Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Writing Diverse Characters

Even as I wrote that title, I broke out into a sweat. I'm a privileged white lady. I'm not supposed to talk about this stuff! But I'm also a writer, so I'm supposed to talk about this stuff!

It's common knowledge that there is a lack of diversity in YA (and many other places). We need more stories with people of color, different faiths and sexuality to both star in and write stories for teens and young adults. I'll admit, most of my early manuscripts are a whole bunch of white kids doing white things. Those books were terrible, for many reasons, that being one of them, because it made my work inauthentic.

I grew up in Arizona, and half of my friends, coworkers, classmates, were Hispanic. Speaking with a librarian friend, she asked me, "So did you put a black person in your book to make it diverse?"

"No," I said. "There is a Mexican doctor and a Native American girl in my book because it all happens in Arizona." I let the place and the time direct my cultural mix because that's what's real.

But they were secondary characters. I was still too scared to make any of the leading characters POC because ya know, I'm a white lady, and I see all the negative opinions swirling around white ladies writing diverse stories.

Maggie Stiefvater, All the Crooked Saints.
Keira Drake, The Continent
Veronica Roth, Carve the Mark

Now please note, I haven't read any of these. From the sounds of it, mistakes were made. But Maggie Stiefvater's book isn't even out yet and people are already waggling their fingers. Maybe we should give her a chance? Especially because she's Maggie Stiefvater, and her work is, for the most part, incredible?

Which leaves me with a lot of questions:

It's pretty common for me to write about things I'm not. I've written about doctors, space travelers, police officers, dads, brothers, soccer players...I did my research, and I'd do the same for writing about anything else I didn't fully understand.

So can writers of color not write about white people? Can men not write women characters?

I remember, way back when, I read Wally Lamb's, She's Come Undone. The entire time I was reading, I thought Wally had to be a pen name, or a nickname, something short for Wallamina (I didn't say I was smart!) Then I get to the back and see a picture of some white guy who wrote this wonderfully emotional story about an overweight girl.

That's what I want. I want to be able to write about a young black girl and have people think with every word that the author has to be black. That, to me, is authenticity. That, to me, is really stretching your imagination as a writer. And that's what stories are all about--becoming someone else.

But when you're trying to write something true, there are going to be things you don't want to hear. I wish there wasn't racism or sexism or hate in the world, but there is. And if I were writing about a struggling young twenty-two-year-old, fresh out of college, starting her first job, some suit-wearing bigwig would definitely pop by her desk, drop a stack of paper on her, and say, "Make two copies of this for me, Honey."

It doesn't mean I'm sexist. I'm just trying to paint a true picture of the world, and that really happened to me. But does that mean it happens in every office? God, I hope not, and I think that's another thing to remember. My twenty-two-year-old white girl story is not representative of EVERY twenty-two-year-old white girl story.

My former roommate said the most profound thing to me once. "You shouldn't not tell someone's story because it's sad. You SHOULD tell it because it's sad." And I especially love the double negative. She's absolutely right, though. It's the stories that make us sad or angry that make us think. I don't want to read fluffy stories where everyone loves each other and rainbows burst from our eyeballs...so I'm not going to write them.

The key, that I mentioned above, is research. Sensitivity readers. Avoid cultural stereotypes. Stop and think if what you're writing is a true experience or what you THINK is a true experience. I recently hired a sensitivity reader, and she pointed out a couple of improvements I could make to my gay character. I made them. It was two lines of additional copy, but that could mean the world to a reader.


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

This is what you get when you let your child name things

We're starting our mini-farm at the new house, where I often hear the theme song to Green Acres* playing in the back of my head. Pretty much any time I touch a rake or shovel or gasp...an axe. I'm still too afraid to handle a chainsaw after watching an episode of CSI where one guy hacked his entire arm off with one. That would definitely be me.



Anyway, we're starting slow, with small animals that are unlikely to kick us, bite us, or leave shovel-size poop on the lawn.

Our two rabbits - named Hippy and Hoppy (this is only one of them, but they look EXACTLY the same)


And our chickens: (also not all of them) Grimlock, Sideswipe, Strong Arm and Bumblebee

If you haven't guessed, the rabbits were named using absolutely zero creativity whatsoever, and the chickens are named after Transformers, thanks to my almost 5 year-old-son, who has both a limited grasp on the English language and names beyond television, his classmates, and family.

None of this has anything to do with writing, unless of course your character is a five-year-old, and you want to know about the ridiculous names they pick for things. For everyone else, it's just pictures of cute animals--enjoy!

