So You Want to Write a Novel

I was always told I had a talent for writing, a natural affinity for words and language.  I won competitions and essay contests.  My prose was frequently published, and I charged my classmates hefty fees to tutor them in English.  I wrote for the school newspaper;  I wrote African-American history plays, for which I won many awards and accolades.

But I didn’t quite comprehend how amateurish my efforts were.  Real writing has been undermined by the cavalry of celebrities out here “writing” books for the sake of seeing their name on a cover.  Sure, many of them do have something meaningful to say, but writing a novel comprises so many more elements than just having a story to tell.  The below video, as hilarious as it may be, kind of sheds light on things:

The little brown bear (it is a bear, isn’t it?) is right.  No main stream, nationally acclaimed, New York Times best-selling author is going to tell you the road to stardom was simple.  Like any other talent, it requires dedication and discipline to hone your craft.  It’s realizing that even when you feel you’ve learned all you can about the subject, you know there’s still more to know, and you’re eager to find out.  Remaining teachable is the best way to excel at anything, not just writing.

Most novels will never see the light of day, especially for self-published authors like me.  Self-publishing, while carrying multiple, weighty benefits not offered with traditional publishing, has its own burdens.  Like marketing.  No one will ever hear about your book, or see its flashy cover, without having first been told about it by you.  This poses a particular challenge, because any promotional venue worth having is going to cost you.  And without the funds it takes to invest in yourself and your project, your book is dead in the water, even after its sitting prettily on your living room book shelf.

If that’s all you’re aiming for, the satisfaction of having accomplished that achievement, then you’re all set.  But if you want the world to see your work for the brilliant masterpiece that it is, you’re going to have to convince them, and that costs money.  Book agents are hard to find, and even more difficult to secure.  And if you ever have the successful privilege of saying you do have one, please be well aware, they don’t come cheap.  So, quite plainly, writing a book is an investment if nothing else.

I certainly don’t know all there is to know; The Grim is only my first novel, and I certainly don’t count the novice compilation of prose I co-authored as one of my finer moments.  But I can say my experience writing The Grim, publishing it, and now promoting it, has taught me so much about my craft.  So, if you’re interested, I’ll share it with you, bit by bit, in the next few blogs.  How’s this: I won’t even charge you.

Next in this series: So You Want to Write a Novel: The Idea


Book to Movie Classics 2: The Help

I have to confess that, as a black woman, period pieces don’t always come in very satisfying packages for me.  Because of the content, it’s hard not to feel anger, resentment, or frustration watching the lives of 20th century African-Americans play out on screen.  The same is true for me of The Help.

Please don’t get me wrong; both the book and its movie counterpart were phenomenal.  You must both read the book and see the movie, which premiered on August 10th of this year.  I went to see it as a belated birthday present a few weeks ago, and because I was so moved, both negatively and positively, it has taken me this long to write about it.  Take a look at the trailer below:

The film is a masterpiece, sticking very closely to the original story, although one or two significant aspects were changed.  And I read the book with relish, hardly able to put it down once I started.  I literally had to force myself to say, “Enough.  Now go to bed, it’s midnight.”  I was absolutely enthralled with the vision of 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, as if I were there myself as the events unfolded.

In the book, while the racism described is just as bitter as the movie, I found myself slightly detached.  I knew the things being said were crude, but I was much easier able to say, “Well, it’s a period piece.”  Watching it play out on film, however, turned out to be a whole other ball game.  Watching these black women having to cater to the whims of white women who thought nothing of them and made crude and hateful comments directly in front of them, pained me in a way I had never experienced.  The racism cuts sharply and deeply, as if I were reliving the moments myself.  It was alarmingly unsettling; I left the theater ready to punch the old white couple who sat in front of me and my friend, just because I knew they were old enough to have been there and probably had said those things at some point in their lives.

