Featured From the Archives: How to Write Martial Art Fight Scenes — Boise Bookfest Edition

In just a few short weeks (three to be exact), I’ll be attending the Boise Book Fest in Boise, Idaho. It’s going to be a lot of fun, featuring panels and workshops from several big-name authors in the industry and filled with tons of new books to check out and have signed by their gifted creators. If you’re in the Boise region, or willing to travel for a fun day of bookish geekery, I highly recommend attending.

But that’s only partially what today’s post is about. See, I’ll be doing a presentation there as well — on how to write fight scenes. Some of you may recall the post below, which I wrote a couple years ago. It’s still continually among my top searched articles, so I know it’s still a topic of interest to many out there. Which is why I pitched doing the live version when author Clara Stone approached me about presenting in Boise. But in order to do so, I’m going to need some volunteers. The best way I can think to showcase how to write/improve a fight scene is by providing actual examples.

So here’s my proposition: I’m going to open up a new feature of this blog, similar to the critique based entries I’ve seen others do. Willing writers can submit their fight scene, and then I’ll provide a published critique with suggestions for how to improve it. For now, I’m thinking I’ll do this once a month, unless it garners enough interest to make it a regular, weekly posting. My hope is that there are those among you who are brave enough to take me up on this offer. I’ve seen other blogs do this with the first 250 words, queries, or even the first 5 pages of a manuscript, so why not do it with a fight scene? Yes?

If you’d like to throw your name in the hat for the first feature, which I’ll post on Oct. 7th, please contact me. Please note that by submitting your fight scene, you’ll be agreeing to allow me to post both the original excerpt and my suggestions on this blog, and subsequently, any presentations that are derived from the material here. I hope you’ll take advantage of this free opportunity to gain some valuable editorial feedback, but in the meantime, here’s a reprise of my original article on . . .

How to Write a Martial Arts Fight Scenes

by Kisa Whipkey

(Originally Posted 8/9/13)

Fight scenes. Whether live action or written, they can be such a pain to pull off, falling all too easily into the realm of cheesy. You know the ones I mean; we’ve all seen and read them — fight scenes where the creator was more focused on what looks cool and/or badass, and less so on believability.

Recently, I sent a frustrated plea to the Twitterverse, begging authors to do their research before including the martial arts in their fights. Believe it or not, it wasn’t until after I sent that plea that the light bulb appeared and I realized that I’m in a unique position to help my fellow authors. As a martial artist, a writer, and an editor, I have insight that could help authors overcome the hurdle of fight scenes. So today, I’m going to use that background to dissect a written fight scene and hopefully illustrate how to effectively incorporate martial arts techniques. About time, right?

First, let’s take a look at what you don’t want to do.

_________

Charlie grunted as his back slammed into the wall, his opponent’s hands wrapped thoroughly around his throat. He struggled, trying to kick his opponent in the groin but only managing to connect with the man’s shin. The attacker snarled, loosening his hold on Charlie’s neck. Without pausing, Charlie threw his left arm between them, turning to the side and trapping the attacker’s arm against his own chest before elbowing the man in the face.

The attacker stumbled backwards, grasping at his bleeding nose. Charlie didn’t wait. He had the upper-hand. He advanced toward his opponent, his hands raised to guard his face, his body relaxed into a sparring stance. The attacker glared up at him, straightening into a matching stance.

With a yell, Charlie threw a round-kick at the attacker’s head. His opponent ducked, sliding between Charlie’s legs on his knees and jumping to his feet with a swift kick to Charlie’s back. Charlie stumbled forward, turning to face his attacker before he was struck again and instantly ducked the knife hand strike aimed at his head. Charlie responded with a flurry of punches, varying his target from the man’s head to his torso and back again. The man blocked most, but a few landed, knocking the attacker from his feet.

Charlie stood over him for a split second before finishing him off with a well-placed axe kick to the sternum. As the attacker rolled on the ground, sputtering, Charlie ran for the safety of a nearby cafe.

