The world of publishing is not always fun, games, and chuckles. As writers, we do get a lot of say-so when it comes to our books, but we also have to compromise and sometimes acquiesce to the good judgment of our publisher.
So, for example, the publisher gets to decide the title of your book. Some publishers are more than willing to entertain a title if it means a lot to you, but more times than not, Marketing and Editorial are going to meet and have the final say. Authors are usually asked about their preferences for a cover, but at the end of the day, the cover designer and Marketing Team get the final word, and if the truth be known, you want them to be the deciding vote because this is what they do for a living. Fortunately for me, I have had amazing luck and good fortune with When Stars Rain Down. Everything my publisher, Thomas Nelson (imprint of HarperCollins), suggested, I loved -- with some minor tweaks here and there. Trust when I say, that is a rarity in this industry, so if you do find yourself in the position to be published, make sure you and/or your agent hammer out those things you are adamant about because once the contract is signed, renegotiating the terms of that contract are not going to be easy. And anyway, things like titles, covers, audiobook narrators are not the things you'll find in a contract. Those details will need to be discussed along with the contract details.
So, a week or so ago, my editor, Kimberly, asked me to listen to some audio book narrators and make a suggestion for which one I liked best. We went through several. Some sounded too old. Some sounded like they were trying WAY too hard to sound southern and Black. Some just didn't move my spirit at all. I was worried. I feared that at some point, we were just going to have to "make do" with a good reader, but not someone who felt like Opal, my main character. Thankfully, my publisher was as committed as I was to find just the "right voice," so we listened to reader after reader and then finally...IT happened! We listened to Joniece Abbott-Pratt read from another book, and immediately we knew. SHE WAS THE ONE.
Joneice is an actress and writer, known for Luke Cage (2016), Blindspot (2015) and Why Did I Get Married? (2007). She has been the audio book narrator for books like: Grown by Tiffany Jackson, Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, and Caul Baby by Morgan Jerkins.
I haven't stopped smiling since I received the news that Joneice was available and had agreed to narrate When Stars Rain Down. Selecting the audiobook narrator isn't the final step in the process of getting the book onto bookshelves but it is an important step. SO, when/if you find yourself in the position of having to select the audiobook narrator for your book, make sure you and your publisher vet them properly. Their voice will forever be associated with your book. You don't want to mess up and have the wrong voice attached to your work.
If you would like to order the audiobook for When Stars Rain Down, click here. If you would like to order a paper copy of the book, click here.
Starting at around the age of 12 or 13, I decided if I wanted to be a writer, I had to STUDY the writing of those I admired like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Ntozake Shange, Toni Cade Bambara, Lorraine Handsberry, Gloria Naylor, Margaret Walker, Dorothy West, Jamaica Kincaid and the list goes on and on. So, I would take my meager allowance and I would buy two copies of a book. One to read and look pretty on the shelf, and the other to study. And I mean STUDY. My 12 or 13 year old self felt certain that there was a code, and if I studied these amazing, phenomenal writers enough, I could break that code. I just had to be patient and studious, and I was both.
The first time I read Alice Walker's book, The Color Purple, I had never heard of a style of writing called epistolary before. But when I read articles written by scholars who discussed the book, I realized her novel was evidence that writers had multiple ways of telling a story. Then I started reading with the intent of finding out how other writers decided to convey the story they were telling. I looked for point of view even before I understood what the term meant. I would ask questions in the margins. "Why did Gloria Naylor end the scene here?" "Toni Cade Bambara uses language in a way I've never seen in stories before. These characters sound like my cousins from up North. What does this add to the stories? How can I use the rural dialect of my family and friends in my stories?" "Maya Angelou sounds like she is from home. Do you mean people can write books about regular folks?" "Ntozake Shange's writing always sounds like songs. Songs I've heard on the radio or in church or underneath the pecan trees where J.W. Warren played blues harmonies way into the morning hours of a Saturday. Why did she choose to write in this manner? What does this musicality bring to the stories she is telling? How would the stories be different without it?"
Yes, my 12 or 13 year old self was intense. My books were my friends, and I wanted to know everything there was to know about them. I wanted there to be no secrets between us, so I studied, I pushed, I prodded, I cajoled, I yelled, I screamed, I cried, I swallowed those books whole, hoping one day I could repurpose what I had swallowed into sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters of my own that remotely resembled the prose I found in my favorite books.
If you are not regularly engaging with the texts of those who are successful writers, then you are not doing the work necessary to decode the process. If you are not asking questions of every powerful book you read, then you are missing the boat completely. Becoming a great writer, means studying great writers. Once a student said to me, "I don't like to read the work of others because I don't want to be influenced by their style." I looked at that boy like he was out of his fool mind. Imagine an up-and-coming basketball player saying, "Oh, whenever I see LaBron is playing, I turn off the television because I don't want to ever accidentally emulate one of his moves." Come on! It takes a lot of arrogance to think if you read August Wilson's plays that all of a sudden you will become August Wilson. Never. BUT what you will become is someone who is more aware of the human condition, and that will aid you in your writing, and don't we all want that for our writing?
