J.S. Frankel ‘Picture (Im)perfect’: #LGBTQ+ #RGRTransAwareEvent #GuestPost #Spotlight #Review #YA

Please help me today in welcoming author J.S. Frankel to RGR’s Trans Aware Event.  He is here today to talk about writing trans and other diverse characters.  His book ‘Picture (Im)Perfect’ is reviewed by Melissa.  Thank you J.S. for stopping by today!!!

Writing transgender and other diverse characters: How NOT to screw up!

I should start this post by saying that I am not a transgender person. I’m in the privileged camp, that being white, cisgender male, and straight. In the minds of some people in the LGBTQI community, that might automatically disqualify me from writing about gay or trans characters. “How dare he,” they might say with indignation. “He isn’t writing what he knows. How dare he write about us?”

To be honest, if I were a member of the LGBTQI community, I might feel the same way. However, while writers are told to write what they know, I feel that if a writer–any writer, no matter what genre–wants to improve, then they have to write about what they don’t know. So…how to go about it? More important, how not to mess things up? This is by no means an exhaustive summary on what to do. It’s more like a primer, and it’s something I’ve learned over the past couple of years. I’m still learning, and I rely on my LGBTQI friends to set me straight on some things–no pun intended.

I make no claims on being an expert, but the following is what transwomen and gay/lesbian people have told me, something that Ms. Janet Mock told me, and something that my own common sense told me: do the necessary research. That means perusing any and all available material pertaining to the subject. If you’re writing about trans characters/ and if they are central to the story, it may mean including and exploring and showing gender dysphoria, talking about society’s perception of transpeople, the discrimination and harassment they face, the ignorance, and yes, sometimes the violence. Of course, it all depends on what kind of story the writer wants to tell, but I do think the writer must try to understand the feelings of the LGBTQI set, their feelings of who and what they are from their POV. Granted, that is something only they can know, but I do think if one is empathetic then success can be achieved.

Second, it means asking for feedback. When I wrote Picture (Im)perfect, I sent a rough draft to a few gay and trans people I knew online and asked them for their opinions. All of them responded in a most positive manner, gave me pointers on how to phrase things and what they might say in that situation, and I incorporated many of their suggestions. The key here, I feel, is not to write something and say to yourself, “This rocks!” when it may inadvertently offend/trigger someone else.

In terms of writing sci-fi or fantasy or romance, a writer can get away with fudging facts and employing false science in some cases. However, when dealing with gender and orientation issues, the writer–especially if they are not part of that community–has to be doubly careful. What they may feel is a throwaway line or description may cause distress or outright anger on the part of someone in the LGBTQI community. Therefore, common sense dictates that one ask first and change things if necessary.

Finally, it means doing away with stereotypes of gay/lesbian/trans people that are so prevalent. To me, they are people, first and foremost. Their lives should not be sensationalized, trivialized, mocked, jeered at, or anything else. People are people, and regardless of orientation or gender, they put their pants and skirts on one leg at a time, go to school or work, eat, drink, want to have friends and perhaps get married–all of those things. Just like everyone else. This is probably THE most important thing to stress when writing about someone gay or transgender.

These are just my thoughts on the whole process. It is by no means a definitive treatise on how to write a gay/transgender character, but if the writer makes them real and not cardboard cutouts, then there is a good chance that character or characters will be perceived in a sympathetic and positive light.

–Jess (J.S.) Frankel  



Nolan Goodman, star swimmer for Portland High, meets Mia Swarva at a swim meet and thinks he’s found his perfect girlfriend. They start dating, things are going well…and then he finds out that Mia was born Mark, and his concept of what constitutes relationships not to mention sexuality goes out the window. However, Mia has that certain something about her, and Nolan does his best to understand as he genuinely cares for her. Their relationship develops after a series of stops and starts, but when Mia is inadvertently outed on a social website, she and Nolan have to run the gamut of emotions as well as deal with the inevitable reaction to her being transgender. It is only then, that Nolan learns the true meaning of commitment. 


She shook her head. “Charles is such a jerk. He does this with everyone, insinuates they’ve done something when they haven’t.”

“You mean the boyfriend stuff?”

Water erupted from her eyes and ran down her face at light speed. Her breath came out with a catch in it, as if breathing had somehow become an impossible task. “I’ve never had a boyfriend except you. He just thought I did.”