_________

Now, that’s shockingly not as bad as some I’ve seen, although it’s sure not going to win me a Pulitzer either. Some of you may even think this is an all right fight scene, aside from the obvious grammatical flaws that could be fixed with a few more drafts. But this is the example of what not to do, remember? So let’s figure out why.

Did you notice that I gave you very little about why this fight is happening, or where? I didn’t even give you the attacker’s name! But I did tell you in agonizing detail the techniques they’re using and where the blows land, placing all the emphasis on the choreography, and none at all on the characters or motivation behind this moment. The result? A laundry list of steps you could re-enact, but that you feel not at all.

That’s because this approach is all telling. That’s right, the infamous telling vs. showing debate. I tell you exactly what’s happening, but I don’t show it at all. You don’t feel invested in Charlie’s situation. You don’t feel the emotions. You feel excited, sure, because it’s action, and even poorly written action is exciting. But it has no lasting impact on you, does it? This scene is about as forgettable as they come.

It’s also unrealistic. Who out there noticed the completely implausible choreography I threw in? I know the martial artists in the audience did, because it screams “cool factor,” its entire existence a nod to something awesome and badass, but that, in reality, is actually physically impossible.

If you guessed the knee slide under Charlie’s legs, you’d be correct. Bravo! You get a cookie.

This is why it’s important to understand the dynamics of a fight, the kinesiology behind the techniques, not just the choreography. Those who have done a round kick know that while performing it, you balance on one leg, your body positioned so that your center of gravity is entirely over that back leg. If someone were to try and go through your legs the way I described, they would take out your supporting leg and you’d both end up in a flailing pile of limbs.

And then there’s the knee slide itself. If you read it closely, you realized the attacker is standing still. Where’d he get the momentum for a knee slide? Unless they’re fighting on a slick, hardwood floor that’s just been mopped, he would need a running start. I don’t know about you, but if I tried to drop to my knees to slide anywhere, I’d be sitting on the floor looking like an idiot just asking to get kicked in the face. It’s just not believable.

So let’s try that scene again, this time, fixing all those things I called out.

_________

Charlie grunted as his back slammed into the wall, Eric’s hands wrapped around his throat. Hate emanated from his friend’s narrowed eyes, mixed with judgment and accusation. Charlie gasped, choking as Eric’s fingers cut off his air.

His mind screamed at him, desperate to know why it was being punished. His lungs burned, gasping, sucking in nothing but fear. The edges of his vision started to grow fuzzy as black dots appeared over Eric’s shoulder, distorting the red glow of the club’s EXIT sign like reverse chickenpox. Panic flooded his veins with adrenaline. He struggled, clawing at the fingers sealed around his throat. He tried to kick Eric in the groin, but only managed to connect with his shin, the impact ricocheting painfully through his foot.

Eric snarled, loosening his hold and giving Charlie the opening he needed. Charlie threw his left arm between them, turning to the side and trapping Eric’s arm against his chest before elbowing his best friend in the face.

Eric stumbled backward, grasping at his bleeding nose. Charlie didn’t wait. He advanced toward his opponent, his hands raised to guard his face, his body relaxing into the sparring stance he’d practiced for years — knees bent, weight forward on the balls of his feet, head lowered. Eric glared up at him, straightening into a matching stance. Their eyes locked. It was just like old times, only now, there was no one to referee the match, to stop it before it went too far.

All of this for a girl. Charlie knew it was ridiculous, that he should walk away, but fury mixed with adrenaline, coursing through him in a pulsing heat. If Eric wanted a fight, that’s what he’d get.

With a yell, Charlie threw a kick at Eric’s head. Eric ducked, sliding easily into a leg-sweep, knocking Charlie’s support from under him. The ground smashed into Charlie’s back, forcing the air from his lungs in a rushing wheeze. He rolled backward to his feet, still fighting against the tightness in his chest. Eric closed in on him, pushing his advantage, arms and legs flying. Charlie blocked as many of the blows as he could, his arms jarring in their sockets every time he did, his ribs and face blossoming with pain every time he didn’t. He stumbled back through the shadows of the alley until he was once again cornered.  Cringing, he held his hands up in surrender. Eric backed off, eyeing him warily as he spit blood onto the darkened pavement.

