What I DESERVE.

A video surfaced recently denouncing inclusive literature. It was a very entitled and deeply offensive diatribe against diversity in publishing. I will not link to it in the interest of not adding fuel to a garbage fire. Instead, here’s a link to the awesome WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS website. The good news is, that video sparked conversations—lots of them—that I believe will do more good than the video did damage. Keep talking.

I’m a white male author. I work my butt off. I write good stories. I have EARNED the success I’ve seen, but that does not mean that I DESERVE it, and that’s a key distinction. I don’t DESERVE sh*t. I’m not ENTITLED to a single book contract or royalty check. I work hard, but there are people who work harder and don’t get published. I am talented, but there are people who are more talented who don’t get published. I’m nice and easy to work with, but there are nicer people out there who don’t get published. The fact is, no matter how good I am, I’m also LUCKY, and a big part of my luck is my inherited identity.

Fellow white authors, we are running a race. I’m tired and sweaty and exhausted, just like you, and so when I look over and see the crowd cheering on a black runner and offering her water, it’s easy for me to say “Hey—no fair! Cheer for ME, not her!” It’s easy because I don’t see the fact that that she is running on a rougher track, or that she has cheap, broken shoes, or that she’s carrying with her heavy baggage containing essential supplies to help an underprivileged community waiting for her at the finish line. I don’t have those problems, so I don’t see them. All I see is that the race is hard for me, and if nobody is making it easier for ME, then they shouldn’t make it easier for ANYONE.

tired-runner
Photo Credit: ostill / 123RF Stock Photo

That line of thinking is bullsh*t, and my privilege means it’s easier for me to say that that’s bullsh*t because it’s not piled on top of me. I’m not a woman, so I won’t be accused of just being a feminazi. I’m not black, so I won’t be accused of being an angry black man. I’m not LGBTQ, so I won’t be accused of having a gay agenda. I won’t be as easily dismissed—and that’s one of the many results of my privilege. It also means that as a privileged man, it falls more heavily on me to use that privilege ethically.

I benefit from my privilege. I’m not ashamed of who I am. I’m not at fault for having privilege… but I’m also not so afraid of my privilege that I feel the need to deny it or play the victim just because I’m NOT a minority. I have power by virtue of my birth. Power is not fault, but power IS responsibility. I have power, so I try to use it responsibly. I try to deserve it.

If I write a character that resonates as offensive to readers in spite of my best efforts—does that mean they’re just oversensitive social justice warriors? NO IT DOES NOT. Mark Twain was a noble abolitionist fighting for African Americans to be respected in the South. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t also sometimes straight up racist. CALL THAT SH*T OUT. It’s okay. Mark Twain would understand. So will I.

Twain

If my flawed efforts at making the world better through my books sparks a heated conversation that I didn’t anticipate, GOOD! Have that conversation! Let the critical conversation do the good that my book failed to do! Critical thinkers make the world better one disagreement at a time.

The world needs diverse books by diverse authors. Unique perspectives and cultures are lost every time a publisher buys another white male protagonist while turning down a brilliant manuscript by a minority purely because they’re not looking for an “ethnic” book this season. I’ll get published or I won’t. The minority author querying at the same time won’t change that.

Those books are not my competitors. Those authors are not the enemy. They are simply the ones that will reach readers in ways that I don’t. We’re in it together, growing readers and making the world a better place. Together.

So, fellow white writers—you’re exhausted, I get it. Me too. Don’t jeer at the other runners—that’s petty and ugly—try to cheer them on, instead. See one of them struggling in broken sneakers? Offer them your spare set. See one who has fallen? Help them up. You might find that when we support each other the whole race becomes a much more pleasant experience.

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Media quickie

GHOSTLY ECHOES officially released this week, which has come with loads of new pieces out there in the media that I keep not getting around to sharing, so here is a quick stack of them all together!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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F*** IT. ZOMBIES (Or: Why my editor needs an aspirin)

Sometimes doing exactly what you want to do is hard. I write fanciful novels about a magical detective. I love them. They’re silly and meaningful and ridiculous and fun. Also, sometimes, they’re hard. Writing a book, it turns out, is a lot of writing. When the pressure of deadlines and the slog of getting sh* done starts to make what I love feel like a JOB (gasp)… I’ve found that I have three options:

  1. Fortify and do your damn job.
  2. Abandon your dreams and drink heavily.
  3. F* it. Have fun.

A colleague of mine arranged for the author Jacquelyn Mitchard to visit our students last year. Mitchard spoke about her debut The Deep End of The Ocean being selected as Oprah’s first ever Book Club book. She talked about her process and was generally a very intelligent and engaging guest. My favorite moment was her reply to the classic, “What do you do when you get writer’s block?” question. Her response.

