Friday, February 22, 2019

Two Kinds of Writers

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published August 27, 2010.

By Charles Gramlich

At our first faculty meeting of the year, a fellow named Jeff Howard, a social psychologist, spoke to us. Now, I often don’t find such speakers very interesting but I really enjoyed what Dr. Howard had to say. And though he was primarily talking about student types, I think his ideas apply to writing, as well. Of course, I tend to think most everything applies to writing. Below, I’ve extended Howard’s ideas to writing. These are my interpretations, not his, so I hope I got his basics down right.

First, Howard suggested that there are two kinds of people in the world: “Performance Oriented” and “Learning Oriented.” Performance Oriented (PO) folks come into every new situation looking to “prove” something to themselves and others. Generally, that means ‘proving’ that they are smart and capable. Thus, PO writers want to show others and themselves how smart they are in their work. PO individuals also tend to believe that writing is a “talent” rather than a learned craft, and PO folks tend to believe that if something requires a lot of “effort,” then that reveals less “talent.”

Learning Oriented (LO) folks come into new situations looking to improve themselves. Their main goal is to learn “how” to do a particular thing, and they don’t doubt their ability to learn that material. LO folks believe that “effort” controls outcome and is the key to success. They don’t equate less effort with a sign of greater talent.

A key difference between PO and LO folks shows up when a “failure” occurs. Say the writer approaches a major magazine publisher with a story and gets rejected out of hand. PO individuals take the failure as a sign of lack of talent, and often develop a sense of helplessness, which leads them to either quit writing or to lower their sights. The PO writer may think things like: “I just can’t do this.” If the same rejection comes to an LO writer, the response is quite different, something along the lines of: “OK, that didn’t work. What do I have to change to make sure I’ll sell my next story to that magazine?” The LO writer then begins generating ideas and strategies to improve his or her work to the point required for success.

Dr. Howard went on to say that Americans “take in the PO attitude with the water” as we grow up and that the vast majority of us are PO when we need to be LO. He does believe we can move people away from PO toward LO. Here’s my take.

The “two kinds of people” thing is always an oversimplification but it can be a useful one. I believe Howard is definitely onto something here. For his “taking it in with the water,” I suspect what he is getting at is that all children really begin life as PO. Most of childhood seems to be about proving oneself to others, both adults and peers. And children, being small and inexperienced, are going to have quite a few failures and naturally look to someone else to tell them how to do better. The LO attitude itself is a product of education and experience, although certain cognitive (thought) processes need to develop along with the training and experience.

I think I definitely began my writing life as a PO kind of person. I don’t think I was trying to show others how smart I was as much as I was trying to show myself that I was capable of writing material good enough to be published. Then came the failures. I definitely remember thinking, “I just can’t do this.” And if I hadn’t had a few small successes here and there I quite probably would have quit. I did understand, though, that the route to success most often comes through sustained and directed effort. I began putting in that effort, and was rewarded with more successes. I could see that I changed things and they “worked.” Out of that I really developed the LO attitude.

I’m not sure one ever becomes completely LO, though. I will always believe that there is an element of innate talent in many peoples’ successes. That’s the biologist in me talking. I also still suffer at times from self-doubt; I wonder if I really “can” do this. Most of the time, though, I’m going to try anyway. And if I fail, I’m going to study harder and try again.

How about you? PO? LO? SOB? Something else I haven’t thought of?

Friday, February 15, 2019

When is adultery romance?

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published March 9, 2011.

By Jewel Amethyst

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a divorced mother. On discovering I was a romance novelist, she proceeded to provide me unsolicited ideas for my next novel. One of her ideas involved a military wife who falls in love with a man on base while her husband was involved in covert ops somewhere overseas.

I shook my head and said, “If I do that, I’ll have to make her husband pretty despicable and probably abusive. Readers don’t think of adultery as romance.”

As I pondered the scenario, the writer in me wondered, “When is adultery romance?”

Romance novels have clear guidelines. The leading character (especially the woman) should not be involved in a relationship at the time the romance begins. Beyond the guidelines, I have my own religious views, which do not condone adultery in any form or fashion. But as an artist, my mind was already thinking of scenarios that would work.

One scenario that would justify the new relationship is an abusive controlling philandering spouse. But what if that spouse was actually a nice person?