It’s ridiculous, and downright disrespectful in most senses, to want to hurt an old person simply because you suspect that due to the era in which they were raised, they must be a closet racist.  After all, they were raised by the very black women the book and movie chose to celebrate.  But our history in the African-American culture has so much hate and hurt entwined within it that it’s difficult not to feel some surge of anger and disappointment when confronted with its truths.  Not all white people must hate blacks, nor are all Caucasians from that era closet racists, but films like this stir something inside your soul…as it should, if it’s worth viewing.

What I pray African-American audiences retain from this book/film is awareness and respect: awareness of what the generations before us went through to earn the respect we can command today, and respect for the pains, suffering and disrespect they endured for our sakes, so that we can now sit in a movie theater next to Caucasians without reprisal or shame.  In this country, we have forgotten the struggle those before us suffered through and railed against in the hopes we wouldn’t have to experience the same.  That racism should unnerve us, not so that we want to harm all whites, but so that we don’t lose sight of what the leaders we lost in the ’60s stood and fought for, so that we can have leaders like Barack Obama in the year 2011.

The Help by Kathyrn Stockett can be found at your local bookstores.  Its film should still be in a theater near you.  Enjoy.

Halfway Point

First, let me apologize for my absence.  It’s been a hectic few weeks.

In those weeks, and the closer we get to August, it dawned on me how quickly time passes in a year.  Here we are, nearly two-thirds of the way through the current year, and I was forced to examine how far I’ve come in that time.  Many of us make what are called “New Year’s resolutions”, (which I refuse to make by the way), each year to remind us of what we need to do and where we want to be.  Instead of doing that, I like to set goals for myself.  I write or type them on pretty paper and post the list in places where I’ll see them daily.  Seeing my goals projected before me every day keeps me motivated and consistently reminded of what it is I’m striving for.  Some of those things are temporary, short-term goals like “cut back on dessert”, and others are long-term goals like “publish The Grim by 2012.”  When I see that list, it forces me to do a mental check of my progress; I can see immediately what I’ve accomplished, what I haven’t, and how far off I am from checking off everything on that list.  Each year, I reevaluate my situation.  How many of my goals did I accomplish?  How close am I to each?  Are my goals realistic, and if not, how can I amend them so that what I want becomes tangible? 

It’s important to write a plan for your life.  Again, those goals don’t have to be immediate, but when you decide there’s something you want, you can make that process attainable by setting miniature goals that take you one step at a time to that larger prize.  With each goal you accomplish, you feel more satisfied and pleased with yourself because not only are you doing what you love, but you are embracing your future as well.  Achievement will put a smile on anyone’s face.

I’m still determined to smile this year, even though I’ve hit some major roadblocks along the way.  For a moment there, The Grim was almost dead in the water, and there was talk it would never hit the printed page.  But I’m persevering, and every “no” I received, I re-translated for yes, and I found a way.  Now, we’re barrelling full speed ahead, and you’ll still have your copy of The Grim in your hands on May 1, 2012.  I won’t give up, and looking at that goal every day keeps me wanting it and moving toward it.

Maybe a list isn’t a good motivator for you.  So find what motivates you.  Do what you know will keep you moving toward everything you want in life.  And don’t give up.  Don’t let the naysayers, or haters as they’re call now, distract you and convince you that you don’t deserve everything you’re pressing toward.  Just keep pressing, even if you think you may fail.  When asked about his multiple failures in his invention of the lightbulb, Thomas Edison said, “I didn’t fail; I found 2000 ways how not to make a lightbulb.”  Keep that inspiration, and let it spark you; let your stumbles and pitfalls serve to encourage you and teach you on your journey.

Then, bask in the rewards.  Each new plateau brings something amazing, even if it’s just the satisfaction of knowing you’re that much closer to the dream.  Take a look at the last seven months of this year; have you done everything you set out to?  Are there places you still want to go, things you still want to see and do?  It’s not too late; set that goal, make a plan to achieve it, then do it.  The only one stopping you…is you.

