Tag Archives: Steven Barnes

Afrofuturism – FREE webinar

For our FREE WEBINAR, sign up at www.octaviatoblackpanther.com

The post below describes our 10-week webinar course. The FREE WEBINAR Saturday, 7/22, 6p ET/3p PT is your introduction to our Afrofuturism course: “From Octavia to T’Challa.” www.octaviatoblackpanther.com


What do the works of Octavia E. Butler, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Marvel’s “Luke Cage” and the music of Janelle Monáe and George Clinton have in common?  They’re all in the realm of Afrofuturism, an arts movement sweeping the world and firing up imaginations of people from all backgrounds.

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Afrofuturism – also known as the Black Speculative Arts Movement – centers black characters and innovative voices in comics, music, science fiction, fantasy and horror. Whether it’s the prophetic dystopia of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, an android slave auction in Janelle Monáe’s “Many Moons” video, or racism as a kind of demon in Get Out, Afrofuturism explores voices that traditionally have been erased to provide a map through the past and present with an eye toward a better future.

JOIN THE FREE WEBINAR TO LEARN ABOUT THIS CLASS: I teach Afrofuturism at UCLA, and for the first time I’ll be co-teaching a 10-week public webinar with pioneering science fiction writer Steven Barnes (“The Outer Limits,” Lion’s Blood) starting Saturday, March 25th : “Afrofuturism: Dreams to Banish Nightmares.” Lectures will be broadcast live online, but if you miss one, you can watch the video feed at your leisure.

This overview course is designed for artists, fans and activists who want to explore Afrofuturistic themes in their own art or simply gain a better understanding the power of Afrofuturism to help drive social change. The course is perfect for writers, filmmakers, musicians and artists of all types who want to explore Afrofuturism and be more inclusive in their works – but you don’t need to be an artist to take the course. (Most of my students aren’t.)

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From Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu’s short film Pumzi 

You’ll get a syllabus of works to explore in your own time, live lectures online, and access to the slew of interviews we’re conducting for the course: interviews include “Luke Cage” writer/showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, Oscar-winning producer Reggie Hudlin, Hugo Award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor, pioneer Samuel R. Delany, author M.R. Carey (author/screenwriter of The Girl With all the Gifts), activist Bree Newsome (who took down the South Carolina Confederate flag), Jamie Broadnax of Black Girl Nerds, artist John Jennings – and more! These guests will share craft secrets and their views on Afrofuturism’s power. Steve and I will also share an interview we conducted with Octavia E. Butler in 2000.

Why is Afrofuturism so powerful?

Imagine: Fifty years ago, in the 1960s, when young black and white activists were being murdered and attacked for trying to register blacks to vote—how awe-inspiring was Lt. Uhura on “Star Trek”? Lt. Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, was a validation on the deepest level that blacks would not only survive—we would thrive. Her impact was so powerfully felt that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked her not to quit the series when Nichols was ready to leave.

And if you’ve read Octavia E. Butler’s work, you know how strongly she was guided by a principled social vision that decried hierarchy and subjugation – themes that could not be more relevant in our current political times. What qualities provide great leadership? What is the path through hardship? How can we imagine the future we want to avoid – or the one we want to build? Whether it’s the utopian escapism of jazz pioneer Sun Ra or the heroic feats of Black Panther, Afrofuturism helps give us tools to both cope with and subvert harmful social trends.

At an event I attended in West Palm Beach Saturday called Black Women Rise, activist icon Angela Davis discussed the impact of Afrofuturism on real-life world-building.

Angela Davis & T

“It’s not that I’m optimistic because I see the world through rose-colored glasses,” Davis said. “It’s that if the work that you’ve done for so many decades and years would make a difference in the future, we have to be able to imagine a different future. Even though there are no guarantees, but in order to do the work we do, however we do it – whether as artists or activists – we have to believe a different kind of world is possible…

“And thank you so much for your work, Tananarive, in Afrofuturism – we need to be able to imagine the future as accessible, as spiritually accessible, to us. We’re doing this work not just for what will happen in our lifetimes, we’re doing it for the worlds that will be ushered into being a hundred years from now, two-hundred years from now, and we have to learn now how to feel ourselves a part of that in a collective meditation.”

Whether it’s by magic, alternate history, horror or projections in the future itself, Afrofuturism is a powerful tool in real-life worldbuilding.

REGISTER for our Afrofuturism webinar to explore a new world.

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Tananarive Due has won an American Book Award, an NAACP Image Award and a British Fantasy Award. She teaches Afrofuturism at UCLA.  Steven Barnes has won an NAACP Image Award and an Endeavor Award for his alternate history, Lion’s Blood

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Surviving President Tr*mp: Lessons from the 1960s & Octavia E. Butler

“Belief Initiates and guides action—Or it does nothing.”

–Octavia E. Butler, 1947-2006

Earthseed: The Book of the Living (Parable of the Sower)

*****

“History happens one person at a time.”–Patricia Stephens Due, 1939-2012

Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights

*****

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Octavia E. Butler’s inscription to my civil rights activist mother

In the late Octavia E. Butler’s near-future novel Parable of the Sower, a teenage girl,  Lauren Olamina, is the only person in her thinly protected community who sees how fragile their way of life is, how susceptible to destruction—and no one will listen until it’s too late.

In a way, my late mother, civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, who braved jail and teargas in the 1960s, was like Lauren Olamina: warning of dire consequences if communities and organizations didn’t work to stop the threats of Jim Crow, segregation and voting restrictions. My mother and father, “Freedom Lawyer” John Due, were willing to die for a better future for their children. My mother forever warned of efforts to “turn back the clock.”

Well, the clock has turned. Now another Really Bad Time has come. It’s the time Butler warned us about, when even the fascistic presidential candidate in her novel Parable of the Talents (the second Parable novel) used the phrase “Make America Great Again.”

