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In Defense of Love Stories

Our world is rife with darkness. Even a cursory glance at current events reveals suffering, death, destruction, and hate. As a person with a highly-sensitive empathy response (I literally feel what others feel—I can’t stop it), I can’t pay attention to too much, or I make myself physically ill.

I’ve had conversations with other writers at genre conventions about the current rage for “grim-dark” stories. These are tales like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Breaking Bad, where the world itself is suffused with despair and everyone can die. The draw seems to be a sense of realism, of not “shying away” from the darker aspects of life.

While a tone of foreboding and despair is perhaps “realistic,” I don’t find that a compelling reason to partake of that kind of fiction. I go to fiction to imagine a world that could be, a better world. If I want to read about genocide, plague, catastrophe, rape, murder, and war, I can go to any news website on the internet.

Instead, I prefer stories of hope—where justice prevails and where love conquers. I don’t feel that this makes me naïve (although it does make me an optimist). I am a warrior, writing in defense of what I believe to be absolutely true: that if we, as a species, embraced love, accepting our differences and understanding our similarities, that our world would be radically changed. The beating heart of every world religion is love and acceptance, despite what man tries to twist and change about each prophet’s words to justify their rage and hate.

So I write love stories, and I try to add a little love into the universe. I model relationships that I feel are healthy, based on mutual respect and attraction—not on manipulation and abuse. My characters enjoy vigorous sex lives, again based on an understanding that sex is not and should not be shameful, hidden, or vilified. Women and their desires are elevated, celebrated, and equal to men and theirs. They are not made to feel dirty or broken because they feel and experience physical passion.

I made a promise, when I started this series, that none of my characters would ever be raped, either within the story or to create a backstory conflict. Not because I am disconnected from reality, but because I am very, very connected to it. Nearly every woman I know has been sexually assaulted. And if not outright assaulted, has been the victim of misogyny and oppression—has been catcalled, touched inappropriately, or had to deal with unwanted advances that quickly progressed to violence when they politely declined.

So my books will never, ever go to that conflict well. My world is a safe place for my female characters. They have plenty of other problems, but rape isn’t one of them. Instead, I allow my stories to wallow in hope. Hope that things will get better, that we can make a better world, that love and acceptance and understanding and empathy and compassion can and should be the strongest forces in the world.

In my books, love conquers all. Doesn’t that sound like a world you’d want to live in?


ABOUT CARA

Cara McKinnon wrote her first fantasy romance at the age of six, about a unicorn couple that falls in love and has adventures (there is also pie). Now she writes about humans falling in love and having adventures, but she can’t quite stop including magic.

She loves history and historical romance, so she decided to set her books in an alternate Victorian era where magic is not only real but a part of everyday life.

Cara attended the best writing school in the world, Seton Hill University, where she received an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction and found her writing tribe. She lives on the East Coast of the US with her husband, two kids, and an oversized lapdog named Jake.

Visit her on her website caramckinnon.com, where you can find more information about the Fay of Skye series, writing and romance, and ways to get in touch!

Selling and Signing Your Books at a Convention Table

So you have a book published.

Great!

You’re selling it online, you’ve got it in stores, and you’re waiting for the sales to roll in. When lo and behold, it’s time for a convention or conference! This gives you the chance to have a signing and selling table, and you’ve decided to take the plunge. But we’ve all seen the authors who fail to generate sales at such events. How can you ensure you’re not one of them?

I’ve sold my books at half a dozen different events. I’ve had both extreme success and sold every copy I brought, and I’ve had events where two copies were all I was able to move. I’ve sold through a central convention vendor, through my publisher’s central table, and myself. I’ve carried my novels, novellas, and anthologies. I’ve never had an event where I sold no copies, but over time tweaking my sales pitch, varying my table display, and altering my “writer uniform” a bit, I’ve hit upon some strategies that work.

Here are things I’ve done that have generated more sales at an event, whether this is your first book or your fifteenth.

In my non-author life, I currently teach English and cultural studies courses to college students but have worked in college recruitment and retention, and even spent many years in retail (including as a bookseller) and customer service work. I’m not, by nature, super extroverted. You don’t have to be an extreme extrovert to hand-sell your books, but you should probably practice being comfortable talking to strangers one-on-one.

Remember: convention attendees are already into reading; you’re just talking to someone else who, like you, loves books. You already have an in with them; it’s simply a matter of closing the deal.

First, I wear something I feel extremely physically comfortable in, but that is just the tiniest bit different from what other people might be wearing. Even if your “writer uniform” is mostly psychological, you want to feel good, you want to look your best, and you don’t want to wear something complicated and fussy that will have you tugging at your clothes all night. Look good, but be able to move freely and easily.

I now have a lucky event outfit that I once sold out in, so now I try to wear it or a variation of it to all my events. It also gives me a visual brand, but it’s extremely low-key.