A few years back I was at a party when a friend of mine told the story of her friend, Jane, who called her in the middle of the night. Jane was driving aimlessly frustrated with no clear plan except that she was leaving her live-in boyfriend. Everybody in the group gasped. The consensus: he was such a nice man. He cooked, he cleaned, he took care of the bills and he was committed. But according to my friend, that was the problem. He took care of everything but he was a dud. Jane was emotionally frustrated and bored to insanity because her boyfriend offered no excitement or romance. He just took care of business.

I of course didn’t know the man and was only slightly acquainted with Jane. A few parties later I met Jane and I understood why she was dissatisfied. She wanted the kind of romance I write about in the novels, where the man wines and dines her and offers emotional excitement. She wanted someone who made her heart throb and her palms sweaty every time he came near. I could imagine in a situation like that, Jane would be vulnerable enough to leave her boyfriend (or have a steamy affair) for someone more exciting who can meet her emotional needs. Could we make that adulterous affair into a romance story that readers would enjoy and even root for?

Needless to say, Jane did return to her boyfriend, trading the excitement of the novels for the everyday mundane of a steady, comfortable, secure relationship. I have no doubt she had a laundry list of changes she would like to implement. But my question still stands: could we really make adultery so romantic that readers are rooting for the adulterous relationship, even though the spouse is a nice, committed person?

What do you think? What scenarios would work?

Friday, February 8, 2019

So, you're a writer? Let me annoy you for a bit...

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published May 22, 2015.

By Liane Spicer

Back in April Dayton Ward wrote this post about the things people say to writers, which gave me the idea to do my own version. Every question/remark below has been said to me--by relatives, friends, or total strangers. As you can tell from the responses I wish I had made, this sort of thing brings out the very best in me. I deserve gifts of chocolate for not strangling anyone--yet.

Why don't you try to get your book on Oprah? 
Do you have any idea what I write? Do you have any idea what sort of book Oprah promotes? Do you have any idea how...  Sigh. Never mind.

I need some quick money to cover my bills while I wait for my severance payment to come through, so I'm going to write a book.
ROFL. ROFLMAO. Bwahahahaa! That's a good one... Oh--you're serious?

I'm not much of a reader but I'm writing a book. I'll send you the first draft and you can fix it up and get it out there for me as you know about this stuff.
Sure I will, you lazy SOB. That's what friends do. Because instead of writing my own books, I'd like to spend a couple years polishing your first draft, researching markets, submitting to agents and editors, following up, promoting, etc etc etc. Yeah, that's what I do because, you know, I took about 15 years to learn this stuff so I could do all your work for you.

So--you're writing the great West Indian novel?
No, I'm writing the great Nahuatl erotic sci-fi lesbian vampire novella. I'll let you know when it's out.

Can you get your agent or editor to read my manuscript? [Asked by total strangers]
Of course. Because that is what my agent and editor do--read manuscripts by people their clients do not know, recommended by said clients who have no idea what or how you write. This is the way we build trust in the author-editor-agent relationship.

So how much do you make? Give me a ballpark. [Said with a condescending smile.]
Frankly, it's bad manners to ask people probing questions about their earnings. Even if you know them. Even if you're family. What possible use can this information be to you? Until such time as I ask you for a handout [read: never] what I earn is none of your [expletive] business. Upside: You've given me a great opportunity to practise concealing my anger behind my mild-mannered facade while fantasizing about planting my foot up your smug rear end.
Are you getting a private jet?
I'll let that pass because you're technically still a child. A money-obsessed pest of a child, but a child nonetheless. I doubt I'll ever be into ostentatious status mega-symbols so if I ever strike it rich you'd never know it--unless you sneak into my shoe closet, maybe. Now get out of here before I whup your precocious butt.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Be Aware Who's In the Room!

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published February 14, 2015.

By Sunny Frazier

This is my favorite anecdote from my career so far.

There used to be a small writers conference called Bare Bones. The San Diego Sisters in Crime put it on and it was in a church camp in the hills of Julian, CA. The site has since burned down in one of the forest fires.

I was pretty distraught when I walked in to register. My friend J.A. (Judy) Jance was talking to someone and she motioned me over. She wanted to know why I looked so upset.

I told her that a week ago, I'd sent two of the narc detectives I worked with to go check out a chemical drop from a meth lab at one of the Indian rancherios. I was getting phone calls that children were playing in the river where the chemicals were seeping. On the way to the site, another call came from dispatch that a man was chasing his parents around with an ax. My detectives were the closest in the area and they responded. One of the detectives shot and killed the man.

