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Joe with an E - chapter 3

Good people, I'm so grateful for all the helpful feedback you've given on my first two chapters. Here is my third chapter, already reworked to take account of all I'm learning from this exercise. This is probably the last chapter I'll share, at least for a while, because I now feel I need to step back and spend some time working on my overall story arc and because I feel like I've picked up so much already which I can apply gradually to all my other chapters. The reason I am still asking for feedback on this chapter though, is because it is the first chapter in a different narrative thread - written in first person, from the POV of Georgey, one of Joe's parents (sorry to any who were hoping for the next bit of Joe's adventures on the island!)

I'm particularly interested in whether you think the first person narrative is relatable and whether I've got the show vs tell about right. 

You will also notice that I've avoided using gendered pronouns for any of the adult characters, for hopefully obvious reasons, and have therefore tried to avoid pronouns altogether, except where necessary. I didn't want to use unfamiliar gender neutral pronouns such as zem/ze/zer, preferring instead to use the familiar them/they/their which I understand are the also more popular amongst non-binary folk. Do you think this works OK?

I am also aware that I am perhaps using the wrong term by referring to 'gender' rather than 'sex'. That actually, strictly speaking, my neut characters are asexual, not necessarily ungendered and that the new, abnormal babies being born are actually developing male or female sex, not necessarily male or female genders. Any views on this?

Finally, if you've read my previous chapters and the thoughts and comments with them, you'll know that I'm undecided about whether Joe with an E is YA or not. The main reason for my doubt is that approx one third of my chapters are, like chapter 3, written from the POV of Georgey, Joe's parent. Could you imagine this chapter in a YA novel?

Thanks, Paul.

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Replies (19)
  • Hi Paul

    Once again I found it really easy to engage with your story and characters. I really enjoyed the chapter and am looking forward to reading on. 

    The two sections I think you could linger on and just slow down the pace to make the reader really feel the emotion were the following:

    With no further words, the consultant stood, bowed briefly in our direction and left. Cris swivelled towards me and took my hands. Neither of us could find any words. We just sat, silently processing the news we’d just received, stroking each other’s hands.

    And I thought you could maybe have Georgy imagining and yearning to see the baby a bit more at this point as their hope at having a child returns:

    to you.’

    ‘Can we see it, I mean him?’ I asked, hope pumping my heart.

    I liked the dynamic between Cris and Georgy. 

    And I also wondered if you could hold back a bit with the nurses explanation about the government hiding the history and just hint at it ominously instead, if that makes sense.  I think you could add tension there by hinting instead of telling it all, however, you may need your reader to know this information. 

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    • Thanks Rebecca,

      Again some great suggestions which I will definitely incorporate. It seems I'm always too keen to move onto the next part of the story, not allowing my characters a moment to reflect on and feel the moment!

      Also noticed that you have changed the spelling of Georgey's name to Georgy and I'm thinking that perhaps I like that better. I've toyed with neut names and their spellings a bit, with the intention of not making them too male or female sounding but also still having at least some names that sound similar to names that we are familiar with. Until the other day, Cris was actually Chriss. Also, in the chapters that Georgey narrates, Joe is always Joh.


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      • And of course the only reason I spot it because it's been spotted in my own work! :) I'm always quick to move on but it's great to have the distance with your ms as I can spot it easier.

        I really like the neut names. It's a good detail. 

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      • Hi Paul,

        I really enjoyed all of the chapters ... but I have to say, they felt like two different books. Sorry.

        Chapters one and two are definitely YA (more likely Middle Grade, actually - how old is Joe?). One chapter from the parents perspective you could get away with, but multiple chapters? I'm just not sure.

        Yikes. Sorry to throw a spanner in the works.

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        • Thanks Kelsang. I don't like being inflexible but Joe's story and Georgey's definitely belong in the same book, and in fact converge in the final few chapters. If that means it can't be YA, I think I would need to make sure I write it as adult fiction with teenage protagonists. Perhaps that means I would need to adjust the style of my Joe chapters.

          Joe is 13 and a half at the start of my story. I originally wrote him as being two years younger but decided it worked better for him to be a bit older. He couldn't be much older than that because the point is he's just hit puberty.

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        • Paul, I think it works as a YA read. More than one POV is difficult to write but I think you do it well. Georgey has a very different voice from Joh and both are relatable. Keep up the good work.

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          • Thanks Kate, that's good to hear.

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          • Hi Paul –

            I have now read what I believe are the two most recent versions of CH1 & CH2  to get up to speed. I’ve also read CH3 and I did a conscientious skim of other people’s feedback. First and foremost, I could feel people and place with real immediacy. There is an appealing briskness to the prose and I was “in” quite quickly. As others have said, I am definitely curious to see how everything unfolds. 

