Archive for September, 2016

AUTHOR’S NOTE: After posting this I received many comments pointing out several ways this piece undercuts the point was clumsily trying to make (It’s OK to create art using material from other cultures, as long as the results do no harm). I learned that am guilty of tone policing, straw man arguments, centering white authors, and conflating critique with censorship.  I encourage you to please read my follow-up piece, which is an effort to correct these mistakes.  Thank you.


Svetlana Mintcheva nailed this topic in Salon on Monday.  In case you missed it, the current conversation around the writers’ water cooler is about Lionel Shriver’s address at the Brisbane Writers Festival, about “cultural appropriation” on September 8.  And in case you missed that, here’s some of what she said:

The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University who for the record is white, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

What strikes me about that definition is that “without permission” bit. However are we fiction writers to seek “permission” to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don’t belong? Do we set up a stand on the corner and approach passers-by with a clipboard, getting signatures that grant limited rights to employ an Indonesian character in Chapter Twelve, the way political volunteers get a candidate on the ballot?

I am hopeful that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life.

But this latest and little absurd no-no is part of a larger climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively makes our work impossible.

Lionel Shriver spoke at length.  She cited a case at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where, during a private tequila party in a dorm room, some of the party-goers wore miniature sombreros.  When photos from the party circulated on social media campus-wide outrage ensued, the party-goers were placed on probation, and the party’s hosts were ejected from their dorm and impeached from the student government.  The hats were labeled “cultural appropriation” because people of color, especially those of Mexican heritage, felt their use created an environment where they did not feel safe.

Shriver talked about how this attitude has spread to every minority or disadvantaged group to the point where nobody else is allowed to touch any tradition, experience, costume or way of doing or saying anything — look but don’t touch.  The majority of her talk was about cultural appropriation in fiction.  She said:

The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.

Look, there’s cultural appropriation and their’s cultural misappropriation.  One is insensitive, hurtful, unethical, and unfair, and the other is speculative fiction.  In this time when “We Need Diverse Books” is a huge movement, how are writers supposed to write about diverse characters if we can’t touch anything that might fall under the definition of “diverse”?  This begs a vision of the future when books must be written by committee, and when memoirs can only contain a single character.  Because what if a brunette is offended by a dark-haired character written by a blonde author?  The entire children’s market will evaporate until children learn to write novels.  And historical fiction will go the way of the dodo.

I understand why individuals and even entire swaths of society are offended by Amos and Andy or Sambo’s Restaurant or any of the thousands of other cases of cultural insensitivity created for the sole purpose of making a buck.  And I understand that when books misrepresent the details of a culture, it can perpetuate stereotypes.  I have great respect and high hopes for the “Own Voices” movement; share your culture with us so that we can learn the truth about it and have a proper perspective.  But….

There are a few voices out there who loudly oppose Shriver’s view.  As always, the backlash is not representative of the whole and those that lash out in anger often do so because they are truly, legitimately angry, fighting to be understood every day of their lives.  But like waves in a pool after a cannonball dive, one backlash leads to another in the opposite direction.  The conversations I am hearing now are non-marginalized writers asserting their right to write what they want. Kaitlyn Greenidge wrote eloquently about this.  True or not, some writers feel they are being told they should not color outside the box — not write about cultures or events outside their personal experience, because doing so is cultural appropriation.  And maybe it is, but my point here is that cultural appropriation is part of the whole fiction deal.  Yes, Virginia, a white writer can write about the Asian experience, because research.  But if it is done in an exploitative or hurtful or inaccurate way, then it becomes misappropriation.  I think there is a difference.

Suppressing writers — of any culture — is never a solution.  The notion that minority characters should only be written by minorities is a dangerous dead-end.  There are plenty of white writers who stereotype white people in their books.  Read pulp, read romance, read men’s adventure.  Who’s to say that when only black people are allowed to write about black people the stereotypes would stop?  I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest they wouldn’t.  Silencing writers won’t solve that problem.  Because who do you silence next?

I think a lot of the legitimate anger in the diversity movement stems from one very real fact: most of the time, a book about a cultural minority written by a white author will outsell a book written by a member of that culture.  It has happened time and time again.  If I was one of those authors I would be furious , too.  But the answer is not to suppress the white authors.  Most of the time when those white authors write a popular book about a minority group or specific cultural event, awareness and interest goes up which increases sales of other books on that subject – by any author.  No, instead I think real change in the industry must come from the publishers.  Awareness is growing slowly, but it could grow faster.  Publishers see marginalized voices as a risk, but I think it is a risk that could pay off.  The publishing industry is white-dominated, but if more people of color became part of the publishing industry, that would help, too.

I’m a write writer.  Not a damn thing I can do about that.  But I can take the time to see both sides of an issue — even if I will never quite have the perspective of the other side. I can try on the glass slipper, but it will never fit.  I won’t go into the issue of white privilege, other than to say unlearning is hard.  Maybe having that attitude is white privilege, too.

