Upon Which I Shall Compose My Fourth Novel

Slowing It Down

My mentor, Ron Carlson, once told me that there are two types of writers—gushers and ekers.  The gushers are the ones who write really quickly, producing a lot of words, but also producing a lot of crap writing.  On the other side are the ekers—they agonize over each word.  It takes forever, but they don’t write a lot of useless drafts.  If you can’t tell from my personality, I am a gusher.  On a good writing day I can maybe write five or six pages in about two hours.  (Compare this to my good friend MJ who writes a paragraph in a day!)  My gushing sometimes feels like automatic writing. I am going so fast that I don’t know what the heck I am writing sometimes.  Then, the next day, I read through what I have written and see if there is anything usable in there.  (Sometimes there is; sometimes there’s not.) 

I wrote Leaving Atlanta and  Silver Sparrow pretty much  by hand.  This is because I feel the computer helps me write even faster.  In addition, in a fit of pique, I can hit two keys and delete a day’s work.  With handwriting, I may often get frustrated and then I just turn over a new page in my notebook.  The next day when I calm down, I read it over and something I find something there that I like.

I am thinking to write my fourth novel on a manual typewriter.  A pink Smith Corona from the 1950s to be exact.  The idea is to sort of shock my system and make me more mindful of what I am doing on a word-by-word level.  The typewriter is a little rusty so I have to take it to be refurbished, but I am getting ready to clickety-clack my way through.

(And the typewriter is not connected to the internet.  The twitter is my weakness.)

Writers, I recommend that you try to break yourself out of your ordinary routine if you feel like you need a jump start.  Try writing with a new tool, a new location, or even just switch up the time of day that you are writing.  I think of it like exercise.  You can reach a plateau with your current routine and need to vary your workout and work some different muscles.  Try it and let me know how it works.

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Coping With Rejection: Keep Writing Anyway.

Edan Lepuki has a great post up over at The Millions about a book she wrote that she hasn’t been able to publish. If you are in this situation, I definitely recommend that you read the article. Here is the line I like best: “Lastly, these months of rejection have taught me the difference between being tenacious and being stubborn — and being stubborn and being desperate..” In short you have to learn when to let go.

I would like to add just a little extra piece of advice about coping with rejection.

Just to establish my rejection bonafides: My first book Leaving Atlanta was rejected by 26 publishers. My new novel, Silver Sparrow, received about a dozen “passes”. And in my desk drawer is a healtfelt, but unpublished and unpublishable novel called Evangeline. So despite what is happening to me right now, I know what I’m talking about when I talk about rejection and disappointment.

The best way to cope with rejection is to write something else. Afterall, you would have to do that anyway. If your book is snapped up by your dream publisher and you sell foreign rights all over the world, what would you have to do next? Write the next book. No matter what happens, the next step is the next book.

So go do that.

And maybe one of those books in the drawer will be something you will be able to publish later. As for me, I am so happy that Evangeline is safely tucked in a drawer, although I worked so hard on it when I wrote it. But maybe you novel that isn’t connecting with publishers today, will connect with them later. You’ll still have it. And you still have to write something new.

Good luck.

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“Every person is legitimate”, Silver Sparrow on NPR

I am delighted to post the link to my recent NPR interview. It was such a pleasure to sit down with Michele Norris, who is just as amazing in person as she is on the air. We talked about bigamy, Girls Write Now, Toni Morrison, “invisible” girls, Spelman College, magic wands, Johnetta Cole, writing, mentoring, and SILVER SPARROW.

Click and listen.

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Everything I Wanted To Know About Myself, But Was Afraid to Ask

Over at The Nervous Breakdown, I interview myself. Yes, you read that right.  Me, talking to me, about me.

ME: How much of this is autobiography? Is your father really a bigamist?

ME2: The dedication to my book is: “To my parents, who, to the best of my knowledge, are married only to each other.”  It’s funny—when it comes to memoir, we want to catch the author in a lie.  For fiction, we want to catch the author telling the truth.

more here

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Southern, But No Belle

Recently,Vanity Fair published a photograph of the literary women of Atlanta.  The women are posed in front of the Swan House which is not a plantation house, it just vibes like one.  This is one of Atlanta’s hallmarks, these not-plantations.  Since Atlanta was burned in the Civil War, there are no ante-bellum structures to romanticize, so the good citizens of my hometown make do with lavish Victorians.  My favorite example is the Margaret Mitchell House.  It was built in the 1900s, long after Rhett Butler said he didn’t give a damn, but it feels like Tara and that’s all that matters.  When we agree to accept an illusion, it takes on a kind of truth and this is why the photo spread is so disturbing.

Atlanta is one of America’s “Chocolate Cities.”  Along with Washington, DC and Detroit the city was famous for its critical mass of black folks doing anything you can imagine— I grew up believing that any range of human experience could be enjoyed by a black person.  My parents never had to wring their hands over whether I saw teachers who “looked like me.”  Growing up in Southwest Atlanta, I had no idea that black Americans were a numeric minority.  And even when I was old enough to know this, I never believed it in my soul.  It’s like when you are told that your body is 75% water.  You believe it, but you don’t believe it, since you know yourself to be solid flesh.

