I’m gonna be at MalCon this weekend. I’ll be on eleven panels and will be sitting at the Shiny Garden Non-Profit table most of Friday, so come on by and say hello! But that’s not the main reason Iâ€™m writing today.
June was really hectic for me and I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk about it.
Before I go, let me say that I’m gonna keep names out of my story because I want to protect people’s privacy.
My Hectic Month
I started June house sitting for a friend of mine. My friend has dogs that have special needs and it was more convenient (and cheaper,) if this person had someone stay at their house then kennel the dogs. I’ve house-sat people’s animals before, so this was no big deal.
I was there most of the month. By the end, I was dying to sleep in my bed, shower in my bathroom and cook on my stove. It became harder and harder to live in someone else’s home. When my friend came home, I was relieved.
The last weekend I house/dog sat, an acquaintance of mine received notice that his family had to move out of the house they were renting. My friend’s wife was nine months pregnant, at the time. So the call went out for help and a bunch of people came to pack and clean the house they were renting in preparation for a move that had to be made by the middle of July. On top of this, I had a friend leave Denver, so I went to their two parties, I volunteered at my church, and mentored a couple of new writers.
Finally, I ended up on eleven panels at Denver Comic Con, half of them as moderators on panels that I did not submit. If you know me, you know I am morbidly obese and getting around the Denver convention center can be difficult. Yet I did it anyways.
Why? Why did I commit – some would say overcommit – to help so much in June?
It took me a while to figure out an articulate answer.
I did it because people are worth it.
I have come to the conclusion that humans are built for community. It is where we feel the safest, the most whole. It’s also where we are the happiest.
I did these things because I felt a sense of obligation, a duty, if you will, to help my friends.
Words like duty and obligation don’t have the value they once did in our society. That doesn’t mean they’re still not important.
My wife came with me to help our friend pack. We weren’t sleeping well and dreaded both the drive and the packing we volunteered to do. While I helped my friend pack their house, something interesting happened. Instead of feeling burdened with obligation, I enjoyed myself. I had a good time being around my friend and their family. I met wonderful new people. In addition, I got to know the family better. It was a really good experience.
I know for myself that sometimes people can be a drain. That trying to be a friend to that person always in need, can leave you hallow and empty. But the reverse can leave you calloused, alone and brittle. It’s better to be open with your time and get a little taken advantaged of then to be guarded and along. I’ve watched some friends take that path. They turned into paranoid loners, scared of people, weary that they’ll be taken advantage of.
Like I said I am morbidly obese. Standing for any length of time is difficult for me. But I remember my master’s degree ceremony, where I had to stand for an hour in a line that didn’t move, then walk a couple of hundred yards to a field where the ceremony took place. The funny thing is I remember being in pain â€“ but the actual pain I have forgotten. What I do remember is the satisfaction of knowing I had my degree and the warmth of the people who came to celebrate with me.
THAT is the Point
Many times we don’t do things because we don’t want to suffer, or be inconvenienced, troubled or put out. But when the struggles are over, we don’t actually remember the inconvenience or trouble. We remember overcoming the difficulties. We remember the accomplishment. If we do it with loved ones, we’ll remember the laughter too.
I encourage all of us to try to do more for one another. To serve each other. In doing so we will create or foster bonds of friendship. We will have great stories to tell and fond memories to relive. We will weave meaning into our lives.
This is why I am proud to announce that I am the Chairman of the Board for Shiny Garden, a new non-profit dedicated to bringing all kinds of fans together to enjoy each other. Shiny Garden will be the administrative head of Myth & Legends Con. We will also organize WhimsyCon in March, as well as Hexacon, a new gaming convention, in January.
Through Shiny Garden I hope I can better serve the literary and fandom community.