Charlie’s knuckles were bleeding, his ribs bruised, his lip split into an oozing gash. It was time to end this.

“All right, I give,” he said,  the words raspy and pained as he forced his battered throat to work. “I’ll never go near your sister again.”

_________

Still not the most epic writing sample, but you see the difference, I hope? Now, we not only know who Charlie’s fighting, but why. I’ve also fixed the choreography so that it’s believable, and added emotional content and description, putting the focus on the characters instead of the martial arts. No one cares about the techniques, but they care a lot about how those techniques feel, the emotion behind the action. Understanding that is the difference between creating a scene from a clinical distance and creating a deeper POV that will resonate with readers.

So, how can you take your fight scenes from flat to amazing? Easy, just remember these three things:

  1. Show, don’t tell. The techniques themselves are not important, the emotion is. Only use a technique name if there’s a reason we need to know the exact kick, etc.
  2. Believability is king. Never throw something in just because it sounds awesome. Make sure it’s actually physically possible and makes sense with the choreography and your world.
  3. When stumped, ask an expert. If you’re at a loss, find someone familiar with the martial arts and ask. Don’t just rely on Google and Youtube. They won’t give you the insight personal experience can.

That’s really all there is to it. But if you’d like to see if your fight scene hits these markers, feel free to take advantage of the offer I mentioned above.😉

Edit Letters: What They Contain and How I Draft Them

Last week, we covered the basics of what an edit letter is and when it generally happens in the editorial process (along with a few key ways they differ from beta reader and CP feedback). This week, I want to quickly talk about the process an editor goes through to create one. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just a matter of simply reading a manuscript and regurgitating thoughts into semi-coherent notes. A large part of our job is actually to help prepare your work (and you) for exposure to the often unfiltered reader response. And trust me, unless your editor is a walking cliche of the editors-are-evil myth, reader reviews will hurt a hell of a lot more than anything your editor will say. Your editor should have your best interest in mind, and they realize that hearing that your manuscript needs even more work isn’t exactly a pleasant experience.

But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself. Believe it or not, the process of drafting an edit letter is actually quite nerve-racking for most editors. It’s often our first true interaction with an author, and so we’re never fully sure how they’re going to react to the things we have to say. No one likes being the bearer of bad news, after all. Just like no one likes receiving it. But such is the nature of the job. We’re not paid to sugar-coat and coddle. We root out and diagnose the cancers in your manuscript that you might not even realize are there, and then, most importantly, we tell you how to cure them. That’s a hefty responsibility, don’t you think? Which is why I never understand when authors assume this is a quick process.

Every editor does this phase of edits differently, but the intent is always the same, and the finished product will be very similar. So let’s talk about how I get to that final letter.

The first thing I do is download the file to my Kindle. That might sound obvious, but I have a very specific reason for doing this — it helps keep me from becoming mired in things which technically fall under line edits. For a dev edit, I have to mostly turn off “Editor Brain,” which is something you’ll hear editors joke about if you ever manage to find them chilling in their natural habitats. For those unfamiliar with the term, Editor Brain is the inability to look past or otherwise ignore grammar atrocities and other minutiae. When you spend most of your days mired in fixing those things, it can be really, really hard to turn that facet of your brain off. It becomes muscle memory, a reflex. But the point of a dev edit is to focus on the big picture, not the minutiae. That comes later. So I physically prevent myself from being able to comment on or address those line-edit type flaws by putting the manuscript in a venue where I’m more accustomed to simply being a reader.

If you noticed, though, I said I have to “mostly ” turn off Editor Brain, because really, editors never truly manage to turn that perspective off. Which is a curse they don’t tell you about when you’re a fledgling editor dreaming of all the awesomeness that being an editor kinda sorta (as in not at all) entails. I still notice the finer details as I read, the flaws that will need to be ironed out during the next round of edits, I just don’t do anything about them.