Of course, I was glad to see Natasha Trethewey included in the photo—as a Pulitzer Prize winner, if she is not a literary celebrity of Atlanta, then who is? But everything else about the spread stuck in my craw.  In the photo, you see half a dozen white ladies—and I use this term deliberately. The way they are posed does not evoke “women”.  I see “ladies”.  And there is Natasha tucked in there, the one woman of color. (Is “ladies of color” even a term?) 

The title of the piece is “Belles, Books, and Candor”.  I never call myself a southern belle, though many people here in New Jersey try and put that label on me.  It’s not that I deny my southerness, but “belle”, for me evokes images of slavery and hierarchy.  I know black women who have reappropriated the term, but I would rather not be wrapped in that filthy blanket.  I do sometimes call myself a Georgia Peach, which is what girls at my high school called ourselves.  Once, a man called me “Georgia” when he was feeling affectionate and it’s one of the reasons I fell for him, because knowing where I am from is key to knowing who I am.  I am not from the world of this photo.

I would love to ask Kathryn Stockett, author of the blockbuster THE HELP how she feels about the problematic optics of this photo.  Fans of her work say that she is an advocate for the black women who worked as maids in Mississippi.  I’ve been told that she is a fierce critic of white privilege. How does she feel to be touted as leader of “Atlanta’s literary sorority” which does not include any black fiction writers.  Did she say to the photographer, “Wait! Where’s Pearl Cleage?”

Today marks Confederate Memorial day in the state of Georgia. This “holiday” is characterized by a nostalgia for a fictional past in which the (white) men are all gentlemen, the (white) women belles, and the fallen Conferderates heroes, all. I shudder to think about how the rest of us fit into this fantasy. So, on this day, I look at this photo and see an opportunity lost. What a powerful rhetorical statement would be made if standing before the Swan House were a group of writers representing the real Atlanta. Imagine even that the net were widened to include women writers from other southern cities. I would love to see Shay Youngblood, Olympia Vernon, Lorraine Lopez, Dolen Perkins Valdez and Alice Randall featured in the pages of Vanity Fair. The south has never been mono-racial, and as the demographics of the country have shifted, the face of southern writing is becoming increasingly diverse– and increasingly rich.

I am aware that many white southern writers feel pigeonholed by the term “southern.” They complain that their publishers will send them to Square Books in Mississippi, but will never send them to City Lights in California.  They feel that the “southern” label keeps them from being seen as American writers.  Black southerners can feel their pain, because we, too, know what it’s like to be excluded from the American canon.  But we know another pain, which may cut deeper: we know how it feels to have our roots dug up, to be told we don’t exist.

Posted in Current Events, Uncategorized, Writing | 17 Comments

The Girl With The Silver Sparrow Tattoo

Sparrow Tattoo

Originally uploaded by Bob 111

and other madness

I get a lot of email, tweets, etc. from young writers, many of them African American, who want to know how to get published. A few weeks ago, a really interesting young woman told me that she has been advised to self-publish her novel in order to get a following and only then would she be able to find an agent. I asked her if the person who had given her that advice had even seen her work. She said he hadn’t, but that because she was a black writer and wasn’t writing “street lit”, self publishing was the only way to see her work in print. (I called her right away and told her that she had just as much right to traditional publishing as anyone else. If I could do it, she could do it.)

Then, today, a twitter pal, sent me a link to her own blog. Here is a paragraph, to give you the feel for the piece:

Last month, while attending the Writer’s Digest Writer’s Conference, I spoke to a fellow black writer about the novel she planned to pitch. She flat out said, “ It’s a hood novel”. I wanted to say “I’ve never seen that section in Borders” but I thought against it. Turns out, she openly admitted that she’s tried to pitch other novels before, but most agents wanted an author with previous experience. So in order to gain that experience, she decided to write a hood tale, create some buzz, build a following, and then publish a book she’s actually passionate about. It occurred to me that I was talking to a genius.

Both these young writers’ stories have been bothering me.

Simply put, it seems to me that only black writers are put in these situations and given such extreme advice. I talk to a lot of young writers, and the black ones are told to self-publish. As for the “hood novel” issue. I don’t even know where to start.

Here are some quick bullet points:

  • How exactly would building a reputation in one type of writing open the door for you to then suddenly publish something else? Are there meaningful precedents that give you the idea that this is an effective strategy?
  • Ask yourself why you write. Is it because you have something in particular you have to say or just because you want to be published?
  • Do you really think there is an audience for books written by people who don’t care about what they write? Even using the term “hood novel” suggests a lack of respect for the readers or the literature itself. Readers can tell and they will not respond well. I happen to know one of the authors of one of the books pictured in the graphic and I can tell you that she cares deeply about her characters and the world she writes about. Readers give her the love right back.
  • Did someone tell you this was supposed to be easy? My first novel was rejected by 22 publishers. And my forthcoming title was also rejected all over town. It’s like that. I didn’t decide to write The Girl With The Silver Sparrow Tattoo because I heard that was hot. (And if you are going to try to write for cash, think big. Why compromise yourself for chump change?)

