It’s a Bad Bake: Maybe Your Stakes Shouldn’t Be That High

A lava cake with a piece missingYou’ve got a story. Your protagonist wants something, and somebody else intends to stop them. Whether your protagonist succeeds or fails, there will be consequences: something is at stake. Sometimes this means the world ends if they fail, or sometimes what’s at stake is a deeply personal gain or loss.

Right now, though, I want to talk about really low stakes. Not just “her girlfriend dies” instead of “the world ends.” Lower than that.

What I really want to talk about is the Great British Baking Show.

The Great British Baking Show follows in well-trodden reality-TV footsteps: A dozen amateur bakers gather in a tent to bake very complicated, very British desserts. Every week, the person who performs least well goes home. At the end, one Star Baker is chosen, and they get … some sort of cake display dish or something.

The contestants are stressed, and earnest, and extremely kind to each other. They live in terror of the judges telling them their dessert was “a bad bake.” They’re all lovely people, and it’s sad when one leaves, but you know they’ll be okay. The most scandalous thing that’s ever happened was a contestant got frustrated by a melted cake and threw it away. (He apologized immediately.)

It sounds like it shouldn’t be that suspenseful or engaging. It is extremely suspenseful and engaging.

I feel like I don’t see this acknowledged enough: that with a good setup, you can be just as gripping with fluffy stakes as with dire ones. There’s this idea among writers sometimes that suspense requires a plausible threat of death. Kill off a major character, so the reader knows you’re for real. Show them anyone can die.

“Anyone can die” works great. When it’s right for the story.

I’m a Firefly fan–you remember Joss Whedon’s early-aughts space Western TV show? The joy of Firefly was actually a lot like the Great British Baking Show. Yeah, the caper of the week might go well, or it might go badly, but it was never going to go that badly. The real point was how the characters looked out for one another. They rarely admitted how much they cared, but you saw it deep down.

And then they made the movie-sequel Serenity. Serenity is what I mean when I say “anyone can die” isn’t always good.

Don’t be afraid to kill when it’s right for the story. Hell–when it’s right, go ahead and massacre. But also, don’t be afraid to keep your stakes small when they’re meant to be small. Not every story is Game of Thrones, and not every story should be.

The low-stakes road is not easy. You don’t have a plot that will keep readers’ hearts in their throats, so you need beloved characters instead. If the stakes aren’t life or death, you’ve got to show why they matter just as much.

Every story gets to define what death is in that story. It can be a literal death, but it isn’t always.

Look at Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie is caught between the dual threats of losing her entire social world by failing to marry or entering into a contract as miserable and soul-destroying as her parents’ marriage. Look at Firefly, where we pretend characters might die, but the real danger is they’ll lose the small piece of family they’ve found in an unforgiving universe. Look at The Great British Baking Show, where going home isn’t so bad, but becoming Star Baker is a moment of glory these people have dreamed about and worked their asses off for.

Set up your stakes and your world right, and you don’t need “anyone can die.”

A bad bake is scary enough.

Photo by Jennifer Schmidt on Unsplash

The Unporridging

a whisk mixing porridgeI’m working on a newish project. I’ve got characters, most of a plot, and a few dozen thousand words down. It’s enough to hang onto and wrestle with, and oh God is it better than the blankness of waiting for a new idea.

But it’s not fully there. I want to fall in love with this book, and I haven’t yet, not the way I loved my last project. This one has been sticky, lumpy, and gray.


This month I’ve sorted out a lot of that. I could be wildly wrong (I’ve been wrong about this before), but I think I’ve found tweaks to make this a book I’m excited about.

In case you too are facing porridge where you hoped for transcendence, I will list some things helping me find the spark.

Characters I Love

Here’s what makes a character pop: A desire and a goal. Unacknowledged needs at odds with that goal. A default strategy for dealing with the world. A lesson and an arc. Vulnerabilities. And at least one pretty impressive skill.

I’d been missing the skill and I knew it, but I’ve finally (hopefully) pinned it down. That and a haziness of goal (isn’t it always a haziness of goal?) were making my protagonist lumpish.

