Thursday, October 27, 2016

Understanding Multicultural Fiction

I would honestly have to say that multicultural fiction ranks up there as some of the toughest writing to do successfully. And yet, when it is done well, a reader can truly be sucked into a world that might be different from anything they personally experience in their own life. What I find, however, is that far too many authors really miss the mark when trying to write this genre.

It is important to understand the purpose behind multicultural fiction. In many ways, this genre is similar to women's fiction. As you know I have defined here on this blog (and also on my website) that women's fiction is not just a story with a female protagonist, but a story that gives us a glimpse of the world through the female lens. It gives the reader a chance to understand the world from a female perspective. When it comes to multicultural fiction, we are immersing ourselves as readers in a world and seeing how things look from within that culture. 

To understand this genre, we need to really understand what we mean by culture. According to some information from Texas A & M, we can see some basic definitions to work with for the term "culture":

  • Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.
  • Culture is the systems of knowledge shared by a relatively large group of people.
  • Culture is communication, communication is culture.
  • Culture in its broadest sense is cultivated behavior; that is the totality of a person's learned, accumulated experience which is socially transmitted, or more briefly, behavior through social learning.
  • A culture is a way of life of a group of people--the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.
  • Culture is symbolic communication. Some of its symbols include a group's skills, knowledge, attitudes, values, and motives. The meanings of the symbols are learned and deliberately perpetuated in a society through its institutions.
  • Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other hand, as conditioning influences upon further action.
  • Culture is the sum of total of the learned behavior of a group of people that are generally considered to be the tradition of that people and are transmitted from generation to generation.
  • Culture is a collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.
When we look at these definitions, we can see what needs to show up in multicultural fiction to really bring this genre alive. It is not simply about putting multicultural characters in a book, or inserting different foreign words in a text. it is about bringing forth all of the elements of that culture.

Look at some of the concepts in these definitions:
  • Culture is communication, communication is culture.
  • the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept
  • Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit
  • learned behavior of a group of people that are generally considered to be the tradition
In other words, we are seeing how a group of people might act and behave that goes beyond simply the external things we are used to. For example, if we are talking about a Latino family, we want to go beyond the food that they eat or the words they use for their family members. We want to see how they work with each other. We want to see the values and the relationships that they have come to grow up with over time. 

This becomes difficult on two levels. The first is finding that natural balance so that you can still tell a great story but not get overwhelmed by the language and the culture. The story itself still needs to be accessible to the readers.

The second level, and this is one that is especially hard in the present day, is to tell the story and yet not have the reader thinking it is "stereotypical." One of my authors, writes Asian American women's fiction. She has immersed the reader into a Chinese American home with parents who are immigrants to the US. Language is not something that is natural to the parents, so when we read the dialogue, it comes across as things people would scream are "politically incorrect." And yet, it is real.

For an author, we have to think of the culture as being another character in the book. The culture is a living and breathing species that needs to be authentic if we want to have the readers see the world through that lens. Again, it is not just about changing a few names. It is presenting reality.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Sometimes Your Story Just Won't Sell

What most authors will find in agent contracts is a little clause that says something to this effect: We cannot promise that we can sell your story.

Despite all of our efforts as agents, there will be times when we completely fall in love with a project and we can't get a publisher to buy into the project. We see the future of the project. We believe in it. Heck, the publisher might even love it, but in the end, the market might not be right for it.

Surprisingly, this happens a lot more than we would want. But it is the reality of this business.

I like to bring this up because I do believe there is a belief that many authors have, that if they have an agent, their book will sell. I also see this a lot when authors decide that their prior agent "just couldn't get the job done." What we have to remember is that there are a lot of different variables that come into play when we market books. It isn't always just about the quality of the writing or who the author is.

So, what do we do when a story doesn't sell? There are several options.
  1. We can simply shelve the book and wait until the market shifts. In most cases, that shift might happen in a relatively short time. Shelving the book also gives us a chance to discuss the idea with editors in a casual setting. It is amazing how, sometimes, over drinks at a conference, an idea just "sounds great" and the book will sell that way.,
  2. Some authors will consider shifting to a digital market, or even shifting to a self-publishing model. Although this sounds like a quick way to get that book out there to the readers, it might not be the best approach. If you don't have a great digital track record, or the book is really not that strong right now, it might tie the book up and when the right time shows up, there would be nothing we could do to help it.\
Like so many things out there in this business, there is not much of a promise for anything. We wish there was, but that is just the nature of the wonderful world of business and marketing.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

When A Great Story And Bad Grammar Collide

As an agent, I am always frustrated when I hear a great pitch from an author, or the quick query letter gets me totally exited about a story, and then, when I read the project, things just fall apart. In simple terms, the writing totally sucks! What we are talking about here is the simple fact that so many writers are simply weak when it comes to basic grammatical conventions.