I had never heard of a BFA or MFA in Writing when I was 12 or 13, BUT I did understand the necessity of studying. I was an Honor student. I worked hard to make those "A's" and I knew the process was not passive, it was aggressive. SO breaking those texts apart, made absolute sense to me. I did it every day when I studied science or history or government.
Becoming a successful writer (and I don't mean monetarily), involves deep analysis of your work, but more importantly, deep analysis of the work of others. There are no shortcuts. You have to do the work and the work can be tedious and time consuming, but at the end of the day, you will be a better writer, and THAT should be the goal. Period.
As many of you know, I have been struggling with some health issues for about four years now. The main struggle has been accurately diagnosing what is wrong with me. If I were my husband, Robert, who is a healthy, middle-class, white man, there would have already been a diagnosis or, at the very least, a more stringent effort by his doctors to figure out what was wrong with him. He and I both know this because he has seen firsthand how quickly the medical profession has been willing to dismiss me and my symptoms. I am a Black woman of a particular age who is at least 30 pounds over the recommended weight for someone my age and height according to the infamous BMI. I am not the "dream patient" for most doctors. They see me and basically want to do everything possible to get me off their examining table and in front of their cashier paying money for their kid's college fund. So, actually, I guess I am their "Dream Patient." Get her in, get her out, make her pay.
First, I was told I had Rheumatoid Arthritis and Fibromyalgia. Months later, Lupus was added to the list. But then, after a summer of testing at a clinic in Cleveland, I was told there was nothing wrong with me, other than maybe Fibromyalgia, and a need to lose weight and go to the gym. I avoided doctors at all cost after that, only going when the pain became too much, and only to get a steroid shot that would bring me a few days of relief. Other than that, I just made the best out of a bad situation. I knew something was wrong with me, but I didn’t have the power to fight the doctors or their test anymore.
About six months ago, the oncologist I was seeing to treat one of the symptoms related to autoimmune diseases, said to me, “Angela, I don’t know what autoimmune disease you have, but I know you have one of them or perhaps even one that we don’t have any history for right now.” She suggested I go see my family doctor again. which I did. Reluctantly. And the nurse practitioner happened to be on call that day. She looked at the rashes underneath my arms and my legs, and said, “Baby, that’s Lupus.” I cried. Not because I was afraid of the disease because I’ve seen some pretty difficult days related to it. No, I cried because she believed me. She didn’t say, “Lose 30 pounds and you’ll be fine or go to Planet fitness and you’ll be fine.” No, she validated what I’ve been knowing for a while. My body is sick. Period. It has good days, and bad days, but my body is not healthy, and it hasn't been for a while. I have learned to "fake the funk" but that's all I do. Which isn't nothing to sneeze at. I still work. I still write. I still do things in the community. But when I lay my head down at night, my body cries out at me for all that I do during the day to stress it.
So, I saw my new Rheumatologist a few weeks ago, and this is how 45 factors into my story. My doctor told me he wanted to put me on Hydroxychloroquine, but he needed to talk to me first. I will paraphrase, but it pretty much went like this. “I am hesitant to prescribe this medicine.” I said, “Because of the side effects?” He shook his head. “No, because I have patients who are abusing this medicine. Some are stockpiling it and not using it for their illness and others are giving it to family and friends who test positive for Covid-19 or who they fear will test positive.” I quickly chimed in: “You don’t have to worry about me. If 45 told me water was a necessity, I would start replacing it with dark liquor.” We both laughed, but then he got serious again. “I understand what you are saying, but the problem is, he has put this thought into people’s heads, and if someone sees their loved one dying of Covid-19, they will try anything, including giving them this drug. So, I need you to hear me. The only thing you need to use this drug for is your autoimmune disease. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. Understood?"
I said yes, of course, but I was completely pissed off that I had to sit through a lecture that was born out of the misinformation 45 has put out into the world. And then, it took days for my insurance company to approve the medication and a couple more days for the pharmacy to get it in stock. Tell me one time in history a sitting president has caused such chaos. Tell me one time in history where a sitting president acted like he was smarter than the health advisors. Oh, we have had some doozies in office. Don't get me wrong. But 45 takes it to a new and scary level. The FDA reports that over 100 people have died taking Hydroxychloriquine in an effort to treat Covid-19. We don't have to wonder where they got that idea from. "Dr. Michael Carome, director of the health research group at the patient advocacy group Public Citizen and a former FDA advisory committee member, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel President Donald Trump's "reckless promotion" of the drugs was partly to blame for the rise in adverse events."