Maybe your writer uniform is jeans and a blazer, maybe it’s a favorite dress that you look really good in, or maybe it’s a lucky necktie or a pair of earrings. You don’t have to go fancy, and you don’t have to spend money. But dirty, worn clothing isn’t going to impress your fan base.

Imagine you’re in a band—you don’t have to wear a tuxedo or ball gown or anything, but you should look like one of the musicians, not one of the roadies. Don’t wear a T-shirt advertising the convention you’re attending, for instance. You will look like any other attendee or perhaps a con volunteer. You are advertising yourself and your work, not the event. If there’s an outfit you’ve gotten compliments on, that’s a good choice.

When you’re selling your books, you’re technically at work, so think about how you’d dress for a job while still being yourself, and consider adopting a few visual signatures, even if you vary them up a little.

I’ve become known for always wearing crazy shoes—platforms, boots, what have you—and these serve several purposes. The rest of my outfit is pretty staid (typically jeans and a white shirt and black blazer), so having one crazy thing that also acts as a conversation starter is fun. But also, as a short person, it adds some height that I can use to my advantage in order to better hear tall people talking to me as well as lending me a visual form of authority in a way.

For you, maybe a pair of TARDIS earrings or a Star Wars necktie can do the trick—it’s like having a superpower. No one knows you’re secretly a Jedi or a Time Lord or not as tall as you look, but you’re magically able to project an air of confidence because of this secret “power” item in your uniform. Look like your version of polished and writerly to allow you to work from the outside in on your self-assurance and poise. We don’t want to believe that appearance matters, but on a basic level, being neat and clean and professional does help quite a bit.

When navigating customers, smile at everyone who passes your table. Always look friendly and approachable. Say hi to anyone who lingers even a second. Make eye contact. Ask if they’re having fun at the event. Ask them what kind of books they like to read or (if appropriate) write. Comment on another book they’re holding or compliment their outfit or a piece of jewelry.

These are nerdy people at many of these events. If you’re at an SF con, there will be some Whovians or Whedonites with let’s say a Firefly T-shirt or maybe a TARDIS jewelry piece. Comment on it. Ask if they got it there. Link their interest to your book(s) somehow. Just get them talking about what they like, and see how it might parallel your own work. Ask who they’re shopping for and what other books they like.

Talk to the authors selling beside you. Tell each other about each other’s books so you can recommend each other’s work. Be willing just to do trades with other authors. “Would you like a copy of my book for a copy of yours?” If they don’t want to trade, that’s fine, but again, cross-selling is a great networking tool.

When talking to your fellow authors or your customers, be a good listener, but make sure you can also be heard. Speak more loudly than you think you need to. Those places are terrible for hearing people well. When someone approaches, stand up. You can sit back down to sign, but try to stand up as much as possible. If you’re chatting with the author next to you, stop (even if you must ignore the other person for a moment) and stand up and talk to your customer.

And finally, when customers are dithering, don’t be afraid to say, “Would you like a copy?” Be kind even to people who don’t buy. Offer them some swag. Give them a postcard with a QR code on it where they can at least buy the e-book. If someone is hesitating and the sale is open for another 15 minutes, consider a “fire sale.” Offer a bundle price if they buy multiple titles or offer them a little extra discount. Claim it’s so you don’t have to take any copies home with you. If I’m making my own sales, I pre-program a few different types of discounts in my sales software depending on what type of event I’m going to. Most of these apps will also allow you to add a one-time discount in, too, so you can make these decisions on the fly.

So, in sum, make sure you look and feel confident, be friendly, and get people talking about their interests. Network with your fellow authors. Consider discounts to help close the sale. After a few events, you’ll discover what works best for you personally, where you feel the most confident, and what tends to make sales happen or not happen. I’ve managed to sell books even at events without all the best conditions. Make the most of what you’re best at. Make your table look visually appealing. Be positive and upbeat.

And most of all, have fun. Your enthusiasm for your product will be infectious.


BOOKS-thecuriositykillers

Kathleen W. Taylor Kollman received her MFA from Seton Hill University in 2015 and is now a Ph.D. student at Bowling Green State University. As K.W. Taylor, she writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Her latest novel, The Curiosity Killers, was published by Dog Star Books in spring of 2016. Find her at kwtaylorwriter.com.


Remembering Ron Shannon

ron

As many members of the Seton Hill Writer Popular Fiction program and In Your Write Mind Workshop attendees may already know, we lost one of our own very recently. Ron Shannon was a kind and vibrant colleague and friend.  In February of this year, Ron wrote a guest post for this blog, which is republished below in his memory.

Ron, you were one of the best of us. Though you are gone, you will always live on as part of our family.

Donations to the Seton Hill Scholarship fund can be made in memory of Ron at alumni.setonhill.edu/give

Links to purchase Ron’s books.

