In this episode, we are joined by fantasy author, LGBTQ+ sensitivity reader, and international speaker and presenter October K. Santerelli! October’s latest book, City of Day, was published this past February and is the first in a planned trilogy. We were so excited to have October on the podcast after first hearing him present on neurodivergency and the creative process at Superstars Writing Seminar in Denver, CO earlier this year! KWL’s director Tara was in attendance, and she had many great take-aways from that amazing presentation.
We chatted with October about his writing career, his presentations and speaking appearances at comic conventions, writing seminars, and more across the USA, neurodivergency and the creative process, his work as a sensitivity reader, and much more! We had a fun (and very informative) time chatting with October, and are excited to present this episode.
In this episode:
- We ask October about his writing career and his experience being inspired by his elementary school teachers to continue writing and become a professional writer
- October chats with us about his desire to be a hybrid author, and the pros and cons of traditional vs. independent publishing
- We ask October about neurodivergency and the creative process, and his time spent researching for his neurodivergency and the creative process workshop
- October tells us about his own struggles with writing, and what strategies he uses to help him continue to be creative
- We ask October what is currently inspiring him – and how he ended up using Sims 4 to get creative and construct stories
- October offers us some great tips for other neurodivergent writers, including how it can actually be helpful to NOT finish writing projects!
- We ask for some advice about editorial work, too, and how an author’s neurodivergent experience can affect this process
- October talks about how it’s important to “make every word a joy” and celebrate every time you write, especially when you are a neurodivergent author
- We get some awesome advice from October on how to heal your relationship with writing, especially if you struggle with self-deprecating tendencies
- October talks about his work as a sensitivity reader, and why an author might choose to hire a sensitivity reader
- He also gives us some advice on how to find (and hire!) the right sensitivity reader for your manuscript
- And much more!
Mentioned in this episode:
Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer
The Animorphs series by K. A. Applegate
October K Santerelli is primarily a fantasy author and LGBTQ+ sensitivity reader who hails from the mountains of Denver, Colorado. Consuming stories of all types is his hobby, whether in books, movies, or more. His works span several genres and multiple forms of media, including novels, short stories, and comics in science fiction, fantasy, and historic romance. His works include CITY OF DAY, book one of the Nightfall series from Falstaff Publishing, and the novella GLIMMERS IN THE NIGHT. Being LGBTQ+ has allowed him to edit and sensitivity read for indie and traditional authors alike. Visit octoberksanterelli.com for more information.
Transcription by www.speechpad.com
Rachel: Hey, writers, you’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Rachel, promotion specialist at Kobo Writing Life.
Tara: And I’m Tara, direct of Kobo Writing Life.
Rachel: Today we sat down and chatted with October K Santerelli, a fantasy author and LGBTQ+ sensitivity reader who hails from Denver, Colorado. His work spans several genres and multiple front-end media, including novels, short stories, and comics.
Tara: We had a great conversation about how he started his writing career and also about neurodivergency and the creative process and how sometimes creativity can look a little different. Some of his tips to, sort of, stay creative, if you are neurodivergent or perhaps writing a neurodivergent character, and that also led into some of his sensitivity readings. So, we talked about, kind of, what’s involved in that and the work he does there.
Rachel: It was a very informative and really fun conversation, and we hope you enjoy.
Tara: Welcome to the podcast, and today we have October with us. And thanks so much for joining us.
October: Yeah, thanks for having me on.
Tara: So, would you be able to… Let’s kick things off by telling us a little bit about yourself and have you always been a writer. How did you get started in your writing career?
October: So, I’m October K Santerelli, and I am now a fantasy author. My book “City of Day” just released through Falstaff Books in February, so pretty recently. And have I always been a writer? No actually. I didn’t know it was a job you could have for the longest time. I loved books my whole life, but I thought all the books had been written and, like, all the authors had died. So, I didn’t know that you could be a writer until 7th grade when we were doing this poetry unit in school. And my teacher, Ms. Bamford, gave back a little collection with the crayon drawings all stapled together. And on the front, it said this could be professional.
And I walked up to her after class and I was like, “What are you meaning? Just so you know, this sounds like something I need to know.” And she was like, “Yeah. Like, you could be a professional writer.” And that was it, and my parents were very sad.
Tara: I love that—those little things that teachers don’t realize the impact they have sometimes potentially, that that stays with you so much. But, yeah, that’s really awesome. So, from there, you just started writing?
October: Oh, yeah, and I never stopped. I won a couple contests in high school. I went to college for a creative writing degree. I published my first book, and I dedicated it to Ms. Bamford, that teacher, and then I dedicated this book to my third-grade teacher who is why I like words in the first place.
Rachel: I love that. Like Tara said, the impact that a teacher can have is wild.
October: I told him. My third-grade teacher, I told him that I dedicated the book to him. First of all, it was an adventure trying to find my third-grade teacher this many years later. Second of all, he still remembered me because I was the weird kid who really liked words and he had to give me extra vocab each week. So, I learned big words while everybody else was learning the regular words, and he was excited to find out that I wrote books now.
