Polenth’s Dream Rep Bingo

The #dreamrepbingo challenge is to make a bingo card with things we personally want to see in book representation. This isn’t a list of things that are the least represented overall or anything like that. It’s my personal bingo, for things I’ve looked for and rarely found.

My bingo is a different format to a lot of book bingos, because this is the form I grew up playing. I’m probably going to use this more as a reminder of things to include when I write, rather than read, because for some I don’t know any work that isn’t something I wrote. It wouldn’t work very well as a reading challenge for that reason. But if you manage to fill all the squares you will win the eternal prize of knowing you’ve read a lot of really obscure stories.

Here is the card. Click on it for a bigger version. The description below explains each square in text for those who can’t see the image, as well as providing some expanded thoughts on the choices.

Image Caption: A bingo card with three rows and nine columns. There are five content squares randomly placed in each row, which list an item of book representation. The other squares are plain blocks of colour. Each column is one rainbow colour: the text and plain blocks in that column are that colour. It starts at violet on the left and goes through to red on the right.

Bingo Items List:

  1. Tinnitus from birth with hidden hearing loss – It’s rare to see tinnitus at all, but it’s usually shown as coming from later accidents. This is a problem in medical literature as well, to the point I’ve met doctors who are amazed I’ve had tinnitus from birth. Hidden hearing loss can go with that: this is a type of hearing loss that doesn’t show up with standard tests, as it only shows in loud environments. A lot of doctors haven’t heard of that either.
  2. Delayed sleep phase syndrome – The daily sleep cycle naturally drifts towards going to sleep in the early hours or morning, rather than at night. In short, this means being nocturnal, but not due to being a secret wereowl.
  3. Non-white character with uncertain ancestry – Not everyone knows their ancestry to the point of being able to list percentages. Uncertainty is not that uncommon in the real world, but somehow book characters know it all, unless they’re secretly descended from aliens/fairies (to be revealed by the end of the book). I’d like the character to be uncertain and stay that way without any tidy answers.
  4. Marginalised in five or more ways – All in the same character or it doesn’t count, because people act like even two marginalisations is pushing it and totally unrealistic.
  5. Multiply marginalised character is happy – Everyone is not dead, they have friends and family, and a fluffy pet kitten. Maybe they get what they want for a change.
  6. Dyslexic character can read/write well – Dyslexia is often revealed because a character cannot read or write at all, to the point where it’s really notable when this isn’t the case. This focus also ignores how things change during someone’s lifetime, as though all dyslexic people are locked in childhood. Teens and adults can have other things going on, such as difficulty with schedules and organising tasks, which rarely gets shown because authors are obsessed with small children reversing letters. I still reverse letters sometimes, but it’s really not the most noticeable part of being dyslexic these days.
  7. Ambidextrous character dithers on side choice – Often where an ambidextrous character is shown, it’s like a special superpower to not have a dominant side. So I’d like to see some of the un-superpowered realities of being ambidextrous, including the dithering that happens due to not having an automatic side for things. An example is being hit by a ball because it takes too long to decide which hand to use to catch the ball.
  8. Not feeling emotions is totally fine – Not feeling certain emotions (or any emotions) is often used to show characters as being inferior. If they gain them, they become more human, and therefore more worthy. If they don’t gain them, they’ll probably be the villain. Less of that. More people with different emotional experiences getting to be the hero with no attempt to change them.
  9. Human has phantom limb tail with no supernatural cause – This is me unless I’m secretly magical and don’t know it. I don’t mind the whole wish fulfilment thing of finding out you’re a werecreature and all that. I’ve written such stories too. But sometimes it’s nice to see these themes handled in a more realistic way.
  10. Non-humans with marginalised humans – I love stories with non-humans of various kinds, be they robots, aliens or strange critters from the deep ocean. But so often they’re used to replace marginalised people, rather than being written as their own thing. I also like seeing how marginalised non-humans and marginalised humans interact.
  11. Working class character is not the one good exception – It’s clear how middle class a lot of authors are by their handling of working class characters. You get the working class person with the heart of gold. But expect their community, and often their own family, to be the worst of working class stereotypes. Bonus hatred points if that one working class character gets to become middle or upper class by the end, due to their pure heart and hard work. It just reinforces the idea that most people are working class because they deserve it, and those who don’t deserve it will be elevated. Class structures are not fair, so I don’t want stories pretending they’re fair.
  12. Intersex character with no genital descriptions – There’s apparently no possible way to know someone is intersex without someone feeling up their genitals, seeing them naked in the shower, or other such things. Maybe instead of ever more creative ways to show genitals, someone could just say they’re intersex.
  13. Asexual character not placed in awkward sexual situations – It’s okay to have an asexual character say they’re asexual. It doesn’t have to be revealed by making them walk into the sexbot district and feel uncomfortable because everyone wants to have sex with them.
  14. Non-binary person is not misgendered – It’s like authors think if they have a non-binary person, someone has to misgender them and highlight their gender assigned at birth. This links to a trend where non-binary people are constantly referred to based on their assigned at birth genders (AMAB non-binary and AFAB non-binary, but never plain old non-binary). Some people are really uncomfortable if they can’t continue to split non-binary people into binary categories.
  15. Romani people aren’t inherently magical – I still remember that time I critiqued a piece and commented on the “gypsies” being shown as though they were inherently magical. The author replied that it was okay because she’d always considered them to be like magical fairy creatures and that was totally the vibe she wanted. There are a lot of other stereotypes, including even otherwise progressive spaces being happy to have the dark traveller as the shady criminal who attacks the pure blond main character, but the first step is to understand Romani people are not actually fairies. I’m starting small here.

