The Power to Write People IN – Not Write Them OFF

 

My heart often breaks for fictional characters I create. I feel their pain, their longings, their shame. But today, my characters—some of whom are from Central America—are hurting for us, here in the real world.

They are worried about the government policies that threaten to deport thousands of undocumented, at-risk children back to Central America. I’m having a hard time explaining to them why the United States isn’t protecting these vulnerable children.

Two weeks ago a young man I knew was murdered in Honduras. The killer shot him on the street and stole his motorcycle. Charly was a son, a brother, a friend, a role model. And they killed him for a piece of machinery.

They stole so much more than a motorcycle that day because Charly was the embodiment of hope for a group of children who cling the dream that they can one day escape the poverty, the violence and the gangs that surround them. I didn’t know Charly well. We only met a couple of times, but I know his family and his friends. For the past twelve years I’ve been involved with the orphanage and school in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where Charly grew up. Although his family loved him, they couldn’t afford to take care of him. He lived at the orphanage, graduated from high school, and went to college.

He resisted the pressure to join the gangs. He was going to be the change his country so desperately needs. For the other children, Charly was a role model. He was proof that you can rise above the oppressive poverty and avoid the gangs and the violence—instead of trying to cross the border into the US illegally.

Last Saturday morning, only a few days after Charly’s murder, I woke up to this New York Times headline: “U.S. Will Step Up Deportations, Focusing on Central Americans.” I read further to learn that President Obama’s initiative will focus primarily on women and children who came to this country illegally since 2014. Most of them are from El Salvador and Honduras.

This news disappoints me not only by its content, but because it comes from a leader who has the ability to change the conversation about illegal immigration.

What are we sending these kids back to?

“Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, in a statement joined by other House Democrats, said, ‘To conduct these enforcement actions against women and children who have fled violence, and who will face violence if they are returned, is not just hypocritical, it is plain cruel.’” —NYT, May 13, 2016.  U.S. Will Step Up Deportations, Focusing on Central Americans

Most young people from Central America who enter this country illegally do not come looking for a government handout or free medical care. They just want to survive. They don’t want to be forced into a gang or murdered because they wouldn’t join.

Parents often send their children on this journey to the United States alone. As a mother, I can’t imagine a state of desperation that could push me to send my young children, either alone or with questionable traffickers, on the dangerous journey to the United States.

Would I do it so they could be more comfortable? No.

Would I do it for better healthcare? Education? A bed in a detention center or a voucher for a cheap motel room? No.

Would I do it if I feared for my children’s’ lives? Yes.

These are the undocumented immigrants our government wants to send back to Central America. Most of the mothers and children being targeted came from Honduras and El Salvador, both countries mired in poverty, drugs and crime. Many of the immigrants now detained in the US were smuggled here in the trunks of cars or clung to the undersides of moving trains. No one does that unless they have no other option.

I realize that illegal immigration costs this country a lot of money. I agree we need to take a good, long look at our immigration policies. And I understand that we are a country of laws, including laws governing immigration. But I also know that if my family was threatened, I would do whatever it took to get them to safety, and I have a hard time condemning others for doing the same.

The national rhetoric about building walls, banning Muslims, and mass deportations deepens the perception that immigrants—or any people who don’t look like us—are “The Other.” But they aren’t. They are us.

What we need most right now is compassion.

I’m going to dive back into my novel now and continue this conversation with a few of my characters, several of whom come from El Salvador. We’re going to talk about the politics of immigration. They are heartbroken to hear about about Charly’s senseless death and disheartened to learn about the increased deportation of vulnerable children.

My characters understand. Some of them are afraid of being deported themselves. I’m not sure how to comfort them.

The literary community has been engaged in an ongoing, deep conversation about diversity in literature—diversity among the characters in books and the authors who write them. And we discuss the sensitive issue about members of the majority writing characters who do not look like us. We risk tropes, stereotyping, offending people, and writing with an inauthentic voice.

But what is the risk of leaving them out of our stories? What is the consequence of not welcoming them in?

I didn’t invite the Salvadoran characters into my novel. They are not the main characters, and it isn’t a story about immigration. My main character looks and acts a lot like me. But as I wrote my book these other characters just showed up. Why? Because they are part of my real life, and to leave out characters who are part of my own experience would, in itself, be inauthentic—especially if I left them out because I was afraid. And yes, I am afraid.

As a white American, I know I open myself up to criticism by writing characters who don’t look like me. What if I get it wrong? I worry about that a lot. But to me, it’s far riskier to leave them out.

We all need to do our research, find beta readers and experts to dig out inadvertent tropes or unintentionally offensive representations. We need to listen to the communities we write about. But just as importantly, if they truly belong in the story, we can’t leave any characters out of our writing because of the fear of criticism.

I travel to Honduras as often as possible. I am constantly moved by the resilience of the children in the orphanage and the adults who care for them. But that isn’t enough. I need to work harder. I need to listen more.

 “You want to write a character with a different race, sexual orientation, religion, or gender ID than yours? Okay. But before you set that character loose into the world, do your research. Do some basic work in understanding what obstacles are faced by the communities your character belongs to — what narratives are most offensive to them? Are you replicating tropes that are used to dehumanize and erase members of that community?” —Mikki Kendall, diversity consultant.  Diversity, Political Correctness, and The Power of Language: Why Sensitivity Reading Matters

As Lisa Cron writes in her book Wired for Story, stories are what keep us going. The cautionary tales and tender stories in fiction can expose truths or open our minds to ideas we might not otherwise consider. Stories can change us. The act of writing carries serious responsibility.

We need to tell stories about young people like Charly. Because as long as gangs are killing the real-life heroes, these nameless, faceless children will continue to run for the US border. They are already here. Instead of branding them as “The Other,” we need to understand where they came from and why they came. We need to hear their stories.

“[I]t turns out that a powerful story can have a hand in rewiring the reader’s brain — helping instill empathy, for instance — which is why writers are, and always have been, among the most powerful people in the world. —Lisa Cron, Wired for Story

My characters, like millions of real immigrants in this country, are part of the tapestry of our nation. I don’t pretend to represent them. But I can at least try to give them the respect they deserve. Over time, maybe it will be stories, rather than headlines, that help us understand the undocumented children crossing the border in the United States.

I hope our country chooses to write them in, not write them off.

 

 

Five Writers, an Agent and an Editor — Trapped in a Room

How’s this for the premise of a suspense novel? Five eager (possibly anxious) writers, all with finished manuscripts, are locked in a small room with one literary agent and one book editor. None of them have a key. No one knows how to get out.

This could go in so manyWorkconf directions. The desperate writers could turn on each other as they jockey for attention of the industry professionals. They could channel their rejection frustration toward the captive agent and editor. Even scarier, they could all start pitching their books.

Or they could act like rational human beings and work together to find a way out of the locked room.

They could Escape the Room.

This is the situation I found myself in two weeks ago. I was one of the anxious writers. I’m not speaking metaphorically. We were actually locked in a room together for an hour and didn’t know how to get out. Escape the Room is an interactive strategy game run by clever folks who take tourists’ money, lock them in a room and watch on a video monitor as they race against the clock to get out.

It’s not as sadistic as it sounds. Groups hunt for clues, work out puzzles and solve riddles to find the key within 60 minutes. Only 20 percent make it out in time.

Not to brag, but our group escaped with more than a minute to spare. The agent and the editor were not harmed, and none of the writers even attempted to pitch their books. We just hung out and cracked codes together.

The event was part of a writer’s conference called The Work Conference, the brainchild of editor Rebecca Heyman. In March she brought together 22 emerging literary fiction writers, published authors, and a group of literary agents and editors in New York for three days.

The agents and editors led small group workshops, seminars, and one-on-one consultations. We all went out drinking together. No pitching allowed. (There may have been karaoke involved one night.)

It’s silly that as a reasonably confident, successful adult, I feel so intimidated by literary agents and editors. Wanting someone’s approval launches me back to the awkward middle school mentality. But after a weekend of qFCq_vtKbeing locked in a room, singing (bad) karaoke, sharing meals and eating a ton of candy together, I now feel much less intimidated.

I learned a lot more than how to escape a locked room and how to have fun at a karaoke bar while stealthily avoiding the microphone.

At The Work Conference we focused on elements of craft and discussed industry trends. Fine details and broad strokes. But the most important lesson I learned that weekend was that I already have a literary agent — we just haven’t met yet. And my agent is equally as excited about meeting me as I am about meeting her or him. Our paths haven’t crossed yet. But they will.

As I begin the query process for my novel, I will try to remember that every time an agent or editor sits down to hear a pitch, every single time they open a query, they want it be The One. They aren’t looking to judge us. They want to discover us. They love finding debut writers and making dreams come true.

All agents and editors really want is to find a great book.

All I want is for that book to be mine.

It’s unlikely I will ever get locked in a room with a literary agent again, but if I do, I’ll play it cool. I’ll ask about their pets and what they’re reading. Unless, of course, it happens to be MY agent, the one who has been searching tirelessly for me.

In that case, I’m going to pitch the hell out of my book.

Cheers and Tears

Cheers and Tears

Saturday night I attended the launch party for my friend Kim Savage’s debut YA novel After the Woods. The bartender made signature drinks named after her characters. Posters celebrated her gorgeous cover. It felt like a movie premier party.

Kim'slaunch

As we sipped our cocktails, Kim took the microphone and spoke about the long, seemingly impossible path to publication. I started tearing up. (For those of you who know me, this will be no surprise.)

She spoke about balancing a marriage, kids, and other responsibilities, with her need to write that book. She let the laundry slide. She wrote until 2 am. Her house was a mess. That’s when I started crying.

Because that’s me. Right now.

I won’t pretend my house was orderly before I started writing my first novel. But this past year, as I dedicated myself to finishing this book, my housekeeping dipped to new lows. So many emails went answered, phone calls not returned, appointments forgotten.

I wake up thinking about my characters. I sometimes get out of bed at 4 am to write down an idea that kept me up all night.

 My sink is always full of dirty dishes.

Listening to Kim talk about how difficult it was for her, made me feel like maybe I’m doing something right. This book is consuming me. But maybe obsession is good. I’m starting to think it’s mandatory.

I pledge that my children will always be fed and clothed while I complete this novel. They will get to school on time. And I’ll always make time for a glass of wine with my best friend and supporter, my husband Sean. But beyond that, I’m not making any promises.

Except this one: I’m going to finish this book.

If you want to read more about my unfortunate habit of crying in public places, take a look at my article below. (Reposted from The Grub Daily:  https://www.grubstreet.org/grub-daily/creative-crying-the-upside-of-getting-emotional-while-writing/ )

Creative Crying: The Upside of Getting Emotional While Writing

I sat alone in my local coffee shop, like I do so often. Large latte, 2% milk. A table near an outlet for my laptop. Twenty minutes in, tears streamed down my cheeks. If someone looked my way, I faked a sneeze, pretending I had a cold.

I had just killed someone I loved, and I couldn’t contain my guilt—or my grief.

Just to be clear, the deceased was a character in my novel. And I didn’t kill her because I wanted to. I had to. Her laugh, her ferocious loyalty, and the way she chewed on her hair as a girl were precious to me. Saying goodbye felt cruel, but necessary.

Every now and then, I find myself in this position: Crying while writing in a café, a library, or in my car, waiting for my kids. I inhabit my characters while I write, or maybe they inhabit me. They become real, and so their emotions and their personal histories feel raw and true. And sometimes it hurts.

Andi Rosenthal, who wrote her entire novel, The Bookseller’s Sonnets, in a café, knows the feeling well. When she tackled her most emotionally charged scene, a waiter took notice. “I wasn’t sobbing or hyperventilating or anything, but just silently, endlessly weeping. As I forced myself to keep on going, writing that scene and all the details I had just lived through, one of the café servers came over, placed a hot cup of tea on the table next to my laptop, and very gently patted my shoulder,” Rosenthal says. “I never forgot that kindness. I think it is what helped me write my way through that difficult, emotional scene.”

