Friday, June 26, 2015

The Awkwardness of Writing Romance

Storyboard for The Queen Animated Trailer
"How do you write romance?"

I often get asked this question by people who know me, because they simply don't understand how it's possible. Now, I'm not too offended, because it's easy to see how there's a mystery.

I've been raised in a traditional family, my father is a pastor, and I have taken an oath to remain a virgin until marriage. I don't dabble in anything half way or get too physically close and try to shortcut. As a matter of fact, I've actually never been kissed and I may wait until my wedding day for it. I'm undecided on the matter. Now, it's not that I'm an old maid. I am very welcome to romance, marriage, and especially having a family. If the right man comes along, I say let's not waste time!

So it's not really so much about writing the romance. The question is really how is it possible that I write kissing scenes and so on.

But if you read Sunrise Sunset, The Queen, or Almost Alive, you wouldn't suspect that the plot was the only thing I was making up. 

Of course I have sources that I can ask, or questions I can google, or I can re-watch a scene from The Vampire Diaries or another show. But I never get too deep into describing something physical, because that's a personal choice. I would rather let someone's imagination wander or stop, because it's sort of a private matter to me, I suppose.

However, my characters are deeply connected and rather intimate at times. I do this by focusing on the emotional development of the situation rather than the physical manifestation. I could choose to write something vulgar, but I instead choose to write how the two characters are feeling in the moment so it can evolve their relationship instead of being general smut. There's still enough explanation as to what's going on so you know it's a make out scene or leading into sex, but no more than that. 

I don't want to feel guilty about a young lady reading my books. I don't want parents to feel like I've gone too far and they can't trust me with the innocence of their child

As far as the very cute and endearing relationship between Roxy and Adam from Sunrise Sunset, or the sarcastic and dramatic relationship between Michelle and Julian from Almost Alive, I let these voices speak uniquely to each other. When I begin a story, I don't know how it's gonna end, but I know my characters and how they would react. They have their own voices, and I don't have to really think too much on how they would react. It sort of just flows together, as well as their dialogue and actions with one another. I let them live and breathe through my fingertips. 

I suppose it's nothing different than a relationship in real life. If you want a stable relationship, you have to come to terms with who you are first before you can learn who you are with someone else. Recognize the voice of your characters and when they are thrown in together, it should be easy to see how they interact with one another.

I think the dialogue between characters are so much more powerful than just making two people hump to death or suck face all the time. Obviously, we're talking about books. From a visual standpoint, I remember when I saw The Watchmen and I was so grossed out how Nite Owl and Silk Spectre continuously kept having sex, even though they really didn't seem to care for each other. They even left out one final sex scene that was in the comic book. If the point was that they were sluty, I got that. If they were supposed to connect on a deeper level because they had sex, it didn't happen for me. When I compare that to a Dove deodorant commercial with a groom tenderly nuzzling his bride's arm while they both blissfully smiled, I got so much more of a reaction from the sexy subtleness of that commercial than that Rated R film, or even most television shows that I watch. It was tender, very intimate, and left a lot up to imagination before it got too much deeper. I admire that, and I suppose that's the approach that I prefer to take.

Readers need to be engaged and invested in the journey of two people. One reason why so many women like the two opposites or the two people that are the same and clash because they're so stubborn is because they are bantering back and forth all the time (hopefully it's witty and entertaining) and sexual chemistry is evident. I enjoy the sexual chemistry between my characters Lyla and Adam and the no slack attitude between Rose and Austin from The Queen.

Characters that are sweet need to play greatly to the imagination of a woman. Too many women fantasize about a bad boy turning good, but there are women that like to root for a sweet boy like Austin's rival, Noah, or Edward Cullen. Of course, if your heroine does anything wrong, she won't deserve this perfect guy.

In conclusion, I would say never write something that you would be uncomfortable with. Make a relationship moment monumental to the plot and not a throwaway fluff piece because of the heck of it. Make sure that your characters are being true to what you've established them to be.

That's what works for me.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Plight of a Black Author

So, I thought this was pretty interesting while I was in New York for BEA and Book Con.  I had all eight of my books out on display, and most people were amazed by my covers, especially The Color of God’s Eyes and The Light Book: Awakening.  Eventually, I had an African American woman stop at my booth and she seemed puzzled, and then, a little indignant.  She said, “I’m just curious.  How come there aren’t more people of color on your covers?”

