Wading into the Cultural Appropriation Minefield

In case you haven’t been keeping up on news in the literary world, novelist Lionel Shriver was raked over the coals last week for defending cultural appropriation in her address to a Australian writers conference.

I can’t judge what she said. I wasn’t there and her speech hasn’t been posted by the conference. I only know what I read in the New York Times. I do think cultural appropriation should be taken seriously. Throughout history, minorities have been mostly powerless to stop the dominate culture from using their images and culture for art and entertainment. We have become more sensitive about the practice, but we still have a long way to go. While very few white people would show up at a party in black face, we still have a football team called the Redskins that fans fiercely defend in the name of “tradition.”

But those are relatively simple examples. When we look at how white writers use minority characters and cultures in their books, it becomes much more complicated.

I remember reading the first Nancy Drew novel, The Secret of the Old Clock, to my daughter. I was curious to also read the original 1930 edition. The caretaker in that version is a drunken, comical African American. Readers back then were so familiar with the stereotype they probably didn’t think twice about it. The 1959 version changes the caretaker to a white man. There’s no more ethnic stereotype, but on the other hand, there’s no longer a minority character in the novel.

220px-origndtsotoc

Some cultural appropriation activists believe writers from the dominate culture should never portray people of color in their books. Their argument is that we can’t understand their experience and the nuances of their culture. We end up creating a dishonest or superficial portrait of them. There’s truth in this. We as writers need to thoroughly understand our characters’ worlds. Those worlds become more authentic when we “write what we know.” But it also means we turn our novels into a bland, safe paste that literally lacks color.

Even writing positive minority characters can be disrespectful. When I was a screenwriter, I don’t know how many scripts I read featuring a “Magical Negro” as Spike Lee dubbed the character — a wise black man or woman, sometimes with supernatural powers, who advises the main white character and helps him overcome his emotional obstacles. Morgan Freeman has practically made a career out of playing these characters!

the-magic-of-belle-isle-movie-poster

There are other issues to consider. Even someone from a minority culture doesn’t understand all aspects of it. Should there never be another Holocaust novel because how can any writer who hasn’t lived through that experience write about it authentically? Should an African American writer who grew up in an affluent community write about the inner city experience? It becomes very complicated!

So what do we as writers do? First of all, I think we need to look long and hard at all our characters and why they’re in our novel. Did we make a character black or Latino or Asian just to add diversity? That’s not enough. Characters need to be fully realized in the context of the story and their culture, whether they’re white, black, brown, or any color in-between.

I think it’s also important if you’re portraying aspects of a culture you’re not part of, whether it’s a Native American ritual or an inner city barrio, to talk to people who know it well. Have them read and react to your book. Listen to them.

We as writers need to push boundaries in our lives and writing. We need to write unafraid that we might provoke negative reactions. But we need to make sure we’ve done everything in our power to consider the impact of what we write, and how it affects readers of all backgrounds.

Happy writing,

Kelee

 

The Importance of Setting in Your Scenes

I recently saw the very funny and imaginative Israeli movie Footnote, about the rivalry between father and son academics. There’s a wonderful scene where the son is called to a meeting of the awards committee for the Israel Prize, the highest honor in the country. Uriel is told that his father was mistakenly (or perhaps intentionally) told he would receive the prize. Instead, the prize is going to son, not father.

It’s a dramatic scene, and one that could have been set in many locations: a large conference room, the auditorium where the ceremony will eventually be held, or perhaps in Uriel’s or someone else’s home. But the filmmakers chose to set the scene in what appears to be a small research room, where the committee is crammed around the table. Uriel has to bring in a large office chair from another room just to sit, which makes it even more crowded.

The result is comic; when Uriel wants to go into the hallway to absorb the information, there’s a struggle to move chairs and people before he can leave. The same occurs when the committee chairman angrily tries to walk out of the meeting.

But the setting also makes the scene more dramatic. Uriel is nose-to-nose with the committee members, raising the tension. When the committee chair bolts, he has to squeeze by Uriel, which ends up in a physical confrontation.

Would this scene be as effective on the page? Probably not. But it did make me think about the important of choosing where I set each scene in my novel. My first instinct is to go with the obvious choice: a sex scene in a bedroom, a romantic dinner scene in the dining room or at a restaurant, two people falling in love while enjoying a pastoral landscape. But it’s important to think outside the box and consider how the dynamics of a scene would change in another location. What if the two lovers had sex on a dining room table set for an elaborate dinner? Or the romanic dinner was served on a picnic blanket while surrounded by a litter of doberman puppies? Or the couple fell in love while waiting in an interminable line at the DMV?

