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Raw Literature: Writing the Other

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By Pete Fanning

We’ve all heard the old cliché about how a character “speaks” to an author? It happened to me a few years ago. This young girl popped into my head with a story. She was good company, persistent, too. She went on for about a month until one day I sat down and began writing what would become her story.

Now, this girl, she happened to be a person of color. And if you check my bio, you’ll quickly see that I’m a run-of-the-mill white guy, closing in on middle age. We’re talking, wears-cut-off-shorts-and-black-socks-to-cut-the-lawn. SPF 50 on the nose, kind of guy. But none of that mattered when I set out to write this thing. I can honestly say it never once occurred to me that it might be odd, me writing from the first-person perspective of a twelve-year-old black girl.

Maybe it’s because I hate to plot. Outlines for me are like creativity killers. And speaking of killers, people write from the perspective of serial killers so why did it matter? Okay, where was I going with this? Oh yeah, it does matter.

So I wrote a story about this old curmudgeonly blues player and this young girl, Nita Simmons. Even in the roughest—or rawest—drafts, I was aware enough to avoid stereotypes. No Ebonics or broken English for Nita. In fact, being so tip-toe careful to avoid stereotypes, I went the other route, and Nita became this gifted, straight-A student. A case-cracking superhero.

Reading through those first drafts, it was clear. In not wanting Nita to be a stereotype, I’d done something just as bad, or worse: I’d made her perfect.

And where’s the fun in that?

I dove back in, peeling the layers to the real Nita. The Nita in my head was a normal girl with normal problems. She was self-conscious, stubborn, she doubted herself and fought with her mother. She was still a gifted writer but shaky at math. And being a budding teenager, she was a know-it-all at times, terrified by the world around her at others. And she was gullible. She fell for the stories the old man told her. And it was through the stories that a friendship formed. After all, friendship—not race, was the heart of my story.

And because I write in frantic sparks of inspiration, always in haste, like an idea might slip away if I don’t get it down, it took multiple drafts for the Nita on the page match the Nita in my head. I worked at this story for over a year. I combed over every word and submerged myself into this world I’d created. I bought a guitar and taught myself some old blues standards. I’m awful, but I can pluck some chords now.

I’m no Harper Lee, but Nita is my Scout. I root for her every step of the way. I listen to podcasts, study black history and devour middle-grade books. I’ve read my share of Life Magazines. I fell in love with my characters.

Here was the original query.

Putting yourself out there can be tricky. Whether you’re 12 or 72, headed to a new school for smart kids, or strumming up the courage to play the blues in front of a crowd. Such is the case for Nita Simmons and Earl Melvin, two friends too stubborn to quit on each other.

After a disastrous day at school, the last thing Nita wants to do is solve the puzzle that is her neighbor, Mr. Earl Melvin. People say he’s crazy, that he once tried to burn down the city library. But something in that sturdy voice of his grabs her, and after a second encounter her fear gives way to curiosity. From there the unlikeliest of friendships takes hold.

Mr. Melvin regales Nita with tales of protests and sit-ins. How he marched against segregated schools and lunch counters. His stories are magical and inspiring, his cooking unmatched, and his guitar playing is the truest thing she’s ever heard. Nita decides that old man did all those things, then she can deal with school. But when she stumbles upon a discovery—one that threatens to prove everyone right about Mr. Melvin all along—Nita’s left with a decision to make: leave the old man in the past or drag him into the future.

Not perfect, but it worked. I got some bites. I think I queried over fifty agents. I don’t recall the exact number, but I received somewhere in the neighborhood of ten full requests and five or six partials. Not bad, I’m told.

But in all my research, in all my writing and revising, I completely missed something else entirely. Something big. Something raw.

As the agents got back to me, some were short and sweet in their rejection, and others came with some editorial advice. A few I never got back. Then, I got all the feedback I needed.

Here is a sample of what she passed along (as she passed on the story).

