In this month's #UKRomChat Column, our PHS Partner introduces us to new team member, Lucy Flatman and Jeanna L. Skinner talks about sensitivity readers.
Hello Possums! We have grown! We are a selection of desserts, a collection of musketeers, the lead characters in This Is Us. That’s right, we are now a group of three. As promised, Lucy Flatman has come to say hello and Jeanna L. Skinner discusses a topic we’re passionate about: sensitivity readers.
Lucy Flatman - Lucy Loves #UKRomChat
I was a massive fan of #UKRomChat from day one. It’s a warm, positive and fun group, that’s quickly become the highlight of my Mondays. Aimed at romance writers of all genres, experience and background, it offers tips, tricks and networking opportunities. I’ve already learnt so much, made great friends, and found brilliant new reads through it. I love it!
So, I was really chuffed and excited when Eilidh and Jeanna welcomed me onto the team!
I consider myself a newbie on my writing journey. I started my first novel in 2016 during my son’s nap times, it wasn’t very good, but completing it lit a fire within me to improve my craft. Because it is a craft, writing is about shaping our raw talent and molding it into something beautiful, and even though writing is a solitary activity, learning about it doesn’t have to be. Twitter has been a constant source of encouragement, inspiration and companionship for me, and I’m so grateful for all it’s given me. My poor grammar and spelling have always put me off giving creative writing a ‘serious’ go. But since having my kids, I just thought ‘sod it, what’s the harm in trying?’
I love reading and writing science fiction romance, both my first two novels are in this genre. But I also have a soft spot for historical, fantasy and funny contemporary romances, too. I’m always chatting about writing romance, and trying new techniques, so feel free to follow me on Twitter and check out my blog. I’d also like to give a shout out to #RomInAFlash our @UKRomChat flash fiction competition. If you’re a newbie like me or even a seasoned veteran, I urge you to give it a go. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt since the start of this journey, it’s this, you’re capable of more than you think you are, so give it a go. What’s the harm in trying?
Jeanna L. Skinner - Sense and Sensitivity
Sensitivity reading is fast becoming ever-more important in the rapidly changing publishing industry. If you’ve not heard of sensitivity reading, here’s a quick précis:
A sensitivity reader is someone who is hired to read and assess a manuscript with a specific issue of representation in mind, one that they have personal experience of. If the author isn’t from that marginalized group, or doesn’t have direct experience of the topic they’re writing about, it’s good practice to hire a sensitivity reader to assess that book.
Here at @UKRomChat we’ve been very vocal about our support for campaigns such as #ownvoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks and we champion ALL writers of romance. Just today, I read this hugely important and timely article, Don’t dip your pen in someone else’s blood: writers and ‘the other’ by author Kit de Waal in The Irish Times about the importance of writing with care and sensitivity and avoiding cultural appropriation.
We asked author and sensitivity reader, Elisa Winther to be our chat guest back in January, and we were so happy when she agreed. You can catch up with her chat here.
How can a sensitivity reader help you?
A sensitivity reader is worth investing in because they can help eliminate stereotypes, bias, potentially harmful content, and false information or inaccuracy.
Elisa says, “In short, sensitivity readers help detect red flags in terms of how marginalized characters are portrayed in your fiction, and how to fix problematic representation and story concepts. Harmful representation adds to existing stigma, spreads painful tropes and stereotypes like truths, and denies marginalized people the many benefits of being well-represented in media.”
The reader’s role is to improve the book by guiding it towards better representation, educating the author/publisher along the way. Diversity in books is incredibly important, but it’s equally important that, in the push for better representation, books portray whatever they’re writing about accurately and without perpetuating stereotypes.
Aside from improving a book, sensitivity readers are vital in starting conversations between marginalized groups and people from outside of that sphere or demographic.
It's also important to remember that no two people will have the same viewpoint, so an author writing with their own experience in mind might still look for a sensitivity reader to ensure non-harmful representation.
What does a sensitivity reader cover?
A sensitivity reader might specialize in one area, or multiple subjects, depending on their identity and experiences. Sensitivity reading can cover a broad range of topics, which can include (but are not limited to) ethnicity and race, sexuality, gender, physical and mental health, disability, and class.
“I’ve been consulting for 5 years on writing black and biracial characters,” says Elisa, “throughout the years expanding my consulting to include asexual, pi/pan, genderquestioning, agender, autistic, depression, and AD(H)D.”
How to make sensitivity reading work for you.
It’s important to do your due diligence and research your sensitivity reader thoroughly to ensure you get the right person for your work. Sensitivity readings vary widely in the amount of feedback given for a number of reasons such as the level of critique you require and budget.
A sensitivity reader won’t demand you make changes to your manuscript – their role is to offer advice and guidance. Ultimately, it is the author and/or publishers who make the final decisions. If you’re thinking about hiring a sensitivity reader, or your publisher is hiring one, it’s important you go into the process with an open mind, that you’re willing to listen and take on board what your reader says. They can’t be held accountable if you fail to listen, or if you have a combative attitude.
