Writing Cross-Culturally

Pennies Michelle and Julie meet in real life at last week’s Madcap Retreat

This month, The Winged Pen’s own Michelle Leonard and Julie Artz were lucky enough to attend Madcap RetreatsWriting Cross-Culturally Workshop in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Not only was it a blast to finally meet up face-to-face, but the long weekend was packed with great information and resources. We’d like to share a peek at what we learned with our readers.

Highlights

We were surrounded by many talented writers of various backgrounds and made many new friends for life. The faculty (pictured below) included Leigh Bardugo, Daniel José Older, Nicola Yoon, Adi Alsaid, Danielle Clayton, Tessa Gratton, Heidi Heilig, Justina Ireland, Julie Murphy, and Natalie Parker. Dhonielle Clayton

Your characters should have several layers of description that comes through in your story.

  • Outside identity:  race, skin color, physical features, names
  • Belief system:  religion, traditions, sexuality, gender, fears
  • Frame:  family structure, house rules, foods

Cultures are not a monolith. Be as specific as possible about who your character is on the outside, inside, and the frame around them.

When describing skin tone and hair, use make-up and hairstylist hair terminology (google is your friend!) to avoid character description pitfalls like “pale” (pale compared to whom???).

DJ Older

To get past good vs evil, to a more nuanced view of conflict, you have to understand the power dynamics of the characters in your story world.

Some examples of types of power:

  • Institutional power (posse of armed men)
  • Community power
  • Magic – the physicialisation of power
  • Health/ability
  • Spirituality/religion
  • Economic
  • Education
  • Acceptance
  • Beauty
  • Heteronormative/Gender
  • Reproductive
  • Race
  •  Age

The crisis of your book must be determined before you develop your character. The crisis can be anything from your character “needs a hug” to “he’s gonna die.” Ultimately, all stories are about who has the power and how it’s used. Check out DJ’s Buzzfeed article about writing about “other” characters.

Justina Ireland

Microaggressions are indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group. They are often transparent to you, but not to others. Microagressions remind outgroups that they are outside the norm or social standard.

Example: A store owner following a customer of color around the store.

How do you prevent microaggressions?

  • Write with savage empathy by seeing the character like an individual.
  • Write for your entire audience.
  • Consider how people from outgroups will consider your depictions.
  • Acknowledge your blind spots and get help from others in writing characters unlike you.

Resource for sensitivity readers and more: Writing in the Margins

Another good resource good on microaggressions (not shared by Justina, but relevant) from The Atlantic.

Tessa Gratton

Metanarratives are an overarching account or interpretation of events and circumstances that provides a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and gives meaning to their experiences. Metanarratives are repeated until they seem like facts, but rarely reflect reality or what we want for future generations.

Basic western fantasy coding

  • Good: white, European Christian, pure
  • Evil: black, non-European, non-Christian
  • This comes from history
    • Medieval recreation of West v East (greeks v Persians) by Christian historians
    • Crusader ideology

Because this is the default, you must actively work against this metanarrative.

Nicola Yoon

It’s hard to hate what you understand. Avoid stereotypes because they’re not the truth. They are lazy. (Examples: sassy black woman, nerdy Asian, overbearing Jewish mom, demonization of poverty.)

How to write cross-culturally?

  • Diversify your life. Specificity is the key to building real characters. OK, they’re sassy. And then what?
  • Empathy + craft
  • When you engage in stereotypes, people see it as a moral failing but it’s really a failure at the craft level. You did not inhabit someone else.
  • When you write characters, be specific, write against stereotypes, and do no harm.
  • Use sensitivity readers.

Heidi Heilig

Cultural appropriation is adopting or using the elements of one (usually minority) culture by members of another (usually dominant) culture. Often the original meaning of those elements is lost or distorted, and this is disrespectful and oftentimes harmful to the members of the original culture.