A Vision of Plot

I found this list of novel plots online, and, guys, oh my gosh. Lists of plots are almost never as inspiring as I want them to be, but this was amazing. Picking my story off that list reminded me where I needed to focus my conflict. It reminded me why I’m writing the damned thing.

Stakes and Scale

As a writer and reader, I like intimate stakes and close relationships. I’m drawn to situations that arise when characters know each other well.

That’s a wonderful element in a story. It is not a whole story.

Think of it this way. You know the musical Hamilton? It has a really great love triangle. Really great. Sympathetic, nuanced, interesting, with a deft use of I-understand-you moments I haven’t seen elsewhere.

If you kept the Hamilton love triangle but removed the politics, the music, the cultural context, the commentary on race, the American Revolution, the building a new government, the deaths, the rivalry, and the duel, you would get the mushy porridge I keep ending up with.

You don’t literally need a war. But you need a wider world, even if it’s background. You need institutional forces, social upheavals, cataclysmic events, or just the eternal uncertainty of huge things shifting beyond our control. Otherwise, your stakes will be things like “if Jane doesn’t get what she wants, Jane will be unhappy.”


Villainy and Power

I’ve got this thing about evil villains. I find them desperately boring.

Just like with the stakes stuff, this causes trouble. I keep writing conflicts between equals who are basically nice people. Nothing escalates.

So this month, I re-read Harry Potter. (Bonus unporridging advice: read books that do well at things you do poorly.) I find Voldemort fine, if a little generic, but the terror he sows opens up room for a huge cast of more interesting characters to scramble to survive. Everything great about those books happens in the drama-charged space Voldemort creates.

Here’s my theory: I suspect the essence of a good villain isn’t evil, it’s power.

Remember: power is what turns a doddering, racist, raging, incompetent old man from somebody’s obnoxious uncle into an object of terror for (I suspect) most people currently reading this. Even with a villain a lot (a lot) more sympathetic than our forty-fifth president, a goal contrary to your protagonist’s needs combined with the power to hurt your protagonist will make them terrifying. Suddenly the world has structure, and the conflict has stakes.

Use that.


Implementing solutions is always way harder than brainstorming them, and I may come back next month still with a book full of porridge. Hopefully not. I’m hoping some of these revelations help me, and maybe help you too.

Good luck!


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Cherish Your Darlings

two hands offering a flower with a black backgroundYou’re in your writing group, about to read aloud the best thing you’ve ever written. It’s brilliant, it’s poignant, and you’re bursting to share it. You take a deep breath and begin. At the end, you look up, awaiting praise. Your friends are staring at the floor.

“I didn’t totally understand that part,” one says. “I think you can tighten this,” says another. That one lady with the great insights who always gets your work says, “I liked it overall, but I think you can cut the part where …” and then she describes your moment of greatest brilliance. As something to discard.

We all know about darlings. They’re the parts you think are amazing that everyone else knows are anything but. We all know what you do with darlings. You kill them.

That’s right, of course. There’s no part of your book so good it should stay if it isn’t serving the whole. And, let’s be honest, often those “brilliant” bits are self-indulgent, over-written messes. (Though I once read advice that defined a “darling” as any passage the author especially liked. It went on to say that the first step in editing was to delete whichever parts you were most fond of. For the love of Bob and all that is holy, don’t do that.)

But—and here’s the controversial part—I think believing your readers over your instincts is wrong.

Oh, definitely get a writing group you can trust. When they say, “it’s not working,” believe them. Instincts aren’t born, they’re tempered with time. Fail often, and you’ll learn what works and doesn’t work. You’ll carry your writing group in your head and fix mistakes before your group even sees them. This is how you hone your instincts.

Once you’ve developed good instincts, you’ll still need that group. Sometimes you need a sanity check. Or you need somebody else’s take on an issue. Sometimes you’ve just got to hear how prose lands. You never stop needing that in some form or other.

But when your group says something doesn’t work, your next step is not dry your tears and rush off to delete it. (Or even relocate it to a clippings file, though Melissa Bloom has a great post on how to do that when the time comes.) The next step is to look at the work as a whole. Ask yourself, does this passage serve the larger purpose? Does it make the book better?

