#88: “My Anti-Queer Cousin Offered to Beta Read My Lesbian Novel”

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

My cousin went through an unusual change during college. Rather than becoming a liberal, fire-breathing, intersectional feminist, she turned to evangelical Christianity and takes heteronormative roles very seriously. It saddens me as a feminist and a bisexual woman that she believes what she does. But she seems very happy in her marriage and life, so I’m not going to say anything.

But.

She’s offered to beta-read my novel. I’m happy that she wants to, free feedback is valuable, but my novel centers around a lesbian. I’m worried that at best, she’ll tell me to tone down the gay stuff (don’t worry, there’s no way in hell am I going to do that) and at worst, she’ll reject me and I’ll be blamed for the ensuing family drama. I don’t see this ending well and I don’t know what to do.

Yours,

Worried Author (she/her)

Dear Worried Author,

It sounds to me like there are a couple of options here that could save you both a lot of stress:

  1. Turn her down. “Thanks for your offer, but I’m all set for beta readers.” If she pushes you, repeat yourself: “I really appreciate that, but I’m all set.”
  2. Tell her that your book is about a lesbian and that you’re not open to any feedback regarding the book’s queer content. Then ask whether she still wants to beta read it, reassuring her that it’s fine to say no.

Free beta reading doesn’t mean beta reading without boundaries. You get to decide who sees your book in this draft stage, when you and the story are both very vulnerable. If this cousin isn’t someone whose opinion you want or need right now, then it’s perfectly fine to decline her offer and put your time and energy into finding other beta readers who are a better fit.

Similarly, she should have the opportunity to repeat or retract the offer once you give her more information. Any beta reader should know what type of book they’re signing up to read, just as a reader picking up your book in a bookstore or online will read the blurb and look at the cover art and check the reviews to see whether it’s something they’re likely to be into. (Presumably you’d also warn your cousin if the book was in a genre she doesn’t usually like, contained explicit violence or sex, or had content she was likely to find upsetting for whatever reason.) If you don’t want to turn down your cousin’s offer, describe the book to her so she has the opportunity to give, or withhold, informed consent. Maybe she’ll surprise you and say she’s totally fine with reading a book with a lesbian protagonist. Maybe she’ll be relieved to have the chance to back out. Either way, it’s a better approach than emailing her your manuscript cold and then hiding from your email and all family reunions for the next hundred years.

If you feel awkward saying “My heroine is a lesbian, is that cool with you?”, that’s a good reason to go back to option one and turn down her offer, since her learning that the heroine is a lesbian by reading the manuscript will undoubtedly be even more awkward. You know she’s not a fan of queer people, and she knows you know. She would be quite right to be upset with you for not giving her advance notice of queer content in your book. She doesn’t get to judge you for what you choose to write, but providing her with relevant information is about navigating the beta reading relationship, not about whether there’s anything wrong with writing a queer protagonist.

It’s not clear to me whether your cousin knows you’re bisexual, but I’m guessing not, since you mention being concerned that she will reject not just your book but you. If that’s the case, telling your cousin that your book has a lesbian protagonist may feel tantamount to coming out to her—or she may assume you’re coming out to her even if you’re very clear that you’re talking about a fictional character. If that sounds like the road to mutual misery and possible schisms, turning her down is your best choice. She may be sad or confused, but better a small sadness than a lot of drama. Coming out to her should be a thing you choose to do in your own way and your own time, and ideally without ambiguity or confusion about what you’re trying to tell her.

If you do send the manuscript to her and she writes back with anti-queer comments, you can always reject her critique. You don’t need to tell her anything other than “Thanks, I’ll think about what you said” (a handy phrase borrowed from the mighty Captain Awkward) and then think about it just enough to consign it to the circular file. Or you can get into a fight with her over it, if that’s what feels morally necessary to you, but remember that that’s one option among many.

The best beta reader for your book is one who’s primed to love it, and who can work with you to make it the best possible book on its own terms. If you think your cousin can be that reader, make sure by giving her more info up front. If you don’t think she can, or if you want to minimize your risk, turn her down and move on. What’s important is that you do the best thing for yourself and your work.