            This glimpse of Joe’s parents is lovely. The energetic shift from Joe’s adventures are specific and welcome. Their relationship is made quite vivid by the one moment of Cris’ impatience and Georgey’s (I will leave the e in until you change it officially!) gentle touch and intervention. I did wonder what motivated Georgey to not want to stay and mourn a bit more. Was it the setting? Some sense Georgey was getting from Cris that being in the facility was grating and unacceptable? Is it simply that the Nurse broke their stunned reverie? It may not be the same as how we might perceive a “miscarriage” now, but I guess I feel there is an emotional beat that could be added here. 

            Per the questions in the introduction of this thread: 

            I quite enjoyed the switch to first person and appreciated the change of location and the sense that I can possibly expect other narrative voice changes moving forward. I am fond of multiple narrators and the writing here enables me to easily make the change. Whether some of these choices will affect YA status, I can’t speak to with any authority. I’ve read a fair amount of what is classified as YA and I honestly have no idea where the lines are drawn and will have to leave further advice about that to the more informed humans!

            Per the question about gender vs sex. I will be straight up and say that that did take me out of the narrative a bit because my brain kept nagging at me that what I’ve read so far is definitely more about sex than gender. Then my brain got louder, less political, and a bit more literary. Specifically, if I imagine myself into a world that has not thought about either sex or gender in 100 years (wondering if that should be longer by the way?), then isn’t the whole conversation more about these surprising (“abnormal”) “body parts?” I found myself asking if “sex” and/or “gender” would even be in this culture’s language at this point? Especially if there’s some Big Brother Newspeak going on behind the scenes. 

            If I am following – and knowing there is much of the story not yet shared yet so please forgive me if I’m way off with all of this - the history Jay knows and shares is about these two dominant types of “body parts” that allowed for a certain kind of reproduction that is currently not in practice. This makes me wonder if Jay also knows that before “neut” was a thing, those different body parts came together in all kinds of configurations for pleasure and not only for procreation? The way I metabolize it all, it feels like this story is about the dangerous politics and complex experiences of new types of bodies and new forms of procreation (and potentials for pleasure) in a world that may have gotten rid of those very things on purpose a century ago. 

            (to be continued)

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            • (continued)

              I realize that if any of this makes sense, it might mean also shifting the group name “Regender.” In general, I feel like a little brainstorming on the covert group’s name might be worthy as the word “regender” might invite readers to think about “gender reassignment” issues rather than about the issues of this world and this time … Man, I feel like I’m piling on here… Please know, I would NEVER have given this much thought to this (I’ve been mulling on all this off and on for a few days now) if I didn’t find the writing engaging, the premise super intriguing, or if these issues hadn’t been flagged in the intro to the thread (which I thought was super humble, classy, and thoughtful). I want readers to stay in – and with – the narrative. So, everything I have offered on this particular issue is to serve that goal. I hope I haven’t overstepped and will now move on.

              Other people have commented on trimming some words here and there and have given you examples. Because this is something I also struggle with, I wanted to share something more writing philosophy/process oriented because I feel like your version of "too many words" is similar to mine so maybe this might be useful... 

              When I write, it’s sometimes like I see and feel whole scenes playing out and I’m scrambling to take detailed sketches. Later though, when I’m editing, I look at the way I described things and I realize that my scramble to keep up with my vivid and demanding muse is not the same as making sure a reader has the best parts and stays engaged. 

              This line about the chickens (a scene I love, by the by) from Chapter 2 stands out for me: 

              A few chickens seemed keen to join them but soon lost interest and fell back to scratching around for grubs or investigating the feeding troughs.

              If this were my writing, I would have seen those chickens following me and written all of it down just as it is here. Then, I would remind myself that the reader has already seen the chickens pecking and has already been introduced to the troughs. We’ve had a lot of fun with the chickens. And it’s funny/endearing and “new” to picture them following, but can I stop it at “but soon lost interest and fell back” or even “but soon lost interest”? 

              Sometimes, certain kinds of editing feel like I’m surrendering artistry even if I’m glad to do it and grateful when people point stuff out for me to cut. But, when I consciously think about this dance between the needs of my muse and those of a potential reader, I get better at finding them myself. I also feel more like the cuts are a way to respect and honour the art and the muse who offered it to me. This is where intended audience, genre, and personal preference all come to play, too. For example, the lifeboat scene in Chapter 1: given my boat illiteracy and that I am generally less fond of detailed action scenes, it could just say “Finally free of the captain, Joe heaved the boat upside down and right side up until it fell recklessly into the sea” and that would be enough for me because I just want to know where he’s trying to go and why, LOL. For people who enjoy the action-adventure part of things more than I do, more description of these moments is golden and offers opportunities for narrative tension. And now I will end this tome.

