Writing BIPOC Characters

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My thoughts on writing diverse casts - and tips on how to do it

If you've read anything I've written, you'll know how passionate I am about including diverse casts in all of my books and, in particular, highlighting how beautiful, desired, vulnerable, shy, sweet, intelligent, multifaceted and powerful black women are.

Thanks to TikTok, I've been having (what I consider) a positive influence in helping other authors include more black characters in their casts in a responsible way. A few of my how-to videos have gone a bit viral, so I'm including them here if you haven't seen them already. And some of them have sparked questions from authors about how to get in contact with me for sensitivity reading services. 

If you are interested in hiring me as a sensitivity reader, I don't have a lot of time for this, so am pretty selective in the projects I take on. Please read the bit below the videos about the projects I'm more likely to take as well as a price sheet for my rates. 

In the coming months, I will be building out a better database of sensitivity readers, though one may already exist on writingincolor.com (a fantastic resource), so I would absolutely check there first.

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Russian translation of previous video

by @poline_spirit

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We only know what we know

Writing diverse casts is so important. I won't go into the reasons why. If you're here, you know. But, as authors, we only know what we know and it is my personal (and strong) opinion that we should never be limited by that and that the best we can do is our best. That might include research. That might include hiring a sensitivity reader. 

What is a sensitivity reader or editor? 

A sensitivity reader is a form of editor that reads a manuscript for problematic, inaccurate or awkward content relating to characters of a particular background (racial, ethnic, cultural, sexual identity, etc).

 

Authors choose to hire sensitivity readers to minimize harm to readers who may experience discomfort at misrepresentations of their own race, culture, gender identity, etc in novels. The hiring of a sensitivity reader can also contribute to a more authentic reader experience. 

The kinds of characters I sensitivity read for

  • black and mixed black characters ONLY

  • if your book contains diverse casts for which you require sensitivity reading, I can only look at characters that identify as racially black or mixed – I only know what I know

The genres I sensitivity read in 

  • romance and any sub-genre of romance *except for some historical romances (see note below)

 

A note on historical romances

In my experience, I've seen authors tackle historical romances in two different ways – a la Bridgerton or a la Outlander. Outlander sticks to history with historical accuracy, down to the most minute detail. As a result, there weren't many characters of color in that series (was there one? Fairly certain the answer is no on this).

 

Bridgerton (the TV show) wrote an alternate history that both allowed and explained the presence of characters of color in non-subjugated roles in a historical romance. 

I CAN look at the Bridgerton version. I CANNOT look at the Outlander version. To tackle characters of color in your historical novel, you'll need someone with an understanding of that historical time period. I do not have a history background in the slightest and will not be right for this project. 

My rates

  • Less than 50,000 words = $300

  • 50,000 - 75,000 = $350

  • 75,000 - 90,000 = $400

  • 90,000 - 115,000 = $450

  • Longer than 115,000 = price upon request

  • Multiple rounds of feedback = price upon request

 

My turnaround time is two weeks.

What you can expect to receive from me

I use a stoplight system whereby which:

  • red is anything that I found deeply unsettling and that I highly recommend to be changed regarding the characterization of a black character in your book. 

  • orange is anything I found awkward and potentially distracting, but wouldn't cause me to put down the book

  • green are suggestions from me on small things to add that could create for a more authentic character

My reviews are highly comprehensive and can be as long as 5 pages. The central question I ask myself while reading your work(s) is: is this a book I can, with confidence, recommend to a black reader, or my mother? I will be honest and clear if my answer to this question is no. The rate does not change if I found that you wrote a perfect book. 

The most important thing to note if we work together

As is the case with any other editor, the feedback I provide is not a conversation starter. Would you argue with your line editor? No. You would simply choose which line edits to accept or reject. The same is the case with sensitivity editor feedback. 

I do NOT want to know if you disagree with me. I do NOT want to know if you have no plans to incorporate my feedback. If you want to argue with me, I will provide one warning before I add you to my black list and do not work with you again in the future. I know this sounds extreme, but the rationale and/or arguments I've had with authors in the past have not been pleasant. I provide one-way feedback ONLY.

 

For this reason, it is imperative that you do NOT credit me in your book.

If you'd like to mention that you have worked with me anywhere, please ask me first. 

So you're still interested in working with me, eh?

 

 

Please send me an email! Despite my last paragraph, I would LOVE to work with you! I think this is too important not to devote my time to. All you need to do is send me an email. In your email please mention:

  • your genre (and if you're writing historical, if you're taking the Bridgerton approach)

  • your word count

  • a brief summary of your book

  • confirm that you're seeking a sensitivity editor for black or mixed black character(s)

  • I prefer to go into stories blind, but if you'd prefer, you can choose to tell me specifically about any particular characters or concerns you may have  

Working with me as a sensitivity editor

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Other resources

Additional resources and links to contacting other sensitivity readers coming soon!

- A note from Elizabeth -

If you have any questions, comments, or resources you love, please reach out! 

I'd love to hear from you.

  • Email estephensauthor@gmail.com

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