Thursday, February 28, 2008


As a writer, I need to know all sorts of arcane stuff. When I'm writing fantasy, of course I get to make a lot of it up--but I have to have a bit of an idea where the stuff I'm making up comes from. However, fantasy isn't all I write.

I'm currently working on a historical novel set in WWII, in China and the Pacific. There's a LOT of research involved.

So, last night I had a banquet to go to. The fella is in higher education, and we got invited to the local Chamber of Commerce awards banquet. This year, it was held in an airplane museum, which is in large part a series of interconnected hangars full of vintage airplanes. Unheated hangars.

Now, we're on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, so it's not like we battle a lot of snowstorms. Or even much in the way of cold weather. But when it's 60 F outside (or slightly below), and the inside isn't heated--that's just a little too cold to be sitting around eating dinner. It got cold in that hangar. But that's really not the point of this post.

See--there were all these old airplanes. I got a big kick out of wandering around looking at them. There was a B-17 bomber--the old Flying Fortress--those are some big birds. And an RAF Spitfire. There was a PBY Catalina "flying boat." And then I saw it. A plane with its wings folded up, almost making an A-frame over its long body. The EXACT plane flown by the hero in the book I'm working on.

I got all excited and went to walk around it, studied how the anchor bars holding the wings in their folded position were fastened on, looked at as many details as I could try to grab hold of.
Then, when I mentioned that it was THE plane, one of the ladies at our table mentioned that she was friends with one of the higher-ups at the museum, and could probably get me a close-up look at the cockpit, maybe even arrange for me to take pictures.

Serendipity happens like that. When you need a particular thing, so many times it just falls in your lap. I wasn't even looking for information when I went to this dinner. It just appeared.

Sometimes it's an opportunity. Sometimes it's information you need. Sometimes it's a person. What kind of wonderful thing has happened to you like that? Share your serendipity.

Monday, February 25, 2008

thinking of the magical negro

Recently, I did an interview with Geralyn Beauchamp about her book, Time Masters: Book One, The Call.

Then, later, in yet another discussion among black specfic writers, I actually found myself defending the magical negro. Ah gee, how did that happen? Actually, it's not as if I defended that type of character. I just kinda excused white writers who use them. Yes, i do groan whenever this kind of character pops up in a book written by a white character. But I don't bent out of shape as some of my black colleagues do.

Okay, okay, I've heard the arguments against these characters:
1) characters like these pretend to be making us minorities look like good people but it's just another way of dehumanizing us and taking away our individuality.

Yeah, yeah...

As I said to my black friends -- and I was resoundedly challenged and put down for this-- sometimes white writers are trying to do a quota thing. In an email recently with Sylvia Kelso, she mentioned that Connie Willis did not mention any black people in the novel Lincoln's Dreams. Sylvia thought a black character was needed. I, on the other hand, thought... heck, if there was no room for a black character in the story... why put a black character into the story?

And yet, I DO kinda have patience with white writers who feel they need to put a person of color into a book. I remember hearing a Jewish author talk about how annoying it was to see Jews pop up in books merely to "mean" something or to be a symbol. I have seen so many books in which black folks and Jewish folks and Hispanic folks are in books simply to "mean" something.

So there are two reasons for this Magical Negro inclusion bit:

One, a white writer needs to symbolize a triumphant, noble, suffering person...and who best to put in to "mean" this kind of thing but a black person or a Jewish person or a spiritual Native American tree-hugger?

Two, the white writer sometimes needs to put in a black person because the white writer wants to say something about racism. Okay, sometimes it's done badly. Sometimes we're stuck with a poor starving black child of a drug-addicted black mom and they are rescued by a liberal kind-hearted white person. That is the "we as whites are put on earth to raise up the blacks" mentality. Of course this kind of thing is offensive. The "take up the white man's burden" kind of liberality or the "take up the white female's burden" type of liberalness and feminism does make a minority woman of color (whether the white woman is "helping" an Iranian women wearing a hajib or a poor little suffering latina escaping to El Norte or a deluded innocent Christian woman who has been oppressed by the evil patriarchal Christian world or a poor little uneducated black woman with great faith).