Rachel: So, it started with a poetry collection. How did you, kind of, fall into genre fiction?
October: I was reading genre fiction at the time. My dad was really big into sci-fi books, and so he got me into sci-fi first. It didn’t really click with me as much. And then my mom got me into a couple of fantasy series, notably Artemis Fowl and I really liked the Artemis Fowl books and ended up going to look for other books with fairies and fell into fantasy forevermore.
Tara: So, you, kind of, published as an indie as well, and I’m just wondering, could you tell us about maybe the decision to go down that route if it was like something that you were consciously wanting to do to kind of… I know a lot of authors talk about the control that it gives them. Is this something that you considered?
October: I did consider going indie. I really just want to be a hybrid author in the end because there’s pros and cons to every aspect of the publishing industry. And one of my favorite parts of trad is that they do most of the work for me. I don’t get a lot of money for it, but I would get most of the work done for me. And, like you said, that control in the indie aspect. I settled for a small press somewhere in the middle so that I could have a little bit of both and I am able to have input on my covers and little chapter decorations and the formatting. And at the same time, I am working on releasing my first book indie completely by myself. And there’s a lot more to it, but I’m not super excited about trying to find editors.
Tara: I think a lot of authors are really taking the hybrid route, especially getting started. It’s like you, kind of, get to learn a lot from the publishers and then maybe use that in your own indie journey. That’s awesome you get input into the covers because that must be so important as a fantasy writer that you want it to speak to your world.
October: Yeah, and there have… Like, I’ve heard so many horror stories about authors who didn’t get the covers they wanted or they expected. I am really excited. I’m currently working with a cover artist named Joce. Joce something with a G. I’ll find it later, I’m sure. But he is an artist from the UK, and he does some beautiful detail work, so I’m really excited for my next cover to come out.
And then my first cover on the David Brin book, I wrote a book YA sci-fi with David Brin. It’s called “Storm’s Eye.” And the cover for that looks kind of like an “Animorphs” book in, like, the best way. So, I love that cover a lot.
Rachel: I am going to have to look this up immediately if it’s readily available because I love “Animorphs.” When it comes to deciding what books you’re going to send the indie route, what books you’re going to send the trad route, do you have a thought process as to which title you’re going to take in which direction?
October: Yes, a little bit. Sometimes you get that feeling where you’re like, “This book could be something,” and you want to plant that seed and see where it goes. So, I will try submitting those ones to New York and stuff like that first. “City of Day” I first sent up the ladder to New York, and I did have interest from a publishing house. They just wanted me to change the ending. And I was like, “That would require writing half the book over again.” And then Falstaff came in and was like, “Well, I’ll buy all three right now.” And I was like, “That’s a pretty good deal.” So, I ended up going with Falstaff because of that, even though I was getting some interest. And I’m going to go back to that publishing house with my next book and see if they want it before I go the indie route.
Tara: So, let’s talk a little bit about the writing process. One of the reasons I wanted to chat with you is because you gave such a wonderful talk at Superstars Writing Seminar earlier this year, and it was about neurodivergency and the creative process. I’ve never seen such an animated crowd at a writing conference. They were into this talk. So, I was just wondering if you could kind of speak to this a little bit, and maybe let’s back up for people that aren’t familiar with what neurodivergency means or anything. Do you mind maybe defining that for us?
October: Yeah. Neurodivergency is having any kind of chemical or neural pathway in your brain that functions differently from what is typical, neurotypical. This is everything from dyscalculia and dyslexia to autism and ADHD. And all kinds of mental health things are also pulled into there. It covers a wide range of things. When I gave my presentation, I was specifically talking to ADHD and the overlap between ASD or C, depending on which letter you like, Autism Spectrum Condition.
Rachel: And so can you talk a little bit about what your writing process looks like? And Tara was telling me about the talk, and it was about different tactics that neurodivergent authors can use. And I’m really curious what the kind of self-experimentation process was like finding things that work for you.
October: Yeah. So, I was diagnosed with ADHD in third grade with that teacher who gave me extra work to keep me focused. And so I had been dealing with ADHD for a very long time medicated, unmedicated, learning all the holistic routine-based cognitive behavioral therapy routes. I worked really hard for all of that, and I thought I was doing really good. And then 2020 happened, and all of a sudden, I realized that all of my coping mechanisms relied on leaving my house, and I had nothing. I was going off the walls. Everything was a mess. I couldn’t write a word. My productivity dipped so hard that I don’t think I wrote. I didn’t complete anything that year.
And so I started experimenting about three or four months in on me and a couple of my other friends who were neurodivergent who had similar issues. And I was like, “Okay, guys, what if we try this thing that I saw online once?” And we started going through and digging up different tactics, and I was running experiments. And we’d be doing writing sprints for one week, which is where you write, for a short amount of time, somewhere between 15 to 30 minutes.