Tyrese Gibson: Inspirational Guru

You know me; I write what I feel, and say what I think, despite criticism or disagreement.  And I was compelled to write today, because an amazing work crossed my hands via my Barnes & Noble Nook that I must share with you.

On my Facebook newsfeed today, I happened to see a link a friend had shared of Tyrese Gibson (you know, the singer/actor) on TBN with Steve Harvey.  As I watched the 19-minute video, I found myself enthralled, on the very edge of my seat, mesmerized and hanging onto the words this dark chocolate man was speaking.  I have always loved Tyrese; how can you not love songs like Lately and Sweet Lady2 Fast 2 Furious had you counting every block in those rock hard abs, and the Transformers franchise made you want to bite his bottom lip every time he said, “Bring the rain!”  And don’t even get me started on Baby Boy.  But here, I was seeing more than just the sensuality and sex appeal for which he is often lauded.  In this video, you saw his intellect, spirituality, and wisdom.  And ladies, it’s sexy as hell.

Tyrese did the interview with Steve to promote his new book, How to Get Out of Your Own Way.  The journey is a memoir of sorts that gives Tyrese’s perspective on life based on where he’s come from and where he’s been, an inspirational work to uplift and elevate his audience to pursue more than their current circumstances and show them how he progressed, and hopefully, by his example, do the same.  After watching that video, I bought the book.  I was too impressed with this gentleman (and this new persona of him I had never experienced) not to see what else he had to say.

I was immediately inspired.  It’s been very rare that I’ve been able to say that about a written work.  I’ve certainly been entertained, informed, and enlightened by a book, but never in my experience have I been inspired.  And I’m only on page 50!  His work starts with his childhood in the hood of Watts, and the pictures he paints of the dual emotions of that environment, the childhood delights we can all laugh aloud about to the cruel reality of the gang-infested, bullet-riddled streets of inner city living, are vivid and lasting.  It immediately brought to mind some of my childhood memories of summers I spent in southeast Washington DC with my cousins.  And the work is written in the same voice with which he speaks; it’s as if he’s sitting right there with you, just having a conversation.

I was hesitant about my dream.  You know this because you’ve been following my blog since I began this year.  I’ve had doubts, and I’ve expressed them openly.  I’ve been discouraged and down-right pessimistic at times.  I didn’t believe it was possible to get The Grim written, much less published; I complain about the financial investment and the lack of support.  I wonder how I’m going to accomplish this vision that God placed on my heart and spirit, and I condemn myself for being so bold as to think that someone like me could even accomplish such a thing.  But Tyrese’s work reminds you that you deserve better, and pity parties have no room in the circle of greatness.  And I am certainly striving for just that: the hope and volume that accompanies greatness.

Sometimes, the vision God gives you is so overwhelming.  Tyrese talks about how he never expected that the road God would take him down would be this prosperous.  The sheer volume of what I see happening for myself, while it may not be on a Tyrese-type scale, still overwhelms, even terrifies, me because I can’t imagine that I’m worthy or deserving of it.  But I must learn to love myself as much as God loves me, as impossible as that may seem, and recognize that I don’t write just for myself, but because God has planted a seed in me to speak.  And like Moses, I must do so, even when I’m stutter of speech, because somebody needs to hear it.  And maybe that somebody is you.  And who am I to deprive you of that encounter to which God expects me to expose you?

I’m going to use How to Get Out of Your Own Way with my Young Bright Minds group, and I pray you read it yourself and encourage your teenagers and other youth you may know to read it.  They have to know how not to make the same mistakes everyone before them made.  And everyone needs to know that no matter how old you are, where you are doesn’t have to be where you stay.  This book will inspire you, too. I’ve joined the Love Circle!

Order the book here!

