Can we really write for everyone?

Can we really write for everyone?

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Ann-Marie Slaughter recently wrote an article in The Atlantic which was more of a confirmation than it was a revelation of what women have known for years and that is that women can’t really have it all (at least not at one time). The notion that we can bring home the bacon, fry it up, serve it, and take care of that man of ours and do all of this equally is about as likely as fairies with pixy dust coming to magically clean my house when I’m having an off day (although this would be nice). What they did find is that women can have it all, but not all at the same time. You choose. Oh, whether you admit to it or not—you do choose with your actions.

The funny part is, if you want to call it funny as that we created the illusion that we were doing it all and by golly happy about it. But indeed we were struggling and stressing and pulling our hair out and coping and all the while thinking this is the American Nightmare. O.K., we can breathe now that it’s out there.

In all that you do there must be focus and intent. This fact is also true in our writing. It’s a gushy, fantastic sentiment to believe as we are writing our novel the entire world will love it. Oh, the smile that sneaks across our face with this thought in mind. But the truth is some of our closest friends won’t even like it. Oh, yes. It’s true. But that’s O.K.

Stephen King talks about the ideal reader. The ideal reader is the one reader who is a representation of all readers like her. Maybe she is 25ish, recent college grad working her first professional job, dates when she has a chance; she knows all things Bey and lives by her iPhone. Her apartment is sparse and filled with functional pieces only.

Or perhaps she is African American, growing family, works the treadmill more often than not, cherishes the time spent with her book club pals. She and the hubby love cruises and drives up north to watch the leaves change colors during the fall. No matter what she is like your ideal reader will be the face you see as you write. When you edit especially, you will do it with her in mind.

It is the one of the reasons for Stephen King’s success. And Tyler Perry’s as well. Everyone’s not into it. But there is that person, who represents that group and when you get it right with them they will let you know and reward you by being a loyal follower.

Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection

Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection

When Perry’s first movie debuted, it was met with so much criticism it was probably good that he didn’t pick up a review. They blasted for his “chitterlings circuit” concepts and plots. And even when his sit-com debuted many predicted it wouldn’t work; it was pedestrian, simple, demeaning and not funny. But years prior, Perry had the fortunate opportunity of getting instant feedback from his audience as he performed his stage plays. His work brought relatable stories to many. And they told him so with the applause and by filling auditoriums and laughing their butts off as he parading the stage as Madea. He wrote for them. He appealed to them. And they loved him for it. He tapped into an audience dying to be fed; an audience which had been overlooked by mainstream filmmakers. Ahh…there it is…his niche, his calling, his ideal audience.

Perry knows many will never go to see one of his plays, watch one of his movies or T.V. shows. In fact, they will continue to blast him for having the audacity to show up for work every day. But that’s fine too.

And many may scoff at what you write. But find that audience, that reader and know that they are waiting on you to write what can only be written by you.  Yes there will be critics, but those who love it will be your faithful followers.

Now, this isn’t to say that you do away with your originality or the voice which makes your writing exclusively you–not at all. That voice will drive you. But that reader will give you focus.

Kip Langello wrote an interesting article about this in September 2013 edition of Writer’s Digest. And he says: “When a writer achieves this focus…the reader buys into the story…the reader will not merely read the novel, she will enter it—and she won’t emerge until it’s over.”

That says it all.

What do you think? I would love to hear from you.

When should authors work for free

Recently I planned a book launch affair. It was to be a Wine and Words event and along with a sampling of various wines each attendee would get a copy of my novel, In Three Days, all for one price. Now I know we as authors don’t typically charge for book signings, but this was different. It was to be held at a lovely café and did I mention free wine? The tickets weren’t exactly zapped up at record speed and eventually the event was cancelled.

Recently I got an offer to speak at a luncheon for an exclusive country club in my area. They wanted me to come and talk about my book and experience as a local author. On the invite the PR person asked about my fee. I was absolutely thrilled. Here I was hosting fancy wine events (or almost) and now I was being asked to speak at this opulent club and I’d been an author for all of several months. And they were going to pay meee.

I immediately began doing research on typical fees for authors both new and established. I found rates which I thought were ridiculously inflated and then constantly reminded myself that hey, I’m worth it. I did some more research and found that some authors didn’t charge anything (ha…ha…I’m doing the Snoopy laugh) I finally settle on a “going rate.” After all, he did ask me.