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The late Octavia E. Butler

Dystopia has been a reality for many families for generations, but many in the U.S. finally see our peril more clearly after the Nov. 8 election and today’s inauguration of Donald Tr*mp to the presidency. (I write his name as a profanity based on his hate-filled campaign and platforms, lack of fitness for the position, and other reasons worthy of a separate essay.) But many of us have seen it for as long as we can remember because we have been living beneath the storm clouds, and we tried so hard to tell you.

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Mom (front, dark glasses) at 1963 protest to desegreate a theater in Tallahassee, FL.    My father, John Due, is profiled between movie poster & police. PHOTO CREDIT: Florida State Archives

Black Lives Matter tried to tell you. The NAACP tried to tell you. Prisoner advocacy groups tried to tell you. Planned Parenthood tried to tell you. The ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center tried to tell you: institutional racism and hate thrive in this country, masquerading as laws and policies meant to restrict human freedom. Scratch beneath the surface of the ideology of the extreme right, and we’re facing the same battles my parents, and their parents, fought.

And of course they deny they’re doing it. And tell us “Wait and see.”But those of us who are paying attention have seen enough.

My way of surviving this storm, at least emotionally, is to combine the lessons from my parents’ freedom movements of the past and the warnings from Octavia E. Butler’s fictitious future to help me stay steady on the path.

We must resist. To do that, we must believe we can create change.

Breathe 

First, breathe. Meditate. Journal. Dance. Hydrate. Get enough rest. If you’re an artist, CREATE. As I tweeted earlier this week, ask yourself what Octavia E. Butler would have written to confront this crisis…and create your version of that.

For information, turn off the circus of television cable news and subscribe to newspapers. Favor  investigative reporters over talking heads. For escape, find comedy, horror, thrillers—whatever helps you decompress. I write horror, I think, because my mother loved horror movies as her means of escape from her anger and fear. You need an escape too.

Jennifer Marie Brissett, author of the speculative fiction novel Elysium: Or, The World After, says, “I think this is a time to let the sadness in—to just feel this and not fight the despair. Soak your feet, wash your hair, take a nap, and eat the cheese cake. Be okay with feeling lousy. Then put all of your hurt and sorrow into making something beautiful.”

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Author Jennifer Marie Brissett

Each day will bring alarming headlines, and self-care is imperative. If you’re not OK, you won’t be able to help others.

Move away from numbness & denial

I felt numb in the weeks after the election. I was trying to protect my emotions, so I avoided processing my pain.  Numbness is a form of denial.

I was in mild denial before the election (I didn’t think Tr*mp could win), and many of us still are. The human capacity for denial is so strong that I suspect it may be rooted, ironically, in a survival instinct. Perhaps we lock away our fear of death so effectively that we have a talent for not seeing what’s in front of us.

So every plan and action must take denial into account. No matter who was “right,” we were all wrong—because we could not prevent the election of Trump.

We have to fix what went wrong. We have to be awake to fight.

Stop looking for heroes and heroines 

This last election should have taught us the vast limitations of our elected officials—they can’t do it alone. Heroic moments have emerged from congresspeople like John Lewis and Maxine Waters, and yet more will emerge in the next few months and years. But we cannot rely upon them.

Meaningful resistance is up to us, the People.

In Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olamina is a mere teenager, but she cannot rely on the adults for her safety, including her own father (who is in denial)—she relies upon herself. Likewise, my parents and many of the activists from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s were very young, like the young South African youth who helped bring down apartheid. Liberation movements are led by youth, not by the established Powers That Be.

WE are the heroes and heroines who will make the difference. Today not only marked a tragic inauguration—but large protests in Washington, D.C. and sister marches scheduled around the nation tomorrow. A portion of today’s otherwise peaceful protests in Washington grew violent, according to the Washington Post, and protesters were sprayed with pepper spray, with 100 arrests. (Although I want to learn more; Tr*mp’s team has a history of staging resistance.) My mother’s civil rights generation believed—and I agree—that protest is most effective when it’s nonviolent.

But just because you are nonviolent does not mean police will treat you nonviolently. Even reporters have been manhandled and arrested in Ferguson and Standing Rock, so always attend a protest with one or more friends. The American Civil Liberties Union also has a free app you can download to send video from your phone directly to the ACLU if you see a questionable police encounter.

Exercise common sense at a protest the way you should on social media.

But we must march—and actions beyond marches.

We are the heroes and heroines of this story.

Choose your spot and defend it 

So much is happening so quickly that it’s difficult to decide where to begin, which leads to hopelessness and paralysis. I’m trying to find the places that need me most. Where will children be most harmed? Who is under the greatest threat of injury or death? How can I take daily actions even if they are small? I’m also working to have an impact on issues like juvenile justice and mass incarceration, as I did pre-election.

Social media is a start, especially for people new to activism. I have scores of new Twitter followers (I can tell they’re new because they don’t have profile photos yet, still using “Egg” avatars) who were probably drawn to Twitter because Tr*mp uses it.  Social media is a great way to spread information (actual news), rally allies, find family and tribe, seek humor or comfort, and sharpen your messaging.

But it’s only a beginning.

Since the election, I have signed several petitions–including a WhiteHouse.gov petition to force Tr*mp to disclose his tax returns–and  set up recurring donations to the NAACP and ACLU, and other donations will follow. Even $10 a month can help. I have left messages for Rep. Paul Ryan about the ACA and emailed others in Congress to fight for the ACA and to urge non-confirmation for Jeff Sessions and Tom Price. I have donated small amounts to book drives for prisoners and supported other causes related to the criminal justice system and mass incarceration. I plan to attend a women’s march in Pasadena Saturday, joining other marchers around the nation.

Most of my actions take less than five minutes a day. We can’t say we don’t have time to take part in active resistance.

And action is an antidote to fear. For some people, “daily action” means volunteering in schools, attending local meetings, perhaps even running for office. When I was in my 20s and early 30s, I spent seven years as a volunteer with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, spending a couple of hours every weekend with my Little Sister, whose mother had died.

Not only is daily action helpful in moving forward a political platform or minimizing damage from social spending cuts, but it limits the sense of helplessness that can leave us feeling paralyzed in the face of so much work to do.

