My journey to becoming an author began at the age of four at the feet of my mother, who would enjoin me to sit with her and watch two of her favorite television shows – The Wild, Wild West and Get Smart. These two brilliantly crafted shows would have a strong influence on what and how I wrote.
I was also strongly influenced by comic books.
My sisters, for some odd reason believing I was intelligent, took it upon themselves to teach me to read at two years of age. They brought a stack of Archie, Beatle Bailey, Richie Rich and – thankfully – Thor, Batman and Spider-Man – comic books to my room, placed them beside me on my bed and said “It’s time for you to learn to read.”
Always the good little brother, I shrugged and said “Okay.”
I didn’t know what this “reading” thing was, but if my big sisters said it was time, it was time.
My big sisters: Phyllis (right) and Alesia (left).
My sisters sat with me and after a few hours of patient work on all of our parts, they had taught me to sound out the titles of each book. I recall Archie, Richie Rich and Thor causing me some difficulty because of the consonant digraphs ‘ch’ and ‘th’. When I asked why putting “certain letters next to each other” made the sound of the letters change and my sisters started talking about “postalveolar fricatives” and “interdental fricatives”, I told them I needed to take a lunch break and an aspirin because they were giving me a headache.
They fixed my lunch – a grilled cheese sandwich, with tomatoes and grilled onions, thank you – and brought me an aspirin, which I actually refused, as I feared contracting Reyes Disease (for some reason, my sisters found that hilarious) – and then we went back to reading.
Me and my sisters, 1971.
By nightfall, I was sounding out several words in the comic books. Any word I could not sound out, my sisters would help me with and for each word I could not figure out the meaning of in association with the illustrations, my sisters would define it.
The combined influence of my mother and the teaching of my sisters forged in me a love for speculative fiction.
I was also a very talkative child and loved to tell stories. My father would take me to see martial arts movies at the drive-in and I would act out every scene in the movie as I told my mother and sisters what the movie was about.
When my father asked my mother and sisters why they never wanted to go to the drive-in with us, they told him there was no way the movies could be more entertaining than my retelling of it!
By the time I was four, I had seen every martial art film from China that had ventured onto American shores – Five Fingers of Death; The Magnificent Trio; The Assassin; The One-Armed Swordsman; The Big Boss (aka Fists of Fury); Fist of Fury (aka The Chinese Connection) – I loved them all and kept bugging my father for Kung-Fu lessons, completely unaware that my father was a skilled practitioner and teacher of several indigenous West African martial arts. Fearing that I would grow up with a love of all things Asian while being completely unaware of my own African traditions, he began my training in the African martial arts.
Mom and Dad
Around the same time, my father started taking me to see every Blaxploitation film that came out. If the film had a racy scene – as most Blaxploitation films did – he’d whisper to me “Now, when you tell your mama and sisters about this movie, do not act out this part!” I had no clue why acting out those scenes would be problematic, but I would shrug and agree to edit out those “funny scenes.”
This experience made me painfully aware that Black people were nearly absent in the speculative works I loved and when we were present, we were portrayed as the noble savage, or merely the savage. We were never the dashing and daring hero; we were never the brilliant scientist who came up with the solution to save the world. We had Luke Cage and the Black Panther, but their titles weren’t as readily available as comic books with white protagonists and sometimes weren’t carried by the comic book shop I frequented. Furthermore, there were no toys, costumes or cartoons to give Luke and T’Challa that “cool factor.”
Longing to see myself as the hero – and taught by my mother that if you encounter something that needs changing, you change it instead of asking or demanding others do it – I decided that I would write stories with heroes I wanted – and needed – to see.
It was then that I committed to writing Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror fiction that told stories about Black people.
Hundreds of short stories and eight books later, I continue to write what I want to read. I have made Black people the heroes and sheroes of all my stories; I have made us cool in my writing and have been rewarded with a loyal readership and ever-increasing fan base because of it.
My first novel, Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman, is directly influenced by the anachronistic alternate history of The Wild, Wild West; the dry humor of Get Smart, the Blaxploitation western movie, Buck and the Preacher and the super-powered heroes and villains of comic books.
Thanks, mom! Thanks, dad! Thanks, Phyllis and Lisa!
Throughout my earliest beginnings in writing and martial arts, my father would ask me “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
The answer? “Practice, practice, practice.”
This old saw applies, not only to musicians, but to every sphere of life.
Once, I asked my father “What about talent?”