Funny thing, immediately after I submitted my fee I felt this twinge that I should have waited. I never heard back from the guy again.

I can construct a million different reasons to explain these setbacks.  I could go on and on as to why folks weren’t waiting in line for my tickets. And I can find a million more to justify the silence on the other end of the email to the PR guy.  But later, I received some wise counsel (amazing how you always get that after you need it) and remembered some information I’d received from some other established writers with which you may or may not agree. It is as follows:

Most signings of any kind are free. And even if it is an event, such as a book launch where you simply want your friends to come and celebrate, guess what? The wine and cheese are on you. Purchasing your book should be optional. They come to celebrate with you, not pay for you.

Speaking engagements are often free. What?! Yep. I know. Now no one would expect J.K. Rowling or John Grisham to speak too often for free. But most of us do not possess the status and brand of Rowling and Grisham. When people mention our name people will most likely ask “who?” But those guys? Not so much. In the beginning we may do a lot of stuff for free. But really, it is never free. I am a strong believer in the law of reciprocity, or the law of sowing and reaping. Simply put, what goes around comes around. Also, the exposure we gain is priceless. And proving ourselves to what will eventually be our audience is essential. People only tend to invest in the new when the risk is low. Those things that negate risk include: recommendations by others, little or no cost or effort and the likelihood that they will enjoy what is being offered based on preferences.

Free opportunities often breed paid opportunities. Every time you are in front of an audience you are gaining exposure–that, you cannot beat. And as one author/speaker pointed out, as you speak or present your audience may include the answer to your next gig and possibly a paying gig as it did for the author who lent this advice.

The bottom line is that free may be free. But sometimes it is not. And if that statement was confusing just remember that you have to invest before others invest in you.

What are your thoughts? I would love to hear from you.

Fact or Fiction: Is it OK to write about friends and family?

If I had one share of Amazon stock for every time I’ve been on the receiving end of some juicy news and thought to myself, “Now that would make for a good story,” I could write for free. I suppose it is the nature of fiction writers; we see situations–no matter what they may be–in terms of a good story. We’re always thinking: “what if.” Now this is not to say that we can’t be trusted with your most intimate secrets and such because we are not gossipers (at least not by the nature of the craft) but writing it out, helps us to figure it out. It is a necessary therapeutic action for dealing with and figuring out our world. But when does that cross the line? When do we have to pull back because the lives of our friends and relatives are being written in ink for the world to see…forever?

Several years ago I’d written a story which I loved and thought would be great material to be published. It was one of the first full-length novels I’d ever written. I gave it to a close friend of mine to read. She was in fact, my beta reader.  Sometime afterwards, she choked back tears and slowly handed it back to me. She stood silent. I couldn’t for the life understand it. She finally asked, “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to write about me? Not cool at all.” You?…huh…what? Was she kidding me? How full of yourself could you possibly…It was a character birthed through my imagination!

But at second glance I could see that subconsciously her life was an open book (pun intended) in my hands. Yikes. And it wasn’t pretty—provocative–but not pretty. I played around with it hoping for a neater, sanitized version, but it just didn’t work. The first draft came from a pure place. The second and third drafts were bedtime stories. And by this time the story had lost some of its chutzpa with the subject matter breathing down my throat in hopes of a more appealing character. It didn’t matter. I was done. I knew that I wasn’t willing to risk a friendship for a best-seller (one can hope). I wrestled with it and finally ended up storing it in the back of my closet. It may have eventually become scrap paper. As I said, we were and still are very close.

“It has to be permissible to draw on your real-life experiences. Otherwise, you can’t write fiction.” Martin Garbus, lawyer for Penguin USA.

A former lover of author Terry Mcmillan sued her for defamation in the 90’s, claiming he was the basis for the character Franklin Swift from her novel, Disappearing Acts. His $4.75 million dollar suit rang with bitter resentment over the “hostile, angry, lazy” way the character was portrayed. The suit was eventually dismissed. And considering the “chilling effect” it could have posed on writers, this was good thing. Chilling effect simply means that other writers may be dissuaded from using their rights to draw on personal experiences from which to write because of fear of legal sanctions. In other words, a verdict in favor of the “victim” could be very bad for free speech.