Because of people misusing pain medicine, I am not able to get pain medicine without being treated like a drug addict, therefore, I just suffer in silence, and take Ibuprofen and hope it will at least knock the edge off the pain. Now, I have to do acrobatics to get a medicine that was not designed to do the things the president promised. His cavalier attitude has put thousands of people at risk. This medicine is deadly in the wrong hands. Hell, it’s deadly in the right hands. I am taking it because the pluses outweigh the minuses for me right now. But I am going to be closely monitored. My liver will be tested regularly. My eyes will be tested regularly. My kidneys and my heart will be tested regularly. My glucose levels will be tested regularly. BUT 45 didn’t tell the people all of that. He just gave people false hope and left it for them to figure out on their own.
Writing is my job. It is also what sustains me emotionally and spiritually, but at the end of the day, it is my job, and as a result of that fact, I must adopt “employee-like tendencies” at times. The days when I could write (or not), and no one would have a problem with that is over. Sometimes I miss that part of my life when I was ONLY writing for me, but for the most part, I am happy about the path I am currently on. Deadlines help me stay motivated and focused. Deadlines force me to write with a plan, instead of by the seat of my pantyhose.
Now that I am a paid author, I not only have to honor the characters’ “voices” that live inside of my head, I have to honor the contracts that bind me to my agent and my publisher. I am not complaining. This was the life I always dreamed about, but it does add an additional level of anxiety (sometimes downright panic) to my already anxious mentality.
Writing in the “Age of 45” and the “Age of Covid-19” is not easy. My mind demands that I keep up with the antics of this current president. My mind demands that I pay attention to the social activism that is happening around me so that I can see the best way I can serve my community and my people. My mind demands that I hold in my mind and spirit the deaths of these 159,000+ dead in the United States and the 706,000+ dead worldwide due to Covid-19. My mind is demanding a whole heck of a lot from me right now, and even with those “things I carry,” I still must birth these stories. I still must find ways to polish these “diamonds in the rough” that lurk in my mind. Basically, I still have to find a way to be “creative” when all I want to do is sit in my comfy recliner, watch The Great British Baking Show on repeat, and eat Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches all day. That is what I sometimes want to do, but it is not what is most expedient for my chosen path which is to be a writer.
So, a routine, for me, is absolutely necessary. I start my day by writing at least a sentence. I keep a journal by my bed for just that purpose. Because I live with chronic insomnia, I am usually awake when the clock strikes midnight, so often times, I will reach over for my notebook or open a note on my phone and type my “one sentence for the day,” or more, depending on how I feel. That way, no matter what the rest of my day looks like, I am usually good to go with my “quota.” But, if I am fortunate enough to fall asleep, I usually get up with the chickens, and the first thing I try to do is write. Whether it is for ten minutes, half an hour, or the entire day…I do not click on Facebook or the internet, or phone a friend until I have that one sentence underneath my belt. I will break a lot of rules, but that is not one of them. Does not matter if I am tired. Does not matter if I am swamped with other activities or obligations. Does not matter if I feel sick. I WILL get that one sentence (at least) done so I can at least mark that one task COMPLETE.
Also, I have limited my access to the news. Once I am done writing my one sentence, I will allow myself the privilege of scanning the news, but if it makes me feel overwhelmed (which happens most days), I give myself permission to stop reading. Then, I pick 15-20 minutes out of the day to listen to/watch MSNBC or CNN, and I NEVER listen to 45 talk anymore and I never watch for long if the anxiety starts to rise (which happens most days).
I also have rituals that I follow when I write. I always light candles. I have a specific scent for research (vanilla scent), a specific scent for writing (lavender scent), and a specific scent for editing/revision (jasmine scent). I make sure I ONLY light those candles when I am doing those tasks because it is my way of training my brain and nose that when you smell THAT scent, you get busy doing THAT task. It works for me.
Maybe there is another routine that will work for you. I also like to write outside in my swing when possible. And when there is no Covid-19, I plan to go to Louisville to The Brown Hotel and spend the weekend writing and ordering room service. I have done that with my other books, and the atmosphere there, thanks to it being my “dorm” when I was a student in the Spalding University low residency MFA in Creative Writing program is always conducive to my getting work done. It is also nice to have the doormen recognize me each time I show up on the hotel’s “doorstep.” The Brown is expensive. It is my rare treat for myself. You could easily do the same thing at an AirBnB, Motel Six, your best friend’s house, a cabin in the woods or a tent in your back yard.
Sometimes, It IS helpful to get out of our familiar spaces and go somewhere new to create/revise/etc.