*For those who don't watch Nick at Nite, HERE is the Green Acres theme.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Crazy Lady in the Bathroom.

Do you guys know this story?

Okay, so sometime in 1992, or whenever, some woman caught an editor in the bathroom and tried to pass her manuscript under the stall wall. Everyone in the publishing industry swears it to be true, and now, before every writer's conference, we're all reminded of the Crazy Lady in the Bathroom and warned not to pass pages like toilet paper.

There's a part of me that's like, "Okay, I know a few eccentric people who might do this." And another part of me is like, "This sounds a bit like the man with the hook hand who kills couples making out in the woods." An urban legend.

Whatever it is, it's a thing, and writers for all eternity will be paying for it.

Because of it, there's this invisible wall hovering between writers and agents and editors at a conference. They look at us like we're going to corner them in the elevator for an impromptu pitch. And we look at them like they're the cool girls at the lunch table. Untouchable.

But they're not. They're people. You can talk to them, but just talk to them like, you know, people.

When you sit down next to a stranger on the bus do you start talking about your book? (I don't know, maybe you do.) But I usually start with the weather, or mention their shoes. I was leaving a conference with an editor after I'd taken her session, and I said, "Thanks for your comments. They gave me a lot to think about." We talked briefly about submissions and then that segued into, "Send me your book when it's done."

That doesn't always happen, but even it if doesn't, you can always use your very normal interaction later in your query.

Dear Jane, 

We met at the NEWSCBWI conference in spring and talked about how much our kids loved Moana...

She might remember you. She might not. But at least she won't remember you as the lady who stuffed pages into her purse when she wasn't looking.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Before & After - Window Seat

I rarely post my craft projects on here, because frankly, you can go on Pinterest and find a hundred other people who did the same thing only they did it much, much better. But my husband and I are pretty proud of this one. About a year and a half ago, we bough a fixer upper out in the country. The bones of it are in good shape, but the outside needs a bit of work.

Like this window seat.
Um, holy wood on wood, Batman. This is ridiculous! And I will note that the previous owner did leave behind a cushion that had been used as a pad for a guinea pig cage...so we promptly tossed that out.

I think a lot of home buyers would look at this and say, "Nope. No way." But as a child, growing up in the suburbs of Scottsdale, Arizona where every house is the same, and you tried to avoid sitting close to windows, I'd always dreamed of one day having a majestic little place in the window, with my pillows and stuffies, where I could curl up and write about boys in my diary or read about them in pre-teen vampire books. That is what I saw when I looked at this, and the hubs and I made it happen.

Here is my new, cozy, reading nook.

EEEK! Can you believe this is the same window seat? And it honestly did not cost us much to do it. The paint was leftover from our bedroom, the cushions I made myself, the curtain and throw pillows (apart from Mittens the cat pillow) are from Target, and the bird cage is from Michael's. We just strung an Edison bulb through it.

Here's a close-up of the cushions.
I had contacted a woman on Etsy about making them and she wanted to charge $300 plus shipping! After I finished gasping, I decided I would give it a shot myself. I bought the fabric on sale, had a coupon for the padding at JoAnn's, and all-in-all put in about $112 plus a day of work. (Admittedly, the Etsy woman was going to add the piping and likely do a nicer job, but I think I did okay and saved a ton of money.)

Some links if you're interested:
Blue Chenille Throw Pillows
Tie-up Curtains
Creepy Cat Pillow (it's not the same one, but this is where I got it.)
Bird Cage

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Writing a Query

I've been doing some query critiques lately because I'm a weirdo and I actually enjoy doing them. Even if I don't *have* to do one, I do one because it's a good way for me to capture the true heart of my story and make sure I stay on track while writing the actual story.

Anyway, in doing these critiques, I've seen a similar issue: telling not showing (and ladies, if you're reading this, I'm not trying to call anyone out, it's a really common issue.)

If you want, just stop reading here and go to the queen of critiques, the Query Shark. You'll see.
http://queryshark.blogspot.com/

But if you're too scared to go there just yet (and I don't blame you,) I promise I'll be nice.

My query letters are pretty formulaic, but hey, they've worked!

Subject Line: Query, TWO BASKET-WEAVING HEARTS

Dear AGENT,
Please insert real agent's name. Some people opt for Ms. Smith. I write Dear Jane.We're all adults here, and that's how I write my business emails at the day job. But I don't think you'll get crucified for either one. Just make sure you use the RIGHT name.