Here is my MalCon schedule:
Fri, 8:00 PM-8:50 PM, How to be a better Roleplayer (Nevernever)
Sat, 9:00 AM-9:50 AM, Merging Steampunk and Fantasy (The Shire)
Sat, 11:00 AM-11:50 AM, Diversity in Fandom (Serenity)
Sat, 12:00 PM-12:50 PM, Costuming 101 (Room of Requirement)
Sat, 1:00 PM-1:50 PM, Lord of the Rings: Digging Deeper (The Shire)
Sat, 3:00 PM-3:50 PM, Corsets Q&A: Tightlacing, Waist Training, and Myths (Room of Requirement)
Sat, 4:00 PM-4:50 PM, Game Of Thrones: The TV Show Beyond the Books (Kings Landing)
Sat, 9:00 PM-9:50 PM, Epic Rap Battles of Literature! (Helms Deep)
Sat, 11:00 PM-11:50 PM, Author Readings (15 min each) (Kings Landing)
Sun, 12:00 PM-12:50 PM, Shiny Garden and New Events (The Shire)
Sun, 1:00 PM-1:50 PM, Catastrophic Seasonal Climates in Game of Thrones (Kings Landing)
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If you attended my Denver ComicCon panel on game master best practices, here are some downloadables for you. The first is the actual power point I used during the panel. The second is a brief player background worksheet that asks specific questions to your players about the game. Finally, the third is a simple checklist for game masters that covers the materials in the panel. Feel free to use and modify as you see fit. I hope you find these helpful. Happy gaming.
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I will be publishing several novellas this summer and fall and those on my email list will get them first and get them for free!
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I pre-ordered a copy of Jeff Goins Real Artists Don’t Starve last week and had a chance to sit down and read it when I was house sitting for a friend.
Before I begin my review let me just say this is not one of those “YOU CAN DO IT!” books where you feel exhilarated and motivated after you read it. This is one of those books that starts by pumping you up, then it hits you in the gut with your own failures by showing you all the times when you could have been successful with your art, but weren’t.
This makes book makes you reflect on all of the missed opportunities you had. It confronts you with your sloth and cowardice. That’s what it did to me. The worst part is that Jeff Goins doesn’t write to offend or accuse. He is a competent writer with an academic style, using historical narratives from many different artists to make his points. In many ways this book feels like a book of history.
The book strikes a cord.
Essentially, Real Artists Don’t Starve debunks the myth of the starving artist. The person who must suffer financially for their art because they have no audience to sell too, or the market is too crowded and depresses prices, or whatever reason society offers for why artists aren’t well off.
Jeff Goins breaks the book into three sections. Mindset, Market, and Money. Goins covers everything from defining patrons and finding mentors to giving you permission to steal liberally and knowing when to sell out.
This book is cogent, thoughtful, and intelligent.
Jeff Goins redefines what a mentor is and what a patron is, for our modern audience. He makes the elegant argument that genius happens in groups. After reading this book, you will be compelled to re-evaluate your art, but your approach to the business of your art.
See, too many people have accepted the lie that to be a great artist you need to sequester yourself in a cave with your art tools and slave away in obscurity. That the only way to mastery is to abandon the world, normative society, and your loved ones so you can dedicate yourself to your art.
At the same time, the renown artists crave for can only had if artist leave their cave. (And, Goins has a word for those artists who say “I don’t
crave that stuff. I make art for me.”) How can the world enjoy your work if you never tell us about it? How can you earn a living as an artist if you never know your worth?
The Lies about Art
All of the bad mojo, the misconceptions and outright lies about art and business of art are confronted here in a nice volume just over two hundred pages. I read this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. I found myself fist pumping in the air at times while sitting in shock during others. It is that good.
I really enjoyed all of the historical research Jeff Goins did for this book. He had anecdotal stories from artists as varied as Michelangelo to
Earnest Hemingway to Dr. Dre. He talked about Paris in the 1920s and Silicon Valley in the 1980s. He showed me the business sides of artists and struck a cord.
Right now there is no paperback copy. You can get it in hardback or as an e-book. If you consider yourself an artists, or know an artists, get this book. But be warned: Your conceptions about art will be challenged and you might find yourself re-evaluating some of your life choices. I know I did.
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Welcome to all those who have arrived from Writing from the Peak Website! I want to get into some nitty gritty about re-writes. So, let’s begin!
Let’s Be Honest About these Re-Writes
If you’re adding a romantic subplot, like I did. Or you’re polishing some language so that story or character arcs stand out, or you’re trying to make an impact with dialogue, then go be about your business. But there should be a light at the end of the tunnel. There should be a time when you can abandon this story and move on to the next one. Your job is not to create perfection, but to create art. This is why I push the critique group so much. Everyone needs a separate set of eyes to tell you if what you’re doing is good, or not. Those additional eyes will help make your story great.
