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Write what you know: writing outside of your cultural experience

SnoopDogg1andMarthaMost of us have limited cultural experiences. If you’re white, you hang out with mostly white friends; your church and various groups are filled with people who look like you. If you’re Black you look around the congregation on Sunday morning into a sea of colored faces; the radio jock you listen to on the ride into work tells jokes that affirm your cultural experience. Asians and Latin Americans have the same story. I’m not judging. I’m just stating facts.

We stay within a level of comfort so it is not surprising that when we write it is geared toward the audience with which we most identify. Notice I say most of us, because there are some of us, who have had enough variation to write outside of the scope of a single audience. And this all works well except when it doesn’t. When you decide you want to add a little color to your work and the Blacks are all saying things like “yo man” or “what’s happening” or they’re all snarky or angry, or the whites use the word “like” more times than humanly possible or the Asians all speak with broken English; it is then we have a problem. It is a tricky thing to take on a character or a setting of a different ethnicity without trudging in the dirty waters of stereotype and hence peeving off dual audiences.

Earlier this month I talked about writing what you know or knowing what you write, both phrases are basically equal except, writing what you know is drawing on experiences you already own and knowing what you write is reaching and learning so that your knowledge and experience increase and now you can write with a new level of understanding.

We tread lightly when it comes to bringing other ethnic groups into our writing and if you don’t know what you’re doing you very well should.  Sapphire the author of Push, the basis of the movie Precious does it, with the broken dialect and dark life of this teenager girl. Although the author is Black, it is still a culture unfamiliar to the author. James Patterson brought it with his character Detective Alex Cross; the complexity of the character is what is evident. Author Kathryn Stockett did it well with The Help. And she admitted she was a little concerned about using dialect associated with many Southern Blacks of the time in fear of insulting, stereotyping or appearing to mock. And still she was criticized. I personally loved the book and thought it was an honest portrayal. I’m reading and seeing my grandmother and great-grandmother throughout the pages and marveling at how she was able to capture not just the dialogue or the text, but the subtext; movements and things not said but implied. I read the book because I was attracted to the cover. I hadn’t read her bio yet. I didn’t know her history. But when I did I thought “ahh”. You see she had a close relationship her family’s help growing up. It was a risky thing to assume to know what was in the mind of this group.

It is important, I believe to step into that divide to try our hand at something different and daring, but only after we can paint a complete picture. To pretend to know the life of a gang banger and only see his violence or anger is doing it void of experience. Assuming to know the life of a middle class white woman living in Westchester County would be disingenuous for a Black woman raised in the Bronx, unless she knew her story. Simply watching does not an experience make. It’s empathizing and finding that humanity which connects you with the subject. And even with the most deprave people or situations there is that humanity which connects us. To tap into the part, to connect to the human spirit is when we start to know, when we can create and then make the story our own.

As writers we have the privilege to share what we know, by creating new stories. In doing so you may evoke more questions than you answer. And that is where the real story begins.

Posted in August | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Is it a series, a trilogy or an incomplete novel?

Series and trilogies are the latest and hottest trends in fiction writing and apparently authors everywhere are making it their go-to strategy for selling novels. It can be lucrative incomplete bookwhen it works; marketed correctly, it secures an author’s place with a publisher and leaves readers hungrily anticipating more. Suddenly, you have a fan-base waiting in line for the next installment (as I said if everything goes as planned). It certainly worked for E.L. James with the Fifty Shades trilogy and a host more. Series, unlike trilogies are not limited to three and a healthy love affair with characters or story arcs and readers can develop as with James Patterson’s Detective Alex Cross series or the Women’s Murder Club. We love coming back to someone we know and love or hate for that matter (think Hannibal Lecter).

My problem lies with novels marketed with a sequel in mind, but the first book is…well…incomplete. O.K., I get it, there is more to come. But novels, unlike soap-operas do not have the make-up of cliff-hangers. Granted there may be issues lurking and a sense of more to come. But at the end of each novel or story there should be some type of conclusion. The story’s main problem should be resolved, even if only partially.  O.K., you’re not happy with the fact that Spider-Man has decided to forgo a relationship with Mary Jane to protect her from his mission to save the world. But the point is there is an ending and he has made that decision. Are we happy with it? Of course not. And we pray that there will be a change of heart in what has to be Spiderman II. Stories without resolutions are just unfinished works. At the end of the story don’t leave your reader with a dead body not identified or wondering  if it’s John’s baby or not. It defies the structure of a novel and is unfair to the reader.

Authors Victoria Christopher Murray and ReShonda Tate Billingsley collaborated on the novel, Sinners and Saints and marketed it as the first of a two-part series. But after reading, you knew it was a well-written single work. The story’s main problem was resolved, even if there were underlying issues that needed to be addressed. It was the perfect segue for Friends and Foes, their second collaboration. It was easy to pick up where Sinners left off.