All these ideas are comic, but there are many other settings that would give very different dynamics to the scene. All of them sound much more fun to write, and to read, than the cliche choices.

Think about this next time you’re setting your scene. It might just fire your imagination.

Happy writing!

Kelee

Every Writer Needs an Editor

I haven’t seen the new movie Genius starring Colin Firth and Jude Law. I’m not sure I will see it; it’s received mostly poor reviews. But I love that it focuses on the important relationship between writer and editor.

Genius is about the world-renowned book editor Maxwell Perkins (who discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway) and the larger-than-life literary giant Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe is in love with words. Lots of words. The book he’s submitted to Perkins – O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life – is nearly 100,000 words too long, at least in Perkins’s opinion. Wolfe feels a bit differently.

Perkins and Wolfe engage in a protracted battle to cut the manuscript to what Perkins considered a manageable size. Perkins was finally able to convince the author to cut 60,000 words. Some critics still see the published version, which was retitled Look Homeward, Angel, as too long and undisciplined at 544 pages. (The original O Lost was published in 2000 if you’re interested in comparing the two.) I haven’t read O Lost, but as a writer, I would object to some of Perkins’s cuts that were based on fear of offending people. (For example, according to the New York Times, “Another passage was cut because Perkins thought it would be interpreted as a criticism of sportsmanship, which in 1929 was equated with patriotism.) But many of the cuts were for sound reasons, to make the book better and, ultimately, more successful.

A good editor is invaluable to a writer. Even the most seasoned writer has a difficult time seeing the flaws in her own work. We’re too close to it, too in love with our characters and words. Or, just as likely, we know our manuscript is far from perfect, but we don’t know how to fix it, and it’s torture even to try.

Self-published writers are at a big disadvantage in the literary world. Most of us can’t afford to hire a good editor, let alone a great one. Instead, we cobble together friends, family, and strangers to read our work. I was very fortunate to find a good editor to help me with my first romance novel, Goddess. I advise all writers to take their time and diligently search for the right person who can turn a mediocre manuscript into a good or even great published work.

Happy writing,

Kelee

 

Writing in the First Person

When I was a screenwriter, I had no choice but to write in the third person. It’s hard to imagine how one would do anything else. Movies almost always work best as third person experiences.  (Watch the 1947 Robert Montgomery movie Lady in the Lake, which was shot entirely from Phillip Marlowe’s point-of-view, and you’ll see why.)

When I started writing Goddess, my first romance novel, I was excited by the chance to write in the first person. I found in liberating. It was like sitting around a campfire, sharing a story that happened to me personally. I was able to live the story moment by moment as Julia Nelson slowly but inevitably falls for the hot, enigmatic archeologist Ashland Stewart. it was almost as if I was in bed with him, experiencing every touch, every sensation. It made writing an erotic romance seem easy… and exciting.

But I also learned the pitfalls of the first person perspective.

Writing a romance novel in the first person isn’t a popular choice for a reason. A romance is about two people. (Unless it’s autoerotic, which might be interesting.) When we’re first getting to know someone romantically, there’s often a lot of guesswork involved in figuring out the other person’s intentions and nature. But in third person fiction, the reader can be inside both characters’ heads. We can know what that hot guy is thinking. Of course, that does take some of the suspense out of the narrative, but it helps us understand him more.

One of the criticisms I heard about my early drafts of Goddess was that Ashland wasn’t as well developed as Julia, my point-of-view character. This made complete sense. We knew everything Julia was feeling and thinking. We didn’t have that same luxury with Ashland. It took a lot of rewriting to make Ashland more three-dimensional. But I knew he could never be as fully developed as his lover. That’s just one of the compromises a writer has to make when writing in the first person.

My training as a screenwriter did help me avoid one of the pitfalls new writers often fall into when writing in the first person. In a script, a writer shouldn’t put information on the page that the audience watching the finished movie couldn’t possibly know. A screenwriter has to portray a character’s inner thoughts and feelings through outward action and dialogue. Otherwise, it’s considered cheating and is frowned on by script readers.

Too many new writers working in the first person also try to cheat when conveying information they want the reader to know. One of the most popular (and most cliche) way is through the overheard conversation. (Or, in the age of cellphones, the stumbled upon text or voicemail message.)

The other pit writers fall into is getting stuck in their main character’s head. The story becomes a constant recitation of her thoughts and feelings. It’s enough to give the reader a splitting headache.

When writing in the first person, it’s important to remain grounded in time and space. What can your character see, hear, taste, smell, and touch? After all, while we may constantly have thoughts swirling around in our brains, we’re also are focused on the world around us. (Unless you’re a narcissist!)