Then, I was puzzled.  My featured poster is of Charlotte, a slave whose story is not only compelling but very empowering.  Out of my eight books, this is the one I’ve been sending emails about and getting interviews for.  This is my main baby of interest.  Then I quickly pointed to Superkid, which features an obviously black girl with naturally poofy hair, a Chinese boy, and a half Mexican boy.  All three of these children are on the cover.  After pointing this out, I received a, “Yeah, but…” response.

I then told her that The Light Book: Awakening features a very diverse cast.  It takes place on earth, but it’s an alternate earth.  The children aren’t from our countries as we know them, but for the sake of relating them, I would say there are two white European children, two South American children (one of them is Albino), two white children that would be in the U.S. territory, a Japanese girl, and a black girl that does have some European white roots as well.  And her chapter largely deals with racism.  This, you cannot tell by a cover.  That’s why there’s the saying: “You can’t always judge a book by its cover”.

Sunrise Sunset has a white girl on the cover.  She got me on that one.  Her love interest is mixed.  Almost Alive has a white girl.  Becoming Undone has a white man, but actually, the model looks a little bit Middle Eastern.  But when I pointed to that series, I said teasingly, “These two are demon possessed.  You don’t want them to be black!”  But the most powerful character in the series that everyone looks up to is an elderly black woman.

I even told her about my character, Briana, who was one of the very first characters I created that is loosely based off of my sister, Sabrina.  She’s a part of my Superficial series, which isn’t ready to be released yet only because it’s so incredibly close to my heart. 

So after defending myself to her, I got bold and said, “Since you wanted to criticize me for the lack of diversity, how about you support me and purchase a book?”  And then, I pointed to the most obvious black character, Charlotte.

She said, “No.  I was just curious what goes through the authors’ minds...”  She smiled and just kind of played it off like it wasn’t a big deal to her, even though she tried to put me on blast.  But she rubbed me the wrong way because I didn’t see someone who came to support one of her own.  She wanted to criticize.  Now maybe she just didn’t have the money to buy a book, and that’s fine.  But her attitude was combative, and all I’m trying to do is live my dream.

As a black author, I have had conversations with people close to me about how if I don’t have black characters, I will be checked by people of my race.  Now, I have always had black characters from the first book I wrote to the first one I actually had published.  But I think I’d face another problem anyway, because I don’t always want to write stereotypical black characters.  And to some black people, if you’re just some “Oreo”, then you don’t count anyway.  The Cosby Show was a fantastic sitcom, but I know blacks that believe it is a terrible representation of black America because they say black families aren’t like that.  But while growing up, my household was a lot more like the Huxtables or the Winslows rather than any of the ratchetness that is displayed on BET.  Growing up, I was criticized because I spoke very proper in my urban school.  Someone accused me of “trying to act white”.  This sort of ignorance is sadly a common occurrence.

I have characters that are black and fit in some stereotypes, some in the middle, and some that will only be identifiable as “black” because of the pigmentation of their skin.  That doesn’t make any of them less or more black.  The problem with creating a niche of urban characters that would mostly appeal to black readers is when someone like my criticizer comes by and does a lot of talk but doesn’t want to support.  I hashtag #WENEEDDIVERSEBOOKS all of the time, but I’m not really getting any retweets.  Now, I don’t want people just to support me just because I’m black.  I want people to love my stories because I’m a fantastic writer with an amazing imagination.  However, it does move me when someone wants to show support whether it be because I’m black, young, a woman, or an indie author doing this on my own. 

I mean no disrespect to those who write primarily urban books.  You do you.  I’ll be me.  But I have observed that if you’re a black author, it’s expected that those are the types of books you should be writing.  Sci-fi black authors seems to be rare (unless you’re at a comic con).

I decided a long time ago that I was gonna write exactly what I wanted to write.  When I make a story and create a character, I’m compelled to tell their story.  I don’t have a race quota, and I’m not going to hinder my characters like that either.  Just telling the stories I wanted to tell has already given me a very diverse group of characters.

Honestly, I’m very proud of Charlotte because she is such a strong heroine, and I think we’re sadly lacking in strong female characters, but there’s especially a shortage when it comes to black women.  I love Kiara from Superkid.  Besides her outrageous hair, the most striking characteristic is her unparalleled intelligence.   Briana from Superficial is very moral.  Nilliana from The Light Book is extremely caring and will put others before herself.

