Writing to the Non-Existing Audience

Originally published at Thagomizer

Recently I was having a conversation with a couple of friends and acquaintances regarding the release of my novel, Hollowstone. As I explained the premise behind the book, they expressed it was a novel they would be very interested in reading.

They then expressed that they don’t read books. As the conversation continued, they explained it was in large part to their horrors in school. Horror stories I was all too familiar with. The others elaborated that they hated being forced to read classic literature which usually translated works written by old dead white men and ergo deemed as the only type of “literature” worth reading.

Between having to read pretentious egregious tripe that was irrelevant to teens during their adolescence and mandatory reading during their summer vacations, once they graduated, they vowed never to pick up another book again.

The truth is they aren’t alone. The truth is that there are too many people who do not read for very valid reasons.

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My Steps To Creating Characters And Building Worlds

Originally published at Twinjas Book Reviews

 

One of the questions I’m constantly asked (which admittedly I never get tired of answering) is what  my process in terms of world building and developing complex characters.

My approach to world-building and character development ultimately corresponds to my overall approach to storytelling. As a writer, I personally belong to the school of character = story. What truth do we discover along the character’s journey? More than that, whether it’s fiction, articles or blog posts, I generally have three mandates which I dub E-Cubed: Enlighten, entertain and empower.

Needless to say that E-Cubed has led to other techniques which has only enhanced my storytelling abilities over the years.

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Shonda Rhimes: A Screenwriter’s Advice

36_Shonda_Rhimes_Cover_Embed     Hat tip to my  buddy Benjamin forwarded me this webcomic. I definitely appreciated what Shonda Rhimes wrote as I’ve lived Rhimes’s point on many a day. It’s great to dream, and the good book says that faith the size of mustard seeds can move mountains. But the Bible also says that faith without works is dead. So it’s great to dream but you have to put in the work to make said dream a reality. Another reason, among countless others, as to why Shonda Rhimes is one of my inspirations and heroines.     2014-09-24-shonda

The Value Of A Blogger

 

 

My good buddy, the beautiful and brilliant Sisterspooky has a most excellent post on the value of bloggers and the roles we play in the publishing industry.

As I stated on her blog in a reply comment:

“This is a most interesting topic as I identify as much as being a blogger as I do being an author.

I’ve been writing stories my entire life and I’ve blogged for the better part of 10 years. I’m in a unique position (with a few other fellow authors) because while many authors have turned to blogs and other forms of social media to connect with fans and promote their work, I was a blogger first who had a respectable following before my debut novel, Hollowstone, was released.

Bloggers have a special place in my heart for many reasons. Not only are they my brothers and sisters, but you all do what you do for the love and for the passion and for the excitement. So when you endorse a book, I know you do it because you genuinely love it.

You are more than an important part of the publishing industry. You are crucial. When I did my virtual book tour, I was both honored and humbled that so many bloggers wanted to participate. Hollowstone would not have been the success that it’s been if it wasn’t for bloggers like yourself. And for that you will always have my thanks.”

Ankh Speaks: The Day Job

So over on Middle Child Press, Ankhesen Mie explains why artists being unemployed is not a good look.

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I recently viewed a trailer for a film we shall not speak of here.  In the trailer, the protagonist is a struggling writer who totally sucksis having money problems because he won’t buckle down and get a damn day job.  He says that as a writer he has to “pay his dues”.

Some folks argue that the day job is the artist’s ultimate bane.  They feel they would be more productive if they didn’t have to go toil for someone else everyday.  They feel they belong with a cigarette and notepad on a park bench somewhere, watching the kids play like some child molester.  They think they’ll get more work done if they head out to the coffee house and surf the web for eight hours a day.  And then they wonder why their writing careers don’t go anywhere.

Mm-hm.  I feel the day job is the best way for a writer to pay their dues.  If you have a genuinely creative mind, you can use your job – whatever it be – as a source of inspiration.  And if you go the popular, cost effective self-publishing route – which I highly recommend – you have complete control over your own material which, last time I checked, is every writer’s dream.

Many cigarette smoking, coffee house writers are often seen as ignorant, naive, and idealistic.  The lack of a day job and the glamorization of the “starving artist” tends to keep them out of touch with reality.  They’re limiting their interactive circle, and by being financially negligent, they’re actually causing increasing problems in the long-term (starving artist ironically tend to have gourmet tastes in fashion, food, and furniture).

Fashion tip from Moi: knowing that your bills are paid and you’ll always have a place to sleep does wonders for the creative mind because even though you’re pretty tired at the end of the day, you’re not stressing out.