Perhaps some writers do this to ensure that the reader will return. Finish the novel and let the reader decide if they love it enough to come back. If your writing is good enough, readers will be begging you for more. (I’ve lost count in the Fast & Furious series.) But there should be some sort of reader pay-off at the end of a book that is 300+ pages. That’s a lot of pages and time spent to get: “stay tuned” as the only return on investment.

Look, I get it, everyone is trying to make a buck or two, but seducing readers into something that is misleading is wrong– plain and simple.

No reader wants to feel as though they are the butt of some twisted marketing ploy. (c’mon at least be subtle about it) I say, produce a well-written first novel and let the reader give you the nod on that five-part series.

What are your thoughts? I would love to hear from you.

Posted in July | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Write what you know and know what you write

As writers we are always digging around for inspiration or trying to break through seasons of writers’ block. Write what you know, they say. We all have a story or from which to draw experiences. Some of us have more going on than others. But a life full of drama doesn’t necessarily make for a good story. Some of my friends’ lives play out like a dizzying episode of Housewives of... But the stories have no point and are often senseless. Their lives are…just…well… full. A good story is not necessarily a chain of external events but a sound telling of the event or person rich with theme and driving forces.

Writing what you know isn’t just an eye witness report of what you see. It’s getting inside of the characters, finding out what stirs or incites them. What types of people or circumstances bring out the worst or the best in them? How are they getting through it and why won’t they give up? Give the reader a reason to keep reading. You don’t have to know a lot of people or even be well traveled, but you must have an intimate connection with the people you do know. You must be willing to suspend judgment or conclusion and tell the story unbiased.

Writers of  well written short stories,  well excel in this–the ability to walk into a moment, draw out its essence and derive a story. Let’s face it, every story has been told in some form or another. But it is our experiences and the nuances that we bring which will flip a subject as commonplace as divorce or death or sickness and suddenly you know you’ve never heard it quite like that before. It is taking a ‘what if’ this way and flipping it around to find the ‘what if’ another way.

It’s also important to know what we write; seek to find that connection that allows you to identify with a story. Several years ago I was talking to a dear friend of my mother shortly after the death of her husband. I’ve known her and the family since I was a kid. They were the sweetest people you could meet.  I called her shortly after his death not knowing what to say, only imagining her devastation and loss.  Instead of an inconsolable elderly lady, I was met by a woman who seemed liberated, relieved even, that her closest companion was gone. I kept asking questions trying to make sure I heard her correctly. I was trying to reinterpret what she was saying to what I thought she should be saying. After 50 years of marriage I had a pretty good idea of what she must be feeling; she had to be drowning in grief and no doubt unsure about her future.  But instead, she kept insisting on things like learning to play the piano, going out to dinner more often. “He was a stubborn man.” She said several times. “He never wanted to go to the doctor. I finally said, ‘Carl, do what you want!’”

When the conversation was over I realized that her story was not typical of a grieving widow. This woman worried herself sick throughout his illness. She insisted he see someone about his symptoms but he blatantly refused until the cancer had spread and the doctors couldn’t contain it. Turns out, he’d always been obstinate, unyielding and often impossible.   She carried the burden of seeing about him for years and it had worn her out.  And now he was gone. And although she was sad, she was also free. And she didn’t have to worry anymore. She could finally let go and live, even at 71. She started talking about a list of “must dos” and the phrase “starting over” was mentioned more than once.  We all knew him differently she insisted.

My experience with losing a close loved one did not parallel hers. And that’s O.K. It is what makes our stories unique.   And then I thought about a time when I felt relieved that something was over when social norms said that I should be grieving or mourning.  And that’s when I got it. And now I can tell her story because it is now part of my experience; the connection has been made. It matters not if I agree or empathize with the way she dealt with her husband’s death and it won’t matter for you. That’s not important. But, the fact is, I will know what I’m writing about.

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Should new writers do book signings?

Every author at one time has dreamed of their great book signing. It plays in our head like book-signingsomething from a movie: hard covered copies of our book stacked on the table on either side of us. There may be a person or two there to help us, you know…crowd control. And we are ready.

As the signing begins a line stretched down the aisle has gathered; so engrossed are we in scribbling our name across book after book we barely have time to look up except to flash a proud smile and gush at the plethora of compliments our fans insists on heralding upon us. This is the moment we have longed for. This is the life of an author.

Well, then we attend a few signings of other authors and then a few more and realize these fan crazed events only happen for a select few–those whose names top the NYTBS regularly. Even some of our favorite authors don’t get this kind of turn out, at least not in every city. And for the rest of us, plugging along, well…

I once heard a well-known marketing expert say that new authors should not give book signings. She goes on to say that there is nothing sadder than a newbie sitting there with a stack of books as people walk by with barely a glance. Many don’t acknowledge you at all.