Trigger Warnings, Content Guides and My Books

Cartoon rainbow octopusThere tends to be a lot of talk about whether books should have trigger warnings or content guides, but little talk about how to actually implement this in a useful way. Back when I first published my collection, I tried to write a content guide (I use that term because I don’t like to dismiss discomfort that isn’t at a triggering level… a reader shouldn’t need to have a panic attack before it’s accepted as a problem). I started this by writing a list of content for each story in the collection, but I ran into some problems, and didn’t end up including it on the book information page in the end.

The two big issues I found were:

  • False Grimdark Tone – By listing out every possible item for each story, it made my work sound like the grittiest grimdark ever. Certainly my short stories tend to run darker than my novels, but even the novels would come out as sounding really dark. The problem here is a longer work will often have small references to a lot of things that potentially might get a warning, but when it’s put together as a list, it seems like a huge number of things.
  • Overwhelming Lists – Providing someone with the initial story-by-story list would be overwhelming. So would a paragraph trying to summarise all those things. A content guide that’s too long will be ignored. It also means readers might not notice the items they need to notice, or assume that it’s only a small reference (like the other twenty things on the list).

I revisited this topic recently after my decision to write a cozy mystery. I picked up a bunch of free cozies from Amazon and began reading. As they were free, I didn’t check the reviews that carefully. This was a mistake. One book was branded as a cozy mystery, but it wasn’t (down to having a rape scene). It’s not that I don’t read books with darker content, but I’d not expected it from this book, so it was jarring. It’s not a surprise that some reviewers stated they’d never read a book by this author again.

Lack of accurate content information can cause issues in all directions. It can make it harder for readers to trust a new author. It can make it easier for authors to misbrand a book for sales, because they can cover over that it has content that isn’t part of a certain genre. Overall, it makes it harder for people to make informed choices. This is always the thing that baffles me when people are against discussions of book content, because it does me no favours as an author if readers pick up a book under false pretences and never want to touch my work ever again.

But on revisiting, I still didn’t have much of an idea of what to write in the content guide. There isn’t a lot out there for those who have decided that it’d be a good idea. There are guides for things like films and computer games, but those don’t always work in the context of a book. What I ended up with was a bit of a hybrid between having a content paragraph and having a content grid (listing content briefly under main categories). I discarded the idea of a general rating, as I don’t think it’s that helpful (and my book pages will make it clear when something is a work for teens or children, so that’s covered elsewhere).