Julie Murphy

Things to avoid in body representation:

  • Applying moral value to food and fat vs. thin.
  • Nobody “feels” fat. It’s not a feeling!
  • Just because you write a fat character in a book doesn’t mean that you need to explain why that character is fat.

Leigh Bardugo

Good worldbuilding:  playing god and not being a jerk about it. You should read work by “marginalized authors to learn how to build worlds that don’t make people feel like shit.”

N.K. Jemisin’s work is an example of excellent worldbuilding with diverse characters.

Adi Alsaid

Start your story as close as possible to the event that throws the main character off footing. Watch this very important TedTalk by Chimamanda Adichie on the Danger of a Single Story.

Book Recommendations

There are so many amazing things happening in kidlit, it’s hard to narrow down a list of recommendations. But here are a few:

Angie Thomas – The Hate U Give

Daniel Jose Older – Shadowshaper

Leigh Bardugo – Six of Crows

Heidi Heilig – The Girl From Everywhere

Nicola Yoon – The Sun is Also a Star

Julie Murphy – Dumplin’

Alex Gino – George

Donna Gephart – Lily and Dunkin

Additional Resources

Take Gene Luen Yang’s April Reading Without Walls challenge.
NaNoWriMo’s Preparing to write about diverse characters
Justina Ireland’s blog about writing about people unlike yourself.
WNDB We Need Diverse Books resources for writers
Writing With Color
Intersecting Axes of Privilege
Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) statistics on children’s publishing
Disability in Kidlit Tumblr and website

The best part of our weekend–all the amazing friends we made! ❤️

We hope you’ll enjoy a few blogs from our new writing friends so you can see different takeaways from the MadCap Writing Cross-Culturally Retreat. Please feel free to share any resources or questions you have for writing cross-culturally in the comments!

Subscribe to The Winged Pen and never miss a post, including our monthly #FourOn400 writing contest for middle grade and young adult. Click to SUBSCRIBE!

Aimee Davis’ blogBroken Girl Cured by Love: On Tropes and the Lies They Tell

Anna Jarvis’ blog: The Wonderful World of Writing and Friendship

Jordan Kurella’s blog: We Could Be Heroes, For Every Day

Sarah Viehmann’s blog: Favorite Quotes from MadCap

Carrie Peter’s blog: MadCap Retreat: March 2017

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3 Ways to Find Out About Your Readers from the Frankfurt Book Fair 2016

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Usborne Books stand at the 2016 Frankfurt Book Fair.

At the Frankfurt Book Fair, readers are a big theme. It’s the biggest book fair in the world and heavily “rights” focused. The more readers a book has, the more valuable the foreign publishing rights are.

The main business of the Fair is to make deals: between publishers and literary agents, domestic and international publishers, and publishers and booksellers or libraries. There are little tables at every stand and most of them are full of people showing each other books. It’s an affirmation of all those hours we spend writing. What we do matters, people! 🙂

1. Andrew Rhomberg of Jellybooks gave an insightful presentation about the way we read. Amazon collects data about how the world reads, but their data isn’t shared with publishers or authors. Rhomberg described Jellybooks as “Google Analytics for books.” The new epub3 format includes a button at the end of each chapter and at the end of the book that lets Jellybooks figure out how and when people read the books and how much of them they actually finish. It works on iBooks (iOS), Adobe Digital Editions (Windows) and Ebook Reader (Android) platforms. The data isn’t anonymous so that the publisher can tailor the book offerings to the readers.

Publishers use the service to find out just how people read Advance Reader Copies. Readers sign up for free e-books in exchange for sharing their reading data. Three reading patterns caught my attention:

  • Gradual fizzling out. Some prize-winning literature had a high percentage of readers finishing the first chapter, or maybe the first three chapters, but not much more. Or a skipping ahead pattern to see if the book got more gripping later on.
  • Commuter readers. Some readers only read around 8 AM and around 5 PM. If this was your target audience, you’d probably do well marketing to the commuter crowd.
  • Pageturners. Then there are the books where readers who finish the first three chapters read to the end without pausing. As Rhomberg says, “Some readers have discipline. They go to bed. But the others can’t put it down.”
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Bookcovers that set up the story to come. Usborne Books.