And then I started getting curious as we kept going on about why these things were working. And I went and found the science behind why all of these things work for a neurodivergent brain and came up with my Neurodivergence and the Creative Process workshop, which is why that crowd was so animated because I was telling them why these things work and why their brains do this thing. And they were all like, “Oh, my gosh. Oh, no way.” And it was like the best. It was definitely…you were right, Tara. It was the most animated I had ever seen anybody at a writing convention.
So, my personal writing process has to do a lot with cutting myself slack. I don’t write every day. If I don’t have the focus to write for the day, if my brain is really, really intently focused on something else, I don’t write that day, because I kept trying to write and building up this kind of resentment for it because I couldn’t do it. And so I was like, “I’m failing. I’m so bad at this.” And it started damaging my relationship with writing and making it so I didn’t want to. And I was like, “That’s not really where I want to go with my career as a writer is being a writer who doesn’t want to.” So, I started stopping. I didn’t write if I didn’t feel like it. I started doing those writing sprints. I started doing something called body doubling, which is where you bring someone else in. And they don’t have to be doing the same thing as you, but by having somebody there and knowing they expect you to be working, your neurodivergent brain will start working.
And there’s things like having a routine that’s more flexible than day-to-day. I have routines that span entire weeks, so I do the same things on each day, but the order of it is whatever order I feel like and that helps a lot with getting bored in a routine versus keeping up with habits that are important. I don’t read books all the time. I know a lot of people are like, “If you really want to be a good writer, you have to read a lot.” And I’m like, “I do read a lot but I don’t read…like, that’s not the only way I consume stories. I also play video games, and I watch movies and TV. And those are also stories that, told well, I can use aspects of.” So, there’s a lot that goes into my writing process.
Tara: I really like what you were saying about not necessarily reading every day but just taking inspiration from the different stories. I’m just curious if you could tell us what’s been inspiring you at the moment.
October: The Sims 4. I made up all this accidental drama in The Sims 4, then came out with a new expansion, and of course, I had to play it. And so I’ve been making up little stories with my not-quite-Barbie dolls, and telling all of my friends about it, and they’re as invested in it as a soap opera, so I’m making it more dramatic, and that’s giving me some fun and freedom to make up stories in that. I’ve also been watching a lot of “Castle.” I’m re-watching “Castle.” I love shows about writers, and “Castle” is a really good mix of criminal minds and a writer. And it’s a lot of fun. I aspire to be Castle someday.
Rachel: Don’t we all just want to be Nathan Fillion just a little bit?
October: Just a lot of it.
Rachel: I also had never thought of using The Sims as a storytelling mechanism because I’ve played The Sims. I’m not allowed to have The Sims on my computer or nothing else will get done, so I applaud you. But I’ve never thought of using it as a storytelling method, and that’s really interesting. And now I’m so curious. You do not have to go into this, but I’m so curious about the drama that you’re cooking up with your Sims.
October: Well, I made a new save file to build a house reference for a friend and I for a D&D campaign. And it auto-generated a Sim, and she was really pretty. And I was like, “Oh, I can’t get rid of her,” so I saved her. And she looked like somebody who would be affluent, but I didn’t want to make other Sims. And I wanted to keep her at the age she was. She started out as a teen. And so I was like, “Her parents died in a horrible car crash, and her uncle runs her trust fund, but she has a penthouse.” And then of course I had to build a prep school, and now there’s drama in prep school because two boys like her. And what will she do? And my friends are very invested in that and the fact that she’s working towards being valedictorian but so is Molly Prescott.
Rachel: So much drama. Tara, do not let me redownload The Sims.
Tara: No, I also can’t. I cannot own that. It ruined my educational career almost. I am too addicted to that game.
October: I keep it on my big computer, and I write on my laptop, and that is the only way I get things done. Don’t worry.
Tara: That is smart. Yeah, that’s smart.
Rachel: And kind of along those lines, do you have any other tips for neurodivergent writers?
October: Yeah. One of the things that I want to talk about is not finishing everything you start. There’s a lot of people in the writing industry who are like, “Just keep muscling through. You can’t fix something that’s not entirely finished.” That is true. You can’t finish something, or you can’t fix something, edit something that doesn’t exist. But at the same time, neurodivergent people happen to have a really big predisposition to something called the sunk cost fallacy, which is where you’re like, “Well, I invested my time in it and I invested effort in it, so I have to keep going, even though I don’t like it, even though I don’t want to, even though it’s making me sad or angry or upset.” And if there is nobody else waiting on that, set it down and walk away, you know? Like, you can stop and write something else. You can do something else.
Rewriting? I don’t rewrite. I zoom through my first drafts. I purposely write terrible first drafts, because I wouldn’t finish a book any other way. So, I will zoom right through it, just connect the dots from my outline. It’s terrible. They’re always like 40,000, 50,000 words. They’re not long. And then I go back. And when I do edit, it’s a big rewrite for that first pass where I start focusing, now that I have the story, on making it sound better. So, I don’t rewrite as I go, or I would never get further than Chapter 3.