Often, it won’t. Your reader says, “That moment doesn’t work,” and you agree. Or you do some arguing and bargaining and painful soul-searching and eventually agree. It’s the wrong beat, or it’s too flowery, or it reiterates something your readers knew already. That’s when you kill it. (Or, you know. Clippings file.)

Sometimes, though, all your instincts insist the moment is vital to the story. It’s not just (allegedly) beautifully written, you need it to convey your meaning. Your readers tell you to cut it, and you can’t. You have no idea how you know, but you know it’s important.

So don’t kill it. Dig deeper. Why do your instincts and your readers disagree?

Maybe you introduced the moment poorly. Or you didn’t flesh it out enough. Maybe it’s something so obvious to you-you’re still finding the words for it. Sometimes the hardest ideas to explain are the true ones.

You may dig way, way down just to discover your readers were right. You have blindspots, and I guarantee you others see them more clearly than you do. When your readers say, “This part doesn’t work,” believe them.

But when your instincts say, “This part is vital,” believe them too. Because sometimes, against all precedent and logic and the feedback of your time-tested writing group, your instincts will insist a moment is right.

Good. Go clean the damned thing up until your readers say so too.

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Truth is Strange

A man standing, holding a murder weaponLet me tell you about S-Town. It’s a podcast that came out a couple of months ago. It’s complete at seven episodes, and it’s about this antique clock restorer, John, who says he lives in “Shittown, Alabama,” where a murder occurred that nobody is investigating. The podcast grows from there into a meditative long-form portrait of a man and his town and the creepy things going on. It’s cool, and you should totally give it a try.

Sadly, this is not a blog post about S-Town. It’s too hard to talk about without spoilers.

But listening to S-Town crystallized something I’d been noticing for a while: that the way I experience nonfiction narratives is completely different from the way I experience fiction.

Let me pick apart how odd that is. I’m saying I could read word-for-word the same story, but having it framed as fiction versus non-fiction gives me an entirely different experience. It’s not as if they’re unrelated art forms, right? Compelling stories–fictional or not–mostly follow the same rules: Give strong images and good dialogue. Escalate the tension until you reach a moment of climax or clarity that changes everything. Pick and choose only the most important moments. Start late and get out early. Show, don’t tell.

But it’s entirely different. I swear, as closely as it’s related, it’s not related at all.

When I’m reading fiction, I’m having a conversation with an author whose narrative choices delineate a view of the world. It’s all Aesop’s fables, blown huge. If the narrative says “Alice did this,” I’m asking myself, “Okay, what does it mean that the author chose to have Alice do that? What is the author saying about people like Alice? What is the author’s view of humanity? What does this thematically represent?”

In nonfiction, I assume Alice actually did the thing the author says Alice did, so I’m asking different questions. Like: “Why did Alice do that?” or “Is the author relaying Alice’s motivations and circumstances accurately? What are the author’s biases–what could they have missed?” And I’m allowing the story to add to the things in the world that I consider true: “Oh, that really happened to somebody? I never knew that was possible!”

In fiction I expect climax and payoff and promises kept. Nonfiction gets more leeway. It needs to conclude somewhere meaningful–otherwise, why tell it?–but I assume some messiness and murkiness and untied threads. It’s a different kind of suspense, wondering about real people. Not “What could happen?” but “What did happen?” I don’t need big thrills, but I want to end knowing something I never knew before. (Seriously, go listen to S-Town.)

But that’s really damn weird, right? Nonfiction isn’t necessarily truer than fiction, we just pretend it is. A writer’s biases loom just as large when they’re relating real events as when they’re making them up. Non-fiction is just as curated, just as processed and interpreted, and just as distorted by personal biases as fiction. Sometimes, writers even lie. And yet, the distinction completely changes how I react to it.

I love fiction. It’s most of what I read and all of what I write. But fictionalized, a story like S-Town would lose something. The gravity would be less grave. The impact would be a different impact, from a different direction. I can’t help thinking it would be a less profound one.

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Good Writing Advice is God-Awful Relationship Advice

A gun on the ground surrounded by bullet casingsShow, don’t tell.