Instead, I carefully read the manuscript in its entirety, making notes about things that are murky, elements that aren’t explained or developed enough, sequence issues, or even just emotional responses, as needed. I use the notepad feature on my phone for this, because it’s conveniently mobile and doesn’t require me to infringe upon my “reading” space, thereby keeping my focus from slipping back to those aforementioned line edit problems.

Once I’m done reading, I set the project aside for at least twenty-four hours. And again, I have a very specific reason for this. See, ideally, your editor should be one of your biggest fans. Which means that there’s a period during the review process where the reader part of us takes over. And that means that, if you did your job well, we finish the book with a massive book hangover and a lot of “OH MY GOD I LOVED IT” clouding our judgment. There’s an emotional high that comes from reading a really satisfying work, even if that work might still be a tad rough around the edges. And emotions get in the way of logical analysis. So I give myself time to savor that book hangover and come down from the overwhelming number of reader feels I usually have after finishing a story.

Then, once I can don my editor hat again, I take my notes and compile them into the actual edit letter, carefully phrasing my feedback to toe the line between honest and supportive, compassionate and constructive. Or at least, I do my best to. I usually start by listing the good stuff: what I loved, what it reminded me of, what the author did really well. Then I segue into the standard categories I generally include: Concept, Voice & POV, Pace, World-Building, Character Development, Miscellaneous/Manuscript Specific Concerns, and  Overall Thoughts. I don’t always need all of these, but that’s the template I start with. I find it helps to take what can feel like a massive wall of text and break it into bite-sized portions, both because it’s a tad less daunting and because it’s easier to continue the discussion.

Once I identify the categories I need, I’ll draft my analysis of each, identifying both what’s working and what isn’t, and my suggestion for how to fix it. This takes anywhere from one to three days, factoring in both the time it takes to carefully draft a letter of that length and the mental gymnastics needed to not only identify the problems, but also the solutions that most feel like the author’s style and voice. It’s a lot like playing with puzzle pieces, rearranging and tuning and tweaking until everything snaps into place.

Then I proofread, take a deep breath, and hit send, crossing my fingers that it doesn’t unleash a storm of backlash. Not because I’m not confident in my analysis and suggestions, but because, until I hear back from the author, I’m as nervous and anxious as they were while waiting to hear from me.

And there you have it, my personal approach to creating the developmental edit letter. This concludes the portion of my presentation I did with C.M. Spivey. At the conferences, we then went on to showcase the edit letter I provided for From Under the Mountain, discussing the various aspects and how Spivey interpreted and implemented my suggestions. Since that material is copyrighted to the author, I’m not at liberty to post it online. But perhaps if you ask nicely enough, they will on their own website.😉

Next week, I’ll have something new to talk about. I’m not sure what yet, but I’ll find something. If anyone has questions or comments regarding edit letters and the process of drafting or receiving/implementing one, feel free to post in the comments below. Otherwise, happy reading/writing!

Edit Letters: What are They and When do They Happen?

Apologies for the unintentional hiatus over the past few weeks. To say this summer was a whirlwind would be an understatement. I honestly can’t believe it’s already September! It feels like it was just March. But anyway, now that the conference circuit has more or less come to a close, I’ll be able to return to my regularly scheduled posting routine.

As some of you know, I did a presentation with C.M. (Cait) Spivey on edit letters at both PNWA and the Willamette Writers Conference, and many have asked that I post that presentation here. Since it was more of a tutorial on how to implement the suggestions contained within an edit letter than a generalized talk about the letters themselves, I can’t post the presentation in its entirety. But I can use the generalized bits. Perhaps those will still be helpful.

So let’s talk about edit letters, shall we?

When you look back across the archives of my site, you’ll see that I’ve already talked a lot about editing-related topics. Everything from how you become an editor, to the realities of the editing life, to the various pet-peeves and editorial myths that drive editors nuts. But I haven’t ever truly talked about what an editor does.