"Today's the day he's coming back to work and I feel I should be there, not here," I explained to Judy. "They said it was a good shoot but what's a good shoot to a young Mormon kid?"

"Honey, sit with us and talk," said her companion.

I really didn't glance at the woman, but I declined. She insisted, patting the seat emphatically. I finally turned to look at her.

"You're Sue Grafton," I exclaimed.

"Yes, I am. Now honey, just sit right down and tell me all about it."

The rest of the conference she kept me close. She wanted to come and visit my narcotics team, but that's not allowed. Not even if you are the #1 female crime writer in the world.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Putting a Little English on It

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published March 3, 2013.

By Kevin Killiany

My wife, who grew up in rural coastal South Carolina in the 1960s, was one of four black students to integrate a white high school. She has lived through danger and repression I can only imperfectly imagine. I'm something of an aberration in her portfolio, which documents a lifetime of involvement in and championing of African American culture. One thing that makes her angry is novels by black writers in which educated, professional, upper-middle-class black characters are familiar with the drug culture, routinely drop the f-bomb and n-bomb in conversation, and have a casual attitude about sex and marriage. She gets particularly incensed at the depiction of black men as dogs.

A writer at a recent workshop presented a story set in a working-class urban community. The writer and the characters were black and, though the writer did not, all of her characters spoke in a cursing, slang-filled argot in dialog replete with phonetic spellings. A white member of the workshop admitted she'd had difficulty following some of the conversations and suggested the writer's work would be more accessible if she employed standard usage with only a few bits of slang. The writer questioned whether telling her to make her characters sound more white was a valid criticism. I cited the works of Caribbean writers here in Novel Spaces (with directions to their respective websites) as examples of incorporating elements of a culture authentically but in a way that was accessible to the widest range of readers and the conversation ended soon thereafter.

My native tongue is Southern English. This means that in the spoken language I know that 'child' rhymes with 'while'; that there's no need to enunciate the silent G at the end of words like readin, writin, children, or singin; and that an R following a vowel is softened (not eliminated, as some impersonators would have you believe). As a Southern writer I know the language is enriched by whimsical usage and the employment of words not currently in vogue; that initial articles are often superfluous; and that one should trust one's listeners and readers are intelligent enough to apprehend the occasional unspoken verb or subject. However, I'm also aware that many folk outside the South assume that Southern usage implies the inability to master any other and may be evidence of limited intellectual acuity. If not inbreeding. More troubling to me is that for many people of colors other than beige a white person who speaks with a Southern accent is suspected of being a closet klansman, or to at least harbor prejudicial tendencies. (And I know from personal experience that a white writer who depicts black Southerners as speaking with the same Southern accent he speaks with can find himself vilified as a racist.) With that in mind, I limit the dropped G in my characters' conversations to just often enough to establish locale and at no time call attention to the fact 'mild' and 'mile' are homophones. While I do exercise my cultural predilection for offbeat word choice and atypical sentence structure, I make a conscious effort to keep things simple enough for English majors to follow.

The assumption writing in dialect implies racism is not a new development; and it's not exclusively directed at white writers. I know my love for Zora Neale Hurston is on record somewhere—several someheres. According to Google Maps the Maitland, Florida, house I grew up in is four-point-three miles from the Zora Neale Hurston Museum in Eatonville, Florida. Never met her. I discovered her in college, and through her the Harlem Renaissance, but she had passed away the winter before the summer I became a reader. She did not, as I've seen reported elsewhere, starve to death in a homeless shelter. She was working as a librarian in Fort Pierce, FL, when she died of a stroke. However, it is true that due to lack of funds she was buried without a headstone. And the reason she had to work as a librarian and died too poor for a headstone is the direct result of the way she wrote. Or, more accurately, how her writing was perceived by others.

Hurston was an anthropologist by training – as in had degrees from Howard and Columbia – and a dedicated folklorist. She traveled to remote southern communities and as far afield as Haiti collecting legends and folk tales and recording them before they were lost to history. As a trained folklorist she wrote phonetically – because how a language is spoken shapes the sound and rhythm of the words. In other words, she wrote in dialect for legitimate academic as well as her own cultural reasons. However, many influential writers and social leaders felt she was betraying black culture and undermining black social progress by doing so. As Richard Wright (Black Boy and Native Son) wrote of what is now considered her masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God: "her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought… her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is 'quaint,' the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the 'superior' race." Because her use of language offended such powerful voices in the African American literary movement her books were out of print for thirty years. No books in print meant no royalties, a low-wage job, and a funeral paid for by working class friends.
(Which kinda puts my whining about being abused by internet trolls in perspective, doesn't it?)

