Friday, March 28, 2008

Envelope Pushing

Who came up with this metaphor of "envelopes"?...and of "pushing envelopes"? It's an interesting metaphor. Up there with, "thinking outside the box" and "broadening the mind" and all those other catch-phrases which imply, for us writers, the fooling around with cross-genre stories.

Well, I'm working away on my current Work-in-progress, Inheritance.

When I start a novel, my aim is always to make it fully totally myself. Not because I'm so unique but because there are so many African-American Christian folks with First World issues....and I want to do my part in contributing to the emerging genre fantasy stories made for and by us. I can think of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi, Tobias Buckell's Science Fiction novels Ragamuffin and Crystal Rain, Robert Fleming's Havoc After Dark...among a few but honestly, considering there are so many Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, and South east-Asian folks in the US, there really ought to be more contemporary fiction (of whatever genre) on bookshelves that speaks to these cultures. Add to the mix that some of these folks are very religious --Christian, Buddhist, African tribal, Taoist, Shintoist-- and the main religion in fantasy seems to be Wiccan or Druidic... well, there is a major envelope that needs pushing, I think.

So that's my main purpose in my stories: to be as real and as fully me as possible. To be brave and put as much of myself into a story, in spite of the fact that the reader might not be prepared for such a world. In Wind Follower I wanted to be as Christian, as folklorish, as First Peoples, as High fantasy as see what such a book would look like. Just enough of the Euro-fantasy world to make it fit into the envelope. But enough to push the envelope a bit.

So there I was working on Inheritance. Inheritance is a book I want to be as Christian, as demonic, and as erotic as possible. The same envelope pushing. I wanted a succubus but I wanted a succubus that was really connected to Christianity, a female demon whom you hated, a demon who so intoxicated the sense of my main (good and noble) character that he would be tempted to rape any woman to repeat that pleasure. In short, I wanted to take my succubus seriously and do a modern-day version of The Exorcist with Christians fighting demonic possession. IN ADDITION, --because I wanted to put all myself in this story-- I wanted to deal with sexual-woundedness and make the story erotically-charged. And of course, all this had to happen to a black female Christian character.

Wind Follower got certain Christians annoyed with me because of six small sex scenes. Would I be willing to include the sexuality and alienate those folks again? And then there were the core fantasy fans. Many fantasy readers really liked Wind Follower but others were upset at its Christian content. Was I willing again to challenge the separation of genres? Did I want to push another envelope when Wind Follower had yet to prove that folks actually would read a book with a pushed envelope?

And what if I wasn't skillful enough to bring that book to fruition? If one speaks to pentecostal Christians, Native American non-Christians, Native American Christians, or Christians from Latin America, Asia, of demons, spirits, and possession is fairly common. The problem is that although the demonic is ever present in the fantasy genre, most fantasy writers don't really really believe in demons. Heck! Some American Christians don't even believe in demons. Not to the extent that other folks do.

I've gotten some interesting correspondence re Wind Follower. Folks telling me that it connected them to their life in the old country, or that it reminded them of stories their grandparents told, or that it was a book that "didn't seem like a made-up book" because stuff like that happened to them in their old villages or in some weird town in Louisiana. I like that phrase: "didn't seem like a made-up book." So, for some folks, Wind Follower felt intensely real.

So, back to Inheritance: Can I write it? Can I ride on that edge again and cause the story not to fall flat? And if I do have the skill to write a story that is totally paranormal and totally sexual and totally ethnic, do I have the fearlessness to actually write it? The effect of bad reviews of Wind Follower (there have been about five, I think, that I know of. Five out of 23 isn't so bad but hey)can really make an author pull back from pushing that envelope.

When I read the Bible, I don't see it telling me to abandon my sin-stained culture to take on the European sin-stained culture. It wants me to be myself, a Christian of African-American descent. But when I read American fantasy, I feel as if I am called to abandon that culture and take on Elvish and Wicca. By the year 2057, the majority of citizens in the United States will be non-white. (The growth will be fueled by Latin American immigrants and their children. Most of these immigrants are Roman Catholic, Evangelical and even mormon.) Will fantasy books continue to call us to worlds of vampires, elves, wiccans? Worlds that have little to do with us? (I can deal with shapeshifters because shapeshifters such as werewolves occur in many ethnic cultures. I'd like to see less European shapeshifters, though.)

I'm hoping that writers of color and that my little book Wind Follower will help to push the envelope a create space on those fantasy bookshelves for books that reflect the ethnic and religious differences of the America that we are becoming.

Wow! My first really bad review

I stand here amazed. I got my first really really really bad review. It's up at Neth Space.

He says it was so bad he could only make it through the first 100 pages.
I don't know if he actually read the book at all though because he says
"Much of the first hundred pages are told in a first person narration."
But ALL of the first 100 pages are told in the first person. So am not sure what he means?

Then he says the book lacks subtly with religious things and says things are
"a bit on the conservative side for me."
But there isn't any kind of Christian religiosity in the first 100 pages. And there's definitely no "conservative side" going on.

He says my main female character goes from strong-willed to meek and subservient for no apparent reason. Apparently, those three scenes where her mother tells her that if her father's debt isn't paid off he will be sold into slavery weren't reason enough.

Then, a poster Charlotte Byrd, posted that the book contained sections that were anti-Gnostics. This was weird cause she too admits that she didn't finish reading the book and even weirder cause I wasn't even thinking of the gnostics when I wrote Wind Follower. HEck, Christianity has tons of denominations that have added their own texts and prophets: Mary Baker Eddy's Health and Science, The Seventh Day Adventists and the Writings of Miss White, Joseph Smith's Writings. And if one considers that Mohammed was connected to the early Christians, one might even wish to add him into the mix of books influenced by the Jewish and Christian Bibles. So I was pretty much making fun of all Christian denominationalism, including my own. Interestingly, Neth answered that if I were picking on gnosticism then he definitely wouldn't read Wind Follower. Totally odd! One can really see how bad news and bad gossip and bad assumptions build and build on top of false foundations. Now Neth's going to go around saying Wind Follower has an anti-Gnostics swipe.....all based on his not finishing the book and his believing the comment from someone else who didn't finish reading the book.

(I recently was watching The First 48, a crime reality cop show. On that particular episode one 18 year old killed another 18 year old because he had heard the kid was gonna kill him. But of course the kid wasn't. Also am thinking of the white kids in Long Island who went to beat up a black kid because they had "heard" the black kid was planning to rape a white girl. The stupidity of these kids' abilities to read the mind of a would-be killer aside, it's amazing this mindreading ability created such a fuel that they went to the black kids' house. The father of the black kid shot them in self-defense. And of course all this is based on suppositions, lies, and people talking sh*t. It really has me thinking about the cruelty and the sinfulness of people speaking about what they don't know anything about.)

Yeah, a bad review is nothing compared to the death of two people....but it's scary that this kind of gossiping and unfounded talk can go on. I, for one, have never been comfortable with talking badly a book I've never read.

But some folks did defend me and another blogger got so interested in the mini-storm in the mini-teapot that he wants to read it for himself. So maybe this is all good.

Well Wind Follower has gotten some great reviews. Publishers Weekly (September 07) gave it a good review and said,
her elegant, meticulous world-building shimmers with the ambience of an old-world folktale

Library Journal (October 07) recommended it as a book for Black History Month.
Other reviewers have also really liked it.
J Kaye's Book Blog, The long and short, John Ottinger's Grasping the Wind, Mir's Mind Flight and Karen McSpadden's Disturbing The Universe: Reviews And Rants

So I really should let it all bounce off me because no book can please everyone. Still and all, that a book could be so liked in one area and so savaged in another.....well, it makes one wonder! It really shows that it's all a matter of taste.

Check out this wonderful post called the book is not that interesting.

Kinda puts it all in perspective and ... I find myself in good company.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Pedestal of Author

Yesterday, I received a sweet little e-missive from a fellow author. In it, she lovingly but firmly told me about the concept of The Pedestal of Author. Backstory: I've gotten mostly good reviews on Wind Follower. When I have gotten bad reviews, I let it slide. Everyone has an opinion. When I get a really, really, really bad review....where the reviewer obviously hasn't written the book....well, I actually try to defend myself. Which is a no-no in writing circles, I'm told.