Technically, the idea that an editor’s only job is to find errors is an editorial myth. But it does have some basis in truth. I mean, a large portion of editing does revolve around the finding and fixing of “errors,” but that has less to do with the myth’s portrayal of editors being sadistic grammar Nazis and more to do with the fact that we’re an expert set of objective eyes. Our main job is to help protect authors from reader backlash, and there are two main ways we do that — line by line (or in-line comments, as some editors call them) and edit letters.

The line by line comments are known as line or copy edits, and are the hallmark of editing, the thing most people think of when they hear the dreaded E word. They include things like grammar, sentence structure and flow, clarity and economy of language, and voice consistency.

But before a project gets to the line edit phase, it goes through what is known as a developmental or structural edit. And that’s where edit letters come in.

Dev edits, as we editors affectionately call them (because, let’s face it, five syllables is just too long to say on a regular basis), are used to analyze, diagnose, and address underlying problems with storytelling mechanics. They provide a bird’s eye view of the manuscript and allow the editor to carefully evaluate things like plot, pacing, character development, market concerns, and emotional resonance — the foundation of your story, in other words.

Because of this, dev edits happen very early in the editorial process, and may even happen as part of acquisitions instead. I can’t speak for all agents or editors, but at REUTS, we believe in disclosing any potentially drastic revisions we’d like to see up front, that way the author can determine whether or not our vision for their story aligns with their own. A disagreement at this stage likely means the agent or press is a mismatch, as ideally, the edit letter will provide feedback that improves upon the author’s intent and story, rather than drastically altering it.

The purpose of the edit letter, therefore, is to open a dialogue between the author and editor. It’s the opening volley of a strategy meeting, more or less, meant to encourage brainstorming and discourse over the various aspects that might need addressing. Which is why it’s not quite the same as the feedback you receive from CPs or beta readers.

One of my favorite (and I’m totally being facetious here) things to run up against is an author who fails to understand the key difference between beta readers, CPs, and editors. (I’ve talked about the differences before, if you need a refresher.) Each is valuable, yes, and every author should be utilizing all three, but each has its place in the process. In the hierarchy of outside feedback, editors are alpha. Once you start working with one, you really shouldn’t be utilizing other sources of feedback. Those all happen before you bring in the expert, not after. And yet, I’ve seen people do this, a lot, both in an effort to implement developmental revisions and in between rounds of line edits.

Don’t do this. It’s one of the main editorial no-nos. But the reason probably isn’t what you think. Editing myths often portray editors as power-hungry, judgmental individuals. But we’re not really (or at least, we shouldn’t be). We’re your ally. We’re also highly experienced, paid professionals. Chances are, if your editor is telling you something needs to be fixed, it’s for a very good reason.

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “but what if I don’t agree with the suggestions? What if I want a second opinion?” Still don’t do it. Talk to your editor instead. The editing process is supposed to be a partnership, and much like marriages, that partnership can’t work without communication. By turning to people outside of the editor-author relationship, you’re essentially vetting your editor’s comments. You’re telling the editor that you don’t trust them, and that these other people matter more. And worse, you’re breaking the confidentiality of what should be a private part of the production process (especially if you’re working with a press). It’s insulting, frankly, and much like a cheating spouse, it engenders mistrust on both sides, creating a fractured, difficult path for both parties.

So yeah, talk to your editor. Tell them your thoughts and concerns, and if you must bring in outside opinions, clear it with them first. But never, never do it after the majority of the editing is done, and then expect the editor to make changes according to your CPs’ or beta readers’ thoughts. That’s the wrong head-space to be in when you approach this process.

Next week, I’ll talk about my particular approach to drafting an edit letter. But in the meantime, do any of you have questions about edit letters or developmental editing in general? Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll make sure to answer them in the conclusion article!🙂

What is “New Adult”?

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Last weekend, while at the PNWA writers’ conference in Seattle (which I highly recommend), I inadvertently found myself at the heart of a pretty fascinating debate. Namely, what exactly is “new adult” literature? What started off as an innocent question by an attendee quickly turned into a point of keen interest for industry professionals and writers alike.

And little old me was one-half of the inciting incident. Oops.

