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Feminism, Teaching, Uncategorized, women

The Killer in Me

I’ve heard this question a lot lately:

How do we reach Trump voters?

I hear it in my activist women’s group. I hear it over dinner with friends. I see it on Facebook and on Twitter. I read about it in New York Times think pieces. My reactions to this question are as predictable as you would expect.

Anger: Man, fuck those guys.

Philosophical: Let’s examine the existential crises of said Trump voters.

Buddhist: We need to have compassion for those suffering Trump voters.

Marxist: We need to examine the shifting socio-economic labor conditions that led to Trump voters.

And Back to Anger: No, seriously, fuck those guys.

One trend I’ve seen a lot in these think pieces is how threatened Trump voters feel by so-called “identity politics” that leave them feeling “left out” by progressive aims. Essentially, these are a call for BLM protestors to tone it down because, hey, guys, a suburban woman is starting to feel uncomfortable. In essence, placating butt hurt Trump voters is a re-centering of whiteness and white supremacy. Time and again, the “real” story here is why rural Trump voters feel so disenfranchised in Nowhere, Wisconsin…but not how many black voters were disenfranchised in Milwaukee by the voter ID law or purged from voter records in North Carolina. It’s hard to give a shit, honestly. Even as I sit here on my own little hill in Nowhere, Wisconsin and watch as factories close, as technology and robotics take over decent, middle class jobs, as heroin use rises to pandemic proportions, and the jobs that do exist are left to vastly underpaid, exploited, freelance undocumented workers. I need to care. I must care. As a community member, as a citizen, as a Marxist critic, as a Buddhist. And yet, when the question comes up in my women’s group, I have to resist rolling my eyes and heaving a heavy sigh because inside all I’m thinking to myself is…man, fuck those guys.

And it’s not because I’m a cruel, uncaring person. It’s because we circle this question over and over with no concrete answers. The only answers I am hearing is that black folks, LGBT folks, feminists need to chill the fuck out. And, well, I won’t be watering down my feminism any time soon, I can tell you that much.

I called up my BFF, a long-time practicing Buddhist and my personal spiritual advisor in all things Buddha-related. I asked her, “How can we have compassion for Trump voters but still want to dismantle the patriarchy and racism?”

She paused for a moment, and said, “That’s the ultimate question, isn’t it? How do you love a racist?”

She told me a story of a recent confrontation that had occurred in her life. Someone close to her had said something blatantly and unapologetically racist. My friend called her out in a calm way, clearly articulating why that utterance was racist, but the result was this person didn’t talk to her for weeks. It was painful, the tension between them. She finally sat this person down and said, “I told you this was racist not because I’m angry with you. I told you this was racist because I love you.”

Showing up to dismantle the oppressive systems of racism and sexism is the ultimate act of love and compassion. How many of us called off Thanksgiving because we couldn’t stand to be in the same room with our Trump-voting relatives? How many of us have unfriended and blocked people who voted for Trump? How many of us have ducked out of the break room and avoided conversations with our coworkers because we know they voted for Trump? I’ve done it all, and when I sit down and really think about why, it comes back to betrayal. Deep, soul-crushing betrayal. And I can only feel that way because of love. Love! Can you imagine?

Four years ago, I had developed a close and very cozy relationship to vodka. I don’t know how it started, but I can tell you how it ended—with my husband telling me I had a problem. That cocktail on Friday night had somehow crept into a nightly routine. And that nightly routine bloomed from one to four. It simply wasn’t healthy. Of course I lashed out, made excuses, accused him of trying to control me. But he said, “I’m not telling you this because I’m trying to control you. I’m telling you this because I love you.” Sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, et al. are sicknesses of the mind. As addictive and seductive as vodka. The cure for so many personal ills, but ultimately destructive. When we show up to directly dismantle these systems of oppression, it’s an incredible act of love. It’s a commitment to the best side of a person.