What if you need a major overhaul? Ok. We can do that. But first ask yourself why. Is your world building off? Are their historical anachronisms in your story that are essential to the plot? Did you realize you told the story from the wrong point of view? (This happens, believe me!)
Is any part of your W.I.P. salvageable? Perhaps Act 1, or the last part of act 3? Maybe the midpoint, or the romantic subplot? Whatever can be salvaged should be kept and put into separate file folders. Then start your re-writes. As you do this, think about the plot beats. Think about the protagonist’s motivation and character arc. How can you put these on a pedestal and polish them so they shine in your story?
Remember, writing a novel takes grit. If you’ve come this far, you’ve got what it takes. I know how disheartening it can feel realizing you have to write another 80,000 words before your novel is done. I have been there. My first draft of The Gallowglass was 117,000 words. It took a year to write. It was also very bad. Oh, so very bad. When I re-wrote the novel, I couldn’t even save one paragraph. But I got through it. I now have a much better story. If I can do it, I know you can too.
The Nine Questions
Ask these questions about your work before, during and after you’ve written your first draft. The answers should change as your story progresses and you polish certain scenes.
1.) Is the protagonist’s motivation painfully obvious?
2.) Is the protagonist likeable? Do you want them to be?
3.) Do you have a theme? If so, is the theme obvious to your readers?
4.) Does your protagonist have a story arc? Is it clear and obvious?
5.) Do any of your supporting characters have a story arc? Are their arcs clear and obvious?
6.) Is your protagonist the cause of at least some of his own troubles? If not, why? If so, can he fix them?
7.) Is your protagonist able to reflect upon their decisions at the midpoint? If so, is she beginning to question her decisions?
8.) Is there a whiff of death in the second half of Act 2?
9.) Is there at least a partially satisfying conclusion for your reader? Do the good guys win? If not, is there something satisfying for your reader to grab ahold of at the end of your W.I.P.?
The Story Arc
In every film, opera, play and novel there are actually two stories going on. One is motivated by the plot. The overarching story that the protagonist and her friends are reacting too. The other story is about the protagonist’s inner journey. This is this is the character arc. Questions 1, 4, 6, 7, & 8 are about your protagonist’s character arc.
In the past, genre fiction like sci-fi or paranormal romance was heavy on plot, but light on character development. That time is quickly dying. All writers need to up their game and work on the character arc for their novel, regardless of the genre. It is very important that your readers see the protagonist grow, learn and change as the story progresses. And, you get bonus points for making your character arc and plot arc intersect! All the best novels have a character arc that intersects with the story arc.
There are times in the story, like in the beginning, when we learn what the hero really wants, and at the midpoint, when we see the hero realize maybe this isn’t what they want, that intersect with the story arc. If done well, they can be seamless and poignant. The character arc should be the focus of your re-writes. Look to make your protagonist’s personality stand out in the midst’s of the story arc.
I could go on about this, but local Colorado author Stant Litore wrote a book about this called Writing Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget: a Toolbox for Emerging Writers, on Amazon now for under $10. I highly recommend it.
Next month will talk about paths to publishing, getting an agent & if you want one, and the power of self-publishing.
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Last week I got a copy of author James A. Hunter’s sci-fi novel Viridian Gate Online: Cataclycism: A LitRPG Adventure. I got to say, this one was a little out of my wheel house. However, James hit it out of the park! The characters are fleshed out, the action is non-stop, and the character development is solid.
Our story takes place in 2042. An asteroid is about to hit the Earth and our protagonist hasn’t won the lottery allowing him to survive in deep earth bunkers. He has, however, won a different kind of lottery. Thanks to a next generation virtual reality MMO, he has an opportunity to immerse himself in a digital world. After being connected for three days, his body will die, but his consciousness has a good shot of surviving the process, making him immortal. The only problem is that he would live out his existence in a fantasy MMO, fighting monsters and collecting magic items.
This is the genre of Litrpg
The protagonists are caught in a game world and have to figure out what there next step is. This kind of novel blends the sci-fi action of Tron with the specifics of MMO’s like inventory screens, digital maps, skill and class progression and money totals. All the stuff that hard core games want in their sci-fi novels. And Viridian Gate Online delivers on all of the goods.
