Writing Diverse Characters

Before you read today’s post, please note: This can be a sensitive topic. It’s one in which someone may find offense, so please, please know that everything herein is from my own personal search. I offer my words with the utmost regard for individuals and groups involved, and with genuine curiosity about how to portray characters outside my own experience with respect, realism and authenticity. If I give offense, I promise it is unintentional. I offer apologies, and ask that you help me to recognize and correct my mistakes by pointing them out (nicely, please!).

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A few months ago, I began to toy with a short-story idea about a transgender character. As the concept took shape in my head, it occurred to me that I know nothing about how to portray a believable trans person. Do they think about things the same way I do? Where are our relationships similar? Where are they different? How do they interact with society? Do we love the same way? Get angry? Grumble about our work? How are we the same? Where do we diverge?

Now before you mumble something about stupid questions, hear me out. As a cisgender female, clearly there are some differences between myself and a transgender individual, but I suspect those variations go deeper than the obvious. Different lifestyles usually forge different cultures. For example, my beautiful, loving cisgender sister-in-law is Christian. I am not. While we love each other and share many things, a common culture is not among them. We think in completely different ways, but since I was raised in a Christian church, I understand that culture. I know (for the most part) how it works. I know what to expect from it. I could write a believable Christian character with little effort above and beyond the challenge inherent in writing any interesting character.

I’ve never been transgender. I’ve also never been Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu, African American, Columbian or Japanese. I’ve never been a man, or emigrated to another country, or lived in a mansion. I’ve never been paralyzed or epileptic. I’ve never been pregnant. Characters written for each of these circumstances or backgrounds would embrace quite different worldviews and necessities of daily life. Some of these groups of people couldn’t care less if I write about them. Others might, unless I do it very, very well. So if I want to write a character who is or has been any of these things, I will need to do some intense research—much more than a search on Google or Wikipedia, though I might start with those.

For instance, if I want to write a transgender character, I need to enlist the assistance of transgender people, as many as I can manage. I must ask them those stupid questions I listed above, as well as others. I must ask them to read what I’ve written and provide feedback as to authenticity and sensitivity. Without their input, my story and my character will never go deep enough to feel real. However, approaching people from these cultural groups may be awkward.

I read several blog posts on writing transgender characters when I first began to ask these questions. One blogger said trans people are tired of being poked and prodded in this way, as if they are aliens or some newly discovered species. I can understand that, and will absolutely respect a trans friend who says “bug off” when I ask for their input.

In a workshop on this very topic led by Erin Beaty at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference this year, someone in the discussion pointed out that in movies, it might be difficult to find trans actors to play trans roles, because the pool from which to draw is still very, very small by comparison with the cisgender pool. I hope it won’t always be that way, for actors or for writers. In the meantime, the same blogger (above) said that trans people are tired of being portrayed in victim roles, that they want to be shown as regular, everyday people because they are. The more they are depicted this way, the less “foreign” the idea will seem to people who resist their presence in the larger social setting.

I was fortunate to find one transgender ally so far who agreed to read any story I wrote and provide feedback, which I appreciate. They said, though, that they would not normally read such a story in a magazine unless it was written by a trans writer. I sympathize with this sentiment, but it makes me wonder—must we wait for trans writers to provide us with trans protagonists? And if so, does that apply across the board to all cultural groups? How will any of us write a character whose life we haven’t lived?

As I said, this is a very touchy subject. At the conference, I mentioned to a fellow attendee that I was headed to the Diversity workshop. Her reaction, one of anger and disgust, caught me completely off-guard. Why would you want to take that class? Why would you even want to write a trans character? Her emotions stemmed, she said, from her belief that diversity has become such a “huge deal” that the molehill has become a mountain, and it’s getting in the way of writers’ creativity because they feel they need to be inclusive, when they should just write and let the rest take care of itself. I don’t agree, but to each their own.

For the record, this post isn’t just about writing trans characters. I’d been contemplating the subject of writing outside my own paradigm for quite some time. Some folks say “write what you know.” I say the heck with that! There’s a whole world full of things and people and places I don’t know – far more than what I do – and why should I avoid writing all those wonderful, heartening, inspirational stories simply because they require research? What better way to learn and grow and understand than to reach beyond the narrow confines of my own experience? As long as I tell a great story with respect and dignity for the characters and communities I intend to represent, perhaps my own learning can be shared through my words.