I truly believe discipline is the key to being a successful writer. I know a lot of "talented" writers whose careers stalled or didn’t take off in the first place and sometimes, it was for things beyond their control, but other times, it was because they didn’t put their butt into that seat, but more than that, they didn’t schedule times to put their butts into that seat. I know, at roughly 6 am or 7 am, I am writing. Every. Single. Day. I know this just like I know that every day, I am going to get up, shower, and change. Make the writing part of the routine and then show up. Even if all you can do is type: I do not know what to say. I do not know what to say. I do not know what to say.
I understand showing up is not easy. I have lived with depression and anxiety my entire life. I have been living with Bipolar Disorder most of my teenage/adult life. I understand obligations. I teach and do a myriad of other things, but the writing is ALWAYS first. Always.
Yes, we are dealing with some other worldly kind of trauma right now but remind yourselves of the fact that whether you write or not, 45 is still going to be president. Whether you write or not, Covid-19 is still going to be around. Whether you write or not, life is going to go on both positively and negatively and everything in between, so why not do the one thing you can control which is write?
For more information about my books, click here. If you would like to take a class or hire me to be your writing coach, click here.
Let me preface this post by saying, this isn’t a post about getting six or seven figure advances. I know. You want to know how to make the big bucks. I don’t blame you. We all want to be paid for our worth, plus extra. Suffice it to say, if you get a publishing deal with one of the Big Five (Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan), it is a given you are going to get a pretty generous deal.
Now, are you going to get Stephen King money or J.K. Rowling money coming out the gate…probably not. But will you get “take a breath” money if you get a deal with a large size or medium size press? Yes, I can just about guarantee you that you will get an advance that will allow you to breathe (even if only for a month or two), and for writers, that is so very important. Most of us have never known the freedom to just write for a period of time. Most of us have only known writing in fits and starts. Writing before everyone gets up to start their day. Writing before going to the job. Writing during the train ride or bus ride to and from the office. Writing during lunch breaks and coffee breaks. But very few of us have known the joy and pleasure of wearing the writer’s hat only.
For me, the advance I received from Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins afforded me the opportunity to NOT teach this summer and teach part-time at my university for the next upcoming year. I’m also going to splurge on a new computer and then save the rest for a rainy day. But again, this post isn’t about the advance my agent was able to get me. This post is about something far more important.
A good agent is not just thinking about the advance. Now they ARE thinking about it because that is how they get paid, but they are also thinking about things that will have long-lasting impact beyond the check the publisher cuts soon after signing day. They are thinking about your long-term needs and goals as a writer. They are thinking about the next project and all of the ways your current project can be affected by the terms of the contract.
As authors, we just want to sign. When we found out Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins was interested in my book, I would have signed that very day. But thankfully, my agent, albeit excited too, understood, a book deal was only as good as the negotiation that took place. So, I forced myself to turn my attention back to writing, and stand back and allow my agent to do the job she signed up to do.
Rather than try and paraphrase some of the negotiations that took place, I reached out to my agent, Alice Speilburg at the Speilburg Literary Agency, and asked her, besides the money, what were some of things she fought for when negotiating my contract with Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins. This is what she said.
For your particular contract, I fought hardest for the following:
- Your ability to do other writing work outside of the confines of this project. This means narrowing what the publisher has an option on, or retaining subsidiary rights on this story, but also, narrowing the competition clause. Publishers want to make sure your book has the time and space to succeed, and that makes sense, but sometimes they ask for too much time and space. I removed a line in the contract that limited your ability to submit any other books to other publishers while you’re writing these books, and that prohibited any other publications until 6 months after the final book in the contract. That would likely be in 2023. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered in the end, but contracts are all about the "what if" scenario. Who knows what you would be inspired to write in the intervening time?
- Your approval of EVERYTHING. In this case, we licensed a lot of subsidiary rights to the publisher, and I wanted to make sure they would use them only with your input and approval. If your publisher wants to do a derivative project based on your book, or an adapted version, or an abridged version, or anything like that, they need author approval to proceed. They need author approval if they're going to put ads on the book (or ebook). They need author approval if they want to make a change to the text of the work for reasons other than fixing typos, grammar, and punctuation. Basically this allows you to maintain the integrity of the work we submitted.
- Keeping the agreements separately accounted. When I negotiated the initial offer for your book deal, the terms were this Agreement would be separately accounted from future agreements. That way, if this series is wildly successful and a future book hasn't earned out the advance, you don't have to wait on that book before you get paid for this one. I made a point to request that up front because they often won't agree to it at the contract stage. Sure enough, the contract had language saying that sums owed can be deducted from this Agreement or any other agreement between the author and publisher. So I had to remind the contracts department that the agreements are separately accounted. They cut that line and added the separate accounting note to clarify.
To be fair, these are things I have to add into most contracts. It's very rare to get a contract boilerplate that covers these items. Sometimes the things I fight for are much worse. Sometimes we cancel the deal because the terms are unreasonable and we can't reach a compromise. Other times I only have to add in deadlines for the publisher to respond to your manuscript or make a payment, and probably redefine the out-of-print clause that allows you to terminate the contract.
