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Reading Outside of Your Lane

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Once upon a time, I was workshopping a new novel. It was my usual sort of thing—transgender historical fiction—only this time I’d gone heavy in the slang department. I’d spent months researching the language of the era and had painstakingly placed the introduction of each unfamiliar word with context clues. I didn’t pause the story to directly explain any of the slang or trans-specific references, worried it would ruin what I hoped was a runaway-train effect to the plot. I also wanted to approach the story the same way as my protagonist: putting our community first and automatically approaching the reader as one of our own. I wanted to preserve a piece of history and make a point at the same time. I wanted to invite outsiders in without catering to them.

Despite a few words here and there that turned out could’ve used some more context clues, my workshopping peers, all of whom were cisgender, were largely quiet about the piece in its entirety and provided little feedback. One person, however, was insistent I wash the language clean and start over.

“Not writing with your audience in mind is selfish,” they’d said. “You should be writing this so that anybody picking up this book can understand these people.” I spent more minutes than I should have trying to help them break down what I felt were some loaded statements, but ultimately explained how it was impossible for me to write the story where any cis person could understand it—even those lacking a minimal understand of trans people—and still be able to tell the story I actually wanted to tell. “Then you’re a bad writer,” was the verbatim response.

No stranger to constructive criticism, I nonetheless left class that day more frustrated and exhausted than I’d ever felt after a workshop. I’d not only lost the majority of my workshop time on the needs of a single individual who wasn’t even my intended audience, but the experience exacerbated the doubt I carried not only for this particular novel, but for myself as a writer. (For more discussion and dissection of situations like these, I highly recommend Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World.)

Among other subjects these days, I instruct various courses about writing outside of one’s lane. But I’ve since realized that the writing world has yet to properly approach conversations about reading outside of one’s lane. While we as writers have begun to embrace writing in voices that aren’t our own, we seem to have yet to learn how to listen to the very people we’re trying to emulate.

Just like writing outside of your lane, reading outside of your lane can strengthen your writing skills and your awareness of the world. But it can also have some challenges for people new to the practice. With traditional publishers beginning to consider more diverse and marginalized writers, if you haven’t yet come across a “non-traditional” book, you likely will in the future. And when that day comes, hopefully the below guidance will help you better understand how to see its beauty. Not only may this guidance strengthen the abilities of “traditional” writers to properly critique a future “non-traditional” workshop partner, but may also help “non-traditional” writers guide readers for their own work.

It may require an open mind. If Beyoncé has taught the mainstream anything, it’s that sometimes material is made for someone else. Novels written by writers outside of your lane may include content you’re unfamiliar with—such as slang, non-English words, or various cultural contexts—or be presented in ways that you’re not used to. While we don’t have the time to break it all down here, the way you’re familiar with stories being told is not always the way other people have lived their lives. The standard 3-act structure can be quite limiting at times. As such, in order to tell stories that don’t share such a particular type of existence or identity, people have written in spirals, fractures, braids, modulations, and countless other ways.

These approaches may be startling or confusing to you at first, which could create knee-jerk feelings of frustration, resentment, and even anger. Who are we, trying to make your pleasurable reading time so hard? But please know that we’re not doing it to make you mad; we’re doing it to tell our stories as authentically as we can.

It may require some extra effort. The contextual information is usually in there…if you keep a sharp eye. Many marginalized writers know that traditional publishing often requires we still make our stories accessible to a mainstream audience. To do that, we usually put in small extra details or context clues to help you figure out what a certain food looks like or what that word means or why that person just did what they did. Sometimes you might miss it. Sometimes the moment might indeed require a basic knowledge of the thing in question. But even if you can’t catch the full richness of the nuance, you’re often still able to figure out the broader context of the moment. I often think about the mahjong scene from the movie adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians. If Westerners are unfamiliar with the rules and symbols of mahjong, we might miss the intricate details of the moment and their powerful impact; the deeper meaning, as it were. But we’re still able to follow the overall story of what’s going on. We haven’t been shut out. We just have less knowledge about a given world than the people who live in it, and we’re the ones ultimately in charge of what we do and don’t learn.