I’m comfortable in the stories that I tell and the characters that I create.  I want my stories to transcend all barriers.  I would like to believe that all races can appreciate their struggles and their triumphs.  They are worth more to me than a niche.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

5 Things to Consider when Writing a Period Piece or Historical Fiction

So, people always say “write what you know”, so I started my career writing about superheroes in high school.  It evolved into supernatural beings in high school or young adults right out of high school, and so on.  So when I was inspired to write The Color of God’s Eyes, a period piece about a slave that develops the power to teleport, I faced some interesting challenges and learned some insightful things along the way that I wanted to share.

Know the Language.  It is fiction, so I feel like I have some liberty, but there were so many words that I’m accustomed to—phrases and slang—that weren’t appropriate for this time period.  I was constantly looking up the history of certain words that I was concerned about. It was a bit frustrating at times.  The biggest example would be the phrase “teleport” because that’s what Charlotte can do.  I fought over what I should call it, and settled on “blinking”.  Then there were other things like not using the term “makeup” and “boyfriend”.  There are so many common
phrases that we use today that we just don’t think about them not existing.

Know the culture.  My main character, Charlotte, is a huge reader.  She loves books, but I had to choose books that she could have gotten her hands on without using a time portal.  I wanted her to be exposed to some science fiction books (maybe something on teleportation) but it was just too early.  The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers were a given, mostly because Alexandre Dumas is a black like Charlotte, so she is inspired by him.  Charles Dickinson was also back then.  I also decided to make her in love with Jane Austin, which fits in well with her desire to be a “lady”, and her desire for a proper gentlemen.  Hopefully, my sisters appreciate that since they’ve seen Pride and Prejudice nearly one hundred times!

It was interesting learning about the different forms of entertainment.  It wasn’t easy finding out exactly how blacks sang, besides Negro spirituals, and finding out the dancing was not so easy.  I did learn that dancing was still hugely apart of the heritage, and plantation owners would even have their slaves compete and dance battle other plantations (that would be a weird Step Up movie).  Another interesting fact was that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the most popular books and plays during that time.  Charlotte was going to attend one of the performances, but I ultimately decided not to.  Maybe in the sequel.

Know the technology.  One of the most difficult things while working on this was probably deciding how long it would literally take people to travel from one location to another.  Trains were the fastest way of travel, but they weren’t everywhere yet.  Thankfully, the internet is an abundant source of knowledge and people put together things like travel maps from the 1800’s and mapquest pitched in as well.

Know the history.  I had to brush up on my history, and I’m really glad that I did.  Finding out about the gang environment in New York during the 1860’s was what attributed to Charlotte running away to New York.  Ultimately, I thought it would be awesome to see her as a superhero fighting against gangs in the Five Points and protecting those in harm’s way.  The dynamic between the immigrants, the Yankees, and the blacks that just got caught up in the middle of it was too intriguing to pass up on.  The Draft Riots will eventually play a huge role when I write my sequel.  If people thought Ferguson or the Harlem riots were bad, prepare to be blown away.

Know how much you’re going to change.  This is something I’m still debating, but the biggest question I had to ask myself was how much Charlotte and people like her were going to change history.  If certain individuals have the ability to blow things up with their mind, teleport, and fly, would it shift the world into an earlier industrial age?  Are major events going to be altered?  Would the Union succeed?  Would Charlotte save Abraham Lincoln?  There’s a lot to consider.  I think altering history has even greater challenges than fitting everything into the history like a secret past, because you have to know history enough to know what they would have done.  It’s like writing a fanfiction of an alternate reality, but still keeping them in character.

I can’t admit to what I decided to do though.  That would be too huge of a spoiler!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Your Greatest Critic is your Market!

At Gamers Gauntlet for Convention
Not everyone is going to like your particular cup of tea.  You may come up with an idea that’s only in a specific genre or in a small age group or just for men or women.   Maybe it’s a kid’s book, maybe it’s for single men.  There’s nothing wrong with having a target market.  You might create a very broad book that can stretch across the aisle.  However, you still need to have a market audience in mind.  Why?  Because, that’s who you need to market to when you’re trying to get your work out and create a profit for yourself.

So when you get bad news or negative reviews from someone who isn’t in your market, don’t fret.  It doesn’t mean that their opinion isn’t valid, but at the end of the day, it means a whole lot less than the people who are actually going to buy it and read it.