I suggest to you that this belief has much truth in it. When I decided to do my first book signing I was somewhat concerned about this advice. But then I decided my mission would more than just to sell books and therefore my expectation became a little different. And if you are not yet a well-known author your mission must be different too. Here are my suggestions if you do decide to have a traditional book signing.

Brand your area

If you are not well-known at least look the part. Hang a large colorful banner with a picture of you and your book cover. Make your area presentable, standing some of your books upright. Have a couple of giveaways on your table such as bookmarks with your name and a picture of your book included somewhere on it; bring along branded pens or bags. And don’t forget press releases.

Bring or invite a few friends to hang out with you

Yep, sitting there alone isn’t very cool. Invite or bring along a few friends to create a hub of sorts. They will not only give you support but will also fill in the white space between visitors.

Smile and look active

If you look as though you’re waiting on something you’re not getting you will be perceived as such. Smile and look as though you are the one to know.

Greet and be personable with all who approach your table

Some will come and pick up your book and you may be thinking, O.K., dude you don’t even look like you read my genre. Keep moving. But you may find out his neighbor was just saying the other day she was looking for a good read (something like yours). Also you want to be perceived as personable and engaging (You are not Harper Lee and therefore not in the position to refuse to be sociable with those who reach out to you).

Include a guest book

Anyone who wants to sign your guestbook should be able to. Allow them to leave an email address for your newsletter if they desire.

Combine your signing with that of another author

They say there is strength in numbers. By combining a signing with other authors both or all of you get the benefit of the clout of each other. Also, it allows you to build relationships with other authors.

The bottom line is you may not sell or sign a truckload of books, therefore go with different goals in mind; prepare to gain exposure for yourself and your book. Some won’t remember you, but others will. At my signing for In Three Days, I had some people who approached the table and did not buy but left their personal information because they love to read and talk about books. They wanted to be added to the email list. One guy was a writer of short stories and I promised to read some of his work. I had an opportunity to connect with the people who worked there as well. I realized as with anything, you sell yourself first and then everything else will follow.

Also an option to the signing is a book launch party, which is more like a celebration, a party of sorts to celebrate you and your milestone. Of course there will be books to sign, but the main goal is to meet, greet and celebrate. I will be having one in a few weeks. I will let you know how that goes.

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The Responsibility of the Free: Part II

The Responsibility of the Free_II

With an examination of current events, I felt it necessary to again address the responsibility of the free.

Our focus is generally on the present. You see, here, in America needs are met (even if we sometimes struggle) and wants are just minutes away (people earning minimum wage are sending Instagram pics via their new iPhones). We are free to move as we please, to earn as much money as we can; knowledge and opportunity abound, despite seasons of setbacks.  Life, for most isn’t bad at all.

We live in a country where for many of us the civil rights movement of the 60’s and the racially charged atrocities of years prior are mere points in history.  Even the events of 9/11 are slowly being shadowed by other tragedies.

But just within the past several years a non-profit organization that I support, begin sending me pamphlets depicting human trafficking. No, this was not some third-world propaganda for which I could justifiably say: over there…not surprising. No these events were happening in the good ole’ US of A. Young girls, some as young as twelve, runaways mostly, were being sold as sex slaves. They were forced to perform with grown men who had an unnatural appetite for girls instead of women. For months these pamphlets arrived without fail.  I did not respond. I thought things like this just don’t happen here and if it was happening to runaways…well…what can you do with kids who don’t want to come home on time and refuse to listen to their Momma. It was out of my experience, beyond my reasoning and therefore it could not exist to the extent to which they claimed.

It was not until I saw the depictions through television did I finally get it. It was real and furthermore the victims weren’t accosted by known pedophiles and obvious creeps. These were men who went to work every day; they were raising families and many had no criminal record at all. It just didn’t make sense to me.

My point you ask? Sometimes when events are above our experience or our line of reasoning, we try to justify why it happened. No, we need to justify it because anything void of logic or order we fear. If we cannot reason it out, how do we control it?  It upsets the balance of things. It throws off our truth. It is unsettling, unnerving. It saddens. And what does it say about us and what we believe? If what we believe is no longer true, worst yet, was never true we are forced to question our judgment and perhaps examine the whole paradigm to which we ascribe.

Surely the victims must somehow be at fault.

Racial profiling. There is a society that believes this not a reality. Racial profiling is done by a select few and to a select few, they say.  It is not common or a prevalent offense which would cause an upset to a general population. Black people always think the world owes them something. Arabs are just paranoid and feeling guilt about what happened on 9/11. Gay-bashing is not really bashing because these people are indulging in behavior that is an abomination to God and man and well…things happen. There is always a good reason behind the offense because to say that our actions are shameful, horrendous or evil, places us on a level with the barbaric. And certainly we, Americans are a far cry from barbaric.