There is so much to say on this subject, and I am only one in a long line of people to join the discussion. A simple Google search on “writing diverse characters” brought up a long list of articles; check out some for yourself, and know that just like any subject on how to write, opinions run the gamut. Take what works for you. Leave the rest.

But I still say this: Ask. Research. Get input from the community you want to represent. And treat those communities with honor, with dignity, and with respect.

One last note: I would love to read a story about a trans character written by a trans writer. If you have a great one to suggest, please share the title and where it can be found below. Thanks!

Finding My Niche

Last week I attended the 9th Annual Hampton Roads Writers Conference. It was my fifth year at that event, where I always learn something new. This year, I finally realized I’m not the only one who feels awkward at those sorts of things. Oh I’ve done large events plenty of times, years ago when I was the organizer for festivals and conferences. Back then, I was too busy to feel out of place or geeky. Wearing that “staff” badge gave me the luxury of an enormous buffer and made people hesitant to approach me (unless it was to lodge a complaint).

Being an attendee is different. Scarier. There’s nothing between me and the rest of the conference-goers except the space I create around myself. The first few years at this event, I left immediately after the last breakout session of the day rather than stay back and get to know my fellow writers. Even the last two years, when I went for an hour or so to the Friday night social, I stood on the sidelines watching everyone else mingle and network. I know it sounds silly to someone who doesn’t get easily overwhelmed in large crowds. You’ll just have to take my word for it—the emotional and psychological drain for introverts in such a situation takes a toll.

This year, I took my Kindle with me and planned to find a quiet corner and read during the three hours that separated the Writer’s Boot Camp (an awesome new addition to the conference) from the regular Thursday evening session. But that isn’t what happened; several of my fellow Boot Campers hooked arms with me and dragged me off to the bar for $5 hors d’oeuvres. (Okay, I might be exaggerating on the whole dragging part.) Once there, we were joined by a few other conference-goers, and dinner turned out to be a delightful affair.

The next night, I managed to stay through the whole social and met some truly interesting fellow writers standing beside me on the sidelines. Instead of being my usual shy self and wandering off alone, I leaned over and commented to one of them that I always seemed to wind up at the edge of the room each year. She laughed and said she did too, and we struck up a conversation based on our common ground as writers and introverts. Soon we were joined by other sideliners until we had our own little party going on. It was fun, and it opened my eyes a little bit.

But my breakthrough didn’t stop with the social. I actually enjoyed a short while of Open Mic afterward, where I was treated to insightful readings by others from the conference. I even signed up to read a bit from my own short story, “Upshot”; but when they hadn’t called my name after an hour, I had to admit to saturation and head home. With yet another day of mingling ahead of me, I opted to conserve my remaining energies. I heard the next day that the Open Mic’s facilitator, Michael Khandelwal of The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, had called my name five minutes after I left. Figures.

Every breakout session I attended taught me something new. No surprise there; this conference is always packed with great teachers, presenters, speakers and literary agents. I think my favorite regular session this year (it’s hard to pick just one!) would be the workshop on Diversity in Writing, led by Erin Beaty. I’d already been kicking around this issue in my head, so the timing was perfect. Close runners-up would include one on getting published in literary magazines, by Meg Eden Kuyatt, and best use of tenses, by Dr. Meriah Crawford. And of course the keynote speakers, John DeDakis and Austin Camacho, were fantastic. I didn’t win with my short story, but the contest judge for my category wrote outstanding feedback on my copy—so helpful!

In the end, though, I think my biggest takeaway was the confirmation that I need to surround myself more frequently with these like-minded souls. Writers are my Tribe. We share a common bond. No matter how we may differ, in this we are the same: we all struggle with the challenge of the blank page, the rewrite beast, and the search for fulfillment—however we define it—from this odyssey.

Connecting With My Tribe

This week is the 9th Annual Hampton Roads Writers Conference, an event I always attend. Between the guest speakers, publishing agents, breakout sessions, contests, critiques, and networking opportunities, it’s worth every penny. While I’ve been attending these for a few years, it’s only been in the past year that I’ve begun to seriously query agents and seek a publisher for my novel, and only in the last ten months that I’ve been writing short stories. As a writer who has yet to sell her first work, I am always in the market for new learning experiences, as well as a chance to talk to other writers who are in a similar position or who have actually found an agent and are now among the ranks of the published.