But how? How do we do this work? My friend recommended I return to bell hooks, a social critic who writes extensively on racism and sexism AND is practices a fluid Buddhist-Christian path. I sat down to reread Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. I thought to myself, “Okay, here we go. I know bell hooks is going to give me some good strategies.” I dove into the chapter “Teaching Race and Racism,” and I was struck by the extent to which bell hooks works to dismantle her own internalized racism in this essay. She writes how she begins every workshop by working with students on their earliest memories of learning about race and racism. She writes, “I have found confronting racial biases, and more important, white-supremacist thinking, usually requires all of us take a critical look at what we learned early in life about the nature of race” (26). Note the phrase all of us. Teacher and students. Students and teachers. It’s what Freire calls critical pedagogy wherein students and teachers engage in a critical process of the interrogation of ideas. It requires the teacher position herself as the student…and the student position herself as teacher.

The question, “How do we reach these Trump voters?” suggests that teaching racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia are a list of talking points that we can, if gained access by Jedi mind tricks or some other sorcery, we can somehow “deposit” into our racist relatives. If we’re somehow nice, make cupcakes, talk in gentle tones and hypnotize them with a PowerPoint, we’ll somehow convince them to knock it off. But I think the work we need to do first is the kind of work bell hooks suggests. Before we can reach anyone and engage in this critical work, we have to dismantle the racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia in ourselves.

I was recently at a conference with a friend of mine—a woman of color. I watched as she folded her beautiful curls into a bun, and I felt this wild compulsion to touch her hair. Me. After years of reading, after writing a dissertation informed by postcolonial theory, I wanted to touch my friend’s hair. How many times had I taught Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” and pored over the passage wherein he discusses the pain of black objectification? And yet, here I was, standing in our hotel room and suddenly aware of the strange imperialist impulse running through me. It was there, inside of me as sure as my white DNA. Learned, internalized, systemic, and oppressive racism. And if I cannot overcome the racism in myself, how can I reach a Trump voter?

Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh famously wrote, “Peace is every step.” This means that peace can only begin within ourselves. We cannot work for peace when there is a war in our minds. If instead of turning outward, what if we started the work of dismantling oppression within ourselves? What if white people made a goal this month, this year (!) to read or reread bell hooks, Edward Said, Ta Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison, Debbie Reese, John Lewis, Judith Butler, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Gloria Anzaldúa? What if we took a hard look at the ways in which we have learned systems of oppression and analyzed the ways in which they now play a role in our adult lives? What if the revolution we’re looking for is not “out there,” but in ourselves? And then, and only then, armed with love, we might be able to answer that question.

Creative Process, Editing, Fantasy, Marketing, Pitch Wars, Pitching, Publishing, Querying, Romance, Social Media, Teaching, Through the Veil, Uncategorized, Writing

Crafting the Fantasy Query

When I first pitched my fantasy romance novel a thousand years ago, I made the fatal mistake I think a lot of spec writers make–foregrounding the worldbuilding beyond anything else. While it’s true that worldbuilding is the one quintessential thing that differentiates fantasy from other genres, it may not be exactly what you want to lead with in your pitch. In the whole scheme of things, worldbuilding is only one aspect of a story that will appeal to readers, and I would argue that, at its core, the query needs to center around the engaging and fascinating characters within your world.

It’s hard to connect on a deep, personal level to a magic system, but we’re hardwired, you might say, to connect with individual struggle or strife. Most of us want to connect with humans (or humanoid-esque, sentient beings), not with the magical amulet of Aerosolisia or the ancient book of Conolingua. Such things are meaningless to us at this point in the book’s life, but a character with a goal and a conflict? That will hook most readers right away, and hints at an incredible world will be the icing on that fantasy-character cake.

As I said above, when I queried my debut novel THROUGH THE VEIL, I was so proud of all my worldbuilding, I forgot this very important component. I filled my query with so much world, I’m not sure how anyone could parse out my story at all, let alone connect to my characters. In spite of the churning waves of embarrassment in my stomach, I present to you something very close to my original query, and I do so to point out some of its serious flaws. Just…be kind, guys. I was young, fresh, and very green.

Graduate student Elizabeth Tanner loved to lose herself in the musty vellum pages of the ancient Irish manuscript she studied for her MA thesis–until the pictures started shifting and the spidery script transformed to reveal a terrible secret. 