The Hedgerows of June & Gabriel’s Wing

Anticipating the 2015 In Your Write Mind Conference

Time is drawing near. It’s time for writers of different genres to congregate at an amazing Catholic University, a dreamscape structure, situated on a hill in Greensburg Pennsylvania. This sort of thing doesn’t happen. Conferences are genre specific. Horror people get together to discuss how to scare their readers to death. Romance writers are drawn to a huge convention and I wonder if they ponder the merits of erotic and sweet.  I’m sure when science fiction writers assemble they transform their surroundings to a realm of marvel and inventiveness. Fantasy stretches reality to undiscovered dimensions hidden in the cosmos. Is there a place for the genre that chose me? Adventure sprinkled with romantic elements.

What is applicable to In Your Write Mind is not genre. It doesn’t matter if you are published and about to hit the big time, or if you are struggling to get noticed. It’s not important what your sales are; well at least for this conference. What is important is that you write, you are a writer and you identify with that tribe. You can come here and be at home, accepted, and you won’t be demoralized because your writer’s heart is filled with insecurities.

I normally arrive on campus early the first day. Others don’t usually show up until around noon. I like to get there and wander the halls, find a place to sit with what I am currently reading, and be alone to absorb the ambiance of the school. Old and haunted, it is a living, breathing organism that tells me I’m where I belong. I daydream, like any writer, and think about what it would be like if I could spend more time on campus, maybe teach. I allow my imagination to spin off in all directions. It’s story time and I think about taking notes. I should take notes, but I don’t worry about such things. I don’t want to lose the moment. I go back to reading, but I find I’m too excited to concentrate. Stories and characters float in my head. Like turbulent clouds they change shape, radiate youthful ideas, and create fresh memories. I should be cautious, guard my visions, like a schoolboy in class, but it’s not going to happen. I take out my notebook and scribble. I have a character, a story, perhaps an answer to a peculiar dilemma. It doesn’t matter. I smile to myself and take another walk. People will show up soon. If the weather is nice I will go out and sit on one of the benches or swings. More notes, more reading.

People are showing up now and they stop to talk. We catch up. Chat about things important to writers. What are you writing? Have you published? I saw your note on Facebook. Congratulations on your short story, your award, finishing that first draft. Yes, my thesis is published. I am happy, but I wish sales were better. Don’t be troubled. We will talk about that blog, that virtual tour, that review you loved.

This is why I came here, the friendships, the discussions outside of the classroom, the time with people who have my dreams, aspirations, and interests. I escape my day job, uninteresting careers, and office politics. The normality of life is good fodder, but not what I seek. I am part of this group. I am not the introverted outsider. I am not the pitiful daydreamer. I am another writer and we are working to help each other to succeed. I am home.

This is what this conference is all about. If you are not alum of the Writing Popular Fiction program it’s okay. You are welcomed here. You are part of the tribe. Yes, you are introverted and find it difficult to mingle. That’s okay because you’ll find most of us are the same. We suffer from the same maladies, but in this world the malady is essential. It provides the capacity to sit in isolation for hours and live through our characters. It’s what makes us whole and our lives worth living. We accept fellow travelers. You will fit in here. Just say hello, someone will ask what you write, ask about your current project. How did you hear about In Your Write Mind? We’re glad you’re here.

I am looking forward to Seton Hill. I know it will end before it begins. I know I will not recover for weeks. I will dream about the campus. I will reach out for inspiration. I will take new experiences and in some way I will grow from them. My writing will improve and I will find the label of writer an honor and a privilege.

Yes, fanworks are illegal: harsh truths about copyright & Fair Use.

This article was originally posted at the author’s website, reprinted here with permission. Updated on 6/19/2019.

I’m writing this post because fanfiction is a buzzword again, thanks to the publication of “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E. L. James–or, more specifically, the Twitter debacle that was #AskELJames, which included tweets slamming fanfiction in general. I’ve seen several posts from authors defending fanfiction in response to such tweets–and fanfiction very well should be defended–but I’m also disheartened to see that many well-intentioned people misunderstand the legalities of fanfiction and the Fair Use clause, and are shooting incorrect information out there into the world.

Before I elaborate on the legal stuff, let me add this disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I am not licensed to provide legal counsel to anyone. But I do know copyright and fair use, because it’s an integral part of what I do for a living (I make things, yay!). That, and the U.S. Copyright Office website is very clear on defining these terms, so I have no problem discussing them and linking to the source material throughout this post.

Here are the icky truths that people don’t always want to hear, especially when it comes to fanworks:

  • Without permission directly granted from the original copyright owner, any creation of derivative works is illegal.
  • Copyright violators do not determine if their work falls under the protection of Fair Use; that decision is made through arbitration.
  • Fair Use is not a right. Fair Use is a defense argument used in legal proceedings, and is a circumstantial provision that does not guarantee protection for those who violate copyright law.
  • Attribution isn’t a protection from copyright violation, but you still need to do it anyway.
  • Including disclaimers with derivative works (“All rights belong to their prospective owners” / “These characters don’t belong to me” / “Work is protected under Fair Use”) is not a protection from copyright violation. If you’re going to bother including a disclaimer, you still need to properly attribute the author, copyright holder, and trademark owner.