The primary and overarching message behind the diversity movement is clear: write what you want, but write it in a respectful and accurate way; in other words, do it well.  There are far more voices in the diversity conversation that are respectfully educating the writing community than those who shout their anger.  If you are yourself from a marginalized community, share it with us, raise awareness, be heard.  Feed the popularity.  If you are not, you can play, too. But remember — people from other cultures are gonna read your stuff, and if you misrepresent — misappropriate — the soul of their communities, they have every right and every reason to point it out.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: After posting this I received many comments pointing out several ways this piece undercuts the point was clumsily trying to make (It’s OK to create art using material from other cultures, as long as the results do no harm). I learned that am guilty of tone policing, straw man arguments, centering white authors, and conflating critique with censorship.  I encourage you to please read my follow-up piece, which is an effort to correct these mistakes.  Thank you.


Last week I talked about the importance of stakes in your fiction.  Basically: get some.

Fine, but how do you find them?  Where do you put them?  How do you make them work?  To clarify, “stakes” are the thing the hero of your story is after.  The thing they are invested in.  The thing that makes your reader want to turn the page to find out if they succeed.  Most tension is derived from the stakes, because if we don’t care about them, roadblocks won’t bother us.

There are two basic kinds of stakes: Personal Stakes and Public Stakes.

At first glance, you might think Public Stakes are automatically bigger, and therefor better for your story.  Saving the world, or the town, or even just the clock tower are bigger than your character, and so the obstacles are naturally bigger as well.  However Personal Stakes are often more emotional, and if you have a character in which your reader can identify, those personal stakes become magnified.  An orphan boy who is forced to live under the stairs is automatically more sympathetic than a local official.  So if that boy’s stakes are to become a wizard, say, your reader might be more interested than the governor trying to save the town from bankruptcy.  Surely, keeping thousands of people from ruin is bigger than one boy becoming a wizard, but which do you prefer to read about?

Of course, of you can include both kinds of stakes in your story, that much better.  But if you have to pick just one, stories with strong personal stakes tend to be more popular and sell better.

So you have your stakes.  Where do you put them?  My advice — as close to the beginning as possible. Certainly within the first 50 pages.  It’s not absolutely necessary to put them on page 1, but the earlier the better.  Getting readers (and agents) to turn the page once they are invested is easy (well easier). But how do you get them invested in the first place?  Your stakes.  They have to want it as much as your character.  So if you can build you stakes into your hook, you’re golden.  The natural place to define the stakes is the Inciting Incident, which is the first major plot point, but stakes = tension, and tension = suspense, and all of those = reader interest.  So if you’re struggling to find a way to make your opening irresistible, consider introducing your stakes early.

Okay, you’ve gotten your stakes and introduced them.  Now, how do you make them work for you?  Simple: you add suspense.  That boy who wants to be a wizard?  Make his family block his efforts, introduce a bully, make him powerless to pursue his dream.  Oh, and put him in the dark about his past and any advantage he might have.  Create roadblocks.  Add time limits.  Let him fail and lose faith and momentum.  Build the tension and suspense.  The purpose of all this is to force your character to act, and give him/her opportunities to fail, which in turn further raise the stakes.  And the purpose of all of that is to make your reader unable to put your book down, because they need to know what happens next and what happens in the end.

And that’s all there is to it.  Easy as becoming a wizard.



Last week in That “Aha” Moment I talked about how you never know when a good idea will strike, and also about when you may have to let one of those ideas go.  I closed by telling you how my new Critique Partner and a professional editor both pointed out what was missing from our book, and that I would share with you what that was, in case it applied to you, too.  It was really quite a game-changer.

What’s been missing from my daughter’s and my book were the stakes.

  1. something that is wagered in a game, race, or contest.
  2. a monetary or commercial interest, investment, share, or involvement in something, as in hope of gain: I have a big stake in the success of the firm.
  3. a personal or emotional concern, interest, involvement, or share: Parents have a big stake in their children’s happiness.
  4. the funds with which a gambler operates.


In fiction, this means the goal or outcome the hero wants. And more importantly, what is in the way of achieving that goal?  Another word for this is “suspense.”

To be fair, we did eventually get around to adding in stakes to our novel by the time we got to the end.  And we went back and diligently hinted at it in the early chapters, too.

This is, apparently, not sufficient.

Our first clue (ignored) was when we struggled to come up with a longline, or 35-word pitch.  For sure, this is not easy under the best circumstances, but the crux of the pitch is the stakes. If you can’t figure out what your main character has at stake, there is a problem with your book.