Tara: You self-edit then the first because the draft is that sort of rough… It’s kind of like you’re just going back and finessing everything then.
October: Yeah. And I get a lot of compliments on my second drafts that people think are my first drafts. They’re like, “Oh, these are so clean.” And I’m like, “Uh-huh. Yeah, totally. That’s just how they come out of me.” No, I write really bad first drafts and then only let people look at the second.
Rachel: Do you think there are any specific challenges that neurodivergent writers face when it comes to the editorial process and revisiting the same story over and over again and getting more granular?
October: Yeah, it’s a lot of detail-oriented stuff. Hyperfixation is another term. As an ADHD author, hyperfixating on little itty-bitty things is something that happens to me a lot. I will be getting ready for bed, and all of a sudden, my brain will pop into life and be like, “Hey, remember in Chapter 3, that one sentence about the zoo? Like, you need to go back right now because you should put ‘with’ instead of ‘and’ right there.” And I’ll have to go back and I’ll have to open the document. I’ll have to fix that sentence. And if I were rewriting all the time, if I weren’t zipping through that first draft and not really paying attention to what I had left behind in the dust, I would be doing that all the time every day. A lot of the hyperfixation, there’s ways around it. There’s distracting yourself, or there is feeding it. But with editing, feeding it is counterproductive. So, it’s one of those things that you have to work hard to be like, “No, we don’t need to do that right now.” A lot of times I talk to my ADHD like it’s an unruly toddler. No, we’re not going to get McDonald’s right now.
Tara: I think the hyperfixation is very interesting because, as a writer, that could be, like you were saying, super beneficial if you are in your sprint, and you’re super focused. But I guess it can be then counterintuitive to the rest of it. But I know myself even getting fixated on things can feel like you’ve accomplished a lot. And do you have any tips about sort of talking to your hyperfixation, I guess, or snapping yourself out of it?
October: Yeah, a lot of it is talking to it like a toddler. A lot of it is promising later, and a lot of it is those writing sprints. So, I’ve gotten really hyperfixated on The Sims recently. And in order to get writing done, I do a half-hour sprint. And then I can play The Sims for a half hour. And then I do a half hour sprint, and then I can play The Sims for half an hour. So, I get my writing done in little chunks throughout the whole day, but I’m getting words on the page, which is all that really matters. And by telling my brain, “Hey, you only have to do this for 30 minutes,” my brain’s like, “Oh, that’s not long,” and kicks into work mode. Sometimes if 30 minutes is too much, I’ll do 15-minute sprints. And my brain will be like, “Well, that’s reasonable,” and kicks into gear long enough to do that. So, writing sprints is really the best way.
What that does is it makes an artificial adrenaline kick in your brain and gets you to turn the ignition. You know, it’s the starter in your car, right?
Tara: The only 30 minutes to The Sims, the self-restraint that you must have.
October: I have an assistant. It’s a Google speaker. So, if you tell it out loud to set timers and stuff, then it’ll be really loud and obnoxious at you later. And so then I will tell it to set another timer and get back to work. So, I live with a Google Nest like nobody’s business.
Rachel: And kind of along the same lines but the opposite, do you ever find yourself in a writing sprint that’s going really well and then your timer goes off and you’re staying in it or do you find that’s counterintuitive?
October: Oh, there are times where that’s what I needed was the kick to get started and now I’m in and nothing can stop me. And then I will just, like, keep typing and be like, “Google, shut up,” and then it stops the alarm and then I keep going and three, four, seven hours later, my roommate’s like, “Hey, do you want food?” And I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I should do that.” So, yeah, every now and again you can hyperfixate on the writing, which is great, and ride that one if you can.
A lot of it has to do with, like you were mentioning earlier, that accomplishment feeling like you got a lot done. When you have ADHD, the problem is that your hyperfixation becomes the only accomplishment that matters. And so if you’re not hyperfixated on writing, even if you get a couple words on a page, you’re going to be like, “Well, but I didn’t do what I wanted to do today, which was this other thing.” So, I’ve been working through a little bit of that myself lately where I’m like all I really want to do is I’m working on the redesign of my website. Have I even opened that window? No. So, my brain’s like, “Obviously, we didn’t get anything done. We only wrote 3,000 words and cleaned the bathroom and walked the dog and did the dishes. And then we went ahead and did a podcast interview. Hey, but no, we didn’t get anything done.” And I’m like I have to sit down and kind of write out what I got done at the end of each day, and that really helps me counter that voice in my head that’s like, “We didn’t do the one thing we wanted to do, so it doesn’t matter.”
Tara: Speaking of accomplishments, you talked about in the talk that I was at really celebrating every time that you do write, and you had a lot of tools and things that you’re using for this. Do you mind speaking to that for a sec?
