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The Help, Rue, and me

We are so excited to welcome a new regular contributor to our blog.  The wise and wonderful, just-recently-sold, beautifully talented, Nicki Salcedo.  Welcome, Nicki!

 

By Nicki Salcedo

I have lots of secrets, but one is bigger than the rest. I hesitate to tell you them because you won’t believe me:

I like lists

I’m a writer

I’m a book whisperer

I’m the Queen of Vanilla Sex

I’m Black

 

The last one is my big big secret. You can’t tell I’m black from my picture. I look like a Starfleet Academy dropout. I’m from the future where there is no color.

You can’t tell I’m black from my stories. My characters make mistakes, fall in love, and fight zombies exactly like you do.

You can imagine that being from the future, fighting zombies, and secret blackness has greatly impacted my road to publication.

Kathryn Stockett wrote about black maids in The Help. Suzanne Collins had a character named Rue in the Hunger Games. The characters in these books were controversial to some. Should white authors write black characters? [Yes] Must black authors only write stereotypical black characters? [Of course not, you silly goose.] How does our historical perception of race impact how we view the future? [We, all of us, must write characters that defy stereotypes.] What has happened to me and my characters as I’ve tried to navigate the world of commercial fiction? [It’s been a roller coaster ride!]

Once upon a time there was person who wrote a novel. This person joined a writing organization. Eventually, she was brave enough to send her book out to the publishing world. The stories were in varying stages of needs improvement. So the writer keep writing and revising, and one day she heard from an agent interested in her work.

“Are these characters black?” the agent asked.

“Some of them are,” the writer said. “Does it matter?” the writer asked.

“Yes,” said the agent.

The writer kept writing new stories and revising old ones. When she got brave enough again (I mean dragon fighting bravery), she sent her stories out again.

A different agent liked these stories and asked, “Could you make the characters blacker?”

The writer got out the suntan lotion first. She taught one character to cook. She taught another one to sing in the church choir. She let another character join a sinister street gang. Of course the writer didn’t know how to cook and had been kicked out the church choir for not being able to carry a tune. She’d see graffiti on buildings as she took the train into work each day. Surely this made her an expert on urban literature.

But the characters revolted. They insisted on being lawyers and housewives and high school students. They opted for sunscreen and felt their hues of brown – from golden to mahogany – were black enough.

The writer continued to write new stories and revise the old ones.

What had she learned? What was she supposed to say when people asked her about race and the publishing industry? She didn’t know the answer. She wasn’t “the publishing industry.” She was “writer.” Her only job was to make her stories interesting, her writing better, her revisions stronger. Now she happily writes stories about love and gender, culture and relationships.

When I read about a heroine with blonde hair, freckles across the bridge of her nose, and green eyes, the purpose is to give tangible details. The rest of the words are supposed to transport us into that story. I’m not supposed to become that blonde-haired, green-eyed woman, but I am supposed to feel what that character feels. I am supposed to fall in love when she falls in love. It doesn’t matter how white she is, or how thin, or how perky her parts are. Characters should have universal flaws, strengths, and journeys regardless of their race and culture.

Some days I am Huckleberry Finn and Harry Potter. Other days I am Cleopatra and Beloved. I might even be a vampire or a Valkyrie when the story is right.

I become the characters when I read. When I write I hope my readers will do the same. My first book comes out next year. It is a contemporary romance. Are my characters black? Some of them are. Could I make them blacker? Nope. They are black like me. They are flawed and fall in love and have strengths, like me. It probably helps that I’m just a little bit from the future.

 

 

Nicki Salcedo has a pay job during the day and a write job at night. She’s the mother of four little kids and the wife of What’s-his-name. She has received the Maggie Award of Excellence twice and was a 2012 Golden Heart finalist. Her debut novel “All Beautiful Things” will be published by Bell Bridge Books in 2013. When given the opportunity, she travels through time. You can find Nicki on facebook, twitter, and online at www.8headedhydra.com.

 

Adrienne M. Trent - November 19, 2012 - 5:48 am

Great post Nick!

Laura Drake - November 19, 2012 - 6:26 am

Welcome, Nicki! Thanks for opening my eyes to a part of the industry I didn’t know existed! So glad you found the publisher that will let you publish real characters, instead of stereotypes.