But indeed these things do exists. Not because some overly sensitive angry black dude says that it is so, or some flagrant gay guy protests, but because thousands have been victims–thousands.  Many go about their lives quietly and unassumingly and say nothing about it. They take hit after hit, quietly. The fact is most want to believe the best of people; they want to live life peacefully and without intrusion or spotlight. To address or speak up may mean they have to take action (the same action the rest of us refuse to take). To take action means we might fail. What if no one cares?

Hatred is real. Stereotyping and racial profiling are real. I would say that we should all just love one another. And that would be true. Indeed we should. But let’s take it from a different perspective. What is the responsibility of the free? It is our responsibility to ensure that all citizens are safe and respected. The protection from harm and evil applies to everyone.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

These injustices are not just an assault on the freedom of a few but a threat to the freedom of us all. Today it may be Blacks or Gays or Arabs or Latinos. Tomorrow it could be a new group of people.

Perhaps your experience has been different. Maybe you don’t have a hateful bone in your body. Perhaps your Black or White friends love all people. You have invited your Asian neighbor over for barbeque on numerous occasions. Or perhaps you’ve had a bad experience and now you don’t trust Whites or Blacks or even Jews. But to paint a label on a people and not simply a person is a great injustice.

It is our responsibility as the free to ensure that all are protected; no one’s right should be infringed upon. We must open our eyes to plights which are beyond our experiences–to see the world through different eyes. It is not just a right, but a responsibility.

What are your thoughts? I would love to hear from you.

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The Responsibility of the Free

It’s another July fourth weekend and I’ve loaded up on enough food to feed a small village. I’ve bargained for the best deal on fireworks from the plethora of vendors lining thebth_fireworks-american-flag_zpsac5cc454 streets in my city declaring they’ve got the greatest deal of them all. It seems I’ve done my part in upholding Independence Day traditions. Oh, did I mention I’m headed to the fireworks to fight my way through the crowd of thousands where I will spend more time in traffic than I actually do watching the sparkling phenom? Hey it’s tradition and you can’t change tradition on a whim.  Yep. That should about do it. That’s the Fourth.

And then again, if this is what this holiday has amounted to, then it has gone the way of Christmas and Thanksgiving—we indulge ourselves and the few in our circle and have a hard time explaining what the holiday is about.

Was it the Pilgrims or the Quakers at Plymouth Rock? Were Santa and baby Jesus born on the same day?

I have a strong suspicion that when the founding fathers broke away from Britain a couple hundred years back they had a little more in mind than popping illegal firecrackers when they talked about freedom. Now, this was not just freedom to worship and establish our own without the tyrannical rule of a King or Queen but freedom in a country where men and women could choose and elect a government that represented their beliefs and the true reflection of the people. (O.K., we’ve had a hard time explaining some things. My ancestors are giving me an evil chill because nothing justifies slavery.)

But let’s not get mixed up. By no stretch are we perfect, the Norman Rockwell image is alive only in our heads, but eying national news, even if for a moment or two (Egypt did what to Morsy?) you know that we are better off than many. We have progressed in many ways even if we have a while to get to where we need to be. But yet we moan and complain and are often annoyingly ungrateful. (You won’t be able to install my pool until when?) This freedom doesn’t make us carefree or less engaged but our burden transitions from being confining and dictating to being lighter and less intrusive. It makes room for individual expression.

And now we have the responsibility to teach the world– by example. To show them that freedom isn’t demonstrated by being self-serving, pretentious elitists. It is conveyed by creating a vested interest in others. It is shown by being kind and compassionate and realizing the humanity in peace and helping those who cannot help themselves. It means that we are empathetic towards others—even those who don’t look like us. In other words, we are indeed our brothers’ keeper. Freedom carries weight and expectation. This liberty has nothing to do with doing whatever you please. It is reflected in being able to make choices and to grow and express ourselves as individuals. It is the opportunity to use our specific talents and gifts to help others. (Notice the theme here…others?)

Freedom is a precious thing.

It reminds me of the ring bearer at a wedding. He toddles toward the front of the church, short arms outstretched, careful to uphold this fancy pillow, just as he’s been instructed to do. He’s tiny and seemingly insignificant but he is carrying the most important symbol of the bond, the undying love of the couple standing at the head of the altar. All eyes are on him, watching and waiting, his responsibility is great even if he doesn’t grasp this truth.

In the beginning we too, as Americans seemed insignificant. But now, all eyes are on us, watching and  waiting. It’s our responsibility to walk the walk of the free with dignity and grace–fully understanding this truth.

Posted in July | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments