Friday, January 17, 2014

Friday's Focus: Do Writers Help or Hinder In The Real World?

The first question going through your mind about now is, help or hinder what? Well, I'm coming to that, but be patient, it may take awhile.

This morning I read about two 4 year old first cousins. They were playing in a back bedroom of a home in which the only adult present was their grandfather. I assume he was babysitting. One of the 4year olds, a girl, peered under the bed and found a rifle, loaded, laying in an open box. She pulled it out from under the bed, pointed it at her 4 year old boy cousin, and pulled the trigger. In a nightmarish instant, one child was dead, one was guilty of killing him.

Why was there a loaded rifle under the bed in the room where the children were allowed to play? Why was the rifle loaded, no matter where it might have been? Why was the rifle accessable to these children, in any way, shape, or form? All very legitimate questions, undoubted asked by the police officers called to the home. And another question: I have used rifles before, and they are heavy weapons. How was this 4 year old child even able to lift it high enough to point it at her cousin?

But perhaps an even more legitimate question would be, why would a 4 year old girl know how to point a rifle at someone and then pull the trigger? She wasn't born knowing this. Who taught her? A parent? Grandparent? TV, movies, violent video games...all of which she should not have been allowed to watch or play, if indeed they might have been the culprits. Who taught this child, barely beyond being a toddler, how to kill someone, no matter how accidental it may have been?

No...this is not from a novel or movie or TV script. This is real life. So how do we as writers fit into all of this nightmare of reality? I can't answer that question, which is why I'm asking it. When we write about life's realities, not as non-fiction but as fiction, are we helping in real life, or are we hindering it? Some writers say, if we write about the problems in life that children/teens face on a daily basis, it will show them they are not alone, and it will provide them with ways to escape.

I'm thinking of one author in particular who writes beautiful books about girls' problems, like anorexia, cutting,  and cyber bullying. I am a great fan of hers and of her books. But is she helping teen girls to understand their problems, and showing them a way out? Or is she giving them false hope about a method of escaping that could never happen to them in their real-life circumstances?

If one of us wrote about this real life incident above, how would we deal with it? We couldn't change the outcome...although, yes, in fiction we could...but suppose we wrote a novel and used the entire incident as the plot. What would we offer in this novel that could, possibly, have changed the outcome? Would we make the parents, the grandfather, more responsible, more aware of what children get into when they shouldn't, more concerned about where the rifle should be? Would we write about how our 4 year old cousins or friends or siblings would never even know what a "trigger" was, much less how to press on it to make a gun fire?

If the elements of our novel were designed to make a good story, to hold the reader's interest, but also to teach a lesson in how NOT to store a gun, or how NOT to show your child what a trigger was for, would that be a help for someone in the future? If the novel was really any good, provided the reader with some excitement, would those "lessons" even be observed or considered by the reader?

I don't have the answers to any of those questions. If I write a contemporary story about children or teens and a real life problem, such as bullying or abuse or killing another child, and in this story I provide my MC with an escape mechanism or a way of solving the problem for themselves, am I really helping a future child/teen who might read my book? Or am I merely patting myself on the back by believing I am helping someone in the future, but in reality, I'm only offering false ( or fictional) hope for a situation that is, in fact, impossible for that same kid to overcome?

I don't know. Do you? We all write with the very best of intentions, but do we  offer realistic solutions that kids can actually try to escape or put an end to their problems, or are those solutions as fictional as the rest of our story? Do we help or do we hinder?

Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Tuesday's Thoughts: Backstory of The Freedom Thief: Final

Looks like I missed both Friday's Focus and Monday's Musings! Sorry about that, I was in the middle of putting away Christmas decorations and restoring my home to some semblance of "normal," although "normality" is a word that doesn't seem to fit into our lives much any more.