October: Yeah. After looking at all of the “writing rules” that big authors made and realizing that most of them didn’t actually work for somebody who was neurodivergent, I went and made my own. And the first rule is make every word a joy, celebrate every time you write, and feed your brain little bits of that dopamine. That way you keep coming back to it. So, a lot of things I’ll do is I will tell my friends when I’ve accomplished something, and they’ll be like, “Woohoo!” and that’s enough. You can do self high fives. Those work. I don’t know why, but when you high five yourself, your brain is still as excited as if you high fived somebody else.
I am part of a writer support group called TWT, The Writing Tribe, on Facebook, and they are amazing. They have digital write-ins multiple times a week and panel workshops on Sundays. And so I feel like I’m in a writing conference all the time, and that helps keep me inspired and keep me productive. Another thing that I use is Christie Yant has a word count tracker that makes pretty colors. So, every day you can put in how many words you wrote, and it changes color automatically. And that little pop of color is enough to give me enough dopamine that I’m like, “Yeah, I wrote today.”
I’ll celebrate with boba and going out to eat lunch or grabbing a coffee from Starbucks. I will celebrate with a trip to the dollar section of Target or Michaels. Anywhere you like to go, anything you like to do, and then get bigger when you do bigger things. Like, when I finish a book, I went to Disneyland when I finished my last one. My friend treated me to Disneyland, I should say but I did go. And I’ve had cakes. I’ll finish my book, and I will go out with my friends, and we will buy a cake, and go to a restaurant, and treat it like it’s a birthday party.
So, you know, there’s lots of different ways to keep yourself going back to writing and keep making it happy. A lot of what I was trying to do in 2020 was rebuild my relationship with writing in a really positive manner, because, like I said, I kept beating myself up and being self-deprecating. And I was like, “I love writing, and I want to keep loving writing.” And now that’s the only thing that motivates me as an author is, at the end of the day, I want to keep doing this. I want to keep liking this. And that’s all that matters.
Rachel: I will absolutely be taking your self high five advice for every time I write an email, just sitting at home high fiving myself. Let’s see if that helps me get through my inbox. You have given a lot of advice, but I have one more piece of advice I’d like to pull from you. You mentioned that kind of finding things that worked for you was an experiment. It was trying a bunch of things. Do you have any advice for authors who want to try different experiments but they don’t want to get discouraged? Because I’m imagining there’s a bunch of things you tried that did not work for you.
October: Oh, yeah, there were things that worked for my friends that I was like, “Well, good for you. I can never do that again.” So, what we did was we set time limits. So, you just have to try this thing for a week or two weeks. And if it doesn’t work within that two weeks, you know this one’s maybe not for you. So, it’s not like treating it like a science experiment where you have a hypothesis that this will work but perhaps it will not. And by kind of putting yourself into that scientific mindset, instead of making it about whether or not you succeed or fail, it is about whether or not the experiment succeeds or fails. And that little bit of separation kind of helps me keep from being really upset when things didn’t work for me.
So, as you’re trying things, give it a week. Try it for a week and see how it works for you. And if it doesn’t, set it aside and try something else. I added one thing to my routine at a time until I had something that worked for me.
Tara: It sounds like community is very important to you as well, especially with your writing process. How did you build your community?
October: A lot of the building of communities I got through conventions and conferences. The first one I went to was Dragon Con in Georgia, which is every September. Massive conference, really, really strong literary tracks and a really good writing track. And that led me to Superstars Writing Seminar and Pikes Peak Writers and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, which are all local writing conferences to me. I hear that Iowa has a really good writing conference. I’m interested in checking that one out. And there’s like book festivals and stuff that have been recommended to me, and now I get invited as a guest to a bunch of different conventions. JordanCon just happened a couple weeks ago, and I did not expect that one to have as good of a literary track as it did. Like, I mean, yes, it’s based on Robert Jordan’s “The Wheel of Time,” but I thought it would be much more focused towards that. And the writing track and the fantasy track were phenomenal resources. And Multiverse is another convention that has a really strong writer’s track with a lot of knowledge to be gleaned. So, lots and lots of conferences, for the most part. Again, I really like that community aspect. TWT, the Writing Tribe, is also how I get from con to con. And, like I said, we have digital write-ins all the time. We’ve got Discord servers. We can call each other up, and we’ll chat. And it’ll be like, “Hey, I want to go write, so I’m going to go and do that. Do you want to come with me?” And that’s really helpful as well. Again, sort of body doubling.
Rachel: As somebody who has been to a lot of cons, especially in the Dragon Con genre of cons, they can be very large and overwhelming. How do you get over any fear of making friends and meeting new people at these cons?