And probably the biggest one that puts people into defense-mode:

Taking something that isn’t yours, without permission, is stealing.

The specific erroneous statement that pushed me to write this post was a pro blogger’s claim that fanfiction is “a transformative work protected under copyright law.”

Well…there are two ways to interpret that statement:

  • Transformation of an original work doesn’t violate copyright.
  • The transformation itself (the new work) is protected under copyright law.

#1 is incorrect.
#2 is correct.

Fun, right?

Fanworks–fanfiction, fan art, fan films–are derivatives of an original work. They “transform” the original work by taking major pieces from it (characters, plot, etc.) and placing those original components in new scenarios with new depictions. Without permission from the original copyright holder to build upon, transmit, copy, and transform a preexisting work, derivatives are illegal.

Why are they illegal? Because, as Title 17 of the US Code explains, rights to a created work are exclusive to the creator. It’s a Constitutional Provision meant to protect authors and their work, but is also meant to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts” by limiting the exclusivity of the work–meaning, eventually, creations will belong to everyone (Source). Until that time passes, you cannot take what isn’t yours, no matter how well-intentioned you may be.

It is very important to emphasize that copyright does not protect ideas, but instead, how ideas are rendered.

The Star Wars vs. Harry Potter infographic is effective because it illustrates that these works share ideas but their creators render them very, very differently. J. K. Rowling decided to write a fantasy set in a parallel, magical world that exists along with our own, set in the UK in the relative present. George Lucas decided to write a space opera set “long ago in a galaxy far far away.” Concepts may overlap, but the key elements of the narrative–characters, dialogue, voice, etc.–are original, wholly belonging to their respective creators.

In other words, ideas are intangibles that belong to and are shared by everyone, but their specific, unique expressions, once physically rendered, belong to the individual creator. In the US (and many other countries worldwide), that uniquely rendered piece is automatically protected under copyright law. What is one man’s hobby is another one’s livelihood, and copyright law is designed to protect both.

And now, a case study!

Once upon a time, fanfiction author Snow Queen’s Ice Dragon took Twilight‘s lead characters Bella and Edward, as created by author Stephenie Meyer, and wrote them into a new story called “Master of the Universe.” She, like thousands of other readers, wanted more from Bella and Edward’s relationship–Twilight was marketed to teenagers, and adult readers wanted to see something that reflected adult interests and situations. “Master of the Universe” was a fanfic that included Bella and Edward in a BDSM, sexual relationship–an R-rated Twilight readers were looking for.

Snow Queen’s Ice Dragon broke the law when she wrote “Master of the Universe,” because she did not invent, and did not own, the characters of Bella and Edward–Stephenie Meyer did. The only way Snow Queen’s Ice Dragon fanfic would be legal is if she contacted author Stephenie Meyer directly to get permission to publish “Master of the Universe” (yes, posting online means you are, in fact, publishing your work).

She published it anyway. And it was so popular that she later decided to commercially self-publish it as an ebook, and after making a good deal of money from that, made a deal with Random House and made a hell of a lot more money. “Master of the Universe” is now known as “Fifty Shades of Grey” and Snow Queen’s Ice Dragon is now known as E. L. James. And she’s a bazillionaire, because she gave her fans exactly they wanted.

But there was still a huge outcry from the public about the situation, saying that the similarities warranted legal action. My basic understanding is that Random House and E. L. James scrubbed “Master of the Universe” of all of its Twilight references, but kept everything else. Why? Because “everything else” legally belongs to E. L. James–it’s her unique rendition of overlapping ideas.

Random House asserts that “[…] the 50 Shades series is wholly original fiction and that the author has warranted it [a]s original fiction, deviating substantially from the original fan fiction known as Master of the Universe” (Source). The internet disagrees with Random House’s claim and there’s some pretty interesting line-by-line comparisons showing that not a lot was changed between “Master” and “50 Shades”…but legally, does it matter?

Nope.

  • E. L. James’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” does not contain Stephenie Meyer’s plot, characters, and original prose–it is a work unique to E.L. James.
  • Stephenie Meyer recognized that “Fifty Shades” was completely different than her own (source). Her acquiescence demonstrates that she does not see a copyright or legal issue with the publication of “Fifty Shades.”
  • “Master of the Universe,” which did violate copyright, was taken down and is unavailable to readers except for the small snippets in blog posts where people are making comparisons between that and “Fifty Shades.” Essentially, “Master of the Universe” no longer exists, and Stephenie Meyer chose not to take legal action against E. L. James for “Master” or “50 Shades.”

Basically, the copyright violations were removed, and most importantly, the original author doesn’t care about the copyright violation anyway, so that’s that.