First, the good:

Hi Pete,

Your story intrigues me and I think you do a good job with the middle grade voice here. I really like the interactions between the characters, Earnest and Nita specifically, as well as Mrs. Womack and Nita, and of course, Mr. Melvin and Nita. You develop these nicely.

And then:

To write such a story, an editor will prefer you belong to the ethnic race of the primary characters. This story speaks to so many significant moments and people of the African American experience so, ensuring this is accurate is essential. But even more important, because you utilize first person when writing this text, Nita specifically, an editor will question your validity to do so.

Two things. I’m not saying the writing was perfect. It wasn’t. And let me make it clear that I’m one hundred percent in favor and support the #ownvoices movement. It’s great, a crucial tool in getting diverse books in the hands of kids who need them. Publishers want books about people of color written by people of color. Because think about it. How authentic is it going to look to find this book, with a black cast of characters, only to see some blue sock wearing, lawn mowing white guy on the cover jacket?  (I suppose I could ditch the socks).

But damn.

Rejection sucks. It hurts. And yes, it is personal. After spending so much time with a story and its characters and every single time it gets requested you feel like you could just march up a staircase to the clouds. And each time it gets rejected it feels like being knocked back a few steps. But I always hit the ground running. Until that last one, that one stopped me cold.

It was like a funeral, knowing it was the end of the road. Sounds dramatic, sure, then again, I do write fiction. After that last rejection, there was a new voice in my head (my poor wife), a suggestion to change the characters. Simply make Nita white.

I guess that’s on the table. But to me, it’s absurd to whitewash my main character in the name of diversity. So I’ve retired the story. Because Nita is Nita. And I still have control over that.

I’ve written a few novels since this one. One has gotten some requests, while another is getting closer to querying. And I don’t regret writing Nita’s story. I can’t help who spoke to me (pause here to acknowledge blatant cliché usage), or what characters emerged in my head. They’re mine. And if I could do it over, yep, I’d write it again. After all, I write for me first. In fact, I have, but that’s for another post.

Rejection is tough just one time, it starts to wear on you after a while. But those hours I spent getting lost in Nita’s world? In Mr. Melvin’s world? In their relationship? I think it was worth it.

I started and finished a project. I submerged myself in race relations and its ugly background (even as I ignored its current climate) and came out a better writer and person for it. And hey, maybe most importantly, I can play the blues on guitar.

So it wasn’t all for nothing.


56 Comments

  1. Ritu says:

    I applaud you for trying Pete!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. […] Source: Raw Literature: Writing the Other […]

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jules says:

    Pete,

    I believe we can put ourselves in others shoes. Because we are all human after all. Good for you for keeping Nita the way she wants you to make her. I think emotion can outweigh cultural bounds. Too bad for those who can’d see beyond that. They are the ones missing the life lesson you were trying to teach.

    I write, but rarely submit big stuff. I’m not good with dealing with rejection.
    I had too much of that, being rejected or ignored while growing up. So I’m a bit of a coward that way. But within the safety of Carrot Ranch I’m stretching.
    Even if in itty-bitty steps.

    Continued success in writing and music.
    Cheers, Jules

    Liked by 9 people

  4. Charli Mills says:

    Literature allows both writers and readers to slip into the skin of another, to experience a life or circumstances out of the bounds of our own. In this comparative way, we develop empathy and break down barriers of otherness. I’m with you one hundred percent in that I want to see more diverse writers — different gender identifications, different beliefs, different ages, different socio-economic backgrounds, different cultures, different regions, etc. However, in a greater mixing pot of people, inclusion should be the goal. I want to see literary art as a grand splash of all colors, giving different interpretations of shared history, music, life experiences, and difficult pasts. I don’t want a new kind of segregation. Thank you for sharing your experience, Pete!

    Liked by 9 people

  5. I don’t know what to say here. It sounds like an amazing story. Also sounds like it is written well (which is not a surprise to me, having read your work). I’m not sure if you’ll keep trying with this one but I applaud you for keeping your characters who they are. After all, we’re only the ones who write it–it’s their story. Thanks for sharing this, Pete.