Rhomberg also collects feedback about book covers to find the answers to two smart questions:

  • What’s the influence of the cover for choosing a book to read?
  • Was the promise of the cover fulfilled by the story?

Writer take-home: If your book’s cover and your opening chapters are the perfect set-up for the exciting chapters that follow, you’ve got a winner.

2. Fabian, an Indie author on the same panel, talked about a low-budget way to get feedback about your readers. He posts chapters of his book on his blog and uses Google Analytics to track reading time. He uses MailChimp’s analytics too. His 3,000-member e-mail list also puts him in a perfect position for a reader survey about new cover designs.

Both presenters agreed that the most helpful information to describe your readers is time of day, context, gender, and age. Rhomberg said that men and women give up on books at the same rate, but men read 50 pages before they stop and women read 100.

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A lovely book truck in the inner courtyard of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

3. Wattpad‘s Star author, Jenny Rosen, has a much more personal connection to her 17, 747 followers. Wattpad is ten-year-old Canadian company with its strongest audience in the Philippines. Most stories on Wattpad are early drafts, she says, and reader input is useful. She and her editor, Kristen Maglonzo, consider reader feedback as they decide on the story structure. At the same time, she stays true to her vision for her story, describing herself as “stubborn.”

This young, dynamic team inspired me to go out and write the stories that need to be written! And to learn how to write a cliffhanger. 🙂

It’s clear that building an audience this way works: Wattpad is offering writers the ability to include video ads relevant to their readers. As Jenny Rosen says, “This lets readers support authors for free.”

Wattpad looks like a great platform for YA fiction and may work for Middle Grade, even though there isn’t a dropdown category for it. According to Wattpad’s spokesperson, most readers don’t search for books by category, so they’ve stopped adding new categories.

Swanky Seventeen author, Julie C. Dao’s upper middle grade Pumpkin Patch Princess is also a successful example on Wattpad.

As a writer, seeing this data and hearing Jenny Rosen’s story was powerful confirmation that first chapters matter. They really do set the tone and make promises to the reader. And when the promises are fulfilled, readers really do read every single chapter that follows.

Writers build stories with set-ups and payoffs to satisfy their readers. This reader data is more confirmation that craft matters.

I hope you’re feeling empowered to write more stories!

For more of the 2016 Frankfurt Book Fair, try these podcasts.

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Fear, Fan-girling and Flambé: SCBWI Oregon Conference Recap

Recently, two of our Winged Pen members attended the SCBWI Oregon Conference. We sat down with them to talk about what they learned.

scbwiWhat was the most inspirational moment of the conference for you?

Richelle: Lately, I’ve been focusing on the joy of following my own quirky path – in writing and in life. So I was very inspired by Victoria Jamieson’s keynote, which was a funny, charming and moving talk about the success and creative satisfaction she’s had doing just that. I left the conference hall excited to get back to it!

Julie: On one of the Q&A panels, middle-grade author Rosanne Parry shared a story about how, even after she had an editor interested in her work, she had to write multiple manuscripts before he finally bought one from her. That was such a great reminder of how important persistence is in this business.

What was the best new writing exercise you learned or writing prompt you tried?

Richelle: There were a few exercises I think I’ll be carrying with me and using in the future. But the really revolutionary one for me was creating a picture book dummy. I’ve only recently started dabbling in picture book writing, and wow! Seeing the words on the page with space for pictures (and my own little stick-figure drawings) really drove home how few words you need when you have illustrations doing such heavy work to tell the story. Plus it involves cutting and pasting! For someone who types all day, the tactile nature of dummy-making was really fun.

Julie: One exercise that was particularly useful was taking the last paragraph from a novel and trying to imagine the first paragraph without reading the book. It really helped drive home how the first chapter and the last chapter act as bookends for our stories and it made me go home to my bookshelf and read first and last paragraphs from my favorite books.

