White Girl, Black City

My current WIP is set in Detroit. It’s a murder mystery but it’s also a fish-out-of-water story about a white girl who lands in a black city. I write from the pov of the white girl, and as a white writer who found herself in a black environment when I attended a small private college in Detroit in the 80s, I have direct experience with that fish-out-of-water theme.

I’ve written successfully about being white in a black city before. At school, I won a fiction competition for “Cherry Vanilla” a short story I wrote about a white college girl who dates a black college boy, and the repercussions it has on her family–and his.  I didn’t want to ignore the race issue, but I didn’t want to “write about race” either. So I just focused on what I knew about–being a fish-out-of-water. I didn’t insert racism as a theme, I just showed the way people in my  real world behaved.

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The judges for the competition were our professors. The cash prize was a fat check and other accolades (publication in the college’s literary journal, a personal meeting with the famous author on campus that semester, special guest status at the banquet in her honor) came with the prize. There were four judges: two white women, a white man, and a black woman. The majority of the prof/judges were white, which was a problem even then for a lot of people at the college, particularly the black profs. It wasn’t right, they said, to have a majority of black students and so few black educators.

After the story was published, some of my African-American classmates said I should not have won the competition. They liked the second place story better, also published in the college journal, and written by a black woman. I’d only won top prize because I was white, they said, even though the stories were all submitted anonymously. At the time, I put the black students’ rancor down to sour grapes.

But what if it wasn’t that simple? But what if my three white professors related more to my character because, like her, they were also white in a predominantly black milieu?  What if the lone black professor/judge felt a subtle pressure to agree with her white colleagues? Or what if she dissented, even then? I never considered these things at the time, but the truth is I need to consider these kinds of questions now.

And not about the past, which is gone, but about my current work-in-progress and its particular need to look past easy answers and stereotypes, both white and black.

 

 

Beach Theme Gift Tote

In September, I’ll be at the Alpena Book Festival, signing books and speaking about writing. I’m donating this beach bag full of swag, too, for a raffle that benefits literacy. I had so much fun putting it together, I thought I’d share. It’s a good marketing tool, although that’s not why I’m doing it. I’m doing it because it’s fun.

That’s the key to just about everything for me. Is it fun? Does it do no harm? Do it!!

It started with the tote, spied at Lord & Taylor cosmetic counter. The colors were perfect for a series titled Blue Lake. Snagged it and solicited ideas for swag on social media. Women know what they like to take to the beach, I’ll tell you that. I would have added more but my budget was $150 value including books, plus it almost all doesn’t fit now.

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Also, I hope I can resist wearing that hat all summer. If not, I bought it at Hallmark. No wait, I bought it at Bed, Bath & Beyond. They had every color but as you see I mostly stuck to blue. And I went for quality stuff. I’ve been the winner of several raffles at writing events, and the swag can range from delicious to dreary. I wanted delicious, of course. I tried as hard as I could, since the event is not until end-of-summer, to wait for sales.

But the thing with sales is, sometimes by the time stuff goes on sale, the good things are gone. I did not want that to happen to my first ever swag bag. I wanted everything to be a fresh delight. I even snagged some Michigan Lakes themed items, like this “keeps hot or cold” mug. Good for beer or coffee or water. Oh I saw the cutest wine glasses but they were glass and I’m thinking glass + beach = not so great. This mug will hold wine just fine.

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#1 Question Writers Ask

I was at a writing conference last weekend and had a fabulous time. The workshops were inspiring, the food was delicious, the keynote speaker’s jokes made me laugh. He had a serious message, too, as all keynote speakers do. He’d been hearing the same question all day.

“How Can I Make Money From Writing?”

Seriously, there are so many ways. And once you actually write the book, (and it should be a well-written book with a subject people want to read about it, even if they don’t know it yet) and get it published, you will find the ways that suit you. We call that marketing.

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I’ve been writing a long time, with 10 published books and number 11 on its way, and what I think about that big question new writers (or maybe some not so new writers) ask is probably the wrong question. It depends, really, on your goals in writing. What do you want out of this gig? If the first answer that pops into your head is fame and fortune, you need to move to New York or L.A. and you should also be young and beautiful and work in publishing or become a celebrity. Those people get book deals all the time.

But if you write because you love the process, and the way to tell if you love it is to ask yourself “would I still write if I never got paid?” Answer yes and I can tell you how you might find your way into a happy writing career. Obviously, you’re going to need a day job. At least for awhile. That’s fine. You’ll find the right day job that will help you write better books and even help you publish and sell them. Work for a university and their press may print your books. Self-publish a book for your creative writing class and your dean might make it required reading and sell it in the bookstore. I know because that’s how I published and sold my first book in 2008. It’s in second edition and remains my best-selling title.

It takes a lot of time, though, from dreamy poet to college professor. I not only had to acquire a couple of college degrees, I became a mother. Twice. Best writing decision I ever made. My first published essay in an anthology was about being a single mom. I later wrote a novel with the same theme. But that first story was a true one, and my boys were at the center of it.