I don’t.
I don’t believe in writer’s block.
A plumber doesn’t get plumber’s block.
The President doesn’t get president’s block.
It’s a job. You just do it.

I think that philosophy is awesome. If you’re the kind of artist who waits for inspiration to strike, you will get writer’s block A LOT. You will get it pretty much constantly. Sometimes you just have to do the damn work. Mitchard’s stance on that pairs nicely with a Pablo Picasso quote I like to toss at my writing students from time to time, too:

Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.

So I do the work. I write, and most of the time, I am really grateful that I have the luxury of doing what I love. While all that is true—there still come times when I begin to resent it. I shouldn’t, I know. It’s the work I WANT to be doing. I CHOSE this, but that doesn’t magically make it less hard.

I remind myself that it’s option 1—do the work, or option 2—don’t. Go get a desk job and figure out how to be a grown up. Every once in while, though, I allow myself option 3.

Option 3 generally emerges in a sort of late-night “Hold my beer. Now watch this…” kind of foolish writing haze. The plot has been planned out neatly. My editors have approved my outlines. I have the work laid out in front of me… and the click of the keys gradually slows down. And  then it stops. And I want to set my laptop on fire just to see colors again.

And then, suddenly… BAM. That other part of my brain kicks in—the part that decided I was going to write about a magical detective in the first place, instead of growing up and learning how to use Excel—and that part decides it’s had enough. “F* it,” my brain says. “Zombies. What if there were zombies in this scene? Wouldn’t that be so much cooler than dialogue? No, wait. UNICORNS! Yes! Let’s freakin’ DO this!”And then, suddenly, the keys are clicking again.

The zombies and unicorns don’t always make it to the final draft. Sometimes that part of my brain is an idiot, lets be honest—but every once in a while it does help me find the thing that was missing from the page—the thing that made me start writing in the first place: fun. Those passages are frequently my very favorite parts of my books, and they are definitely my favorite part of writing.

So my advice: do the damn work. Don’t give up on the dream. But remember: it’s okay to have fun, too.

f_it_Zombies

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Lady Science!

There are a lot of things that I can’t believe are still things in the 21st century. The KKK. Homophobia. Tab cola. Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the gender gap, another inexplicable thing that’s still a thing. You know the one—it’s that thing where 50% of the population are so poorly represented that they qualify as a minority. I’ve been thinking about the gender gap in the sciences in particular.

The fact is, women may have long since won the rights to vote, to have careers, and to wear stylish yet functional bedazzled pants, but men still hold 70% of all careers in science and engineering. White men alone hold the majority of these positions, but men of every demographic outnumber women of the same category. All women of color combined barely add up to a tenth of the total professional scientific population.

Graph

In my novels, I write about a young woman living a century ago with a background in science. While writing, I constantly need to remind myself that it wasn’t the norm. It comes far too naturally to me to envision scientifically-minded women. I’ve learned plenty about Ada Lovelace and Florence Nightingale and Irene Curie, but more than that, my own grandmother, Mary Campbell, practically wrote the book on Medical Mycology. In fact… she DID write the book, and if you studied medical mycology at university, chances are it was on your required reading list. Incidentally, if you studied Medical Mycology at university, you are probably also doing more important things with your life than writing novels that feature a magical detective. Good for you.

MedMycMary

My family is full of female professors, nurses, veterinarians, computer analysts, and research scientists; when I was growing up, I couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a smart woman. I know. I tried. My sisters tattled and I got grounded for it. It continues to shock me, therefore, that the image of a woman as an intelligent professional is a concept that needs normalizing.

The trouble is ingrained in our culture. Women are encouraged to be supporters while men are pushed to be competitive. If that’s not blatant enough, loads of brilliant successful women have been actively cheated out of their notoriety by male colleagues.