It may require some extra time. Non-traditional storytelling, especially if it’s a new experience to you, may require you to sit with it after you’ve finished, continuing to process and absorb it, sometimes for days. It may be helpful to ask yourself some questions: Which parts of the book may have symbolized what? In what ways did the story go the way you expected it would and in what ways did it not? Why do you think this is? If you feel disappointed or unsatisfied by the novel, what were you expecting and where are those expectations coming from? If anything about the novel confused you, have you considered researching those parts to further understand the context and potentially bring yourself to a deeper meaning? Was it a weak novel or simply not the novel for you? It may be even more helpful to discuss these questions with someone else who’s recently read that book.

If a book seems too far out of your current understanding about that community, it might be best to put it aside for now, educate yourself about the confusion in question, and then return to the book. If it still isn’t quite at your speed, then try some other books written by that identity. Some will indeed be presented in a more mainstream or introductory way in order to help you understand, and then you can come back to the original book in question.

Not all marginalized-based media can be produced and presented with the mainstream in mind. If everything outside of the mainstream must stay at the introductory level or exist only as a form of educating outsiders, then we’re never going to move on to deeper levels of understanding one another. In so many words, it’s the difference between “teach me” and “I’d like to understand you better.” One still focuses on you, the other focuses on what you’re trying to learn.

It may require you to reflect upon yourself. It can be jarring to learn that you may not know as much as you thought about the world, find out your viewpoints may not be as accurate as you’d always believed, or realize there are whole worlds, communities, and experiences that you never even knew existed. You may find yourself slowing down as you read, stopping to reflect upon yourself, your own journey, and the thoughts you’ve evolved throughout your life. Don’t be scared of these moments. They can help expand your mind and help you grow as a person. Don’t stop reading such books if these moments happen; instead, read even more of them.

The opportunity to read outside of your lane is a gift. While select media isn’t created for you, we’re optimistic that you have the patience, open-mindedness, and eagerness to still be able to follow our stories. Some outside readers even deliberately seek out these different works to help expand their awareness of literature and of the world. I’ve known many people who have dedicated a full year to only reading marginalized work by marginalized writers. And while marginalized work in no way guarantees it will be told in a non-mainstream way, there’s usually still something quite authentic about the work that you may not have found otherwise. Those I know who stuck with the dedicated year all said they emerged different people for the better.

Even if you only choose to do it every once in a while, there’s nourishment in reading outside of your lane. Imagine everything you could learn by experiencing something not catered to what you already know.

On its maiden voyage of queries years later, I sent out my slang-laden novel to eight agents, received seven requests for the full, and landed three offers of representation within a single whirlwind of a week. It also secured me spots with Tin House, Lambda Literary, Pitch Wars, and Monson Arts. While I’d long since edited the book extensively to make it stronger after its earliest workshopping days, the heavy use of cultural language, references, and context—and my approaches toward them—hadn’t budged. After all of my anxiety and second-guessing of not only the book but of my abilities as a writer at large, I’m grateful I stuck with my instincts and kept the language of my novel intact. It turned out to be one of its biggest draws.

Do you have any experiences reading a novel that was different structurally or contextually than what you’d read in the past? What were your initial responses or thoughts toward that novel? If you finished it, how did you feel after you took some time to absorb and process it? Did your thoughts or feelings change? Why or why not?


About Milo Todd

Milo Todd (he/him) is a writer, editor, and educator. His fiction focuses on trans and queer history, with additional works on the trans experience and the trans body. Milo is a Lambda Literary Fellow, a Pitch Wars Mentee, a Tin House alum, a Novel Incubator graduate, a Monson Arts resident, and has served on numerous literary committees and organizations, including guest editor for Foglifter Journal. He is a speaker on writing, inclusion, and the queer and trans experience, and has presented at the Boston Book Festival, The Muse & The Marketplace, and several Boston-based universities. He curates Writing Beyond Binaries, a panel series celebrating trans and non-binary writers’ experiences in various stages of their careers. Milo consults on fiction manuscripts and transgender inclusion in the classroom. He is an instructor at GrubStreet, where he teaches courses on fiction, the novel, and trans and non-binary representation in literature.


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