Thursday, April 29, 2010

Interview with Authors on the Rise

Recently some questions were posed to me by Dee Dee M Scott at her author interview blog.

Dee Dee: When did you write your first book, and how long did it take you to complete?

Roy: My first attempt at a novel was undertaken when I was in high school. I abandoned it after a few chapters but showed enough commitment to convince myself that I had full novels in me some day. This was later proven when I completed Patches of Grey. The first draft took me a couple of years to finish as it was written while I was first a full time college student and then a full time working stiff. I continue to be a student of life with a 9-5 gig. Patches then went through a substantial amount of revising over the course of a year as the literary agent who represented me submitted it and obtained feedback from various publishers. After parting ways with my agent and having grown weary of the pursuit of publication, I put my novel aside for awhile and returned my focus to something I enjoy far more than the query and submission process – writing. Much changed in the world of publishing as I worked on novel # 2. Self publishing rapidly grew as a viable alternative to the traditional route, as did the number of success stories that resulted from it, and what had once been something I held my nose up at transformed into an acceptable option. I knew I would eventually get back into the hunt for an agent and publisher once my second novel was done, but in the meantime rather than letting Patches of Grey collect dust as a manuscript in a drawer, I decided to put things in motion towards the day when people beyond a select few would have the opportunity to read it. Last year I reached the end of my journey, at last holding a printed copy of my first novel in hand. Since then I’ve learned that it wasn’t really the end of a journey, but the beginning.

Dee Dee: Several of your short stories have been published in anthologies. Please tell us about them?

Roy: I’ve written somewhere between 50 and 100 short stories over the past couple decades. They have been published by a wide variety of print and online publications. As you noted, several of them have appeared in anthologies. It is often the case when I find out about an anthology seeking submissions that there is a theme to it. I like to write on a wide variety of topics and in a range of styles. Therefore no matter what the theme is, a story or two of mine frequently fits the bill. The Game: Short Stories About the Life sought gritty, urban stories and they accepted two tales of mine that can be described as such. Prose to Read Aloud is an anthology put together specifically for students who enter competitions. As the title indicates, the stories chosen would potentially be read aloud at such competitions rather than silently to yourself, so I evaluated my body of work with this in mind and submitted a piece that fit the criteria. Most recently one of my short stories appeared in Ménage à 20 which is an anthology of “tales with a hook”, as in a surprise ending. I had plenty of pieces to choose from since one of my earliest short story writing influences was the master of the twist ending – O. Henry. On occasion I will write a new story specifically for an anthology. An example is the one I wrote for Proverbs for the People. Each story in it was to be inspired by an African proverb, so first I selected a proverb and then I wrote a tale with it in mind.

Friday, April 23, 2010


Seems this article by Professor Henry Louis Gates has riled some people up.
x x x
I'm seeing nothing (on Twitter) but disagreement with what Gates had to say, probably because he said something not 100% in step with mainstream opinion.

As I wrote yesterday about Jason Whitlock's Roethlisberger article, just because an assertion is unpopular & makes you uncomfortable doesn't mean it doesn't contain kernels of truth, or perhaps much more than kernels. The more people protest the more curious I grow as to why.

Sometimes people are near unanimous in opinion for an obvious reason. But when we focus on the obvious we tend to ignore critical nuances.

I'm not nearly as riled up by Gates' opinion piece as are the various tweeters I've seen remarking on it. Basically he asserts that Africans were largely complicit in the selling of other Africans into slavery, complicating reparations issue.

This is not really new info except for the degree of African involvement being asserted. Perhaps as high as 90% of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders per recent findings.

I can neither agree with nor refute such numbers as I'm no scholar on the subject. Nor do I conclude that the reparations issue should be re-examined based on them.

As they say, two wrongs don't make a right. Even if we opt to see the role of Africans in a harsher light, this doesn't change severity of light on America and the white forefathers who enslaved black Africans for free labor.

There will never be actual reparations paid for too many reasons to get into. We're talking symbolic gesture here as Gates correctly points out.

Dividing up a symbolic gesture would only weaken its impact, assuming gesture ever gets made, yet another reason I do not co-sign Gates piece.

However, unlike many who were angered I am glad Gates wrote the article. It prompted thought which I am always grateful for, and my train went in different direction than the reflex reaction of anger.

Black Americans (thanks largely to Roots) decided in the 60's-70's that we needed stronger, well, roots. Slavery had splintered & F'd up following generations of Black Americans.