3 Women Scientists Whose Discoveries Were Credited to Men

6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism

8 Inventions by Women that Dudes got Credit For

ScienceLady.jpg

“Who cares?” one might argue. “Those men probably stole credit from other men, too, that’s just the cutthroat nature of the field.” But when there are so few women in the field to begin with, each overlooked achievement represents a greater loss.

The problem with the erasure of women is that as a result, countless women just don’t get to see a future for themselves in the sciences in the same ways men do, and that matters. With good role models, possibilities blossom, and limitations drop away. Without any, invisible walls grow and self-doubt takes hold.

A few years back, my sister followed in the footsteps of Medical Mycology Mary and co-authored a book called THE ULTIMATE GIRLS’ GUIDE TO SCIENCE.

Girls Guide Science

Her role models mattered to her, and in turn she has became that role model through books and camps that she helps run for kids. Her latest project is the culmination of years of research that is both practical and awesome and involves fire… and also happens to be literally rocket science. Her Kickstarter for the ROCKET MASS HEATER GUIDE has just a few days left if you want to support an awesome woman in science RIGHT NOW, by the way, although she has already doubled her goal because the concept is just so damn cool!

Erica

Women are a part of the scientific community. They just are. Awesome though their accomplishments might be, the fact that they exist should be the most boring thing in the world. Sadly, it’s STILL an anomaly in the 21st century for a woman to be seen as a scientist. I don’t want writers of historical fiction a hundred years from now to look back at 2016 and find themselves astonished at how unusual it was for women in our time to be recognized for their contributions.

So, let’s share a little recognition right now—who are your favorite female faces in the field of science and engineering?

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I Know What He Wants.

Okay. So, we watched STAR WARS: The Force Awakens before bed.

Yes, the Chewbacca and BB-8 plushies are adorable, but focus! This post isn’t about that!

Last night, my ten-year-old sat bolt upright from a dead sleep. “I KNOW WHAT HE WANTS!” He yelled, eyes wide, panting.

“What?!” I said. “Who?”

“I know,” he repeated more quietly, but with fervor, “what he wants.”

“Are you still asleep?” I asked. “What WHO wants?”

His eyes, still wild but already closing under heavy lids, finally found me in the chair across from his bed. “Luke Skywalker.”

He was asleep again before I thought to follow up with the next obvious question. It ate away at me for several long minutes as he began breathing evenly again. I could not imagine that any prophet had ever had more conviction in his voice than my son had just demonstrated in his Star Wars fueled dream-revelation. I needed to know. What DID Luke Skywalker want? I seriously considered waking him up.

I was about to leave when he woke again with a cough. I hurried over to his bed.

“You awake?” I said. “I have a very important question.”

“Hm?” His eyes were mostly open.

“What,” I said earnestly “does Luke Skywalker want?”

“Oh,” he mumbled. “Um… Peace.”

* * *

Okay, so I understand that perhaps I was stupid tired, and I had just watched Force Awakens not an hour before, but THAT FELT LIKE SOME PROFOUND SH**.

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For the Book Pushers

(This post is modified slightly from a speech I had the privilege of delivering to my fellow book-pushers in the Pacific Northwest.)

My name is William Ritter. I write books, I teach high school, I raise kids, and I worry.

Mostly I worry.

As a FATHER, I worry that my own kids—kids who love reading and discovery—will be dulled by school instead of inspired by it. I worry that they will start to see reading as work and discovery as a chore. It’s hard for me to watch them go into a place where I can’t hover around them like a helicopter. I can’t remind them to be good or shield them from pain. I want to slip little cheesy inspirational notes into their backpacks. Make good choices! You can do it! Be kind! Be yourself!

Pusher_Backpack

As a TEACHER, I worry about my students. I worry every time I ask “What stories did grown-ups read to you when you were little?” because every year one or two students simply cannot answer because their parents never read to them. Their parents never read. The only reading material in their house is the back of a cereal box. These are the kids who struggle most—not only in reading, but in math, science, and social studies.