But while the conversations that arose from the kerfuffle were accidental, they were a great way to discuss something that is still rather tenuously defined. New Adult has been a largely confusing label for a while now — is it a genre, or a marketing category? Is it a legit thing, or was it a passing trend that’s already died? No one seems to know, and the answers will vary drastically, even among industry pros.

The History

Originally coined as a marketing category by St. Martin’s Press in 2009, the idea behind New Adult has always been that of any literature category: connect readers with the type of books that resonate with them. So why all the confusion? Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?

Well, the confusion seems to have stemmed from both a lack of bookseller and sales support (stuck somewhere between YA and adult literature, booksellers weren’t quite sure what to do with NA titles and readers weren’t aware of them) and a surge of genre-specific entries spawned in part by one very infamous title. So, while traditional publishing tried to figure out what to do with NA, and whether or not there truly was a need for it, independent/self-published writers (particularly romance writers) adopted it wholeheartedly.

From there, it sort of became synonymous with steamy, college-aged contemporary romance, to the point that it started to be known as a romance sub-genre rather than a market category. Now, I believe the reason this happened is entirely because of sales. Romance readers are voracious (seriously, there’s a reason this is one of the best-selling forms of literature out there), and indie publishing moves at light speed when compared to traditional methods. So not only was there suddenly a flood of titles in this specific genre, but the sales figures were there to support it. Making it seem like a viable sub-sect of romance, and not much else.

The Present

Which brings us to today, where you’ll hear people say that NA is “contemporary romance only,” and then turn around to hear people like me say that NA is a market category and does in fact exist in speculative fiction too. (This is the heart of the kerfuffle I referenced above, by the way.)

But where does that leave querying authors? If the industry itself can’t decide whether or not NA is a thing, what are you guys supposed to do? Well, I may have stumbled on the answer. But before I elaborate on the conclusion I came to over the course of the weekend, let me talk about NA as a market category in general. Because trust me, it is still very much a thing — in certain circles.

As you all likely know by now, I work for REUTS Publications, a boutique publisher specializing in YA and — you guessed it — NA fiction. And all three of our current top-sellers are NA spec-fic. So we’re fairly confident in our stance that NA is still a marketing category and that there is a readership out there for non-romance NA.

Part of the reason we feel that way is because REUTS, and many other small/independent publishers, have heard readers ask for it. We’ve heard people complain about the lack of non-romance NA, heard them wish for books that contain characters more like them: people who are crossing into that post-adolescence stage of life and want to see their struggles reflected in the fiction they read.

There is an entire sect of readers who are more or less aging out of YA, but feel left adrift in adult. Too old for the high school shenanigans and angst of YA, but too young to identify with the 40+ mature characters often found in adult (and speculative fiction especially), this is a category of readers with nothing to read. And more importantly, they’re a group who grew up loving books and who are used to having an entire section of bookstores and libraries cater to them. Are you really going to tell me that those people aren’t prime material for a category like NA?

The Definition

So now that we’ve established the backstory of the debate, let’s answer the original question. What the heck is “new adult” literature?

REUTS defines it as a marketing category targeting readers aged 18-25 (I’ve seen it go as high as 30, but that’s really just adult at that point, don’t you think?). It can be any genre, but much like YA, it has to revolve around themes which resonate with early twenty-something readers. This includes things like leaving home for the first time, discovering/exploring sexuality, establishing a career, forming serious relationships, having children, and otherwise transitioning from being an adolescent to an adult.

You’ll notice that some of those themes are also covered by YA, but the difference between the two is that YA is very insular. It focuses on the internal growth of a character coming into their own identity and independence. NA is external; it’s about that character finding where they fit in the larger world. Their sense of identity is a little more fully formed, and now they’re stepping out into the world to make their stamp on it. So yes, the two categories are very similar, but they’re also different enough that readers yearn for the added maturity NA brings to the table.

