Friday, September 28, 2012

What We Forget When Writing About Racism

Zora Neale Hurston was an amazing African American author who wrote during the Harlem Renaissance. (Instead of African American, can I save time and write "black"? We're all Americans anyway, right?)

She recorded a lot of folklore and black tradition of the South and Haiti, which has been incredibly helpful to me in researching Voodoo Queen. She also wrote novels, her most famous being Their Eyes Were Watching God. In that book, I noticed something extraordinary.

There are no white people!

Why did this seem odd to me? It's because we focus so much on racism that we forget black people have rich cultures of their own. Often we make it seem like if white people ceased to exist, black people would have nothing to live for.

Zora Neale Hurston complained about this as well. She was against whites assuming "black lives are only defensive reactions to white actions." (Source unknown, since the afterword in Tell My Horse didn't provide one.)

It's tempting for me not to include racism in my book at all. Then I could focus on nothing but the amazing culture of New Orleans and the voodoo religion.

Not only would it be impossible to tell my story that way, but I would lose a fascinating and empowering aspect of that history. For example, during Spanish rule a law was passed that forced black women to wear head dresses called "tignons" to make them less attractive. 

Women outnumbered men three to one in New Orleans at the time, so most white men had black mistresses. The powers that be wanted to prevent this practice.

But this had the opposite effect. Black women started wearing brightly colored tignons tied into fancy knots until they grew famous for them. Tignons became a mark of beauty.

I decided one of the main themes of the novel should be the hunger for self-expression contrasted with the universal impulse to assimilate everyone else into our own way of thinking.

With that theme in mind, I can depict racism as well as the culture we seem to forget. When I write about voodoo practitioners being arrested for performing ceremonies, I would of course describe the ceremonies being shut down. When I write about the dancing in Congo Square becoming outlawed, I would first show the dances and explain why having them was so important.

The whole time, I'll ask the question: Why do people care so much about what others do? I'll show the frustration of being contained when all you want to do is be yourself. And, since there were many white voodoo believers, I can extend the idea past racial lines into a statement about humanity itself. After all, every human being has experienced this struggle.

(I have the same opinion regarding school uniforms, but getting into that would take a whole article.)

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

My Greatest Fear Regarding Agents

Agents are scary.
Funny story: every time I send my full manuscript to an agent, I always ask her to email me back to let me know she received it. That way, I don't stress for months over why I haven't heard back only to discover my book ended up in her spam box. 

Every time without fail, I see her response a day later and think she either stayed up all night reading the book because she loved it that much, or she couldn't get past the third chapter before deciding not to represent it. I get a heart attack every time.


Querying is about more than getting an agent; it's about getting the right agent. People say all the time a bad agent is worse than none at all, and I believe it. I'm terrified of signing on with someone who's completely wrong for me.

This fear stems from having so many beta readers. Of all the people I started to work with, only about 50% of them panned out. They'd get busy and stop responding to my emails, edit the book in ways I didn't like, I'd edit their book in ways they didn't like, they'd be thorough with the first chapter and get lazy with the rest, etc. 

I even had one beta reader refuse to work with me anymore because she straight-up hated the book. That one cut me pretty deeply.

With agents, I can't start working with a dozen of them and pick my favorite. I just have to hope I sign with the right one.

The whole system feels an awful lot like an arranged marriage. There's a show called "Outsourced" that takes place in India. There's a scene where a character goes through a pile of applications trying to decide from a man's education, family status, hobbies, and interests whether or not she wants to spend the rest of her life with him.

I can find out where an agent went to school, what genres he/she is interested in, what books he/she has represented, but are we emotionally compatible? Will we have the same opinions regarding my book? Will we butt heads all the time?

I might be making too much of it. Or maybe I'm not. Right now, I really wish I had more experience with all of this! I guess the only thing I can do is research each agent as best as I can and hope for the best.

NOTE: After writing this, a friend told me to ask the agent's clients about her. That's a great idea. I feel better now.

Monday, September 24, 2012

How I Chose My Genres

I've always been fascinated by how authors choose their genre. For most of my life, I thought I couldn't possibly stick to one style of writing - how dull! Then I found my genre, and it just clicked. 

The journey into my style has been an interesting one. Despite my refusal to have two pen names, I finally gave in: Teralyn Rose Pilgrim (my real name) writes historical fiction, and Catherine Swift writes romances. 

Up until two years ago, these were my least favorite genres.

If someone told my childhood self (who only read fantasy and sci-fi) or my teenage self (who only read classics) or my college self (who only read literary fiction) that I would someday write historical fiction and romances, I would have been both disgusted and disappointed.