Even so, as someone who prefers the shadows to the spotlight, two-and-a-half days of non-stop interaction with all these other people in a high-energy atmosphere is exhausting, and more than a little overwhelming. By the end of the conference, I am fit only to slump on the sofa with a glass of wine (or more likely a shot of Sambuca) and say in my oh-so-eloquent way, “Wow. Just ….wow.”

This year, the conference planners have added an optional four-hour “Boot Camp” to the first day on the agenda. Of course, I signed up. I expect it will be worth the additional sensory overload, and hopefully will give me a boost toward polishing my work and finding my niche.

I did enter one of the contests (I’ll let you know how that turns out), but I didn’t enter the critiques this year. I’ve been selected every other time I’ve attended, so I thought it might be nice to take a break this year. I did sign up for pitch sessions with two of the agents, even though I’d already sent a query letter to another rep from one of these groups earlier this year. If this particular guest (who happens to be the owner of the agency in question) isn’t interested in my pitch, I can use my 10 minutes to ask related questions—like what is the best way to draw positive interest to my query among all the hundreds in the slush pile? Or shouldn’t the narrative of a story fit the tale and its lead character? In other words, does a story have to use eloquent prose if the protagonist is someone who speaks in plain, ordinary language and wouldn’t know how to use Big Words or evocative turns of phrase? Or how does an agency and the publishing industry feel about self-published works? I know what they have said in the past, but with works like The Martian and Sleeping Giants finding not only a huge market for their originally self-published works, but movie rights as well, is that opinion changing to any extent?

In past years, some of the breakout sessions have included writing exercises; I hope this time will be no different. Writing prompts can really break me out of a rut and give me a whiff of new idea that might turn out to be a great short story.

I am not one to seek crowds large or small, nor am I fond of small talk and ice-breaking. The shy side of me dreads these encounters, while the writer in me looks forward to conversations with like minds for months. I always come away from interactions with other writers excited, enthused and inspired. I’m sure next week, you’ll hear all about my experience. In the meantime, wish me luck with my pitches and that contest entry!

Learning by Doing

Most targets for our submissions, whether they be online zines, print magazines or book/novel publishers, do not offer any sort of feedback when they send rejections. I understand why. With so many queries and submissions, and slush piles that may sometimes seem to rival Mt. Everest, there isn’t enough time for staffers to send personal feedback to each and every would-be contributor or author. It makes sense, but it’s so frustrating to not know where I’m failing! It feels like doing your best through a whole year of school, then finding out you failed but not knowing why or which subject shot you down; or maybe it compares to taking a trip somewhere without a detailed map, then getting lost and not knowing how to get back on course. Without any specific guidance, how are we supposed to improve our craft?

I attended a science fiction workshop at The Muse Center (in Norfolk, Virginia) a few days back and came away excited, motivated and inspired. (Thanks, Jason, Matt and John!) I also came away with some new resources, which I’ll be adding to my links page soon.

One of those new potential targets was Metaphorosis, an online magazine for short fiction. I’ve read some of the entries on the site; they’re good. The zine pays, but the best part of its submission system is this: the editorial staff offers feedback if you ask for it.

I asked. And I learned.

The editor, B. Morris Allen, rejected my story, but at least I know why. First of all, my story’s concept was familiar enough they could predict (accurately, I might add) the ending. Morris suggested if I’m going to use a familiar concept, I have to do something new with it. Okay. I can deal with that. Second, Morris (and/or his team) rated my prose for that tale 3 out of 5, which basically means my prose was functional, but not exceptional. Could use some work. No problem. Now that I know where my weaknesses are, I can work toward improvement. In fact, the Hampton Roads Writers Conference (coming up later this month) offers several breakout sessions for improving prose. I’ll be attending as many as I can.

The “overly familiar concept” thing is something I’ll have to figure out. I stopped reading altogether for a long time, because I figured that if I was reading, I couldn’t be writing, and I wanted to spend ALL my “extra” time writing. Wrong. Erroneous thinking, and this is an excellent example as to why. If I’m not reading, I don’t know what other story concepts have been done. I thought the concept for “Switch” was clever. Shows what I know, and the only way to fix that knowledge gap is to fill it. By reading. And reading. And then reading some more.