Looking forward to reading them!

Liz Flaherty - November 19, 2012 - 6:39 am

What a great post!

Anjali - November 19, 2012 - 7:39 am

I feel your frustration. The industry seems to have an idea of how multiculturalism should be written, which is very different than what multiculturalism actually IS.

Jackie Rod - November 19, 2012 - 8:05 am

Nicki, Thanks for a delightful post and for reminding us great characters transend sterotypes–people are people. I’m looking forward to “All Beautiful Things.” :)

Ane Mulligan - November 19, 2012 - 9:52 am

Nicki, I LOVE your humor and your attitude! You are a delightful addition to this blog. And I have to tell y’all, I bless the day Lindi Peterson told me I HAD to read It’s Only a Novel. I now receive it via email, daily.

Y’all ROCK!

Marilyn Baron - November 19, 2012 - 10:08 am

Nicki,

I love you and I love It’s Only a Novel so I’m happy to see you here. As your critique partner, I’m not sure I know all your secrets, but I know you are a brilliant writer and a wonderful person and soon the world will discover that. Great post. And great picture.

Darcy - November 19, 2012 - 11:19 am

Nicki,

We are so happy you agreed to blog with us! I couldn’t agree more with everyone here, you are a great talent, blessed with a wonderful attitude and sense of humor. I want to be you when I grow up. :)

Now that we’re both off the board at GRW we can poke each other along to “keep writing” through all the chaos and distractions of life….though you have four adorable reasons to be sidetracked! LOL.

Tamra Baumann - November 19, 2012 - 11:27 am

Well said Miz Nicki!!

Can’t wait to read your book ;0)

Nicki Salcedo - November 19, 2012 - 1:16 pm

Adrienne, thank you for stopping by. I’m happy to be here and sharing my lunch hour with you all!

Laura, Every part of the publishing industry is how to sell a book. This is sometimes done based on race, other times maybe gender. As a writer, I focus on the story first and how to sell it second. By the time I get to the second, my characters have already gone rogue on me!

Anjali, my daughter was horrified to find out her uncle is a doctor. “He can’t be a doctor, he’s a man!” At age 8, she’s a sexist pig. I told her boys can be doctors too. This is how my life goes, and why I can’t relate to the previous generations stereotypes. I haven’t lived them. My kids will have fewer stereotypes and for this I am thankful. :)

Nicki Salcedo - November 19, 2012 - 1:34 pm

Jackie, thanks for stopping by. I still plan to have a stereotypical hero who is sexy, sweet, and brooding. You’ll just have to read to find out his secret non-stereotypical side. :)

Hi Ane, thank you. Lindi is one of my favorite people. Glad you’ve joined the conversation. And humor is a must! #teamzombies

Oh, Marilyn. You are too kind. Glad to know you. You don’t fit any stereotype I know. Love you all the more for it!

Jean Willett - November 19, 2012 - 1:38 pm

Wonderful post, Nicki! Thought provoking.
Yes, generational stereotypes are shifting and it’s wonderful to see. As a second generation American, my grandfather was from Spain, my grandmother from Cuba. My mother often talks about the differences she experienced vs what happens today. :)

Nicki Salcedo - November 19, 2012 - 1:41 pm

Hi Darcy, I am never going to grow up. And yes, we must keep writing. Thank you for inviting me to contribute. I promise to be on my best, most mischievous behavior all the time.

Tamra, thank you. Hope to make you proud.

Nicki Salcedo - November 19, 2012 - 1:54 pm

Hi Jean, my kids are going to think it is silly that anyone ever cared that Rue in the Hunger Games was black. What difference did it make to the story? Each generation does their best with what came before. That’s what I want for the future. (While using my time machine.)

Bridget - November 19, 2012 - 2:09 pm

Nicki,

I loved your post. It was so on point. I know so many other writers who have been there with you. Myself included. Keep doing YOU. Know matter what it will pay off. Looking forward to reading your book next year. Bridget

LaTessa - November 19, 2012 - 2:36 pm

Great article Nicki. I’ve had similar experiences, both with critique partners and editors, regarding my stories and my characters. I like to think that I can write stories containing characters reflective of the the world as I see it. My characters are motivated by their surroundings, situations, and circumstances primarily vs. their race, gender, species, or undead status.