Anyway, the concept of The Pedestal of Author now has me thinking. What do I as an author think an author should be? What do I as an author expect my readers to think of me? What do I as a reader expect an author to be?

In some cultures certain kinds of vocation and work are considered important or honorable or "great." Nice job if you can get it. For instance, teachers are generally honored in many cultures. Doctors and Actors are honored in the United States.

In the black community, there is always so much pride and joy in great achievers. When I used to work in the high school I thought this pride in greatness was a bit dangerous. Kind of like an ethnic Cinderella Complex. Poor kids didn't want to be regular folks with normal jobs. They wanted to be famous rappers, great singers, sportscasters. It was as if their lives had been so bad that they only way they could overcome it would be to be in-your-face-famous with tons of bling, ho's, boy-toys, etc. I totally understand that. (And yeah, I'm actually cool with all those women wanting to hook up with Flavor Flav or Bret on VH1. You gotta do what you gotta do to get by. And hey, nice job if you can get it. But most people aren't gonna be famous. Fame is so important in our society. The nature of fame is that some folks simply are....and some folks aren't.

But I'm an author. Plodding work, a work of endurance, a work that revolves around ideas. I'm not particularly famous, though. Although you'd think from the way some folks in the hood behave, I'm the hottest thing since Vanilla Chai.

Hey, I don’t mind representing. What really makes my day at signings, etc is the love and appreciation my people have for me. They’re glad that I – a Black Woman– succeeded. If they are little old ladies, they ask where they can buy my book. When I tell them “from any bookstore!” they just smile and rejoice with me. Yes, I'm in a bookstore! When I say it's not self-published, it's from a traditional publisher, they really smile. When I say the book has so many religious stuff in it and so many racial stuff in it, but a secular publisher published it, they shout, "Praise the Lord! HE is able!" As a culture we have seen so many failures and struggles, that many of us still have a genuine joy and appreciation for those in our culture who have succeeded. Poor folks in the hood -- even the white ones-- love the idea that I'm an author.

Yeah, I’ll admit it. I get all teary-eyed when some Public Service Announcement pops up which states, “A black man created this…” “A black scientist discovered that…” And, yeah, I’m glad when I enter a room of little old Black ladies and they get teary-eyed over me.

Should we try to keep the mystique of Author Greatness? Do I OWE it to my people to behave like a real author, someone who symbolizes wisdom, persevereance, polish....and uh, maturity? If I DO try, how long can I keep up with it? Will I be able to be that other person long enough until it becomes second nature? When it become second-nature, will I become a pill, a know-it-all, or an object of pride and a help to all who know me?

Lord, help my people to continue to do great things. I'm trusting you to help me write this new WIP. Amen.

Friday, March 21, 2008

African-Americans and Strokes

Strokes are the third leading cause of death among African Americans. The
American Stroke Association has released a downloadable kit to help African
Americans recognize the signs of a stroke and to help prevent one.
Download or read the kit here

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Future of Book Publishing

I've been noticing a large trend in mainstream entertainment whether it's movies, books and even music. But mainly books since it's my stock and trade. ;-)

The entertainment industry needs a jumpstart. It's in a rut and it's seriously on life support.

The numbers even support this with the amount of losses big publishers and bookstores are taking from Harlequin to Borders. Lines are being cut, long time editors are being replaced by cheaper freelance editors just out the gate and pubs are scrambling to make niches to bring in more readers from introducing free ebooks while trying to bring in new authors. I'm all for new authors being given a chance and that's always a plus. But there is still a hold on focusing on the big time authors who always rake in the cash with their readership. Big publishers love to throw money their way for big promotions while newer authors are left to dig in their own pockets for promo money.

But hopefully this is changing.

With the advent of new technology enough to excite a long time sci-fi geek (yours truly included ;-)), the publishing industry is getting some ideas from the small press which is causing the bigger guys to sit up and make some major changes. What does this mean about the future of publishing?