As you know, I’ve been posting a book review every single week for a while now and while that alone shows I’m reading, it’s also keeping me so busy with novels and other full-length books that my new issues of Analog have been languishing. Bobby suggested I might review short stories, or particular issues of magazines. This makes sense, and I’ll probably start doing that as soon as I finish reviewing the Jemisin series I started last week (and continue this week). I’ve read many online stories, trying to get a feel for what various target magazines want, so there’s a lot of material to be had.

In the meantime, I’ll be sending Metaphorosis something else to read over. Maybe they’ll offer more input I can use. You should check them out – and if you like what you see, support them through Patreon. Zines like that one are good to keep around.

Seeding the Work

The day of the eclipse, a rabbi friend of mine posted on an interfaith newsletter how a Jewish person might get the most out of the eclipse. As I read his words I marveled at how closely his own ideas paralleled my own tendencies. Later that day, on Facebook, Pagan and Christian friends posted about their own experiences of the eclipse, how they enjoyed it, the energy they felt throughout its duration. Again, I recognized the similarities to my own feelings.


I was at my day job in a small law office, watching the quality of the light change outside my window. There was a palpable shift as it progressed, as if something weighty and intense hovered just around the corner. Everyone seemed to be holding a collective breath. With no eclipse glasses, and no punctured shoebox, I couldn’t actually watch the Moon take bites out of the sun, but I could still feel the experience.

Ten minutes before the peak, I took my bottle of bubbles outside (what? You don’t have a bottle of bubbles at work?) and stood under the darkening sky blowing bubbles. A gentle breeze blew them across the grass or over the roof or out into the busy street, but at one point, it blew them back toward me. One largish bubble came so close to me I could see my reflection in its surface, which caught me off-guard. I don’t think that’s happened before, or at least I never noticed if it did—mind you, I am no novice bubble-blower—and it brought back a conversation I had the week before.

My friend William suggested I should write a story that showcases my (non-standard) belief system. I told him I already had. That my beliefs are reflected in all my works. How can something so basic to my nature not show up in what I write? Every one of my stories has some taste of my spirituality, some more than others; my novel, The Founder’s Seed, is thick with it. Even were I to write a story about a Christian character, or a Muslim one, or a Jewish one, my own deeply held faith would leave its mark. I can’t help it.

Because isn’t everything we do, everything we create, every word we write a reflection of who we are? Whether the threads provide a subtle background or weave shining through the entire piece, they are most certainly present. At least they are in my own work. Behind the plot, between the lines, in the character’s thoughts or deeds—somewhere, in some small (or large) fashion, they shine a light on me and on my own search for answers. Perhaps they even offer potential answers to my questions or dilemmas.

Sometimes my stories stem from my beliefs, which prompt me to question everything. Nothing is sacrosanct. “What if?” comes naturally to me, and I often wonder at the Machinery of the Universe.

Many of my life experiences also show up in my created worlds. After 57 years, memories create a colorful tapestry of scenes and dilemmas from which to draw. Often my characters are a crazy-quilt of qualities or habits from long-time friends, short-term acquaintances, or someone I met once at the gym.

Just as my breath gave life to those bubbles on Eclipse Day, so too does my essence enliven my work. I absolutely believe that it is these pieces of myself, seeded carefully among my written words, that make my writing worthwhile. I can’t imagine doing this any other way.

What’s In a Number?

Last night I finished the book I was reading (The Moon and the Other, see Reviews page), and started N.K. Jemisin’s Fifth Season for the second time, so I can review it here. I loved it the first time, got so lost in it that I forgot to watch for style and plot points and whether or not she was breaking “the rules.” (I’m pretty sure she is.) This time, though, I hope to maintain a bit of distance (yeah, right) from the story so I can observe her technique. Before I was even a full chapter into it, I could see Jemisin’s genius on every page. She fully deserves the Hugo it won. Now the third book in the series is out, of course—The Stone Sky—which occasioned my decision to re-read and review the Broken Earth series here, for all of you, but once I’m done with that, I think I’ll go back and read her earlier works, to see if I can track her evolution. Maybe I can reverse engineer some of her methods and adapt them for my own use.