I was surprised how rich and detailed the world was. I was also surprised how out protagonist, Grim Jack, has to balance what his MMO habits are with his desire to act humanely as he tries to figure out how to do the right thing. While he knows he’s in a video game, it’s so realistic that he can’t help but treat the people he meets as if they are real. He is humane and merciful. Surprisingly, these traits always end up benefiting him. Kindness is rewarded.
Then the girl shows up
The story hums along well until Aby, a former college friend, appears. You see Aby gave Grim Jack the equipment to get online and survive the asteroid. He now finds out why. Aby thinks there’s something rotten in Viridian Gate and she needs Jack’s help to find it. Aby explains what she knows and what she thinks it happening. She asks him to go on a quest with her, which only brings up more questions. Their quest for answers is complicated by the feelings they are just now admitting to each other.
The author breaks the team up when Aby decides she wants to be alone during her final transition. See, after three days connected to this virtual reality world, a person’s body goes into cardiac arrest – they die – in the real world. Most people survive this process with their consciousness intact, 1 in 6 do not.
A well crafted book
Author James Hunter has created a rich world for the reader to explore. He’s also skillfully added a mystery into an action novel. Did I mention the twist at the end? Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you. Just read the book!
If you like reading new genres of fiction with lots of action and a little bit of mystery, Viridian Gate Online: Cataclysm is for you. Ebook versions are $3.99 on Amazon. Paperback is $9.99.
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Like a lot of young men, I was obsessed with sports in my teens. I watched everything except baseball and golf. (I got nothing against baseball or golf, just not my cup of tea.) Basketball, football, hockey, you name it I watched it. I would even pay attention to high school sports in Los Angeles, reading the game summaries in the Pasadena Star News, keeping track of standing and statistics. Oh, and I didn’t want to be perceived as a snob, so I watched tennis, soccer & camped out every two years to watch Olympic bobsledding, downhill skiing, cycling and track & field.
But as I got older, I realized a couple of things.
- I didn’t really care for a lot of these sports.
- I was wasting a lot of time on something that didn’t really have a direct effect on my life.
So I stopped. I turned off the NFL draft and the NBA lottery. I stopped buying season tickets for the Colorado Rapids and turned the TV off during the NFL season. It was no longer fun, so I stopped.
The One Exception was College Football. I Love College Football.
I won’t bore you with my apologia on why college football is awesome, just know that it is. When I transitioned to being an aspiring author, I began to see some parallels between professional writing and my beloved sport.
1.) It Is Easy to Get Tunnel Vision
I am a BIG Southern Cal fan. I have been for about thirty years. About six years ago USC was hailed as the premiere college football
program in the land. They whupped everybody and I loved talking crap.
But there were problems in the Land of Troy. Many of the SC football players were coming to class wearing expensive clothes and driving leased Cadillac SUV’s. Pete Carrol, the head coach, knew a lot of these kids were from poor homes and simply decided not to ask questions. That lead to the university getting sanctioned by the NCAA and Carrol’s resignation. He got tunnel vision, deciding to ignore the things he didn’t want to know about.
The same is true in writing. I see people all the time who ignore really good advice from their peers. Or they don’t want to join a critique group because “They won’t get what I’m trying to do.” Listen, Jeff Goins says “Art needs an audience.” That means you’re going to get criticized – and that’s a good thing! An inspiring writer has to put their egos on the shelf and take criticism. Remember that fiction writing is an art and a business. If you can’t prepare your work for the market, than why are you writing?
2.) There is Room Enough for Everyone
College football has a great four team playoff system. It’s really increased visibility for the game. However, every year there are thirty plus bowl games going on. This year’s national Champion was the University of Clemson. They had an awesome season and earned every accolade. My beloved Trojans won the Rose Bowl against a resurgent Penn St. in a game for the ages. USC didn’t make the college playoffs this year. That doesn’t there season was a failure. Little Western Michigan University came out of nowhere to receive an invitation to the prestigious Cotton Bowl, where they proceeded to get pounded by Wisconsin. But they won 12 games this year, got on national television and won their conference. Is there season defined by one game? Of course not!
