I’ve known many people from different backgrounds, ethnic groups, skin color, languages, etc., but I’m not them. I can observe what it’s like for them from the outside, but will not have an accurate view of the inside. Since I’m of the dominate culture, I don’t KNOW what it’s like for them as non-dominate, and therefore, should not write from their viewpoint.
This is a concept that wasn’t even considered until recently. I know I hadn’t. When I was a child, we played “cowboys and Indians”—even my own children dressed up as both over twenty years ago. From my childhood, I remember the story of Little Black Sambo (and the restaurant) along with classics such as The Jungle Book. I was raised to believe prejudice was wrong, but was blind to see how people were still having their lives stolen in literature and TV and movies. That has changed for me. Here’s a great article on the topic: “Don’t dip your pen in someone else’s blood: writers and ‘the other’” by Kit de Waal.
A TV show I’ve been watching recently has shown me “the great white savior” concept is still alive and kicking. Even though I like the characters, I keep waiting for the nonwhites to solve the problem, not the white guy. Hasn’t happened. Sigh.
Conversations about this at conferences, in online groups, etc. have made me rethink. I have some stories I wrote 20-25 years ago that will remain in the drawer. I have some stories written as recently as a few years ago that need altering before I can sell them.
Does that mean I can’t have multicultural characters in my stories? Of course not. However, my main characters will be white like me. And I’ll want sensitivity readers for my nonwhite characters.
What are your thoughts?
I was given a wooden sign that states, “Don’t judge a book by its movie.” I love it because most often movies don’t do justice to books. But recently I started watching a TV series that is better than the book series. I won’t name titles or author; however, I think the issues I discovered are good for writers to ponder.
First, the books. They are by an author I like. I probably have 15 of her books. I’ve reread the books a number of times. But, this one series, I didn’t like as well as the others, although I didn’t know why. I haven’t reread them in at least twenty years, and meanwhile, have learned a lot about writing.
Second, the TV series based on the book series. I started watching with only vague memories of the books. There were lots of interesting characters, beautiful setting, and most importantly, I cared about the main characters. The shows aren’t perfect, but I enjoyed them so much I binge watched. In fact, I reached the end that was available on Netflix.
I wanted more, so I decided to reread the books. They are short and therefore quick reads. I’ve only reread the first book, but was disappointed. The love story, perhaps the main point of the story, was too easy and too quick. She’s interested in him, but he’s not the marrying type. She can’t forget him. They are put in circumstances to see each other a few times and enjoy each other’s company. We barely see him doing anything—like his job. Then she is in danger and he helps her. He also kisses her. Next, the man lies by saying he has no feelings for her and so she plans to leave the area. He stops her and confesses his lie, tells her he does love her, and asks her to marry him. She says yes. Story over.
By contrast, in the TV series, we have the same “she’s interested in him, but he’s not the marrying type,” and she’s annoyed, but not a woman waiting for a man. In fact, she’s dedicated to her work and that’s more important to her. Yes, circumstances push them to deal with each other. They enjoy each other at some level. We see him doing his job. They actually work together for the good of the community. They have some arguments. When they eventually decide mutually that they are interested in each other, they agree to take it slow. We see them learning more about each other. They actually go on some dates. They have troubles and disagreements which they work out. He doesn’t ask her to marry him until sometime in the fourth season.
So, what do I think is the difference between the two? What makes the TV series stronger?
The TV series takes a much deeper look at the main characters. And secondary characters are there for more than the convenience of the main characters. They have lives and problems of their own and we see that.
In the show he helps her out, but less of a rescue “the damsel in distress” situation as in the book. Sometimes she helps him, too. She also accomplishes amazing things on her own. So does he. Both are strong in their own ways. Both take action.
Sense of Reality
The characters, circumstances, and problems feel more real and believable in the show versus the book. Their relationship is not too easy in the former. And it took time, like for most of us in real life.
The TV series has more humor. The two main characters get themselves in trouble by saying and doing awkward things. Especially with each other. And sometimes can’t figure out what he or she did wrong.
Will I reread the rest of the book series? No. Will I watch more of the series when it becomes available? Yes.
So, in our fiction writing, we need character depth, agency, a sense of reality, and a dash of humor for books readers will want to read again and again.
I often tell my students to “show, don’t tell”—and for good reason. Showing is how we can make scenes come alive. Telling is talking about something. Showing is putting the reader on scene. Joyce Rachelle says, “It's always easier to tell people that a character is funny rather than attempt to hit the punchline of a joke that character would've said.”
Let me give some examples of telling and showing:
My dog growled when the man approached the car, so I rolled up my window.
My American Eskimo balanced his front paws against the panel below the passenger door window. His back paws danced on my lap.
I laughed. “Quinn, your feet are hard on my legs.”
He wagged his tail at my words. His black nose quivered at the scents the breeze carried through the open window. A woman and two kids hurried past our parked car and Quinn wagged again. Same with a couple men going by on the sidewalk.
