Tag Archives: Blood Prophecy

Writing through the Fear

Years ago, I had the opportunity to work with the Alex Haley Estate to write a novel on the life of Madam C.J. Walker, The Black Rose.   I had access to papers, letters, documents and transcripts Haley had compiled while he was researching his novel before his death.

I wrote The Black Rose with research from the Alex Haley Estate

In one transcript, Haley was getting a pep talk from a relative, akin to “You can do it!”  I wondered if Haley had felt daunted by his success after Roots.  How do you follow up an international blockbuster?

That pep talk stuck with me.  There I was, a young writer trying to write my first historical novel on a tight deadline in partnership with a beloved author’s estate, and I felt gripped by fear each day.  I stared at Madam Walker’s photo for inspiration.  I thought about my parents’ civil rights battles in the 1960s.  Whatever it took.

You can do it, I told myself.   Haley’s pep talk could have been for me.

Fear touches all of us, and it can be crippling.  Fear is also sneaky; it whispers to us in a voice that sounds very much like our own.

I’ve wrestled with those voices nonstop while I’ve been working on my current writing project, tentatively entitled Blood Prophecy, the fourth book in my African Immortals series that began with My Soul to Keep.  Each new book feels like a lot to live up to.

Here’s what happened recently:  With an eye toward the deadline, I expanded my outlining process by creating index cards for my remaining scenes.  I was writing an especially difficult portion of the book—a reintroduction to the colony of immortals in Lalibela, Ethiopia, that first appeared in The Living Blood,  entering my fantasy realm more deeply.

And my writing was speeding up.  Considerably.  My page quotas from the early pages felt slim compared to my new marathon writing sessions.  I was on fire!

This is CRAP! my voice shouted to me.  You’ll have to throw it all out.   Slow down.

It was a Friday afternoon, and the inspiration seeped right out of my head.  The characters—who had felt real enough to hear and touch a moment before—morphed to mere symbols on a page.  It looked like a mess.  I still had two more hours before my son came home, but that brought the end of my writing day.

You can guess what happened next:  I read the Friday pages over the weekend, and they were fine.  First draft, of course, ripe for texture and tweaking, but the revisions came easily.  And quickly.  And I’ll have plenty of chances to revise it later.

I had psyched myself out of a stellar writing day because I got scared.

Fear has stopped me before.

After I wrote The Between, my first novel, it sat in a drawer for a year because it had been rejected exactly twice, by a contest and a mega-agent.  I convinced myself it had been only an exercise, that it wasn’t good enough.   A year later, when I got the confidence to begin submitting, I found an agent immediately…and she sold it in two weeks.

As a writer, my fear has manifested in many ways, always slowing me down.

And I’m not alone.  My husband and collaborator, Steven Barnes, surveyed 300 writers on what they most wanted to see in a writing course.  The top answer had to do with addressing fear.  (His free course, “The Seven Faces of F.E.A.R.,” is available at www.diamondhour.com.)

No matter how many times I undergo the cycle, once in a while my fear voices fool me.  In book after book, I have to remind myself to ignore the voice that says that whatever I’m writing won’t measure up to my previous work.  It’s so unfair to compare first drafts to finished books!

I can only imagine how Alex Haley felt.

But I’m happy with the progress of Blood Prophecy.   I’m having a reunion with old characters, and learning more about new ones.

And I’m writing it as fast as I can, without fear.


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Clearing the mist: My African Immortals in Blood Prophecy

Recently, I heard Terry McMillan read from Getting to Happy, this fall’s forthcoming sequel to Waiting to Exhale—and she mentioned that she had to re-read her watershed novel to research the new one.  After all, we forget our characters’ voices, occupations and quirks.  (Heck, sometimes we forget their names!)

Writing Blood Prophecy is a particular challenge in that regard because it is the fourth book in my African Immortals series that began with My Soul to Keep in 1997.  The series follows the lives of mortals and immortals who have contact with Living Blood that can heal any ailment almost instantly, examining issues of life, loss and mortality.

What would it be like if we could live forever?

My Soul to Keep was followed by The Living Blood in 2001 and, finally, Blood Colony in 2008.  (OK, so it was a long wait.  I didn’t know the series was going to continue!)

Each novel is intended as a stand-alone novel for new readers, but as the author I have to continually check in to make sure I know who’s who and what’s what.  Just to make it interesting this time around, I’ve added a pop star named Phoenix I introduced in a completely unrelated novel entitled Joplin’s Ghost.

My African Immortals novels always challenge me because of the fantasy aspect, historical research and character quirks related to their incredible longevity. I’m also asking questions about human nature.