I wouldn’t have known to fight for these things. THAT is why an agent is so beneficial. Not only are they there to fight for your advances and payments, they are also there to fight for the things we as authors don’t know, and if the truth be known, don’t really need to know or want to know. My agent’s job is to make sure I can focus on the writing. That is my job. Her job is to make sure we get the best deal for what I write and what I learned through this process was the money was part of the negotiation but it wasn’t the part that meant the most to me, at the end of the day.
Maintaining the integrity of my work IS the most important thing to me. I built these characters from the ground up. I cried during their saddest moments and I laughed and celebrated during their happiest times. I am their Creator. I believe in them and will fight anyone to make sure they get the best opportunity to shine when revealed to the world. I needed an agent who had the same level of passion for those characters as I did and thankfully, Alice was that agent for me.
Finding the right agent is so important for a writer. For me, I wanted someone who could talk to me about my work AND negotiate like a pro. Not everyone is fortunate enough to find an agent who can do both. I was.
I have friends who only want a negotiator. They feel secure in their writing and they don’t desire their agent to do much more than sign off on the completed manuscript and then start fighting for the best deal. As I previously stated, I wanted a bit of both. I liked the fact that Alice and I could talk about my writing on the macro and micro level. I liked the fact that she saw things in the story that needed teasing out. I liked the fact that she loved books. Not every agent loves books, and I know that sounds strange but it is true. I know people with agents who never read the book their client writes. These non-reading agents give their client’s work to an assistant, the assistant works with the author, and the agent makes the deal. In essence, the agent is more like a legal strategist or lawyer (and there are agents out there who are lawyers…some use the name “literary attorneys.”).
I didn’t want that. So, if you are looking for an agent, think about your needs. Think about the kind of relationship you want to have with your agent. Don’t just sign with the first person who says they want to represent you. Ask pertinent questions like: What type of support do you offer your authors? Tell me about the last book you sold? How many clients do you have? Will you be working with me on fine-tuning my novel/book or will an assistant? What publishers do you feel would be a good fit for my work? What made you want to work with me?
Obviously, you want your agent to get you the best monetary deal, but really, you want someone who is going to do more than that. You want an agent who sees more than dollar signs when they see you. You want someone who sees the importance of your work and will fight like the dickens to make sure the world gets to read your words and you get the freedom to tell more stories, because after all, isn’t that what we are really after? The freedom to tell another story.
For more information about me and the books I write, click here. If you are looking for a writing mentor, click here.
He Stifled My Voice: Trying to Write Long After the Abuse Stopped (Trigger warning: abuse discussed)
I often think about myself in terms of B.A. and A.A – “before the abuse” and “after the abuse.”
I don’t have many memories of the person I was before the abuse because I was stripped of my innocence by an uncle at the age of eleven. Although the incident was a one-time event, forty one years ago, I can still call up the memory of that day in June, not long after my eleventh birthday, just like it was yesterday.
Daddy and my adopted mother were both going to be working that day and I had begged to stay at home. It would be my first time. Before then, I always went with one of them to their jobs. I would sit in a corner and read or sit in the back of daddy’s pickup truck while he worked on houses or did plumbing. But I was a big girl, and I wanted to prove that I could stay at home and be okay. Daddy’s final words before he left were, “Don’t open the door to anyone.” I said sure, gave him a hug, and went back to reading my new summer book, Roots, by Alex Hailey.
I loved the language in the book Roots. I loved the discovery of a world where my ancestors resided before they were touched by slavery. I loved the idea of the community where Kunta Kinte resided, in the Mandinka village of Juffure, soaking up familial love. I was fascinated by those relationships. As an adopted child, I was always curious about other families, particularly those that stayed intact, and on this particular day, Kunta had not become a grown Mandinka warrior yet, captured by white slave catchers. He was still a boy, innocent like me. It wasn’t until days later that I realized he and I had so much in common. He lost his family too, and like Kunta, I began a journey to find what was lost to me.
From the moment I was told I was adopted, I had dreamed of and written stories about who my real mother was and what our story would look like if she came for me. I never daydreamed about a daddy, because M.C. Jackson fulfilled that role to the letter from the first day he took me into his arms. But a mother – that was my dream. I knew if she could just find me, I would be complete. So, I wrote stories about our reunion all of the time. I filled little notebooks with my innocent, childlike dreams of rescue and redemption.
