Appreciating My Writing Community

by woodleywonderworks on Flickr
by woodleywonderworks on Flickr

By the time I completed the final draft of my novel, Provenance, I had worn out my alpha readers. Specifically, my writing group, Janet, Kelly, Kristin and Molly, as well as my dear husband, Granville. They’d been with me through every word, page and chapter – revision after revision. They’d helped me work through plot points, story arcs, characters who were cut, revived, only to be cut again. They read through the 500+ pages that started out as one novel and then became two. I cannot thank them enough for their wisdom and patience, and they deserved a break from my writing.

I realized it was time to leave the safety of my writing family and let strangers read my novel. To help move my novel along to publication, I needed an unbiased reader – someone with fresh eyes, an open mind and no knowledge of me or what my book had been through. The best way to find out if I’d told my story in a credible and entertaining way was to test the book in the same way it will be tested when published – I needed a beta reader.

In the world of available beta readers there seems to be no dearth of readers and authors connecting over YA, fantasy, sci-fi, thrillers, paranormal and hardcore erotica manuscripts. Provenance is none of these. It is a work of literary/historical fiction that explores, through one man’s story, the role that race plays in the choices we make about who we are and what we lead others to believe about us. The novel begins in the early part of the Twentieth Century and spans four decades of the protagonist’s life, taking the reader from the segregated south, to Europe before World War II and ultimately to the New York in the early 1970s – more than 78,000 words or about 280 double-spaced pages.

I needed a beta reader with experience in life and in writing that was willing to make a commitment to read what I wrote and give me honest feedback in exchange for my promise to read their manuscript in the same way. After searching and not finding a good fit on Goodreads or LinkedIn writer groups,  I struck gold – literally California gold, on SheWrites.

A writer in Los Angeles that is in the perfect target group for my novel was  looking for exactly the same kind of beta reader that I was. Her story was similar in length to mine and also dealt with racial themes. She wanted a beta reader who would also commit to reading her manuscript and provide honest feedback. After a series of email introduction, we exchanged manuscripts and began, promising to return our respective manuscripts within two weeks. We both honored our commitments and I know my manuscript is the better for her input and, I did my best to give her the feedback she was looking for.

I’ve always been a little reluctant to put myself out there – I think writers by nature are a shy and solitary bunch. However, I learned through this process that powering through the discomfort can make me a better writer and a more valuable part of the writing community.

I believe that the Universe always conspires on our behalf and the only thing it asks in return is our gratitude. This post is a thank you for my Alfa and Beta readers and for the SheWrites community, with all three, the Universe outdid itself.

Two Tales Tell a Better Story

qthomasbower on flickr
qthomasbower on flickr

“You’ve got two books here.”

At 544 pages, my writing teacher and editor, Barbara Esstman, a twice published novelist, told me my novel was too long – way too long. She even shared where she thought a natural division of the story would work. I heard what she said, but I didn’t comprehend what she was saying. I saw that the novel could be divided into two books but emotionally, I wasn’t buying it. I’d worked too hard on this book for far too long – six years at that point – to now pull it apart and basically start over. When you’ve typed “The End,” the last thing you want to do is upend your book – again.

About the same time I got the news that my novel was too long, I started a revision workshop at the Bethesda Writers Center. Our first assignment for the 8-week class was to write a précis, or summary, of our novel that could not exceed ten pages. It was this exercise that laid bare the truth. Trying to wedge the waddling expanse that was my book into that tiny précis confirmed what Barbara told me, I was trying to tell the story of two main characters in one book that was too long, and still not long enough.

I reread all 22 chapters, and with additional consultation, confirmation and inspiration from my writing group, I dove into the daunting task of rewriting one novel into two, though I still felt a nagging resistance in my gut. Would my characters blossomed in the bifurcation? If I lose major characters would minor characters be able to take on stronger roles in the halved story arc? The plot seemed to thin out in some places and thickened in others. Some actions and incidents gained clarity, others seemed to lose their purpose. I felt the dramatic arc was too flat when it focused on one character and the veracity and tension of the “whole” novel had gotten lost in the gulf between the two books. I stopped writing, not sure how to proceed.

Whenever I get stuck like this, I read. I chose The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt  because it had similar themes – a tragic incident causes the protagonist world to change dramatically and, the visual arts served as the backdrop for the story. Also, at 784 pages, I was hoping to justify the length of my book.