But what if the white writer wanted to do something against racism? Stephen King, for instance, is from Maine. I have no doubt -- no doubt, whatsover-- that he does these magical negro types because he lives among folks in Maine who well....may or may know any real Negroes...and who may very well have racist ideas about us. (One day I'll tell you my story about a trip I had in New England. Right now, sufficeth to say, Stephen is probably doing a great job of enlightening certain folks.) I mean...some groups have actually benefitted by being shown as magical. I have yet to hear a gay person complain about the use of the magical gay person in movies, TV, and books. That magical, funny, quirky, witty, idiosyncratic, and just-so-cuddly eccentric magical gay person and the suffering, noble, triumphant gay person has done a lot for making homosexuality more acceptable in modern society. And I have no doubt that all those wise-cracking jolly fat women who roam television have also helped (in some weird way) the black cause. And I am sure that all those movies in which an illegal alien from Mexico is shown as a sweet-faced oppressed person...have colored our view of the immigration degate. So there is some kind of benefit in these portrayals. Heck, even if they can't see us as humans, they at least see us as objects of humor or pity.

But back to my point...reasons for possibly excusing the magical negro. There is the question of honoring a person. By which I mean...what if the white racist actually did come from some lily-white town and actually knew a lovely kind black or minority person who was a symbol of strength and peace. Folks, this kind of thing still happens in this country. This is what Geralyn mentioned in her interview. In her small little town in the west, she had a black teacher. There are black folks all over this country doing the magical negro stuff in their daily lives. (Okay, in real life, they probably are as weak as anyone else...but in their public life as the only black person in the middle of nowhere, they dang well are triumphanting nobly.) What do we do with a black writer who wants to honor such a person?

So, I dunno.... I'm still kinda on the fence when it comes to whether I actually think magical negroes are a totally bad thing. Or maybe I just think that white writers who use them are not so very bad. And honestly, I'm not gonna jump down the throats of any white writer who includes in her novel something that makes me cringe. Of course, I do kinda groan when I see how religious people are treated in books by secular writers. And I'm hoping that whether my books are overtly religious (as in Wind Follower) or subtly so, that those who read my books will finish the book saying, "I know now what a real black person is like. I know now what a real religious person acts like. I will never again indulge in stereotyping magical people, as stupid-in-need-of-enlightenment people, or as evil people." IF I can do that, then I will have succeeded. -C

southern gothic

Yesterday i saw Monster's Ball. I haven't seen that film in years. Totally had forgotten how Christian the thing is. It's up there with The Apostle, Tender Mercies, Come Early Morning, Miss Firecracker, and a few others as really great spiritual stuff happening in everyday working class settings.

Of course, there are sexual and racial issues in some of this stuff...and I'm not saying that all movies about southerners dealing with their spirituality is free from racism....but these truly are films that delve into grace, persevereance, soul-searching and Christian spirituality.

Of course there are other great films out there that deal with spirituality: A prayer for the Dying, Festen, and the like. And I have to see the film The Bad Lieutenant one of these days (weird sex scenes and all). But what I like about this Southern Gothic thing is the way the authors just unabashedly drop you into the characters' spiritual world. That takes a lotta balanced world-building. The screenwriter has to show a possibly unlikable character (to American viewers who seem to have been trained to judge the likeability of story characters), the writer has to show how the character's religiousness exists side-by-side with the characters' crappy sinful traits. This is often tough because religious readers/viewers are always ready to judge religious characters and reject them for either doctrinal or behavioral reasons. And it's also tough because non-religious people are always ready to see Christians as deluded evil hypocrites anyway. The writer might also have to put in some supernatural stuff into the novel. And all this has to be shown in a casual normal natural way.

I'm glad I saw it. It's inspiring me with my present Work-in-Progress, the novel presently called Inheritance. Am trusting God I can carry it off.

Friday, February 15, 2008

In praise of editors

This in response to Carole’s comments about those mistakes in our books that we only notice when it's much too late ("Book Flaw Meme")

We all need editors (where would Thomas Wolfe have been without Maxwell Perkins?) and good ones, I think, are no longer easy to come by. To have the chance to work with a good one is a matter for much rejoicing. A month of hard slogging on the final draft of my latest young adult historical, in partnership with a skilled and astute editor at a small Canadian literary press, has left me tired but very grateful. I was equally pleased with Paula Guran’s thoughtful, unobtrusive copy-editing of Juno’s Sarsen Witch reissue.