Ah, yes, ‘talent’, he replied. “That mysterious quality given at birth to the fortunate few…it won’t get you across the street, let alone Carnegie Hall.”
In study after study, researchers find that innate talent is not a prerequisite for success and that hard work alone does not make people great.
While successful people – those who achieve excellence in a domain – do work very hard, it is how they work that distinguishes them from others.
Just putting in hours at your chosen work is not enough; the only way to get better is to make sure you’re devoting those hours to what we call deliberate practice.
Most of us think that we know what practice is. We learned to play basketball and we remember practicing our jump-shot. We learn to play the piano and we practice scales.
It is unlikely, however, that what we have done and are, at present, doing is really “deliberate practice” and it is almost a certainty that we have never applied the concept of deliberate practice to improving our ability to write.
When most people practice, they repeat things they already know how to do.
Those who become experts in their field spend most of their time doing things they don’t already know how to do.
They are constantly challenging themselves to improve, to do things better, to gain additional skills.
Deliberate practice demands reaching for objectives that are always just out of reach and the practitioner knows that the only way to achieve those objectives is through immense amounts of repetition.
Athletes and musicians all devote themselves to practice; they know that’s the only way they can become good enough to compete at a professional level. Practice is how they learn their skills; practice is how they keep those skills sharp. But when do most writers ever practice?
For most people, the answer is: Never.
Why? Because we learn how to write in school, where writing is always done under “performance” conditions: the writing will be read, assessed and graded.
Even in most creative writing workshops and writers’ groups, the focus is on performance writing. The writer is taught to write something good enough to get published.
The problem with this approach is that it’s impossible to learn your skills and to improve them if you never give yourself a chance to practice. Most aspiring writers are doing themselves a great disservice by focusing on trying to write publishable pieces. These writers simply don’t have the skills they need to produce professional-quality work. Instead of trying to get published, they need to devote themselves, at least for a while, to practice.
What, though, does a writer practice?
Writers need to possess two main sets of skills: “Content Skills” and “Craft Skills”.
The skills we use to come up with ideas and material for pieces of writing. They include:
These are the skills we use to establish a natural relationship with readers, so we can transfer our content into their minds. They include:
- an understanding of how a type of writing works (a short story does not work the same way as a novel or a newspaper article)
- an understanding of how our chosen genre works (science fiction, romance and horror possess different rules and styles)
- the ability to choose words and put them together in clear, eloquent, and “musical” sentences (or clear, dirty and gritty ones, depending on the genre)
One of the keys to deliberate practice is to break a complex skill down into component parts and practice each part separately.
To begin, write down all the writing skills you presently have.
Are you good at coming up with ideas? Do you have a well-trained ability to do research? Does your imagination give you vivid, detailed pictures? Are you good at finding wonderful words?
Next, write down all the skills you need to learn or to work on.
If you are just getting started with writing, you may find this difficult. If people have made comments on your writing, you can use those comments to make your list.
If, for instance, you have been told that your characters are not believable or your descriptions are fuzzy, then the skills of creating characters and writing descriptions go on your list.
Read a piece of writing by your favorite author; say, for instance, me. Now, write down all the things that writer does (I do) that make(s) the piece so good.
How many of those things can you do now? How many of them do you need to learn how to do?
Your answers to these questions will tell you what you need to practice.
To get the most benefit from practice, keep these two principles in mind: repetition and reflection.
Repetition – lots of it – is required to make skills automatic, so that when you sit down to write your novel those skills are ready to work for you.
Reflection – What did I learn today? What do I need to learn next? – is what keeps you on track in your pursuit of excellence.
I once asked my students to define “creativity”. None of them could.
I asked them to draw what creativity means to them. A few could; most could not.
I believe the reason is because – in the U.S. and the U.K. (and I suspect all of the Western World) – creativity is looked at as purely the stuff of “dreamers” who want to pursue artistic endeavors and not “real work”. This is farther from the truth than the world being flat, but many take this view and discourage others from accessing what they believe to be an excuse for slacking off or avoiding reality.
In actuality, creativity is the process of producing something that is both original and worthwhile. Creativity is about finding new ways to solve problems and approach situations. Creativity is not a skill restricted to artists, musicians or writers; it is a useful skill for people from all walks of life.
If you want to further develop your creativity, you can:
1. Commit Yourself
The first step is to fully devote yourself to developing your creative abilities. Do not put off your efforts. Set goals, enlist the help of others and put time aside each day to develop your skills.