October: I don’t really have much trouble making friends. I do get nervous, but I have been told that I am gregarious and charming, and I’m tempted to believe it after this many years. But one of the things that I do when I get nervous is I pretend that it’s like…remember in fourth grade when the new kid showed up at school and you were already at school and you were like, “Hey, do you want to eat lunch with me and be my friend?” and you’d just ask? I take that to heart. Like, it’s scary, yeah. But I walked up to Steve Saffel at Dragon Con while he was having lunch and was like, “Hey, mind if I sit here and grab a glass of water?” And he was like, “Yeah. No, go ahead.” And by the end of that, I had accidentally pitched in my book, so just, “Hey, can I sit with you?” or, “Hey, what do you write?”
I have a little list of questions, and when you meet somebody at a writing workshop or whatever, you sit next to them to watch the panel, and you go, “Hey, what do you write?” and they’re going to start talking, and then you’re going to start talking and build that connection that way. I carry around little business cards. I’ve got a couple of them. I’ve got one that has my regular information on it, but I also have one that has my free novella, so that I can just…you know, somebody’s like, “Oh, hey, what do you write?” And I’m like, “Oh, I write this. Would you like some? Here you go right out of my pocket for free.”
And if I really want to connect with somebody, I’ll give them my contact information card as well and be like, “Let’s reach out. Let’s chat later.” And I make sure to let them know that I want to talk again later, because that’s how you strengthen the connection and ensure that they remember you and want to talk to you again as well.
Tara: I use one of those tips a lot, because authors can be quite…I don’t want to say reserved but introverted. And when we go to these different conferences and you want to get to know them, the best way, honestly, to see somebody very much brighten up and become themselves is ask them to talk about their book. Ask them to talk about what you’re writing about, because it’s what they’re really passionate about, and it’s really the easiest way to find a common ground with a stranger, if that can be something that’s a little scary for you.
October: I’ve made so many fantasy author friends just by, “Oh, what do you write?” “Well, mostly fantasy.” “Really? Me too!” And then we get super animated and 10 minutes later, people are like, “So, you guys have known each other for 20 years.” And I’m like, “Oh yeah, totally… if 20 years was 10 minutes.”
Tara: So, on top of all of the things that you’ve kind of talked to us about here, you also are a sensitivity reader. So, I was just wondering if you could tell us a little bit about this, and maybe if anyone isn’t familiar, could you kind of describe what a sensitivity reader does and why an author might choose to hire one?
October: Yeah. So, sensitivity reading is still relatively new to the publishing industry. This job is less than a decade old, and I’ve been doing it for almost six years. So, I’m one of the oldest in the biz, and that is not saying a whole lot. So, sensitivity reading is when a person of minority reads a manuscript for character representation of that minority, and they kind of serve as a developmental editor for a focused piece of the manuscript. I read for LGBTQ+ content, and I read for invisible chronic illness. And I have started reading for neurodivergency as well, but there’s so many of us that that one’s really hard to kind of focus on. We’re all so different.
But I do a lot of reading for queer content. And sometimes it’s bisexual authors who wrote a non-binary character for the first time as often as it is cisgendered, heterosexual completely normal authors who have then written queer characters because they want the representation and the diversity and they’re just not sure if they got it right. A lot of what I do is catch outdated slang and terminology, because that changes very quickly in the queer community. I will catch harmful stereotypes or potential problem areas like the word “queer” is my favorite example, because older generations I still view that as a slur, but younger generations have been reclaiming it as an umbrella term for LGBTIAQQ… There’s a lot of alphabet in the soup. So, it’s one of the safer ways to out yourself or make yourself part of the community by just being like, “Oh, yeah, I’m queer,” and leaving it at that. So, they’ve been reclaiming it. So, I’ll be like, “Hey, you might get some feedback from older people that queer is a little touchy. Like, you might get a couple negative reviews from the grandparents. But if you’re cool with that, keep that word in there.” And so I will tell them about things that might cause tension.
And then I will add my lived experience and depth. So, I have a rather unique lived experience as a transgender gay and gender non-conforming person. Like, I’m half the alphabet soup by myself. So, I will read for a lot of different types of queer characters and add, “I read a book where a queer character had to go and confront their parents,” and I was like they wouldn’t be the one who’s super into this. They would be really reluctant to go on that path just so you know. If they split the way you said, this is not going to be a comfortable, happy ending kind of moment there. And there was another one where I read for a non-binary character, and all I had to do was catch pronoun slips. There were two of them in the manuscript. Hundred thousand words, and they missed it twice. Gosh, how dare they? No, they’re one of my favorites and one of my regulars, so I’ve only ever caught one or two pronoun slips in their book and hadn’t had to do anything else. I love them. And they just come for that reassurance that they’ve done okay.
And I will add transition elements to stories. So, there’s a lot that goes into transitioning that people don’t think about like changing your deodorant and shampoo is really important actually because how you smell is an indicator of… So, things like that, things like how you walk. Feminine walks tend to put your feet closer together or in line and masculine walks are like walking on train walk or train tracks, so your feet are going to be separate. So, changing how you describe that and subconscious gender bias in the English language like drift is a more feminine sounding word, whereas stomp is more a masculine sounding word. And so if you’re writing a non-binary character and leaning too much toward one side or the other, I catch that as well. So, there’s a lot that goes into sensitivity reading. I think authors who are writing minority characters could all benefit from having another set of eyes on there, that are the eyes and the head of the person they’re trying to represent.