I've taken this mindset as gospel for the most part, though I personally also look to the Caribbean [St. Thomas in the house!] for my roots. But Gates shook reasoning up a bit.

Africa after all is a continent, not a country. A continent comprised of MANY countries comprised of MANY tribes. Africa itself is splintered.

So what does African American really mean then if Kenyan-American surely means something far different than Nigerian-American?

Most whites don't say their ancestry is European. They say it's Italian or Irish or German? If European doesn't say enough, why should African?

Black Americans are not in fact splinters, but splinters of splinters. This complicates an already pretty complex situation.

Most don't bother to track down which tribe in which country they personally descend from. Not always possible anyway. Not necessary either.

Post Africa, post slavery, black people in America were supposed to finally be a single group. A continent & an abomination united us.

But how united can splinters of splinters truly be, especially without a strong common cause such as the 60’s civil rights movement provided?

Without a uniting cause does splintered tribe mentality inevitably surface? Dark skinned or light. Bougie or Ghetto. Tupac or Biggie devotee. Blacks who date interracially stand over here, those who won't even put milk in their coffee stand over there.

While Gates did not cause me to reconsider "untangling the knot" of the reparations issue, to think more about splitting of blame rather than sticking with "blame whitey" mentality, it did make me think about how far back we must look to pin pride, assign blame, establish responsibility for identity.

I don't see the point of Gates article as being: Black people need to blame themselves, not just whites. Although I see how that translation can easily be made.

I think the point is - everybody and nobody is to blame. Evil exists in the hearts of all men & brings about evil results. Therefore, don't concern yourself too much about whom to blame. Concern yourself with where to aim in bringing about a much better tomorrow.

If someone pushes your button in a way that makes you think - pause, re-examine, determine if a deeper point lies beneath the blatant one.

Truth is, Professor Gates was no more absolving America/Whites of blame for slavery than Whitlock was promoting a man's right to rape the other day. They were both simply expressing that there are quite a few ways to skin a cat or examine an issue. Rather than simply grasping the one closest and easiest to reach, dig deeper my friends.

Twelve Years a SlaveTwelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I suspect that the film adaptation, which I look forward to seeing after keeping a promise to myself to read the book first, will be more melodramatic and pull on heartstrings to greater effect and purpose than Solomon Northup's telling of his life story. Northup writes in somewhat stilted prose, his style academic rather than evocative like great novels or movies. He is not trying to draw out our tears. He is not attempting with every stroke of the pen to stir up emotions. Northup is simply telling us like it was - straight no chaser. No need to exaggerate the brutality or the tragedy, no reason to willfully demonize people whose monstrous acts and barbaric attitudes speak for themselves. Is the reader outraged, astounded that people could casually treat others in such a manner? Only if the reader has a soul. Northup doesn't use his words to move us the way his violin playing moved people. He is both impartial reporter and the subject of his piece of journalism. He doesn't ask us to feel sorry for him, or to hate his oppressors. What he does is recount what it was like for a man to suddenly find himself in bondage and servitude, endure it for over a decade, and then miraculously find himself free again with a most amazing and devastating tale to tell. He tells the truth in as unbiased a manner as possible and allows us judge it for ourselves. How did any man ever convince himself that it was okay to treat another this way? How did they ignore the humanity they surely saw in the brethren they stole from another continent? How was a single one of them able to look in a mirror? Twelve Years a Slave asks these questions but is unable to answer them, nor does it bother to try. Nothing can adequately answer them. The mystery of such heartlessness has not revealed itself over a couple hundred years. This is what our country was founded on, inalienable rights unevenly dispersed with extreme prejudice. This is what we need to atone for and move forward from. This is the stain that will never fade. Yet quite tellingly, those 12 years are not what made Solomon the extraordinary man that he was. Those 12 years happened to him but did not become him. Otherwise he probably would not have been able to write his book. The past brought us to this present, but it need not define any of us. In even the most suffocating circumstances, we have the freedom to do that for ourselves.

View all my reviews

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Big But Not Bright Ben

Ben Roethlisberger has been suspended for six games without pay (which may be reduced to four games with good behavior) by the NFL. This means his behavior was publicly embarrassing and immoral enough to warrant action against someone who no doubt has a morality clause in his lucrative contract. It means a professional football player need not be convicted of a crime to be punished by his employer for giving the reputation conscious league a black eye. But it has not been proven that Roethlisberger is the devil, or even guilty as initially accused though never officially charged. He’s guilty of bad judgment (aka dumb-assery) for sure though, along with arrested maturity development.