As a WRITER, I worry that what I do doesn’t matter. I worry that my YA novels are frivolous “genre fiction.” When I first signed with Algonquin Young Readers, I realized the list of books they would be publishing alongside mine were meaningful stories about war and persecution, about racism and homophobia, about overcoming loss and confronting mortality. My novel, on the other hand, was a fanciful tale about a magical detective. I worried that I was fluff in a world that needs substance.

But what I do matters. What we do matters. Books matter.

Truth time. By third grade, literacy scores have a direct correlation with high school graduation rates. Readers see more success than non-readers. Raising readers matters. If teachers do nothing more than promote a passion for reading, they achieve infinitely more good than drill-and-kill literacy lessons and high stakes tests. Students who read for pleasure see even greater success—and as it happens, readers like reading books that they LIKE. Who knew? What’s more, studies have repeatedly shown that reading fiction—yes frivolous genre fiction even more than serious non-fiction—increases empathy. In a world so full of greed and fear and hate, we need empathy. We need readers.

So I try my hardest to help books reach kids. I push books.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing from a student in my care that our class novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, was the first book he had ever read.

“What?” I said. “No, you read a novel last year with Mrs. Walloch.”

“No,” he said. “The class read a novel. I never read a single chapter.”

“Well,” I said. “Congratulations. How do you feel about reading a novel?”

He looked thoughtful for a moment. “I want to read another one.”

BAM.

There it was. I felt the instant self-satisfied pride that I imagine is usually reserved for really talented drug-dealers.

It was awesome.

Pusher_tkam

I taught an ESL class the next year. There were some great kids in that group, including a tricky pair of boys who had not only never read a book, but who took real pride in being non-readers. I went on and on about how that was like a toddler taking pride in never learning how to walk—I told them they’re limiting themselves! None of it got through. So instead of lecturing, I pushed a book across the desk at S.S.R. time. Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time-Indian. I pretended not to notice when the student reached the naughty bit in the first chapter and shared it with his friend. I knew I had him when I caught him reading during break. He finished that book and then told his friend that he HAD to read it next, because “it’s actually GOOD.” That book was later stolen from my room. The thief copped to taking it because it was “the first book that got me, ya know?” I let him keep it. He needed that book more than I did.

That’s how you get ‘em. The first one’s free, kid. Come back for more when ya start jonesing. Soon you’ll be forking over money to a stranger in a dark alley for Ray Bradbury, the Bronte sisters, maybe a heavy dose of William Shakespeare. I have become an unabashed pusher.

PUSHER_ATD

I pushed If You Could Be Mine on a self-conscious, self-critical, self-described “loner” from a conservative family. She read it twice in one night. She was changed. That summer she corresponded with the author, Sara Farizan, and gained the confidence to come out for the first time to her parents. She took over as president of the school’s GSA and as a peer mentor. She has become outspoken, bold, and brighter.

I did more good for all of those students by pushing books across their desks than I did in all of my lesson-planning and teaching. Pushing books matters.

PUSHER_iycbm

I can’t tuck cheesy little inspirational notes into every single backpack, so I tuck them into the books I write, instead. Make good choices! You can do it! Be kind! Be yourself! It helps me worry a little bit less. It helps me remember that what I do matters, too.

When you suggest a good book, post about one on a blog, push one across a desk, or read one to your kids—it matters. Push books. My students need those books. My sons need those books. The world needs those readers.

To all my fellow book-pushers out there, what you do matters. With each push you make a difference, you make a brighter world, you make a reader. Keep pushing.

Pusher_Book

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K—

“What will you do with your life?” I asked my sophomores. “You’re the hero of the story. You can be anyone. Do anything. Who will you be?”

K—‘s turn. “A trophy wife,” she said. Proudly. Defiantly.

I might have cried. I worried about K—.

I worried about what all those beauty pageants had done. I worried when I learned what he had done. I worried when they made her relive it all in the trial. I worried.

Years passed. I worried more. With each year, I found new students to worry about. I worried about so many girls growing up aspiring to be worthy little objects. I taught lessons. I graded essays. I worried more and more.

“What will the moral of your story be?” I asked my senior class last week. “What will future generations learn from the tale of you?”

K—‘s turn. Chin up. “Be your own trophy wife,” she said. Proudly. Defiantly.

I might have cried. I worried less.

K—

 

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