Thinking about Charlie’s mannerisms, the way he spoke and acted, I didn’t think he was interested in girls. “He’s not into you, is he?”

“I want to go home,” she said in a small voice and squeezed my hand hard as if to draw strength from it. “Nolan, I want to go home. Now, please.”

On the bus ride back she started hyperventilating, and a couple of the passengers got all disconcerted, stealing glances in our direction, and whispering. Finally, an old lady peered over at us. “Do you need help, dear?” she asked.

“I’ll… be fine,” Mia gasped out. “I just have to go home.”

The panting continued, but finally we reached the bus stop. She leaned on me all the way back to her house. Once on the front stoop, her breathing returned to almost normal. Mia searched through her bag, tossed the contents around, and finally cursed. “Crap, I would have to forget my key.”

Her mother opened up the door at the first ring. “Hello Nolan,” she said. She seemed pleased to see us, but her eyes abruptly widened once she focused on Mia. “What’s wrong?”

Mia muttered, “Nothing’s wrong.”

In a split-second, Mrs. Swarva’s head swiveled in my direction and her eyes went all kick-ass on me. “What did you do?” she asked in a voice laced with frost.

Whoa, hold on! I put up my hands to ward off the hostility. “Mrs. Swarva, I didn’t do anything, I swear. We met some guy Mia knew and—”

“Who was it?”

Uh-oh, this situation had suddenly gotten out of hand and I started to back away. “Um, look, I’m sorry if I’m interrupting a mother-daughter thing, but maybe you two should discuss this without me—”

“Stay,” Mia interrupted. Her voice came out raw, and she turned on her mother. “It was Charles, Mom. Nolan doesn’t know him like I do. You know what Charles is like, right?”

Her mother’s face had gone from frosty to something that resembled a bomb about to go off. “I should have a talk with his—”

“Mom, I don’t want to hear it, okay?” Mia interrupted again. She seemed on the verge of tears. “Just leave us alone for a few minutes.”

In a sudden violent move, she grabbed my hand and pulled me upstairs with her. Inside her room, she threw off her jacket and plopped down on the bed. Taking a seat beside her, my arm automatically went around her shoulder. “You want to tell me what’s going on or do I have to guess?”

She shook her head. “Charles is such a jerk. He does this with everyone, insinuates they’ve done something when they haven’t.”

“You mean the boyfriend stuff?”

Water erupted from her eyes and ran down her face at light speed. Her breath came out with a catch in it, as if breathing had somehow become an impossible task. “I’ve never had a boyfriend except you. He just thought I did.”

Thinking about Charlie’s mannerisms, the way he spoke and acted, I didn’t think he was interested in girls. “He’s not into you, is he?”

Mia let out a bitter laugh. She knuckled away her tears and took in a deep breath. Her face had set like stone which reminded me of an islet in the middle of the ocean, isolated and alone. “No, he’s just into himself and his own problems.”

I still didn’t get it. Then Charlie’s words about her letting me in on something echoed in my mind. “So what’s this about a meeting? Is it some kind of secret club?”

Mia didn’t answer me. She went to her desk and pulled out her photo album. Coming over to the bed, she thrust it at me. “Look at this,” she said.

“I already did, remember? You look great.”

A note of insistence entered her voice. “I added some pictures. Just look.”

Flipping through it, the pictures sped by, and the one I remembered most was of her wearing a string bikini, showing off her curves. The poses looked professional yet natural, but most of all, they looked totally hot.

“Keep going,” she urged.

Suddenly the feeling of entering a kind of twilight world where nothing was what it seemed came over me. Maybe it was her voice—quiet and insistent—or something else. Who knew… but doing as she said, I kept turning pages.

Near the end of the album, a picture I’d never seen before stood out— a picture of a boy. Taking it out of the plastic casing, I slowly turned it over. Mark, age ten, the caption read. The kid in question had dark hair and green eyes, a green so intense it practically leaped off the paper. I noted the chiseled features which included high, sharp cheekbones bracketing a long and aquiline nose. Amid all the angles and plains, a certain sculpted look stood out.

