What do Tyler Perry and Scandal Have in Common?

Let’s start with Tyler Perry.

A long time ago, when I was just wide-eyed girl living in Queens, NY, I would go to the movies. And every season or so, those movies would star black people. I watched Love & Basketball, Brown Sugar, Soul Food, Love Jones, The Best Man and even The Wood, and life was good. Then I went to college, and a move came out called “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” It was OK, no beef. Then another Tyler Perry movie came out. Well, can’t have a good black movie every season, I thought. But then another came out. Then another. Until an entire generation (generation being 10 years for my purposes) had no idea what a non-Tyler Perry black movie was. And real actresses like Phylicia Rashad and Angela Bassett were forced to act in his movies too—just to get food on the table.

I have my issues with TP, but I will say this: he gave a lot of black actors work, who may not have been able to find it otherwise. And, more importantly, he made a lot of money. It is my belief that at some point the non-TP studios realized, if that Madea stuff can make money, just imagine what would happen if we produced a move that was actually good?? What followed was a season when a bunch of black movies were out around the same time: The Best Man Holiday, Black Nativity, The Butler, Mandela. And that was good.

Tyler Perry reminded movie execs that stories about minority people can be profitable. This fact had already been established, but like the generation who thought TP movies were the only black movies ever to exist, a generation of people hadn’t seen it with their own eyes, and therefore couldn’t believe it to be true.

I think the same thing can be said about Scandal. Scandal wasn’t successful in spite of having an African-American star, I would argue that a large part of that success was because of Kerry Washington. Because the show was making history, it received a greater amount of coverage and instant fan loyalty. I have more thoughts about Scandal and Shondaland, but that’s the point I’m trying to make for now.

As much as I love Scandal, do I think it’s the perfect example of how to utilize minority characters in mainstream media? No. Similarly, do I think Tyler Perry movies accurately portray African American life? Hell no.

But both Tyler Perry and Scandal told the world that stories about minority characters are worthy of investment. So my question is this- who is going to teach that to the publishing industry?

Thoughts on Publishing and Privilege

There has been a lot of talk about “privilege” lately. White privilege, male privilege, etc. I don’t know what that weird guy from Princeton was talking about, but what I mean by the term is the freedom not to worry that your race has put you at a disadvantage.

Wikipedia’s definition of privilege will do as well: “the right to assume the universality of one’s own experiences, marking others as different or exceptional while perceiving oneself as normal.”

I bring this up because this process of pitching my story to agents has made me feel very “unprivileged.”

I like subtlety. I like restraint. I like things that feel like real life. So as I sit here waiting to be judged by (mostly white) strangers, I can’t help but wonder—will they get me? Will they see what I’m trying to do? My manuscript is first and foremost the story of a relationship—about people of color. It’s neither a traditional love story, nor does it constantly make political commentary. A lot of people will get it, but will the people with the power? Will they believe that readers (white and nonwhite, male and female) will get it?

I came across several articles today that discuss this very issue. They linked from an NPR article about a #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign that emerged following a major book convention that had an all-white line up. My faves were one published on BuzzFeed that gets into the institutional problems in the publishing industry and another amazing piece written in The New Yorker by Junot Diaz.  I’d love to share some snippets with you…

The BuzzFeed article on the privilege issue:

“…Many of [the gifts and challenges of writers of color] won’t be seen or recognized within a white cultural context. Nuances of codeswitching, racial microaggressions, the emotional reality of surviving white supremacy, self-translation – these are all layers of the non-white experience that rarely make it into mainstream literature, even when the characters look like us.”

BuzzFeed on why diversity isn’t enough and what we need to do:

“We’re right to push for diversity, we have to, but it is only step one of a long journey. Lack of racial diversity is a symptom. The underlying illness is institutional racism. It walks hand in hand with sexism, cissexism, homophobia, and classism. To go beyond this same conversation we keep having, again and again, beyond tokens and quick fixes, requires us to look the illness in the face and destroy it. This is work for white people and people of color to do, sometimes together, sometimes apart. It’s work for writers, agents, editors, artists, fans, executives, interns, directors, and publicists. It’s work for reviewers, educators, administrators. It means taking courageous, real-world steps, not just changing mission statements or submissions guidelines.”

In The New Yorker, Diaz talks about how he struggled in his MFA program because stories that reflected non-white life were not considered to be literature:

“In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male. This white straight male default was of course not biased in any way by its white straight maleness—no way! Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature.”

Diaz also says his MFA program was simply “too white”:

“Too white as in Cornell had almost no POC—no people of color—in it. Too white as in the MFA had no faculty of color in the fiction program—like none—and neither the faculty nor the administration saw that lack of color as a big problem…Too white as in my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc). In my workshop there was an almost lunatical belief that race was no longer a major social force (it’s class!). In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing—at all. Never got any kind of instruction in that area—at all. Shit, in my workshop we never talked about race except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that ‘race discussions’ were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having.”

I think it’s a good sign that we are having this discussion. Personally, I think the book industry is scared to go outside the norm because it’s so fragile at the moment. Sales are down are what not. But I actually feel like the changing industry presents an opportunity, not a problem.  It’s like, why not publish something different? Expand your audience! Take a risk and bet that people will enjoying consuming stories about a diverse world. I know I do!

 

Finding An Agent (Basically Like Online Dating)

It’s happening. My manuscript is going out into the world. Scary!!

Moving Forward With My Plan

After I finished my first draft, I provided you all with my plan to achieve publication. This included editing, sending to friends, sending to a developmental editor and then revising again.

For the most part I have done this. I have also entered a few contests and attended a retreat, which turned into an incredible networking opportunity. Now it’s time brace myself and send pages to agents.

Finding an Agent (Basically Like Online Dating)

For those of you outside of the writing world, obtaining an agent is basically a required step toward publication. Theoretically you can pitch publishers directly, but their time is limited and a represented author has to be vetted. As you can guess, agents take a percentage of profits; however, they use their connections on your behalf and spend their days selling your novel (and negotiating if someone bites) while you carry on with your day job. So that’s the trade off.

What I realized as I engage in this process, is that finding an agent is very similar to online dating. While it’s important that you/your manuscript be a catch and the person whose profile you’re viewing (i.e., the agent’s website) meets your basic standards, sooo much more is necessary for there to be a match.

Like with a potential mate, there needs to be a connection.

The agent can’t just see-why-someone-would-like-you—they themselves have to be excited about your manuscript and must believe in you as an author. Most importantly, they must feel confident that they can sell both.  That takes time, but I think it’s worth the wait?!

Bracing Myself for Rejection

This delicate dance toward finding a match is why everything I’ve read and everyone I’ve spoken to about this topic has told me to expect to query (i.e., pitch) 50-100 agents before finding representation.

In other words, I must be prepared for rejection.  And now that I’m pitching, I’ve internalized this lesson because it makes sense.

So in addition to the agents/editors who requested pages at the retreat, I’m focusing on people who represent my genre (and/or others like it—for example, agents looking for women’s fiction and multi-cultural or love stories—I think that’s the money spot) and whose interviews I’ve enjoyed, who represent books I like, and are in the D.C. or NY area.

I haven’t pitched 100 agents yet. I made a list, and I’m pitching in waves of 10 or so. While I wait, I need to read through the last 200 pages of my novel one more time (no one requested more than 100 pages, so I focused on getting those completed before anything else). And that’s where I’m at.

I will keep you posted. Fingers crossed!!