According to Lisa Borders, instructor for Grub’s Novel Generator program, the tendency to cry while writing in public isn’t so unusual. “I’d be surprised to hear of a writer who didn’t occasionally react to his or her work while writing,” Borders says. “Being in public doesn’t change the emotional involvement we writers have with our characters.” Lisa wrestled with a scene in her last novel, The Fifty-First State, that made her tear up every time she read it, no matter where she was. “I felt it was a good sign, that the book could still move me in, say, draft six, after I’d lived with it for so long.”

Getting emotional while writing in public can even have its benefits, suggests Amy Impellizzeri, author of Lemongrass Hope. She came up with the ending for her latest work in progress while sitting in a café. “I cried real tears over my computer in the middle of the coffee shop. I knew then that it was the right ending,” Impellizzeri says. “Plus, the man sitting next to me bought me another tall latte out of sympathy for my tears. So it was kind of a double win!”

It’s not only the heartbreaking moments that catch writers off guard. “Everything my characters feel, I feel thrice over. If they are serious, I find myself frowning so hard, I give myself a headache. If they are happy, I wear a strange smile that gleans sideways glances from passersby,” says novelist and essayist MM Finck. But it’s not always a bad thing, she adds. “My husband is never so happy as he is after I’ve written a certain type of scene. He’s never so unhappy as that point in my novels when the world has turned against my protagonists. He and everyone else better be on their best behavior or at least have a wine offering in hand.”

Like Finck, I also find myself juggling a range of my characters’ emotions. In addition to crying into my coffee, I also laugh out loud and sometimes get angry. Even worse, I blush. I once found myself in the back of a church writing a steamy scene. I’m certain the glow of my red face dimmed the candles around me, but I pushed through and finished the scene. I didn’t have a choice. It was what had to happen.

Just like when I killed off my beloved girl who chewed on her hair.

I’m trying to embrace the discomfort of public emoting-while-writing. I need to let myself cry, blush, and laugh because it gives me access to the layers of complex emotions I hope to capture on the page. I wish I could write in a cozy, private office where my passions aren’t always on display. But with four kids, two dogs and a farm to run, sitting still at home isn’t usually an option. I write where I can, when I can. And I cherish each stolen moment in the coffee shop with my latte and my work in progress.

Even when it makes me cry.

Julie Carrick Dalton is seeking representation for her first novel, The Poachers’ Code, which she wrote in GrubStreet’s Novel Generator class. Her journalism has appeared in The Boston Globe, Businessweek, The Hollywood Reporter, and dozens of other publications. She holds a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing, and her short stories have appeared in The MacGuffin and The Charles River Review. Mom to four kids and two dogs, she also runs a 100-acre family farm. Julie would gladly accept a sympathy latte or a supportive pat on the shoulder if caught crying in a café. But if she is blushing, you should probably leave her alone. You can find her atjuliecarrickdalton.wordpress.com or @juliecardalt.

Don’t Miss this Women’s Fiction contest

If you write Women’s Fiction, don’t miss this opportunity from Writer’s Digest . . .

Welcome to the 21st (free!) “Dear Lucky Agent” Contest on the GLA blog. This is a FREE recurring online contest with agent judges and super-cool prizes. Here’s the deal: With every contest, the details are essentially the same, but the niche itself changes—meaning each contest is focused around a specific category or two. So if you’re writing women’s fiction, this 21st contest is for you! (No genre romance or erotica.) The contest is live through EOD, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. The contest is judged by agent Elizabeth Winick Rubenstein of McIntosh & Otis.

 

DearLuckyAgent2

 

WHY YOU SHOULD GET EXCITED

After a previous “Dear Lucky Agent” contest, the agent judge, Tamar Rydzinski (The Laura Dail Literary Agency), signed one of the three contest winners. After Tamar signed the writer, she went on to sell two of that writer’s books! How cool! That’s why these contests are not to missed if you have an eligible submission.

HOW TO SUBMIT

E-mail entries to dearluckyagent21@gmail.com. Please paste everything. No attachments.

