Melanie Figueroa

Melanie is the Editor in Chief at The Poetics Project. Having earned a masters in writing and book publishing from Portland State University and gained experience as an in-house editor, she now works as a freelance editor and writer. Her favorite book is The Bell Jar. You can follow Melanie on Twitter or Instagram @wellmelsbells.

The Tumblr Post that Started a Debate on Race and Writing

Normally, I’m not one to start an online debate with another blog, but while scrolling through Tumblr a few days ago, I came across this post.

(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)
(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)

I immediately shared the post with the other contributors here at the blog, and we, along with many other Tumblr users, had a wide range of thoughts regarding this piece of advice.

(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)
(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)

Before I begin, I think it’s only fair to say that there were also many Tumblr users who shared their support of The Writers Helpers, the Tumblr blog which handed out this advice. According to these users, the account admins were not being racist, but simply honest.

(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)
(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)

In case you were wondering, I fundamentally disagree with the original advice offered by The Writers Helpers. Do I think that the admins of this blog (or “S,” the specific admin who responded to the question) are racist? No. I do not. However, the statement—the advice itself—advises writers to treat their own characters’ races as unequal.

Women are People: Who Knew?

Two-dimensional characters aren’t merely results of poor writing; although, they can be. You can spot them right away. There’s the femme fatale, the bad boy, the cat lady, the everyman, the damsel in distress, the jock, the farmer’s daughter, or the sidekick. Shall I go on?

While they can be predictable, two-dimensional characters often serve to drive the plot along. The women are given to drawing the men into situations that make for entertaining spectacles. The hero saves the damsel from a burning building, or the farmer, waving a shotgun, chases the young man caught climbing out his daughter’s window off the property.

Yet, good writers are the ones who are able to surprise their readers. Mad Men‘s Don Draper, for instance, is a womanizer. When I first started watching the show, I wanted to hate him. He appears to have no shame or morals, constantly sleeping with women who aren’t his wife. But really, he’s so much more than just a womanizer. His story is complicated (I won’t give away any spoilers), and his unpredictability makes him that much more intriguing.

The problem is that female characters in the media aren’t generally as complex. In part, this may be due to the small amount of women in these industries that are actually in a position to influence character development. According to the Women’s Media Center 2013 report on the status of women in the media, women made up only 9 percent of the directors for the top grossing films. From 2011-2012, women made up only 26 percent of the behind-the-scenes jobs in television. And in 2011, women made up less than 50 percent of submissions to literary magazines. At the New York Review of Books in particular, women made up only 19 percent of submissions.

Don’t Judge An Adaptation By The Book

People always say the book was better. It’s ironed onto t-shirts on Etsy and plastered all over Pinterest. Anthropomorphized novels are urging you to buy and read them before you decide to see their cinematic counterparts acted out on the big screen.

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We get it (really, that face says it all) because it’s a slippery slope and if people stop reading then maybe people will stop writing. I struggle, personally, because I really love both mediums—in some ways equally, although for different reasons.

The amount of film—both television and movies—out there that originated from literary works is pretty astounding, but the truth is, sometimes the book isn’t better. And that’s not (always) a bad thing.

That’s probably because literary adaptations aren’t meant to inspire the reader, they’re meant to inspire the director. We simply get to enjoy the fruits of their labor and vision.

Below are just a few adaptations that, perhaps, prove the book isn’t always better. Sometimes it’s just different.

Game of Thrones

Even book purists have admitted that while Martin’s books are packed full of history and some pretty amazing characters and plot lines, the HBO show has, quite possibly, done a better job at telling this story. While the show has made slight changes from the start, Season 5 is going far, far off the books, changing the story lines of some characters completely and ditching new characters that appear later in Martin’s series.

SPOILER ALERT! Sansa’s story, for instance, has been changed drastically. Instead of wandering through the Vale with her cousin, she is off to Winterfell. In the books, Jeyne Poole’s character (who we’ll never meet) travels to Sansa’s former home instead.

But these changes make the show arguably less “boring” for viewers and help push the story forward. With a cast list that’s already quite lengthy, the show expects a lot from viewers with increasingly busy lives (they’re doing us a favor, really). And because the characters from the book—even the ones who are cut—are still serving as the inspiration, book readers may come to appreciate the changes. Some already have.

Stand By Me

This movie was an instant classic—four boys walking the railroad tracks in search of the body of a missing boy. Yet, the story was originally contained within the pages of Stephen King’s short story “The Body,” a story that isn’t as frequently associated with King’s name as, say, Carrie or The Shining.

It’s a 1986 coming-of-age story, but the film has a timeless quality with some amazing performances. Incidentally, “The Body” was in King’s anthology Different Seasons which also contained “The Shawshank Redemption” (an equally stellar adaptation).

Drive

Drive, the movie, is based on the 2005 book Drive by James Sallis. The film takes advantage of the medium, letting meaningful looks and long silences do the talking instead of dialogue. Minor characters in the novel, like Shannon and Irene (Driver’s love interest), are given larger roles in the film, and these characters help provide more depth and connection to the events that unfold.

Plus, there’s Ryan Gosling. Need I say more?