There is no one right way to speak English. It's a living language, malleable and resilient. It's lost and gained words over the years. Nor is English homogeneous – it's not changing in the same ways or at the same rate everywhere. Or with everyone. There is no one white way of speaking, no one black way of speaking, no one Native American, or colonial, or Hispanic or Asian, or Australian, or Canadian, or American – and try telling folk in the UK they all sound alike. There's no one any way of speaking. However, there is an agreed set of general conventions that enable all of us divergent English speakers to understand and be understood. As writers who write in English, we need to hew close to these conventions if we are to reach the widest audience. But at the same time we need to be true to our own voices, and true to the voices of our characters. The trick is in finding the balance.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Dedications: Something New

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published July 26, 2011.

By Charles Gramlich

I once had a book dedicated to me as a member of a writing group. This was Haiku Guy, a wonderfully witty book by my good friend David Lanoue. I felt pleased and honored. As my books have been published, I too have written dedications: to family members for love and support, to fellow writers I admire, to editors whose work and acumen I appreciated, and to members of groups who have helped shape my writing. The first Talera book was dedicated to my mom, the second to my father and my son, the third to my wife. I’ve dedicated works to my fellow Robert E. Howard fans, to my graduate school mentor, to my longest running writing group, and, yes, to David Lanoue.

Recently I had a new experience in the dedication realm. It made me think about dedications in a different light because the experience was a shocking and unpleasant one. I had never imagined a dedication could be taken negatively, but now I’ll never consider one without a dark edge to my thoughts. My world is a little bleaker for that. I’m certainly not devastated, just a little saddened.

Here’s what happened. I completed a novella called “Under the Ember Star.” When it came time for the dedication, I decided on a critique group I’d shared a number of chapters with. This group had been around a while and there’d been turnover. Some members who’d left remained friends and I’d even stayed in contact with them. Although these folks had not seen “Ember Star,” they had reviewed previous stuff from me and had impacted my writing. I decided I wanted to include them in the dedication. They deserved it.

Because I didn’t want to hurt any one’s feelings, however, I actually decided to include all the ex-members of the group who had attended more than a meeting or two. To make sure I didn’t miss anyone, I sent the potential dedication around to the current group and asked for help double checking the names. As I hoped, and expected, most members were pleased to be acknowledged. That made me happy, reminding me of how I felt when I first saw David Lanoue’s dedication for Haiku Guy.

Then a bombshell exploded. One current member of the group emailed the entire membership saying that my dedication “disgraced, not honored” the group. She insisted I remove her name from the dedication and that I had been “presumptive” to include it in the first place “without asking permission.” What floored me the most came next. She accused me of including the names of no longer active members as a way to: “inflate the number in ‘his’ writing group for his benefit; not ‘our’ writing group.” The email even suggested that I: “Check around the grave yards, maybe some more names can be found there.” I still can’t imagine what possible benefit I’d get in the publishing world from inflating the numbers in my writing group.

I knew this individual didn’t particularly like my writing, but had no idea she loathed it so much. Most of what I’ve shared has been SF adventure stuff. There’s action and what is often called “gritty realism.” That means blood and occasional gore, curse words, and sometimes things like characters spitting. The scene this individual objected to the most was a single sentence describing a disgusting toilet: “The fetor was bad enough, but to be able to see the spattered sources of the stench made her glad her stomach was empty.” Our hero had to escape an ambush through that bathroom.

No other members of the group write SF/Fantasy and most do not read it, but I think most have come to appreciate the effort I put into writing it. In the “email’s” aftermath, I’ve received an outpouring of support from most members of the group, although one other individual asked for her name to be removed from the dedication as well. I immediately did so.

In a bit of irony, on the same day that this situation exploded, over a week after I first sent the “potential” dedication around to the group, I got the word that “Under the Ember Star” had been accepted by the publisher. There will be a dedication in that book, and the names you’ll see there will be those who didn’t feel “disgraced” to be associated with my writing. The two who did feel that way won’t get a mention.