2. Become an Expert
One of the best ways to develop creativity is to become an expert in that area. By having a rich understanding of the topic, you will be better able to think of novel (pun intended) ideas and innovative solutions to problems.
3. Reward Your Curiosity
One common roadblock to developing creativity is the sense that curiosity is an indulgence. Rather than reprimanding yourself, reward yourself when you are curious about something. Give yourself the opportunity to explore new topics.
4. Build Your Confidence
Insecurity in your abilities can suppress creativity, which is why it is important to build your confidence. Recognize your progress, commend your efforts and always be on the lookout for ways to reward your creativity.
5. Make Time for Creativity
You won’t be able to develop your creative talents if you don’t make time for them. Schedule some time each week to concentrate on some type of creative project.
6. Overcome Negative Attitudes that Block Creativity
According to a 2006 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, positive moods can increase your ability to think creatively. According to Dr. Adam Anderson, senior author of the study, “If you are doing something that requires you be creative or be in a think tank, you want to be in a place with good mood.” Eliminate negative thoughts or self-criticisms that may impair your ability to develop strong creative skills.
7. Brainstorm to Inspire New Ideas
Brainstorming is a common technique in both academic and professional settings, but it can also be a powerful tool for developing your creativity. Suspend your judgment and self-criticism, then write down related ideas and possible solutions. The goal is to generate as many ideas as possible in a relatively short span of time. Next, focus on clarifying and refining your ideas in order to arrive at the best possible choice.
8. Realize That Most Problems Have Multiple Solutions
When you approach a problem, look for a variety of solutions. Instead of simply going with the first idea you have, take the time to think of other possible ways to approach the situation. This simple activity is a great way to build both your problem-solving and creative thinking skills.
9. Keep a Journal
Start keeping a journal to follow your creative process and track the ideas you produce. A journal is a great way to reflect back on what you have accomplished and look for other possible solutions. This journal can be used to save ideas that can later serve as future inspiration.
10. Try the “Six Hats” Technique
The “six hats” technique involves looking at a problem from six differing perspectives. By doing this, you can produce more ideas than you might have had you only looked at the situation from one or two points of view.
- Red Hat: Look at the situation emotionally. What do your feelings tell you?
- Black Hat: Look at the situation objectively. What are the facts?
- Yellow Hat: Use a positive perspective. Which elements of the solution will work?
- White Hat: Use a negative perspective. Which elements of the solution won’t work?
- Green Hat: Think creatively. What are some alternative ideas?
- Blue Hat: Think broadly. What is the best overall solution?
11. Look for Sources of Inspiration
Never expect creativity to just happen. Look for sources of inspiration that will give you fresh ideas and motivate you to generate unique answers to questions. Read a book, visit a museum, listen to your favorite music or engage in a lively debate with a friend. Utilize whatever strategy or technique works best for you.
12. Create a Flow Chart
When you develop a new project, create a flow chart to track the presentation of your project from start to finish. Look for various paths or sequences of events that might occur. A flow chart can help you visualize the final product, eliminate potential problems and create unique solutions.
If all this sounds like a lot of work—well, it is.
Becoming a skilled athlete or musician is a lot of work. Did you think becoming a skilled writer would be any different?
However, if you love to write – if you love it as much as Stevie Wonder loves to create music or as much as Michael Jordan loved to play basketball – then practice becomes a kind of dedicated play; a source of pleasure and fulfillment.
If you are willing to shift your focus from getting published to becoming an excellent writer, then there’s a very good chance that, eventually, your skills will take you to the “big leagues” of the writing world.
Just remember – practice does not make perfect…perfect – or deliberate – practice makes perfect; so, work diligently, but also work deliberately – to bring about the results you seek.
Like my father, my mother enjoys challenging others thoughts, visions and aspirations – to see if you are serious about what you do and to see if she can somehow help you become what you say you want to become.
So, when I told her I wanted to be a writer, she asked “Do you want to be a writer, or an author?”
Often, we use the words author and writer interchangeably. I didn’t know, at the time, that both these words are quite different.
“Aren’t they the same thing?” I inquired.
“Never answer a question with a question,” she replied, shaking a finger at me. “An author gotta have readers. A writer don’t.”
And she was right. In the act of literary creation, we all start out as writers. We write for ourselves. We write to create. We write to explore and play and experience and for a thousand other reasons. And, finally, for many (if not most) of us, we look around to see who wants to share in our creation. We seek out readers.