Well, in my brave new world I'd love to see the espresso book machine take off. Borders stores are already getting a similar idea by using Lulu as a book broker to print customers books from instore. Not to mention the big chain has also mentioned their venture into ebooks by coupling with Sony to sell prepaid cards for the Sony CONNECT service that allows users to download eBooks for their Sony Reader.

The industry is definitely in a process of change and it's only a matter of time when we see how much ebooks and small presses will have an effect on mainstream publishing. A lot of publishers are opting to "go greener" by only taking electronic submissions. Many print books are also offered in e-format (some with the same price as the print books which is highway robbery in itself, but I digress). The future of publishing looks pretty bright.

I can't wait to see what they will come up with next. ;-)

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Homecoming at the Borderlands Cafe story podcast

Please check out the podcast of my story, Homecoming at the Borderlands Cafe over at Escape Pod. It takes about fifteen minutes to listen to. Please comment if you can. It's a story about race and religion in an alternate America.

-Carole McDonnell

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Getting older

Okay so I'm almost 50. 48 years and three months old, exactly. And lately, I've found myself writing about older women characters. Interesting (to me at least) because I have always written about young characters.

I think we humans always identify with our young selves. It's natural. Our bodies betray us. Inside, we feel twenty...but outside we look....sixty, seventy. (Well, actually, my hubby tells me I look like I'm in my mid-30's. Is the guy sweet or what?)

Perhaps we write about young characters because the world has trained us to. After all, it's the young who do the great feats of derring-do. Or perhaps we're afraid of getting old or we just can't identify with old characters.

I suspect I'm writing about older women because I'm feeling my age. (still don't look it, though.) Whatever the reason I'm doing all these old fogey ladies, I find myself still writing about youngish male characters. And these young guys have crushes on these old fogey ladies? Is there a need for serious psycho-analysis here? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Latent pedophilia aside, I find that some adversarial pain-in-the-neck argumentative part of me (which actually is a very big part of me) wants to do something about the ageism I see on television. Subtle racism mixed with ageism(the non-sexy, grandmotherly, Aunt Jemima-ness of the black woman) and dang! we black women are put outside the romance pool a bit too early. (At least in the media, not real life.) Upshot: I end up writing books where the cute blonde white woman doesn't get the young guy and the older black woman goes off with him to the marriage bed. (It's always gotta be marriage. I'm a Christian, after all. No premarital sex, alas. Except maybe the night before the wedding, like I did in Wind Follower.)

I hate to admit it cause as I said, I'm old now. But, I'm still wounded from seeing all those fifties, sixties, seventies films where black women weren't considered really beautiful. (yep, even in the 2000's. Remember last year when everyone kept saying two of the black women singers on American Idol were "plain.") As a writer, I want to see how much I can get away with. And, hey, (speculating here) maybe I'll affect the greater American culture so wonderfully that young guys of all colors will start lusting for older women of color instead of the cool icy "All-American" blonde ideal many have been trained to admire. Dare I believe that because of my influence (okay, and the influence of others like me) ten years from now Oprah will be considered the sex symbol and Michelle Pfeiffer and younger white starlets will all be catching up? Hey, one can dream.

My hubby says that the way I talk sometimes people will think I'm prejudiced against white folks. I'm not. My friends are mostly white. All my boyfriends were white. They were cute guys too. But the world would have a hard time believing that. Heck, they'd have a hard time thinking of Oprah as a sex symbol or a love interest. Yep, they'd hink it was fiction beyond the ordinary. -C

Monday, March 3, 2008

ethics of reviewing

In one of his critical essays, C S Lewis pointed out some ethical dilemmas reviewers are apt to get involved in. For instance, a reviewer once slammed one of Lewis' book in a publication and months later, the editor of the publication gave Lewis the slammer's book saying something to the effect of "Turnabout is Fairplay." Lewis didn't think it was. He declined the opportunity to review. I suppose he could have been all noble and ethical and praised his enemy's writing....but what if he honestly didn't like the work? Wouldn't people think he was being retaliatory.