Every published author touts their own process. Many emphasize that a daily word-count goal is a requirement, but that doesn’t work for me. Frankly, I’m not sure how it works for anyone who has a day job and no personal secretary. Even with Bobby shouldering most of our household day-to-day chores (kitchen duty, most laundry, grocery shopping, etc.), I find only a couple of hours most week nights to put toward writing, marketing or reading, not to mention website upkeep, or any number of everyday errands that I can’t foist off on my loving husband.

But we’ve talked about this before.

Still, I have to admit to having written nothing to speak of in over a month. (sigh) No real excuses, just riding the currents. Not sure where they’re taking me, but I’ve decided to go along, for the moment. We’ll see what happens. I haven’t been idle, though. Most evenings of late, the time I would normally sit down to write has been spent researching targets for my short stories. A few may not be publishable—I like them, I think they’re good, but I can’t seem to find the right e-zine or print magazine where they’d be a good fit. Research like can’t be rushed.

In the meantime, I’ve gone back to work on book two in my novel series. To my annoyance, I found there was a gap between notes I’d made when I first started planning this thing and the draft outline I’d pulled together, so I had no idea what I’d been thinking when I wrote the outline. Sheesh. Me, married to the Back-Up King, and I’d lost my notes somehow. I managed to put it back together, with one or two holes that can be filled as I go, and it might even turn out better than I originally intended, so it isn’t a total loss, but it took my entire Sunday to get that far.

I suppose I had naïve hopes of getting “discovered” and being able to quit my job and write full-time … sort of like when I was a kid and dreamed of finding Mr. Right, and living happily ever after. But Life is not a fairy tale. There are nitty gritties involved—every city, no matter how beautiful or sublime it looks on the surface, has sewers and traffic grids and urine or dog poop on the sidewalks and trash in the gutters. And all of that is part of the city’s character, part of its personality. It’s part of the Whole Experience. Learning a trade or a craft or an art is just the same.

So writing isn’t this romantic thing I’d envisioned. It’s messy. It’s hard. It takes over a lion’s share of your life. It’s both joyous and discouraging by turns. It’s maddening, but I love it so! It makes my heart sing….and right now, I can’t imagine anything else taking its place.

Words vs. Swords

A few weeks ago, I awoke in the middle of the night with a killer opening line for a short story about a man facing a firing squad. The idea so fascinated me that I got out of my nice comfy bed and fumbled in the dark bedroom to find a pen and paper, then wrote it out by the bathroom light. For days, the idea haunted me, followed me to work, to the gym, on my walks. But I was busy with other things and couldn’t begin on it right away, so I let it simmer.

Today I sat down to begin, but I have no idea whether firing squads are even still in use (they are) and, if so, what countries would use them. This is an essential detail, since it would determine my setting and cultural background for the story. As I perused the long lists of countries and their attitudes toward capital punishment, I remembered Freddy, and his story about how his family fled Tutsi genocide in Rwanda decades ago.

So I called up some background on the Rwandan genocide.

Oh. My. God.

First, let me say I am mostly a pacifist. Violence horrifies me. I am also politically naïve. I don’t understand the drive behind political ambitions and the power-hungry mindset. I don’t get why we can’t all just take care of one another.

I know. I told you – I’m naïve about that stuff.

Still, what I read in a few minutes about the atrocities in Rwanda will probably give me nightmares. Scholars estimate over 800,000 dead in only 100 days, though some estimates place that number at around 1.2 million.

100 days. That’s THOUSANDS of murders EVERY DAY. Most of them were Tutsis, though there were also Hutus, and Twa peoples (who lost as much as a third of their population). Though there were a handful of organizers, many people took part. Some say that if you were in Rwanda during that time, you were either a murderer, or you were murdered. People who refused to kill their neighbors were, themselves, killed. It boggles the mind—at least it does my mind.

How does it make any sort of logical sense to kill a whole tribe/nation/ethnic group of people? I’ll never understand it. There has to be a better way to resolve our differences.

So here I am, this idea for a story about the victim of a firing squad riding my shoulders and whispering in my ear, and I’m too sensitive to even read about a horrific genocide that took place in my own lifetime. I swear, I had to stop reading. It made me physically sick to my stomach. How the hell am I going to write something about a revolution, or a rebellion, or some sort of coup that leads to my protagonist standing before armed men with his hands behind his back, when I can’t even read about such a thing?