Before you compare Ben's case to that of others (Santonio Holmes, Donte Stallworth, Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress, Rae Carruth, Ray Lewis, Adam “Pacman” Jones, O.J. Simpson, Jack the Ripper, etc.), be sure cases are comparable. Guilty courtroom verdicts for equal level crimes are comparable to each other. Bad behavior accusations settled out of court are comparable to bad behavior accusations settled out of court. Apples aren't oranges aren't pears.

Sexual assault isn't dog fighting isn't DUI isn't unlicensed gun in club isn't marijuana possession isn't... And an accusation, especially one not even followed up on, isn't a guilty verdict.

That said, I've no doubt that Ben did something morally/legally wrong and is now paying price for it. Enough of a price? Too much? Just right?

@jemelehill wrote “If Ben R were blk some of y'all would be hollering abt his suspension being an injustice, no charges, etc. #yeahisaidit Let's not be hypocritical. When blk athletes commit crimes we turn them into martyrs. When it's white athletes, we become Law & Order.”

Couldn’t agree with her more. Racism will always be a peeve of mine regardless of which direction it’s flowing. Not everything requires viewing through the prism of race, and I'm confident this is not how the NFL commissioner considered his course of action. Calling out what you choose to see in a situation is poor replacement for objective reasoning. Think with your brain, not your biases.

Jason Whitlock - @WhitlockJason - recently raised the ire of some (for example, that of @insanityreport ) basically for suggesting in this article that sometimes men (particularly celebrities) are falsely accused of rape/sex assault. This caused him to be accused of endorsing rape, helping to foster a “rape culture”. He wrote: “Some young women use alcohol as an excuse to be sexually aggressive at fraternity houses and nightclubs and then quickly concoct a story of sexual assault when confronted by their disapproving peers” and “Statements made by drunken sorority girls are not facts. Statements made by sober sorority girls about an evening spent bar-hopping and drinking are not facts.”

Isn’t it sexist to suggest that women are always the victims in power struggles with men and never the duplicitous ones? Yes, some men do bad things. Equally true, some women do bad things too. Whitlock didn’t write that Roethlisberger definitely did nothing wrong, but merely stated that nothing was proven and the testimony of the accusers could be seen as suspect considering the environment. Drunken college students tend not to make the best witnesses or have the best memories. This does not mean that Roethlisberger is innocent either. It means that there are probably four sides to the story – his version, her version, blurry eyewitness accounts, and the truth.

I support mandatory castration for proven rapists, especially if beyond a first offense. But when an innocent man is accused his reputation is wrongly castrated.

Rape is a demonic crime. Falsely accusing someone of rape isn't quite as bad, but it's pretty F'd up.

System needs to be changed so if a woman is raped, she isn't made to feel that she's the one on trial.

System needs to be changed so women don't change their mind and decide not to bring charges because trial will prolong their horrid ordeal.

And system needs to be changed to seriously punish those proven to be making false accusations. Not fair to accused, not fair to real rape victims.

I have no idea what Ben Roethlisberger did or didn't do. Lots of fishiness around this case, hard to know what to believe. I understand those who condemn him. I get those who say no guilt was proven.

Roethlisberger will spend the rest of his life considered guilty by many regardless of what he did or didn't do. That's how it goes.

Whatever he did, it clearly was enough to warrant punishment even if not the legal system variety. And that’s what happened, without a word of protest from Ben, merely the statement that he broke no law but accepted his suspension nonetheless. His bank account and reputation have been damaged by his poor judgment. Many eyes that once looked at him with adulation will now do so with disgust. If he deserves to pay a heavier price than this, if he deserves to lose his liberty, then the accuser must press forward in trying to prove her case in a court of law. Instead she refused to cooperate with the police and Roethlisberger was never even arrested. That has to be telling information, even if you choose to translate what hasn’t actually been stated.