The reasons are many – validation of what we’re doing; the ego-driven need to show others what we’ve created; the belief that what we’ve created deserves to be shared; the urge to make money through publishing your writings; and an understanding that literary creations can be improved by being shared with others – that readers, by the very act of reading your work, show you what works and what does not.
It is this process of sharing your creations with the world that transforms you from writer into author.
Anyone can be a writer. Simply write and create something new. And many people can develop into good writers, at that. But to become an author – you must be a writer who pushes your creations out into the world.
Becoming an author is not every writer’s goal. Nor is it some evolutionary advance, as if, in becoming an author, you have somehow “outgrown” being a writer.
My mama concluded by saying. “Being a writer is an identity; being an author is a career.”
I have identified myself as a writer since I was a small child and realized I enjoyed writing and was pretty good at it.
I have been an author since I sold my first book.
If I never sold another book, I would not stop writing. Writing is a cornerstone of my sense of self. Not being published would not stop that.
When I was sixteen, I told my father that I was an aspiring author.
“If you are an ‘aspiring’ anything, you are not the thing at all,” he replied. “Aspiring is for the weak; for the lazy; for the afraid. Authors – real authors, not “aspiring” ones – are the ones who sit their butts down, write something and get their work out there until it gets published.”
Right now, some of you are reading this and saying, “Yeah, but…”
You are coming up with excuses for not writing…for not becoming the writer or author you “aspire” to be. Let’s examine common excuses “aspiring” writers and authors give for doing absolutely nothing:
I suck. If you feel uncomfortable with your level of talent, take a writing class. Every writer starts by simply putting the first word down on paper. Take a chance and write something. Learn as you go. You never know if you’ll be good at something until you give it a try.
I have writers’ block. Having writers’ block doesn’t stop you from writing. Refusing to overcome writers’ block does. Try making an outline, even a small one; also, writing exercises will spark your creativity and get you writing. Come up with character names and engage them in imaginary conversations in your head. Keep a small notebook at hand at all times to take notes when ideas strike you.
I can’t convey my ideas on paper well. That’s what editing is all about. A perfect first draft is extremely rare. Just write; then have other writers read your work and critique it. Rewrite the work and ask them to read it again and make more needed changes; repeat the process until you feel you have a good piece of work and then send it to a professional editor.
I can’t handle the stress. Oh, please. Grow a pair, will you? Life is filled with stress…some good (called eustress); some bad (called distress). Deal with it and get to work!
I am too damned old. There is no minimum or maximum age requirement to write. As long as you are of a sound mind, you can write.
I would have too much competition. Audre Lorde said that “there are no new ideas, only new ways of making them felt”. Even with hundreds of thousands of new books published each year, you are a unique person with a unique take on life. Work hard on developing your own style and your own voice. Obis’ Law states that “Somebody else probably has the same idea, so, a) get started; and b) plan to do it better”.
I am broke. All you need to start writing is a pen or pencil, notebook and public library access. If you have your own computer, even better. And if you are truly broke, you probably aren’t working, or are working part-time, so you have even more time to write.
I don’t have the hook-up. Very few fledgling authors do, at first. Join social media sites and seek out other writers and publishers; join a writers’ workshop; go to conferences, and search other resources. After all, you probably didn’t know a spouse or plumber before you needed one. It takes research and getting to know people.
I am afraid of wasting my time on a book that doesn’t sell. The author J.A. Konrath didn’t sell his novel until he’d amassed more than 500 rejections in his search for agents and publishers. Perseverance is the key. If that first book doesn’t sell, consider it an exercise in learning to be a better writer. Write because you love it; because you’re compelled – and maybe even obsessed – to write. Write without worrying about making a dime at first, or I guarantee you, your writing willbe a trite piece of crap that will not sell.
I don’t have enough time to write a book. Most likely you’re making time for non-productive things, like watching TV or having e-fights on Facebook. That means you actually do have time to write, you’re just not making it a priority to write. Everyone has responsibilities and demands on their time. Set a goal of simply writing 500 words a day or one or two pages a day. Sit down with a calendar at the beginning of the week and schedule your writing time. If you truly want this, you’ll find the time and make it a priority.
I am a writer. I am an author. I am pretty good at both, but have a lot more growing to do. More than anything else, I am a student of the art and craft of writing. I love being a student; but I hate being in class alone. Join me and let’s learn – and grow – together.
And if anything I have shared with you helps at all; if you have enjoyed my blogs, my books, or my films…thank my mama, my daddy and my big sisters because, without a doubt, my journey as an author is, indeed, a Family Affair.