Allies squabble — now get over it and build coalitions

“Kindness eases Change.”–Octavia E. Butler, Earthseed: The Book of the Living

Yes, it’s frustrating when people who might otherwise be allies fall short of expectations or don’t share our exact perceptions. During the civil rights movement, allies accused my mother of being a “publicity hound” when she used newspaper interviews as a tool for spreading a civil rights message. She navigated in-fighting between the major organizations of the time. She felt marginalized as a woman in the Movement. She had any number of reasons she could have walked away, but she didn’t.

Why? Because her need to fight for justice and equality outweighed the squabbles. Squabbles in political and movements often are centered on pacing: you’re moving too fast, you’re not moving fast enough. Either “my way” will work or no way will work. People tend to think in binaries rather than seeking common ground. It’s childish and ineffective.

Octavia E. Butler’s Lauren Olamina is forever defending her ideas from skeptics even as they rely upon her leadership. The leaders in Butler’s novels often do not feel safe even among the people they are trying to help. Sadly, this is also true in life, another reality of human nature.

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Not everyone you disagree with in the Tr*mp opposition is a phony, con or spy—or “hopeless.” Allies will have to implement plans in concert, so debate and correction are necessary for growth—but growth begins with SELF reflection, not in critiquing others.

Potential allies should approach each other with kindness.

“Unfortunately, this kind of constant familiar critique just makes us smaller when we need to be massive,” says Adrienne Maree Brown, author of the forthcoming Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (AK Press 2017) and co-editor of Octavia’s Brood (AK Press 2015). Brown has facilitated for several activist groups and organizations.

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Author and facilitator Adrienne Maree Brown

“We in movement spaces need to notice the role cynicism, desperation and hopelessness plays in our conflict[s],” Brown says. “I see a lot of people fighting with each other because we are scared of the future and trying to protect our hearts.”

Instead of squabbling, teach.

Learn.

Science fiction author and television writer Steven Barnes (who happens to be my husband) says the squabbling on the left is natural because of the nature of progressive politics.

“The left seems chaotic because the right reaches toward the past, and there’s only one past,” Barnes said. “But there are infinite possibilities for the future.” But even if our exact visions differ, building coalitions will be essential in the years ahead.

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Author Steven Barnes

The narrative matters

Storytelling is persuasion.

The role of storytelling is even more important in a political world influenced by “fake news,” or propaganda, from both foreign and domestic sources. Repetition of lies creates a kind of truth in the listener, and potential allies can fall prey to lies just as many voters did. How can we drive the narrative of the story toward truth and social justice? What are the most effective ways to frame events to lend them importance and comprehension?

We’re weaving the counter-narrative with every Facebook update and tweet, especially when we use personal experiences or revelations. “I used to think, but…and here’s why….” may be an effective way to reach doubters who will not feel judged for their beliefs, whether it’s a position on Black Lives Matter or the viability of a third party. Sometimes simple debunking with evidence is the best approach.

Storytellers don’t attack their listeners: they create a world view that “overthrows a way of thinking,” as Walter Mosley has said of the revolutionary power of black science fiction.

Artists like Barnes, Butler, Mosley and other Afrofuturists create counter-narratives through their art, often using allegory (i.e. Steven Barnes’s alternate history novel on slavery, Lion’s Blood) to better illustrate the challenges we face, or to provide escapism for self-care.  The excitement over Marvel’s Luke Cage series and upcoming Black Panther film illustrate the power of fantasy and superheroes to electrify us—feeding our need for self-actualization, self-reliance and shifted power dynamics on screen.

We need to tell the story.

The establishment will fear and obstruct you 

If you’ve been following activist communities, you know that groups like Black Lives Matter have already been labeled as “thugs” or “terrorists,” and this isn’t new. But with advances in technology, protesters are now subjected to face recognition software and databases even when no crime has been committed. Beyond that, online harassment from trolls already bullies many people into silence.

One of Tr*mp’s first tweets as president-elect was to denounce protesters. We can all expect more of this—whether we protest in the streets or with our words, or both.

Watch Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th on Netflix for a comprehensive overview of how presidential administrations have used “law and order” rhetoric to squash resistance and create a new kind of slavery in our system of mass incarceration. This is not theoretical. My parents both have thick FBI files simply for agitating for civil rights and voting rights at a time when critics labeled agitation as “communism.”

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My mother’s 1960s-era FBI file as a result of her activism

Power fights back.

One way to extend the reach of your tweets is to use hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter or #resist or #Notmypresident, but hashtags also invite trolls to argue with you. I do not engage trolls—I block them immediately. If you have a wide enough reach, you will be even more highly scrutinized or even threatened or attacked for seemingly innocuous posts. In this new reality, it’s not inconceivable to get a hate tweet from the president himself.

Hugo Award-winning author of The Fifth Season N.K. Jemisin is an outspoken presence on Twitter, where she has been targeted and received death threats for her critiques of racism and sexism in fandom. But she still isn’t afraid to raise her voice.

“Mostly it’s just that I don’t want to live in the kind of world where people like that dictate what I say—so I keep talking,” Jemisin says. “I get louder when they fuck with me, because for me, anger pushes back fear.”

She advises opinionated people on the Internet to visit http://www.crashoverridenetwork.com, a website that specializes in fighting online abuse, whether it’s lists of resources or offering help managing a current crisis. (Like, say, your social media account has been flooded with trolls, etc.)

N.K. Jemison

Author N.K. Jemisin

Adds Jemisin: “But at the end of the day, the only way to shut Them up is to make it really, really clear that they cannot silence you. That takes away their power.”

We need to be smarter. Sometimes we need to create private chat rooms to talk rather than subjecting our emails or telephone calls to compromise.

We want our activism to be noticed, but getting noticed has its drawbacks.

Don’t be in denial about that. Be ready.

Resistance has always taken courage.

And courage is born of hope.