I glanced toward the store my husband had gone into.
Quinn stilled, and growled.
A man walked up to our window. “Hey, could you spare a couple bucks?”
Quinn growled again. Shaking my head, I rolled up my window.
So, what’s different between the two? The first is a summary. The second has sensory details, dialogue, and action. There are specifics. You know the kind of dog and that he is friendly. You know we were waiting in a parking lot with at least one store. You know I’m married and my husband is inside a store. You know why the man approached me. And look at the active verbs not used in the telling: balanced, danced, wagged, quivered, carried, hurried, glanced, stilled, walked.
Here’s another example.
We lost the cat in the hotel room, but finally found him.
After we showered and dressed, I put our black cat Salem in one carrier, while my husband looked for our white cat. In the previous hotel Toes had hidden under an easy chair.
“I don’t see him.” Don let the room-darkening drapes fall back against the window.
I lifted up the blanket and duvet on my side of the bed. “He’s not over here.”
“And he’s not behind the dresser, the TV, or in the bathroom.”
I frowned. “How could we have lost a cat in a hotel room?”
Don’s eyebrows drew together. “I have no idea.”
“Kitty, kitty, kitty,” I called.
Salem in his carrier meowed. But nothing from Toes.
Come on, I thought. We need to get on the road. “Could he be under the bed?” I asked.
Don shook his head. “No, it’s a solid platform. Maybe he got down behind it.” He pulled the mattress away from the wall. “Nope. No space.” Then he saw the small opening in the fabric of the platform. “Hand me my flashlight.”
I pulled the flashlight out of the outside pocket of our suitcase and gave it to him.
After shining light inside the platform box, Don said, “I can see him. Back in the far corner.”
“How on earth are we going to get him out?!”
Note in this example there’s some summary written at the beginning: “we showered and dressed.” Those are everyday things where the details aren’t important or necessary to this story and is “telling.” The cat being lost and how we found him is “shown.” It includes some thoughts. And hopefully it left you wondering, how did we get Toes out? The answer: Don picked up the platform and shook the cat down to the opening where I grabbed him! For fiction, I would raise the stakes by making it urgent we got the cat out.
Jerry Jenkins says, “When you tell rather than show, you simply inform your reader of information rather than allowing him to deduce anything.” What can a reader deduce from my second example? That I’m puzzled, and a bit frustrated. I didn’t need to say, “How on earth are we going to get him out?!” I asked with frustration. “With frustration” would be telling on top of showing. A reader can deduce my frustration about the lost cat. What about the first example? How did I feel about the man who approached my window? Wary, distrustful. I showed that by rolling up my window. I didn’t state it, but felt if my little dog didn’t like him, there was something wrong and so I moved to protect myself.
R. Michael Burns says, “Provoke emotion through character reactions and vivid writing.” I still remember reading a scene from a book by Mary Stewart when I was a teen. The author’s description of a character’s meal that satisfied the character made me, the reader, hungry for that filet mignon. (Just like the juice from the steak in the above image makes my mouth water!)
I like this definition of telling: “it's a little more removed from the immediate experience of the moment.” – Emma Darwin
Use telling for summaries. E.g. The set up: Jay is a main character who was in a car accident. The reader experienced the accident with Jay. Now the man is home. He might open the conversation like this: “I’m afraid my pickup is totaled.” Jay told his wife what had happened. “Hearing” the details of the accident again would be boring for the reader. Some new aspects may be revealed in dialogue and reactions, and those are worth sharing. E.g. “I knew you shouldn’t have driven tonight.” LeAnne sighed.
Use telling for transitions. E.g. Four hours later, we stopped for lunch. OR He drove all day. A reader doesn’t need a blow by blow of driving on a freeway, hour after hour, where not much happens. Telling often has a time composite. Both of these examples do. It can be longer—days, weeks, months. Use telling in those places everyone wants to skip.
I’ll end with this quote about showing: “Create a world in front of your readers where they can taste, smell, touch, hear, see, and move. Or else they are likely going to move on to another book.” ― Pawan Mishra
My husband read a recipe aloud because he found the above words in the ingredients list. It made us laugh. We assumed it should say “crushed Cajun nuts”—so crushed spicy nuts. But if it hadn’t been a recipe, would it really be funny? Recently I’ve become aware by several Facebook groups how some of the terms we use jokingly can be offensive to others. They include “nuts,” “crazy,” “psycho,” etc.
Robert Spencer said, “’Crazy’ has been a word to portray those who suffer with mental illness as dangerous, weak, unpredictable, unproductive and incapable of rational behavior or relationships.” In his article, “Don’t Call Me Crazy,” he talked about how the definition should be changed. Read more here. And this article, “6 Reasons ‘Crazy’ Is Never A Thing You Should Call Someone – Regardless of Their Behavior” goes into more details why the word shouldn’t be used so casually.
Unfortunately, I found 12 instances of the word “crazy” in my novel published in 2016. Only one didn’t refer to what people were feeling, saying, thinking, or doing. Wow!
