Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Way With Words

I’m sure my high school English teacher, Gary Wendell, had no idea what he ignited when he told me I had “a way with words” – though it would be nice if he could see the fruits of his encouragement.

I poured his remarks – along with the wisdom of my parents, kind comments of faithful friends (who read every piece of angst-ridden poetry I wrote), and admonishments of journalism school instructors – onto the roiling mix of uncertainty and determination I harbored in my gut like marinade.

The brew turned out to be pretty good, I think, though it’s one of those concoctions that not only needs to marinate, but then has to simmer half the day, and still tastes better after a night in the refrigerator. You know, like those prize-winning sauces, chilis and gumbos you’ve read about or tasted.

As I’ve been stewing all these years, letting the ingredients of craft meld into stories, I’ve discovered that it takes more than a hodgepodge of words to be a writer. Even stringing those words with eloquence and wit isn’t enough to become the cream that rises to the top of the pot. Style (that elusive writing “voice”), subject matter and sensitivity are so important to success. I’m not saying your recipe for storytelling will get you on the NY Times or USA Today lists, but you’ll have the assurance of generating satisfaction in your readers and just doing it right.

One of my Novel Spaces co-bloggers, posted his thoughts on writing outside yourself recently. How do, can we, should authors write characters who don’t look, act or think like themselves? To me it’s possible, of course. It just requires observation, experience, research, openmindedness and the modesty to admit that no one persona you create in your pages will be the be-all, end-all representation of any particular race, creed, color or gender.

Like one of my Michigan Chronicle editors once taught me, “No, as a journalist you can’t be objective. We all bring our opinions, experiences and subjectivities to a story. But we can be fair.” This, of course, looks different in editorial than in fiction, but I can still apply the principle.

I build my characters on archetypes and psychological profiles so that they’re true to themselves and their role in the story. Would I date Luke from Where Souls Collide? I sure hope not. The guy’s a jerk – and I’m okay with that. He wasn’t created to give Black men a bad rap. His job was to give Navena, the story’s heroine a hard time. Really. No ulterior motives or subliminal messages there. Nor was Maxwell (the story’s hero) meant to make up for Luke’s shortcomings. Maxwell had his own issues that rendered him, hopefully, human.

Those pieces of authoring are far more than words. I’ve promised myself to keep learning, that I’ll be a perpetual student of humanity. I hope that not only makes me a better writer, but a better person as well.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Turning the page

In order to turn a page, there must be pages to turn, right?

I'll be the first to admit that my writing productivity took a major nosedive when my household went wireless. Not only did dial up keep me tied to a phone line, it kept me off the internet as a result. Maybe you remember those days when going online was a major expedition.

When I knew that checking my email was going to be a 20-minute undertaking between dialing up and logging in, I set aside a designated time period to do this and was much more organized in my approach. I'd dial in. Wait. Log in. Wait. Read. Respond. And get off line. If I didn't, I was bound to miss a phone call.

Even after I installed some kind of modem monitor software to tell me when a call was coming so that I could get off line, I still stuck to my system unless the incoming call seemed to be urgent. Once I dialed in, hopping on and off line was just too much trouble.

Once I'd finished my 30-60 minute email check and quick surf, it was back to writing. How many of us can say that we only spend, let's say, 45 minutes attached to our internet? Yes, well, like I said, it's affected my productivity.

So, today is the first day of my new writing plan. I've compartmentalized my writing duties, separating the creative, from the social, administrative and promotional. Sunday eve through Friday eve is now reserved for developing manuscripts. I'll check my email, but no surfing (unless it's book research), no social networking, no non-urgent marketing. Friday night through Sunday eve gets to be Facebook, MySpace, Twitter time. That's also when I'll craft blogs, update my web site and tend to my promotional and author admin.

For me, the best way to attack this new separation of duties is through my writing journal. I already set aside a page for goals each month, I'll now add a page for web site updates, and promotional to-do's. So instead of spending chunks of time doing each of these items every night, I'll condense them into the weekends. Just as I can't be all things to all people, my time can't effectively serve all my needs all at once.

Here's to change!

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Things I'll remember about Michael Jackson

What are those four stages of grief? Denial. (Are you serious?) check. Anger. (How could this happen?) check. Depression (What a tragic loss.) check. Acceptance. (What can I learn from this?) check.

So, as I move on, I just thought that for the sake of posterity, I'd focus today's Thursday 13 post on things I'll remember about Michael Jackson:

1) Very carefully writing the lyrics to I'll Be There on that thick-ruled primary manuscript paper in a love note to SH in second grade. (He never got it, of course, because I had one of those mothers who went through all my stuff every day. She found the note and that was that.)

2) Bringing my parents' brand new 45 of the Jackson's Dancing Machine to class in sixth grade. For one day I wasn't the too-tall goodie-two-shoes who talked "proper." I was the inspiration for an impromptu Soul Train line in the middle of the room. Being in good with the teacher has its perks. ;)

3) Cutting an ABC 45 off the back of a cereal box to play on my red Close and Play record player.

4) Wanting to marry Michael Jackson.

5) Teen magazines that always pitted the Jackson 5 against the Osmonds. So no contest. . .

6) College skate parties with PYT in the background.

7) Watching Michael moonwalk during his Billie Jean performance on that Motown 25th anniversary show.

8) Standing around waiting for the airing of Thriller on MTV. (Then, as a former dancer, trying desperately over the years to learn the steps to Thriller, Beat It, Billie Jean, Smooth Criminal, The Way You Make Me Feel, et. al.)

9) Standing in line very pregnant, for three hours, outside a downtown Detroit AAA office to purchase tickets to see Michael Jackson at the Palace of Auburn Hills during the Pepsi tour.

10) Buying a copy of the Off the Wall CD to replace the album upstairs in my bedroom.

11) Wondering why on earth he picked that Rowe girl over me. ???? LOL

12) Playing Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson CDs in the car so often that all three of my kids (who span 13 years) know the words to his songs. He is as present-day to them as any of their current (and, yes, temporary) fave "artists."

13) Making sure to buy a copy of Ebony magazine's collector's edition tribute to Michael in honor of Thriller's 25th anniversary.

Not believing he'd died when I heard the news and read the ticker across the bottom of CNN, but coming to accept the magnitude of the loss in the days and weeks that followed. I feel proud to understand why he meant what he did to music and the world. Honored that I was along for the ride.