I wrote a middle grade children’s novel (not yet published, hopefully next year!).  I really liked the story and my younger sister really liked it too.  I tried getting my older sister into it and she just couldn’t connect to the young children on their journey and admittedly stated that if they were older, she would be more accepting of it.  It wasn’t the story, but rather their age.  I was a little bummed out about this, until my youngest sister said, “Katrina is twice the target age group.”  When I told Katrina this, she was horrified at how old Tina had made her sound, but it put me back in reality.  She also felt weird watching something like Avatar: The Last Airbender when Aang had a crush on Katara and he was no more than eleven or twelve years old.   So essentially, she just didn’t want to read about kid drama or watch it.  If it was young adult, that would be different. 

I’m not saying completely disregard everyone who isn’t in your market.  For children’s books, you do have to consider the adults because they are the ones who are going to buy the book.  Is it too dark?  Is there enough educational value in it?  Are you teaching the kids the right lessons?  If a parent feels that a book is safe, they’ll give it a shot.  Some parents want to read with their kids and be entertained, but most parents that pick out books for their kids want to make sure that their kids can read it and that it’ll be a story that their child will actually want to get through.

I think the only way to really know how good your book is and if it’ll speak to your market is to try it out.  Companies run tests on selected groups before releasing products out to the public.  Nobody really goes in blind.  Test your ideas out on people.  Talk to somebody as you’re writing your project and before you get it published.  Then when it’s all said and done, go somewhere to find your market and see how they react.  If you get picked up by a big publishing company that can do all this stuff, that’s great.  But if you’re on your own, it takes a lot of work to make your dream a reality!

I’ve been to several conventions that had a “Kids Day” or free admission for children.  Parents would walk by and see a huge and colorful Superkid poster.  Even if they didn’t stop or buy the book, the parents and children would go, “Look!  It’s Superkid!”  This was gratifying to me, because a couple of my siblings didn’t care for my cover.  All of the reactions I got from consumers really affirmed my decision.  Everyone I talked to really liked the concept and was intrigued by the characters.

I went to an event recently and an eight-year-old boy came up to my table and looked at the Superkid book for a while.  I asked him if he would like to know a little bit about it, and he nodded his head.  I asked him if he liked to read, and he said, “All the time!”  He talked about how he really liked the concept and when I told him the price, he replied, “Hmm.  It’s really affordable too!”  I got a real kick out of that. 

The best place I really gauged how well Superkid was being accepted was at a school.  The students were excited by the cover alone and pointed to characters that they wanted to be.   When I finished one chapter, they begged for me to read another.  I read to K-5th graders.  Everyone really liked it, but the older the kids got, the more they laughed and appreciated the wit in the book. 

The best way to understand what works is to get out there and test your market.  If you’ve got the next Twilight series, maybe you should visit a Twilight Convention.  Those fans who pay good money to meet minor actors in the film will judge whether or not your book speaks to them or not.  If it’s a religious book, try a religious convention or bookstore.  Get engaged and interact with your fans.  If you don’t have any, you need to make some!  Those connections are everything.

Joss Whedon always had to fight to keep his television series running.  Buffy, Angel, and Firefly never had Glee or CSI ratings.  However, they have fans that kept the show alive and made it into a cult classic.  Maybe critics may not think you’ve created a masterpiece.  Maybe you can’t get your foot through the door by publishing a book traditionally.  That doesn’t matter as long as you have an army of people dedicated to your work and will spread the word.

Harry Potter was published because the publisher reading J.K. Rowling’s manuscript had a child there that read it and demanded to read the rest of the pages.  Rowling had rejection after rejection before that.  Never underestimate the power of your market! 

Get the reception that you need to understand whether or not you’ve really got something.  After you’ve got that, learn how to utilize and how to build on that.
Remember, your greatest critic is your market!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How Adventure Time Influenced my Writing

Before Adventure Time was the mega success for Cartoon Network, it was once a short being held hostage by Nickelodeon.  When I went to College for Creative Studies, Penn Ward came and lectured us for a day about his cult cartoon that was just a short looming on the internet at the time.  Nickelodeon thought the idea was much too weird to be a full on cartoon, but they wouldn’t let Penn do anything with it.  However, it still had a huge following on the internet.  Penn even admired his inappropriate fanart (which kind of crept me out, to be honest).