Language is always changing, and it is easy to resist change. But I think as writers we have a responsibility to consider making changes in what we write even when it is fiction. Even when it’s dialogue or thoughts of our characters.
Obviously, I doubt any writer is going to know all terms that are offensive to others, but if we don’t have open discussions, we won’t learn them. If you’d like to discuss this or other terms, feel free to do so in comments and I’ll reply.
Comparison can be great when looking to purchase a product, but how does it affect the creative life?
I read this on an independent comic creator’s blog: “Comparison can kill your spirit. The success of others does not equal your failure. When you’re making art that makes you happy, only you can declare your success or failure.” It’s the conclusion Michael Terracciano has reached, and oh, do I love that middle sentence.
Why is it so easy to compare? I wish I knew. We do it all the time in so many areas of our life—especially those where we’re unhappy or not completely satisfied.
But how does comparison help us? There’s always someone “better” or “worse,” so we may feel either depressed or good about ourselves. Neither position changes our work or our worth. Wait. Depression can change our work by us giving up and that’s not good for our sense of self-worth. Christy O'Shoney said, “Comparison is a terrible measuring stick.”
Fanny Flagg said, “Being a successful person is not necessarily defined by what you have achieved, but by what you have overcome.” Or the progress you’ve made.
Comparison of our previous work with our current work may be encouraging. I know I’ve looked back at older writing and thought, wow, I’ve learned a lot since then. Or, that needs editing, when before I thought it was “perfect.” As long as we don’t harp on “failures” of our past, but use them as touchstones to see how we are progressing, self-comparison can be helpful. David Schlosser agreed, “The only writer to whom you should compare yourself is the writer you were yesterday.”
William Blake said, “I will not reason and compare; my business is to create.” Maya Angelou said, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” I see this so much in my writing life—the more I write, the more I want to write. And the more I compare, the less I want to write, so yes, I’d say comparison is the enemy of creation.
If you’re not familiar with the Manuscript Wish List website or the Twitter hashtag #MSWL, and you are submitting manuscripts to editors or looking for agents, now might be the time to check into one or both of these.
First, some basics:
The website http://manuscriptwishlist.com is a searchable site to discover what agents and editors are looking for. It also tells you a bit about the person, and provides submission information, or a link to submission information. New agents and editors are featured.
The hashtag on Twitter is a chance for editors and agents to tweet specifically what they are looking for. You may favorite or retweet these, but DO NOT use the hashtag yourself to pitch. The next #MSWL Day Is Wednesday, September 12th. On that day you can search for the hashtag #MSWL and watch what these professionals are posting. It doesn’t mean they aren’t posted on other days—this will just be a special focus day. Oh, and because posting with this hashtag is so easy, it may be more up-to-date than the site.
The easiest way to explain both of these is to show not tell. J
The website. I used their search box and entered “inspirational romance.” Eight names popped up. Let’s look at a few. First up is an agent, followed by an editor.
Elizabeth Poteet, The Seymour Agency. Her submission guidelines say: “We are looking for all sub-genres of romance, 25k-100k words. All books should end in a happily ever after or a happily for now (if the characters are continuing in a series.) For heat level and other helpful information please see the individual category guidelines at smpswerve.com.” There’s also a section on recent acquisitions.
Shana Asaro, Harlequin/Love Inspired. She says, “I am actively seeking category-length inspirational (Christian) romance for Harlequin's Love Inspired (contemporary romance) and Love Inspired Suspense (romantic suspense) series lines.” There are lists of what she’d like to see in submissions and what she’d not like to see. She also has some recent books acquired and edited by her, plus fun facts, and, of course, submission guidelines.
Just as information shared varies on these two pages, no two entries will be exactly alike. Pages usually include a picture. If you know a professional’s name, you can use the search box to see if she participates. Of course, do research on anyone you are interested in submitting to.
The hashtag. A recent search of the #MSWL gave me several interesting posts. First, from a few agents:
Lynnette Novak @Lynnette_Novak Sep 4
I’d love to see more adult fantasy and cozy mysteries in my box. Send ‘em over! Paste query and 1st 5 pages in body of email. Querylynnette (at) theseymouragency (dot) com. #MSWL
Naomi Davis @NaomisLitPix Aug 28
#MSWL - REALLY looking for diverse adult fantasy! Show me worlds inspired by cultures I have not yet explored through fantasy, show me main characters w/ unorthodox fantasy roles who may usually be considered "side" roles, show me older protags & established relationships!
And here’s one from a publisher:
Bienvenue Press @BienvenuePress 19 hours ago
Bienvenue Press is currently looking for #submissions for its Hometown Heroes Christmas anthology. Click the link for details. #amquerying #amwriting #books #MSWL https://bit.ly/2JbbIm1
You can see by these three examples that the specificity varies. Always do research on any editor, agent, or publisher. People have scammed #MSWL.
If you have other questions, feel free to ask them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.