“Kristina, why are you writing this? Are you against fanfiction or something?” Nope. I love fanfiction. I wrote Harry Potter parodies and fanfiction starting as early as 1999, before the internet made fandoms and fanworks a tangible thing. I tend to do fanart more than anything else, but I recently wrote fanfic for Darker than Black that I hope to post online at some point, and some dirty fanfic for Dramatical Murder that may never see the light of day because I can’t believe my brain could pump something like that out.

Fanfiction is amazing because it allows you to be experimental in safe parameters, and indeed write things you never thought your brain could pump out. Fanfiction is a great way to learn to write, and a great way to learn about directly connecting to an audience and fulfilling their needs, which is key if you want to break out into commercial fiction. Fanfiction communities can provide great support and direct feedback. And above all else, fanfiction is incredibly fun…

Which is why you shouldn’t stop writing fanfic, or making fan art, or shooting fan films and making parodies.

You just need to be aware that there is a risk when you publish this stuff, and it’s simply this: if the copyright owner makes a claim against your work, you must submit to the demands of the copyright holder.

That means if the author tells you to take something down, you take it down and you leave it down. It also means that if the author seeks litigation, you must recognize that they have the right to do so (and that’s when you can hope your lawyer will use the Fair Use defense).

Many authors and artists are just fine with fanworks. They see fans as invaluable, and sometimes even as family; they also recognize the perks of fanfic and fanarts–free publicity, a built-in, dedicated audience, and (depending on their attitude), a source for valid criticism and mutual inspiration.

There are others who are vehemently against fanfiction (George R. R. Martin and Anne Rice, for example) and they have every right, legal and personal, to discourage it (while fans are important, authors don’t “owe” them).  There may be authors who don’t have a problem with fanfiction, but their publishers, agents, or licensees do, so the author professionally sides with them (Ursula Le Guin is an example). And there are some authors who admit they don’t quite understand fanfiction, so they stay neutral or avoid it altogether (like Juliet Marillier).

If you’re not sure about an author’s personal stance on fanworks, you can usually find out their policy or opinion directly on their websites. Another great resource is fanlore.org‘s vast compilation of Professional Author Fanfic Policies, which continues to grow as more information is made available. I highly recommend checking it out!

Don’t be afraid of making fanworks. Fanworks are amazing!

Just be informed, and make decisions that mitigate potential consequences of copyright violation:

  • Try to get permission from the copyright holder if you want to publish a derivative work. If you don’t know where to start, read this article. It’s not as difficult as you may think to contact the owner for permissions, and I’m speaking from experience.
  • Know the author or artist’s policies on fanworks–if they’re against it, then you probably shouldn’t publish.
  • Authors and artists who are against fanworks are not bad people. One of the arguments I read from a particularly frothy Anne Rice complaint is that she had no right to go after fans, and that she should be appreciative that fanfiction of her work even exists. Nope. Authors don’t owe you accolades or adoration because you “borrowed” something they labored over. If they are “unappreciative” of your appropriation, you don’t fire back with a “you should be grateful!” argument. Nope nope nope.
  • Publish in safe communities, where fanworks are promoted and encouraged (net,deviantArtWattpad, etc).
  • Don’t sell fanworks! If you charge for anything that is derivative or transformative, this will hurt the Fair Use defense if legal action is taken against you. Plus, profiting off of others’ work without permission is just a dick thing to do. Although many fanartists sell derivative work (posters, tee shirts, etc.), they might’ve gotten the licensing to do so. And if they didn’t, just because it seems like they’re getting away with it doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll go that way for you, too. There will always be a risk if you sell derivative works without permission; if you want to play it safe, stay not-for-profit.
  • Always provide proper attribution when you use things that aren’t yours, and if you’re going to do a disclaimer, you need to be very clear–writing “I don’t own this” is a WELL, DUH. Something like, “This is a non-commercial work of fanfiction. The characters of Draco Malfoy and Luna Lovegood are the sole invention and property of author J. K. Rowling” is a lot more effective than “Rights belong to their prospective owners,” which is a weak, deliberately vague statement. Attribution and disclaimers do not negate copyright violation, but they are a factor in determining the Fair Use defense (which again, is decided in the courts, and not by you). Attribution and disclaimers also provide credit where credit is due, which is the proper way to go about acknowledging work that isn’t yours.
  • Comply with all requests and don’t get defensive about it. Again, if you didn’t get permission to take it, you stole it. The original owner has the right to send a cease-and-desist or DCMA takedown notice, and you must comply with their request. If they choose to take legal action against you, they are in their right to do so. I personally never hear of litigation happening unless the infringement harms the original owner’s livelihood in some way (hurting their business, theft of profits, etc.), so usually, it’s a request for deletion and nothing beyond that (in other words, don’t panic!).
  • If you want to make money off of fanworks, check out places like Kindle Worlds, which has several franchises available for fanfic writers to legally publish their works for profit. [Update: Kindle Worlds was completely shuttered 8/29/2018.]  You can also check out works in the public domain, or search Creative Commons for licenses that allow derivative works for commercial purposes.