Elizabeth is no Tinkerbell, but when she discovers her lost mother is Fae, she finds herself at odds with the forces of Trinity, a secret organization composed of the magical races of Ireland. To end a centuries-long Civil War war, Trinity forces Elizabeth to take her Fae mother’s place in a marriage covenant forged a generation ago with the leader of the Dark Fae, Lord Bres.

Her only ally is Finn O’Connell, an eighteenth-century Irish rebel turned immortal warrior. Together, they unlock the mysteries of her past and explore the truth of Elizabeth’s new-found powers. She is an aisling, blessed with the ability to break magical wards, cross space and time, and even walk through dreams.

Bound to Bres by the same black magic she unearthed in her Master’s thesis, Elizabeth must stop him from gaining control of The Tree of Life, the source of all power in the universe. If she fails, Finn and everyone she loves dies and the mortal world falls to darkness.

Oh, my eyes…they bleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed. Where do I even begin with this? As I’m sure you can see, it’s practically unreadable. First of all, we have way too many magical elements dropped into it that require far too much explanation for a 200 word query. There’s an ancient manuscript, a secret organization, Fae, Dark Fae, something called an aisling, a Tree of Life. You guys. As much as I love all this stuff about my book, front loading all that world was a huge, terrible mistake. Furthermore, while I’m able to establish some notion of who my characters are, neither of them have a very specific goal. Elizabeth loves books and Finn wants to help her because…? Um…because…? Yeah.

So fast forward a year or so later when my editor asked me to take a stab at writing the back copy for the book. I just about threw up on my laptop with nerves, but I wanted to prove I could do this.

I spent years teaching freshman comp, which is essentially helping students understand the rhetorical moves that make for effective essays. To do that, we have to analyze the fundamental gestures great writers make to convince others of their argument. I knew if I could apply the same mindset to studying blurbs, I could figure out the code, the code that makes one person want to throw down their hard-earned money for a book.

Now, what follows is not a formula, a wham-bam-thank-you-mam worksheet you can fill out and get a six-figure deal. But I was raised by jazz musicians, and one thing I learned is  you need to learn some basics before you can freestyle like Charlie Parker. Bear in mind, also, that back cover copy is not the same thing as a query. However, I’m using examples of back cover copy here to show how you can shape and consolidate your fantasy novel into something that might appeal to agents.

So, determined to write a good blurb, I set out studying as much back cover copy in my genre as possible. One example of back cover copy I looked at specifically was the book Darkfever, probably the closest comp to my own book. The first thing I noticed was that the copy didn’t start with the world or the conflict, but the character.

MacKayla Lane’s life is good. She has great friends, a decent job, and a car that breaks down only every other week or so. In other words, she’s your perfectly ordinary twenty-first-century woman. Or so she thinks…until something extraordinary happens.

We can argue back and forth about the likeability of MacKayla Lane’s character, but one thing is for sure, we know exactly who she is. More importantly, we know this is going to be a character who will transform, who will be forever changed by the events within this story. That is the key to good characterization.

I won’t copy and paste the whole back cover copy here, but you can see how it goes on to provide a goal:

When her sister is murdered, leaving a single clue to her death–a cryptic message on Mac’s cell phone–Mac journeys to Ireland in search of answers.

And then we have the conflict, the person (or Fae, as it were) standing in her way:

As she begins to close in on the truth, the ruthless Vlane–an alpha Fae who makes sex an addiction for human women–closes in on her.

Yikes!

Then finally, we have the stakes:

…because whoever gets to [this magical book] first holds nothing less than complete control of the very fabric of both worlds in their hands….

Essentially, if MacKayla doesn’t figure out who killed her sister and stop him, the whole fabric of the universe might implode. Awesome, right? I love this series. There’s also a really hot dude in it.