This maturity also translates to the writing styles seen in YA and NA. YA features simplistic, to-the-point narration, with mature content being carefully administered as necessary. (Mature content = sex, swearing, etc.) NA takes the character-driven narration of YA and layers the more sophisticated, sometimes wandering sentence structure of adult over the top. Swearing is fine, sex is definitely present and often very explicit, and the prose just has a more mature feel than its YA counterpart, which, again, points back to this idea of NA being a bridge for readers graduating from the ranks of YA and moving into those of adulthood.

But that’s not the definition many in the industry will tell you. Which brings us full circle to the conclusion I came to — NA is largely a small press, indie-publishing thing.

So, Now What?

The consensus from agents is that the Big 5 presses have more or less given up on NA being a lucrative category, with the exception of contemporary romance. But NA is doing well, and even sort of thriving in the ecosystem of small press, indie-publishing. There is a readership demanding these kinds of books, and authors can find homes for them. But, as with all things publishing, it comes back to understanding the industry and which of the many publication paths is best for your particular project.

If you’re targeting agents with something other than contemporary romance, don’t mention “new adult,” unless they specifically say they represent that in other genres. If you’re targeting small presses or self-publishing, slap that NA tag on your work. It won’t be a deterrent. But understand the difference. Publishing really is an ecosystem. There are many layers, many ways to find publication. Figure out which is the right fit for you, and adjust your approach accordingly. And who knows, maybe NA will eventually become a bookstore staple. After all, I remember the days before YA was a legitimate thing too.😉

 

Featured From the Archives: Elitism in the Arts

This week, I’m preparing for a presentation I’ll be giving with the brilliant Cait Spivey at the upcoming PNWA Writers’ conference in Seattle (and again at the Willamette Writers Conference two weeks later). I’ll post about it here after we’re done, as it covers a topic I think many of you will find useful, so if you can’t come see us do the talk in person, don’t worry. We’ll find a way to bring the talk to you.😉

But as my non-fiction creative juices are currently tied up with those efforts, I unfortunately didn’t have time to create something new for the blog. Instead, I’ve opted to dredge something up from the archives that I believe still resonates (maybe even more fiercely) with today’s tumultuous world of publishing. And given that we’re heading into one of the heaviest periods of Twitter pitch parties and literary awards/contests, I thought it might be a good reminder to everyone preparing to brave those waters, as well as those of us bearing the responsibility of authority.

Elitism in the Arts

by Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 3/28/14

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This is a post I’ve dreaded writing, because in order to do so, I have to relive some painful memories. But I feel like this is a message that needs to be said. And so, though it comes from a negative part of my life, I’ll try my best to keep it positive. First, some raw honesty:

Throughout my creative journey, I’ve tried many different branches. And I’ve felt like an outsider every time. The writing community has been welcoming, but recently, I realized that the literary one is a completely different beast, and that I will once again be facing down the enemy of being different. This isn’t a battle that’s new to me, though. In art, I was ostracized for being too commercial. In the Martial Arts, I wasn’t traditional enough. And in writing, I’m not literary, coming from a film background rather than one in English. But, you see, the problem isn’t me. Those are all things I’ve been told, things that have created scars I’ll never fully erase. They’re not the product of a lack of ability, or talent. No, they’re the product of a phenomenon that should never exist — elitism.

People hold the arts up as this ideal place for individuality, where you’ll be free to express yourself without fear of judgement and prejudice. But those people are wrong. Rooted in subjectivity, the arts are actually worse than other industries. Instead of embracing the different, the weird, the innovative, they shun it, viciously tearing down anyone who dares to try something new, or becomes too popular. And who can blame them? People who do things differently risk the status quo. And we can’t have that. (Even though that’s the motto flying on our brilliantly-colored flag of creativity.)

Humans are pack animals, no matter what we’re led to believe. And nowhere do you see that penchant for cliques more prominent than in the arts.

I came face to face with it for the first time in college. (Now, you should know that I went to college at the ripe age of 16, so I was still highly impressionable.) There I was, testing my wings for the first time in what I thought was a safe environment to do so. College is all about experimenting, right? Finding one’s self, and blah blah blah. Well, I had the good fortune to find a college professor whose close-minded bullying nearly had me hanging up my pencils for good.