And then, that summer day in June happened. I was wearing a red, white and blue short set. My body was already beginning to fill out. I had been told by my adopted mother that we needed to buy me additional clothing because I was growing so fast. She also said I needed to start covering myself up more, and not walking around in revealing clothes. She had even started me to wearing a bra and a girdle whenever I went out, but I was at home, so I figured, I would be safe from whatever dangers she was hinting at because see…she never had “the talk” with me. Oh, she would hint at things but the language was always so ambiguous and so coded that my child’s mind never truly understood what I was being warned against. Somewhere around ten in the morning, he knocked and, because I knew him, I did not think he was the boogieman I had been warned about. Here is where I will stop THAT part of the story, and fast forward to afterwards. A.A.
I remember picking up the fried baloney sandwich that I had made before he came to the house and throwing it and the glass of grape Kool-Aid against the wall next to the refrigerator. Then I looked for bleach. Bleach would clean and purify, my eleven year old brain decided. Thank goodness I didn’t irreparably harm myself as I diluted it in water and washed, and washed, and washed myself. “What will wash away my sins…Nothing but the blood…” I remember Bob Barker was on and they were spinning the big wheel. Someone won a lot of money that day. I remember gathering my clothes that I had worn and then, as an afterthought, I grabbed my notebooks with my innocent stories of being rescued by my mother. In that moment, I determined no one was going to save me. I went outside and burned my clothes and my notebooks inside daddy’s barbecue grill. I remember the hotness felt comforting. I remember contemplating getting inside that grill. Thankfully I didn’t.
I remember going back inside and sitting at the dining room table, just inches away from where the incident took place. I remember looking down and seeing the silver dollar on the table where he had placed it. Payment in full. His final words were, “Don’t tell.” I remember tossing that silver dollar across the room and it landed somewhere underneath the couch. That same couch is still there. I wonder, did anyone ever find that silver dollar? Years later, my husband, Robert, innocently showed me a silver dollar he had saved. I remember having a panic attack and screaming. He got rid of that silver dollar that day.
Trying to be a writer after that day in June, has been difficult. My stories lack innocence. Happy is hard-fought for my characters. I used to believe in fairytales and happily ever after, but that man took those schoolgirl thoughts and obliterated them with one single act. I try to write about romantic love and immediately I become overwhelmed and afraid. Afraid for myself as I try to find words to make an act that I still have difficulties with envisioning as anything other than violence. I try to focus on the beauty of intimacy but the smell of beer, cigarettes, and pork rinds enter into my brain, leaving me with no words.
I have been working on a love scene in my new book for days now. I tried to make a joke about my social awkwardness when it comes to writing about intimacy. I thought if I laughed about it I could move past the flood of images of that faithful day in June when that man stole my voice and left me struggling to find words again.
It is not easy writing through pain. I do it so often that it becomes second nature to me. I do violence to my characters because that is what feels most natural to me. Even when I give them happiness it is often overshadowed by their sadness and pain. After the abuse, that became my writing pattern. No more did I write about an unknown mother coming to rescue the innocent young girl. No, she never found her way into my work again. Mothers abandon their children and leave them wide open for pain. I just realized this morning, that every book I have written has an absent mother. Sometimes by choice, other times because of situations out of their control, but every single time, the child is left, in my stories, to fend for themselves.
He took away my hope and my belief in the impossible that day, two things a writer must have in order to succeed. I learned how to triage my work and make up for my lack of childlike innocence when I write, but I always wonder what type of stories I would have written had I been left to mature and develop in a normal way.
I never pray that anyone goes to hell, assuming there really is a big caldron of fire that torments people for all eternity. But I do believe, if there is justice in this universe, people should be required, after they die, to spend some time in the afterlife contemplating the choices they made while here and depending on how they lived their lives, that will be their reward or their torment.
I am thankful that I found a voice that allows me to write. Yes, sometimes it is sad and awkward and dark, but it is a voice, nonetheless. Not the voice I had or the voice I was developing, but a new voice. It is an uncomfortable voice at times, but it is all that I have.
My editor at Thomas Nelson (HarperCollins), Kimberly, wrote the following message to me in the editorial notes for my next book, When Stars Rain Down:
"I don’t think I can start this editorial letter without acknowledging that my editorial eyes are white. I’m acutely conscious that I’m editing a story written by a Black woman about Black people, and there might be moments—despite my best efforts to listen and educate myself—where I get something wrong because of that. If that happens, please know that you have the space to push back and let me know."
I have been fortunate in my writing career to have some great editors for my work and in most cases, they have all been white. And for any of you who have ever read my writing, you know my stories generally involve Black, southern, rural characters. So, I always have a bit of trepidation when I surrender my work to an editor because often they don’t share the same region or ethnicity as my characters, and because of that fact, I prepare myself to be offended or worse, put in a position where I have to defend my artistic choices, which aren’t really choices, but are more like obligations I owe to the ancestors to get their stories down correctly and with the utmost respect.