The Heterosexist Narrative

And my girl Ankhesen Mie comes out swinging, HARD!!!!!

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After battling the worst bout of writer’s block I’ve had in a while, I finally rescued myself by coming to one of my momentous decisions: no more stories where love is a central theme, and no more sex scenes (unless they have a comical edge).

It has nothing to do with being a prude or anything like that; it has more to do with the fact that romance as we know it needs to take a holiday.
I feel – and this is just my humble opinion – that as we are seeing a stubborn whitening of everything in media, we are also seeing a stubborn straightening of everyone.  In addition to the obsession of showing white people in romantic relationships, I feel there’s been an added emphasis on showing them in straight relationships.
In other words, not only is Hollywood pushing back against the growing number of people of color in this country, the country’s own origins of color, and the dominance of color abroad, Hollywood is pushing back against the increasingly visible and vocal gay population which is rightfully sick and tired of second-class citizenship.
I once criticized the virulent prevalence of (heterosexual) love triangles in media.  They were popping up everywhere and turning no one on.  Now, it seems, “romance” has become a shameless plug in which women in particular are reduced to mere love interests, reminding the audience that straight is great, so don’t deviate.
Now, if you’re wondering where this post is coming from, you have Nina Simone to thank for that.  First off, Zoe Saldana has no business portraying this woman.  I love me some Zoe, I’m glad she’s making her money and getting steady exposure, but despite her proud declaration of being a Black woman, Hollywood finds her “safe” enough to put in its movies, and thereby continue its quest to whiten damn near everybody.
Secondly, as Nina Simone’s daughter has pointed out, her nurse Clifton Henderson was gay.  The film intends to portray the last eight years or so of her life, and for some reason, the PTB feel the need plug in a romantic subplot.  So now we have a damn biopic being blatantly rewritten so as to once again pointlessly portray heterosexual romance – why does there have to be a romance in this situation at all?

Writing 101, kids: “love interest” is not a “purpose.”  It’s not a role.  It can be a minor aspect of a fleshed-out, multidimensional character, but not their entire reason for existing.  If they don’t contribute anything else to the central plotline, they need to be written the hell out.

And lastly, Hollywood needs to just friggin’ deal.  Gays, like folks of color in general, are here.  They’ve always been here.  They’re not going anywhere.  So let our gay actors come out publicly and portray themselves.  When the audience can see same-sex hugs and kisses that aren’t stiff or uncomfortable or very carefully rehearsed, it’ll lend movies a whole new level of credibility and respectability.  Stop orientation-bending already.

And lose the excessive romance.  We get it.  Heteros dig each other.  How nice it must be for them…when they’re not divorcing each other in shameful rates, or cheating on each other after a needlessly expensive but at least God-sanctified wedding, or taking each other for granted, or constantly fleeing the kids they spawned during their wonderful, God-intended hetero sex.

*yawn*  We get it already. What else you got?

21 Lessons Learned As A Debut Novelist

 

So a little over a year ago, something very special happened. My novel Hollowstone was released. To say it changed my life forever would be a vast understatement. From traveling across the country to promote the book, to connecting with extraordinary people all over the globe, I’ve had so many wonderful experiences thanks to one little book.

That being said, I’ve learned a lot in the last year. Some has been self discovery, some was advice from experts. And then there was “advice” from “experts.”

Being a published novelist has been a wild ride and at times a very crazy one, as you’ll see from this list. So below are 21 Lessons I’ve learned since publishing my debut novel.

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The Writing Group: To Group or Not To Group

The following guest post comes from the very lovely and talented Jess Faraday, author of Affair of the Porcelain Dog, a novel that has been getting some serious buzz and some nice accolades.

You can find Ms. Faraday on her official blog at http://jessfaraday.com/.

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The Writing Group: To Group or Not To Group
Jess Faraday

Hi Everyone!

About a year and a half ago, I had the good fortune to sell my first novel Affair of the Porcelain Dog. Perhaps ‘good fortune’ isn’t the best term to use. There was more hard work involved than luck. And it wouldn’t have happened at all without the consistent support of my writing group: a small, hardworking cadre of writers who voluntarily suffered through four drafts of the manuscript and still managed to find astute observations each time.

I wouldn’t say that it’s essential to have a group, but it certainly helps. For one thing, you probably won’t get much out of friends and loved ones besides “it’s great”…whether or not that’s true. For another, other people going through the same process are more likely to be able to point out flaws that non-writers might not see.

But there are so many kinds of writing groups–and so many ways for groups to fail. How do you find the right one?