Any great new techniques or takeaways that you’ll be using on your current WIP?

Richelle: In Taylor Martindale Keen’s session on voice, she mentioned that her client Emery Lord keeps a vocabulary list for each character. She gave the example of a chef character who “flambés” his alarm clock. I usually do try to keep in mind how one character might see the world differently from another, but I’m excited to take that extra step to deepen voice by creating a vocab list for each character in my WIP.

Julie: Yes! This was huge for me. I’d done vocabulary lists before, especially for my dual-POV manuscript, but instead of just using that vocabulary in dialogue, as I had done before, Lord uses it in description/action as well. I went home and the first thing I did Monday morning was draft a vocabulary list for the main character in my work in progress, and it led to a huge breakthrough.

Conferences can be scary – what was your most heart-pounding moment?

Richelle: When Victoria Marini read our opening pages to say whether she’d continue to read on or not – and mine was unexpectedly the first one she read! I don’t think I heard the first two paragraphs because my heart was beating so loudly. Fortunately, she liked it and said she’d keep reading – whew!

Julie: I participated in a first pages session where eight middle grade authors read their work in front of two industry professionals and got public feedback. The main character of my work in progress is a very scientifically minded young lady and has the Latin names for any animals that are mentioned in the book (and there are many, including on the first page). Of course, although she can rattle off Latin names without flinching, I totally flubbed the name as I read aloud, got flustered, turned red, and felt like a fool. It’s a good thing that kidlit writers are such a sweet bunch!

SCBWI Oregon was attended by some heavy-hitters. Any fangirl moments you’d like to share?

Richelle: I didn’t have any close encounters, but I loved taking classes from Newbery winner Matt de la Pena and agents Victoria Marini, and Danielle Chiotti, all of whom I’ve admired for a while.

Julie: In a fit of madness, I signed up for a manuscript critique with Newbery award-winning author Matt de la Pena. By the time the conference rolled around, my imposter syndrome had me in a complete panic. I spent the whole session so star struck and nervous that I could not formulate a single coherent question. His feedback was so insightful that I’m pretty sure I’ll keep that packet of pages forever. 

Anything else you think other writers and potential conference-goers might be interested to know?

Richelle: It was so amazing to meet Julie for the first time in person and discover she’s even more awesome in real life. (Maybe that was my fangirl moment!) That is always one of the coolest things about writing conferences – meeting interesting and creative people and talking, talking, talking about writing!

julie-richJulie: Meeting Richelle, and another of my friends from 2015 Pitch Wars, in person was definitely a highlight of the weekend. When so much of writing is done alone in a room or even when we do interact with other authors, via email or online, I find it very energizing to be in a room with other writers. I can’t wait until my next conference at the end of July!

Thanks so much Julie and Richelle for sharing your conference experiences with us!

Photo credit: Gail Werner
Photo credit: Gail Werner

JULIE ARTZ writes stories for children that feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. Since her first work-study job critiquing resumes and proofreading papers at DePauw University, she’s made her living with the written word. In a career spanning two decades, she’s written everything from computer manuals to training materials, from press releases and marketing copy to gardening articles, from flash fiction to novel-length works. Now, in addition to her creative writing, she shares about travel, gardening, reading, and writing on her blog, Terminal Verbosity, writes about local Washington history for Gatherings, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

rm-picRICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon, often in the company of her husband and their three spirited children, mischievous beagle and long-suffering cat. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

Secrets of a Great Author Photo: An Interview with Pam Vaughan

Jennifer Jacobson. Photo by Pam Vaughan.

I met Pam Vaughan at my first NESCBWI (New England Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators) Conference in 2014. At the time, I was overwhelmed by the awesome authors all around me and my mind buzzed with all I was learning from the great workshops on craft and the publishing industry. I kept catching glimpses of Pam running around everywhere with her camera.  I soon realized she was the conference photographer and was trying to get a picture of each of the 600+ attendees!