I hope you found this article helpful, and if you have any questions about Copyright and Fair Use, don’t be afraid to consult the US Copyright Office website, which explains both in detail. The Stanford Law Libraries site for Copyright and Fair Use is another excellent source for more information.

[Update: The information in this post was accurate and up-to-date when it was created in 2015, and a lot of it still applies. Nonetheless, it’s up to you as creators to do your research and keep abreast of the changes in the laws. You can reference the links to the US Copyright office and Stanford Law Library for more details.]

The Road Not Taken: Diversity in Your Writing

Shu_griffin

When Symantha asked our SHU writing community about adding diversity to her manuscript, I immediately thought, 1) Wow! This is someone who is being proactive and adding diverse characters to her work, and 2) How thoughtful of her to ask the writing community for advice during the process.

Believe it or not, as a writer of color myself, I would’ve done the same thing. Why? Because the default characters in my own manuscript are either black, mixed race or ethnic, but even writing from the POV of other ethnicities, I find that I still need to do some basic research.

My current WIP is an alternate Earth sci-fi/fantasy, but the characters are all based on real life cultures and religions that I don’t possess an intimate knowledge of. For example, one of my characters is Middle Eastern in appearance (dark hair and olive skin) and has some beliefs that are similar to Islam.

Now, I have friends who are Muslim, but I do not pretend to have some kind of great knowledge of the religion or customs associated with Middle Eastern cultures. Even within the Middle East, there are vast differences in language, further division within the religion of Islam, and different cultural practices, so how would I represent this character well in my fantasy world?

There are many stereotypes associated with Middle Eastern peoples, but what allowed me to steer clear of those was checking myself for what types of stereotypes about black people made me cringe. Yes, that list was long and while it didn’t match up perfectly with the stereotypes for Middle Easterners, I had something to work with.

How might I do that research, you say? Why, thank you for asking.  I’ve got a powerpoint presentation and a whole entire lesson plan to help you do that, but in the interest of helping out the Googlers of the world, I’ll share a couple of resources you can find online. For additional questions, please email me.

  • I highly recommend picking up a copy of Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s Writing the Other: A Practical Approach . This little booklet of truth is written by two workshop leaders (one black and one white) who wanted to help people write the “other.” The book goes beyond just race, but explores writing quality characters that have diverse backgrounds and are often marginalized in society like people with disabilities, people who have different sexual preferences, age, etc. There are several exercises to help you along the way too.
  • I recently stumbled upon this BuzzFeed article (yes, I went there for our millennial readers) that lists the fundamentals of writing the “other” by Latino writer of color, Daniel Jose Older. If anything, this list should empower you to write from the “other” perspective, not discourage you.

It’s easy to write what you know, but it’s more rewarding to challenge yourself to go beyond your comfort zone and write from the perspective of someone who is unknown to you. Explore those possibilities. Maybe you’re a super religious cat lady (stereotype alert!) who wants to write from the perspective of an inner city youth. Sure it might be challenging as hell, but imagine the victory lap you’ll run when and if you finally get it right (after you test it with some trusted readers, of course).

When I hear about writers like Symantha who are concerned about how she portrays a diverse character or whether she is overthinking it, I want to reach out and give her a virtual hug and tell her that any step towards diversity is a step in the right direction. No, don’t do it because it’s a trend and you think it might sell. No, don’t do it because you think it’s the right thing to do. Do it because you feel it in your gut that diversity is needed to add layers to your world, to give your soul a good thrashing, and most importantly, to expand your skills as a writer.

I’ll close by saying that diversity in your writing is and always will be a good investment in your writing career and in the development of your craft. There is no better way to be a better writer than exploration, discovery, and challenge. I’ll leave those leaning toward staying on the well-worn path with the last stanza of Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” for inspiration and encouragement to always strive to master the craft of writing.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Fixing the Fault in the Default

Shu_griffin

In case you haven’t been paying attention over the past year, let me fill you in. There has been a rising awareness of the need for better representation of diversity in books. Just check out the WeNeedDiverseBooks site  or the Tumblr and you’ll see what I mean.

This topic has been on my mind a lot lately. I spent the month of April participating in CampNanowrimo and gave myself the goal of revising my thesis manuscript.

Unlike in the real world, race doesn’t matter in my fantasy world. In my world, people only care about what caste you belong to and race has absolutely zero role in this. My two main characters belong to the middle caste and have always had physical traits that closely resembled that of Hispanics or Native Americans.

I thought I had done a good job making a diverse book.

Then I started revising and took notice of a side character. My revision came to a hard stop as I struggled with how to handle this character. This character (the best friend of my MC) is a crucial person in the plot and a badass swordsmith who can tap into magic…and I realized that when I wrote her the first time my brain defaulted her to a blond, blue-eyed, white girl. (For the record, I am not blond nor blue-eyed though I have been told that I “pass for white.” Whatever the heck that means.)