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What I’m really saying here is that the writing life–any life–is like a safe and you have to crack the code. You do that by listening like a safecracker with his ear to the combination, listening to the tumblers until you hear the click. Inspiration is a first click. Daily practice is another. Finding what brings you joy in life and going for it even if on the surface it seems to have nothing at all to do with writing is the final click that will open the door to the treasure inside. Or as the keynote speaker, Detroit poet ML Libeler, put it so well “Do what you love and the money will come.”

 

How To Color a Character

When I first started sending my novels around to publishers and agents, I often heard that my main character was not very fun/nice/likable. “He’s no hero” and “she’s got too many issues” were typical comments. This perplexed me for a number of reasons. I liked my characters, for one. They were human and real to me. They were often based on, well, me. Or on Men I Have Known. They sort of wrote themselves. So how could they be wrong?

As it turns out, writing for publication is a business. And the business model says that a heroine should not have too many issues and a hero needs to be more heroic than a real man. I quickly learned that if I wanted to play this game, I’d have to learn the craft. In fact, one kind editor said exactly this to me. “Your writing is fine. You just need to learn your craft.”

Really? There’s a craft to it? What exactly is craft? And where do I get it?

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I got mine in Ohio. This is where I traveled to take a week-long intensive with bestselling novelist Jennifer Crusie. Jenny said a couple of things about character that were key to my novelist education. One was that a hero needs to be more heroic than any actual man I may have met (or married) in real life. The other was that readers want to cheer for a main character. They want to see someone worthy work hard, get knocked down, but finally, win the prize.

So I went home and proceeded to make up a character. What I’d done previously was simply write whoever showed up on the page (some version of me and an ex) and whatever they did. Now I was a writer who knew a thing or two about the theory (if not execution) of craft. It was time to execute. Kill my darlings. Reshape them into people with whom readers might want to spend time.

TheParisNotebook_w5955_300Now I start every novel with the idea that my main character is going to work very hard. She is not afraid of hard work. She will do whatever it takes to get the job done. After six published novels, it’s like second nature to me. Having practiced my craft, I understand hard work. So I get it. But at first it was difficult to go in and reshape these beings.

Give them better qualities, like a work ethic or heroic heart. You have to figure out ways to show this. What’s their job? Show them doing it. Avoid being boring. This part of writing, the planning and firmly putting character is the place you want them to be, is different than writing.

When I write, I hit a stream and flow. When I step back and plan, it’s more like being the person I am in daily life. I am not in the fictional trance. I’m present, with a problem, or maybe just dinner to make,  that same sort of mindset. I cut the fat, choose the spices, make sure not to burn my hand. And thus, my character becomes something of my deliberate creation, something of which readers of popular fiction might make a meal.

Trust Your Process

Lee Child writes one draft per book. He does not plan, plot or outline in advance. He does not revise significantly. This process works for him. He consistently finished a book a year this way for the past 20 years. For some time, those books have landed in the #1 NYT bestseller sweetest-ever spot.

Reading about Child’s process made me trust my own more deeply. I’d only read about writers (particularly writers of mystery) who painstakingly plot their novels in advance. These writers advocate character sheets and detailed outlines and other things I never do. A part of me always wondered: is this why my novels aren’t reaching a wider audience?

Not that I’d change anything. It just wouldn’t be as fun the other way. And writing every day for hours and hours all alone in a room needs all the fun it can get. For some writers, plotting in advance is probably their idea of fun. Just like for some people, beer is the best alcoholic beverage on the planet. Neither are for me.

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I think as writers we all develop our own processes, book by book. We try lots of stuff and we keep what works for us. I took a ton of workshops and attended many conferences and read a load of books about the writing process. I tried lots of stuff, and some of it stuck. But the way I start a book developed pretty early, before I’d read anything about process or taken any craft classes.

I begin each book with no clear picture of anything except for maybe a vague theme or a shadowy character.

I have written directly into the laptop and I have started with a Dr. Grip gel pen and a top spiral bound notebook. About longhand: I love writing this way. It absolutely shakes loose the story for me. But I hate transcribing all those pages from a notebook into my computer. I solved this process predicament by typing directly into my laptop every day after free-writing morning pages. My morning pages let me have that pen to paper experience without pressure. I write about everything, including where I’m at in the particular manuscript of the moment. What problems do I need to solve that day? What’s working, what isn’t, why and what I can do about it.

I love my process even more since I’ve figured out how to merge morning pages and novel writing. It really works–for me. The other thing I do is write freely without much of a plan for the first half of the book, maybe a little less. I tend to “know” when it’s time to read over the pages and begin to plan. Yes, I’m a pantser/planner. Neither one or the other, but both.

YourWords200At about 25K words, I read everything I’ve got straight through, jotting notes to myself along the way. Do I need more characterization? Does the plot fall flat in the middle? Is the beginning too weighed down by backstory? After six published novels, with another on the way, I have a whole list of problems easily spotted. Writing a book about writing, and teaching creative writing for a number of years, helped me to recognize these problems in a days’ work. It takes a little longer to figure out the solutions, but it does happen while the book is still a work in progress. It happens every morning when I wake up, into that first cup of coffee with the writing pages, all through the day as thoughts and answers come to me, even at night in my dreams.