And wow, did I get schooled!

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Why I write romance

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published February 24, 2012.

By Jewel Amethyst

Some time ago during a blog interview I was asked why I wrote romance. The question came back a few days ago when a relative, after snubbing the genre, proceeded to ask me why I wrote romance. Here is my journey:

I read my first romance novel when I was ten years old. It was a Mills and Boon. At that time, my mother called them “dirty books” and forbade me to read them. I hid in the bathroom, under the bed; I climbed the Guinup tree and read it. Just before I got to the end of the book, one of my siblings ratted me out. My mother confiscated it. That was the end of that book, but it left me enthralled with romance novels.

The heroine in that Mills and Boon was tall and astoundingly beautiful with long straight hair and alabaster skin. The hero was tall and handsome with the body of a Greek god, and unbelievably rich. Those heroes looked nothing like me. They didn’t resemble my parents who were both of African descent. My father was less than six feet and my mother was only four feet ten inches and quite rotund. Most of all we were struggling to put food on the table. But that didn’t matter. The book transformed me to another world where all was perfect and beautiful women fell in love with wealthy handsome men.

By my early teens I voraciously read Sweet Dreams Romance and Sweet Valley High novels. The heroines were constantly compared to Carly Simon and Brooke Shields. I didn’t even know who those celebrities were; I just knew they were tall and beautiful… and they didn’t look like me. Of course when I wrote my first romance novel at the age of fifteen (unpublished and now lost forever), the heroine was tall and graceful with long legs, had long straight hair and creamy white skin. The hero was over six feet tall, exotically handsome and wealthy beyond the imagination. By that time I was into Danielle Steele romance.

I devoured Danielle Steele’s wealthy uncommonly beautiful characters: the slim shapely figure type, the long shapely legs, long straight shiny hair. I followed the characters as they traipsed from New York City and California to London, Rome, Paris, Nice, Greece, Italy, all the places I knew I could never afford to go. There were so many royal characters and moguls who presided over mega business empires. Again the common thread: none of these people resembled me.

Finally, in my late teens to early twenties I began to ask, “Don’t poor people fall in love? Don’t black people fall in love?” You see, before then, I had never read or even seen an African American romance. In the books I read, the characters were all upper middle class to rich and if they weren’t, they fell in love with the wealthy heir. Tired of the titled, the wealthy, and the overly beautiful falling in love, I stopped reading romance and devoured mysteries and suspense novels.

Then I discovered Arabesque romance. I read a few, and the lead characters were African American. But again the overly beautiful, the upper middle class dominated. The men always seemed to have some wealth whether it was self made or inherited. It seemed as if the average person did not fall in love. In fact, with the exception of having milk chocolate skin (for females) and coffee cream (for males) the characters could have been the same as any other mainstream romance I had read.

That’s when I decided this world needed more romance that reflected the average person. That’s where Tamara Fontaine, the heroine of “A Marriage of Convenience”, came in. I made Tamara short (originally 5’ 2” but later by the urging of the editor I added two inches to her height). I made Tamara overweight. Not “big boned” as some like to put it, but fat – over two hundred pounds of fat. And I made her jobless, the victim of a recession and corporate downsizing. She struggled financially, she struggled with her self image, she struggled with her weight. However, Tamara grows during the story and blossoms into a confident woman. Yes she falls in love with a very handsome larger than life, accomplished man (I have to leave some room for fantasy) and she does get the man. But somewhere in the story you stop seeing Tamara as a fat short woman. You see her as beautiful and sexy because you begin to see the inside, the wonderful personality and you are rooting for her to get her man.

Many reviewers of the book expressed their appreciation for a heroine that is not the stereotypical model thin or ultra rich. The most common comment I hear from readers is that they can identify with the characters. Tamara embodied the average person.

So to get back to that question, “why do I write romance?” Well, we all need a dream. We need heroes and heroines that look like us, feel like us and go through some of the struggles we are going through. Are all my heroines short and overweight? No. But they are average people who are underrepresented in the romance genre. There are enough writers writing about princes and dukes and wealthy people. Those who struggle financially, those who are not tall and ultra slim and overly beautiful need a happy ever after (HEA) too. That’s why I write romance. To give the average woman (and man) her (his) HEA.

Why do you write your genre? Did you pick your genre or did your genre pick you?