A simple search for writing groups turns up a dizzying array of choices. Big or small? Online or in person? Formal or informal? Structured feedback or free-form? Moderated? Open Membership? One specific type of writing, or any type? Paid or free? Hierarchical or consensus? These are just a sample of the parameters you might encounter, and each one will affect your experience with the group.

I can’t tell you what kind of group is right for you, specifically, but I can give you the most important piece of advice: know yourself.

Online or In-Person?

Some people find the anonymity of an online group less intimidating than meeting with people face-to-face. Some people find it easier to give an honest analysis in writing, especially when it comes to pointing out perceived flaws in someone’s work. And many of us find it easier to read, rather than to hear what doesn’t work for other readers.

A flip side of this is that many people don’t take the time to be diplomatic online. It’s easy to offend people–even when you don’t mean to–when they can’t see your face or hear your tone of voice. And if you’re having a bad day, it’s easy to misinterpret what someone else says about your work, even if it was meant in the most helpful way.

Think carefully about which would work best for you. Or try one of each. The format of the group isn’t as important as how well the format suits you.

Structured or Free-Form?

Whether a group meets online or in person, I’ve found it helpful for the group to have guidelines and expectations. One might think that a free-for-all provides the greatest flexibility, but I’ve found it a lot harder to get useful feedback without a few rules.

Reciprocity

Let’s face it: we’re all more interested in getting feedback about our own work than in taking time away from our projects to give feedback to others. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a group with no rules or requirements. While a couple of people may initially make a good-faith effort, I’ve seen too many unstructured groups fizzle under the weight of people tossing out pieces for crit, not giving anything in return, then getting frustrated when no one lauds their genius.

At the minimum, a group needs to have guidelines for reciprocity: members need to give in order to get. This has the added advantage of weeding out people who are only looking for a pat on the back.

Structured Feedback

Having an agreed structure for critique–ie; what specific information members need to provide when reviewing another member’s work–can provide much more useful information than “this is great!” or “ack.” Establishing diplomacy guidelines–ie; “this piece of dialogue seemed out of character” as opposed to “wow, this sucked”–can also cut down on hurt feelings. For in-person groups. having an agreed meeting structure–for example, covering a set number of member contributions each meeting–will help keep the group on track and keep the group from turning into a coffee klatch.

Group Size

I currently belong to two writing groups–one online and one in-person. Both groups are capped at about eight people. To my experience, a small group means that we can cycle through more members’ work more quickly. It also means that each person’s work can be examined more thoroughly and given more personal attention.

A larger group has the advantage of providing a wider audience for each work. It also means less personal connection between members–which some writers prefer. At the same time, it also means your work might get lost in the shuffle. And, at least in large online groups, there are always people who want feedback about their own work, but can’t be bothered to look at other members’ contributions.

Again, structure is crucial. I have belonged to two very large online groups in the past. One had moderated membership and a reciprocity requirement (ie; members had to critique one member’s work per week, whether or not they submitted anything themselves). The other had open, unmoderated membership, no structure, and no requirements. The first (over 5,000 members) is highly regarded and still going strong after more than a decade. I drifted away from the second after it became clear that the majority of people wanted an audience for their own work, but weren’t willing to provide more than a token “good job”–if that–for anyone else.

It doesn’t matter how large the group is, beyond how well that size fits with your needs. However, I’ve found that for all sized groups, moderation, reciprocity and structure are key.

 Paid or Free?

For me, this has never been a question. Who has the money to join a paid writing workshop?

On the other hand, there are advantages to for-profit workshops. First, they know that they’re competing with thousands of free workshops. They know that they must offer something that free workshops don’t. Often, it’s access to a professional: an author, an editor, an agent, a publisher, or a writing instructor. If you’re just starting out, or are seeking a little something extra from your group, a paid workshop may be the way to go.

Also, in a paid workshop, whether a class or a group organized by someone in the field, everyone there is serious enough to have committed money to the effort. So the chances of getting quality feedback from your workshop-mates increases.

However, if you do your research and find a group that fits your needs, there’s no reason that you can’t have as fulfilling an experience with a free group as you can with a group with paid membership.

Where to Go From Here

If you’re looking for a face-to-face writing group, I suggest starting your search at your local bookstore, library, or writers’ professional organization. You can browse hundreds of online writing groups right here on LJ–if you do your research, you should be able to find one that works, or you can start your own. Good luck!

A Novel Pro-Tip

Pro-Tip for authors: If you receive a negative a review on your novel, story, DO NOT ENGAGE!

Maybe the reviewer misread the piece.

Maybe the reviewer is too dense to get your genius and is an idiot.

