Sunday, May 27, 2018

Writing Naked

            When we talk about writing naked, we’re not discussing another sequel to 50 Shades of Grey.
            Or erotic literature.
        Or if you’re old enough, that magazine section in the corner store where only adults were allowed to browse.
            Writing naked is all about risk.
Risk is a broad term when applied to writing and writers, and takes on many forms.  But writing naked involves going to the hard places, especially when it relates to the mystery and thriller categories.  The best kind of writing in those genres – the kind that is moving and compelling, and stays with us long after we’ve finished reading that last page and closed the book – is the kind that lets it all hang out and pushes past our comfort zones. It’s writing that takes creative risks, changes the narrative structure, voice, or uses characters to tap into emotions and make hard-hitting social commentary.  Honesty.  Bleeding on each page and baring emotions without compromising integrity.
          All writers carry a fear of failure.  Writing is one of those professions filled with the competing voices of self-doubt and critics who believe they can write just as well if not better than you.  The same critics who expect to see blood, sweat, and angst seeping from every page. Perhaps the worst thing a mystery or thriller reader can say about something you’ve written is that it’s “too predictable”, or that they’ve “seen this before.”  That’s the kind of criticism that cuts with a serrated edge.  Risk is the thing that can keep writing fresh and unpredictable, but more importantly, allow you to write with impact.  Taking risks is how writers become better.  Taking on risk starts the moment you sit down to write.  You can’t start off trying to write a book that will appeal to everyone.  Agreeableness is boring.  If you water down your writing to suit everyone’s tastes, you’ll never find the power of your own voice. 
I didn’t write Still Black Remains for any particular audience or demographic, which might explain why it was initially difficult to find the right publisher – there might have been more options if I had chosen a genre like YA or NA with a more specific group of readers.  I wrote Still Black Remains because it was a story I wanted - needed - to tell, even if no one wanted to read it.  It started out as a simple crime story but once I pushed past my own comfort zone it evolved into something more.  The central theme in the book is about the struggle of a different generation trying to realize the American Dream against all odds, and through any means possible.  The characters have learned that hard work by itself will never help them achieve what they want - they have to work outside the system to get what they want. The inner city landscape where they live is filled with desperation, anger, and a sense of futility and in many cases violence is both the solution to problems and the result of problems.  Actions – no matter what’s involved or who gets hurt – are justified as being “part of the game.” 
If I tried shaping the book towards a particular audience or played it safe, I might have been tempted to change the voice, minimize some of the violence, or sanitize the language.  It is a gritty story.  Life in the New Jersey neighborhood where Still Black Remains takes place is equally gritty, violent, and harsh.  There was no way to soften the writing without losing the legitimacy of the story.
It was a risky path to take because readers might be offended, but it was absolutely necessary to tap into the characters’ emotions and maintain the authenticity of the story.
There was no other way to write it.
As a writer you need to strip away the fears and worries that might hold back your story.  You need to go out on a limb to write with impact.  You need to write naked.  Write without fear.  If you don’t push your limits your writing won’t take off, and more importantly, it won’t matter to  readers.