Good luck! I hope you come out of this one way or another with a few good beta readers and lots of critique that’s useful and supportive and gets you raring to revise.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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#73: Counteracting Envy of Other People’s Success

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m an unpublished novelist with a number of first drafts and one that is much closer to the endpoint of the process (like, a couple of revisions from done). I’ve been writing for a long time and feel that I’m getting to the stage where I might even be able to get published, but after years of writing privately without any kind of reassurance that my work is worthwhile, I’m really struggling to keep my anxieties from drowning me.

The thing I’m struggling with right now is professional jealousy of my friends—a couple of them have contracts and while I’m pretty good at stopping it from affecting my face-to-face friendship with them, I’ve had to mute their Facebook feeds and I am plagued by feelings that I have failed where they have succeeded. I acknowledge that this is definitely amplified by other life circumstances—SAD and work stress are adding to it—but unfortunately when I’m already having mental health problems, these thought processes are spiralling more and more.

The usual advice I’ve read is that my success isn’t impacted by that of my friends and they’re doing something completely different to me, so it shouldn’t affect me—to just put these thoughts aside and get on with the work. But creative work requires passion and a degree of blind faith that what I’m doing has value, and while I can dismiss these thoughts ten times a day, the eleventh time will still grind me down and cause me to obsess over my failure. That in turn affects my confidence in pushing on with my work.

The parts of writing that have always been hardest for me are consistency of enthusiasm and self-belief, and both of these are taking a fairly hefty hit from these upsetting thoughts right now. On top of that, much as I don’t want my relationship with my friends to suffer, any successes of theirs, even ones that are only tenuously related but indicate that they’re respected as professionals in their field, are causing me to feel resentful and leave the conversation. Since I care about them and want to be supportive, this is proving really tough. I never want to make them feel bad for their success (which is why I don’t want to talk to them about it), but when hearing about it messes with my brain, it’s difficult to maintain those friendships. I feel like I’m so close to success but just falling short, and yet they’re light years ahead.

Your previous posts have been really helpful in understanding why I feel the way I do about my work in the past, so I’m hoping you have some thoughts on this.

—Hopeful (she/her)

Dear Hopeful,

Jealousy is a beast, isn’t it? It’s one of the hardest emotions to handle, along with guilt and grief. And it sounds like you’re maybe feeling some of those things too: grief over the career you don’t have, guilt over your perceived failings.

The idea that you shouldn’t be affected by your friends’ successes is absolute nonsense. If you were thrilled for them and cheering them on, no one would tell you, “Whoa, slow down there—you shouldn’t be so happy! Their success has nothing to do with you!” We all understand that having feelings about what’s happening in our friends’ lives is perfectly normal. But when those feelings aren’t positive, they become less socially acceptable, and then you have another guilt burden laid atop the rest of the things you’re feeling. So let me relieve you of that burden: there’s nothing morally wrong with being envious of people who have things you want, and you’re not a bad person for feeling that way.

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#56: Showing, Telling, and Tension in Romance

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m doing Camp NaNo this month with a goal of 30K words which translate to about a thousand words a day. I’m writing a romance novel, but the problem is I’m having a hard time developing romantic tension. I’ve thrown my heroes in a perilous situation, so right now I’m filling the word count with them planning on their next move, and worrying about the situation back home. How do I develop the romantic angle when they have moments to breathe and aren’t running from danger?

To add a layer of complexity, Hero B has been badly burned in the past and is in denial about his growing feelings for Hero A because he doesn’t want to get hurt. How do I show rather than tell that?

Finally, do you know of any good examples of this romantic tension building that I can be inspired by?

Thank you for all you do!

—Hopefully Romantic (she/her)

Dear Hopefully Romantic,

I’m sorry I didn’t get to this letter during Camp NaNo, and I hope you found your way through and made your goal! But romantic tension is one of those things that’s often better managed during revisions, because it’s all about pacing, so I think this advice will still be relevant to you.

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#51: Writing Polyamorous Relationships, Part Two

Dear Story Nurse,

I’d love to see a follow up post to the last polyam one, one that was more in depth about the craft of writing individuals and meet cutes with non-monogamy in a way that doesn’t put the reader off or have them assuming there is cheating involved, aimed more towards people who didn’t need the poly101 as well.

—nicolefieldwrites (they/them)

Dear nicolefieldwrites,

What a lovely request! I’m happy to oblige. You’re right that my last post was very 101, and there’s much more to writing polyamorous relationships and people than merely avoiding clichés.

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