My father, John Due, is a civil rights attorney who came of age during the tumultuous 1960s. In the 1960s, he represented Dr. King in St. Augustine, Florida, and helped pioneer techniques to move civil rights cases from state to federal courts for a more favorable outcome. He often tells the story of fearing for his life while driving on dark Mississippi roads during voter registration campaigns, and the white sheriff who could have turned him over to the Klan, but instead let him go. He is a lifelong community organizer.

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Me (right) with Mom & Dad outside White House after the inauguration of President Obama

Dad has seen nearly a century of change, and, like Octavia Butler often said, he agrees that based on science alone, humankind’s future looks grim. Likewise,  the nation’s future looked grim in 1959, when my mother decided to join the Civil Rights Movement in Florida. Or in 1960, when my father moved from Indiana to go to law school at Florida A&M University to be closer to help the Movement as an attorney.

“Based upon the evidence, we are doomed,” Dad says. “A five-year-old can kill the whole human race, almost, if he has access to a button. I cannot categorize change in scientific terminology because based upon science, there is no hope, there is no future. But because we have a human capacity to feel and to believe otherwise, and to believe in hope, that’s what keeps us alive.”

Butler’s Parable of the Sower is set within a landscape of poverty, corporate slavery, racism, drought, violence and despair. And yet… within this dystopian framework, Butler gives us hope nestled in her protagonist Lauren Olamina’s new religion, called Earthseed – with passages that resonate deeply beyond the borders of the story.

All that you touch

You Change

All that you Change

Changes you.

The only lasting truth

Is Change.

God Is Change.

And Butler helps us, through visualization and imagination, cross that membrane from fiction to reality—in a proactive rather than fearful way.

So begin with history—learn about successful protest movements of the past. Our schools teach shockingly little history, so what you don’t know will surprise you. All of us, no matter how “woke,” have remaining illusions. But we must begin the real-life worldbuilding our times demand.

We have so much to do, and the work is generations old.

We all need to learn, grow and create new approaches to replace our failed ones that helped usher Tr*mp win the White House. Like Octavia E. Butler and the resisters before us, we must agitate and create like our future depends on it.

Tananarive Due is an author and screenwriter who teaches Afrofuturism at UCLA. She has won an American Book Award, British Fantasy Award and NAACP Image Award. Follow her on Twitter @TananariveDue.

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For Writers: My Revision Breakthrough

 

Prime Books: June 2015

Prime Books: June 2015

With the upcoming summer publication of my first short story collection, Ghost Summer, I have been focusing on short fiction for the past couple of years. I always encourage newer writers to hone their craft on short stories before potentially getting lost in the maze of a novel, but with a caveat – writing short stories is not EASY. For some writers, they’re more difficult. The language is often sharper by necessity. But they’re also great for learning structural compression—beginning, middle and end.

I’m pleased with my first two Nayima survivor stories in The Apocalypse Triptych edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey (“Removal Order” and “Herd Immunity”). I wanted the third story, “Carriers,” to take place about forty years in the future, reimagining my plague concept but keeping Nayima’s core character intact.

As the deadline drew near, I had breakthroughs and wrote in a white heat, believing I’d expressed my vision.

But the editors sent it back, asking for revisions.

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I was ready to defend the story and point out all the reasons it was being misunderstood—but when I read it again after some time away, I realized they were right. The story was flabby and wordy. One scene was so crammed with infodump that it was like a textbook example. I’d saved too much of the good stuff for toward the end—an oh-so-revealing interaction with another character.

All feedback gives me a shape to walk toward in the fog. I spent hour after hour revising the story. I moved the late interaction higher, to the second scene, and the story brightened. Then, a domino effect: with an earlier reveal, the infodumpy scene could be significantly trimmed down AND now had much deeper emotional impact on its own merits.

Then I trimmed. And trimmed.

Did the sentence teach me anything about the character? Could the second half of the sentence be snipped off? Was it necessary to include this information? Was this sentence too clever for its own good? Some of the phrases and images that had come to me first, helping to ignite the rest of the story, ended up being cut.

The story got slim. And crisp. And engaging.

At the same time, I was getting feedback from Paula Guran, the editor of my upcoming Ghost Summer short story collection, on an unpublished story called “Vanishings.” It wasn’t working for her. It was confusing.

She wasn’t the first to say it. I’d been tinkering with that story for at least two years, on and off. I’d shared passages aloud with my MFA students (which led me to ban the practice), I’d given it to my best friend from college to read. (It didn’t work for her; she didn’t get it.)

Any time I struggle with a piece of fiction, I’m haunted by the unfinished stories on my old floppy disks, written in WordPerfect, when I was a newer writer. I lost interest in two novels, once about a hundred pages in, about two-hundred into another (hand-written, no less). I had a short story with a great gimmick I’d never truly paid off.

My unfinished stories haunt me—not because I really believe any of them were The One, but because I gave up on them. And I’m always afraid that I will give up on my stories again as writing seems to grow harder and harder.

But fresh from my last revision experience, I realized I could crack “Vanishings” too.

Yes, Idris. Yes, we should.

Yes, Idris. Yes, we should.

The story faced two primary struggles: I had geared it toward literary readers who might not be familiar with fantasy or magical realism, so I had minimized fantastic imagery. And I was relying on the gimmick of a late reveal to give an entirely new sheen of meaning to the story. Like The Sixth Sense.

The delayed reveal wasn’t working. Period. And the lack of specific fantasy imagery only created confusion for the readers—I was hinting at phenomena that I wasn’t showing. (Also, in part, because I was holding back for the reveal.)

In January, lecturing at the Whidbey MFA program, I gave a talk on writing mystery and suspense that specifically addressed the pitfalls of too much concealment. And here it was, right under my nose.

Writing doesn’t get harder—it just stays hard. With practice, we expect it to get easier, but in truth we stretch ourselves and grow and grapple with new lessons. We seek new words to create order of the joys and terrors of our lives.

I don’t want to get tired of writing. Writing gives me too much.