Of course, Rwanda was a much larger scale. Much. Larger. (Nearly a million bodies. 100 days.) That’s beside the point.

How can I bring myself to write about a subject so upsetting? I don’t know. But I’m going to write that story. If you are a fellow writer, you may understand what I mean when I say my stories are (sometimes) my voice. They are my way of making a statement. My protagonist facing a firing squad might tell a story that points out the futility of war, or the shame in corruption… who knows? He’s still whispering to me, but I’m not sure yet what he’s saying.

What I do know, without a doubt, is that I have yet to even know what this character looks like, and already he is teaching me. This is one of the things I love about writing—my characters so frequently become my teachers. It goes beyond what I learn when researching a subject. Seeing the story world through the character’s eyes is a way of walking in someone else’s shoes. For me, it helps to breed compassion. Understanding. A different perspective, one I might not have otherwise.

I have yet to write a story that did not change me in some way.

For tonight, I think I am done reading about genocide. I’ve surpassed my effective learning capacity, and lurched headlong into overwhelm. But that story, whether it’s about Rwanda or some other scene of political unrest, will see the light of day. I may not know the names of the dead—they are so many!—but maybe my story can in some small way speak for them.

May I live to see the day when compassion surpasses violence in all the many and varied nations of this beautiful world.

Some Assembly Required

Our new treadmill arrived Friday. Not Saturday, as we’d scheduled it, but a whole day early. I just happened to be home, fortunately, and had the delivery drivers bring it in and set the box in the living room. They expected to set it up, too, but I –Ms. Speaks-the-Truth-Even-When-I-Should-Shut-Up—told them that if they really felt so inclined, I’d be happy for them to assemble our new equipment, but that I had not, in fact, paid for it. Thankful, they left to try and catch up to their schedule, which had been thrown off by having our delivery added to it a day early.

Yeah. Should have let them do it. That “30-minute-assembly” claim is total bull.

Bobby and I started setting it up around 11:45 a.m. on Saturday. At 6:30 p.m., we finally finished. It wasn’t so much putting the hard bits together. That did, indeed, take around 30 minutes. It was getting the treadmill belt to function smoothly that took so long. Here’s how it went, in a nutshell:

Loosen the belt. Oil the works. Tighten the rollers/belt back to where we thought they were. Turn it on. Belt immediately starts shifting to the left. Scrape, scrape, scrape. Turn it off. Loosen the roller, adjust the belt back to center. Tighten the roller. Turn it on. Immediate shift to the left. Scrape, scrape. Turn it off. Loosen the rollers, center the belt.

All. Dang. Day.

Eventually, we realized that removing the motor cover would not, in fact, invalidate the warranty as we’d feared. We pulled that sucker off and lo-and-behold, the front roller was skewed. No wonder nothing we did worked! Once that was fixed, it was only a matter of tweaking the end roller and voila! Even so, that process took over an hour. (A word of advice from your Auntie Drema: pay the extra set-up fee for the guys who’ve done this over and over and over and know what they’re doing. It’s totally worth it.)

But the whole thing got me thinking. That fumbling, learn-it-as-you-go was very similar to the process I went through with my first novel. Putting the bits together was easy. Keeping the plot (belt) centered and running smoothly (no scrapes or warping) took far longer—not because I have no talent as a writer, but because it was a new process to me. Like setting up a treadmill. We didn’t know how to do it, so we had to keep adjusting the roller and straightening the belt until we learned the little front roller secret. Even knowing that, it will take us longer to oil the machine, when next it’s due, because we’re still clumsy at the process. But the more we do it, the easier it will be and the more efficient we’ll become.

This works with writing, too. Over time, and with more practice, I’ve seen a difference in my writing. I do have a second novel in the works, a sequel to Founder’s Seed, which is on the back burner until I either find a publisher for the first book or decide to self-publish. In the meantime, I’ve been penning short stories. Each time, I see an improvement in my style, my process, and the overall quality of the piece.