When I first decided to write Ben's story, I decided on Kentucky as the setting, mostly because of the Ohio River, and the freedom offered to slaves on the far shores of that river.  Ben's journey with his slave friends needed to end in safety, and having him be close enough to the Ohio to finally reach it, even with mishaps and wrong turns along the way, seemed to be the ideal location for the story. At the time of the story, Kentucky was still filled with massive forests and wide swamps, and the events that happened to this small group of runaways in these areas were natural and normal. I wanted to stay as close to historical accuracy all the way through the book as I possibly could, so that even the actions they took and the incidents that occurred would be correct for the places they were in.

I've already talked about the problems I had with my third instructor at ICL when it came to writing this story. By the time I graduated from that course, I already knew that the first five chapters would be permanently deleted, so a new beginning was in order. At the same time, I also knew that it was going to be difficult to have enough "backstory"  to, in effect, set the stage for Ben's beliefs about slavery and why they were so different from that of his family, and yet keep that same backstory to a minimum. I think this was the hardest part of the story to write: what to bring in, and how to write it in a way that was short, to the point, and yet, explanatory.

I decided to do this in two ways: one, through dialogue between Ben, his parents, and his older brothers, and two, through a short backflash of memory on Ben's part. In my mind, the best way to do this was to begin the story with a beating of a slave and Ben's reaction, and who best to begin this with but Josiah, Ben's best friend, a crippled ten year old slave.
Chapter One

Whup. Whup. Whup.
The unmistakable sound of rawhide against bare skin whistled through the bedroom window, followed by shrieks of pain. Another slave was being beaten. Goose bumps played tag along Ben’s spine. He hated that sound. More, he hated that slavery was the cause of it.
The whup sounded again accompanied by a small scream, but this time it came from inside the house.

What in tarnation… Soapy water slopped onto the floor as Ben knocked over his washbasin in his haste to pull on his overalls. He ignored it and ran barefoot down the back stairs to the kitchen. He stopped short at the doorway and stared in disbelief at his father.

Pa slammed a short whip against Josiah, the ten year-old crippled slave who was Ben’s best friend. Josiah’s mother, Bess, stood by helplessly, twisting the corners of her starched white apron.
Ben gasped as his heart crashed against his rib cage. His throat was so dry he couldn’t speak.
“Massa Tom, Josiah don’t mean to break nothing. He just tryin’ to help me. Please, suh,” Bess implored as tears rolled down her cheeks.
As Pa raised his arm to bring the whip down again, Ben was finally able to force the words out. “Pa, wait. What are you doing? Please stop.”
His father’s fierce glare made Ben cringe, but his arm came down anyway, finishing the stroke that Ben interrupted. Pa dropped the whip and grabbed the sobbing boy by the shoulders. He shook him so hard tears splattered on the floor.
“Josiah, you are never to come in this house again unless the mistress summons you. Do you understand me?”

Josiah took a shuddering breath and swallowed his sobs. He raised tear-filled eyes to his master. “Yes suh.”

Pa pushed the boy toward his mother, and Bess quickly pulled him to her. He stood quivering with pain as Bess patted his tears with her apron.

“Bess, take the boy to your quarters and then come back and finish up breakfast.”

“Yes, suh, I be right back.” Bess wiped the tears from her eyes before taking
Josiah out the door.

Pa turned his attention to Ben. “Benjamin, you know better than to interfere
when I discipline the slaves.” Pa’s frown was so deep his brown eyes crinkled up
and almost disappeared.