From Books to Movies

When asked about my novel, The Grim, becoming a movie, it spawned a great deal of thought.  While I love the idea of The Grim becoming a blockbuster film, it left me thinking about other great books that became incredible movies.  While I am an avid reader, I also really love movies so I compiled a short list of some of my favorite book-to-movie classics.  Clearly, I’ve left quite a few awesome flicks off this list: the Harry Potter series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy among them.  However, I left them off the list because there is too much material to cover them properly.  They are a great many other book-to-film classics that I love; maybe I can cover those in another blog.  But the four listed here are part of my favorite book and movie lists.  What are some of yours?

1. The Joy Luck Club (1993)

I am clearly not Asian, but who cares with this classic?  The mother-daughter dynamic described and examined here transcends culture.  While it is true that many of the mother experiences discussed in this book/movie are specific to the ideals of their home country (China), it doesn’t take from the challenges faced in their relationships with their daughters.  Any mother or daughter can say they’ve been there or felt that, and the reader/viewer is left sitting there, astounded, gripped with both emotion and tears.

2. Girl, Interrupted (1999)

This clever piece about a group of women in an in-patient mental health ward is both gritty and thrilling.  It was also part of the inspiration for The Grim.  This may be one of the few films in which I can legitimately say I enjoyed Angelina Jolie.  The rest of the cast is just as star-studded, to include Winona Ryder, Whoopi Goldberg, and Brittany Murphy.  While in this case, I enjoyed the book better (since it described scenes and emotions that were clearly too much for the FCC), Girl, Interrupted remains one of my favorites in both my book and film collections.

3. The Color Purple (1985)

Okay, clearly with The Color Purple at number three on my list, it should be obvious that I’m putting these movies in no particular order!  What can be said about either the book or the film that you don’t already know?  This is a classic that was on fire from the moment it was written, to the moment it hit the big screen, to the moment it hit shelves in DVD and Blu-ray formats.  It’s a book/film that will never cease to be forgotten in black or American culture.  You’ve got an all-star cast in this film too: Whoopi, Oprah, Danny Glover, Rae Dawn Chong, and a real-life African princess in Akosua Busia (Nettie).  And guess what?  The film was released last year on Blu-ray for the 25th anniversary of the film’s debut.  The following scene is a tear-jerker for me every time I watch it, but it’s one of the best.

4. Forrest Gump (1994)

Yeah so before you laugh, realize that Forrest Gump kills any, and I do mean any, movie about mentally-challenged individuals, to include Rain Man and Rudy.  If you disagree, you can comment all day long, but I’m sticking to that assessment!  Not to mention the author, Winston Groom, wrote an almost completely different story in the novel, and that story is incredible as well!  The movie departs significantly from the original work but still weaves a tale of adventure, triumph, heroism, and just pure love.  How can you possibly argue with its placement in my hall of fame?  It’s friggin incredible, from start to finish!  Even though, like with The Color Purple, it’s difficult as hell to pick just one great scene, the following is one of my favorites.

No matter what your taste or speed, if you’re a true book/movie lover, this top 4 has you rolling in your seat with love and laughter.  That’s what great books and films do; they warm your heart and leave you with this overwhelming emotion and satisfaction.  That’s what great work is supposed to do; it’s what it’s meant for.  With any luck, one day, The Grim will be a part of that ranking…

Q: How long does it take you to finish a work?

This was a question asked during my “Ask Me” Poll conducted a week or so ago that I didn’t get a chance to answer.  But the question has floated in my head for awhile, so I thought I’d answer it in a separate blog.

The truth is some works take me much longer than others.  I worked on The Grim, my first (and maybe last!) novel for nearly five years!  It was painstaking, and it took quite a bit of determination to decide I was going to finish it.  I would plan to write, and when forced to stare at a screen and churn out pages, I often struggled with the result.  I could spend hours trying to generate copy that I oftentimes ended up deleting.  It wasn’t for lack of passion on the subject; I have determined that I simply can’t write unless I feel inspired to do so.