If this piece makes me sound like a Big Ben defender, which could not be further from the truth, so be it. Some issues are so sensitive that it's difficult to react to them with reason rather than emotion. My goal is not to say what is popular and will be met with cheers & nods of approval. My goal is to say what is true, even if unpopular. Sometimes this puts you on the road less traveled. Not the worst place you can be.
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A couple more takes I've found (thanks Twitter) on this incendiary topic: by @KeithBalmer

Monday, April 19, 2010

Writer Defined

This morning I happened upon the blog of paranormal author Jo Lynne Valerie. She posed some interesting questions that I felt compelled to answer about why someone is defined as a writer, by themself as well as by others. I liked a response that came after my own in which the person wrote that one can be able to dance reasonably well without being considered a dancer, or sing pleasantly enough without being considered a singer, so surely not everyone who has written should be considered a writer. Now everyone dances and sings and writes, but when it comes to the latter while everyone does scribble thank you notes and emails and shopping lists, surely not everyone has it in them to write a book. Writing an entire book (I'm not referring to a ten page children's book here but a text with some heft to it) is most definitely an accomplishment, even it the thing happens to be atrocious. That's why people will congratulate you even though they haven't read it and have no idea if it's coherent, just as someone will congratulate a woman for giving birth even if she hasn't parented yet and they have no idea if she'll be any good at it. The initial congratulations is earned by the act of labor. Writing a book, writing a readable book, and writing a good book are three very different achievements indeed. If you only manage to pull off the first task, it's still more than many who think of themselves as having writing talent manage to do. In short, you can write without talent and you can be talented without writing. And unfortunately, you can also write with talent without being read by very many. Below is what I wrote on Jo Lynne Valerie's blog in response to her fascinating query.

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I suppose I hold a distinction in my mind between "writers" and "those who have written books". Yet I don't have a hard and fast definition of where the line is to be drawn. As one with an old school mindset about the art and business of writing my impulse is to say that those who do it primarily with monetary gain in mind, who would quickly abandon it if something less taxing and more lucrative was stumbled upon, are not true writers. Writers are artists who create because they must, right? Whether or not they find an audience and make a profit is beside the point. They tell their stories because the alternative is implosion, then move on to the next one. Surely that's why Hemingway and Faulkner and all the other legends put pen to paper, right? On the other hand, I consider talent (part God given, part very hard work to gain mastery of) as a critical ingredient as well. Truth is, there are some who write because they feel it's a calling who do it so poorly I'd hesitate to call them writers. And there are some who come up with a "gimmick", perhaps latching on to a trendy genre of the moment, who write primarily because they've figured out how to make it pay, and do it well enough (even if with more head than heart) that respect must also be paid. You ask: Is there really a difference between authors who write books geared toward marketability, from those who write a book because they believe in it? I answer: Yes, they are very different types of people. But that aside, if both these types of writers can "bring it" then both types will satisfy their audience, and in the end the reader is both jury and judge. If you've earned the right to call yourself writer, regardless of how and why you earned it, readers will let you know.

It is obviously essential today for writers, particularly those who self publish or are published by small houses, to gain a measure of expertise at marketing and promoting if they want readers to find their books. These are critical components in becoming a "book seller", but have nothing whatsoever to do with being a "writer". Writers today perform multiple tasks because it's hard to grab people's attention with so many competing distractions out there. It's essential to wear the hat of both writer and book seller if you want to move units. These tasks are related to each other, but are not one and the same. A writer who doesn't sell much because he/she doesn't market well is still a writer. And an author who does sell many copies because he/she plays the game well does not automatically qualify as a talented artist on account of this. Some are merely effective salespeople and the product they're hawking just happens to be a book.

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If you have read my prose, perhaps even my novel Patches of Grey, yet have yet to meet me in person it's because I fall under the category of one who defines himself as a writer by the writing he has done, not by the strength of advertising campaign. You have not seen me at a book festival or heard me at a bookstore reading. Chances are that even if you actually want it, you don't have my autograph. The extent of my PR blitz to date has been confined to the infinite internet. Slowly but surely I am planning to change that, to get out there and meet with potential readers, press the flesh like someone running for office. I'm up for kissing baby foreheads if that's what it takes to make a sale, not because of the money, but because a major reason I write is for it to be read. My stories are not meant to be strictly for me. Even if the writing of some of my tales has served a self therapeutic purpose, my desire is always for the eyes of others to fall upon my prose. If the mountain won't come to me, then I'll head off to the mountain. That said, please mark your calendars, New Jersey book lovers. I'll be one of the authors meeting and greeting and wine-ing and cheesing at Sparta Books on July 29th in Sparta, NJ. The event runs from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 and I'm hopeful for a big crowd as well as terrified by the prospect of one. Public speaking is not a strength of mine, but life is too short not to take your best shot at it. Hope to see you and meet you there. If I seem at all nervous, a big smile and a book purchase will certainly help.