The point is that for everything I write, there is some assembly required. I’ve read the instruction manuals (Brooks, King, Vogler, Bell, Brown & King, others). They all have suggestions for how to write sellable material, but unlike assembling a piece of equipment, there is no one right way to put together a story. Brooks says plot it out. Bell says stay focused on your WIP (work in progress), even when a new idea springs to mind (though his latest blog post on The Kill Zone adds a caveat to that rule). King says go with your gut and for gods’ sakes, don’t let a hot, exciting idea die of boredom while you’re planning it out to the last detail or finishing another story first.

All are successful authors. Who is right?

The answer is – you are. I am. I listen to the masters; I read or listen to their words, but I’ve decided not to tie myself to one way of doing things. Everyone has their own method, but if I try to force fit mine to theirs, it stifles my creativity, interferes with the natural process, slows me down. Assembling the bits to create an entertaining, moving, or inspiring bit of fiction takes time, flexibility, and patience. Sometimes, it all comes together in one seamless flow. Other times, I have to loosen and re-tighten the rollers over and over. A few times, I’ve been unable to keep that darned belt centered no matter what I did. Those stories-in-progress lie in an “Unfinished” folder awaiting attention at some future date.

For now, I’m in a stride, and producing enough to keep me happy. Is it sufficient? Only I can be the judge of that. I’m still trying to get a story published. No hits yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

Until next week, happy writing!

Grunt Work

I’ve heard others say I should tailor my writing to fit a chosen market. In other words, write to fit the magazine in which you’d like to publish. Maybe I’m just a rebel, but I’ve always done it the other way ‘round—write first, match to a market after. ‘Course, that might explain why I’m not published yet.

But I don’t want to write a cookie-cutter piece. I want to write from my heart, from my mind, from my experience, from whatever moves me, and I simply can’t imagine that stories written in such a “backward” order are doomed, just because I didn’t force-fit them into a predetermined mold. I have faith there are plenty of readers out there who will find my stories moving, inspiring, funny, accessible, or what have you. Thus there must be a suitable market for each of my stories.


The trick is to find it, and I’m still working on that. (When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.)

About a month ago, give or take a week, I finished two short stories in one day. After reading, simmering, revising, beta-readers (thanks Chris, Alyssa, Becky, Cathy, Laura and Kerry!), and final revisions, now I’m searching for a place to submit.

Enter grunt work.

First, I must classify my story. Is it non-fiction? Memoire? Literary? Genre fiction (in which case further classification is required: sci-fi, slipstream, fantasy, mystery, thriller, etc.)? This step forms the groundwork for all the rest. Without knowing what my story is, I can’t know where to submit.

Regardless of classification, there is a market to fit every story, and the second step of my grunt work is to search the Internet to find these gems. I do this so often now that some names (Analog, Masters Review, Carve, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Ploughshares, and others) are familiar to me, and I know (more or less) what they publish. Others I have to look up every time. On the upside, you benefit from my research since I post links I’ve found here on my site.

But simply identifying each publication’s style isn’t enough. Step three is to read examples from each magazine or webzine, so that I can see what the editors like – i.e., what they’ve selected from the slush pile as print-worthy. It’s only then I can see whether my story might fit well within its pages.

If I think a magazine is a good fit, I move on to step four: scrutinizing the magazine’s submission guidelines. And I read them hard. Even if I’ve read them before, I scan them again. Guidelines change all the time to take into account new scenarios or situations. Also, the guidelines will tell me whether or not the magazine is open to unsolicited submissions. Sometimes, these publications get overwhelmed with material to the point that they close the window to allow their staff to catch up. (Writers are legion; potential markets seem few by comparison.)

If the fit is good, and if I want my piece to appear in their pages or on their site, and if they are open to submissions, I move on to step five: prepare a submission document that includes whatever they’ve asked for, double-check it for accuracy and compliance, then submit it either via e-mail, U.S. Postal Service mail, or whatever online submission system the publication uses.

Grunt work is not quick, nor is it something I can do mindlessly. The publishers aren’t looking for reasons to write off my submissions. Quite the contrary! They want great stories. But because there are so many of us, and because they receive such a large number of submissions, they can afford to be choosy. I try not to make it easy for them to say no.