I don’t know the story behind what was happening in that woman’s life, but that also shouldn’t matter. She was an educator, someone entrusted to help mold the minds of our youth. And she abused that power. I was stuck with her for three classes that semester — color theory, figure drawing, and beginning painting. Things started off great. I’d never been exposed to formal art classes, so I was a sponge, putting my best into every assignment. (I’m also a perfectionist with a compulsive need to get A’s, so you can connect the dots on my level of participation.) She seemed to like me, and I did well in all three classes. Until one day, about halfway through the semester, when she asked me the fated question I would learn never to answer honestly — what kind of artist do you want to be? Stupid me, I told her the truth:

“I want to be an animator,” I said, not realizing that word was akin to the most vulgar thing in the dictionary.

She looked like I’d spat in her drink. She backed away from me, a completely disgusted look on her face, mumbled something snide and walked away. After that, my grades plummeted, she wouldn’t call on me during class, and it was like I didn’t exist. But the kicker was the final project for the painting class. The assignment was to create an abstract painting that had no clear top or bottom. I’d never done abstract before, but I did my best, following the assignment to the letter.

Like all teenagers, I was battling some emotional instability, so I tried to capture that turmoil in paint. Doesn’t get more “tortured artist” than that, right? Well, when it came time for the final critique, this woman took my painting to the front of the class, turned it on its side and said, “Oh my God, where’s Bambi?” (Yes, that’s a direct quote.) I’ve never seen a room full of young people so silent. I swear, they all stopped breathing, staring at me with wide eyes as this teacher continued to ridicule me in front of them all, informing me I had failed because clearly, I had portrayed a forest fire.

I left that class in tears, dropped out of school and gave up on art for the next five years. All because I’d made the mistake of uttering the “A” word.

That’s not the only time I’ve run into that kind of elitist attitude either. Over the years, I’ve been accused of plagiarism (because I happened to write a sci-fi story that featured a weapon mildly resembling a light saber), told I wasn’t good enough to amount to anything, and been patronized because I don’t do things by the majority norm. And I know I’m not alone. These kinds of experiences are par for the course in the arts.

You want to be a singer? Too bad, you suck.

You want to paint? Well, you’re not Van Gogh, so you may as well give up.

You want to be published? Every door will be slammed in your face.

Overcoming adversity is the very definition of being an artist. But it doesn’t have to be that way. So what if someone wants to play the violin with their toes. Or paints murals on street signs. Or writes something a little rough around the edges. It doesn’t make them any less of an artist. The different creative communities claim to be so welcoming and open-minded, but instead, offer only elitism and rejection. If you’re not the alpha of the pack, then you’re the scapegoat. Or worse, lost somewhere in the middle, amongst a sea of sheep.

What’s the point to all this? Simple — don’t let yourself fall prey to elitism. Words have power, whether they be said in jest or seriousness. And that power lasts. To those of us in a position of authority (agents, editors, publishers, teachers, etc.) I implore you to think about what your rejections do to the people who receive them. So it wasn’t your cup of tea. That’s fine, but be nice about it. There must be something good you can give them, some piece of encouragement and/or advice. There’s no reason to get up on a high horse and strip them of their dignity. It’s our job to be the mentors, to help people achieve their creative dreams. Falling into the pack mentality is easy to do, but if we all try a little harder to remember our humanity, and not our need to feel important, we can eliminate experiences like those I went through.

And for those of you who have suffered, or are suffering, under the sword of elitism, keep your head up. Just because one person says you can’t, does not mean you can’t. It took me a long time to get over what that painting teacher said, and I would have destroyed the piece if my mom hadn’t saved it. But I’m glad she did, because I no longer see the emotional turmoil it represented. I see a fire-breathing dragon. It’s a reminder of what I’ve overcome, and that it’s okay to fight for your dreams. So remember, as the great Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” We all have a choice. We can become victims, or we can become dragons. I chose to be a dragon, to fight back against elitism and approach my creativity with strength and resolution. Which will you be?

 

Abstract Painting

Untitled

by Kisa Whipkey

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