This goes for my short story and prose work as well, especially the prose.  Stories come to my head like visual plays.  If I can see it taking place, it’s not hard to describe.  My prose comes from an emotion, something I’m feeling intensely at the time.  Sometimes that feeling is of joy, or relief, but mostly it comes through as pain.  If you read my last blog, Suffering More: a Lesson from The Five Heartbeats, I described how pain is often the most identifiable emotion we have, and because of that, my most powerful prose works are usually derived from some sort of intense heartbreak.

Typically, a short story takes me a matter of days, sometimes even hours.  This does not include the editing process.  Prose flows out of me in the moment, and once written, I don’t edit except to correct spelling or grammar.  This is to preserve its original intent and depth of feeling.  I like my prose to feel as raw to the reader as the emotion was when I wrote it.  As far as novels go, I may never write another.  I have several unfinished manuscripts in my arsenal, and whether I’ll ever complete any of those or attempt another is something altogether different.  Personally, a novel is a commitment that I cannot frequently make; it can be emotionally draining and is without doubt a tedious and time-consuming heartache that I find not easily endured.  For many mainstream authors, novels can be churned out for mass consumption, but a journey like The Grim is meant to resonate, and, therefore, cannot be duplicated.

Because I have to see the story in my mind, I tend to need peace and quiet when I write.  The atmosphere has to feel calming and empty so that I can fill that space with what I see in my head.  In this kind of environment, everything flows almost effortlessly, and I can finish a project (or put a sizeable dent in it) in a matter of hours.

Thanks for the question!

Suffering More: a Lesson from The Five Heartbeats

One of my favorite movies is The Five Heartbeats, an old classic about a band of five men who rise to stardom from their small black neighborhood, written and directed by Robert Townsend circa 1991.  One of the main characters, Donald “Duck” Matthews, finds out his fiance and his brother, J.T., also one of the band members, have been having an affair behind his back.  During his acceptance speech following this discovery, he makes a poignant statement that has resonated with me the whole of my writing career: “A critic said, ‘Donald Matthews will be a great writer one day when he suffers more.’ And I said to myself, What does that mean?  Now I know what it means.”

There is something about suffering that causes an empathy among us as human beings.  When you read something that’s happy from beginning to end, it feels unrealistic and detached.  You separate yourself from it.  You look at it and say, “Eh, that was alright.”  But write about pain…and suddenly the whole world says, “Yeah, I’ve been there.”  It’s a heart-wrenching human identifier that we respond to instantly, even with animals and people whom we’ve never met.  It’s the empathy of pain that tugs on your heartstrings when you see hungry children in third world countries, the wounded and abused animals in shelters around the world, and the deaths of endangered species.  It’s the pain in a love song that makes you cry over a broken heart. As a human emotion, happiness is not something we readily identify with, because for many of us, the notion of true happiness has never been attained.  But pain is an emotion, a depth of feeling, that has touched us all.

It seems I write my best when my heart is in pain.  My best prose comes from the darkest places, places I couldn’t get back to on my own if I tried.  It’s where the mind goes when it is overcome with sadness, and can only be reached by reliving the occurrence that originally brought it there.  Writing brings that feeling to life.  It reminds us where we’ve been, and takes others to that place in the hopes they’ll understand why you feel that way.  Writing was always and ever meant to convey emotion, by whatever means that emotion can best be displayed.

What is the correlation between art and suffering?  Why have the greatest creative geniuses of our time been such tortured souls?  And most, if not all, died young and alone.  Is this the sacrifice of true artistic greatness?  Were all like Daniel Webster, sacrificing art for their very souls?  Even one of my favorite authors, and whom I’ve been compared to by a few of my mentors, Edgar Allan Poe, was notorious for his dark prose and stories, but died in his thirties, married but estranged.  True, in his time people didn’t live very far past maybe forty, but the question remains: is suffering the only human emotion by which we touch others so magnificently?  And if so, is the sacrifice for greatness worth the anguish that accompanies it?