Writing About Murder...When You've Never Killed Anyone

         People often advise aspiring fiction writers that the best thing to do is “write what you know.”  Writing about what you know conveys authenticity.  Realism.  It’s one of the so-called cardinal rules of writing.  However well-intentioned, it is not only misunderstood but has somehow become the standard by which many stories are too often judged.  There is a belief that real authenticity in writing can only be expressed by someone who has shared the same experiences as characters in that writer’s story.  But if you’ve never robbed a bank, how do you write a realistic scene involving a bank robbery without first walking into a nearby Wells Fargo wearing a mask, carrying a forty-five, and shoving a note across the counter at the teller demanding all the money in the drawer (except the dye-packs which can be problematic)?
            Writing what you know can not only be boring, but creates an impression that readers should care less about characters and more about their surroundings and the things that inspired them.  The story becomes less about fiction and more about reporting.
            As writers, we use imagination to create worlds populated by fictional characters.  Many of us who write crime, mystery, and suspense have never robbed a bank, spent time in lock-up, or been involved in any number of the violent crimes committed by characters in our stories but it doesn’t stop us from writing.  Most of us lead boring lives.  One day looks like all the others.  That’s not the kind of realism readers want.  The challenge in finding an authentic voice is to be exciting, interesting, and different.   We use imagination to give voice to characters and create not only the realism but the authenticity editors, publishers, and most importantly, readers demand.
            I faced a number of challenges with Still Black Remains.  One had to do with marketing a book that had no clearly defined genre – no vampires or zombies or love-struck college sweethearts doomed by a combination of fate, bad luck, and rare disease.  But it was the story I wanted to write, and that was more important than everything else, no matter what’s popular in bookstores.  That is the true cardinal rule of writing: write your story. It doesn’t matter what your friends, your college professor, or even other writers think you should write – you need to write the story you want to write.
            But the biggest obstacle had to do with telling a story through the voice of characters completely unlike me.  Still Black Remains is the story of a street kid turned gangster named Twist, his drug-dealing gang called the Skulls, and an out of control turf war that escalates with the kidnapping of a mafia capo.  The kidnapping was supposed to provide a bargaining chip in negotiations to end the war; it was never intended to be anything more than that.  But like most great ideas, the plan doesn't turn out as expected.  Most of the characters in Still Black Remains are black, and as any number of agents, publishers, and even other writers pointed out, my characters could not be authentic because I am not black.  According to them, I could not write this story because I am nothing like the characters in the book.
            As if a writer cannot write about someone who doesn’t resemble themselves in the mirror.
            The implication was that only a black writer can capture the perspective of a main character who is part of a drug-dealing street gang.  A thug. A killer. How could I know anything about the grittiness of the Skulls’ Newark, New Jersey neighborhood?  How could anyone like me understand the nuances of a gangster’s life, capture their voices accurately, know the ins and outs of street level drug deals, or understand the terror you feel when someone has a forty-five pointed at your chest?  How could a white man write a novel from a black man’s point of view?
           That kind of belief not only dismisses creativity but diminishes the skills and abilities writers need to imagine.  I couldn’t “write what I know” because I didn’t know any of the experiences I was writing about.
           Which is bullshit.
           That would mean that only cowboys can write westerns.  And only CIA or FBI agents could write thrillers and espionage. And that any good zombie apocalypse novel can’t be believable if it hasn’t been created by a zombie writer.  If any of that were true - if authentic writing is truly defined by writing about what you know - how do you explain anything written by Stephen King?
          Good writing pulls you into a world where characters live and makes them believable.  Imagination is essential – not experience. Writers bring out the attitudes and feelings of those characters and give them emotional integrity.  Good writers research locations and ask questions – not just of themselves but of the characters in their stories.  They ask “what if” questions, developing their characters realistically and getting them into and out of problems. They listen because authenticity comes from listening to people and how they talk. Elmore Leonard’s writing sounds the way people talk and rings true because he captured the rhythm and cadence of conversations, and I’m reasonably certain he never did half the shit his characters did.  Gillian Flynn effectively told “Gone Girl” from both the male and female point of view.  She understood her characters and knew their emotions, as well as the things that drove them – being a woman had nothing to do with it.
          Realism is important even in science fiction, which needs elements of existing life, technology, and culture. But writers can write about things they don’t know firsthand.  Writing requires letting our imagination sprawl into the unknown – not just staying with what we know. Writers have to be open to what we want to know, what our characters understand, and their experiences.
          If you’re a writer, it’s never about writing what you know.
          It’s about writing what you can imagine.