Maybe the reviewer has a hangup on one issue and it’s blinding them to the overall story.

Maybe the reviewer has a legit beef about the prose and they are well within their rights to call out the problematic elements.

Maybe the reviewer is a drama/wank whore who has a personal agenda/vendetta and is looking to do you harm.

Maybe as a storyteller you had a great idea and an excellent concept but you failed in the execution.

Maybe both the reviewer and the author are two perfectly pleasant and wonderful people who simply have two vastly different and equally valid interpretations to the text.

Maybe the reviewer is being more than fair and objective and you just have your over-inflated head up your ass.

Maybe the reviewer gave you more credit than you deserved and you’re just a primadonna, a talentless hack on top of that.

These are all very possible, and I’ve seen all of these scenarios over the years.

Whatever the situation. whether the reviewer is right or wrong, an author arguing with them is bad form. Let’s face, probably 97 percent of novelists don’t have the nuance to engage critics and come out looking classy.

Because it looks like the author is throwing a hissy fit and being a bully because a reader didn’t like their story. And if the reviewer is in fact a troll or has an underhanded agenda, you’re playing right into their hands.

This weekend, against my better judgement, I read this epic wankstorm where authors and commenters showed their collective asses. And no, I will not be linking to it. Not gonna feed the monster. Suffice to say the entire time reading, this was pretty much me:

judging-you-sif

Other readers may see the negative reviews but they aren’t as gullible as you think (some of them anyway). Case in point. This weekend I happened upon a novel written featuring an African-American protagonist. As my buddies and I discussed, what was interesting for us was the only people leaving negative reviews were all white. And note, the author had the class to not engage the haters. Needless to say the novel was added to my To-Read list.

Authors, DO NOT ENGAGE! It will not end well…………………………….for you!!!!!!!

The Craft: Author vs. Writer

So my good friend and fellow novelist, Corruption author Amaya Radjani, recently penned a most brilliant piece about when a writer becomes an author based on a previous discussion she and I had.
 
You should definitely stop by and show her some love.
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By Amaya Radjani
 
During a discussion with Denny Upkins, author of Hollowstone, the subject of what we do came up, as it tends to since we’re both published authors. The text of the conversation is as follows…

Me:  “I understand how refreshing it is to connect with like minds.  It’s rare.  Ankh and I are storytellers, which is why we get along so well.  Through her, I met you, and you’re a wordsmith just like us.  It’s so great because we can talk about certain things.  I wish I knew more real authors like us.  I know plenty of writers, but very few authors.”

Denny:  “Girl you ain’t never lied. One of my friends was talking about this.  She’s critiquing my next novel and she stated something that really struck a chord. She said she loved critiquing me because my objective is to tell a great story and not be known as a great writer. Because there’s a huge difference.  I think with us, we’re working towards something more meaningful in our narratives which is why we strive to be great authors because we’re serving an ignored audience that is black women, women of color, POCs and LGBTQs.”

Me: You’re so right.  So right.  Soooooooo right.  I’m more concerned with telling a balanced, solid story than I am with being portrayed as a good writer.  The second can’t happen unless the first does.”

To which Denny co-signed.  This was also a subject addressed in part on the Blasian Narrative as well.  I also discussed this to some extent in my interview At the Bar. After Denny’s and my conversation, I decided to define for myself the difference between an author and a writer.  Now, under no circumstances am I an expert in anything, but I am qualified to express my opinion on my blog.  You may disagree, and that’s fine too. Educational discourse is always welcome.

An author begins as a writer, but then somewhere along the line, the vision changes and becomes all-encompassing.  I knew I was going to be an author by age eight because I saw my name on the spirals of books, and I could imagine what my book covers would look like, and even who would be my publisher (Viking, Scribner, Random House…hey, I was eight).  I illustrated my stories and bound them in 3-ring binders or loose pages glued together with rubber cement.  I included copyright pages and stuff like that because I studied books by other authors.  It was about the story, but then it became about the story and letting the world know about it.  I knew that it would happen one day and I never had a moment’s doubt.

But it was always the story itself, first and foremost.  How to make the words on the page match the images in my mind?  How to interpret what I was seeing into the vocabulary (albeit extensive) of a kid?  How to finish what I started?  How do I end it?  How do I end it?  How do I end it?  These aren’t easy questions when you’re a novice.  You want the words to be perfect when you first put pen to paper. It just doesn’t happen that way.   Nor will you pen a 250-page novel your first time out.  As with all things, the key to getting better is consistent practice and learning who you are as a writer.  I kept writing (and reading) to improve my overall understanding of how to tell a story to completion, and all I wanted to do was get better and better at keeping up with my muse; who if I allow free reign, will always see me through to the end.