In the essay, Lewis also talked about the ethics of reviewing a friend. Almost as stressing as reviewing an enemy. Again, what if one honestly likes the work? Remember the big hullabulloo years back when it was discovered that several judges "knew" which manuscripts in contests were written by their friends? Quite the todo! Especially when the judges said, "But his (my friend's) manuscript was genuinely the best of the bunch. Ah, me! dilemmas! I remember reading a comment by John Updike in which he said something to the effect of, "I haven't got the ethical strength to pan a friend. Actually, let me restate that: I have the ethics not to pan a friend."

Another thing C S Lewis mentioned in the essay -- whose title truly escapes me but which I think was called "On reviewing"-- is that a reviewer should never review a genre he does not like. Now, it's not as easy as all that to figure out what one doesn't like. Some folks are very pernicketty about their genres. But in a day and time of sub-genres, cross-genres, mixed genres....well, there is bound to be some aspect of a story that simply bothers a reviewer. My question, should the reviewer continue reading the story if it doesn't suit his rigid notions of what he expected in the genre.

I recently received a review from Daniel Ausema, a reviewer on Fantasy Forum, where he stated he didn't like the first 150 pages of Wind Follower because it was romance. He also said it was too heavy-hyandedly Christian for a Christian novel. What does one do with a reviewer like this? Interestingly, he's the only one so far who thinks the book is heavy-handed. Other christian reviewers haven't thought that at all. Strangely, secular writers don't think it is.

Fellow Juno author, feminist, atheist, and academic Sylvia Kelso will be presenting a paper on it at Swancon, an academic conference on Speculative Fiction...and at Wiscon, the feminist, alternative annual speculative conference. Check out the title of her paper: Out Of Egypt: The Palimpsest Of Speculative And Other Fiction(S) In Carole Mcdonnell’s Wind Follower. She didn't see it as heavy-handed. The Carl Brandon Society has recommended this book as one of the twelve books by Speculative Fiction writers that should be read during Black History Month 2008. They obviously didn't think of it as heavy-handed. Heck, the book has been read by a Yemeni-muslim, by several atheists, by narcissitic teenaged kids, by my angry-with-Christians-Orthodox neighbor and no one else saw the book as heavy-handed. So, what's going on?

So then, what are we to do? As artists, we value input and we are not going to say that only experts can review books properly....but it does make a person wonder.

I'll say that I'm a reviewer and I haven't always been the perfect reviewer either. I once slammed a book because the writer said something very snide about Christians. Other than the snideness the book was actually well-written. I also get pretty impatient with stories about blonde frontier types taming the west and claiming the land. But I've aged. Like a fine wine. Recently, I was reading a YA book where certain sexual issues just didn't sit right with my Christian conservative mindset. I told the editor of the publication I review for that I simply couldn't be fair to the book but there was no way I was going to slam it because my problem with the book was problem. When I encounter a book or (God help me!) am in the middle of a book that I suddenly realize is not my cup of tea....well, I do the honest and ethical thing. I toss it aside and I keep my opinion to myself. After all, sometimes the problem isn't with the's with the reader. And a good reviewer should be knowledgeable enough about himself, his tastes, his imperfections, and the state of the art... to fess up....instead of blaming the book. -C

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Writers of Color Blog tour of Gregory Banks' Phoenix Tales

Phoenix Tales
By Gregory Banks
WheelMan Press

FeBlueberry 2005 newsletter
"...For an experience in description and emotion, this is good." - Piers Anthony, Author the Xanth series.

Carole McDonnell, The Compulsive Reader, March 30, 2005
"...stories about death could be troubling...(But) Greg Banks has written about it with hope, faith, (and) love..."

Jennifer Murray,, May 3, 2005
"...(Has) the same ironic, bittersweet twist (of) The Twilight Zone mixed with the acidic musings attribute(d) to Harlan Ellison."

Kalaani, The RAWSISTAZ™ Reviewers, June 19, 2005
PHOENIX TALES by Gregory Bernard Banks is a one of a kind book anyone would enjoy reading.

Joe Murphy, reviewer
"(When) I read Living with Mrs. Klase...I wept...Any book that can do that deserves the highest marks."

Participating Blogs include:
Dark Parables

Nicole Kurtz

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wind follower