    Just wondering… I am now super curious how many times Arthur Golden was turned away for his manuscript Memoirs of a Geisha. ???

    Liked by 8 people

    • Jules says:

      Sarah…Also to your point – how many children’s book authors would be turned down with the excuse “You aren’t a child so you can’t write this, we can’t publish this, as you are an adult now.” I agree that Pete needs to self publish. Or maybe just not have an author photo on the dust jacket of his book 😉

      Liked by 5 people

      • Charli Mills says:

        Ah! Good one, Sarah! Memoirs of a Geisha was not written by one.

        Liked by 3 people

      • Jules: I’ve seen this before (what Pete is discussing here). It’s not surprising. It’s just… I wonder if they would consider the manuscript if he didn’t have a photo. But what is that saying? Ugh. I don’t know. I’ll refer to Charli’s comment above. Having diverse writers is wonderful but so is having diverse books.

        Charli: No, it was definitely not. 😉 Arthur is a Caucasian male, I believe, writing about a Japanese girl. (In first person.) I really do wonder if this was an issue when he tried to publish or if this is a newer issue in the industry.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jules says:

        Sarah,

        Kind of like writing in the first person as if you were a nun or a monk, but really weren’t. There will always be types of prejudice in regards to who will publish what.

        I’ve even been told that the history in textbooks has been dumbed-down for the younger generations to calm or quell the negativity that is/was very real, especially in regards to the beginnings of the United States history and land acquisition. It is an injustice for majority opinions to believe that they are the only right ones. Or to not tell the whole truth. But then even reporters don’t report the news anymore – there are always too many opinions and not enough true facts. And then of course it is the publishers who only want to make money.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Liz H says:

    I was hooked, too, by your query letter & am sorry to read that you dropped the book itself. From your further studies, sounds like Nita held on to you a bit longer–she told you her story in that way. And you listened…

    Wonder what Mr. Melvin’s secret story is?

    As to the editor’s second comment, for some reason it reminds me of dealing with school staff and (some) family members, in regards to my child’s Special Ed needs. We did all the testing and got the detailed diagnosis that qualified him for Federally Mandated support. What I learned:

    Sometimes people forget 1. We’re not talking about them and their personal story, and 2. “I’m sorry that my child doesn’t fit your stereotype.” (Quoted here, but not something I could say out loud to those trapped in #1)

    Keep it real, keep it raw, keep the faith. Your voice is strong.

    Liked by 7 people

  7. Aweni says:

    Sounds like a book I would absolutely love to read.

    Such a shame that you worked so hard to eliminate stereotyping in your story but the real world is riddled with it.

    I suppose, an editor would probably be scared of how the harsh wider world would judge your book. Hence the rejection. I can just see the headlines…….sensational.

    My advice is continue to fight for what you believe in. You will be put on the podium and quizzed, but you needn’t worry. From what I have read, you will have no trouble defending Nita’s story.

    Liked by 7 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      That’s a good point, Aweni — Pete would not have difficulty defending his position. To add to that, he could also have much to add, including what he learned as the author who differs from his protagonist. He needs to find the right agent or publisher to see past the confines.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. jenanita01 says:

    I cannot abide these so called experts who delight in telling us that our work is good, but… and then go on to tell you how you must change it. I would suggest that you self publish and let the readers decide. I like the way you have written it, and I’m sure many others will too…

    Liked by 6 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      These editors are experts in the past — as in, what has sold in the past, what has met audience expectation in the past. What feels too risky for them is to predict what readers will read next year. They have good insights based on past sales but they don’t necessarily share the vision of a writer. Their requests for changes are often based on placing a novel in a previous cover. It chokes progress. That’s why I believe so passionately about making literary art accessible to all readers and writers, not just elite academia and NYC publishing outlets. It’s so much more refreshing to bring a variety of stories to fruition from diverse writers than to hand pick a few who fit a known template.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. calmkate says:

    totally hooked on your writing style, you drew me into Nita and your lives … Rowlings had many rejections, then self published .. 😦

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Juliet says:

    Oh my goodness, Pete, don’t give up on this story. All that hard work for nothing? Let us read it some way or another, please. Loved your style here, would love to read more of you…

    Liked by 5 people

  11. Annecdotist says:

    Pete, I really enjoyed this essay and empathise with your predicament. This looks like a novel I’d like to read.

