed Husband by the ear and whispered, "It's a child! It's a boy." And it was. It was a boy so bonny, so beautiful, so BIG that it filled the rocking chair with plump and chubby and cute and cuddly.
"Did you wish for one?" asked Husband.
"Of course not," said Wife. "We've only been Husband and Wife a month. It's too soon. But maybe we should keep it now it's here?"
"What's that?" said Child. He pointed at Wife.
"That's Wife," said Husband.
"What's that?" said Child. He pointed at Husband.
"That's Husband," said Wife.
"What's that?" said Child. He pointed at the door.
"That's a door," said Husband.
And from then on Child was all What's that? and the couple were all That's a... until night left the earth with a shudder and day took it's turn not knowing what lay ahead.

Getting in a bit of personification of non human stuff there. Did you notice? Also, names are often not named in the storyteller genre so liking Wife and Husband. You can't query the truth of a story if no one is named?

"What are we going to do?" whispered Wife, her voice all croaky with answering. She grabbed Husband's ear again, adding to the bruises that had been made with the grabbing that had already been grabbed. "I am exhausted, Husband. Doesn't it ever sleep?"
"That's a lock," said Husband, then quickly whispered his own whisper, "What if you sing to it? A lullaby. That's a cobweb."
"Yes!" said Wife. I've heard that sends them to sleep. I'll do it."
So Wife began to sing a lullaby but her voice was so croaky from all the answering that Child did not like Wife's voice and he screamed and screamed and screamed until Wife gave up and Husband tried. He sang with a voice of deep that soothed the ears and tickled the skin and closed the eyes. But every time Husband stopped singing Child stirred and wriggled and threatened to wake and both Husband and Wife despaired.

I'm possibly going off topic here and channelling new parenthood from the deep past so bringing it back to folklore.

Then Wife had an idea that should have come earlier but the idea had hidden itself until the moment was right in the story.
Wife talked as Husband sang. "I have thought some thoughts and brought an idea into my head. The idea is this. This Child is not a normal Child. It's obviously a fairy child escaped from fairyland so we have to send it back so we can have our home back. Our home of cosiness, warmth and welcome, where all is peace and smoke rises into the chimney and never clouds the air or coughs the lungs."
Husband nods the nod that signals agreement so Wife continues.
"And you know that I know how to do that."
And Husband nodded another nod of agreement because it just so happened that...

You have to love the storytelling - it just so happened that... You can't get away with that in any other genre.

...Wife was an expert folklorist and she had bookcase and bookcase and bookcase on the walls of the home of cosiness, warmth and welcome. And the bookcases had shelves and shelves and shelves and the shelves had books and books and books. And the books were all knowledge and knowhow and fable and myth and advice.

I do like starting sentences with And and But and Because and Then and So...

Wife read through the books and Husband sang through the day until the day was tired and gone all dusky. And all the while Child snuggled and snored and rocked in the rocker that creakity creaked into night.
Then "Eureka!" said Wife, just before midnight, and Husband screeched a note and Child twitched a twitch as Wife waved a book under husband's nose, the leaves all a flutter with excitement.
"I have the answer! Listen." She bent close to Husband's ear. "If thy home be invaded by a fairy being, a child, a flibbertigibbet of a chatterbox who's all What's that? you must turn the tables by asking the flibbertigibbet What's that? But you must ask the What's that's that the flibbertigibbet has asked. All of them."
"All of them?" sang Husband.
"All of them," said Wife, shutting the book. "And we must do this between midnight, which is now, and dawn, which is then, or Child will stay for a year and a day."
 "A year and a day! We'll be dead from exhaustion before the month is out," said Husband. So he stopped singing and Child snuffled and stirred and wriggled and woke and said, "What's that?" and Husband answered "It's a toenail."
 And Wife immediately asked, "What's that?" and Child answered, "That's a toenail." "What's that?," said Husband and Child answered, "That's a book." "What's that?" said Wife and Child answered, "That's a nose."
And from then on the couple were all What's that? and Child was all That's a... as night settled thick on the earth and stayed until dawn threatened to creep over the horizon. And Husband and Wife were running out of What's thats? And panic was living in their hearts.
Everything had been asked. They searched the room for more What's thats? Repeating What's thats that had already been repeated repeatedly during the night.
"Is it dawn?" asked Wife. "it must be dawn, oh if only it isn't dawn for we have not remembered all of the What's Thats. We must open the door and see."
 So Husband unlocks the lock and Wife draws the bolts and Husband lifts the latch and Wife creaks the door open and Husband remembers the creak and he remembers all the remembering and says...

Bookending makes me happy.

And Child says...
"That's Wife."
Husband nudges Wife and Wife remembers and says, "WHAT'S THAT?"
And Child says...
"That's Husband."
And the couple say in unison...
And Child says...
And there's a whoosh of the wind past Husband's ears and a sniff of the cold past Wife's nose and a tingle of happiness runs through both of their beating hearts as the door slips out of Wife's fingers and slams shut. With them on the inside and Child nowhere to be seen.
 So with a sigh and a smile and a tired goodnight they settle back down in their home of cosiness, warmth and welcome. And for all I know, they're still there.

The End

I have had so much fun writing this! It's a first draft, it won't ever be published but the techniques will be fed into my writing and hopefully make it richer and deeper and the words will welcome the writing of them.

Em Lynas is the author of the Witch School series published by Nosy Crow.
Her website is and you can follow her on twitter @emlynas


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