Mean Girls

Mean Girls was a staple of my teenage years. It demonstrates how cut throat teenage girls can be to each other, while helping women laugh at it all a bit. Originally though, Mean Girls wasn’t Mean Girls at all, it was Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World, a book written by Rosalind Wiseman to help parents understand their daughter’s friendships and conflict.

Tina Fey turned it into comic genius (yes, I’m going that far).

“I want my pink shirt back!”

Damn, Poetry’s Hard

In Adam Frank’s recent article on NPR, the writer compares poetry to physics. He begins his discussion with T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, which is 434 lines. In other words, it’s long. For some readers, that length provides something to hold onto a bit longer. An author might claim that more space allows for them to create greater meaning. But for some readers, longer poems can be daunting.

However, length isn’t the only thing that makes certain poems more difficult for some than others. Why someone may not “get” a poem can be for many reasons. In Frank’s article, the writer interviews John Beer, poet and professor at Portland State University. Beer had this to say about the subject:

There are, it seems, as many ways for a poem to be difficult as there are for it to be a poem at all. For most people, a lot of poetry written before the twentieth century will be a challenge: the vocabulary will often be unfamiliar, the syntax may be more complicated than we are accustomed to reading, and allusions, especially to classical learning, abound.

The “Harry Potter” Fan Theory That Changed Nothing

Where there are fandoms, there are fan theories. The Harry Potter world has a ton of them. The latest to gain attention is that the Dursleys were not just mean to Harry because they were bad people, but because they were under the affect of a Horcrux.

Specifically, they were under the affect of Harry, who is himself a Horcrux. Remember?

The theory started on Tumblr—because where else—where Graphic Nerdity wrote that the Dursleys were ordinary, perfectly respectable people before Harry was dropped off on their doorstep. She continues, “For the next decade it proceeded to warp their minds…The fact that they survived such prolonged horcrux exposure without delving into insanity or abandoning a helpless child only solidifies their place among the pantheon of noble and virtuous heroes in the Harry Potter universe.”

And, I suppose, on the surface the theory makes sense. Both Ron and Ginny become possessed when exposed to a Horcrux for a long period of time—Ron with the Slytherin locket and Ginny with Tom Riddle’s diary. The wizarding world had long since been surprised by the Dursley’s complete lack of familial love for Harry.

All this to say, yes, I felt it too. Reading the books, especially as a child myself, I wanted to understand the sort of people who’d keep a little boy in a closet under the stairs.

But while the Harry Potter universe does have a “pantheon of noble and virtuous heroes,” I don’t think the Dursleys are among them. Nor were they meant to be. Sometimes bad people just have to exist.

The universe Rowling created also has many evils, and while most of those belong to the magical world, there are plenty of evils that are very much human.

Wasting Time & Not Giving a Damn: The Art of Being A Young Writer

Maybe we have to waste time to be writers.

A year ago, in the car on the way back from Seattle, I had the talk with a few friends. The I-can’t-finish-anything and I’m-not-sure-where-it’s-going talk that all writers seem to have with their reflection or a peer at some point in their career, particularly early on.

Really, what I meant was that I’m not sure if I’m good enough. And that’s tough to admit.

Maria Popova tackled this topic in her recent post “The Art of Motherfuckitude: Cheryl Strayed’s Advice to an Aspiring Writer on Faith and Humility” over at Brain Pickings. Before Wild, of course, Strayed wrote The Rumpus advice column “Sugar.”

It’s self doubt. According to Popova, “the same paralyzing self-doubt which Virginia Woolf so elegantly captured; which led Steinbeck to repeatedly berate, then galvanize himself in his diary; which sent Van Gogh into a spiral of floundering before he found his way as an artist.”

The same self doubt that caused one “Sugar” reader to write to Strayed. The reader was twenty-six—a classic writer who can’t write. She tells Strayed, “I am sick with panic that I cannot—will not—override my limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude, to write well, with intelligence and heart and lengthiness.”

Strayed’s response is beautiful and raw. You can and should read it.

Highlights for all my fellow twenty-somethings struggling with how exactly one perfects the art of being a motherfucker:

Should Writers Get Paid? A Conversation.

In a recent post, I asked whether or not paying to submit to writing contests is worth it for a writer. Money and writing often spark conversations about worth. The kind of value we as readers give the written word and the individuals who work tirelessly to create it.

Now that I have graduated and moved back home to Southern California (oh, Portland, how I miss you), I am pushing myself to write again and write often. Although I try to squelch all hopes of publication—getting the words down at all is step one—I do find writing in smaller chunks to be less daunting. Because of that, I often approach a piece of prose as a short story, even if I plan on turning it into something larger one day. Most publications are willing to publish writer’s short stories, personal essays, and flash fiction, but perhaps not their 100,000-word novel.

But the only conversation worth having is not whether a writer should pay someone else to read their work, but whether an author should get paid because they wrote the thing.

In truth, this conversation is a matter of opinion. For as long as there are writers willing to submit their work and go unpaid, there will be writers who refuse.

I don’t believe the answer is so black and white. If you’re still trying to figure out where you stand, ask yourself “Why am I submitting in the first place?”