The same thing is true in writing. Just because I don’t have the success of James Paterson or Diana Gabaldon, doesn’t mean I’m a failure. People like to spout statistics about how hard it is to be a professional writer. But success looks different to different people. Local authors Quincy J. Allen and Dave Butler both write steampunk fiction. Yet their audiences are vastly different. One’s success doesn’t mean the other is failing. The scarcity world view is a lie. There is room enough for both of them, for all of them, in the marketplace.
3.) The Details Count
Twenty years ago in college football the University of Miami was the Galactic Empire in the sport. Everyone hated them. They were brash, cocky and talented. They were 1 play away from becoming the first back-to-back national champions in twenty years. Conversely, the University of Oregon was in a wilderness of losing. Today, the Oregon Ducks are a perennial winner and Miami struggles. What happened?
See, high school kids are wowed by shiny things. Oregon built a new stadium, a new athletic facility, and made rotating special uniforms a thing. High school athletes ate it up and decided to play for the ducks. Miami thought that kids would want to go to school there because of their winning tradition, so they never upgraded their athletic buildings. Now they struggle to keep Miami kids at home. They didn’t take care of the details.
Many times writers don’t want to do anything but write. They want to immerse themselves in story. But being a professional writer is about more than your book. It’s about sales and marketing. If you want to put food on the table writing, you’ve got to sell your book. You’ve got to meet fans, put together an email list and have a decent looking website. Author Jeff Goins says you must build a tribe.
I know an author who self-published a couple of space opera style Sci-fi books. Really good stuff. I suggested he get a table at the ComicCon in his town. The guy looked at me in horror. He said “I’m not going to be around those wierdos.” I told him, “Who do you think is going to buy your book? Physics professors?”
His discomfort lead to no one reading his book. He thought all he had to do was write something awesome (and it was awesome,) and viola, instant financial success. You gotta take care of the details.
4.) There is a Community of People Who Want to Help.
Did you know that college football coaches go to clinics about coaching every year, put on by other coaches? That they actively teach and network with one another? Did you know that coaches actively mentor other coaches they compete against? Every year summer Punt, Pass & Kick clinics go on where assistant coaches from many different programs get together, teach high school kids and actively pass on recruiting information to each other. Why? Because they know mentoring is an active part of coaching. Many successful coaches want to give back to the game by taking new people under their wings.
The same is true in writing. I have many new writers seek out and receive mentoring from professional writers who simply want to help. I too, have benefited from this mentoring. Authors like Aaron Michael Ritchey, Quincy J. Allen, Mary Wine and Suzanne Spann have all mentored me and helped me along the way.
There is an old saying, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Sometimes you have to ask for help. This shows a humbleness and a passion for the craft. I have never met people more open, more celebratory of others, or more helpful, than my fellow writers in Denver writing community. Mentorship, guidance, community and fellowship is out there. You just have to ask.
5.) Success Entails Hard Work.
You knew I was going to end with this, right? You have to put in the work. Clemson just didn’t recruit super talented football players to win a national championship. It took years of preparation, flying all over the country and talking to skeptical parents about how the coaches were going to guide, teach and mentor their young men. It took hundreds of hours of watching film, guiding kids in the weight room, having hard conversations about dedication, keeping an eye on kids grades, and about a hundred other things I don’t have time to talk about here, before Clemson was in a position to win that championship.
The same thing is true in writing. Research, re-writes, learning grammar, going to critique group, learning marketing, doing more re-writes. It’s all part of the process. If you’re willing to do the work, eventually you will be successful.
When I wrote my first, unpublished novel, I realized that I had made a bunch of stupid mistakes. So in January of 2016 I decided to do a complete re-write from page one. It was daunting. But I did it. I then wrote a second book later that year. A lot of people would have quit, or dragged their feet.
Look, I get it. It hurts to know the labor you put in was not enough. But if you go an extra mile, write a little more, ask for a little more help, you can be successful.
In a lot of ways, it really isn’t about the extra work. It is about this question. If I work harder, will I see the success I think I deserve? I think this is the real reason why people quit. They work hard, pour their emotions into a book and take their failure personally. They give up the fight before the fight is over. But writing is a craft. It’s more about the skills you acquire than the talent you have. As you learn more, you stop making those early mistakes. Your writing gets better.