              I am excited to see where all of this goes next! 


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              • Hi Sulya,

                Firstly wow! Thanks for all the thought you've put into this and the heaps of encouragement you've given me.

                On the question of giving Georgey (and Cris) a little more space to grieve before I move them on, yes. I had already been thinking I'd do this, after reading Rebecca's comments.

                On the question of gender vs sex, I think you raise all sorts of really important thoughts which I need to engage with a bit more, going beyond whether I use the word gender or sex.

                I feel I ought to start by explaining that what caused the human race to become neut is a virus (this was written before Covid-19!!) released into fertility clinics across the UK by a terrorist group which opposes the use of fertility treatment to give babies to same-sex couples. The water-borne virus destroys early stage embryos. The virus does not remain contained within the fertility clinics and rapidly leads to mass infertility in the UK. This is explained in the form of extracts from the scientific logbook of an embryologist in 2031 which are scattered through the novel as independent chapters. The solution that scientists find is genetically engineered virus-resistant embryos but these embryos develop into asexual babies. By the way, this only affected the UK and Ireland which became cut off from the rest of the world because of the virus and at some point became its' own permanently isolated little bubble with no contact with the wider world.

                Yes, perhaps 100ish years is then too short a time for the past to have been forgotten but I didn't want to create a world that was too different from our own (technologically etc). I figured that, cut off from the rest of the world and focusing all energy on restoring and maintaining collective fertility, the UK could have stagnated in all other respects and therefore it's not inconceivable that 100-150 years into the future, the UK might be in a technologically similar place to today. Could I shift my future to say 300-500 years on from today and still have a world that looks and behaves the same as it does today? I'm not so sure.

                In terms of the understanding that Jay has of human sex, gender and sexuality in the past, I do think I need to perhaps make the explanations less certain in chapter 3. What they do have is a knowledge of how animal reproduction works - because they still have farm animals, for example, that reproduce sexually - and that mammals come in two sexes. There is also still a propensity for humans to pair up to form couples, to an extent where they want to share the production and parenting of offspring. One would imagine that such relationships might involve some form of mutually pleasurable stimulation - obviously not related in any way to procreation. However, I don't touch on that in any way, leaving it completely to the reader's imagination. What I do allude to later in the book is a same-sex relationship between two of the girls on the island. I also have a chapter in which a neut character comes out as identifying as female.

                I think you're absolutely right that Regender is the wrong name for my underground organisation, even if I do continue to refer to the abnormal children as 'gendered'. Incidentally, I did a quick search of my manuscript and beyond chapter 3, I only use the word gender or gendered 18 times in the rest of the novel so I could easily work the word out of my writing, one way or another.

                (to be continued)

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                • (continued)

                  In a wider sense, I'm very conscious that I don't want my story to inadvertently cause offence to people who are intersex or to anyone who identifies as transgender or non-binary. Nor would I want anyone to claim that my book in anyway advocates a worldview that heterosexual and cisgender is the only 'natural' or 'normal' way to be. At the same time, as a cisgender, heterosexual male, I don't feel qualified to write a book which truly offers the sort of role-reversed world that Malorie Blackman created for reversing black-white positions in Noughts & Crosses. 

                  What originally sparked the book were conversations with my wife and children about the challenges facing young people who are questioning their own gender identity (not currently my own children, as far as I'm aware, but they have friends who are questioning or who have come out as trans or non-binary). My thought was 'what if a world existed in which being non-binary or neutral was the norm and identifying as either male or female was abnormal?' The simplest way to do this was to assume a world in which biological sex no longer existed in humans and to work from there. But I feel that if there is an 'issue' running through the whole book, it's one of gender identity rather than sex-identity. Although I've avoided gendered pronouns for my neut characters, I have been unable to avoid thinking of certain characters as more male and others as more female and I know that friends who have read the whole thing have found the same. How ingrained are our assumptions and biases around gender? Also, after meeting the neut that identifies as female, Georgey begins to question whether all neuts might be somewhere on that gender spectrum, rather than genderless. Meanwhile, Cris cannot accept that someone who is not biologically different can 'pretend' to be female.

                  Where all this gets me in terms of the semantics, I don't know, except I feel like perhaps gender is the word I need to be using, if I can get away with it. But at the end of the day, my novel is about kids growing up and having an adventure and about parents having to allow their kids to define their own destiny.

                  So Sulya, thanks again for making me think and I'd welcome any further thoughts you might have on these issues.

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                • Hi Paul –

                  So, I will have to sit with all of this a bit and come back to much of it at a later time, but I had some strong first instincts I wanted to share.  