Disclosing your actual thoughts to your loved ones is boring and obvious. Instead, use heavy implication to demonstrate you’re upset with someone. Rely on symbols and subtext to convey what you want. Don’t be too “on the nose”: always argue about something tangential to the thing upsetting you.

Lead with a strong image.

Got something upsetting to tell a partner? Paint a word picture that will burn itself indelibly onto their brain so years from now they will wake in the night in a cold sweat still visualizing it.

Follow the Hero’s Journey.

Regular life is boring. Remember to periodically discover your existence is a lie, embark on a quest, undergo death and resurrection, commune with the goddess, and return home forever changed. Your loved ones will appreciate this.

Start scenes late, end them early.

To skip the dull parts, conduct all conversations as follows: Show up partway through to drop some pithy one-liners, then run away immediately.

Make sure what you want and what you need actively contradict each other.

Be complex. Keep your loved ones guessing.

Escalate conflict.

If your last argument didn’t dredge up trauma from twenty years ago, you didn’t dig deep enough. For best results, wait until everyone involved is hungry, stressed, drunk, and sleep-deprived.

Focus your conflict on a single villain.

Ideally, this person will be the shadow-version of you, on whom you can project all your flaws and insecurities. Definitely, spend all your energy defeating this person.

Scenes should accomplish multiple goals.

Relationship arguments can be boring on their own, so make sure everyone involved has an unrelated but vital and concentration-dependent task to complete. Landing a plane, for instance. Or disarming a bomb. See above about being hungry, stressed, drunk, and sleep-deprived.

Utilize a ticking clock.

Everything is more exciting with life-or-death time limits.

Don’t learn your lessons until the last possible instant.

Nobody wants to see personal growth and amended behavior across an extended time period. It’s best to act like an idiot until the eleventh hour and then communicate you’ve changed with a single grand gesture.

Murder your darlings.

Need I say more?

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Query Letters Are Impossible (But Here Are Some Websites That Helped Me)

girl climbing cliff while man shoots at zombiesI’ve got this manuscript, and I’ve been querying agents. It’s a little terrifying.

First, the basics: a query letter is about 250 words long, and it pitches your novel to an agent who might be interested in representing it to publishers. Also, it is somehow harder to write than an entire novel.

I’ve sent out one round of queries and gotten no bites, so I’ve been revamping my manuscript and submission materials. As I reach the eve of another round of querying, I thought I’d share the query-writing-related resources I’ve found most helpful so far.

Writer’s Digest Successful Queries

A compendium of blog posts by different agents showing great queries for successfully published books. Some of these queries are spectacular, some are really solid, and some aren’t my thing at all—all of which was super helpful for understanding what querying looks like from the agent’s side.

Query Shark

The Writer’s Digest list was many agents unpacking good queries. This is one agent, Janet Reid, unpacking great queries, mediocre queries, and disastrously bad queries, with discussions of what works and what doesn’t. Query Shark is funny, terrifying, and unbelievably helpful, and I learned a huge amount reading her archives.

Agent Query Connect

Forums for writers in the querying process. Their critique forums in particular are fantastic. You post your query, you critique other people’s posted queries, and they return the favor. There are pros and cons to getting a wide range of opinions (remember: your writing is not a democracy, it’s a dictatorship), but I found it amazingly helpful. It’s hard having your 250 words battered into shape by total strangers, and it’s so worth it. This place and Query Shark genuinely made me a better writer. My ear for wordiness is vastly better than it was six months ago.

Absolute Write Water Cooler

If Agent Query is a writers’ forum about querying, Absolute Write is a writers’ forum about everything. Honestly, it’s so big I’m not entirely sure what’s on there. I know they’ve got a critique forum a lot like Agent Query where you can post your query for critique (many more rules, though—read the stickies!), and they have excellent advice for people in all stages of the writing and publishing process.

Absolute Write: Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check

This subforum of Absolute Write is where writers discuss their experiences with agents and publishers. They have posts on what to expect from a legitimate agent or publisher and how to spot a scam, but mainly they discuss individual publishers and agents. It’s not all laments about dodgy dealings—many posts describe writers’ experiences with professionals who are fantastic at their jobs. If you’re wondering who’s legit, who’s a scam, and who’s amazing, I can’t recommend this place highly enough.