Too often I pick up a book by a well-known author and find it riddled with typos. A recent winner of Canada’s prestigious Governor-General’s Award confused “lie” with “lay” – not once but twice. Clearly the copy-editor had nodded off at his/her desk. A friend reading a novel from a large and respected British publishing house counted something like forty mistakes in the first few chapters. She fired off an indignant letter to the publisher, enumerating the errors. The publisher, with typical British aplomb, wrote back to thank her for the corrections, and suggested that she let them know if she found any others. My friend’s response was, “Certainly – and my editing fee is….”

My first novel back in the eighties got caught up in the publisher’s change of ownership, when apparently there was no copy-editor. When I received the page proofs, I saw that almost every one of my typos had been faithfully reproduced, and a few more added for good measure. On the other hand, there’s the copy-editor from hell, who makes as many changes as possible in order to look productive. I had one of those, years ago. He or she felt compelled not only to correct my mistakes, but to completely change my style. (Fortunately the editor in charge intervened, and allowed me to change everything back.)

So this is a slightly belated Valentine to the good editors of this world – may their tribe increase!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Elegant Neurosis

Balance, balance, balance!

Well, i'm only about 120 pages into Inheritance, The Claimed, or whatever it's going to be called. There I am writing along and sending sex scenes to Sylvia Kelso, the author of Amberlight and to Robert Fleming, the author of Fever in the Blood.

Both of them think the sex scene is cold. Well, ...uh...yeah. I tend to write third person novels very coldly. But also, I write sex scenes very coldly and distantly. Maybe it's cause I'm a little sexually cold myself. (Am just putting that out there but I don't think I am. At least I hope I'm not.) But the other problem, that Rob pointed out, was that I am putting too much of myself into the book.

Now, that is one of my major issues as a writer. I tend to put all my soul and self into a novel. That is the blessing and the curse of my writing. An elementary teacher of mine, my french teacher, Mrs Meyerowitz, used to say that the blessing was the curse. So my blessing, and the beauty of my stories is that I put all my joy, pain, and idiosyncracies into my stories.

For instance: ever since my East-Indian half-sister told me my father liked her better because she was light-skinned, I have never been able to look into a mirror. (Trust me, you would not want to see what I look like now.) I gave this trait to Satha, my main female character in Wind Follower.

Another example: My father cheated on my mother relentlessly. Mercifully, she divorced him. I have such an issue with adultery it isn't sane. So what do i do with it? I give it to Loic, my main male character in Wind Follower. The kid hates his adulterous step-mother even more than his father does...and even his father calls him on it: "You carry my offense as if it were your own." (Something like that. I don't have the book with me.)

My issues about the death of my mother and my existential despair over my own health of course pops into the book in a couple of Satha's soliloquies...even her fear that the Creator or her husband would not abandon her.

So yeah....everything...and I mean EVERYTHING....that goes on in my spiritual, physical, familial, and psychological life ends up in my stories. That's what makes my stories beautiful, i think. Not the beauty of the words, but the honesty and the self-revealing of my soul.

But dang! When I'm writing these things, I have to be very careful. At a storytelling conference, I once heard a storyteller say, "Storytelling is my most elegant use of my neurosis." That's what I aim for....elegance. Yeah, I want my neurosis out there in the book. But I want them to be so wonderfully rendered (nice word that, like clarified oil out of gross fat) that only the purity of soul and the soul's need for God and clarity can shine forth.

So back to this sex scene and to inheritance/the claimed/whatever. I am writing a love story between a kid 27 year old bi-racial Chinese-Native American guy and a Jamaican-American dark-skinned woman who is 48. And I have to see if I a dark-skinned black woman can actually believe that this could happen. (Sure it has happened in real life...and I think it's kinda cute when some cute young thing develops a crush on me. But I never take it matter how much the kid takes it seriously.) And that's the problem now. My female character has to take it seriously. She HAS to. She has to get rid of the familial and societal brainwashing and believe she can be loved.