I will leave you with this. At the University of Southern California, they have a saying. Fight On! To be successful in anything, you have to keep working. When you think you’ve reached your limit and that little, cowardly voice is telling you to quit, you have to simply Fight On!
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I have been a Stant Litore fan for quite a while now. It all started when I was perusing books on my Kindle and his name kept coming up. I would read the titles of his books and then read the descriptions. Wow. Just wow. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and I bought Death Has Come Up Into Our Windows.
I came away from that book with three convictions.
1.) Stant Litore is a master of sorrow and loneliness.
2.) Stant Litore has an understanding of Biblical literature that would blow the rest of us away.
3.) Stant Litore knows how to write!
Why am I telling you this?
See, the book I’m gonna review, No Lasting Burial, requires a little bit of set up.
Stant Litore writes Science Fiction (which is also awesome!) but he writes what can only be described as weird fiction. He has a whole series of books entitled The Zombie Bible.
In these books Stant takes a Biblical figure and asks the question how would a devoutly religious person from the ancient world respond to a zombie apocalypse? This is a fascinating question!
It brings up issues of culture, material culture, values, faith & identity. It also takes the question of religion very seriously.
See, I’m a devout Catholic. I have been one most of my adult life. However whenever I try to find movies or television shows that authentically lay out how a sincere Christian would act, I am left empty and hollow.
Its not that entertainment gets the Christian wrong (which they often do – but that’s another post.) For the sake of faint of heart, they get the experiences wrong.
We all know that life can be hard. It’s visceral, guttural, earthy and sometimes gross. Very rarely do movies, television & books with authentically Christian characters get their world right. The producers shy away from the heard realities of life. Everything is veiled or discussed in coded language.
Stant Litore get’s it Right.
His characters are full of rage, pride, lust. They watch their loved ones get murdered, or starve. They are hard, lean people who have gone through some tough times. In spite of those times, when their backs are against the wall, they lean on their faith to keep going. Stant’s works are visceral and gritty.
Let’s talk about No Lasting Burial.
I’ve read every Zombie Bible Story published so far. I saved this one for last because it deals with the Gospel of Luke.
Let me start out by saying Stant knows his Hebrew and Biblical Aramaic. He makes liberal use of terms and names, so that you feel like you’re visiting a foreign world. However, because he knows the Jewish Law, you quickly get the sense that his characters live with a certain amount of tension as they struggle to be faithful. The results can be both good and bad, for the characters.
Also, Stant Litore’s writing is beautiful. He has a way of describing the most basic – fish cooking on a wood fire, walking along the sea shore, or an intimate moment between a young girl and a boy – and making you feel vulnerable for witnessing it. There were times in this book I was embarrassed because the scene was so intimate, so personal, that I felt like I was eaves dropping on two lovers. When a writer can make you feel that, he’s done something.
The characters are wounded and broken people. This one can’t forgive his father. That one is full of fear for her child. This one has grown dogmatic and self-righteous because he can’t forgive himself for his cowardice years before. Yet they all go through their own growth as the story advances. Stant Litore is a master of the character arc, and it shows in this book.
Meanwhile, the dead walk the earth, consuming the living.
They have one intense moment after another. When the dead attack, most people work together to fight them. When the present danger has abated, their interpersonal problems resurface. Finally, these Iron Age Characters try to make sense of a world where the dead keep coming back, while also being good, observant Jews and dealing with the Romans.
There is a richness to Stant Litore’s prose that feels like poetry. H has woven a rich tapestry of belief, emotion, ancient history, and – dare I say it – hunger, into a wonderful book. I highly recommend all of the books in the Zombie Bible, especially No Lasting Burial. Pick it up today!
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I wrote a short story entitled Answering the Bell about a fatherless girl in high school training to be a boxer. She has all the problems of a typical student-athlete; mom, school, boys. I submitted the story to an anthology entitled, Shatter Your Image, by Thomas A. Fowler’s Nerdy Things Publishing. The story was accepted and is now available on Amazon in paperback and e-book.