All of my fiction in recent years, one way or another, has helped me process the long illness, suffering and death of my mother, Patricia Stephens Due, in 2012—and the growing toll of time on my friends and family, who are also aging, sometimes dying, like Octavia Butler and Leslie (L.A.) Banks and E. Lynn Harris. I still can’t believe any of them are gone.

If you don’t need to write, sometimes it’s not worth the trouble. Sometimes people are struggling to write because of an outgrown dream or outside pressure—and life is too short. (James Weldon Johnson’s poem “A Poet to His Baby Son” is about a father’s disappointment that his son seems to have a poet’s eyes. Oh, what a road for one’s child!)

With a struggling project, sometimes it’s appropriate to move on. In my case, I needed to write more short stories before I started a novel. I think this is true of most writers. The ideas were bigger than my skill level—and by the time I gained the skill level, I had bigger ideas.

But giving up is very different.

If you have to write—if you must write—don’t give up on yourself and your projects.

Carve out the time. Commit it to paper as a goal. Create an outline. Have writing quotas. And be brave enough to find beta readers to help you assess your writing. Trade manuscripts. Start a writing group, even if it’s only a group of two.

As readers, we can easily point out the flaws in the writing of others—but when it comes to our own, we often are standing too close. We need beta readers. We need editors. We need people who aren’t afraid to tell us the truth.

Revise.

And then stop revising and ask for a reader’s eyes. Because it may be ready at last.

Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes are teaching an online writing workshop March 7-28th. EARLY REGISTRATION OPEN. More information here. 

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Spring Online Writing Workshop (March 7-28, 2015): Storytelling Principles for All Writers

Are you working on a novel, short story or screenplay and want to improve your writing? Do you want to participate in a writing workshop from anywhere in the world?

Here’s what Wayne said about our January workshop: “I have been on a ‘natural high’ from the beginning of the first class. No synthetic drug can duplicate this and it’s all you and Steve’s fault. Thank you both!!!”

Dog Writing Advice -- Sit & Stay

Do you want input from a writing professional on your pages?

Are you an author or screenwriter who wants to understand more about PLOT, CHARACTERIZATION and VISUAL DETAILS in your writing? Are you struggling with writer’s block?

Our unique approach is useful for writers of all levels–whether you’re a beginner or you have already published or produced your work. 

Authors and screenwriters Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due are offering an online writing workshop March 7-28 to help you whip your project into shape. Until March 1, register at our EARLY-BIRD rate of $300. Regular registration is $350, and time is running out… so–register now.

Here’s what Rorie said about our January workshop: “I found it enlightening, inspirational, and exceedingly useful. I really do hope you have another!”

And Angelique said about our fall workshop: “I want to thank you and Steve for an incredible experience.  I have truly learned a lot…..and I went to FILM SCHOOL!”

REGISTER NOW: 

Here’s what you get:

  • One 30-minute personal phone consultation with Steven Barnes or Tananarive Due
  • Notes on 10 pages of your story, novel, screenplay and/or treatment/outline. (Choose whether to receive notes at the start of the workshop, during, or at the end of the workshop.)
  • Four weekly hour-long video Google Hangouts sessions with instructors Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due
  • College-level syllabus with outside viewing and reading
  • A guest appearance by an industry professional to answer your questions
  • Peer review from other writers in the workshop

Here’s what the workshop requires:         

  • Registration fee ($300 early bird / $350 regular)  SPACE IS LIMITED
  • An existing story, screenplay or IDEA you can outline
  • RECOMMENDED TEXTBOOK: Story by Robert McKee
  • Willingness to participate in peer review with other workshop members
  • Internet access for one-hour weekly Google Hangouts lectures / discussion

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Who are the instructors? 

Steven Barnes

New York Times bestseller Steven Barnes has written more than twenty-five science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels. His “Stitch in Time” episode of “The Outer Limits” won an Emmy. The NAACP Image Award winner also has written for “The New Twilight Zone,” “StarGate,” Andromeda,” and “Ben 10.” He has been nominated for  written for Hugo, Nebula and Cable Ace Awards. In 2013, he and his wife, Tananarive Due, co-wrote and co-produced the short film “Danger Word,” based on their novel,Devil’s Wake. He and Due recently sold a cable TV adaptation–details soon!

Tananarive Due 

Tananarive Due, a member of the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA), has been named to the Grio100 and Ebony Power 100. The Essence bestseller and NAACP Image Award winner has also won an American Book Award for The Living Blood. She recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus. She is the former Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College. In addition to co-producing and co-writing the short film “Danger Word” with Steven Barnes, she currently has several book projects under option. She and Barnes recently sold a cable TV adaptation of one of her ovels–details soon! 

WANT TO ENROLL? CLICK HERE TO REGISTER NOW:  

You may also email us your questions at Tanacoach@gmail.com.

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Virtual screenwriting workshop with Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes January 10-31, 2015

 

Are you working on a screenplay, or do you have a screenplay idea you’re not sure how to start?

Morpheus ScreenwritingDo you want input from industry professionals on your screenplay idea?

Are you an author who would like to learn to adapt your books to film?

Whether you’re a screenwriter, a novelist or a producer, there has never been a more exciting time to try to get your foot in the door in television and film. But it all begins on the page – with a terrific screenplay or teleplay.

After a successful fall workshop, authors and screenwriters Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due (WGA) are offering an online screenwriting workshop Jan. 10-31 to help you whip your project into shape. Until Dec. 31st, register at our Christmas rate for $300. Regular registration if $350–so save $50 by registering now. Space is limited.

Here’s what one of our writers said midway through our fall workshop: “I want to thank you and Steve for an incredible experience thus far.  I have truly learned a lot…..and I went to FILM SCHOOL!”