Find of the day: Joe Hemingmouse

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Advice for Aspiring Authors

So much of what I have had to say lately, particularly that expressed in writing, initially comes out one tweet at a time. I'd consider this a bad thing except that Twitter's constraint of 140 characters and the fact that I sometimes receive tangible proof that people are paying attention has turned out to be liberating. Who knew I had so much to say? Well, truth is, I did. But now others, mostly strangers, do as well. An actual audience. Nothing wrong with that to go along with my slowly growing list of blog followers. For my latest commentary, this one about the writing process, see below. Responses always have been and always will be greatly appreciated, especially now that I've adjusted my blog settings to keep out the Spam. So please share your own thoughts after perusing mine. Happy reading, and for the aspiring authors who happen upon this entry, happy writing as well.

Since joining Twitter I've read countless tweets joining forces with countless snippets of advice elsewhere in cyberspace giving authors tips ranging from the rather obvious to the pretty useful.

These innumerable tips for authors have regarded how to query, to submit, to market, to promote, to sell, etc. Tons of information out there to be sopped up like gravy with a biscuit.

Whether you're self pubbed, pubbed by small publisher, or a minor author pubbed by a big publisher scarcely aware of your existence, much of the promotional work is in authors' hands nowadays.

Literary agents want authors to do their work for them so pitches to editors are made easy. Editors want authors to do their work for them so pitches to marketing department are made easy. Marketing department wants authors to do their work for them so pitches to public are made easy. Quite a lot heaped on plate of author who thought his/her work was done by completing their book. Turns out the work has just begun.

Some authors are better at promotion than others. Some have more of a temperament for it or are more industrious or more tech savvy or have more time to dedicate than others. All must play the game if they wish to sell much more than a handful of copies.

Who better to sell your sweat/blood/tears than you? Writers are no longer allowed to simply be writers. They must now be PR people as well. C'est la vie in the world of publishing 21st century style.

So it's understandable why there are so many out there advising authors on how to better promote themselves. But how about advising the aspiring on how to write?

There are all sorts of writing courses out there, but on the most basic level one can't be taught how to be a writer. Simply put pen to paper and let your words flow. Your brain and heart and imagination will determine which ones come out in what order.

As a child I decided I wanted to be a writer. As a young man I decided to write a novel. Conceived plot & characters in my head. Now what?

I knew I could get plenty of words on paper via stream of consciousness. The sum total would make a story, but would it really be a novel?

I decided this technique would not result in a real novel. It would be too raw, without the shape readers need. What I required was a template to work from.

There is no better teacher of becoming a novelist than the completed novels of others, preferably good ones of course. One problem though. Every book I had read prior to attempting to write my own was read strictly for pleasure, or for school assignment that then became pleasure.

I needed to study a novel, really study it. How do I make dialogue authentic so it doesn't read as something written, but rather, something said?

People rarely make speeches. They talk over each other, they umm and ahh. They have trouble coming up with right word sometimes or lose their train of thought in the middle of expressing it.

People think as they speak, about what they're saying, about what they want to avoid saying, about other things related & unrelated to the words coming from their mouths. They think a million times faster than they speak. Many thoughts can pass through a character’s mind in the time it takes to speak a line or two.

Convincing dialogue takes some time to master, coming more naturally to some writers than others. An author cannot stop at just mastering dialogue though. Readers need to see the characters & their surroundings. If you want to focus primarily on dialogue, write a play.

The reader needs to see what the characters observe & what the characters miss. Such description & dialogue need to seamlessly intertwine. Some do the describing in more artsy fashion than others, but whatever your style it cannot be neglected.

When I decided to make a serious attempt at writing a novel I picked a published one up to serve as instruction manual. The novel I used as my "instruction manual" was Ordinary People by Judith Guest. Not a bad choice at all.

Patches of Grey is actually the second novel I started writing. I made my first foolishly brave attempt when in high school. Surrendered a few chapters in but wrote enough (probably quite badly) to know I had a full book in me someday.

My boss at the first job I got after graduating college was a copywriter. When I told him of my literary aspirations he asked how many pages I could write in a day. Ten was my confident reply. How long would you say the average novel is, he asked next. 300 pages I supposed. Write one book per month then, he said. Easier said than done, that’s for sure, but his point was effectively made. You want to write…write.