There are lots of resources I haven’t covered because I haven’t used them much yet. But I hope some of this was helpful! Whether you’re pursuing traditional publishing or fixing up your manuscript to publish yourself, good luck out there!


Lessons from Obsession

Lit lightbulb laying on its side at a construction site“Where do you get your ideas?”

I’ve heard a number of exasperated authors describe how often people ask them this. Interviewers ask, fans ask, even family asks. It’s a silly question with no good answer, because really, what are you supposed to say?

(Neil Gaiman’s answer: “I make them up. Out of my head.” He says people are somehow never pleased with this.)

But the part I find interesting is what authors almost invariably say next: that the premise of the question is flawed. That the question implies ideas are precious and hard to come by, when on the contrary, ideas grow like weeds. They explain they have more ideas than they know what to do with, more ideas than they’ll write in a lifetime. That it’s the choosing and refining and developing the ideas—the sitting down and doing the work—that’s hard.

When I say I find this interesting, I mean that I find it terrifying.

I don’t have too many ideas. I have never had too many ideas. My writing life exists in two possible states: either I have an idea and am developing it with single-minded desperation because it is The Idea I Have and I may never have another, or else I have finished working on my idea and now have zero ideas.

Let me state for the record how uncomfortable and scary it is to be a fantasy writer with zero ideas.

It’s possible I’m the only person with this problem. Maybe every other writer is one of the Zillion-Idea People, and I am the only One-or-Zero-Idea Person. But I fundamentally believe that the world is very big, and so I suspect there is at least one more of you out there. Clinging to your idea by your fingernails. Sitting in the wreckage of years of effort, staring at your finished novel, wondering what the fuck you’re going to work on now.

You are not alone.


If you are out there, my fellow One-or-Zero-Idea People, here is what little I have learned about clawing substance out of the void:

Pay attention to what obsesses you. What thoughts do you churn over when you’re not thinking about anything useful? What terrifies you? What do you hope for that makes no sense? What pointless corner of the Internet eats hours of your night? What stories do you love—and not just the well-constructed stories that everybody loves: what shitty, poorly written, disastrously problematic embarrassing drivel do you adore beyond reason?

I’ve come to regard these things as clues.

An idea worth writing is one that reaches into your guts and grabs hard and won’t let go. I’ve learned to believe my next idea is out there, and that it will echo the things I can’t look away from. I believe if I twist and chip and shape and pummel these hints and obsessions, something will rise out of the nothingness. Something I love and fear enough to write a book about.

Fingers crossed.


Lessons About Foils From the Musical “Hamilton”

I know, I know, I’m really late to the Hamilton party. It’s a brilliant play, for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with character foils. You know what, though? The way it uses foils is amazing.

To review: “In fiction, a foil is a character who contrasts with another character—usually the protagonist—in order to highlight particular qualities of the other character.” -Wikipedia.

Now, on to things I’ve learned about foils from Hamilton.

Difference is about similarity.

Alexander Hamilton is an orphaned genius who rises from nothing to join the revolution and later plays a key role in the new U.S. government. Aaron Burr is … also those things. Their lives run strangely parallel from their first meet up until (spoiler, I guess?) Burr fatally shoots Hamilton. Their similarities let us see what utter opposites they are.

If you want to show someone is a genius, put them next to somebody smart.

It’s counterintuitive, right? Foils rely on contrast, and isn’t the opposite of a smart person a stupid one? But no: the opposite of an exceptional person is an averagely capable one. Hamilton portrays its title character as a genius who fights his way into the company of other brilliant people—and still excels. That’s far more impressive than being the smartest person in a room where nobody else is smart.

Put a genius next to idiots … sparingly.

There’s only one song (“Farmer Refuted”) where Hamilton argues with someone who can’t rise to his level of debate. He argues circles around the guy, who repeats his solid points over and over until an infuriated Hamilton resorts to shouting insults. It works, it’s hilarious, and we don’t need more than two minutes of it.

Don’t always make your protagonist look good.

Even in the idiot vs. genius exchange, Hamilton looks smart, sincere, principled … and given to pointless anger, childish insults, and poor impulse-control. And that’s when he’s right. He spends most of the play surrounded by people who understand truths he doesn’t, and the play is better for it.