If you’ve never written in the first person, I would suggest giving it a try. It may just change your own perspective on your story, and on your writing.

Best wishes,

Kelee

Using an Initial Image in Your Writing

We think of books as being about words, but they’re really about images. At the beginning of a story, a powerful image can create a world in our minds. It can unify the characters and the theme, and it can reinforce those elements as the writer comes back around to variations on that image during the course of the story. Like an alliteration, it makes us sit up and take notice of what the author is trying to convey.

As I’ve often mentioned in my blog, many of my ideas about structure have come from my years as a screenwriter. One important lesson I learned came from Linda Seger’s book, Making a Good Script Great. She talks about beginning a script with a central image, one that sets up the story’s world and ressonates with us emotionally. The example she uses is from the movie Witness.

0573699216.01.LZZZZZZZ.jpg

Witness begins with a group of Amish – men, women, and children – crossing a field of wheat waving in the wind. The image is gorgeous and serene.  Carriages appear on the road, and it soon becomes clear that the community is gathering. It’s not until we go inside a farmhouse that we learn why. A funeral is taking place. People are grieving. A man is speaking to them in Pennsylvania Dutch, so we don’t understand what he’s saying. We don’t know who has died or why, but that’s not important yet. Our focus is on the sense of community.

Community is a central theme of the movie, and it’s set up nicely in this scene. We later see the contrast between the pastoral Amish and the evils of the big city. This polarity is developed throughout the movie until the image of community that was set up at the beginning of the film becomes essential to the climax. Even the setting, the grain in the field, becomes part of the climatic battle between Harrison Ford and the simple Amish, and the evildoers from the city.

In my own book Goddess, I set up an initial scene that showed how central marriage and family is to Julia Nelson’s life. She and her husband are having sex. Even though we don’t see or hear from their children yet, they’re still present because Julia is careful to be quiet so they don’t hear.

And yet, we also see in this scene that domesticity isn’t as blissful as it’s often portrayed. The sex is routine and not satisfying for Julia. It leaves her feeling confused. Even though she doesn’t know it yet, she longs for the inextricable passion that’s symbolized by the tattoo on her ankle.

When you’re writing your novel, take the time to think about how your opening scene can set up the theme you’ll explore. Make it subtle – you shouldn’t hit your readers over the head with your grand ideas. What you’ve planted will echo throughout your story, and make it deeper and more meaningful.

Happy writing!

Best wishes,

Kelee

How Many Books Can One Writer Juggle?

I’m generally a goal oriented person. When I’m working on a book, I try to stay on task, whether it’s the first draft or tenth. I want to get to the end, cross the finish line, put a checkmark on my to-do list.

But sometimes moving a book forward makes me feel like Sisyphus, with my damned rock stuck in a crevice. I try to stay focused, but all I’m producing is uninspired crap. It’s not long before I realize I’ve spent the last hour of my writing time looking at cute cat videos on Facebook.

While I was trying to interest an agent in my first novel Goddess, and when I subsequently prepared to publish it myself, I felt very disconnected from my creative side. My writing time was spent sending out query letters, working with a designer on a cover, and asking (i.e. begging) advance reviewers to take a look at my book. I know being a writer is at least 80% marketing, but it didn’t feel very satisfying.

To make myself feel better, I read through a screenplay that I wrote a decade or so before called Anywhere’s Better Than Here. It’s about an ambitious television reporter stuck in the most nowhere town in America. Her only hope of making it back to a major television market is by landing a big story with the help of a local yokel cameraman.

The script never quite worked as a straight comedy, but if I emphasized the two characters’ love/hate relationship more, I thought it would make a great romance novel. I worked on the script-to-book translation in my spare time. It was relatively easy – mostly fleshing out the characters and scenes. More importantly, it felt creatively satisfying. I almost finished the first draft of the book by the time Goddess’s publication date arrived.

But then I felt like I needed to start on book 2 of the Goddess trilogy. After all, I didn’t want to leave readers hanging, especially since I’d written a cliff hanger. I wrote an outline and the first few chapters, but I just couldn’t get inspired to go further. After beating my head against the wall for almost a month, I decided I needed another break. Anywhere was calling to me. I was still excited by the characters and the story. I was itching to keep writing. It felt right.

Now I’m part way through the second draft. It needs work, but I’m very pleased with most of what I’ve written. I feel a little guilty that I’m not working on Goddess, but being inspired is too great a high to let go.

Who else likes to have more than one iron in the fire? I’d love to hear how it works for you.

Best Wishes,

Kelee