After the conference, I checked out Pam’s photos on the NESCBWI Facebook page. (I’m not sure she got all 600, but it seemed like she was pretty close!)  Her pictures were awesome! They let me relive the weekend. I even came across a picture of myself sitting at breakfast with another author (who was trying to turn a query letter I’d written into something that might actually get a request). This reminded me that I’d heard several times at the conference that I needed to be on Twitter. I liked the picture and with a download and a crop, BAM, I had a photo to replace the egg on my newbie Twitter account.

Deb O’Brien. Photo by Pam Vaughan.

Fast forward to the 2016 conference – that picture was still on my twitter account as well as my blog, The Winged Pen blog, and my Google+ account. When I ran into Pam again, I asked her if she’d be willing to take an “official” author photo of me since I was ready for an upgrade. I was psyched when she said yes!

I asked Pam if she could share some of her photography insight.

Rebecca: Your pictures are fantastic! How long have you been taking pictures? What types are your favorites to take?

Pam: I’ve been taking photos for years. My father has taken photos since I was young so I’ve learned so much from him. I’m constantly picking his brain about everything photography. I take pictures at sporting events; it’s great when I can capture the action and emotion of the athletes. I love to photograph nature; birds, animals, landscapes, especially things around the ocean. I was asked to be the NESCBWI conference photographer for 2014 & 2015. It was a wonderful experience!

Rebecca: When we met to take my photo you brought another author also. That was great! I find it hard to smile naturally with a camera pointed at my face. But Deb was so funny, she made it easy to ignore the camera and just smile. What other secrets do you have for taking great author photos?

Pam: The secret to taking great photos is, “Take a lot!” With digital cameras it’s easy to

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Rebecca J. Allen. Photo by Pam Vaughan.

take a myriad of pictures. I like to move around and take shots from different angles, and sometimes vary the poses. I never know which ones will end up looking good. I also think people look their best when they are relaxed and comfortable. Having someone else there doing the same thing makes the session so much better. People talking and engaging with each other makes the interaction less awkward and more fun, so it’s easier to take more photos. Plus, everyone enjoys meeting people this way, and we all walk away with new connections!

Rebecca: You mentioned that you were “working on the photos” on your computer. What kind of magic do you do behind the scenes?

Pam: Well if it’s magic, I probably shouldn’t divulge! Joking aside, compared to outdoors, taking pictures indoors is much more challenging. The lighting can be difficult.  Also, in a large conference like NESCBWI it’s hard to get just the right subject in my frame. The editing I do involves adjusting the lighting, cropping and sometimes cloning. That means if I see something distracting, like a fire extinguisher next to someone’s head, I’ll take that out. I have a few other tricks, but I can’t tell you all of them!

Rebecca: I heard in a talk on school presentations that it’s important to have an updated picture on social media so that the students and teachers recognize you. Are there other benefits to having a good author picture?

Pam: People are using photos in so many places now. Blogs, Websites, Facebook, Twitter, just to name a few. Authors and illustrators are also using their photos on their book flaps, business cards, and promotional materials. You don’t always want the same photo in all places, so having a few options is helpful.

Rebecca: I didn’t realize when I downloaded and cropped that picture that I should have been giving you a photo credit all that time! Sorry! What should be included in a photo credit?

Pam: No problem. For me, you can simply say, Photo courtesy of Pam Vaughan or Picture taken by Pam Vaughan. Or even a simple thank you often works. I can’t speak for everyone. I think it depends on the photographer and his/her individual policies.

Rebecca: How can people contact you if they’d rather entrust their photos to you than take their own?

Pam:  They can email me at pamvau11@gmail.com. I’m also on twitter @pamvau. I live in central MA.

Rebecca: When you aren’t taking picture what else do you do?

Pam: I attend the NESCBWI conference because I write middle grade and picture books. I’m on the Board of Directors at The Writers’ Loft (www.thewritersloft.org) and I’m one of the co-directors of the SCBWI Whispering Pines Writers’ Retreat (We’re working on our website). I’m planning on taking some author photos at Whispering Pines next year. I also present workshops on Leadership, Mental Toughness and Team Building (www.pvteamconsulting.com).