Anyway, as helpful as this analysis was, I still couldn’t quite get the organization right. Even though my character, goal, conflict, and stakes were stronger, the copy still felt muddled. So I went to Entangled’s website and started studying all the copy on my publisher’s particular imprint. Because romance tends to focus on two characters, I realized that there was a certain organization that popped up over and over again. It goes a little something like this:

Paragraph One (2-3 sentences): Who is the main character? What does she want? What is her initial conflict? What is tripping her up?

Paragraph Two (2-3 sentences): Who is the main love interest? What is his/her goal? What is his/her initial conflict? What is tripping him/her up?

Paragraph Three (1-2 sentences): What is their combined conflict? What is standing in their way? What will happen if they don’t get what they want?

Once I figured this out, the copy came a lot faster, and after several, several drafts and going back and forth with my editor, we came up with this final version:

Elizabeth Tanner is no Tinkerbell, and her life is no fairy tale. Broke and drowning in student loans, the one thing she wants more than anything is a scholarship from the Trinity Foundation. But after the ancient Irish text she’s studying turns out to be more than just a book, she becomes their prisoner instead. And when Trinity reveals Elizabeth is half-Fae, she finds herself at the center of a plot to save the magical races of Ireland from a brutal civil war.

As Commander of Trinity’s elite warriors, Finn O’Connell isn’t used to having his authority challenged. He doesn’t know whether to punish or protect the infuriating young woman in his custody. When he discovers the Dark Fae want to use Elizabeth’s abilities to control the source of all power in the universe, he’ll risk everything to help her.

At the mercy of Trinity and enslaved to the Dark Fae, Elizabeth finds herself alone on the wrong side of an Irish myth thousands of years in the making. Refusing to be a pawn in their game, Elizabeth has to fight her way back to the man she loves, but to do so, she must wage her own war against the magic that binds her.

Even if Fae Fantasy Romance isn’t your thing, this blurb not even comparable to the original version I queried with years ago. We gave the characters goals, took out a ton of the worldbuilding, and made the focus on the the essential driving forces of Elizabeth and Finn’s combined character arcs. You will notice there are a lot fewer proper nouns and we maintained the barest hint of a much more complex magical system.

“But, Colleen!” you exclaim. “I thought this was a post about fantasy, not romance!”

Right. So let’s look at some back copy of straight-up high fantasy.

I’m reading Six of Crows right now and absolutely loving it. The world is incredibly complex, and 100 pages in, I’m only just beginning to grasp the complex magic system Bardugo weaves within this engaging novel. Here is the back copy, though:

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price–and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.

We have setting first to establish we are in some place other than planet Earth. But then we move immediately into character…and then more characters…and then even more characters. We have a goal—“the heist”—but it becomes clear the core conflict lies within these characters themselves.

Check out the simplicity in the focus of character in the current back cover copy for The Name of the Wind by Pat Rothfuss:

The riveting first-person narrative of a young man who grows to be the most notorious magician his world has ever seen. From his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, to years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime- ridden city, to his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that transports readers into the body and mind of a wizard. It is a high-action novel written with a poet’s hand, a powerful coming-of-age story of a magically gifted young man, told through his eyes: to read this book is to be the hero.

Okay, firstly, I would definitely not describe your book to agents as a “masterpiece” (lolz), but I’m using this example to demonstrate that again, in spite of the incredible world and magic systems Rothfuss creates, the pitch to readers remains focused on the character and his journey.

So as you go forth revising your queries, take some time to read as much back cover copy as possible and start identifying where marketers place this key information:

  • Who is the main character? And I mean on a most fundamental level, who is this person?
  • What does this person want? What is their goal?
  • Who or what stands in their way? (the central conflict)
  • And what will happen if they don’t get it? (the stakes)

Keep the focus on your character’s journey and discover a way to organize this information to keep your narrative clear and uncluttered by extraneous information. It might feel like the story is the world, but think of your characters as the guides who will lead us into the magic you’ve created.

 

Discover THROUGH THE VEIL for yourself…

My debut novel THROUGH THE VEIL is now available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, Amazon UK, and Amazon Canada.

 

 

Marketing, Motherhood, Social Media, Teaching, Uncategorized, Writing

You Don’t Even Look Like You

My hairdresser grabbed my phone and held it up to her nose. I was showing her my new website, and her eyes scanned over my author head shot.