WHAT TO SUBMIT (AND OUR SOCIAL MEDIA REQUIREMENTS)

The first 150-250 words (i.e., your first double-spaced page) of your unpublished, completed book-length work of women’s fiction (no erotica or category romance). You must include a contact e-mail address with your entry and use your real name. Also, submit the title of the work and a logline (one-sentence description of the work) with each entry.

Please note: To be eligible to submit, you must mention this contest twice through any any social-media. Please provide a social-media link or Twitter handle or screenshot or blog post URL, etc., with your official e-mailed entry so the judge and I can verify eligibility. Some previous entrants could not be considered because they skipped this step! Simply spread the word twice through any means and give us a way to verify you did; a TinyURL for this link/contest for you to easily use is http://tinyurl.com/z5njvsp. An easy way to notify me of your sharing is to include my Twitter handle @chucksambuchino at the end of your mention(s) if using Twitter. If we’re friends on FB, tag me in the mention. And if you are going to solely use Twitter as your 2 times, please wait one day between mentions to spread out the notices, rather than simply tweeting twice back to back. Thanks. (Please note that simply tweeting me does not count. You have to include the contest URL with your mention; that’s the point. And if you use Twitter, put my handle @chucksambuchino at the middle or the end, not at the very beginning of the tweet, or else the tweet will be invisible to others.)

Here is a sample TWEET you can use (feel free to tweak): New FREE contest for writers of Women’s Fiction http://tinyurl.com/z5njvsp Judged by agent @30Winick, via @chucksambuchino

WHAT IS ELIGIBLE?

Completed women’s fiction novels.

If you’re confused as to what women’s fiction is (and its differences to romance), you can read agent Scott Eagan explain it here, or just check out a small excerpt: “I have always tried to define [women’s fiction] as a story that shows the female journey. The goal and the intent of this genre is to be able to relate to the character and understand her own life. We want to know what it is to be a woman. Like romance, this can occur in any time period, but the goal is still the same – to understand the female psyche. The story can be multicultural, like Amy Tan, or historical, like Philippa Gregory. It really doesn’t matter other than making the heroine the central focus of the story. It may be contemporary.”

CONTEST DETAILS

  1. This contest will be live through the end of Feb. 9, 2016, PST. Winners notified by e-mail within three weeks of end of contest. Winners announced at the top of this blog post thereafter.
  2. To enter, submit the first 150-250 words of your book (i.e., your first double-spaced page). Shorter or longer entries will not be considered. Keep it within word count range please.
  3. You can submit as many times as you wish. You can submit even if you submitted to other contests in the past, but please note that past winners cannot win again. All that said, you are urged to only submit your best work.
  4. The contest is open to everyone of all ages, save those employees, officers and directors of GLA’s publisher, F+W: A Content and E-Commerce Company, Inc.
  5. By e-mailing your entry, you are submitting an entry for consideration in this contest and thereby agreeing to the terms written here as well as any terms possibly added by me in the “Comments” section of this blog post. If you have questions or concerns, write me personally at chuck.sambuchino (at) fwmedia.com. The Gmail account above is for submissions, not questions.

PRIZES!!!

Top 3 winners all get: 1) A critique of the first 10 double-spaced pages of your work, by your agent judge. 2) A free one-year subscription to WritersMarket.com ($50 value)! 3) Their choice of any of Chuck’s 3 new books (mentioned at the top).

MEET YOUR (AWESOME) AGENT JUDGE!

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 11.29.40 PMELIZABETH WINICK RUBINSTEIN, president and senior agent at McIntosh & Otis, has degrees from New York University and Manhattan School of Music. She began her book publishing career in subsidiary rights and then took on the responsibilities of acquisitions editor at a major audio publishing imprint. Initially, she joined McIntosh & Otis to manage all subsidiary rights but began working as an agent shortly thereafter. Her primary interests include literary fiction, women’s fiction, historical fiction, romance, mystery/suspense, and memoir, along with narrative non-fiction, history and current affairs. Elizabeth represents numerous New York Times bestsellers, and both Agatha and Edgar Award winners and nominees.