“Pa, Josiah’s just a little kid. What did he do that’s so terrible you had to whip

“It doesn’t matter what he did, I will discipline him as I see fit, and you do not
question me, understand? He is clumsy and awkward and Bess should have known
better than to bring him in.”
Ben shook his head. “So you whipped him just because Bess brought him in here?"
His father’s face tightened with anger. “No, I whipped him because he broke
one of your mother’s teapots. I’m tired of your attitude, son, and I want it to end.
Now, finish getting dressed, come down, and get your breakfast. After your regular
chores are finished, I want the foaling stalls mucked and fresh straw put down.”
“But, Pa, I’m supposed to have lessons this morning and…”
“No, I think no lessons.” Pa held up his hand when Ben started to object. “You
may not like the way I discipline the slaves, but that doesn’t give you permission to
question me. Maybe a little more work will teach you the respect your lessons have
Ben left the kitchen and shuffled up the stairs. Anger at his father’s actions filled his heart and left little objectivity in his mind. The image of Josiah’s torn shirt sticking to his small bloody back brought back the memory of what had been the worst day of his young life: his grandfather’s funeral. He had been ten years old at the time, barely remembered his grandfather, and the funeral had been a sad, dismal affair that scared him. Afterward, Pa had announced they would not be going home to New York. They were staying in Kentucky to help his grandmother run the plantation. He had started to cry, and knowing Pa would only get mad at him, he ran out to the barns and straight into a scene he would never forget: a large black man was whipping a slave. When he heard the skin ripping and saw the slave’s blood spattering against the barn wall and dripping on the ground, he gagged and threw up all he had eaten that day. He had nightmares about it for many months to come. Even now, almost four years later, that image was one he couldn’t seem to forget, and it still turned his blood cold.

From there, the story moved more easily, and with a few other thoughts and bits of dialogue thrown in here and there, the backstory of Ben's beliefs and how they impacted his relationships with his parents and older brothers be adequately told.

I first submitted The Freedom Thief to MuseItUp Publishing in December, 2012, just before submissions closed. After several weeks, I received a very nice letter of rejection from the publisher herself, along with a few remarks made by the editors. I sent her another email, and asked if I could have more specific examples of what they wanted changed, so I could work on those changes. She sent me a longer response, giving specific examples of what they didn't like, and told me to resubmit the story after the changes were made, if I wanted to.

I made most of the changes, but one of them was that Ben didn't sound like a 13 year old boy, his dialogue was too mature. I did work on that a bit, but the fact is, in the 1800s, boys and girls alike at age 13 had almost adult responsibilities, they were no longer treated as children, and their own speech and dialogue was far more mature than today's 13 year old kids. Finally, the editors agreed with me on this. It took awhile to refresh the story and do the revisions the editors seemed to want, but when I resubmitted the manuscript in March, 2013, I received a contract on April 23, 2013, with a tentative publication date of November, 2013.

My Content Editor and my Line Editor were great! I loved working with them, although it was sometimes tedious work. There was very little editing required for my Content editor, and not too much for my Line editor, but this was the tedious part...going through the entire manuscript, line by line, to see where I needed to replace or delete a comma, a period, and so on.

The galley sheets were next. This was where it became time-consuming as well as very tedious. Where there was a mistake...oh yes, even after all that editing by me and two editors, there were still mistakes...I had to correct it, then copy the corrected sentence as well as the one before and after the corrected one, onto the second page of the galleys. It was painstaking work, because once the galleys are sent back to the editor, they go to print or ebook format, and that's exactly the way the book comes out. Any mistakes there, and they are on you, the author's shoulders.

The cover design was next. My cover artist and I disagreed, and it took time to decide on one. I'm not in love with this cover, but decided to accept it due to time constraints. My next book, coming out this spring, is not going to have a cover I am NOT in love with! I will know to be more demanding this time.

Finally, November 8th came, and The Freedom Thief became a published reality. But in today's publishing world, no author can breathe a sigh of relief and sit back to let the money roll in. Now is where the real work of publicizing and promoting your book comes in. For me, the worst part of this whole business is the marketing. I'm not good at it, and my one piece of advice for any author reading this is: get your ducks in a row before your book is published, and know what to do and how to do your marketing. I didn't do this, I didn't actually know to do this, and believe me, there is no sigh of relief coming my way any time soon!

I hope you have enjoy learning about the "backstory" of Thief, and my journey through the twists and turns of writing and publishing a novel.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.