If you came to this post for some quick tips or well-formatted writing advice, I will save you the scrolling/frustration and tell you that that is not what this post is. You can get that here, here, and here, and on anything I write in the future, but this post is a little different.
I do believe that what I have to say here can help you enrich your own stories and become a better writer, but you will have to bare with me because I can’t skip to the lesson without the proper exposition.
This isn’t the post I planned on writing this week, but much like Jon Stewart’s inability to tell jokes, I couldn’t bring myself to write about anything else when I heard about the hate crime in Charleston, South Carolina.
What started as a headline turned into a tragedy I couldn’t escape. I watched as my inbox and newsfeed became overwhelmed with the brutal massacre of 9 black parishioners during their weekly bible study.
Now I am used to seeing tragic headlines, especially when it comes to racial or religious minorities. I have already written about what it feels like to live in a world where you’re constantly afraid that your brother or father or future child will become the next tragic headline.
I know how it stings when a police officer claims he had “no choice” but to gun down a 12-year-old boy in the middle of a playground.
I am used to how that feels.
But when I hear about 9 people who walked into bible study and didn’t get to walk out because they were “ruining the country,” I feel broken. When I read about 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders who died taking a bullet to protect his 87-year-old aunt—when this happens I feel like I can’t breathe.
I feel like my tears are meaningless, I feel like there is no point in living in a world where churches are not safe, where people hate me enough to gun me down. I feel like I want to give up.
This is when I remember why I write.
I’ve been writing since I learned how to read and the dream has always been the same: publish a YA novel and see that novel made into a movie (super easy and achievable, right?).
So when I see trailers for The Maze Runner or Divergent my instinct is to read the entire series and watch their movie adaptations, to study what made the stories so great and the movies so successful (but I refuse to engage with Twilight—that is beyond logical analysis).
One important moment in my writing career is when The Hunger Games came out. People had been telling me to read the series for years, but I wasn’t motivated to until I saw the first trailer. The premise looked awesome and I needed to know everything that happened before I took my first bite of popcorn.
Needless to say, I ripped through the trilogy and eagerly awaited the midnight premier.
To say I loved it would be an understatement. I was blown away by the story world, the action, the characters. I felt like the movie really brought the book to life and I respected the adaptation’s success. But I quickly learned that all readers weren’t as happy with the movie as I was.
When I first heard this, I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t see a discrepancy between the races of the characters or the races in the movie, and I didn’t understand why it mattered at all.
But there were those that were outraged, writing “how in the world are they going to make Rue a freakin black b**** in the movie?!? Lolol not to be racist buuuuut…I’m angry now” or “Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad.”
This is where I became outraged. I didn’t understand how people could honestly feel or say these things, but I discounted it as stupidity and racism that wasn’t worth my attention. But then I saw the movie a second time.
I cry at books and movies all the time, so I wasn’t surprised to feel a few teardrops when I watched the spear go through Rue’s heart and saw Katniss sing her to ‘sleep.’ But when I watched this scene for the second time, I couldn’t stop sobbing.
The idea that people could hate this scene simply because of Rue’s race, that the sight of a child being murdered wouldn’t strike them as sad if the child was black—even if the movie was fictional, the hatred was real, and living in a world with that hatred felt unbearable.
Before the Charleston shooting, that moment was one of the closest I’ve felt to the sense of despair and hopelessness that comes when you learn about unwavering and inexplicable hatred.
But that was the day I began writing the first chapter of my current novel, The Keepers. I was determined to write an incredible YA story, with adventure and imagination like nothing people had ever experienced. And my protagonist was going to black.
And you know what? It wouldn’t matter.
Because when you have a good story, it doesn’t matter who the story is about. If you have a good story, there will be people who are dying to read it and studios that are dying to produce it.
Any person who doesn’t want to read or see a story with characters who are different from them will have to get over it or miss out on the story of a lifetime.
So that is why I write. The dream is the same, but the purpose is different. It isn’t fame or success; it is a burning passion to tell a story about someone who is different and to force readers to fall in love with what is different from them.
It's the thought that one day a little girl might be able to walk into the library and see a protagonist that actually looks like her. It’s the idea that maybe someone who grows up around people who don’t look like him might like the story enough to think twice before resorting to unwavering hatred.
So when I read the names and stories of those innocent people who were massacred out of hate, I write. I write this post. And I open The Keepers to continue rewriting that.
Writers, if you’ve stuck with me up until this point, here is the advice for you. We do not live in a perfect world and that means at some point in your life, you have been hurt by someone else because of your race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, weight, beliefs, values, or etc. because there are always those who will attack those who are different.
These attacks are painful, but they give you a story or a point of view that others don’t have. As a writer it is not only in your best interest to share this unique point of view, it is your obligation.
Maybe you’re not a heart surgeon or a fireman, but if you can bring a reader into another person’s mind, show them your character’s point of view, you create empathy.
You contribute to a world of people trying to understand other people, you help build a generation that hasn’t yet learned to hate anybody who is different from them.
So I don’t care if you’re writing the next Great Gatsby or Harry Potter series. Write a story that matters to you, a story that only you can write. It will give you the drive to actually finish the novel, and it will be something unique that no other author could create.
And there you have it. Thank you for bearing with me, and please send your love and thoughts to those suffering in Charleston.