Therefore, when I received that note from Kimberly, I breathed a sigh of relief. In a way, I looked at my characters and said to them, “We don’t have to fight today. She gets it.” And what I mean by that is I could be myself and my characters could be themselves. They could split infinitives and use colloquialisms and not feel judged. They could be domestic workers and sharecroppers by day, and complex, loving souls at night without worrying about the white gaze reacting in a condescending manner towards them. They could follow the traditions of their ancestral religions and Christianity and not be judged harshly for the amalgamation of those multiple, spiritual beliefs. They could celebrate births and deaths with loud screams and shouts, and no one would call them out on it.
That is a huge deal for a writer in general, but it is a mind-blowing deal for Black writers or writers of color. We are used to writing our stories and then defending them like someone in a court of law because often times there is no one in the room who truly “gets” them. We struggle to make everything “clear” to the point of sometimes sacrificing the story for an overabundance of telling, not showing.
A survey by Lee and Low found that “in the [publishing] industry overall, 76% of employees are white, 74% are cis women, 81% are straight, and 89% are non-disabled. At the executive level, 78% are white, 60% are cis women, 82% are straight, and 90% are non-disabled” (Maher). This explains why it is so difficult for those of us who are considered “outside the canon” to find homes for our work.
For the writer who is The Other, it is often difficult getting one’s foot into the door, but then once you make it on the other side, it becomes even more complicated because so often editors will want to “sanitize” the work or make the work have more of a crossover appeal. In the 1991 Robert Townsend movie, The Five Heartbeats, one of the characters, Eddie King, said something that stuck with me all of these years later when it came to “crossing over” with our music or in my case, my writing. King said, “Cross-over ain’t nothing but a double-cross. Once we lose our audience, we’ll never get them back. Next thing you know, they will try to change our sound.”
More than being published, I have always been most concerned with being authentic to the stories I told, and the people I imagined were my readers. Granted, I want as many people as possible to read my work, but I specifically care what readers who come from my background think. I want them to read my upcoming novel, When Stars Rain Down, and say to themselves, “That’s my Big Mama. Or that’s my Cousin. Or that’s me.” I want those readers to feel a kinship to the imaginary characters I’ve created, so for them, I am always willing to fight for every word, every phrase, every symbol that reflects Black, southern, rural culture.
Therefore, you cannot imagine how excited I was to receive that message from Kimberly. It’s never about the ethnicity of the editor for me (or their gender, sexuality, etc.), it’s always about “Will they listen to me? Will they recognize that I am the authority in this world?” Once that happens, I am always open to the fine-tuning that I am asked to do. When I know I am not going to hear, “Does she REALLY have to speak in broken English?” OR “Is this really something a Black person would say or do?” I then have the freedom to allow my characters to soar unapologetically, and for me, that is all that matters.
Maher, John. “New Lee and Low Survey Shows no Progress on Diversity in Publishing.”
Publisher’s Weekly. 29 January 2020.
A few years ago, I was playing competitive tennis in my age range. I was in my forties and although I didn’t win every match, I ALWAYS went hard! I didn’t mind slamming a ball with all my might towards my opponent, and there wasn’t a ball I wasn’t willing to try and run down even if I sort of knew there was very little likelihood that I would make it to said ball in time. I NEVER stopped fighting for that point. Never.
I played my last tennis match in January of 2017 due to health issues, but I would like to believe I still have that fighting spirit even now in my writing. Especially now. Too much is happening for me and my pen to stand on the sidelines. I might not be able to get out there and march; I might not be able to run for political office; I might not be able do a lot of things that others can, but I can write a poem in protest. I can write a letter to the mayor or the police chief. I can make slogans to go on the signs of those who can march. I can donate my time and talent to helping write a letter for someone who has been treated unfairly at a march or rally and they need to “document the moment” in writing. I can write an essay like this encouraging my friends who write to dedicate one blog post to saying “Black Lives Matter” or “Police Brutality is Wrong” or “Let’s Get Out and Vote.” I can write a daily post on social media that shows the world that I stand for justice and I don’t care who knows it. I can find a way to use my words to give back because giving back is the whole point of this dance around this planet. If your entire existence is based on receiving and not giving, why are you here? If your existence is based on never speaking the truth except in low whispers or in someone’s Messenger box, then why are you here? IF you have nothing “writerly” to offer to this moment and you call yourself a writer, I wonder about you. I wonder why you are wasting your talent. I wonder why you even bother to write if you truly have nothing to say about right now.
I loved playing tennis from the time I first started playing in high school, but I was never going to be Serena Williams. But words? Man, words have always been my thing. Not because I was some child prodigy or a savant of the written word, but because like Serena, I have tried to dedicate my life to getting the word on the page just right. Serena says she will spend hours hitting the same shot over and over. I have sat and labored over the right word or the right sentence for hours, even when others would have walked away and said the sentence was fine.