Summing up on sensitivity reading.
Back in January, we asked Elisa what her advice would be for a writer who perhaps was thinking that they should avoid adding more diversity to their writing, for fear of getting it wrong. This is what she had to say:
“Very good and I feel important question. It's okay to feel scared, but don't let that hold you back. I'd say, hire a sensitivity reader, ask the right beta-readers, read #ownvoices books, do your research, and I know it's scary to make mistakes, but we all do. And that's okay. As long as we don't write stories that aren't ours to tell, and we can own up to our mistakes, learn, so we have a better go at it the next time.”
Regulars to #UKRomChat will know that we always end with our Magical Question Number 10:
“What is the best thing about writing HEAs/romance?”
We look forward to this question most, as it always throws up a wonderfully diverse range of answers from our guests, and Elisa's reply was no exception.
“I love HEA/HFN because they are awesome in general! But also because marginalized characters are often excluded from having those. We get tragedy and inspiration porn. We are villains, the best friend, the sidekick. We deserve happy stories and love too.”
To this I say extremely loudly for those at the back and with absolutely zero sensitivity:
Hear bloody hear!
April at @UKRomChat
Our first guest of the month was the PHS’ very own Holly March. Holly told us about finding her feet as a writer through completing Medieval romances, and about her #ownvoices iron age fairy tale adaptations about people who think like her. They feature shapeshifters and they sound *awesome!* The chat fell on the first day of Autism Awareness Month and Holly shared with us how autism impacts on her writing. She recommended the #ActuallyAutistic hashtag for writers looking to educate themselves about autism and explained that there are many variations of autism but autistic people all get stuck together. We also chatted about Holly’s role as PHS Assistant Editor (Content), how the PHS promotes diversity, her Podcast about worldbuilding From The World Up and about how romance novels bring her joy and happiness. Holly received many genuine thanks for her honest, interesting and helpful answers.
The following week we welcomed RONA-nominated Mills & Boon/ Harlequin author and PHS Columnist, Virginia Heath, with Lucy hosting for the first time as a full @UKRomChat Team Member. Go Lucy! Virginia is the author of the King’s Elite Series, including her newest title, The Disgraceful Lord Gray. We talked historical rom coms, spies, sexual tension and people-watching. Virginia graciously shared heaps of ace writing tips, covering meet cutes, building characters, creating a historical feel, writing routines and targets, and pantsing. Her most popular advice was to give historical heroines agency and to remember that no matter the time period, people are just people. And she shared a Jamie from Outlander GIF, amongst many others, so obviously we love her forever.
Next up was Kim Nash, Bookouture Publicity Manager ('BEST! JOB! EVER!') and blogger who joined us to talk about her debut novel from Hera Books feel good romantic comedy Amazing Grace. Plus being on the other ‘side of the fence.’ Kim told us about taking inspiration from her late mum, to whom her book is dedicated, her friends and a memorable tree surgeon. Her GIF game was top drawer. And her hero inspirations! Be still our beating hearts! We loved how funny and friendly Kim was and appreciated her top tips like being yourself and not overcommitting re starting a blog; and skipping soaps and planning re making time. She also killed it with her advice on how to write a review of a book you love: “talk about how it makes you feel.” The chat was fun and warm, like a hug.
Next, on a glorious Bank Holiday Monday, we had not one but two author guests; writing partners Catherine Curzon and Eleanor Harkstead. Historians Catherine and Eleanor have been writing fiction together for two years. In Eleanor’s words. their popular mm romance series The Captivating Captains ‘crosses genres and eras to tell stand alone stories featuring… some captivating captains.’ Cue Captain America GIFs. Everyone fell in love with the description of their new book, The Ghost Garden, a paranormal historical romance from Totally Bound, as well as with its gorgeous cover. Raf, the unique hero, had hearts fluttering. Catherine and Eleanor gave us a fascinating insight into how they go about planning, writing and editing. We also chatted about beverages of choice, graveyards and Mr Wickham. You really should check out Gin & Gentlemen, their podcast.
As I write, we are looking forward to the last chat of the month, and it’s a special one for us. Our good friend Kiley Dunbar will be joining us to talk about her debut novel One Summer's Night. This uplifting feel-good romance from Hera Books is out now. Kiley is an English Literature lecturer which may explain her heroine Kelsey’s love of Shakespeare. Kelsey is fond of actors too! We'll also be asking Kiley about the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s New Writers' Scheme, of which she is a graduate. We’re so proud of her!
Join us in June’s issue when we’ll be telling you what goes on behind the scenes to make @UKRomChat happen each week!
You can find the #UKRomChat team on Twitter as @UKRomChat, and get information about upcoming guests on their Facebook page and Instagram feed.