This time around, I’m also realizing that I have a bit more to learn about my African Immortals themselves.  The premise of My Soul to Keep was that 59 Ethiopian immortals live in an underground colony in Lalibela, Ethiopia.  They were mostly off-stage during the first book, but I actually took my characters to the colony in The Living Blood.

Even so, I’m realizing that I have a lot to learn about them.  I try never to retread old ground in a new book, which means I’m having to open up my world a bit.

And while much of the series has focused on a reader favorite named Dawit, he has dozens of Life Brothers I’m still learning about as I go.  With advice from my husband and soulmate, Steven Barnes, I’m now writing an essay to fill in some of the foggy aspects of who these men are and what makes them tick. I’ll be writing a similar essay about my antagonist, who was introduced in Blood Prophecy.

What is their history?  What are their desires?  How can I humanize them?  My essays will be very similar to the writing exercises I assign my MFA students and coaching clients.  And why not?

The longer I write, the more I have to learn.

Blood Prophecy will be published in 2011.

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Getting over my shyness to interview sources

Maybe it’s the journalist in me, but I like to interview sources for my fiction—the same people I would be most nervous about showing my work to.

I’m shy about approaching people—always have been—but I’m getting over that in every aspect of my life.  And I’m finding, more often than not, that I only have to ask.

When I was researching My Soul to Keep, I remember calling the hematology department at the University of Miami’s Medical School, stammering through the reason for my call.

“OK, see, there are these immortals, right?   They never die or get sick…”

It was excruciating to make the call, but someone eventually offered me a way to illustrate to readers how the blood behaved from a scientific point of view.   I was lucky enough to find an expert with a sense of humor.

For my novel Joplin’s Ghost, I charged straight at Joplin’s primary biographer, Edward A. Berlin, despite my worries that he wouldn’t appreciate the novelist’s role in recreating history.  Here was a guy who’d dedicated much of his career to studying Scott Joplin’s life and music—and I was asking for help writing a ghost story.  I would sound like a loony!

Berlin turned out to be wonderfully imaginative, and he kept me honest.

I’m really proud of our sourcing for our upcoming mystery novel, because we had access to an FBI agent and a military expert.  It was so refreshing to feel the world of the novel expanding as different voices piped in their experiences.

That’s what I want with Blood Prophecy, so yesterday I charged into my deepest fear.

I have been to Africa, but only once—and not nearly to the extent that readers might think.  I have never been to Ethiopia.  I have never been to Botswana.  (It’s so ironic:  I had the chance to talk to Anika Noni Rose about her experiences shooting HBO’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, and she mentioned the location in Gaborone, Botswana, saying, “Just like you wrote in The Living Blood!’”)  I try hard to make it real from a distance, but it’s hard to forget how much more I could have done with a visit.

In Blood Prophecy, there are one or two chapters set in Nigeria.  And part of the novel will also be set at the colony in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Why Nigeria?  Because I’d mentioned in the previous book that the Nigerian government was cooperating in the distribution of Glow.

A setting, yet again, in a region I have never visited.

Where in Nigeria?  Not a city.  I wanted an isolated village.

Google is my first line of defense, practically another lobe of my brain as I’m writing.  When I’m ready to go hard-core, I follow up with books or documentaries.  (Google Books comes in handy for reading only single pages of obscure books.  Sometimes.)

Armed with Wikipedia, I approached the person I was most nervous about:  a writer friend of mine from Nigeria.   My friend is very smart and talented, and she’s fed up with negative images of Nigeria.  She was enraged by the depiction of Nigerians in District 9, and I knew she wouldn’t be in the mood for any foolishness regarding her homeland.

I described the blood to my friend, and the major plot points in Nigeria.  (I won’t share details, but they aren’t exactly circumstances any nation would want to deal with.)

She was okay with most of it, but she had a concern about the centerpiece of my series—The Living Blood.  (This is the blood in the veins of my African Immortal characters, and a mere drop of it can heal human ailments.   The premise of my last novel was that the blood was being diluted into a drug and distributed worldwide, usually known by its street name:  Glow.)

My mention of healing blood smacked of ritual, and my friend wasn’t shy about telling me she had a problem with it.  Oops!  I wrote her back, explaining that there was nothing ritualistic about the use of the blood in the story.  It’s administered in clinics, injected by needle.

With that, I won my friend’s stamp of approval—and a great suggestion for the region I should choose.  When the pages are written, I’ll ask her to read them for accuracy.

I know I can’t please all of the people all of the time, but maybe it’s the ghost of my days at The Miami Herald:  Accuracy and sensitivity matter to me.

Even in fiction.

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