And I have to believe it to. Or else the thing just won't work. The Bible says a true witness delivers souls. So as a Christian writer, I believe I am called to be a witness of what is true about the power of love, spiritual beauty and change. So, I have to make her journey neurotic and true....but also elegant.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Carl Brandon Society Recommended Books for 2008 Black History Month

The Carl Brandon Society is a writing group dedicated to promoting science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy written by people of color. Their list of recommended books for 2008 are as follows:

recommends the following books for BLACK HISTORY MONTH:

• "So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy"
edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan

• "Parable of the Sower" by Octavia Butler
• "Dhalgren" by Samuel R. Delany

• "My Soul to Keep" by Tananarive Due

• "The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad" by
Minister Faust
• "Mindscape" by Andrea Hairston

• "Wind Follower" by Carole McDonnell

• "Futureland" by Walter Mosley

• "The Shadow Speaker" by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

• "Zahrah the Windseeker" by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu


• PARALLAX AWARD given to works of speculative fiction created by a
person of color: "47" by Walter Mosley

• KINDRED AWARD given to any work of speculative fiction dealing with
issues of race and ethnicity; nominees may be of any racial or ethnic
group: "Stormwitch" by Susan Vaught

Book Flaw Meme

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of my favorite writers, once stated that his book One Hundred Years of Solitude had 99 mistakes. Seeing my experience with Wind Follower, I can TOTALLY BELIEVE this.

Okay, unlike Marquez, I didn't forget I had killed off a character and have said character show up later. (I know better than to write: "All in the house were killed that night." Generalizing like that is just asking for trouble.)

Okay, I'll be the first to be painfully honest here....

I'm not talking about typos...Heck...that's not my fault. It's the copy-editor. Granted I should type and proof better but, well....

I'm talking about errors of continuity: Did I say it was night? If so, why, three paragraphs later, is the sun shining? I did this TWICE!!!

I'm talking memory lapses: Did I give the Third Wife brown hair at the beginning and make it red later on? I can only imagine what I did with eye color.

I'm talking unintentional humor because of bad editing and/or purple prose: "Standing in front of me, his fingers played upon my lips."

I'm talking about "the missing scene" which you should have written but simply didn't think of writing until the book had been published a year: I SOOO wish I had written a scene where Loic finds the body of a discarded decomposing newborn baby.

Now, who will I tag with this meme?

I think I'll tag Stacia Kane,
Greg Banks, moondancerdrake

Then tag three other people.

Friday, February 1, 2008


Well, am in the first part of my WIP Inheritance. (Which I might be calling "Til all these things be done") and once again my characters are embattled.

I have to speak a word about embattledness and the dangers of melodrama. I am a total believer that there are a few folks in life who are embattled on many sides, that there is always human darkness, demonic darkness, world issues that get in the way of folks living some kind of a good, happy, or sane life.

The depiction of these kind of characters can either lead to wonderful heroes (in fantasy) or melodrama (in mainstream novels). There's also the question of believability. One wants to push the envelope by holding a mirror up to life -- as some great writer once said-- but at the same time holding up that mirror may not work because some folks simply are not going to believe that all that crap can happen to one person.

Let's say one has had -- or one knows a person who has had-- a really tough life. Then one really has to choose what aspects of that life one will describe and what aspects one will leave out of the story. Or else it won't work for some folks who think you're just engaging in character torture.

I had a Wyoming pen-pal who said to me once, "I don't see why black folks talk about racism. It's as if they think no one has suffered. I've suffered too. I had a child out of wedlock. I was married to a drunk." I realized to my extreme surprise that she thought that the ONLY problem black folks had was racism. She didn't realize that some Black folks have had her problems as well but then race gets added into the mix. Racism is just hard for some folks to understand. I'll just say, "Imagine dealing with having to take one's mother off life support and then add racist doctors and racist social workers in the mix." OR add "Anti-Christian racist doctors." Trust me, folks, it's a trip!

Black writers have to write a story that gives a character the sorrows of regular life ...and at the same time has to slip into the story the sorrows that racism brings. I've read stories that seem to be about either one or the other but not both. And I've read stories that have both of these challenges. Add being a Christian to the mix, or being sickly...and well...folks don't realize you're telling all your heart and sharing your experiences of life. They think you're piling it on.

I suppose one could compartmentalize one's sorrows into different books but what's the use of that? Not that a writer writes to be known by all her readers, but she writes to explain something. And I want to write about being embattled.(With of course some religion and kinky sex thrown in. We're talking succubus, after all.)