I’ve been having a sort of upheaval in the editing of the Kea’s Flight sequel, “Kea’s Landing.” It’s a story about what happens when the ship in “Kea’s Flight” lands on a planet and builds a city there. But the subplots seem to be taking over.
The draft got mostly positive feedback from initial beta readers, but it’s getting a more critical look from John, who, after all, is my co-author, and has to put even more thought into his reading of it.
And I’m facing some of the places where I tried to avoid one bad trope and, in the process, may have gotten myself into something else just as bad.
So, basically, there are two subplots that are troubling. One involves POC representation and I plan to talk about it in another post (each one of these is going to take a long time to explain).
The other one is Mara.
Some backstory, first. “Kea’s Flight” took place on a starship carrying Earth’s rejects into space to colonize other planets. The ship was populated with young people (“rems”) who were grown from removed embryos.
In this dystopian future, abortion is illegal, but unwanted embryos can be removed and kept frozen until they are wanted. Of course, there were more than Earth could care for, so they sent them into space (raised by robots and exiled human convicts called BGs.)
Kea, the main character, and her group of friends, were grown from embryos that were removed because they had genetic predispositions to mental disabilities. Their disabilities are in the range that is sometimes simplistically called “high-functioning.” I wrote their story from my own perspective as someone who was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome as a child, and who has learned enough coping skills by now that I can usually pass as neurotypical. Focusing on this part of the disability spectrum was what felt safest to me, because I knew it from experience.
It is stated that there are other rems on the ship with more severe disabilities, but the first book never went into their lives much, and I received some criticism for that.
So, in the sequel, I introduced Mara. Her story is viewed through the lens of Kea finding a hidden folder of her old journal entries, and gradually managing to decode and read them. At first it appears that these entries were written by someone who has died, but as time goes on, it starts to look as if Mara might still be alive and need help. Kea’s only hope of finding out more is by reading the whole journal.
Mara uses a wheelchair. She was born with sirenomelia, a rare condition where the legs are fused like a mermaid tail. They were separated with surgery when she was a baby, but she is still unable to walk. Her mentor told her about the circumstances of her birth, and the idea stirs her imagination. She still often dreams of herself as a fish or mermaid, and has become somewhat fascinated with aquatic life, even though she’s never had a chance to see it in person.
Mara is also intersex and transgender. Since the sirenomelia prevented her from developing genitals, she was surgically altered at birth to match her chromosomes, which were XY, and was raised as a boy. Her feelings have never agreed with that, and her story follows her finding a group of friends with whom she can be herself.
This is difficult at first. Mara is also nonverbal. She can communicate by typing, but only very slowly. This, too, is somewhat tied in to her physical condition: in one of the few real-world cases of sirenomelia, a patient who underwent the splitting surgery in childhood lost her ability to speak afterward (although in that case it was temporary). It’s not clear whether the same thing caused Mara to be nonverbal, but whatever the cause, it’s one more challenge she faces in her quest for friendship and love.
Part of my own challenge here is questioning whether I am putting too many things on Mara’s shoulders. This may be one of the places where I encountered one pitfall by trying to avoid another.
In the past few years I spent a lot of time, maybe too much, browsing social-justice-related blog posts about fiction, and trying very hard to use their advice to make my own stories more respectful and inclusive.
One thing I see a lot is a desire for intersectional representation: characters who belong to multiple marginalized groups.
I was trying to do that with Mara. I may have overdone it– although beta readers have generally said that they were surprised at how well it worked.
Maybe it can work, but I gave it the wrong mood. One of John’s main complaints is that I show Mara being sad too often. I agree. This is a flaw of me seeing her challenges through the eyes of someone who has not faced them personally. When you’ve lived with a particular challenge, it doesn’t seem as tragic and unmanageable as it might seem to those who haven’t. If Mara is going to be a relatable character, she needs to spend less time comparing her life unfavorably to others, and more time just dealing with interesting things in her life.
John’s other main complaint is that Mara and her group of friends don’t “contribute to the plot.” That is (at least during the first half of the book or so) their story doesn’t really intersect with Kea’s story, except in Kea’s moments of reading the journal and thinking about it and trying to find out what happened to Mara. It takes a long time before their story has any clear effect on the lives of Kea and her own group of friends.
Later in the book, their story and Kea’s do connect in what I think is a satisfying way (and Kea finds out that her worries about having to rescue Mara were very interestingly off the mark). But it takes a long time before that happens, and John found the wait boring.
Part of the problem may be that John is a science fiction reader, and not really a reader of stories focused on romance or friendship.
Mara’s story, as it stands now, doesn’t really have action, throughout most of the book. It’s a story of some people who were lonely, who lived in a society that made it very hard for them to get together socially, and who found a way to get together, build friendships, and fall in love. It’s ALL character building and relationship building.
Part of why I did that was because of another complaint I see frequently in social justice blog posts: “Don’t act as if disabled people are only worth something if they contribute to the rest of society. They can be valid just for themselves.” At the time I wrote the draft, I felt I was trying to show a group of disabled people being valid and worthy just for themselves and each other, not as a device to support the other characters.
But maybe, in trying to avoid the trope of requiring disabled people to be useful, I made the opposite mistake of showing their lives as being dull and unimportant.
I’m contemplating what I will do as I revise it, but after much discussion with John, I do think I should add some genuine, interesting problems for them to solve other than just “we’re lonely.”
But there’s also the problem that the whole book is over 800 pages long; some readers find it daunting already, and adding any more plot will make it even longer.
So my current plan is actually to split the book into two.
The first one will end with the ship landing on the planet, and its plot will feature Mara’s story prominently, with whatever interesting plot twists I add to it. I can change it so Kea reads most of the journal before landing, and Kea’s pre-landing adventures will be almost a subplot of their own. The second book will continue with Kea’s story after landing, with her continued investigation of Mara being a subplot.
I hope this works. But I’m learning a lot about the complexity of representation and how to do it well. It’s raising a lot of questions for me and I truly want to address them in the kindest and most respectful way.
Another dilemma: if I do two books, which one do I entitle “Kea’s Landing”? And what do I call the other one?
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