I decided to go with the idea of creating more diversity and make her look more African or Australian Aboriginal. After all, why should white be the default since skin color doesn’t matter in my world…but the caste system does, and this best friend character is a lower caste… uh oh.

Now, I was stuck on whether I should change her after all… because I just knew someone in the real world would be offended that I made the dark skinned girl and her family an inferior rank.

At this point, I did what any good writer would do. I reached out to my network of fellow writers explained my situation and asked the following three things:

1) Am I over-thinking?
2) Can the issue of how to correctly add diverse characters really be over-thought?
3) Should I leave the friend default white/blond or make her diverse?

I got the standard “reassurance” that this is my book and that no matter what I do or write someone somewhere is going to be offended.

Some people mentioned feeling the same concerns about offending people in their writings. Others supported the idea that diversity in books is always fantastic and it’s even our moral responsibility as writers to do our part to make diversity happen.

I had one suggestion to keep the character white, “othering” the white character for once.

One person approved of making the character have aboriginal physical traits… then warned to not do the Magical Negro trope.

I’d never even heard of this!

I now worried that not only would people accuse me of writing a “Black Slave” character, but they would also be offended because I wrote a “Magical Negro.” After this, I was left wondering if it was too late to go for a math degree instead of my MFA.

I was just about ready to scrap the whole manuscript.

Then I got three specific bits of advice that helped me.

Rhonda Jackson Joseph eased my worry that I was over-thinking the issue by reminding me that it’s important to have “the consciousness that says some folks should be different to give your story depth. That awareness is more than half the battle.”

Valerie Burns eased my fear about the “Magical Negro” trope, stating she “would not be offended if the [magical] swordsmith is a person of color as long as she is a badass and interesting.”

Then Danielle Hinesly suggested I watch a TEDtalk titled “The Boundaries We Choose.

If you haven’t seen this talk, you must watch it.

Suddenly, I knew what to do.

Race doesn’t matter to my characters.

I have both “white” and “diverse” characters in all the varying ranks. It doesn’t matter in the world I created.

But the need for diversity does matter in our world.

In the end, I revised my character and I feel good that I’ve made both my fantasy world and my real world a little more diverse.

I want to wrap up this post by sharing a poem I read back in high school.

Tableau by Countee Cullen

Locked arm in arm they cross the way
The black boy and the white,
The golden splendor of the day
The sable pride of night.

From lowered blinds the dark folk stare
And here the fair folk talk,
Indignant that these two should dare
In unison to walk.

Oblivious to look and word
They pass, and see no wonder
That lightning brilliant as a sword
Should blaze the path of thunder.

It is my most sincere hope that someday people will look upon diverse books and characters and “see no wonder.”

 

Anticipating the 2015 In Your Write Mind Conference

Time is drawing near. It’s time for writers of different genres to congregate at an amazing Catholic University, a dreamscape structure, situated on a hill in Greensburg Pennsylvania. This sort of thing doesn’t happen. Conferences are genre specific. Horror people get together to discuss how to scare their readers to death. Romance writers are drawn to a huge convention and I wonder if they ponder the merits of erotic and sweet.  I’m sure when science fiction writers assemble they transform their surroundings to a realm of marvel and inventiveness. Fantasy stretches reality to undiscovered dimensions hidden in the cosmos. Is there a place for the genre that chose me? Adventure sprinkled with romantic elements.

What is applicable to In Your Write Mind is not genre. It doesn’t matter if you are published and about to hit the big time, or if you are struggling to get noticed. It’s not important what your sales are; well at least for this conference. What is important is that you write, you are a writer and you identify with that tribe. You can come here and be at home, accepted, and you won’t be demoralized because your writer’s heart is filled with insecurities.

I normally arrive on campus early the first day. Others don’t usually show up until around noon. I like to get there and wander the halls, find a place to sit with what I am currently reading, and be alone to absorb the ambiance of the school. Old and haunted, it is a living, breathing organism that tells me I’m where I belong. I daydream, like any writer, and think about what it would be like if I could spend more time on campus, maybe teach. I allow my imagination to spin off in all directions. It’s story time and I think about taking notes. I should take notes, but I don’t worry about such things. I don’t want to lose the moment. I go back to reading, but I find I’m too excited to concentrate. Stories and characters float in my head. Like turbulent clouds they change shape, radiate youthful ideas, and create fresh memories. I should be cautious, guard my visions, like a schoolboy in class, but it’s not going to happen. I take out my notebook and scribble. I have a character, a story, perhaps an answer to a peculiar dilemma. It doesn’t matter. I smile to myself and take another walk. People will show up soon. If the weather is nice I will go out and sit on one of the benches or swings. More notes, more reading.

People are showing up now and they stop to talk. We catch up. Chat about things important to writers. What are you writing? Have you published? I saw your note on Facebook. Congratulations on your short story, your award, finishing that first draft. Yes, my thesis is published. I am happy, but I wish sales were better. Don’t be troubled. We will talk about that blog, that virtual tour, that review you loved.

