We all know ‘Waiting to Exhale’. Man or woman, love it or hate it, you know what the story/movie was about. ‘How Stella Got Her Groove Back’ had every woman young and especially old wanting to book a flight to somewhere exotic to find that chocolate man they could take back to their girlfriends and say look what I brought back! Well until she needed up on Oprah with her ‘aaaaagggghh! Gay husband! Sounds like he found his groove in one of them closets in her house!
Ok I went all outta the purpose of this post. Let me bring it back a little. I was searching for an old book of mine this past weekend when I came across a book I had brought ions ago called The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing. It’s a collection of successful writers and they throw around ideas to motivate writers in different genres, share how they started in doing what they do, you know the deal etc, etc. Re-reading what Terry McMillan said I thought a few questions would be good to post because it still holds relevant to today’s writer even in the age of self publishing and e-everything.
How do your character profiles work?
I’d go to places and act like I wanted a job, and get these employment applications and then I’d retype them on my computer like a form and then I’d add to it: What is your biggest secret? Do you pay your taxes on time? Do you lie? What is it that really gets on your nerves about other people? What do you think your strengths and weaknesses are? How do you see yourself? What are your hobbies? What foods do you eat? What are you allergic to? What shoe size do you wear? Are you overweight? I’d do that for all my characters.
I’d end up with this profile even if it’s stuff I don’t ever use. My favorites are strengths and weaknesses, what pisses them off and what the biggest obstacle in their lives are right now. And they answer that for themselves or I give it to them, and that determines what sort of situations I will put them in so that they will have to deal with it. I test them, but you’ve got to know them first.
They’re dangerous. In some groups, nobody knows what they’re doing, it’s not led by someone who is knowledgeable about the craft itself. I don’t know that someone leading the workshop has to be published, but it wouldn’t hurt to have someone who at least has a clue about structure and the rules of fiction and advice about what would make a greater character as opposed to just responding to what you think you would like. Someone once said you should never stay in a writers’ group longer than a year because there are people who’ve been in these groups for years and it’s just comfortable, [they lose focus on] the product.
As an instructor you’ve been known to caution writers not to put the publishing cart before the writing horse.
A lot of young writers all they think about is being published. That’s their priority – how much money can I make, how many books can I sell, can I make it on the best-seller list? You don’t know how many books I see, and it’s written all over them. It’s kind of sad. For some of these young writers out here, it’s like prostitution.
A lot of people don’t see writing as an act of self-discovery, and I think that’s a very big danger. A lot of them are more interested in telling you what they know or what they think they know. They’ve already figured it out. If they’ve already figured it out what is the point?
Each book is a different kind of challenge. How Stella Got Her Groove Back was sort of like my reaction to what happened to me and I was trying to question it. So I wrote that book in like three weeks. It started out as a poem, and then I decided to establish some distance in which to create this woman. So it was going to be a little story, and then it was going to be a novella, and then it was going to be a little short novel just so I could get it off my chest. Next thing I know, my agent says, “Terry, shut up and just write it okay?”
It wasn’t planned at all, but what I ultimately ended up doing was freeing me to make some other decisions in my life; you don’ owe anybody any fucking apologies or explanations for your behavior. And in some ways, I think a lot of other women feel the same way, not so much about being with a young man, but being in a job you hate, or doing things that make you feel good.
Is the market healthy for young writers aspiring for their first publication?
I’d say for young writers who take the craft seriously who aren’t worried about stardom the climate is still very good. Because editors are always looking for a good story, with really compelling characters and writers who use their own voice. Not Terry McMillan’s voice, not Anne Tyler’s voice their own voice. Unfortunately there are a lot of young writers who are scared and they don’t trust their own instincts. That’s what they need to do. And the need to stop having these visions of grandeur and just be honest and write a good story!
Damn! Well said!