    You’ve clearly thought a lot about the risks of Othering – and I smiled when you mentioned avoiding stereotyping by going to the other extreme and making your character perfect. This might have been a useful process to go through however to get to the nub of her voice.

    Can a middle-aged white male ventriloquise a young black girl? Of course – we should be writing from all kinds of perspectives we don’t necessarily share. Does it have to be extra good? I think so, because readers will inevitably be slightly suspicious. But you’ve done your research, and you write so well, I think you could pull it off.

    I’m sure I’ve read a few novels by white authors from the point of view of a person of colour. One that seems particularly close to your own experience is Harmattan about a girl growing up in a village in Niger. I did a Q&A with the author sometime back:

    http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/gavin-weston.html

    There’s also A Child Called Happiness set in Zimbabwe which was published this month:

    http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/1/post/2018/05/zimbabwes-blood-a-child-called-happiness-house-of-stone.html

    My own first novel is the first person account of someone with a marginalised identity I don’t share. It’s not “race” but it is an area that is currently highly politicised (although it wasn’t when I began writing) and I was also unable to secure an agent despite several requests for the full manuscript before I published with a very small press. I still worried I might be criticised for my audacity, but I’ve actually had a lot of support.

    Getting an agent is tough these days. I think there are more good writers with good stories than publication slots and agents will – understandably – pick the ones they think will be easier to sell. It would be a shame if this means the book business will become gradually more conservative. I wonder if an agent who is black would be more willing to champion your work.

    Have you tried small presses that you can submit to directly? Some of these are more inclined to take a risk. Both of the novels I’ve referred to above are published by small presses in the UK that accept direct submissions and my own publisher is even smaller – but perfectly formed – and has authors from the US.

    But submission takes away writing time and rejections are painful, sometimes we have to say enough is enough. But I do hope that Nita will be able to come out of retirement someday. Perhaps she’d work better as a second published novel?

    Liked by 5 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      What a good suggestion, Anne. Perhaps the more controversial book could be the second novel. To that point, I have a question — when you were picked up by your publisher, did you let them know about your other WIPS? How interested were they in specific storylines or did they only want more books, your choice, for publishing?

      In all your books, you slip into the skins of many different people who are not you and could be considered controversial. Sometimes I think writers see patterns in their observations of people and society before it unfolds to be recognized by the greater population (you first novel and your character’s dilemma, for example). I think Pete might be ahead of where backward gazing agents might be looking. Like you suggest, look for a smaller publisher more willing to take those risks.

      Thanks for sharing those two book reviews to point out that other authors have walked different cultural paths from their characters.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Annecdotist says:

        I don’t recall it being an issue for my publisher, Charli, although I do know from other people’s experience that having other novels in the pipeline helps. I think especially for agents submitting to larger publishers on the author’s behalf.
        It’s my impression that it depends what kind of books you’re writing whether they keep wanting more of the same. I think I keep going back to the same themes but manage to disguise it because I do it in different ways!