The general format I decided on was this:

Tone Paragraph to get around the grimdark issue. In this paragraph, the general tone of the book is set, along with a few other issues that don’t fit in sex/violence/swearing. As this is prose, it’s easier to make it clear it doesn’t list everything. I can say it includes things like this, or a number of issues such as that and this, rather than a providing a complete list of every possible thing.

Then specific categories. The big three people tend to want to know about: sex, violence and swearing. This is a more at-a-glance summary of whether it does have these things and what sort (where appropriate).

As an example, Sunstruck became:

The novel primarily has supernatural violence, but does touch on real issues such as racial microaggressions and attitudes towards mental illness. There are bar scenes and references to alcohol.

Sex: None
Violence: Fight scenes; descriptions of dead bodies
Swearing: Some, usually from secondary characters

This still left a few issues. What exactly should be included, outside of the big things? I felt social issues were one to include in the tone paragraph, such as noting things like racism*. Alcohol was a big problem area, as technically, it’d be listed for a lot of books. But when does it reach the point of it being worth noting? A passing reference to a wine and cheese party? The main character actually drinking? In the case of Sunstruck, neither main character drinks alcohol during the novel, but there were enough bar scenes that I felt it was worth a note.

I also considered some book-specific issues. In mysteries, sometimes the dead body is described and sometimes it’s glossed over. This is an important thing to know for the mystery genre, as it helps set the level of coziness. However, this isn’t something likely to be discussed much in a content system for computer games, as they don’t match up with book genres in that way.

Finally, there was placement of the content guide. I decided to put it as the last thing on every page. It made it both easy to find (as it’s always the last thing, so always there when you scroll right down) and easy to avoid for those worried about mild spoilers (just stop reading at the title, because there’s nothing more after it).

I don’t think it’s perfect, but it’s a start. I can edit them later if they turn out not to be quite right. I also think it opens it up for people to ask me if they have an uncommon thing they want to avoid. All in all, I hope it helps people find books they’re comfortable reading.

* Some content guides include character identity, but really, if a reader has a problem with marginalised characters, they don’t want to be reading anything I write (and no one ever seems to want WARNING STRAIGHT WHITE MALE ALERT on books). That’s not really a book-by-book content statement, but an author statement. I do want to mention acts of discrimination though, as I know from personal experience that some days it can be too close to home.

Book Launch: Rainbow Lights (Plus Cupcakes)

‘Tis the season for lots of sugar, as my collection Rainbow Lights is now live on Amazon. In celebration, I made cupcakes in rainbow cases and decorated them with a rainbow of sweets. Some might notice indigo and ink are missing from my collection colours, which was due to the availability of dyes and sweets. But the family aren’t complaining, as it’s all still sugar.

Cupcakes in rainbow-striped cases. Each row of cupcakes is iced in a colour. From front to back: purple, blue, green, yellow, orange and red. An assortment of matching coloured sweets is on each one.

In less sugary information, the book is a collection of fantasy and science fiction stories and poems (mostly stories). I have an official page on my site, which has the table of contents, links to any stories available free online (you can also read the first couple with Amazon’s look inside feature) and a comprehensive list of where to buy. Currently these are Amazon’s sites in various countries, but there will be other places later.

There’s also a page on Goodreads if you’d like to mark it for later, leave a review, or anything of that nature.

Dates and Deadlines

The date I originally set was 13th May, 2013. This was great, except I’d forgotten it was my parents’ ruby wedding anniversary, and I was down to cook a meal. (I remembered the meal, but not the date.) This meant the collection was pushed on a little way, but I didn’t miss it by much. The book went live on 23rd May, and I got down to making cupcakes on the 25th.

Future Plans

Currently the book is only available on Kindle. I’d like to get it up on Smashwords too. I also plan to make a paperback version, with charcoal illustrations inside. The paperback will take time due to the extra pictures, so I’m not setting a date. It’ll be done when it’s done.

There will also be a steampunk novelette in the future, and the family appears to have nominated me to make themed cupcakes for that too. I may have set a precedent here…

But now it’s time for me to drink tea, eat cupcakes, and start work on the next thing.

Rainbow Lights cover: a rainbow squid in chalk pastels, in a charcoal black ocean.