When I finished writing my first novel, I was ambivalent — should I put it up as an indie book, or try to find an agent and publisher? I liked the autonomy of self-publishing, but the validation of an established literary endorsement was undeniable. So I sent the manuscript to a few people, who passed on it. Then I struck gold: someone in the publishing world was interested. I had not sent a formal query, and our connection was tenuous at best, along the lines of a-friend-of-a cousin-of-an-acquaintance. Still, he had taken a look at my novel, and thought the book had “great potential”. He would, however, require “just one change”.
Just one change? No problem.
I wrote the book in reaction to seeing gay boys bullied in high school. As terrible as the bullying was, the indifference of most students was just as upsetting. At fifteen years old, I knew I’d write about it some day.
The novel tracks a group of friends through one year of high school. As I wrote, I wanted several characters to begin with different brands of homophobia – some subtle, some overt, some violent. I wanted to model many paths to acceptance — some extremely rocky and some relatively smooth. I decided that the story would hold two key LGBT characters – one lesbian girl and one gay boy, both in high school.
I chose to make the girl’s character easy for readers to identify with. She would defy every stereotype, and readers would like her for several chapters before finding out she was gay. Her family’s struggle would model how fine people can make hurtful mistakes, and then get back on a supportive track, stronger than before.
I decided to portray the gay boy from a different angle. I wanted to challenge readers, to paint this boy in a way that was tougher to identify with. My goal was to get my readers behind that character, guiding them to like him and by the end, to respect and admire him. On the surface, he looks like a stereotype, which sets him up as a target for other characters in the story. But as the reader gets to know him, he shatters one stereotype after another.
When I finished the manuscript and received that glimmer of interest from the publishing world, I was extremely ready to make “just one change”. Our email exchange took place toward the end of the gargantuan success of the Twilight movies, and our messages were zooming back and forth with growing enthusiasm. Then he revealed the “just one change”: instead of coming out as a lesbian, my character needed to “come out as a vampire”.
My first thought was that he was joking. (I was wrong.) My second thought was that this would be a great dinner-party-story. (I was right.) My third thought was narcissistic outrage – how rude to boil my writing down to a cost-benefit analysis, to conclude that a key-character-vampire was a better financial bet than a key-character-lesbian. (Get over it; cost-benefit analysis is his job.) My fourth thought was healthy outrage: does this person view himself as respectful of LGBTQIA issues? (I’ll never know.)
I sent a polite message, thanking him for his interest, explaining that I’d take my chances as an indie author and stand by my character — my entirely and imperfectly human character. My writing crosses gay/straight lines, not human/vampire lines.
Did I miss an opportunity when I chose to stick by my original character? Yeah, possibly.
Am I okay with that? Yeah, definitely.
Novels by Amy Kaufman Burk
Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable
Caroline Black, 15 years old, leaves her college prep academy for the local public high school, which opens her world. Written in reaction to witnessing gay students bullied in high school.
Caroline Black, now a rookie psychology intern, goes through one year of training, working with her first patient – a young man who is stormy, seductive, brilliant and troubled. Written in support of healthy sex and sexuality, in support of same-sex parents, and as a voice against the stigma of therapy.