“You don’t even look like you!” she exclaimed.

I laughed. “That’s the idea.”

With the release date of Through the Veil looming, I’ve been working hard to develop a good platform to sell my book. Part of that has been developing what the industry calls an “author brand.” What is an author brand? Think about a writer you love. The kind of writer who, when you hear they have a new book coming out, you race to Amazon and pre-order it right away. Maybe you’re walking down the street and see their name through the window of a bookstore , and you get this swirl of emotions, images, and feelings running through you. You smile. You have a secret. A secret you have shared with this author. Maybe it’s a secret love, a secret world, a secret adventure. You walk on, thinking about the last time you read their book, what you loved about it, what you love about this person–THIS WRITER–who is able to work magic through words. That feeling? That’s an author brand. It’s elusive, but every writer has one. Good or bad. And it’s not accidental.

Recently, I was on the road going to pick up my kids, and I happened upon this great interview on NPR with JK Rowling. I immediately paused on the station, sinking into the lilts of her lovely accent. I don’t know what she was talking about. Her mystery novels? I don’t know, but I was completely charmed by her wit, her warmth, and her intelligence. As in love I am with the great JK, I could also hear a professional at work, someone who knows and understands what her readers want from her and is willing to deliver–and then some. When you go to her personal website (not Pottermore, which deserves it’s own visual analysis, for sure!), you’re greeted with her signature. The design is clean. It’s smart, but there’s a bit of playfulness in the fonts and artwork. She smiles in her author photo, but she’s poised with a pen in her hand, ready to work. Everything about the way she presents herself exudes an unassuming confidence that readers just…love. I love it, anyway.

JK Rowling has had years to cultivate a public persona, but when you’re just starting out as a writer, it’s a strange mantle to cast over yourself. I was at a party the other night, and someone called me a writer. I swear I almost looked over my shoulder to see who they were talking about. But then I remembered, yes, that’s me. The writer. I have a book coming out. It’s a real thing now. Slowly, I have found ways to embrace that identity, and part of it has been about developing an author brand. In many ways, my author brand has liberated me from a lot of my own fears and doubts about releasing a book out into the world. When I worry about getting bad reviews, I think, “Well, it’s Colleen Halverson-author who will have to deal with bad reviews.” When I’m nervous about emailing my editor about a change I remind myself, “It’s Colleen Halverson-author who needs to address an issue.” And when I get squirmy about going out there and pimping my book, I think, “It’s the writer, it’s this confident professional who is going to talk up her book and get readers excited about it. I just have to sit back and eat cookies and watch The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.(They’re alive dammit!).”

I know for many of us who grew up in the era of Kurt Cobain and the hipster cult of authenticity might cringe at such self-proclaimed phoniness. The Colleen of her twenties would have shook her head and told her to fuck that shit. Be who you are! But being a professional educator has changed me. When I walk into the classroom, I have to leave my personal problems behind and facilitate powerful learning experiences. I have to check my ego at the door, not take things personally, and have faith in the power of my pedagogy because when I’m at the top of my game, I’m a fucking literary wizard. There have been times when the facade has dropped and I let out an “f” bomb or two (I’m still me, after all), but the professional identity I put on in the classroom has given me the freedom to tackle enormous challenges and overcome incredible obstacles. As Big Daddy Kane said, “Pimping ain’t easy,” (and believe me, pimping Jane Eyre to a bunch of nineteen year olds was never easy), but part of what makes it possible is having complete and utter confidence in your own abilities–even when you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing. Especially when you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing.

As I told my hairdresser, my photographer managed some damn good lighting for that head shot. Indeed, you probably wouldn’t recognize me if you saw me now in my yoga pants, no makeup on, two-day-old spaghetti sauce stain on my fleece hoodie, but you probably wouldn’t recognize me in front of a classroom either, or having a stern discussion with my five year old, or at the club doing shots with my girlfriends. Our identities are fluid that way, and sometimes being able to build one from scratch allows us to take risks we might not in “real life.”