                  (1) I absolutely think it’s possible to get readers to accept what would seem technologically 21st century even after a few hundred years. Given the isolation, necessarily reduced trade, conscious cultural choices for the wellbeing of communities; a few prompts in the writing would cue a reader to accept it, especially in the speculative fiction genre. As it happens, I’ve been watching the new TV version of The Handmaid’s Tale (I’ve read it several times and find adaptation fascinating and this one has swallowed me whole), and I always feel as though if Gilead lasted 500 years, it would still look exactly the same because the choices being made by the Commanders want it that way. Maybe they’d hoard some fancier tech and treats at the top of their hierarchy, but on the ground it would look the same as it did from the start… So, I do invite consideration that there is probably more freedom to play with the timelines if, ultimately, it is felt it will serve the narrative to do so.

                  (2) After reading all that’s been shared in these responses/comments, a huge part of me wants the book to lean into an adult audience so that there is no hesitancy or restraint about the embrace of complexity… All the complexity I was craving to know even a tiny bit more about in these early, establishing chapters: it’s articulated above in these comments. I really crave more of it in the opening part of the book itself. In saying that, I’m obviously not asking for everything the novel is to get packed into the first 3-6 chapters but I do have concerns about not putting in a bit more of all this rich, complicated thinking earlier on. 

                  My foundational concern – the one that kept bumping me out of the narrative – was the sense that the wildly complicated and important experiences and conversations out there around “gender” and “sex” were perhaps being simplified to “procreation”… Perhaps more important than which word is used (or whether the word is still in this culture’s vocabulary), this seeming simplification early in the book could inadvertently alienate a reader. For some people I’ve known, it would likely lead to assumptions about where the book was rooted and where it was going that – from the deeper description and ideas shared in the responses above –  would be wrong and unfair. Thus, I want the book to hold close its complex, thoughtful origins and to fully own that readers can only know about this fictional world what is given to them in the book itself; that the flavour and establishing dynamics/frames of these first chapters will set that tone.  

                  I like opening on Joe running for the island. It’s strong and inspires a lot of curiosity. I’m good watching the contemporary humans work this new equation backwards through their farm animals – that’s clever and interesting. But, the way I’m feeling now that I know more, is that the 2031 journal logbook pieces should probably come in early. I’m also wondering if hearing a bit in the voice of the terrorists (excerpts from a manifesto) who started it all – maybe in only a handful of pieces that open “sections” so it doesn’t have to be as regular a thread to weave? – might also give the writing more freedom to share its foundations. Perhaps even some governmental decrees or clippings from news items through time could help to offer opportunities to establish that the overarching theme of the book isn’t just about how we make babies (which is where these current establishing chapters lead me), but instead an exploration of world with non-binary dominance in a time of evolution and unrest? Procreation becomes a plot vehicle and subtopic then – important (esp with an island full of children and teenagers with body parts that their parents never had and laboratories unilaterally killing “difference”) – but not the central issue as I was left feeling it was by what I’ve read so far. 

                  I hope some of that makes sense. As I say, I will come back at some point and think some more but I wanted to offer you these two thoughts while they were fresh and a bit feisty :)




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                  • Thanks, some more interesting thoughts to chew over!

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                    • OK, so I've made some quite radical changes to chapter 3 (attached) which I think will also have knock on effects for later chapters and plot. I think I like it. Hope you do too!

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                      • Considering Its the only chapter I have read I thoroughly enjoyed it. Want to know more now 😊

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                        • Great, thanks Kelly. If you want to read my first two chapters, you can see what is almost my latest versions of these on my chapter 2 post from a week or so ago. They are quite different from this third chapter though because they're written 3rd person and are about Cris & Georgey's son Joe when he's about 13, which is where the story starts really.

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                          • I will do thankyou 

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                          • Hey Paul! 

                            Just read the new draft of Ch3... Lots of nice changes in there! Some more measured emotional beats throughout and the conversation about what it means for their child to be "male" was solid. It invites me to begin to imagine what their "normal" might be like even though - at this point - I don't yet have total clarity about this "dominant" culture. The idea of their kid being a "monster" is punchy and the added dynamics between Joe's parents are strong. Shifting to "DiG" evokes a nice energy that perhaps the organization is not just about the kind of bouncy openhearted sentiment but also about digging... about getting to new truths, thinking harder, doing more. I'm a huuuuuuuge editing geek in a lot of ways, and I love watching things change and sink more into themselves - thanks for sharing!


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                            • Thanks Sulya. Glad you like it. I was really happy with it too,  so it's good to know it works. Thanks too for your contributions to the melting pot.

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