            Originally published at Sirens of Suspense - April 3, 2017

The Keeper

You're not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who says it.                         
Malcolm X

A few years ago in our StoryTellers program I worked with two twin brothers from Somalia.  Their lives had been hell, filled with wars, child soldiers, death, abuse, and domestic violence before they managed to flee with their mother and older brother.  They traveled thousands of miles across deserts, through strange landscapes and foreign countries, most times in the dark of night with nothing more than the few possessions they carried on their backs so they could immigrate to America.  Even here they lived in constant fear that their father – a government official in Somalia - would someday find them and return them to the horrors of the world they left behind. During months of writing sessions they shared stories filled with pain, fear, and distrust, but also stories deep in excitement about their new lives and happiness at the chances they had been given.  They worked hard to assimilate, learning a new language and culture.  They learned to smile and laugh again. They studied hard, got good grades, and seized every opportunity life in America provided.  They worked for it.  Earned it. Nobody gave them anything.

And yes …they were Muslim.

I doubt many Americans – especially those worried about jihads and radical Islam and the Muslim boogeymen coming to get us – have ever had any real contact with Muslims (the guy behind the counter at the local convenience store doesn’t count unless you took the time to talk about something more substantial than the cost of that bag of Doritos and six-pack of Bud). Strip away religion. Take away misguided fears about a culture and misguided ideologies we don’t take time to understand. We are all just people. Looking for happiness and love and sometimes even acceptance in a country based on the premise that everyone – no matter where they come from or who they worship – is welcome here. And that we are all created equal. 
You can learn a little more about StoryTellers HERE

If you're curious about the title, check out this video from Chris Cornell called The Keeper

Not Today.... from 1.29.2017 (Sliding Down The Rzor's Edge)

New Colossus

"Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

A Culture of Swine (from 11.09.2016 - Sliding Down The Razor's Edge)

“Buy the ticket. Take the ride.”
Hunter S. Thompson

It is the morning after the nastiest, most divisive presidential election ever. Not just in our lifetime. EVER. And while banshees scream about the death of democracy, the dogs of hell are already barking and howling a victory song marking the beginning of what may very well be a long, nasty period in American history.

The Trump years will be a horror. Now that the Republican Party has sunk its talons into the heart and soul of Washington, the repercussions will be painful and long-lasting. Generations will feel those effects.  Trump-ism will allow the Republicans to pass massive regressive tax cuts, yank access to medical care from the poor and sick, deregulate the financial industry, gut the EPA while looking away as polluters and fossil-fuel emitters rape the environment, and promote racism disguised as patriotism under the banner “Making America Great Again”.

What a load of shit.

As if America ever stopped being great.

And sadly, that is just the beginning.  Trump is a monster. He is an impulsive, egotistical bully, intolerant of any and all criticism and attracted to power like a shark to blood (or maybe in his case – a fly to shit).

HST’s comments about an equally evil individual once in power (Richard Nixon) are appropriate: Trump represents that “dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character that almost every country in the world has learned to fear and despise. Our… president, with his Barbie-doll wife and his boxful of Barbie-doll children is also America's answer to the monstrous Mr. Hyde. He speaks for the Werewolf in us; the bully, the predatory shyster who turns into something unspeakable, full of claws and bleeding string-warts on nights when the moon comes too close…”

The fifty-nine million Americans who elected Trump will not be helped by his agenda nor any of his programs – he avoided policy specifics in every debate, so it’s difficult to say for sure what those programs might be, except that they will all be “tremendous”.  To the people who bought into his bullshit, Trump-ism represents the opportunity to rebuild our nation and renew the American dream.  “Tremendous potential. It’s going to be a beautiful thing. Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential.”

Except that they won’t.  Not if they are Black. Or Hispanic. Or women. Or Muslim. Or refugees. Or LGBT. The only people who might be satisfied by a Trump presidency are the ones who voted for him because of racial and cultural resentment.