Rachel: I feel like this might be a dangerous question, but I’m going to ask it anyways. Are there any common missteps that are easily avoided that you find authors make when they are writing queer characters?
October: A lot of times the mistakes happen to be falling into, kind of, stereotypes, and unhappy endings is one of the biggest ones that I find. Like, the queer characters are not written as desirable. They don’t have any romantic interest by the end of the book, or they’re written to have a sad ending where they get kicked out or whatever after they came out to their parents. Lots and lots of coming out stories. Those are common missteps. They do it a lot in Hollywood, and there’s a term for it called queerbaiting where characters are so close to getting their happy gay ending and then they just never mind. Actually, they died. They went to Super Hell in “Supernatural.” I don’t know what happened at the end of that show. I didn’t get there, and I don’t want to anymore, but that’s one of the common missteps is that queer characters being undesirable or not getting happy endings or being otherwise punished in the manuscript for being queer and remaining othered.
A lot of coming out stories, like I said, do that, but also coming out stories in general is kind of a misnomer and a trope. After you come out for the first time, you never stop coming out again. So, coming out stories can be any age, any category, but they all seem to be high school students. And then after they’re out, that’s it. That’s the whole story. There’s no more coming out to do. So, coming out stories are falling a little bit out of fashion in queer circles. I mean, there’s always exceptions, but…
Rachel: Okay, this is wildly important. You don’t need to finish “Supernatural.” I just wanted to pop that in there. But, Tara, you can ask your actual question. I did have one, but you can go ahead.
Tara: No, I was just wondering. It’s like kind of a curious phrase like a sensitivity reader when you are editing it. So, I wonder why it’s not considered a sensitivity edit, or I don’t know how this terminology gets created but just from how you’re describing it, it’s so much more involved than just reading something and sending some notes, you know?
October: Oh, yeah. No, it’s way more involved. I will do research for historic fantasy authors and historic… I got a book written in 1930 in Alaska, and I looked up what the laws were around being gay at the time and gave them a whole lot of background information on this character they had written, that they didn’t even know where to start looking for that, and they were really impressed. And it is a lot more like editing, editing and research and making lots of suggestions. And the term sensitivity reader came about because, at the time, at the very beginning of this career, we were beta readers, and we were pulled in mostly to give generic feedback like, “Well, yeah, no, that queer character’s pretty solid.” And over time, it developed into us being more involved in the process, giving more information. And I think that came about because we got more comfortable with it, and being able to step into a room and be like, “Actually, I am an authority on this one thing that you are not going to be an authority on probably ever.” I mean, never say never, but, you know, not everybody is about to come out. So, I have decades of lived experience as a transgender gay, gender non-conforming person, and other people do not. So, I am an expert on what it is like to be a gay transgender, gender non-conforming person.
Rachel: My other question that didn’t have to do with “Supernatural” that I was going to ask is you mentioned and correctly so that neurodivergency is such a huge blanket term for so many people. If an author is including a neurodivergent character, how can they go about finding the right sensitivity reader for that?
October: Oh, that one is a hard one. I would put it in front of a couple extra beta readers. I would get more ADHD beta readers or ASC beta readers and have them take a look at the manuscript and then hire maybe one or two sensitivity readers. Beta readers are less expensive than we are, I will admit that, and you’ll get more feedback on the general term from them. Whereas, from the two sensitivity readers or one or two sensitivity readers, they would catch, like I said, outdated terminology or slang. And ASC and ASD is a really good example of that. Autism Spectrum Disorder is what it was named by other people, and there’s a push in the autism community to rename it as Autism Spectrum Condition, because they don’t think it’s a disorder. And I’m trying to help with that push along, even though I’m not… You know, they taught me that that’s what they would prefer, and so now I’m trying to use that and make more people aware of it.
So, because there’s that change in language that I didn’t know about, somebody can help me with that. The outdated slang and terminology and the general information, a sensitivity reader should know all of that. Like, I do a lot of reading for sapphic couples. First of all, all of those books have been amazingly fantastic. Second of all, I am not a sapphic person, but I know enough general terminology to help out those authors and be like, “Hey, this part of the scene might be a little problematic because of this trope in the community.” And I do a lot of research, and I talk to a lot of queer people all the time to keep on top of that, and I fully expect that somebody who reads for neurodivergency is doing the same thing. They’re really in that community, and they’re involved in them, and talking, and doing research, and they’re going to be able to at least give you an overview and let those beta readers fill in the blanks.
Tara: So, if an author was looking to hire a sensitivity reader, where do they begin? I know Googling everything is the worst. You just get a ton of stuff. Especially in the writing community, it can be so hard. But is it just through those kind of trusted channels and building those connections or how would you advise somebody to go about that?