So why in the world would I NOT use my words to rebel? Why wouldn’t I use my words to say, in the words of Al Sharpton, “America, get your knee off our necks”? Why wouldn’t I wax poetic about injustice, racism, intolerance, hatred, white supremacy? Why wouldn’t I take time out of my busy writing schedule to shed a verbal light on the marching going on just miles from my home?
I can’t march with them, but I can tell the story. I can be an Oracle. I can be a Griot. I can commemorate this moment and say on behalf of myself and my brothers and sisters in the fight, Enough. We’ve had enough, and we will not take any more. The season of hatred on our watch, is over. I can say that. I can write that.
The first poem I ever wrote was a few days after I was sexually assaulted. It was the summer of 1979. I was eleven. Most of what I wrote before that was stories, but I can’t tell you what they were about. I have vague memories of romantic stories about faery princesses who looked like me or stories where my birth mother mysteriously found me and rescued me from whippings and hurtful words from my adopted mother, but I couldn’t pull up the exact words to save my life of any of those little girlish stories. But that poem that I wrote days after being violated, I remember it verbatim. I remember being on my bed with my matching Cinderella sheets and comforter pulled over me like a cocoon. I remember daddy asking me if I wanted to go to Ozark with him and me saying no. I pretty much stayed to myself that summer. I felt exposed on the outside, so my bed became my refuge but so did the words. So the eleven year old who now had to see the world with a different clarity wrote this:
My heart began racing, as he began chasing
I knew that the games had begun
Uncle I love you, but don’t make me touch you
Oh god make him leave me alone.
If the sun would just come out, or if mommy would find out
Then maybe I wouldn’t have to run
But the night will not let up, so I will just shut up
And pray for the day that I’m grown.
The trauma I was experiencing when I wrote this poem was unimaginable. No child should ever have to live with the pain of being assaulted and the pain of not being believed BUT I survived thankfully because of the writing. I chose, even at a young age, to allow the writing to be my balm of Gilead.
I know it is not easy trying to find the “right words” when it feels like the world is burning all around us, but if you look at the writing as your one place where you are in control, then maybe it can bring you solace. I know I can’t control this current administration. I know I can’t control racists who prey on black and brown people. I know I can’t control this virus that is ravaging our country. But I can control my imaginary worlds. Even when my characters are struggling with their own lives, I get to control what happens, and for me, a control freak from way back, I need to be able to control something. So, for me, the writing is truly a balm.
Don’t worry about sounding academic or literary when you write during this season we are living through. Just let the words carry you away. Write with the same wild abandonment of a child. No concern about form or structure. No concern about character development. No concern about plot or story arch. Just the words. The Holy Bible says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Whether you believe in a God or not, there should be something comforting in thinking that before there was an US, there were words (yes, I’m adding my own spin to that verse.). I imagine these words just floating around the atmosphere, waiting for thinking beings to BECOME so that these words could attach themselves to these beings.
When my daddy was dying of lung cancer, I would sit beside him at chemotherapy and scribble in my notebook. The more anxious I became, the more I wrote. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my first book, Drinking from a Bitter Cup was being born during all of that trauma. I remember one time daddy looked over at me and smiled and said, “You’ve been writing in notebooks since you were a little girl. Whatcha writing about?”
I remember simply saying, “Everything.”
Write yourselves into a better place. It doesn’t have to be publishable. It just needs to free your soul for a brief time. Writing during a pandemic or any other traumatic time is difficult. Mainly because we expect our writing to be the same as it is during normal times. Trust me when I say, it won’t be, but that is okay. You’re using your writing as triage. It is there for you to use to prop you up until the storm is over.
Here are some strategies I use to get myself to a good space:
1. Clean the space of negative energy. Meaning, turn off the television or turn it to something calming. I often have mine tuned to the Game Show Network or The Great British Baking Show. Those sounds are my white noise. I also listen to good music. Sometimes the music of the era I’m writing in.
2. Set small, attainable writing goals. My friend and the Associate Director for Communications and Alumni Relations at Spalding University in the low residency MFA program, Katie Yocom (author of: Three Ways to Disappear), gave me the best writing advice ever several years ago. She said, “Make your writing goal one sentence per day. You’ll probably write more, but if not, you will at least have a goal that is attainable.” I have followed this advice ever since and so far, I have seldom missed my “goal.”
3, Treat yourself when you do reach your goals. It can be something as simple as eating ice cream or something major like, “Once I reach 40,000 words I am treating myself with a new laptop.” You decide the goals and the treats.
4. Create an outline. If you don’t know where you are going, you will meander about, wasting valuable writing time. I spend months figuring out my story arch. Knowing that arch allows me to continue on a forward path no matter if we are in the midst of a pandemic or if times are going great. Either way, I know what I need to do, so I just get down and get busy doing what I have to do.