The depths of a Trump presidency defy any sane, rational person’s imagination. Based on the seismic divisions within our country – race, cultural, religious, and gender  – that his candidacy preyed upon like a vulture eating road kill, it’s safe to assume his presidency will not be popular. At least not for long and not with everyone.  And Trump, his henchmen, and gnarly co-horts will most likely respond with vicious anti-democratic measures that threaten the basic tenets of our Constitution and the freedoms it guarantees. But fighting for democracy is part of America’s heritage – it’s what we do.  We fight to make things better and stand up to racism, bigotry, misogyny, discrimination, and oppression. It may take us a while to get it right, but we stand up for the rights of others.

No matter who is in the White House, we need to fight hard for all people of color, LGBT rights, religious freedoms, a woman's right to choose, medical care for people who cannot afford healthcare, etc. - maybe now more than ever. We are stronger together.  And we need to keep fighting.

It is the morning after the nastiest election ever. The sun still came out. Many of us still woke up next to the person we love, surrounded by family or friends who matter. Still hopeful for a better future than the one our parents gave us.  I love this country. I believe in it. I still believe in America.  I’m not leaving - I’m going to stay and defend truth and democracy. There are a lot of people just like me, who feel the same way I do.  We are not going anywhere.

We are going to stay and fix this.

The Real Issue of Sexual Violence on Campus

Once again, another politician has gotten it wrong when it comes to sexual violence on college campuses.  According to Georgia Rep. Earl Ehrhart, House Bill-51 which he sponsored, will provide greater protection for the rights of the accused in sexual assault cases. Behind that logic is the subtle but too often heard implication that women are deceptively “crying rape”, and that there are large numbers of falsely accused who are being wrongly prosecuted.
Noting can be farther from the facts.
False allegations of rape hold a disproportionate place in the public imagination.  False allegations are nothing but statistical outliers and the bottom line fact that people not only believe them but continually dismiss victims is a sad reflection of the prevalence of rape culture in our society. Overall, 2- 8 % of reported rapes are false but over 40 - 60% of all rapes are not even reported.  A DOJ study in 2000 found that fewer than 5% of completed and attempted rapes of collegiate women are reported to police, and that figure drops even lower for other forms of sexual violence. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, rape is the most underreported crime, with an estimated 63 percent of sexual assaults never reported to police at all.
For every 100 incidents of rape that do get reported, maybe two to eight at most are false accusations, with possibly another 600 going unreported. That is the problem lawmakers should direct their energies toward solving.
One in five young women is assaulted during their college years. One reason the frequency of sexual assault on campuses continues to be high is that schools are in denial about the scope of the problem and too many have fragmented reporting channels.  Unclear and conflicted internal disciplinary systems can compound victims’ suffering. Women in college have also identified fear of not being believed, not being sure whether what they experienced was a sexual assault and not wanting family or other people to know about the incidents as reasons for not reporting.  This bill will increase those fears.
Our system too often fails victims of sexual assault – the campus justice system through Title IX provides a measure of accountability that would be stripped away under HB-51, and make it harder for victims to get justice.  Under the Clery Act, another federal law that intersects with Title IX, a bill of rights for survivors of campus sexual assault requires colleges and universities to provide a number of protections such as notification of counseling resources and offering the option of reporting a case to either the school, law enforcement, or both. It also provides academic or living accommodations, such as changing dorms and classes. Schools are discouraged from burdening the survivor, instead of the perpetrator, with the responsibility to change their circumstances. Additionally, it requires that survivors be notified of the final outcome of any disciplinary proceeding.
Right now on college campuses we have literally no idea how many students are being sexually abused.  That’s a far bigger problem than a few false rape allegations.
It is incredible how much concern this bill and its sponsors devote to something that is so rare it is practically irrelevant and inconsequential to any serious discussion of sexual assault.
Rep. Ehrhart’s concern for the families of the falsely accused is admirable.  “I’m not going to sit with any more moms like that if I can help it. It’s the most wrenching experience I ever had,” he said.
How many victims of sexual assault and their mothers has he ever sat with?

From; Sliding Down The Razor's Edge (3.29.2017)