REGISTER NOW: 

Here’s what you get:

  • One 30-minute personal phone consultation with Steven Barnes or Tananarive Due
  • Notes on 10 pages of your screenplay and treatment/outline. (Choose whether to receive notes at the start of the workshop, during, or at the end of the workshop.)
  • Four weekly hour-long video Google Hangouts sessions with instructors Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due
  • College-level syllabus with outside viewing and reading
  • A guest appearance by an industry professional to answer your questions
  • Peer review from other screenwriters in the workshop

Here’s what the workshop requires:         

  • Registration fee ($250 early-bird / $300 regular / $350 late)  SPACE IS LIMITED)
  • An existing screenplay or a screenplay idea you can outline
  • RECOMMENDED TEXTBOOK: Story by Robert McKee
  • Willingness to participate in peer review with other workshop members
  • Internet access for one-hour weekly Google Hangouts lectures / discussion

TandSteve2

Who are the instructors? 

Steven Barnes

New York Times bestseller Steven Barnes has written more than twenty-five science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels. His “Stitch in Time” episode of “The Outer Limits” won an Emmy. The NAACP Image Award winner also has written for “The New Twilight Zone,” “StarGate,” Andromeda,” and “Ben 10.” He has been nominated for  written for Hugo, Nebula and Cable Ace Awards. In 2013, he and his wife, Tananarive Due, co-wrote and co-produced the short film “Danger Word,” based on their novel, Devil’s Wake. He and Due recently sold a cable TV adaptation–details soon!

Tananarive Due 

Tananarive Due, a member of the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA), has been named to the Grio100 and Ebony Power 100. The Essence bestseller and NAACP Image Award winner has also won an American Book Award for The Living Blood. She recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus. She is the former Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College. In addition to co-producing and co-writing the short film “Danger Word” with Steven Barnes, she currently has several book projects under option. She and Barnes recently sold a cable TV adaptation of one of her ovels–details soon! 

WANT TO ENROLL? CLICK HERE TO REGISTER NOW:  

You may also email us your questions at Tanacoach@gmail.com.

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Unburying the Lost Boys, Pt. 2: the real-life horrors at the Dozier School

AUGUST 2015 UPDATE: The remains of my great-uncle, Robert Stephens, were positively identified from the Dozier School cemetery. [Read more here.] 

MARCH 2014 UPDATE: The [Rof South Florida exhumed 55 bodies from the cemetery.

In 1937, my great-uncle, Robert Stephens, was buried at the Dozier School in Marianna, Florida, with perhaps up to 100 other boys who never came home after being sentenced to the notorious reformatory. Last September, I went to Marianna with my father, husband and son to observe the beginning of exhumations at the site. I started writing this post the first week of September in 2013, and I’m only completing it in January of 2014. This was hard to write.

 This is not only a story about the past. This story illustrates why our criminal justice system—racially biased and more and more dependent upon private prisons—is itself in dire need of reform.

Dozier School dorm (present day) PHOTO: Tananarive Due

Dozier School dorm (present day)
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

 “Having so few inmates makes the crops come in slow;

I fear we will not finish gathering the corn by January.”

–Dozier School Superintendent Walter Rawls

Letter to the Board of Managers,

Dec. 1, 1906

Saturday, Sept. 1, 2013

The deputy sitting parked in his cruiser at the tree line gives us a slate with a form to sign, passes out badges we clip to our clothes.  Then he directs us to Boot Hill, the cemetery hidden in the woods on the former grounds of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna—Florida’s most infamous reformatory.

“Follow the dirt road along the tree line,” the deputy says. “Turn left at the mudhole.”

And so my husband, Steven Barnes, drives on with a carload of us: me, our 9-year-old son, Jason, and my 78-year-old father, civil rights attorney John Due. It’s only ten-thirty in the morning in Marianna, but the day already promises to be hot.

We drive into the moss-draped woods.

We are puzzling over what the mudhole might look like when Jason spots it—a huge puddle of thick mud on the roadside. Suddenly we are at the site of unearthed secrets.  Makeshift crosses mark earlier visitors’ best guesses about where the dead are buried beneath the red soil.

Saturday, Sept. 1, 2013, after a lengthy fight waged by families and survivors white and black, journalists, the NAACP, the Florida Attorney General’s office and the University of South Florida, researchers began their careful digging far from the crosses—where radar equipment used by USF forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle’s team found signs of unmarked graves.

PHOTO: Edmund D. Fountain / Pool / Tampa Bay Times via AP

PHOTO: Edmund D. Fountain / Pool / Tampa Bay Times via AP

One of the boys who died was my great-uncle Robert Stephens, who was reportedly stabbed to death by another boy in 1937. But in the fog of misery and mystery, how can we have blind faith in the claims made by Dozier?

Until the Florida Attorney General’s office called me in March, I had never heard about Robert Stephens, the uncle of my late mother, Patricia Stephens Due, whose name was listed in the Dozier School records as one of the boys who died there.  He was fifteen when he died.

My aunt, civil rights activist Priscilla Stephens Kruize, says she never heard about him or his death.  I do not know if my grandmother ever knew that her husband had lost a brother there.  Robert Stephens died two years before my mother was born.

Seventy-six years later, in 2013 Rev. Ronald Mizer of St. James AME Church, the Jackson County NAACP president, led a prayer with my family beneath the mossy trees as researchers paused their digging.  My father, husband, son and I held hands and bowed our heads.

(left to right) Rev. Ronald Mizer, John Due, Jason Due-Barnes (9), Steven Barnes PHOTO: Tananarive Due

(left to right) Rev. Ronald Mizer, John Due, Jason Due-Barnes (9), Steven Barnes
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

Afterward, my husband planned to take our 9-year-old son, Jason, to a nearby tourist attraction while my father and I stayed behind to watch the excavation. But Jason surprised us all: he chose to put on gloves to sift through the soil with researchers.

Jason picked up a shovel to try to unearth his family’s past.

“Look at that!” my father kept saying, watching his grandson at work.

This unburying has been a process of years. Of tearing down the woods.  Of digging shallow trenches. Of revealing long-held secrets. Of searching for anyone who might remember the dead—who might have heard a lost boy laugh or cry, or who lay awake nights in worry.  Some of the stories are so old, dating back to 1900, that no one is left to remember.