Still, with all that said, they have somehow managed to keep saying “no.” (sigh) I try not to get discouraged. It’s just a matter of timing and finding the right fit. Believe me, when I figure it out, you’ll all hear me cry “Eureka!” no matter where you are. In the meantime, I make it a learning experience. I read every online magazine I can find (well, okay, I’ve done the best I can; not all have free samples online, and I can’t afford to subscribe every one or even buy a sample—some of which cost $10 per issue!), and with every story I read, my writing improves. I note little turns of phrase, how a writer might use a relatively common verb in an uncommon way to really paint a clear picture of what’s happening, that sort of thing. It all contributes to the growing knowledge base. Like I said before, none of it is wasted.

In the meantime, I’m preparing to start my next story. Stay tuned; I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Planting Seeds

Years ago, I worked in retail and stood on my feet all day. Now that my day job involves sitting, and my “night job” (writing) also involves sitting, I’m getting sludgy around the middle. Walking outside is more fun than the cardio equipment at the gym, but weather gods don’t always cooperate with my  schedule. Hence, I’m shopping for a treadmill.

I expected my Saturday mall excursion to be fairly point-and-click: go to the store, try out a few different models, bring one home. But that isn’t what happened. Of the two shops we visited, neither had the version we wanted in stock, and we came home empty-handed. (sigh)

But wait. The trip was not wasted.

While at one of the department stores, we met a man named Freddy. He’s originally from Rwanda, but during the awful revolution there, his family fled the Hutu’s genocide against the Tutsi people. Freddy, a Tutsi, grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, at age 22, emigrated to Southern California to complete his schooling. He’s been in the U.S. ever since.

He told us how he taught himself English (through music videos and the BBC broadcasts) and how, when he first came here, an African American male spoke to him using common (at the time) cultural slang; Freddy turned the words over and around in his head, comparing them to his limited English vocabulary and finally, clueless as to what the man meant, nodded and smiled.

His recount made me chuckle. I’ve had similar experiences where English-speaking people used unfamiliar dialects to say things for which I had no frame of reference. Their meaning was lost on me, thus the effort to communicate failed, sort of like when I first went to the Midwest from the Deep South. Friends told me later that year that my Southern drawl was so thick they thought I was faking it.

Isn’t that like writing? Whether I am penning a tale to a young audience, a cultural group, a casual reader, or a group of intellectuals, I need to speak the appropriate language—including slang, terminology, similes, etc.—or the point of my story is lost. In part, that’s what agents and workshop facilitators mean when they say we need to target our stories to our intended markets. But it isn’t only what we say; it’s also how we say it. If I’m going for a gritty style, I don’t want to “pretty up” the narrative. If my protagonist is a street person, I don’t want them to use perfect grammar and diction. Conversely, if my character is a university professor, they should not use words like “ain’t” or “irregardless.”

But my conversation with Freddy gave me more than just an analogy for effective communication.

During our conversation, I listened more than I talked. Freddy’s many experiences offered a rich source of fodder for story ideas. He’s a tall man—maybe 6’2” or so—with dark, dark skin, long fingers and a contagious smile. He’s also quite lean, which he said is typical for his people. He has seen a lot of life, the good and the bad, and has come out on this side of his history with grace and balance. The same can’t be said for everyone who escaped such violence. We spoke for maybe 45 minutes and even though he told me a great deal in a short time, a whole lifetime of his experiences are now left to my imagination. What sorts of thoughts and fears and feelings might young Freddy have felt when his family was on the run? What was it like to go to not just one new country, but two, where he knew little about the language and customs? What sorts of political leanings would such a life provoke in him? What did he lose that he wishes he’d kept? What did he pick up that he wishes he’d left behind?

The possibilities are endless. Who knows? Maybe Freddy will turn up in one of my future tales.

My point is this: All sorts of encounters can feed my stories. Sometimes I have to turn an experience around a bit in the light of retrospection so I can see it better, or chew on it a while to get to the juice (you know what I mean), but I can find a story seed or a relevant connection to my passion for writing in almost anything.

I’ll be thinking on Freddy’s stories in the weeks to come. Some of what he told us raised my hair on end (I know, scary, right?). Other bits I found touching, or inspiriing. But a connection was made between two human beings, and whether or not I ever see Freddy again, I’ll remember our meeting for a long time.

I went to the mall for a treadmill. I came home germinating new seeds for thought. Nothing is ever wasted.

Thanks, Freddy.