As a black author, I’ve been made aware that my journey to publication involves this extra hurdle, but it’s made me focus more on developing my craft and voice so that you can’t help but get pulled into the story and worry about my character’s race later. :-)

Sharon C. Cooper - November 19, 2012 - 2:54 pm

Wow! Great post, Nicki! Now…where do I start with my comment(s). First of all, let me just say – I share one of your secrets…shhh, don’t tell anyone, but I’m black too! :)

I’m glad you didn’t let that particular agent detour you from pursuing your goal of getting your novel published. Had the agent said that to me – I probably would have asked – “What does make them blacker mean?” – because I wouldn’t have had a clue! Lol! Glad you understood where she was coming from – but I’m thrilled you didn’t do the characters disservice by turning them into something they are not – actually, I’m hyped that they revolted!

I feel your pain when it comes to dealing with agents/editors who want your characters to be portrayed in a stereotypical way – I too was asked to do something similar to a couple of my characters – but didn’t. And with that said, it brings me great joy to know that the publishing industry is changing to the point that writer’s can write what they want, and allow their amazing characters to jump off the page and “wow” readers even if they don’t fit perfectly into a nice, neat box that publishers created long ago. It’s a new day and time, and we’re already seeing a shift!

Bravo for standing firm and congrats on hooking up with a publisher who recognized a quality story, based on the content…and not on the color of some of your character’s skin!

BTW, gorgeous photo…and yeah, I could kinda tell you were black. Much love and success to you!

Carol Burnside / Annie Rayburn - November 19, 2012 - 2:59 pm

Nicki, I’ve often felt like an alien in my own family because I didn’t label people as only one thing. You were spot on with “Characters should have universal flaws, strengths, and journeys regardless of their race and culture.”

I recently ran across a male writer who didn’t think he could understand and write a female character’s story. I reminded him that at our essence, we’re all human. … Well, unless the character is an alien and then all bets are off and the imagination is allowed to run free. What fun writing can be!

Congrats on your sale. Bless us all and keep writing.

Chicki Brown - November 19, 2012 - 3:10 pm

Great post, Nicki and great picture too!

I agree with everything you said, and find it so hard to understand when some readers say things like, “I don’t read books by black authors, because I don’t thing I’d be able to relate to the characters.” The emotions we write about are universal, and if the writer has done her job, readers will forget about the character’s skin color.

Mary Glickman - November 19, 2012 - 3:39 pm

I knew I made a great find when I found you, Nicki. Terrific post. Your story about “can you make them blacker” is iconic. Keep ‘em comin’!

Michelle Newcome - November 19, 2012 - 3:55 pm

As a fellow resident of NIMH, I salute you in bringing the future here for us to marvel at. Because of the direction of my life at the moment I wish I could just staple this to my shirt as I walk the path I’m on. I could point to this beautiful piece and say “we are all just flawed humans.” No one of us can ever truly represent every other person who has the same outward appearance as we do. Nor should we be forced to.

I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve been asked if I play basketball and then get surprise when I say I hate sports. Like all tall people have to be athletic?

I once had someone tell me I was their least “ethnic” looking friend and they were bothered by that. Sigh.

[...] going a bit too far. Before I get going on this little rant, it all started when I read a post by Nicki Salcedo. In it, she talked about stereotypes and it got me to thinking about one of my first manuscripts [...]

Danielle Flores - November 19, 2012 - 5:13 pm

I love your writing style. It is poetic candor at its best that is punctuated with humor. I really appreciated your honesty, bravery, and hopeful perspective.

Connie Gillam - November 19, 2012 - 6:04 pm

Nicki-

Wonderful blog and great comments.

I’m Black in case there are those who don’t know me. It’s been a long publication journey.One I feel could have been shorter if my characters had been White.

I write as I see the world. My stories are filled with characters who are a reflection of my world-Black, White, Biracial, but all human with universal conflicts.

That’s life, and I’ll continue to write in that vein.

Nicki Salcedo - November 19, 2012 - 8:51 pm

Liz, I missed your comment earlier. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Bridget, you are my inspiration. I’m my own worse enemy. I can’t worry about doing what’s expected of me!