All proceeds will go to a lovely charity called Realize Your Beauty, which teaches healthy body image to girls of all ages. (www.realizeyourbeauty.org)
I’m proud of this story. It’s my first attempt at writing a female protagonist, as well as my first attempt at a literary story. (I guess I define literary as not having an obvious genre hook to hang on to.) Check it out. Thomas Fowler is planning a Denver book signing party. When it happens, I will let all of you know!
Artists have a reputation for being quite emotional. You’re either perceived as being high strung, histrionic, or bipolar. All of which may be true at one point or another. (I tend to be histrionic, myself.) I think these perceptions come from two main areas. The struggle of trying to make money from your art, and the struggle to earn the title of artist. Whenever you try to take that title for yourself, up pops imposter syndrome.
You know what I’m talking about.
That little voice in your head that says your art is a joke. It tells you that you don’t belong in this rarified world. You’re worse than an amateur, you’re a fraud. Real artists will laugh at how bad your art is. They’ll pretend not to see you in public because you embarrass them.
Imposter syndrome. It’s real. I suffer from it. Other artists I know suffer from it. It’s very common.
For me it strikes when I tell people I’m a writer and they give me that quizzical look. Like, I used the wrong word in a sentence and they’re wondering if they heard it right.
“What? You can’t make money at that.”
“Aren’t you the dreamer!”
“Oh (uncomfortable silence,) that’s interesting.”
I immediately get defensive.
I tell them I’ve been blogging for over a year now. That I was editor-in-chief of an online magazine. I tell them I’ve been traditionally published four times.
None of those things matter. And they shouldn’t.
The truth is that I shouldn’t care, but I do. I want the respect and (if I’m being honest,) adulation of all around me. When I don’t get it, Imposter Syndrome rears its ugly head. Why I get upset about what a passing acquaintance says about me, I’ll never know. I think we’re all wired to want, at some level, the approval of our community, of our tribe.
The problem is that these people don’t matter. I could publish a book, invite them to my book signing, track them down when they don’t show
up, and give them a free, autographed copy and they still would be skeptical. In addition, their opinion of me still wouldn’t matter.
I define who & what I am. The same should be true for you, too.
Look, I have a secret to tell you. There are no gatekeepers anymore.
I don’t have to have a book deal with Penguin or St. Martin’s Press. I don’t have to be interviewed by the Today Show, or MSNCBC. I don’t need any of that to call myself a writer. All I need is to give myself permission to be a writer. The rest is about the work.
It’s about getting up, every day, and finding time to write, edit, & market. You gotta do the work. Eventually, people will see the work you do and acknowledge you as the artist you are – or they won’t. Either way it doesn’t matter.
Walt Disney once said “We don’t make movie to make money. We make money to make more movies.” It was always about the art.
As you explore the art you love, dig deep into to it, immerse yourself in its workings and craft, you won’t care what people think. You’ll begin to reshape your vision of yourself. You will shatter your image, pick up the shards of your former self, and recast it into something you recognize, something beautiful.
That will be all the recognition you need.
You can like Jason’s Facebook Author page at Jason Henry Evans
or, follow Jason on Twitter @evans_writer
The African-American community is large and diverse. While reading my essays & blogposts, or taking my classes at local conferences, please know that my beliefs, experiences & insights are my own. You can find ten other African-Americans and hear ten different opinions. My hope is that you glean something from my experiences which help you write Authentic African-American Characters.
The Sapphire is one of the most enduring black stereotypes in literature, film and television. A black woman with a strong will and a strong back. She always speaks the truth – especially to the white people. She gets laughs and inspires courage. Yet her humor masks her truth telling. We love her because she is strong, courageous even, while being heartwarming. Today we see her as an equal (which is a good thing,).
So, what’s wrong with this trope and how can we fix it?
Here are the top four things wrong with the Sapphire trope and the two things we, as writers, can do to fix it.
1.) The Sapphire loves the white family – a little too much.
She cooks amazing meals, is there early and stays late & helps raise the little white children. The sapphire is more than a maid or housekeeper, she is a surrogate mother – and that is the problem.
She does everything for the white children. Literally everything. Doesn’t this woman have a family of her own? What about her kids? What about her husband & family? Yet she is always there for her white employers. Yes, it’s her hard work and nurturing that gives her the moral authority to teach wisdom to the children and her employers. However, what is her status?