Is it for the prestige? Is it for the recognition? Is it to be validated? Is it because you’re a professor and your boss told you to? Is it because you’re a student and your professor told you to? Is it because you see writing as a career and this magazine or journal as a stepping stone?

Kindle Scout: Crowdsourced Publishing Model for “Bad” Books

Kindle Scout is a new initiative from Amazon that allows readers to vote on the titles that they’d like to see published.

How does it work? Authors submit 5,000-word excerpts of their manuscripts to the website, where they stay for a 30-day “scouting” period. During this time, Amazon members are allowed to browse through each title and nominate the ones they’d like to see published.

In other words, Amazon would like all of you, dear readers, to be their unpaid interns, digging through the vast slush pile of—quite frankly—bad books that I’m sure arrive at their digital doorstep daily. Only, you don’t get any credit or, for that matter, have much of an incentive.

Books that are selected for publication—the criteria for selecting a “winner” is still unknown—“will be published by Kindle Press and receive 5-year renewable terms, a $1,500 advance, 50 percent eBook royalty rate, easy rights reversions and featured Amazon marketing.”

As Slate‘s words correspondent, Katy Waldman, suggests in her recent article on Kindle Scout, “The real winner would appear to be Amazon, which can leverage readers’ direct involvement to lure them to its website and profit from successful new titles without losing too much on clunkers.”

Waldman then goes on, attempting to paint a silver lining, by writing “A program with open submissions puts more voices in circulation. It amplifies different kinds of voices, razing institutional wayposts that tend to disproportionately welcome white men. It responds more nimbly to the demonstrated preferences of the reading public, asking us to rethink our inherited notions of literary merit.”

The reality is, however, that the chances of anything of “literary merit” being discovered through methods like crowd sourcing are awfully slim. For one, traditional publishers aren’t in the business of turning away true gems with literary merit. That same publisher can offer a much larger advance, an editor to help with the development of the manuscript, and a marketing team to support the book once it’s on shelves. You know, a real marketing team—not an algorithm that artificially pushes your self-published e-book higher on its sites own rankings.

Are There Too Many Books Out There?

Writers, for me, are philosophers. And anthropologists. They search for meaning, and they observe and report.

Writers are smart. They have to be in order to survive, in order to create something worth surviving.

But quite frankly, there’s a lot of bad writing out there. Technology gives anyone with a computer access to a word processor. Anyone with enough time on their hands can sit down and start typing. Anyone with enough money can call up an editor, who can rip their work apart and build it back up.

I struggle with the flooded marketplace. There are simply too many books out there, many not worth reading.

A friend once told me, “I think most people think they have at least one great story inside them.” As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Forbes estimates that somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books are published each year (nearly half of those are self-published).

Writing initiatives, like National Novel Writing Month, seem to purport the idea that “anyone can write” if they only just pushed themselves, if they only just set aside the time. I have quite a few friends, people working in publishing, that have participated in NaNoWriMo. And when I ask each of them where these novels exist now, I get told that the manuscript is in a drawer or a trash bin—wherever it is, the answer is always the same: it wasn’t very good.

My point, I suppose, is that both readers and aspiring writers need to remember what it is that drew them to books in the first place. The goal of writing shouldn’t be to hit a word count—to write 50,000 in thirty days. The goal of writing shouldn’t even be to leave your mark on the world. Because I get it, really I do. Life is short, but art lasts. The goal of writing should be, in my opinion, to give readers something of value.

In a recent interview with Guernica, agent Chris Parris-Lamb, of The Gernet Company, stated that this problem is actually the most common one he sees. On the manuscripts in his slush pile? “I just wish I read more submissions where it felt like the author had taken great care with it, had spent a lot of time on it, and had a better idea—or any idea at all—of the books they saw their own as being in conversation with, as well as how theirs was unique. Most submissions I see feel like someone checking ‘write a novel’ off their bucket list.”

Literary Paraphernalia: Bookish Candles from Hearth & Hammer

I have no more classes to attend—forever. On Monday, I’ll turn in my last final project and kiss academia goodbye.

It’s a funny feeling. Before this, I could map out my future. Community college, university, graduate school. And what’s left now hasn’t been drawn yet.

It’s a little thrilling and a little freeing and a little stressful. Since I graduated a term early, I now get to watch my friends deal with preparing portfolios and final papers. And because of that, this week’s literary paraphernalia (and probably the next few) are inspired by items to help relax a book lover.

These literary candles are all from the Chicago-based Etsy shop, Hearth & Hammer. All candles are made with natural soy wax.

Burning Books

Inspired by Fahrenheit 451. Scents of cinnamon, orange, and fir. According to the owners, it “smells like you’re sitting by a fire reading your favorite banned book.”

Signal Fire

Inspired by The Lord of the Flies. Scents of leather, tobacco, amber, and musk. According to the owners, it’s “to make you feel like you’re right on the island with Simon, Piggy and the boys.”

Open Road

Inspired by On the Road. Scents of meadow grass and sandalwood. According to the owners, it smells like wandering “through sawdust-covered towns and feel the meadow grass on your bare feet with Kerouac and Moriarty.”