La-Tessa, You can mess with my characters race, but don’t touch her undead status. Or species. Unlike me, she graduated from Starfleet.

Nicki Salcedo - November 19, 2012 - 9:05 pm

Sharon, I’m so glad I outed you and others on our big secret. I will sleep easy tonight. I honestly think the first agent was trying helpful, so the readers don’t get to page 100 and say, “Wait? She’s black?!?” Second agent was trying to find the right market to target. I have been blessed by meeting so many helpful editors and agents. They want good books that sell.

Worst experience was a contest where the judge said my heroine (black female lawyer) was totally unbelievable. My sister is a lawyer. My cousin is a lawyer. It took me a while cooled off, come back, get back to writing. Take that for unbelievable. I keep writing no matter what. It’s the only way the stories will get better.

Nicki Salcedo - November 19, 2012 - 9:14 pm

Hey Carol, Have you read Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours”? He nailed it. I love that book so much. Man writing in the perspective of 3 different women. I agree with your comment “…the imagination is allowed to run free. What fun writing can be!” True. And a poem.

Chicki, readers who won’t read black characters should not be allowed to eat cake. Ever again.

Mary, do you see why your workshop came at just the right time. How do Northerners perceive the South? Catholics vs. Jewish? White blended into Black? We are all the same. You are a great find. Thank you for stopping by!

Nicki Salcedo - November 19, 2012 - 9:21 pm

Michelle, you are the only white person I know who could revoke my black card. Take that however you want. I’m relieved to know that “White Men Can’t Jump” was your biopic. Woody Harrelson didn’t do you justice. Wow. “Least ethnic”. Wow. Or code for white. But still wow.

D, above all is love. Above that humor.

Connie, oh, you outed yourself. Thank you for this: “I write as I see the world.” Amen. (I meant that in the white church amen way, and not the black church amen way just to be PC).

Farrah Rochon - November 21, 2012 - 12:55 am

Fabulous post. How your journey mirrors my own. I found myself nodding the entire time I was reading it. Eventually the characters’s (and author’s) race will no longer matter. That is, at least, my hope.

Alicia McCalla - November 21, 2012 - 10:23 am

Great Post Nicki! Thought provoking. BTW, I’m ready to see the Zombie story! LOL!

Nicki Salcedo - November 24, 2012 - 12:49 pm

Farrah, thanks for stopping by. My journey has been a happy one. I haven’t attributed ill-intent when people ask about my character’s race. I’m much more careful interpreting those comments now. I’ve edited my self into a mess in the past by listening to different view points on how to make the story “better”. More importantly: does the hero play football? I love a football story! When I read your last book, I was very happy and hopeful for writers everywhere.

Nicki Salcedo - November 24, 2012 - 12:52 pm

Alicia, what can I say? I love romance, football, and zombies. I will let you have a peak at the apocalypse one day soon! Thanks for stopping by.

Jennifer McQuiston - December 2, 2012 - 10:41 am

Nicki, thank you for such a thought provoking post! I love that you physically cannot be stereotyped, and that you refuse to let your writing be, either. Thank you for being such an inspiring role model at Georgia Romance Writers! And I cannot WAIT to read All Beautiful Things.

Romily Bernard - December 2, 2012 - 7:32 pm

NICKI!!! How am I just NOW finding this?! Love the post and I’m super glad to know I’m not the only one who blows thru character descriptions just to get to the good stuff. Wick ended up blonde bc I just didn’t care and, later, they wanted to know if I could make her trashier? Do huh?

Yeah, I said it just like that. You can’t take me anywhere.

Except maybe In and Out Burgers :)

Nicki Salcedo - December 4, 2012 - 12:01 am

Jennifer, grouchy is very hard to stereotype. I do my best to be your idea of tired and ill-mannered at all times. Thank you for stopping by. You are a role model. I’m going to grow up to be like you one day, except the white part.

Romily, I didn’t notice that Rue was Black in The Hunger Games. The description was more about her character and mannerisms than her skin color. I’m going to erase the “make her trashier” comment from my memory. Yay for Wick and your book. You and McQuiston are my heroes. And I can take you anywhere. Dinner date is in order.

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