“Keep going,” Mia whispered. On the next page there was another picture of Mark. It

showed him at age fifteen, his face a little softer this time, eyes not so angry. He’d changed. Taller and leaner, now— naturally—but the shape of his nose and jaw were different, less angular. His chest also somehow looked fuller… rounder. In this particular pose, the mole on his cheek stood out… the same mole in the same spot as Mia’s and…

Oh, holy crap. Nervous system failure ensued and my hands suddenly lost their grip. The album fell to the floor. You couldn’t call me the smartest guy around, but I’d always figured my native savviness and intelligence would carry me through any difficult situation when necessary. Not now…

“You understand now, don’t you?” Mia asked. Her voice, slightly louder now, crashed through my impromptu examination of the impossible, but the impossible had indeed become possible. This was as real as it got.

“Yeah, I got it,” I said, my voice sounding dull and half out of it, comprehension notwithstanding. This whole thing had suddenly entered into another realm.

“Do you?” she asked. Her voice rang with bitterness, the bitterness of those she expected to not understand, the anger against those she may have initially trusted, and the depression that came with the realization of the world never having been a fair place to start with. “You saw the pictures. My birth name is Mark, Mark Andrew Swarva. Use your imagination.”

Melissa reviews Picture (Im)perfect by J.S. Frankel.  Published by Devine Destinies on May 25th 2015, 220 pages.

NOTE:  We were provided a copy of this in exchange for an honest review.

Why I read this book:  On RGR we are celebrating and sharing awareness of transgender people and I liked the premise to this story.

I enjoyed this story for the most part. The romance between Mia and Nolan seemed secondary to the bigger issue of accepting people who are not “normal.” It’s understandably hard for people to wrap their minds around the fact that there are people in this world who don’t feel like everybody else – they feel separate and alone, different and some feel ashamed of who they are. Mia always felt like a girl, but she was born a boy. It is not fair that this happens, but Mia isn’t bitter – she accepted who she was a long time ago. Thankfully her mother was behind her the whole way.

When Mia and Nolan first meet, it felt very sweet and innocent (even though they are 18). Nolan is an amazing young man and far more mature and wise than most 18 year olds. When Mia tells him she was born a boy, he is of course shocked, but when he really thinks about what that means, he decides it doesn’t matter. As he continuously tells people when they ask why he is with Mia, all he can say is they connect.

There were parts that confused me – like when Mia and Nolan are talking about Mia “passing.” Thru the whole book, it’s commented that Mia is very pretty and that she doesn’t look like a trans person (she did have surgeries to fix certain things), and yet Mia will say how she can’t really pass no matter what she does; she still needs to shave twice a week. Towards the end, Mia shows a girl what she looks like under her clothes and the girl says “she’s just like me.” If that is the case, why was there always this fear of Mia being discovered?  Yes, the truth comes out but it’s due to a magazine article, not because someone saw something about Mia.

Nolan’s mother had a hard time understanding Mia and Nolan’s relationship with her. Eventually she does grow to accept and care for Mia – even stand up and defend her to protesters. Thinking about it, I guess her reactions would be considered normal. She was confused about what this meant for her sons sexuality, how people would react to them being together. Having never been exposed to a transgender person, Nolan’s mother was shocked to hear the news, but in the end, she loved her son and wanted what made him happy, and if that meant being with Mia, she didn’t care about anything else.

I wish the story had focused more on their actual relationship and not just outside events. Beyond swimming and watching movies, they don’t really have a lot in common. Obviously they felt an attraction to the other right away and that’s what drew them together, but I personally never saw what kept them together besides swimming. Nolan always told people they had a connection – I don’t know what that is – it was never shown on page (except for swimming). They would spend time studying and talking (about what I don’t know), and they would make out (nothing really on page), have dinner with their moms as a group. That was all nice and stuff, but I needed more.

This is a good book for someone young to read, like in high school. It would be a good teaching tool for them to see another young person (even if they are fiction) be strong and take a stand against bullying. It would show them that it’s okay to be different, and to be friends with someone who is different, and that sticking by your friend is a good thing.

Amazon ~ Devine Destinies

J.S. Frankel was born in Toronto, Canada, many moons ago and managed to graduate the University of Toronto with a degree in English Literature. He moved to Japan shortly thereafter in order to teach ESL to anyone who would listen to him. In 1997, he married the charming Akiko Koike. Frankel, his wife and two sons make their home in Osaka where he teaches English during the day and writes at night until the wee hours of the morning.

Find J. S. here: Devine Destinies ~ FaceBook ~ Twitter


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