October: A lot of us are freelancers, so I get most of my clients through word of mouth, and I highly suggest posting in your writing groups. If you post in TWT that you need a sensitivity reader, there’s five or six of us in there reading for different things. So, we’ll pop out of the woodwork like whack-a-mole and be like, “Me? I could do it.” I get a lot of people who are like, “Hey, so and so told me about this,” or they saw me at a convention and they come back and they’re like, “You probably don’t remember me.” “You’re probably right.” I’ve been to too many conventions this year already.
Tara: Well, I guess we didn’t actually meet, so I was just going to say I was going to be heartbroken but I take it all back.
October: No, you said that you were sitting in the back of the room.
Tara: In the shadows just taking notes.
October: With the bowler hat pulled down and the sunglasses on, I remember that one.
Tara: It’s the newspaper with the holes, you know? Like, yeah.
October: You can find a lot of us through word of mouth and connections like that. You can also look at… They’ve got a couple of sensitivity reader directories. I really like Firefly Creatives has a sensitivity reader directory. Writing Diversely has one as well. And then there’s a website called Salt and Sage Books, which is one of the oldest sensitivity reader directories that’s out there. So, you can look from there. I hear a lot of people find good luck on Fiverr and Upwork.
Rachel: And this might be kind of a blanket question, but when and why should an author hire a sensitivity reader?
October: That’s one of my favorite questions. Whenever you want, because you want to respect the minority you’re writing. If you care about the minority you’re writing at all, you should be getting a sensitivity reader or at least beta readers of that persuasion to double check your work. I write a lot of people of color into my stories, and I have two different readers that I give my books to who are people of color to make sure that I’m not stepping any lines.
So, I give it to them after I’ve gotten to that second draft and before I send it out, but a lot of people I know have had… When they’re making queer focused stories, I’d read a couple outlines, and I will give advice on the outline, and then they’ll come back to me with a manuscript. That’s only happened twice, but it was really, really cool to be that involved in the story. So, if you really want to make sure, from the outline phase, you can get a sensitivity reader for that. A lot of people do it with that last couple passes before you give it to the last editor or whatever before it gets sent out or published—one of those two.
Tara: It’s just reminding that I have actually had my friend send me his book because he had an Irish character, and I was just like… I had, like, one or two corrections. We would never say that. You have to change your phrasing here. So, yeah, I guess it’s like a final sweep of things to make sure that you’re just sort of making your characters as…giving them as much depth as you want them to have.
October: And the depth is actually the most important part, because a lot of people want to do by the communities and want to increase their representation and diversity in their books. And so they will put characters in but not necessarily flesh them out, and that’s almost as bad as not putting any in at all because then I know I, as a minority, when I’m reading queer characters that were just, kind of, popped in there, and then after the fact, we’re like, “And they’re gay,” on the last page. I’m like, “You did that specifically because you just realized you don’t have any.” Like, if it’s out of nowhere and then never gets write up again, I’m like, “You did that surely because you realized you don’t have anything else.” So, we can tell for the most part. Sometimes people slip it past us.
Tara: So, we could talk all day and keep going on and on, but I think we should begin to wrap this up. What is next for you? What are you working on right now? Other than The Sims, sorry.
October: Yeah, so much Sims. I am currently working on the book of “The Witch’s Son,” which is a collection of four novellas. The first one is available for free on my website octoberksanterelli.com and you can also find my books there, “Storm’s Eye” with David Brin. I believe it is currently out of print. We’re between publishers, but “City of Day” is available right now, and it is the first book in the Nightfall series. Book 2 comes out next February, and it’s getting ready for reviews. People have said that it is like Netflix since “Castlevania” meets Diana Wynne Jones’ “Howl’s Moving Castle,” which is the best comp I have ever gotten in my life. Best review ever. So, you can find that on my website as well. You can also get that at Barnes & Noble or Amazon or at your favorite local book seller. And other than that, I’ve got a lot of conventions this year. You can catch me all over the U.S.
Tara: And where can listeners find you online?
October: You can find me at octoberksanterelli.com. You can also find me on TikTok @okwrites and you can find me on Instagram @o_k_writes because somebody stole it.
Rachel: Awesome. We will include links to all of those and your books in our show notes. October, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today.
October: Yeah, thanks so much again for having me. This was really fun.
Tara: Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you’re interested in learning more about October and his work, we will include links in our show notes to his website. If you’re enjoying our podcast, please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at kobowritinglife.com. And be sure to follow us on socials. We are @kobowritinglife on Facebook and Twitter and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.
Rachel: This episode was hosted by Rachel Wharton and Tara Cremin with production by Terrence Abrahams. Editing is provided by Kelly Robotham. Our theme music is composed by Tear Jerker, and a huge thanks to Mary Adkins for being our guest today. If you’re ready to start your publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.