We began writing THE LAST PRINCESS by the seat of our pants, without an outline, and letting the story evolve as we progressed.  In fact, we never actually intended the story to include a villain, but one sort of appeared organically, and we added him to the story.  In the end the final conflict is rather juicey and full of hard choices — stakes — but that suspense, that energy, that urgency, is simply not very apparent at the beginning.

It needs to be.  In fact, I’d suggest that by page 50 (page 30 for children’s books) it should be clear to your reader what is at stake for the hero, and just as importantly, what will happen if she or he fails.  And remember, failure is an option.  It depends on what kind of book you want to write.

What does this look like?  Imagine I told you I had a guaranteed winning lottery ticket worth millions, and I was willing to let you have it.  Now, imagine I told you the only way to get it is to climb up the outside of the U.S. Capitol Building and retrieve it from the top of the dome.  Before midnight tomorrow.  Now you have some suspense.  Can you do it?  How will you do it in time?  How will you get past security?  Do you have the skill and equipment?  What if you get caught?

It doesn’t have to be that dramatic.  A woman is engaged to a horrible person but falls in love with a different, wonderful man.  But she must marry the first in order to save her dying sister.  A boy has a dream of becoming the best cornet player in New Orleans, but he lives in poverty and can’t afford nice clothes to audition for the band.

So how do you sharpen the stakes?  Pour on the pressure.  The engaged woman learns the wonderful man loves her back, and he’s rich, too.  But her fiancé is the only surgeon qualified to perform the life-saving operation.  And when he gets jealous he drinks.  The cornet player earns the money to buy a nice suit, but his mother loses her job and can’t afford to buy food for the family.  If you really want to lay it on thick, add a time-bomb: The band auditions are this Friday, then the talent scout is leaving town. The sister’s condition is worsening by the day.

For our book, we need to put the conflict with the villain right up front, and make it clear what the hero has to lose — personally — if she fails to defeat him.  That’s the thing about stakes, they have to be personal.  It’s not enough to just save the kitten from the fire.  The kitten has to be personally important to the hero.  Ask yourself this question:  What would happen to your hero if he/she fails?  If their life could pretty much go on unchanged, your stakes aren’t high enough or personal enough.

This’s what was missing from our book.  We had stakes, but they weren’t personal enough.  It came own to saving other people or going back to her normal life.  Not enough suspense.  But now we know how to fix that.  We’re going to have to let go of some of our favorite lines, even favorite scenes.  But the results should help make our manuscript irresistible to readers — particularly agents.


Ideas come at the oddest times.  In the shower.  In the car.  In the middle of an unrelated conversation with your spouse.  At that last possible moment before you drift off to sleep.  You never know when you’re going to get one.  Which makes ideas precious.  So precious, in fact, that sometimes you’re compelled to hang on to one tooth and nail.  This can become a problem if you are committed to selling a novel.

Writing a novel, that’s the easy part.* Hanging onto ideas is a necessary skill; sometimes they get lost betwixt “Once upon a time” and “Happily ever after.”  But the harder part of writing a novel is re-writing a novel.  It turns out this is a huge step in the process of selling a novel.

Think of climbing Everest as an analogy for selling a novel (no, I’m not being overly dramatic — you try it.)  Doing your research, psyching yourself up, taking the training classes, getting in shape, buying all your gear, and getting to the base camp — that’s writing the novel.  Planting your flag on the summit — that’s signing a contract with a publisher. All of that mountain in between the base camp and the summit?  That’s re-writing (also known as slogging).

This is where you will find you need to begin to let go of some of your precious ideas.  Ideas that have served you throughout the writing process, informed your characters, served as a framework for your plot.  Because it will take lots of people reading your manuscript and giving you constructive feedback to work out all of the hidden hitches and subtle slowdowns you can’t see yourself. And by “people” I don’t mean your mom (unless she is an accomplished novelist or literary editor).

My daughter’s and my novel, THE LAST PRINCESS, has been “finished” for over a year.  We’ve workshopped it and rewritten the first several chapters, taken the advice of beta readers and editors, and revised and resubmitted to an interested agent.  But despite these spasms of retooling and polishing, we do not yet have agents lining up for a chance to offer us a contract.

Then we got two more people to read it. One was a #PitchWars mentor from whom we won a three-chapter critique, and the other was a shiny new critique partner we found though #CPMatch.  They both noticed something — or at the very least described something — that no other reader/agent/editor had ever pointed out before. And bang! we saw what was missing.

That “Aha!” moment.  This idea means we will have to rewire a lot of things in the book.  Disconnect A from B and attach Q.  Find a new place to plug in B without short-circuiting F-J.  And do it in such a way that all of the original buttons, dials, bells and whistles still work correctly.  Or, hopefully better than before.

Wanna know what the editor and CP pointed out that will make our manuscript magically delicious?  If you eat all of your vegetables and promise not to complain when I say it’s time for bed, I’ll tell you next week.  Stay tuned; it’s a good one.






*I know this; I’ve written two.