        Liked by 2 people

      • Charli Mills says:

        I was actually thinking about your books in that sense, Anne. After getting to beta-read your third, I realized the connections are there with those themes of how we manage early loss in childhood and navigate identity. It’s not a genre, but as a reader, I enjoy exploring those themes through different characters and stories.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Annecdotist says:

        Yup, it’s a lifelong task working through my own back story in fiction 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Norah says:

    A story with a sad ending – I wasn’t expecting that. Your characters do become a part of you, don’t they? It’s hard to let them go; and it’s as impossible to change them as it to change someone who stands beside you, and indeed, why would you want to. If your story was good and captured the voice and essence, why would “they” choose to deprive the world of another good diverse book. Seems to me the judgement is a bit short-sighted.
    How I do agree with you about the feelings when receiving a positive response and the response to a rejection. A final rejection – I don’t like the sound of that. I think Nita is going to need having her voice heard.
    Great post, Pete. I enjoyed reading it.

    Liked by 4 people

  13. TanGental says:

    What a stupid agent. Just an excuse to reject, methinks. I mean, come on. If you reductio ad absurdum it would mean no one can write fiction only memoir. Of course fiction writers step into others’ shoes; we have to. I’m never going to be a woman, or homeless, or American and probably not gay but these have been characters in my writing. Part of the sensitivity around cultural appropriation and similar bull shit we see nowadays. Mind you, if this means no one ever asks me to wear a kilt then that’s a plus… Keep writing about the small brown furry masses (sorry, that should diminutive collectives of non-hairless entities of colour), or whoever your next hero is and shut your ears to the nonsense noise of the self-identifying dispossessed…

    Liked by 2 people

  14. “Pal, D. Avery ain’t no valid cowhand.”
    “Nope.”
    “What’s she doin’ here then? How kin she be writin’ us?”
    “Yer here ‘cause she’s here, so ya might not wanna bellyache ‘bout this.”
    “But Pal, what if we ain’t … authentic?”
    “Kid, ‘cordin’ ta Shorty, we’re all ranch hands an’ buckaroos here. An’ Shorty’s the real deal. D.’s got Buckaroo Nation validation!”
    “Pal, why cain’t Pete write his characters?”
    “We’ll see Kid. Ya’d think. Ain’t like he’s sellin’ fiction as fact like Forrest Carter did. Pete ain’t sayin’ he’s Nita. Seems ta me he’s shown her a whole lotta respect.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Charli Mills says:

      Pal’s right — D.’s got the Buckaroo Nation validation! Your characters discuss a good point about authenticity and authority. Writers and authors notoriously feel inauthentic. And I think much of that comes from the doubt raised by working creatively. One of the best books a writer can read is the War of Art by Steven Pressfield. He writes, “Nothing is as empowering as real-world validation, even if it’s for failure.” I think what Pete has experienced is that real-world validation through the rejection of his manuscript for a confusing reason — is that something an author can “fix”? We writers doubt deeply. Of course, we do — art is vulnerable work. Remember, we draw ink from our own blood. So this rejection inflames the doubts and leads to authority — who has the authority to write Nita’s story? Ultimately, most of us would agree, Pete does. But he’ll have to face the enemy Prentiss speaks about, one all writers know — Resistance. Prentiss writes, “The more you love your art/calling/enterprise, the more important its accomplishment is to the evolution of your soul, the more you will fear it and the more Resistance you will experience facing it. You, me, Pete, we all face Resistance and feel inauthentic and afraid to take authority over our art. All I can say is do it anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. […] being said, I read a post over at the Carrot Ranch (found here) that has me […]

    Liked by 1 person

  16. This post made me so furious I not only had to take a walk around the block, but I got on my soapbox on my blog! I want to reach through the screen, grab his manuscript and shove it in the face of every agent I don’t know until I find one with some sense! Anyone can tell anyone else’s story!

    Okay, I have to stop….just know, that that agent was WRONG!!! Pull it back out and shop around! That story wants to be told–you wrote it–let others read it!

    GAH! *&(^U&*^*

    Liked by 2 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      Your rant reflects one I had when I asked a local historian in Idaho to read a manuscript to make sure I had fleshed out a Native American character from a tribe she knew well. Instead, she told me I had no right to write about a Native American character. At first, I felt the way Pete is feeling like I had made a huge, embarrassing mistake. Then, I got angry. I ranted as you did. That’s when I realized I had felt like my voice had been taken from me. I was not robbing the voice, experiences or culture of another, but by denying me a “right” to explore diverse characters, I was losing mine. So I reclaimed it. Thanks for sharing a post on this topic.