Don’t be afraid to solicit feedback, but make sure it’s from reliable sources.  You’ll want to find someone willing to edit your work, and here I stress the need to find another writer who’ll do it (especially if it’s reciprocated).  Do not be afraid if the feedback isn’t positive.  Feedback is essential, and people need to understand the nature of it.  When I wrote my fanfic, I got a lot of “good job, keep going,” responses. I also got a lot of, “This is horrible; you should never write again,” replies as well. Those comments do absolutely nothing for authors.  We have to know specifics: what’s good about the story, what’s bad about it, things of that nature so they can be addressed. And negative feedback is still feedback.  The reviewer may not have liked what we wrote, but what we appreciate is when they can tell us in detail what it was they didn’t like, and what they did like.  Such commentary is what gets us to our next book.  And for authors, there’s always a next book.

The point here is to keep writing, keep practicing, keep making attempts to get better, including doing research on your subject, characters and plot specifics. Writers write what they know, but it is a measure of growth if you make serious attempts to move out of your comfort zone.  For instance, I never wrote anything other than black women paired with black men because that’s what I knew.  But I branched out and wrote a Blasian novel, and I learned so much; enough that I know I’ll continue down the Blasian path, as well as branch out into other genres like steampunk, mystery, sci-fi & dark fantasy. It requires a wealth of research, but the endgame for me is always a solid, readable novel, and so it’s worth it.  You also need to know the audience for which you write because everything isn’t for everybody.

To this regard, I’m also making a concerted effort to branch out with character orientations.  Never have I read a novel with a LGBTQ protagonist, and Denny assures me that there are very few books (good or bad) with such characters.  I’m heterosexual, and I’m always concerned about authenticity in my storytelling.  My characters believe in having sex, and so intimate encounters are a legitimate concern of mine.  I know that I can do it, but research and time are required to make it believable.  The last thing I want is for a LGBTQ consumer to read my novel and say, “A straight woman wrote this shit.”  The last thing I want for anyone reading my novels is to question their authenticity and/or call them shit.  So best believe I will use every resource available to get it right, including, but not limited to, conversations, interviews and reading books by LGBTQ authors.  I’ve also made a serious attempt at writing slash in some of my fanfic, and have been mightily encouraged to keep going by fans of the genre.  Baby steps, y’all, baby steps…

Another topic is the issue of book covers.  Before I talk about this, I have to make an important point; one which Denny pointed out.  Authors who sign with standard publishing houses typically do not have control over the cover their book receives. The author is at the whim of the publisher, who may decide to use an absolutely horrendous cover that does no justice to the book itself.  The idea that someone else can decide how my book is presented to the world horrifies me enough that I will strive to always maintain creative control.  For those of us who self-publish, this is completely possible.  So I will limit my discussion on artistic book covers to us.

There is a continuous debate on the Narrative about book cover quality.  Since a lot of people (me included) decide whether we want to read a book based on its cover, it behooves the author to produce a quality book jacket.  It’s not enough to photoshop random images and throw up a title…what you oftentimes get is a hot visual mess that detracts from what may be a really good story.  Take a look at some of the book covers on the Narrative and you’ll see what I mean.  Denny has also touched on this very same topic.  

 
When I invest years into the writing of a novel (Corruption took a year; Blade Dancer, 2 ½; In the Pale Moonlight, 3), I will not slack off by getting a weak-ass jacket to wrap my baby in.  I will invest money into getting a beautiful and appropriate cover by a professional graphic artist or a superlative art student.  If you’re a true visionary, you already know how you want the book to look and this last part is fairly easy.

Under no circumstances am I dissing writers.  Absolutely not; I started out as one. As far as I’m concerned, the internal switch that turns a writer into an author does not go on for everyone.  And there is nothing wrong with writing for yourself, which I think most writers do.  I’ve met quite a few who are honest about their desire to write for themselves and only themselves.  They haven’t made efforts to publish because the endgame for them is seeing the story in their head put to paper.  I’ve also met writers who claim to be authors, but are not serious about the craft.  They produce stories, but can’t handle constructive criticism about their work, even though they’ve put it out there for others to read.  They haven’t made strides to protect themselves.  When I ask about specific attempts at novelization or publication, I always get some kind of bewildered or bullshit expression; as if penning the story itself takes care of everything, including sales of the book. Again, somewhere within, that switch hasn’t yet turned on, or probably won’t.  Being an author is about far more than just writing a story.