Jasondigging1

My son Jason (then 9) works along USF researchers to search for the remains of his distant relative, Robert Stephens, and the other Lost Boys
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

My father, husband, son and I came to mourn a stranger who was far from a stranger. Though we never knew of Robert Stephens, his loss had a ripple effect on my mother’s father and therefore on my mother.  That loss shaped attitudes, family dynamics, dreams.

What is any family’s incalculable toll when a child never comes home?  Has died violently?  Was likely imprisoned unjustly because of his skin color, like so many of our children still are today?

Last July, my father and aunt went to Tampa to witness the DNA swabs taken from surviving family members of the lost.  One of the men, named Robert Stephens after our long-dead relative, told the Tampa Bay Times that he volunteered a swab to help “find the truth.”

Not everything that’s buried is gone.

****

The stories from the Dozier School’s history are harrowing. The more you learn, the worse it gets.

The Dozier School operated from 1900 to 2011. It was finally closed in 2011 after a history of investigations and complaints.

A Dozier School building today. PHOTO: Tananarive Due

A Dozier School building today.
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

According to the Tampa Bay Times, which pioneered coverage of the story, in 2008 survivors came forward with stories of widespread physical and sexual abuse. In the CNN interview linked below, a family member alleges that her brother was murdered at the hands of school guards.  In 2009, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it found no evidence of foul play at the site.

But in 2012, USF’s Kimmerle used the ground penetrating radar she has used to investigate war crimes around the world for the United Nations—and she found traces of 19 more grave shafts than the FDLE.  There are more bodies than there are records for.  School records show that another 22 boys died at the school, but their bodies were never accounted for.  Kimmerle believes most of the boys buried there were black, though both black and white students died at the Dozier School.

Who are the dead boys, and how did they die?  Reports show that a fire claimed 12 lives. A flu epidemic claimed others.  But it doesn’t account for so many dead.

Ovell Smith Krell’s brother Owen Smith was sent to the school in 1940, and she told CNN that her family never saw him again.  School administrators reported that he ran away and later died of pneumonia, but a former Dozier student later told her Owen was shot and killed by Dozier school administrators when he tried to run away across an open field.  Dozier School survivor Robert Straley told CNN that other boys were killed there too.  HEAR THEM ON CNN HERE.

WhiteHouse

Fifty years later, grown men are haunted by the screams from the White House, where the beatings were dispensed.  Survivors have created their own website: www.whitehouseboys.com.  (In a moving Miami Herald video on the site, Michael O. McCarthy describes a brutal beating where he was struck more than 30 times: “They destroyed my childhood,” he says.)

Black survivors of the Dozier School have a Facebook page.

As one survivor, Charles Stephens, described it last April, two men held him down on a table while a third man lashed him. He said his back was so torn to shreds that his shirt had to be removed by a doctor.  His parents were unable to visit him that weekend.  He never told them about the horrors of his beatings, he said—he told the story for the first time in a room full of strangers meeting to advocate for exhumations at the school.

Charles Stephens, left, and Cocomo Rock, right, were both at the Dozier School. PHOTO: Tananarive Due

Charles Stephens, left, and Cocomo Rock, right, were both at the Dozier School. They traded accounts at a meeting near the school in April, 2013. 
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

“I stayed in the infirmary two weeks after my last beating,” said Stephens (no relation), who spent 18 months at the Dozier School in the 1960s, when he was 13. At age 61, the Panama City resident told his story publicly for the first time at the meeting last April.

“I ain’t never got over it, but I survived it,” he said, voice quavering. “I’m sure some little kids died of pure fear.  …Every time I went [to the White House], I made sure I got sent first so I wouldn’t hear the screams and hollering.”

Charles Stephens is white.  Other survivors were black—as are the majority of the dead, researchers believe.  But although the boys at the Dozier School were segregated by race, white and black boys suffered together.

Jacksonville resident Cocomo Rock, who is black and sports dreadlocks, was sent to Dozier in August of 1966, when he was eleven.  He lived there 22 months.  As he listened to Stephens recall his time at Dozier, he could relate all too well.

“I counted every day and every moment I was here,” Rock said.

Another survivor tells a story about how he found a single bright pebble to train his thoughts away from his White House beating, held it oh-so-tight to forget the pain—and still keeps the pebble in his pocket to this day.

Burials records at Boot Hill stretch from 1914 to 1952, although the report cites school-related Dozier deaths until 1973.

The culture of abuse, survivors say, lasted beyond the last recorded school death in 1952.

The reformatory was all wrong from the start.  According to the USF report, Florida led six investigations into the “school” in its first thirteen years. Boys in chains. Boys whipped mercilessly. Boys leased out for labor.

In Florida, prisoners were in a convict lease system.  (In the wake of bogus vagrancy laws, according to the USF report, Florida’s black prison population rose dramatically, with convicts turned over to labor agents.)  And the Dozier School was a labor farm—which, despite its name, never had desks in its early years, according to the USF report. Boys were put to work.

Dozier School History USF

In 1906, the school superintendent complained that the school had too few inmates to bring in the crops; the Board of Managers changed sentencing guidelines and eliminated fees, and the population of children grew. (I can’t help thinking about Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella in Pennsylvania, sentenced to 28 years in prison for accepting kickbacks in exchange for sending juveniles to privately run detention facilities in a “kids for cash” scheme.)

Were boys shot or mauled while trying to escape? Or was “trying to escape” a euphemism for random offenses at the jailers’ discretion?

Remember: the Dozier School is set against set against the backdrop of bitter racial hatred and oppressive Jim Crow laws of Florida’s past. A former juvenile inmate said at the April 2013 meeting that Dozier guards “set the dogs on you” if children tried to run.

And enough boys died at the Dozier School that it had its own cemetery.  Surviving records indicate that the institution tended to underreport the actual number of deaths.

KimmerleApril

“These are children who came here and died for one reason or another and quite literally have been lost in the woods,” Kimmerle told CNN.  “It’s about restoring dignity and if not putting a name to them, at least acknowledging and marking that they’re here.”  SEE KIMMERLE ON CNN HERE.