The Goldfinch, was indulgent, almost extravagant, narrative. For the most part, Tartt gave readers a full experience with her characters, though sometimes it was too rich. There is only so much I need or want to know about the unsupervised drinking, smoking, cursing and boredom of 13- and 14-year old boys in the Las Vegas desert. Though as long as The Goldfinch was, it kept the reader focused on the protagonist and his journey. My novel had not achieved that.

In contrasting the size and scope of the two novels, and with time away from my manuscript, I could now see clearly that the advice I’d gotten to create two tales from one was not about page length – it was about the wandering journey I was taking readers on. I had two casts of characters with two fully formed stories. These tales are worth telling – just not together. The goal is to focus on the protagonist’s story and give readers a full experience; don’t wander off with another character’s story when there’s one to be told right in front of you. I realized that several different characters could hold their own in a sequel – not a Harry Potter-esque series (if only), but what I have is a good multigenerational saga that could find an audience over several books.

I now understood that the goal is to create a fully formed, focused story in as many pages as needed to tell one story. So back to work, two books it is!

Swing Sisters: Inspirational Jazz by an Inspiring Author

Karen Dean's BookMy good friend, Karen Deans, is the epitome of a Renaissance woman. When I met her more than a decade ago she was an artist, launching Wooden Tile, an art business that now sells online and in stores across the country. She also loved and collected children’s picture books. That obsession inspired her to try her hand at writing a book for children on a subject she was passionate about. Now, Karen is an author. Her picture books feature “women who defied racial and gender discrimination to become superstars in their respective fields.”

Her book Playing to Win: The Story of Althea Gibson was published by Holiday House in 2007. Karen’s second book, Swing Sisters: The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm was just published. It is the incredible tale of the first inter-racial female jazz band, formed in 1939. They defied the constraints of racial prejudice and segregation to play throughout the United States and in Europe. Stories like these are lost or buried gold nuggets of  history – it takes authors like Karen to mine them for us. In a world that needs more diverse books for children and adults, Karen is a contemporary author making a substantive contribution.

Please visit Karen Dean’s Facebook page to see a clip of the Sweethearts of Rhythm, enter a raffle to win a signed book and, learn more about my very talented friend. She’s also a scenic painter for a children’s theater, but we’ll save that for another post.

Oh, and please buy Karen’s book – one for you and another for someone you care about. Support the artists who make the art!

 

Good News from Paris: Romare Bearden’s Paris Odyssey Exhibition Opens

Circe by Romare BeardenIn my novel in progress, Provenance,  visual art and artists in Paris between the World Wars are key characters. Then, as now, in the shadow of conflict and tragedy, art in Paris thrived. Case in point: Monique Wells, who blogs from Paris on Entrée to Black Paris shared her recent envy-worthy experience at the opening of a fascinating exhibition, Romare Bearden’s Paris Odyssey This rich exhibition, at the Columbia Global Center in Paris, features Bearden’s work based on The Odyssey  as well as several Bearden paintings based on jazz in the City of Lights. Paris Odyssey  also highlight works by Henri Matisse, including Matisse’s landmark book, Jazz (1947). The artist is thought to be a central influence on Bearden’s art.

This may not be the ideal time to travel to Paris but to experience this exhibition, you will certainly wish you were there.

From the press release: Romare Bearden’s Paris Odyssey is organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service in cooperation with the Romare Bearden Foundation and Estate and the DC Moore Gallery. The show was conceived and curated by Robert O’Meally, Columbia’s Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English, and is sponsored by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. Bearden (1911–1988) was long a Harlem fixture, working for several years in a studio above the famed Apollo Theater, just a few blocks northeast of (the Columbia  University) campus.

Image:
Circe
Romare Bearden
1977 Collage of various papers with foil, paint, and graphite on fiberboard
Image courtesy of Professor Robert O’Meally

Eight Essentials – You’re Never Too Old to Read Young Again

Little Golden Book - InteriorI loved a recent post by Tom Burns on Yahoo’s The Good Dad Project about books every child should own. If you’re like me and your response to lists of what’s good/bad, best/worst, in/out, hot/not, is, “Who says?” then you will appreciate Burns’ list. It recommends no specific books but broad and self-defined categories that help parents give children a diverse reading experience – so much more evolved than letting someone we don’t know dictate what book will resonate with us or our children.

Children will certainly benefit from the types of books Burns suggests: board books, mythology, books you loved as a kid, books that suit their personality, poetry, non-fiction, books that are too old for them and brilliantly, blank books. As I read through his list I thought adults should use this list too!