The Sapphire is in some kind of limbo where the white children are concerned. Her authority comes from her white employer and not because of her own moral authority or relationships with the child.
Look at Calpurnia from To Kill a Mockingbird, the woman is shown to be hard on Scout, to help her grow up. Scout even says:
She was always ordering me out of the kitchen, asking me why
I couldn’t behave as well as Jem when she knew he was older,
and calling me home when I wasn’t ready to come. Our battles
were epic and one-sided. Calpurnia always won, mainly because
Atticus always took her side. She had been with us ever since Jem
was born, and I had felt her tyrannical presence as long as I could
Her authority of Scout is only because Atticus takes her side, as the white male and head of the household. The Sapphire is in a kind of limbo because she’s doing the job of a mother – without the job title.
2.) The Sapphire emasculates the black man.
Her strength, whether its moral, physical or emotional, is unquestioned. She speaks truth to power. She is a courageous woman. However, in order for the Sapphire character to shine, she has to knock some sense into somebody. In shows like Nell Carter’s Gimme a Break, it was always the white kids who got the lessons about life from the sassy housekeeper. In shows like Good Times, it was Florida’s own children who got the brunt of it.
The character of JJ Evans on Good Times was a clown of the highest order. While later seasons showed him taking his art more seriously, becoming more of a productive citizen, the character could easily be confused with a minstrel show performing jive artists. While the rest of the family struggles, JJ was shiftless, sexually obsessed, lazy and a potential con artist. He always had a plan or a scheme that his mother, Florida Evans (or his father, to be fair,) had to stop.
In many ways, you can’t have a Sapphire without emasculating a black man around him. Go back and watch Mammy and Pork from Gone with the Wind. They don’t have many scenes together, but it’s clear who’s in charge.
3.) The Sapphire is a neutered woman.
The Sapphire’s strength is unparalleled. She is virtuous and is the soft spot everyone can lean on. All great story telling. Except, who does the Sapphire lean on? Who’s shoulder does she cry on?
Because her presentation to us, as reader, usually involved her being older, with copious amounts of fat on her, she is never presented as an object of sexual desire. Her romantic desires are never discussed.
No one is that strong.
And, while there are people who show no desire to form romantic relationships out there, the Sapphire is continuously portrayed as strong enough not to need a man – or anybody.
4.) The Sapphire is All Rage
The Sapphire is righteousness personified. She has no time for foolishness or crap while she tells it like it is. While she speaks the truth her emotions range from irritated to full blown rage. From Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy in Gone with the Wind, to Nell Carter’s Nellie in Gimmie a Break, this woman is angry.
A good example of this is Oprah Winfrey’s character Sofia in the Color Purple. She is all rage and indignation and truth telling. Oprah gives a beautiful monologue about her abuse growing up to Whoopie Goldberg’s character Celie. It is a moving and heart wrenching scene. To Spielberg’s credit, he pushes Sofia to her natural conclusion and has her curse a white woman and slug a white man, which gets her sent to prison.
How do we avoid these stereotypes? How do we fix them?
As I have said at conferences before, fixing the stereotypes of black characters involves one major step: show agency.
If the black housekeeper loves the white children she cares for, show her choosing her own family over the people she works for. “I’m sorry, Mr. Smith, my own daughter is in a play tonight and I must see her. You’ll have to find someone else.”
No one will have a problem with this decision because it’s human.
If the Sapphire is emasculating the black male characters around her flip the script. Have those same men honor their mother/aunt/stepmother by taking the responsibilities away from her just once. Have her come home and dinner is cooking, the house is clean, and the men are waiting on her to show their love and respect. (This also has the added effect of eliminating the stereotype of the black male as shiftless, lazy and uncaring.)
Show the Sapphire as an object of desire. Have her talk about her lover, or husband or wife.
Let an older Sapphire have an opportunity to wax poetic about her lovers when she was younger. Let her brag about her figure and bust.
Let her break down and cry. Have her lean on her friends and get a hug. Allow people wait on her. Show her being vulnerable. Show her laughing, good naturedly. Let her have a passionate kiss.
Here is the incomparable Esther Rolle in Good Times showing a strong black woman being vulnerable.