I saw on Manuscript Wishlist you're looking for romance novels centered around crafting, and I think TWO BASKET-WEAVING HEARTS will interest you. It's complete at 80,000 words and will appeal to fans of KNITTING TOGETHER and PAINTING TO PARADISE.

Key elements of the first paragraph:

  • Say why you are querying the agent
  • Give the title of your manuscript in all caps along with word count. If it is 80,253 words, round down to 80,000.
  • Comp titles if applicable, although sometimes I skip these, and sometimes I reference one of the agent's own books. Just don't say something like, "My novel is the next Harry Potter."
Kristin Jones is a twice divorced copy editor with two sons whom she hasn't spoken to in over a year. Her cat died last week, and she's on the verge of becoming a hermit when her best friend buys her a pass for basket-weaving classes at the local community center. Kristin is not going. She has no interest in basket-weaving, but after too much wine one night, she finds herself sitting at a table with a pile of reeds next to an incredibly gorgeous guy.

Over the next few weeks, Kristin gets to know her way around a basket and the hunk, Adam, a recently widowed former mechanic with early onset rheumatoid arthritis. The basket-weaving is to keep his fingers nimble. But what neither of them expected to find in the bindings of their baskets was laughter, love, and a renewed passion for living.

This is the meat of your query and where writers tend to get lost. Do not use this space to say, "This is a story about starting new ventures and finding love after fifty in unexpected places." NO! Introduce us to the characters (Kristin and Adam), the inciting incident (the basket-weaving classes), and the problem, (they both think life is over until they find each other.) Bam! That's your query.

I'm a member of RWA, and my short story, Quilting Dreams, won the FASPA award for best short story about crafting. Per your submission guidelines, the first ten pages are pasted below. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,
YOUR NAME
PHONE NUMBER
EMAIL

The closing. Here's where you mention any qualifications you have for writing the novel, any awards you've won, any other publications you've made plus what materials you've included. This varies from agent to agent. Make sure you check the agent's latest guidelines before sending your query. They are known to change, take time off from queries, or move to a new agency. I do keep a spreadsheet, but right before I click the send button, I check their website one more time to make sure everything is accurate. Please do this. Not following instructions is such a quick way to get auto-trashed, and you don't want to do that. 

Please keep in mind, this is not the only way to write a query, it's just my way. Most importantly, make sure the summary of your book is in the best shape possible along with your opening pages. All of the other stuff can be overlooked if your writing is amazing. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Cover Art

I have to share this, because, as much as my husband is proud of me for following my passion to write, I'm so proud of him for following his passion to create. I've forced him to read most* of my manuscripts, subjecting him to teen angst and make out scenes that he probably never imagined he'd be stuck reading. He's been a real trooper about it, and he's an amazing copy editor. (I think he secretly likes finding all of my typos and pointing them out) Anyway, my latest WIP inspired him to create a cover design, and I absolutely love it. It's modern, clean, simple, and it captures the real heart of the story with a little mystery that would intrigue a reader to look inside. Or maybe that's just me. What do you think, though? Would you read this book?

*I wrote a YA thriller about mean girls that I thought might be too much for him so I let him skip it.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

TMI

Let's get back to editing, and this one's an easy one. To start, every paragraph, every sentence, every WORD in your story needs to serve a purpose. One as grand as revealing a pivotal plot point, as lovely as describing a room, or as simple as giving a reader pause.

Everything else? Delete.

This is one reason agents, editors, most people are so anti-adverb. They're like the carbs of the writing world. Sure, they taste great. But they're empty calories. Filler.

Case in point.
He eyed them circumspectly.
What does that mean? Can you tell me what that looks like? And if you can, do that instead of copping out with an adverb.

He violently attacked her. 
Really? Because when I attack people, I usually do it passively.

In addition to adverbs, we also have unnecessary prepositional phrases. Sure, you might need to know the cat was in the closet. Or the laundry was on the stairs.

But do you need to know...
Her heart thrummed in her chest.
Really? Not her elbow?

They dug the grave in the ground.
Oh, thanks for clearing that up. Most people dig graves in the middle of their living rooms.

He inhaled through his nose.
A tricky one, because yes, he could inhale through his mouth. We have two orifices for that just in case one gets blocked. But do we really need to know that? Is it integral to your story, or the character that we know, without a doubt he took that breath through his nose?

I don't need to read your work to say, "no."

I'm not trying to shame anyone for this. We all do it. The point is, before your draft goes out on submission or even worse, to print, you should give it one last read to delete all of the unnecessary amplifiers. It's also a super-easy way to cut down word count if you're running high.