What changed?

My Journey into History

I hated historical fiction when I was a teenager because they all seemed to  have the same plot: men suck and women rule, so lets all have sex affairs.

I happen to like men, I think feminists need to tone things down a bit, and -- moral grounds notwithstanding -- you can only describe sex so many ways before it gets old. Not to mention that turning to a man to solve your issues with feminine empowerment just perpetuates the problem... I could go on, but I'll leave it at that.

I realize now my choice in books was unfortunate, but at the time, it seemed nothing in the genre was for me.

I wasn't a huge fan of history either. It was boring... mostly because school is not a good place to learn history. In college I signed up for History 101, and in the first class I thought to myself, "This must be what hell is like." I dropped the course.

It wasn't until my Art History class that I started to get interested. I love art, and I loved learning about the context behind each piece. Who was the artist? What spurred him/her to create this work? Why did it matter to people? The deeper I dug into a work of art, the more beautiful it became.

Then one day my art history professor mentioned in an offhand way something about ancient Roman priestesses who had to watch over a constantly burning fire: the Vestal Virgins. The story captivated me. That's when I decided to write Sacred Fire.

(It's weird I decided to write it because at the time, I also hated Romans. But that's a blog post for another time.)

Sacred Fire was meant to be my first and last historical fiction. I hadn't read a single hist-fic for years because I didn't like that genre, so I figured after this project I'd move on to something else. Then I heard more stories from history that I knew had to become novels, and the ideas kept racking up.

A year ago, everything changed. I read Pope Joan and realized how amazing historical fiction can be. I decided, "This is it. This is genre I want to write." The rest is... well, if you'll excuse the pun... history.

My Journey into Romance

As a teenager, I was an innocent virgin who had better things to do than think about boys. Romances had zero appeal (especially since books about sex bore me). Being the snob that I was, I preferred to spend my time delving into thoughts on the human condition and the corruption of society. Grapes of Wrath is fantastic, by the way.

My freshman year of college, I fell head over heels with a handsome undergrad and hardly dated anyone else before I was married as a sophomore. Life was perfect. 

I could have written a romance at the time, but what was there to say? I hadn't had my heart broken, my future looked bright, and I had reached my happily ever after with little struggle. I had nothing to tell the world that hadn't already been said.

At one point, I even told my husband I would never write a romantic story (which I think hurt his feelings).

Then I got older.

Apparently, being married isn't all rainbows and roses. I remember struggling through my relationship while watching my friends struggle with theirs and thinking, "Why is this so hard?!?" There had to be something wrong with me and the rest of the world to make a healthy love so rare. 

I tried to figure out what was wrong and discovered I had plenty of things to say... enough to keep me busy for a lifetime. Thus, Hunger was born.

Did you always know what genre you would write? Was your decision unexpected? Or are you still trying to choose a genre?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Quirky Voodoo Priestess Dances and Shares Wisdom

While researching my book on Marie Laveau, the famous Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, I stumbled on a vlog by Ghislaine "Qidada" Mahone. She is officially one of my favorite people ever. I just had to share this video because for the first 45 seconds it made me laugh out loud, and for the other nine minutes was uplifting.

According to her website, Qiadada hosts hip hop healing ceremonies. That. Sounds. Awesome. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

How Querying has Changed for Me

As I get Sacred Fire ready to send to agents, I've thought a lot about the first time I went through this process almost two years ago. The difference between then and now is like night and day.

The first time I queried Sacred Fire, I was about as green and inexperienced as a person could be. I didn't have anyone else read it because I liked it the way it was. Besides, I'm smart enough to know when a book is bad, so if there was something wrong with it, wouldn't I know? (I'm chuckling as I write this.)

Within a  month, I sent my book to 120 agents. My reasoning was that if I sent it to everyone all at once, people who liked me would accept me all at once, and then I'd be able to chose between all my options.

It didn't occur to me that 120 agents would reject me all at once.

I've gone through three drastic rewrites since then, I think I've done about 20 or 30 drafts of my cursed query letter, and I've had so many beta readers, I don't even remember how many there were... was it seven? Or eight?

(Sometimes I'm proud of my tenacity, and other times I'm embarrassed that it's taking so long.)

This time, I've done my homework and I honestly believe the book and the query are as good as they can be.

It suddenly occurred to me what that entails: if my book is as good as it can be, I send it to a bunch of agents, and it still doesn't get accepted, that means it's time to quit.

Two years ago, I believed in second chances. This time, it's now or never.