Thankfully the First Amendment gives us great leeway when it comes to expressing ourselves (lots of it). According to the law’s definition:  Libel requires a false and defamatory statement of fact “of and concerning” an identifiable living person (or business entity). Not only does it have to be about that person, it has to be false and defamatory.

The problem for writers often isn’t so much the law as it is a moral obligation. Who wants to loose friendships or create bad vibes with the people they love for the purpose of writing a killer novel? Often drawing on personal experiences make for the best stories but there are ways to get around it without it resulting in being shunned from family picnics and reunions or having friends bad mouth us on the sly on Facebook. Here are some tips:

  • Disguise the character beyond recognition. Keep the essence of the character. But change the ethnicity or location. If the real-life person is a college grad with a plethora of degrees, make your character a college drop-out who absolutely hates schools. Make it difficult for the person to say, “that’s me.”
  • Write a disclaimer. O.K. most of the time we do this anyway. But it does say to anyone who may be suspicious, “Hey, dude, not about you.”
  • Don’t defame. In other words, don’t paint the person in a bad light. Defamation is a necessary element in a libel suit. Brighten them up a bit and save the unsavory stuff for the other characters

We can never get away from writing about real life people—and who would want to? But simply keep in mind that we must tread lightly.

What are your thoughts? I love hearing from you.

Write what you know: writing outside of your cultural experience

SnoopDogg1andMarthaMost of us have limited cultural experiences. If you’re white, you hang out with mostly white friends; your church and various groups are filled with people who look like you. If you’re Black you look around the congregation on Sunday morning into a sea of colored faces; the radio jock you listen to on the ride into work tells jokes that affirm your cultural experience. Asians and Latin Americans have the same story. I’m not judging. I’m just stating facts.

We stay within a level of comfort so it is not surprising that when we write it is geared toward the audience with which we most identify. Notice I say most of us, because there are some of us, who have had enough variation to write outside of the scope of a single audience. And this all works well except when it doesn’t. When you decide you want to add a little color to your work and the Blacks are all saying things like “yo man” or “what’s happening” or they’re all snarky or angry, or the whites use the word “like” more times than humanly possible or the Asians all speak with broken English; it is then we have a problem. It is a tricky thing to take on a character or a setting of a different ethnicity without trudging in the dirty waters of stereotype and hence peeving off dual audiences.

Earlier this month I talked about writing what you know or knowing what you write, both phrases are basically equal except, writing what you know is drawing on experiences you already own and knowing what you write is reaching and learning so that your knowledge and experience increase and now you can write with a new level of understanding.

We tread lightly when it comes to bringing other ethnic groups into our writing and if you don’t know what you’re doing you very well should.  Sapphire the author of Push, the basis of the movie Precious does it, with the broken dialect and dark life of this teenager girl. Although the author is Black, it is still a culture unfamiliar to the author. James Patterson brought it with his character Detective Alex Cross; the complexity of the character is what is evident. Author Kathryn Stockett did it well with The Help. And she admitted she was a little concerned about using dialect associated with many Southern Blacks of the time in fear of insulting, stereotyping or appearing to mock. And still she was criticized. I personally loved the book and thought it was an honest portrayal. I’m reading and seeing my grandmother and great-grandmother throughout the pages and marveling at how she was able to capture not just the dialogue or the text, but the subtext; movements and things not said but implied. I read the book because I was attracted to the cover. I hadn’t read her bio yet. I didn’t know her history. But when I did I thought “ahh”. You see she had a close relationship her family’s help growing up. It was a risky thing to assume to know what was in the mind of this group.

It is important, I believe to step into that divide to try our hand at something different and daring, but only after we can paint a complete picture. To pretend to know the life of a gang banger and only see his violence or anger is doing it void of experience. Assuming to know the life of a middle class white woman living in Westchester County would be disingenuous for a Black woman raised in the Bronx, unless she knew her story. Simply watching does not an experience make. It’s empathizing and finding that humanity which connects you with the subject. And even with the most deprave people or situations there is that humanity which connects us. To tap into the part, to connect to the human spirit is when we start to know, when we can create and then make the story our own.

As writers we have the privilege to share what we know, by creating new stories. In doing so you may evoke more questions than you answer. And that is where the real story begins.