I know where this problem stems from. Public education simply does not teach grammar anymore. This stopped in the late 70's and early 80's with what educators called the "Whole Language Movement." The idea is that students would learn to write by writing. Today, we have a focus that apparently students will learn to write by reading literature (although they do very little of this).

To complicate matters, so many authors have fallen into the trap of believing, because they have their computers, the grammar checkers and spell checkers will catch things. We have two problems here. The first is that for most people, they are pretty much computer illiterate and don't realize that programs such as MS Word are only looking for roughly one third of the grammar issues. Unless the user goes in and intentionally makes adjustments to the program, they are missing out on so much.

The second problem is that the computer cannot read. It is taking guesses with what you are writing. It is looking for patterns. And, when it comes to checking for spelling, it is not looking at the words in context. Therefore, I could write, "He ran too his friend." there is technically no problem. All of the words are spelled correctly.

We also have the issue that, I do believe, many authors believe that if the story is good, then the publishers will have people clean up all of their pathetic mistakes. In reality, that story will never make it there because the grammar is so bad, the editors and agents will likely reject the story before it even makes it to contract.

Please understand, I am not saying that writers need to understand the nuances of dangling participles, but the basics of grammar including fragments, run-ons, comma splices, basic punctuation and certainly word choice need to be in place. When we read a query letter, or see a manuscript with obvious mistakes in it, we are immediately turned off. We may over-look some small mistakes, but too many will equal a rejection letter.

What we are talking about here is a basic communication concept of semantic noise. This is defined as: "a type of disturbance in the transmission of a message that interferes with the interpretation of the message due to the ambiguity in words, sentences or symbols use in the transmission of the message."

If grammar is not your cup of tea, then maybe (and I know this will sound harsh) writing is probably not the business you need to be in. Readers are expecting you to present a story that demonstrates quality writing, not just in the story-telling, but in the actual writing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

It's NaNoWriMo Time Again

This is a repost from earlier. I still like to remind people as they get ready to crank out that Great American novel in the coming month!

It's that time of year. The month when huge numbers of wannabe authors plan on writing that full novel in November. While the NaNoWriMo campaign is great for getting people interested in writing and maybe kicking a few in the butt to finally do something, there are a few things I should remind you of.

First of all, the idea behind this is just to write and get words on a page. Although this approach is great for speed writing, it is pretty much violating the guidelines in the writing process of planning and thinking about what you put on the page. If you do not take the time to have a rough plan in mind for that day's worth of writing, you will end up with a ton of edits by the end of the month.

Secondly, the writing process does recommend that a writer spends a lot of time editing as the writing progresses. You don't wait until the end to check things over, but check it as you go. Again NaNoWriMo emphasizes to not look back and just keep going. Unfortunately, without editing as you go, there will be worse problems down the line. Your story will head off in the wrong direction and then you will spend countless hours trying to get your characters back on track. You will contradict yourself, You will create scenes that are not necessary.

At the end of each day, take the time to edit the stories. Look over what you wrote. Think about how the material fits with what you did the day before and how it fits with what is going to happen next. If you are off track, plan on that next chapter or block of writing to start where it needs to be and not necessarily where you left off. That screwed up chapter can be put in a stack of "this needs to be reworked."

Finally, the biggest issue with the NANoWriMo is that it emphasizes the amount of words you are writing daily. It is all about word count. The problem here is that authors are not really thinking about the story. Let me give you an outside story that might stress why this is not the best approach.

My wife's grandfather used to be amazing at Blackjack. This guy could sit at a table and make a huge amount of money. But, he also had two rules he operated by. The first was, if he lost three hands in a row, he got up and quit. End of story. The second is the one that applies to the writers. He would say that if he ever thought during play "If I bet this amount or win this hand, I can get back what I lost." he would then get up. The reason is he was thinking about the money and not thinking about the game.

For writers, if all you are thinking about is word count or page count, you are missing the most important piece of the puzzle. The story!

This program has potential, but I will tell you, if you ignore the rules of the writing process, then you are dooming yourself to serious problems down the line!