Familiarizing myself with the market has also changed my attitude. Before I could shrug off rejections, but now I know enough about particular agents to get attached to them. That makes every rejection hurt.

I'm at a scary moment in my career. But all in all, I suppose the fear is good. It inspires me to work harder. If someone recommends a change in my book that's too much work, I can't shrug it off and say the book is good enough because "good enough" is too risky. It would be devastating if I had to move on to my next book knowing there was something else I could have done.

UPDATE: I just want to clarify because some people seemed to be confused; I'm not going to give up on writing altogether. I would just move on to my second book. If that doesn't make it, I'll write a third. 

Most people have to give up on their first book. I still have that list of 120 agents and I'm only sending my query to five people at a time, so I still have a lot of work ahead of me before shelving Sacred Fire.

Monday, September 10, 2012

My "Secret" to Avoiding Distractions

The other day I posted about how I'm so focused on my writing that I haven't made time for any other experiences worth blogging about. My excellent reader Annalisa Crawford posted this question:

"I'm still struggling to avoid distractions, and I've been at it for almost three years - what's your secret?"

Readers are worth so much more than giving me an ego boost! They also give feedback, start discussions, get us thinking, and inspire new blog articles. You guys rock!

I'm certainly no master at this, but have two secrets that help me avoid distractions:

1. Ritalin.

2. I work toward my most important, long-term, life-fulfilling goal first thing in the morning.

The morning calibrates my focus for the rest of the day. Everything I do apart from that focus feels like a distraction. It doesn't matter if I only spend an hour doing something when I wake up; that's where my thoughts are going to lean for the rest of the day.

Example: When I first started working from home, I decided to clean my apartment at the start of each day. That way, I'd have a nice, organized work space. But then I'd spend the whole day cleaning.

Next I tried doing what I call "Real Life Stuff" first thing in the morning: paying bills, making phone calls, running errands. My reasoning was I'd get it all out of the way so I wouldn't have anything to stress about once I started writing. Instead, I thought about stressful things all day long.

Do NOT get on the internet first thing in the morning, whatever you do! Spending three hours online in the evening is better for your writing than 30 minutes in the morning.

If I write before I do anything else, nothing is on my mind apart from the writing. When something slips in asking me to change what I'm doing, it's easy to say, "Nope, I'm writing now."

Then when I'm done writing, I have just enough time to do real life stuff, clean, and cook dinner before Andrew gets home.

NOTE: Sleep counts as a focus-setting activity. When I sleep in - which is my greatest weakness right now - it's hard to calibrate my mind onto anything else.

Yesterday I had a ton of real life stuff to deal with, so I decided to spend most of my day on that and write when I found time (I never did). It was a very productive day. I finished my long to-do list, studied for a test I have to take, vacuumed all the floors, cleaned the fridge, planned a menu for this week, and went grocery shopping. 

But when I went to bed that night, I felt empty. Nothing I did that day will matter a month from now. I wish I had spent just a little time on something that will last.

That's it! That's my big "secret." It seems to be working well so far.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

I Need a New Experience

Clearly, I've been a little apathetic about blogging lately. For the past year and a half since I started this blog, I've never posted as little as I have this month.

It isn't because of unhappiness by any means. I love my job. Working from home was frustrating at first because it was hard to build the right habits... it's just too easy to sleep in, play angry birds, and worry about my to-do list instead of writing. 

By now, though, I've gotten used to working for hours at a time with no distractions. It's wonderful having time to keep my apartment just the way I like it and to cook decent meals every once in a while. I even like having so much time all to myself.

The problem lies in my purpose for starting a blog. 

In November 2010, I envisioned a day when my readers would want to know all about how I went from an aspiring writer to a successful author, and luckily for them, they'd be able to go to my blog and read all about it. They could see the steps I took and the challenges I went through, and they could get an insider's look into how each of my books developed.

That's why my blog is mostly about me, me, me. I'm focusing on my experiences - ones that will hopefully be interesting to readers someday.

Currently, I'm not having any new experiences. I revise and I research. That's it. I've become a recluse even online, not taking the time to socialize or read other blogs. I hardly even take the time to read books lately. It's been great for me, but boring for you.

I'm not saying I plan on taking a break from the online world. When it comes to posting, I have a rule that you should never make promises and never apologize. This is more of a status update than anything.

Hopefully I'll have some grand new experiences or a burst of inspiration soon. Who knows, maybe in a little while I'll get an agent and then I'll have tons to talk about. That's why I don't make promises; who knows what the future will hold?
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