When we mature as readers and settle on specific types of books we love, we sometimes forget the eclectic array of books that made us love to read. Burns’ list made me remember everything from the Golden Books my sisters and I read until we wore the covers down to the cardboard, to the blank composition books, my first journals, that would swell as I wrote down thoughts and feelings in prose that no one but me would ever read – thank goodness! These are great memories that I can make new again by just picking up a book.

Do you remember what books you loved in the 8 essential categories?

 

 

Congratulations Kehinde Wiley! Well, mostly…

160749_K2Flashy: lacking in substance or flavor; momentarily dazzling; superficially attractive; ostentatious or showy often beyond the bounds of good taste ; marked by gaudy brightness.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Great News! Artist Kehinde Wiley will be awarded the U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts by Secretary of State John Kerry in a ceremony on January 21 for “substantive commitment to the U.S. State Department’s cultural diplomacy outreach through the visual arts.” The award was first given during the 50th anniversary of Art in Embassies program in 2012.

The honor was reported by the art press, with one interesting take…

Artnet News noted that Wiley is “Known primarily for his large-scale painting of young African Americans, depicted in the style of European royal portraits…”

Artfix Daily said, “Secretary of State John Kerry will present the medal to Yale-educated Wiley who is known for his portraits of people with brown or black skin in heroic poses, representing saints, and oftentimes set against vibrant backgrounds.”

However, ArtNews reported Wiley honor by saying the artist is, “Known for his flashy painting that depict black men and women in the style of Old Master portraiture…”

Flashy? Really? Oh come now.

NaNoWriMo Roundup: Seasoned Authors Share their Secrets

I’m thinking about doing NaNoWriMo and I believe Ben Huberman’s Roundup of last year’s event published on The Daily Post may have convinced me to jump in, keyboard first!

The Daily Post

At the stroke of midnight tonight, aspiring writers everywhere will take a deep breath. One second later, their blank screens won’t be blank any longer — for quite a while.

November 1st marks the start of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The annual fiction extravaganza will bring together more than 200,000 writers this year, first-timers and pros alike, each committed to hammer out 50,000 words of sparkling fiction over the course of the month.

Have you signed up but feeling queasy about taking the plunge? Are you still not sure if making the commitment is right for you? Here to give you expert advice are five veteran NaNo authors: they each leveraged their NaNoWriMo project into a published novel (some more than once!), and they all also happen to be active WordPress.com bloggers. You’re in good hands.

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Is Passing a Thing of the Past or Has It Just Evolved?

A Chosen Exile Cover A recent story on NPR’s All Things Considered about a new non-fiction book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in America, by author Allyson Hobbsdiscussed the practice of light-skinned blacks passing for white to circumvent entrenched racial discrimination. Hobbs focused her research for the book on personal stories from the past –  before integration, Black Power and multiculturalism. Reporter Karen Grigsby Bates’ summary suggested that racial progress prompted by those movements had effectively made the act of passing irrelevant. I beg to differ – I believe these movements caused the evolution of passing but did not erase it or make it irrelevant.

Anyone of color who has ever worked within a majority environment such as corporate America, or in my case the cultural arts, knows that though your skin color may be evident – you are still required to negotiate the majority culture by not revealing too much of who you are. When your aspirations are constrained by how “acceptable” you are to the majority culture then you are effectively passing. If you subjugate or neglect your own culture to assume that of the predominate culture – it may not have the skin-deep appearance of passing but it has the same effect – isolation, loss of self and community. Passing in the 21st century has the added burden of the assumptions some people make because they can see your skin color; that can lead to further complications and indignities. For example, when I was a museum director, during an exhibition opening, an art patron, upon seeing my brown face near the entrance, walked up to me and handed me her coat, assuming I was the valet. She even offered me a tip.

I used these post civil rights movement experiences as well as the history of passing to inform the characters and their actions in my novel, Provenance. The main protagonist is a man who, like the people in Allyson Hobbs’ book, passes as white in the early 20th Century in order to access opportunities not available to a black man. Another character, a 21st Century millennial and a curatorial rising star at a major art museum, is passing culturally. Her expertise is in 20th Century Impressionist art belies the assumption that her discipline must be African or African-American art and, as she moves further up the professional ladder in the art world, she is distanced from her family’s cultural experience.

At its essence, similar to my novel, passing is about identity – who we are, and how others see us. The way my characters pass – racially and culturally – compares and contrasts what passing was then and is now.