This is why I came here, the friendships, the discussions outside of the classroom, the time with people who have my dreams, aspirations, and interests. I escape my day job, uninteresting careers, and office politics. The normality of life is good fodder, but not what I seek. I am part of this group. I am not the introverted outsider. I am not the pitiful daydreamer. I am another writer and we are working to help each other to succeed. I am home.

This is what this conference is all about. If you are not alum of the Writing Popular Fiction program it’s okay. You are welcomed here. You are part of the tribe. Yes, you are introverted and find it difficult to mingle. That’s okay because you’ll find most of us are the same. We suffer from the same maladies, but in this world the malady is essential. It provides the capacity to sit in isolation for hours and live through our characters. It’s what makes us whole and our lives worth living. We accept fellow travelers. You will fit in here. Just say hello, someone will ask what you write, ask about your current project. How did you hear about In Your Write Mind? We’re glad you’re here.

I am looking forward to Seton Hill. I know it will end before it begins. I know I will not recover for weeks. I will dream about the campus. I will reach out for inspiration. I will take new experiences and in some way I will grow from them. My writing will improve and I will find the label of writer an honor and a privilege.

A tale of a fateful blog post

Just sit right back, and you’ll hear a tale. A tale of a fateful blog post.

The online romance community is abuzz with news that Ellora’s Cave, purveyor of erotica, Romantica®, and…somehow…tawdry baubles, is suing Dear Author and Jane Litte for libel. News of the lawsuit might not have generated quite as much furor were it not for the online antics of Ellora’s Cave owner Jaid Black, and every new twist has only turned what could have been merely an alarming attempt to silence criticism into an expensive trainwreck, trolling, threats, and an amazing show of solidarity from romance lovers ’round the Web.

The conflict began when, according to some authors, Ellora’s Cave (sued in 2008 by former Ellora’s Cave COO and founder of Samhain Books Christine Brashear for non-payment on shares still owned by Brashear) suddenly began paying royalties late or not at all. Cover artists claim they had been let go and were not paid for art the publisher continued to use on new releases. Amid the crazy in September, the managing editor and the current COO both resigned from Ellora’s Cave.

Jane Litte, attorney by day and long-time romance lover and blogger by whenever she manages spare time what with her day job being lawyering, often reports on industry news at her Dear Author blog. When numerous anonymous sources alleged they had experienced late royalties, missing royalties, and breaches of contract regarding “out of print” designations and reversion of rights, she gathered the information and posted to the Dear Author blog. Several anonymous users left comments claiming similar experiences.

The allegations from authors included screencaps from Jaid’s social media accounts, where she boasted of spending sprees on Rodeo Drive…and meanwhile, say the anonymous (and some not so anonymous) authors, her company claims Amazon sales are shrinking at an alarming rate. Worse, an email sent to authors from Jaid claim EC has no idea why the sales are suffering. Also in this email, Ellora’s Cave announced they had laid-off all freelance editors, including new hires that had been brought in the week before the decision. EC’s editorial is now operating with only three content editors.

When Dear Author posted about EC authors’ claims, Jaid Black strapped on her wackypants and decided to sue, claiming defamation and demanding the names of the anonymous commenters on the post. Because she filed in the state of Ohio, which has no SLAPP statute to prevent frivolous lawsuits, Litte has no choice but to engage in the lawsuit. She set aside $20,000 of her own money to fight, but the romance community came together to ensure she wouldn’t need more. Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches Who Read Trashy Books began a GoFundMe campaign, and within four days—four days, people—the Dear Author Legal Defense Fund had over $50,000. The campaign is still open, and any money Jane doesn’t spend on the lawyering and the court costs will go to another defense fund.

A not-at-all-sockpuppet Twitter account popped up. Pub Net @pubnt claim to be “scouts” interested in publisher protection. To ensure we are all aware they are in no way a sockpuppet account, they declare they are not affiliated with Ellora’s Cave in their Twitter bio. So now we know – they’re not affiliated with EC at all and clearly not sockpuppets. Got it? Good.

Of course, @pubnt immediately went about protecting publishers everywhere by tweeting to individual New York romance publishers the names of authors who contributed to the Dear Author Legal Defense Fund.

 

Let that one soak in for a sec. Got it? Good.

 

The entire experience has prompted the creation of a new hashtag (I know, grab your smellin’ salts) — #notchilled, referring to authors and bloggers who refuse to be intimidated by an attempt to silence criticism. Even @pubnt enjoys using it. All the time. See above.

Authors are voicing support all over the webs, and some are publicly detailing their experiences with late and unexpectedly low royalties. The truth is coming though, as discovery will reveal the financial details and authors will offer testimony and emails to back their claims. In the meantime, pop some popcorn and sit back with your computer. This is bound to get crazier.

Side note: Several authors have come forward to state they have had no bad experiences and were completely unaware of issues with Ellora’s Cave. Many authors are also begging the critics to stop talking and making things worse for everyone else.