      Liked by 2 people

  17. dgkaye says:

    Applause for Pete. May I recommend self-publishing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Charli Mills says:

      Thanks for offering Pete support, Debby! I’d love to have you write a Raw Lit piece on when and how to take our raw works and commit them to publication, sharing your vast knowledge of the indy industry. Would you be willing to write on this topic? How does a writer take a manuscript like this and make it a successful self-published book?

      Liked by 1 person

  18. You could just re submit it under a different name and pretend to be a black woman, that would put the cat amongst the pigeons!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. This is very interesting to me. I have thought a few times about writing about some of the local people in South Africa and their customs and lifestyles. I decided against it as I didn’t think it would ring true if I wrote it as I come from a very English background which would tinge the way I think and write. In a way I understand the publishers concerns but I also understand how you feel after doing research and becoming so involved with your characters.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Pete says:

    Thank you all for your thoughts and advice. Since I wrote this post last year, my solution\compromise was to change the POV to third person. In doing this I created some space between myself and Nita. But then the story changed. Big time.

    I aged Nita up a year, due to the content of the new story. She became a school reporter and Earl Melvin became less of a liar and more of a man with a troubled past. The friendship actually strengthened, and the story dove into much more unsettling topics such as race and today’s attack on journalism. While it probably could use a few more beta reads, I have gotten a few request and it is currently with an agent, not that I’m holding my breath. Either way, it’s always nice to come back to the Ranch for support and encouragement!

    Here is the latest query letter with a link to the first chapter.

    After Nita Simmons flubs a piece for her middle school newspaper, she becomes a laughingstock at school and risks losing her coveted membership to the Junior Journalists Club. All Nita’s ever wanted is to be a journalist, and her confidence is at an all-time low when Earl Melvin, her reclusive neighbor and Crawford’s most notorious criminal, offers Nita his story—a pile of scrawl he refers to as his memoirs.

    What she finds is not violence but a tale of secret love and heartbreak in the Virginia back roads. Still reeling from her recent failure, Nita is astonished that no one’s ever questioned such injustice in her own town. Sensing redemption, Nita digs into the research, getting to know the neighbor her mother warned her about. Nita conducts several secret interviews, and learns how Mr. Melvin was nearly lynched before his arrest, then interrogated for over thirty hours before confessing to sexually assaulting a white coworker. Finally, Nita seeks out the prosecutor’s son, who recalls the lingering Jim Crow laws of the sixties, and how Earl Melvin’s own victim professed her love for him at his sentencing.

    Nita writes the story and it quickly goes viral. The local news comes calling and the interviews roll in. It’s Nita’s dream come true. Only it doesn’t feel that way. She’s been too involved with her story to notice how her friend is coughing harder and moving slower, that his tall frame has withered. It isn’t until he’s in the hospital that Nita realizes she has one last interview to conduct, off the record. And it might just be the hardest of all.

    Complete at 47, 000 words, THE MELVIN MEMOIRS is an upper middle grade story of modern journalism, facing fears, and the bonds of an unlikely friendship.

    Chapter One– https://lunchbreakfiction.wordpress.com/2018/06/11/the-melvin-memoirs/

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks Pete, I read the extract and I think it is very interesting. I don’t think the changes you have made will detract from this book.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Charli Mills says:

      Oh, wow, Pete, you really evolved the story and gave the characters teeth to bite into different circumstances. Good to hear it is with an agent. You’ll hear a thousand no’s but all you need is one yes! I’m cheering you on until you get that yes. Good to be persistent and willing to revise to the extent you did. Thank you! This post has been a great topic to mull over.

      Liked by 1 person

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