I Messed Up by Delilah S. Dawson

You might think that getting a book published means you know what you're doing, but it totally doesn't. My first book, a steampunk Romance, sold in a three-book series. I thought I had it made. And then the book was out in the world, and I started reading reviews. People... had criticism for me and my book baby? NO WAY.

Yeah, they did. And one thing I hadn't even noticed was that... almost everyone in the book was white.

I had created an intricate, magical, steampunk Victorian world where blood drinkers and chameleon people roam among predatory bunnies and grand ladies in corsets, and I had only created two characters of color.

That's the thing about privilege-- you forget you're not actually the default.

I'm a white, heterosexual American woman, and until readers pointed out that most of my characters reflected that, I just took it for granted. I messed up.

By the time my first book was on shelves and getting reviewed, my second book was already written, which meant my third book was my first chance to explore a more diverse world, one that reflected the world my readers live in. That book has a mixed race hero, a lesbian couple raising a son together, and a monologue on feminism and sexism that my editor... cut down quite a bit. That was the book where I realized that everything I wrote was actually a statement regarding how I feel about the world.

And then came my first YA, SERVANTS OF THE STORM. The idea started with a photoset of Six Flags NOLA after Katrina and an ad ripped out of an Ulta catalog showing the face of a teen girl with light brown skin, hazel eyes, freckles, and an auburn-brown afro puff. I thought she was beautiful, and I really wanted to write a story about her. I moved my hurricane from New Orleans to Savannah and dropped that girl right into a dark, demon-filled world. She became Dovey, my heroine.

Is it weird that I felt more comfortable writing a book about demons who eat fingers than I did imagining the point of view of a lower income mixed race girl who loves theater? I was so scared to do it wrong. After all, finger-eating demons can't complain about my portrayal, but readers sure can. I asked on Twitter if a person of color would be willing to read my book and give me some pointers on how to best do honor to Dovey's world. Justina Ireland, now the (COMPLETELY AWESOME) author of Promise of Shadows, did me an immeasurable service as one of my first readers, and I'll forever be grateful for her insight.

Once I realized that not all of my protagonists had to look like me, there were suddenly millions of interesting characters begging to be written. My next project has a half-Native American, half-black genderqueer cowpoke in mid-1800s Texas who escapes slavery, dresses like a boy, and kills monsters.

But my next book, HIT (out April 14, 2015 with Simon Pulse), has an all-white cast, and for a very specific reason: it's about a pre-dystopian world where the bank forces teens to kill debtors. I didn't feel ok making statements about debt and race, so I set the story in an Atlanta suburb that's mostly white. White kids killing white debtors is something I feel qualified to write because I wanted to focus on capitalism, not how capitalism affects racism. Until that book comes out, I won't know if the readers will find that story believable, but for the all-white neighborhood I just moved out of, it felt very real.

No book is perfect, but I'm grateful for the readers who pointed out my lack of diversity. I messed up, but now, I'm trying to fix it. Every reader deserves to see their worldview reflected in books.


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful examination of your process, Delilah. It's a tricky subject and it looks like you're navigating it with great sensitivity!

  2. I often feel that perfectionism is my worst enemy (as usual) when it comes to writing about people who aren't like me. I'm so afraid of being wrong--or worse, being downright offensive--that I don't try. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  3. Thank you for this post, and your honesty, Delilah. You addressed a lot of my own fears here. I really appreciate the bold steps you took in your subsequent projects. Really inspirational.

  4. Ahhh! This post rocks. Readers are brutally honest--and that's a great thing. I mean, a painful thing, at times. But great. I learned a ton in '14, and am putting it to work now.

  5. Thank you for this honest post, Delilah. I too recognize that my fiction is whitewashed and am making sure to carefully read diverse YA (including yours) and work on writing a more realistic, diverse cast of characters. I'll be using this blog post as a guide and reminder!


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