I had never seen the short, but they showed it to us and I thought it was funny.  To be honest, the show had to grow on me.  My youngest sister is obsessed with Adventure Time and she would DVR the episodes and she watched them multiple times, so I was watching her watch them.  Now I’m an official fan that's excited to see new episodes, but she envies the fact that I’ve actually met Penn.
But I took some important information away from that time with Penn that I think would mean a lot to authors out there, so allow me to share the words of wisdom that Penn shared to all of us: “Never pitch your baby.” 
If you think that Penn Ward spent so much time writing out a storyboard for Nick for Adventure Time, you are wrong.  It was something he thought up in a couple of minutes and it ended up catching fire.  Now everyone isn’t going to be picked up by such a lackadaisical attitude, but I still appreciated his reasoning behind not pitching something important to him.
When you have something that you work on and you dedicate so much of your heart to, it’s your baby.  You have a hard time accepting other’s people’s advice on how to raise it and let it grow.  You’re very protective and very defensive about it.  And in the case of whether it’s a cartoon or a show that you have to pitch to a big network, you have to make a lot of compromises and you might have to kind of sell out to make a living.
Jhonen Vasquez, the creator of Invader Zim, has created a lot of things and even though there are people who love his cult phenomenon, he doesn’t exactly freak out about the greatness to the extent that people like me do.  It's nice to him that people walk around with Gir stuff, but it doesn't give him butterflies.  After being at his panel at C2E2 2012, I learned that he’s planning on making new cartoons, but he wants to make them without the pressure and the supervision of a big network.  He wants to let his creativity flow on his own terms.  He talked about needing to raise the money and the fans cheered and claimed that they would give to him if he started a Kickstarter.  As a matter of fact, someone shouted, “Shut up and take my money already!”
Sometimes you get sick of sacrificing your own creativity to appease someone else.  And the truth is there are probably people out there as sick and twisted as you that will appreciate what you do.  Sometimes, you do need a different perspective to reel you in or to bounce ideas off of.  That’s why a lot of writers have partners.  But sometimes the experts don’t always get it right.  Stephanie Meyer who wrote Twilight had a whirlwind of success relatively quickly, but she still got rejection letters and some of them weren’t so nice!  J.K. Rowling pretty much only got her big break because her publisher had a child that read some of the pages of the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone manuscript and demanded to have the rest. 
I started writing my first novel, Superficial, soon after meeting Penn and I adored it to death!  It’s not the best thing I’ve written, but I believe it’ll be a huge franchise and I’ve made a lot of great and memorable characters.  I tried submitting it to literary agents and even though I got positive feedback, it didn’t get picked up.  I literally had agents that said they knew I would be successful with this project, but it just wasn’t for them.  I could respect that they didn’t want to take on something they didn’t have their heart and soul in, but it also baffled me that they rejected the chance to make what they thought to be a lot of money.
So I started writing more novels.  I have a couple finished in my Superficial series, but I started different series that I also adore.  Now am I as attached to other projects as I am to Superficial?  No.  Some stories that I’ve written are more strategically written to get me where I need to be.  Most are just spawned out of my creativity and what I feel like writing.  But I’ve learned to not be so touchy and I can experiment and test out other stories that I’ve written.
Now I’m at the point in my life where I’ve taken a leap of faith and I’ve done the insane thing of self-publishing a book—two, actually.  Superkid and Sunrise Sunset are now available for sale and I’m extremely proud of them both!  Will Superficial be joining them any time soon?  Well, that depends. 

My goal is to have a strong base before I launch what is so near and dear to my heart.  Be honest with yourself.  If your work failed, would you be okay with that?  I personally think it would break my heart.  So if you can’t be detached enough to a project, it’s best to work on another one.  Maybe you’ll never publish your favorite piece.  Maybe it’ll always be stored up on your hard drive to read when you feel the need to pat yourself on the back.  Maybe some people might think you’re a coward for doing that, but sometimes you have to protect your heart.  And there might come a day when you can let the baby roam free into the world after you and the baby are prepared. 

Mr. Vasquez has fans that will follow him, give him money, and that will support his dream and creativity.  I’m sure whatever Penn Ward’s “baby” is can see the light of day when he feels it’s time.  He's got enough fans.  In the meantime, Penn has had a ridiculous amount of success with something that he created in a manner of minutes. 

I think you should protect your baby and maybe even shelter it if you have to.  Refine it and make sure it’s how it needs to be.  Set realistic goals and make sure you have proper plans.  I’m learning the value of taking your time with a project and I’ll take all the time I need to in order to make Superficial a smash hit.