    Okay. I am getting off my soapbox now. I think I need a new category on my blog… “tough love.”

    Keep writing, people. Write to your passion. Write what needs to be written. Write what you think needs to be read. All this cynical stuff.. well, to quote a character from my novel, The Untelling– That is NOT what Dr. King died for.

  • Posted in Writing | 10 Comments

    A Fiction Lesson in Poetry Drama

    I saw some tweet-tweet here and tweet-tweet there about someone having stolen the cardboard cutout of Langston Hughes from the hugely popular DC poetry venue, Busboys and Poets. I can’t say that I gave it a whole lot of thought, but I did wonder who had stolen it and why.
    Well, the culprit has come to light. It’s THOMAS SAYERS ELLIS. I was totally shocked and then I wasn’t. And that reminded me of the best advice I have ever heard for fiction writers.
    The ending to a story should be surprising, but at the same time inevitable.
    If you know TSE, you know he’s a hardcore DC man and only someone from DC would be sufficiently invested. And you know he’s a but, well, demonstrative when there is something he believes in. And you know he was in DC at the time of the heist. (We all were in DC, actually.) And when you really think about it, it sounds like something he would do. (The point of the theft was to protest the compensation that Busboys offers it’s poets.)And, of course, the issue of the gentrification of U Street gives the story the gravitas it needs to sort of hold it down.
    I am not blogging this to say who’s wrong and who’s right. I just don’t know enough. But the way the story unfolded was, well, art.
    So there you go, fiction writers. Take notes.
    Details here.

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    New Year, New Fears, New Resolve

    roshanda and keith, prom 1989
    You may wonder what “Roshanda and Keith, Prom 1989″ has to do with getting your act together in the New Year? It’s about love and fear. For me 2011 is all about facing the blank page. One word next to the other. Details, here.

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    You CAN Take It With You– and you must!


    Originally uploaded by Jayegirl99

    As 2010 winds down, I know a lot of us are busy with our resolutions. I’m all for making plans for the new year, don’t get me wrong. But I want to think a little bit about the year that is passing us by. More specifically, I want to think about what things from 2010 do I want to carry with me into 2011.

    My dear Spelman sister, Brigette (oh how I love her!) has a lovely New Year’s party and the highlight is that you write down the things you want to leave behind on little scraps of paper and then you gleefully toss them into the fireplace. Then, we all write down what you want to accomplish in the new year and put the paper in tiny envelopes which Lady B will mail to you around June 15, so you can chart your progress. (2010 was aces for me. 10 out of 11 things on my list—DONE!)

    But there is one little piece missing and I am adding to the ritual to make the assessment more whole. Ask yourself: what went right in the year behind us that you want to carry into 2011?

    The thing about New Year’s resolutions is that they are a little bit too handed. Sometimes, thinking about what you want to get done in 2011 can also be a way of beating yourself up for what you didn’t do in 2010. I’m all for improvement, but sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough credit. So, to sort of balance things out let’s make a list of what we did right and pledge to keep on doing it.

    I am cooking tonight and there will be every kind of champagne cocktail you can think of. (So drop by!) But will be making our lists of what we want to take with us into this new year. I have these pretty little note cards and envelopes which I will give to each person. Then when everyone has written something on card—and everyone will write down something. It’s so easy to forget the good stuff, but I know that each one of us has something worth holding on to! So then, once the lists are written and tucked into the envelopes, each person will tie a ribbon around her envelope. This symbolizes a tether, holding to you. I think of the tether like the string on a child’s balloon, connecting it to you, while still letting it soar.

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    Sail On, Silver Girl!

    Sorry for being so MIA, but my life has been a three-ring circus, and I mean in it a good way, sorta. There have been dazzling high wire acts, but also a fair share of elephant dung, if you know what I mean.
    But in this post, I am just going to share Silver Girl news:

  • The first thing is that I have dropped the “THE”. So the title of my new novel is “Silver Girl”. Nice, right? Grows it up a little, IIMHO.
  • Remember the tempest in my little tea cup about whether the term “good hair” would be used in the catalog? “Good hair” is gone. Replaced by Long Pretty Hair– which I think has a little bit more humor in it with the capitalization and everything.

  • The cover is here! But I can’t show it to you because it’s technically a work-in-progress. But it’s pretty. I like it and can’t wait to start buying shoes to match it.
  • BBC audio has bought the rights, so the book-on-tape will be available at the same time as the hardcover. (We connected on twitter,which makes me feel so twenty-second century.)
  • Final final final edits are just about done. I have the first pass pages right here in front of me, and I am going through making the last tweaky little changes. I have enlisted my mama in this process and pointed out little things like tulips don’t bloom in May.

    This is all fabulous news, but it’s keeping me really busy and a little away from the blog. But I’ll be back soon.

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