One character can have many foils.

Hamilton vs. Burr: driven (“Just you wait!”) vs. cautious (“Wait for it…”)

Hamilton vs. Eliza: ambitious vs. appreciative of the present moment

Hamilton vs. Jefferson: hungry vs. established

Hamilton vs. Washington: restless vs. at peace

Notice how consistent Hamilton is here: driven, ambitious, hungry, and restless. The way each character clashes with him illuminates their personality while confirming Hamilton’s.

“Foil” is not a character’s only role.

All these characters have important stories of their own. Nobody is just a foil.

Show who people are through their personal philosophies. Then make them fight.

Every character in the play brings a strong and different philosophy (“I will not throw away my shot,” “Wait for it,” “How lucky we are to be alive right now,” etc.), and they collide. This can spark political debates, irreconcilable personal differences, or character growth. Characters often don’t understand why they drive each other up the wall, but we know: their personal philosophies clash.

Nobody needs to win these debates.

Is it better to “talk less, smile more” or to “rise up”? To work “non-stop” or to “wait for it”?

Who cares? It’s about contrasting characterizations, not finding a right answer.

Sometimes, somebody needs to win these debates.

Jefferson is ultimately portrayed as a fairly principled statesman (and an insufferable ass), but his positive traits only appear long, long after Hamilton rips him to shreds for his complicity in slavery. The play doesn’t always take sides, but “slavery was evil” is not negotiable.

Foils show how people change.

When Hamilton reaches out to his betrayed and grieving wife by echoing her personal philosophies (in “It’s Quiet Uptown”), we understand he’s finally learned something.

Foils show how people don’t change.

The Burr and Hamilton of the final duel clash for the same reasons they always have. Yes, Hamilton has grown somewhat—he does throw away his shot—but he’ll never back down or learn to take his time. I’ve got immense respect for a story that lets a difficult protagonist stay difficult.

That’s what I’ve got. So … what’d I miss?


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Go Weird

person enjoying the desertHere’s my favorite idea from the past few months:

Nobody is average.

I first came across it on an episode of the podcast 99% Invisible. Basically, if you measure a large population for several traits (let’s say ten) and take an average, you’ll get a measurement of the average person—but nobody you measured will actually match that average. A person with the average leg length will have the wrong foot size, and so forth. This is called the Jaggedness Principle (referring to the jaggedness of the data).

If nobody is average, do you know what this means? All those “realistic” novels with that dull Everyman protagonist, all those movies about the Average Joe—

They were lies. THERE IS NO AVERAGE JOE.

I’ve been feeling it for a while now, that the fictional people I read about are way less interesting than the people I know. People in fiction can ride dragons and rise from the dead, but it’s the people around me who keep blowing my mind with how gloriously fucking weird they are. Sometimes the gloriously fucking weird people are the ones writing the dull Average Joes, in their well-trodden worlds, in their predictable plots.

Here’s why.

By default, we write characters and plots we’ve seen before. We have ideas about “average” and “realistic” people and how they behave. We have standard narratives of what’s believable, and they’re a lot narrower than the real world.

Say I’ve fleshed out my hero as a three-dimensional person who is not at all average, but my planned plot dictates I now need the “wife,” the “best friend,” and the “other woman.” I can picture those characters right now: vague amalgams of people I’ve met and stories I’ve read.

No actual human is as boringly average as the people I’m picturing.

If you can inject the true and the unexpected into those people, even just a little bit, you’ll have a better and truer story.


Let me pause a moment to pick on gender stereotypes, because fuck gender stereotypes.

Let’s average all men into the Average Man and all women into the Average Woman. (All the nonbinary folks will hide in our usual invisible corner for this exercise.) He’s taller; she’s shorter. Studies show some behavioral traits correlate with gender. I’m not going to argue nature or nurture right now; I’m just going to say—sure. Let’s assume Average Woman has all the average female traits and Average Man all the male ones. Our two prototypes are totally distinct, with a hard bright line between them. (The way they seem to be in almost every book I’ve picked up for ages. Bleh.)