Rebecca: Thanks Pam! Thanks also to Jennifer Jacobson and Deb O’Brien for allowing us to use their photos!

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade and young adult stories that blend mystery and adventure. Her best story ideas come from her two crazy kids. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

 

Writing for Fun: Reflections on a Workshop with Jo Knowles

Woman typing in a hotel
Photo by Pexels.com

When was the last time you wrote just for fun? I have to admit I haven’t for a long time. It’s hard to squeeze writing time in around the rest of life, so when I get it, I feel pressure to be productive: write the next chapter, deepen a character arc, start on revisions. Something needs to get checked off the list.

So when I saw that Jo Knowles was leading two workshops at the New England SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference, I let out a SQUEE, put the workshop on creating memorable characters down as a must-have, and eyed suspiciously her second one titled Improv for Writers: Reinventing Your Approach to Writing “Just for Fun.” Jo writes “feel all the feels” books, like See You at Harry’s and Read Between the Lines, so part of me wanted to take the workshop, whatever it was. Another part of me wasn’t sure. I signed up anyway.

This was a Sunday afternoon workshop, the last time slot in a three-day conference. I was exhausted and my mind buzzed with overstimulation, so I couldn’t imagine being able to sit and focus on writing. But Jo, over two hours, challenged us with writing prompts on settings, characters and conflict, pushing us deeper as we transitioned from one topic to the next. She asked for volunteers to read their pieces, all words dashed off in five minutes or ten, and always found something special to highlight.

pen-writing-notes-studying
Photo by Pexels.com

Two things struck me about “writing for fun.” First, it was easy. I’d been entirely prepared to forgive myself for not coming up with much from the workshop except for brilliant insights collected from Jo. But spending just a few brief minutes envisioning a character or a setting let me take them farther than I would have imagined. I realized that this would be a great exercise for getting to know settings or characters when I got ready to draft a new story. Thinking about them freely before they needed to be fit carefully into a scene could make them deeper and more real.

Second, I realized everyone in the room was very inspired by the exercise. By just the act of writing for fun, writing something that they may never use in a project. Jo always had several volunteers willing to share their response. At the end of the workshop, she made a recording of everyone in the class saying, in just a sentence, why they write. If you listen to it here, you’ll hear the inspiration in the voices.

Coming out of the workshop I felt “writing for fun” was something I should fit into my everyday routine. I can afford to spend ten minutes on a writing prompt before I dive into the revision list, or on the weekend when I’m not doing “serious writing.”  Since, in the back of my mind, I’m still thinking about the “to do” list, I plan to start by directing my “writing for fun” to pieces that I may use in future stories.

When I asked the Pennies if they write just for fun, I found that most want to, but seldom have time. I did find a couple free writers. Julie Artz said, “I love free writing and would like to do more! I almost always start a new story by free writing everything I can think of about the story idea (this grows into my long form synopsis). I also free write when I get stuck (often poetry).”

Laurel Decher said, “Freewriting helps me to process life and catch funny incidents. It’s like Dumbledore’s Pensieve. In my Scrivener ‘spare parts’ file I have a folder for free writes so that I can easily move pieces to a project or a blog post.”

We’d love to hear how you fit writing for fun into your writing routine in the comments! Do you do it never? Sometimes? Always? Do you focus it on things that might be useful on a future project or just write about whatever’s in front of your eyes or on your mind?

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Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade and young adult stories that blend mystery and adventure. Her best story ideas come from her two crazy kids.

Unlike many writers, Rebecca did not write her first story at age eight…at least not fiction. She was the editor of her high school yearbook and wrote for her college newspaper. But her first fiction course scared the bejeezus out of her! Having overcome her fear of fiction, Rebecca loves see how much trouble she can get her characters into, and sometimes back out of. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.