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?

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Not another top ten list

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 January 11, 2010. 

By Liane Spicer

'Tis that time again when we share our goals for the new year with everyone else. Sick of reading other people's lists? I'll be merciful - after all I could have subjected you to my Top 1000 resolutions that were made to be broken. Instead, I'll just list my Top three writing goals for this year:

Goal #1: Write more.
Phyllis' handy timer gave me the idea of setting my cell phone to alarm when I sit down to write. I've begun by setting it for 30 minutes, and it's amazing how fast those half hours fly by! Invariably, I find myself resetting it to give myself more time. People, this works!

Goal #2. Organize.
It's difficult for me to balance the various compartments of my life so that everything gets the attention it deserves. We all juggle a lot of stuff: day job, school, children, spouse or significant other, writing, household chores, correspondence, reading time, dreaming time. If I have a fairly structured schedule for doing each, there's a much greater chance of managing at least some of it than if I had no plan at all, and writing might not get edged out so easily.

3. Limit Internet time.
I have to confess to 'net addiction. I simply can't rationalize any more the hours I spend flitting around on Amazon, for example. It occurred to me recently that a simple move such as unplugging the modem cable from my laptop when I sit down to write makes a whole lot of sense. (There are benefits to not having wireless access in the house.) At the very least, I won't be distracted by the chime of Google Notifier every time an e-mail drops into my inbox. [Edited to update: Alas, WiFi is now ubiquitous and that Notifier went the way of the dinosaurs many years ago. Everything else is still relevant, though.] Checking e-mail throughout the day has also got to go. Once in the morning and once at night should be sufficient.

There you have it - three small goals (note that I'm avoiding the word 'resolutions') to revolutionize my writing life in 2010. [And again in 2019!] Happy New Year!