Those “average” people we’re picturing—they’re bullshit. The jaggedness of the data is just as true here. Nobody exists who is not a complicated overlapping mix of all the traits we just drew hard lines between. (Here’s a neat article about this.)

Identity traits like gender or race are a huge part of a person and the world they move through. Expanding our narratives means listening to varied points of view, not just to those of our designated default humans, the straight, cis, able-bodied white guys. But it’s also true that every person is a gazillion things, and their gender only tells you one thing.

There is no hard bright line. So let’s stop drawing one.


If nobody is average, we writers can ignore that nagging voice telling us that “average” characters are more realistic. That the unusual is unusual. That there’s such thing as a default human. As we build out from the available narrative, we change it. We expand the things it’s possible to say.

Here is my call to arms: Look at your life, and look at your writing. Notice how your preconceptions and stock narratives distort the real world into something more predictable and believable and “average.” When you choose believability over reality (and sometimes you should), be mindful of what you choose and why. Embrace the structures and tropes that feel true to you, and reject those that feel false.

Find the true things no one has said before. Tell them to us until we understand.

Resist sameness.

Go weird.



Picture of woman smiling, shaved head and plaid shirtHere’s what I’m puzzling over right now:

1) I want to write a character whose experience of gender is like mine.

2) I’m not sure what that even means.

Lemme back up.

I use she/her pronouns, and there’s an “F” on my birth certificate,,and I’ve never felt much need to change that. I keep my hair super short and wear men’s clothing when I can find any that fits. (That’s a lie—it never fits, and I wear it anyway. I wear women’s clothing too, because it actually fits, and because.) I’ve belonged to wonderful groups of women that I’ve been proud to be part of.

But the word “woman” feels jarring on me. Like it’s the wrong word, like it hangs on me as ill-fittingly as the men’s shirts I keep trying to wear. (They always balloon in the back. Why??)

I’ve been quietly trying on the label “genderqueer.” And I mean really quietly, like maybe-I’ve-mentioned-it-to-three-people quietly. I can do that; as a girl-looking person in mixed-gender, vaguely masculine clothing, I get way less shit for it than 1) a person assigned female at birth in fully male clothing, 2) a person assigned male at birth who wears anything feminine ever, 3) people who are out about being non-binary, and, possibly, 4) women in general. There are massive privileges of race and class and appearance and location and a lot of things that contribute to how little shit I’m given. And I have it easy in that being misgendered isn’t the awful, invalidating gut punch for me that it is for many people. So mostly nobody asks, and I don’t mention it.

On the one hand, why talk about it? I don’t really care what pronouns you use for me (though I love being taken for male, except by upset people in bathrooms). I’m fine with my name (which, granted, is kinda neutral). And on the scale of the misery that gender dysphoria can cause, I have barely any. I keep asking myself: Is it just that our culture has such a narrow definition of “woman” that nobody rests easy under the label? Am I really gender-variant enough to bother mentioning?

(And am I betraying feminism? Am I abandoning my female friends? Am I undermining my trans friends? Am I doing this for attention?)

But I remember every moment when a friend who knew my gender identity paused to acknowledge it. I remember how my partner knew it intuitively, how it shocked him that anyone knew me and didn’t know. Those people saw me. It would be a far lonelier world if nobody did.

And, of course, my silence contributes to the silence.

So. Can I do it? Can I write a character like me?

I don’t know. I’d like to. Fiction, at its best, is one of the most intimate entries we have into another mind. I know there are books out there with non-binary characters. I’m looking to read more of them.

But I’ve barely conceptualized this thing to myself. Gender isn’t the pronouns or the clothes or the name or the personality traits or the interests or the job. It’s a huge force in a person, but it’s an ineffable one, irreducible to component parts. I know when a character in a book wears an identity different from mine, but I don’t know how to express one I recognize.

I’ve seen it, though, and seeing it is like being a fish that’s spent a lifetime on land falling unexpectedly and miraculously into water.

*My birth certificate is also a photocopy with several cross-outs and the wrong last name, which involves a long and currently irrelevant story about how my grandfather was secretly adopted. What I’m saying is, it’s not an infallible document.

PHOTO: The author, Noel Dwyer