Ultimately, the state of Florida’s legislature approved $90,000 for the excavation. The U.S. Justice Department gave another $423,000 to match DNA from the remains to family members.

Said a survivor, Robert Straley, on CNN: “I’m angry at the state because they let this go on for 68 years and did nothing about it.”  He said he was beaten with a leather strap and that some school leaders killed boys and made them disappear.  “It’s important to find all the boys who were buried there. They’re practically crawling out of their graves crying, ‘Help remember me.’”

We hear you, children.  We hear you.

Watching my son sift through soil at the grave site. (September, 2013)

Watching my son sift through soil at the grave site. (September, 2013)

MY COMPLETE FACEBOOK PHOTO ALBUM: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10201870003772295.1073741826.1249308782&type=1&l=226a980a4e

SEE THE FULL REPORT UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA INTERIM REPORT ON BOOT HILL CEMETERY AT THE DOZIER SCHOOL:

http://news.usf.edu/article/articlefiles/5042-boot-hill-cemetery-interim-report-12-12.pdf

ADDITIONAL LINKS:

2014: ABCActionNews.com: http://www.abcactionnews.com/news/region-tampa/tampa-mans-uncle-identified-from-dozier-school-for-boys-grave

2009 Tampa Bay Times roundup: http://www.tampabay.com/specials/2009/reports/dozier/

2013 Tampa Bay Times excavation coverage (with photos): http://www.tampabay.com/news/politics/stateroundup/human-remains-found-in-shallow-hole-at-dozier-school/2139448

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/03/us-usa-florida-school-idUSBRE9820V020130903

http://www.myfoxtampabay.com/story/22088542/2013/04/26/state-funds-agreed-upon-for-unmarked-grave-search

http://www.tampabay.com/news/humaninterest/in-marianna-dig-for-truth-encounters-desire-to-keep-past-buried/2114932

http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/12/justice/florida-boys-graves/index.html?c=us&page=0

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/us/10dozier.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

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Danger Word: how my first short film is giving birth to my feature screenplay

Update 7/13: The My Soul to Keep feature screenplay I wrote with my husband, Steven Barnes, is finished and being shopped. 

In December, I posted here that I was going to begin working on a My Soul to Keep screenplay (with husband and collaborator Steven Barnes).  Today, we’re on page 73.

A novel's journey to the screen. (Old drafts.)

A novel’s journey to the screen. (Old drafts.)

Progress hasn’t been easy.  But as Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College, I’ve been inspired by teaching talented students, guest speakers like director Ava DuVernay, and an Octavia E. Butler Celebration in March that featured a Black Science Fiction Short Film Festival and shorts like Pumzi, Wake, and The Abandon.  I’ve also had interest and input from directors and producers.

But since My Soul to Keep was in development at Samuel Goldwyn Productions and Fox Searchlight in past years, I understand that there is a long road between a producer’s query and a movie.  I have lost author friends who never lived to see it: Octavia, L.A. (Leslie) Banks, E. Lynn Harris.

Several other screenwriters have written drafts of My Soul to Keep in development, but Steve and I had never written our take.  I realized that emotional factors were blocking my writing progress.   It was so difficult to coax my Muse out to play when I couldn’t promise that the writing would be anything except a long exercise toward disappointment.  As a screenwriter on other projects, I’d been down that road before.

Then Steve and I decided to co-produce our first short film, Danger Word:  15 minutes on a shoestring budget.  We’re flying to the rural New York location to begin the shoot in two days–and it has already changed everything.  Taking control of my creative process in the film world has coaxed my Muse out again. (To learn more about Danger Word and how you can support this film, please click here to see our Indiegogo page. Our deadline is approaching!) 

The idea to do a short film came out of the blue.  In the wake of the Octavia E. Butler Celebration, other filmmakers were also inspired to pursue funding for their projects: M. Asli Dukan, who is in post-production for her groundbreaking black science fiction documentary Invisible Universe; and Atlanta writers/filmmakers Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade, who recently completed an Indiegogo campaign for their steamfunk short film Rite of Passage: Initiation.  (Trailers for both were screened at the Celebration.)

Suddenly, we believed.  We had an audience.  We could do it.

You can do it.  Sometimes artists forget those four simple words; the very words that propel our art.  But between HD video and crowd funding, the film landscape has become more accessible.  It isn’t easy by any means, but it is easier. (Our preproduction campaign in progress, for example, has been powered by social media, primarily Facebook.)

Danger Word stars Frankie Faison

Danger Word stars Frankie Faison (“The Wire”)

Enter Danger Word.  That was the first piece of prose I ever wrote in collaboration with Steve, so it’s only fitting that it will be our first film together.  Originally published in the Brandon Massey’s 2004 Dark Dreams anthology and re-imagined as an episode in our 2012 YA horror novel Devil’s Wake, it’s the story of a young girl and her grandfather who have survived the zombie plague in his wooded cabin–and how an outing goes terribly wrong.  Rural location. Two main characters.  My friend Luchina Fisher had just directed a short film in 2011, Death in the Family, and she was excited about directing Danger Word.  The first day I floated the idea on Facebook, a prospective cast member wanted to see a script.

And in the midst of the duties of a producer–everything from fundraising to helping with decisions about casting to the makeup/FX artist–Steve and I have steadily been working on My Soul to Keep.  We will finish our first full draft soon.

If you haven’t read it, My Soul to Keep is the 1997 supernatural thriller that launched my African Immortals series: it’s about a 500-year-old immortal, Dawit, who breaks away from his secret brotherhood to find love with his daughter and wife, Jessica.  It’s a thriller with a love story at its core.

Why has Danger Word helped so much in the creation process for My Soul to Keep?

Because as a novelist who took up screenwriting later in my career, I struggled with the notion of spending weeks or months on a project that might never see the light of day.  Sure, I wrote drawers of unpublished fiction when I was learning my craft, but I’d been spoiled by book contracts and the certainty that someone would read my work.  Since most screenplays are never produced, period, screenwriters don’t have the luxury of that certainty–or even that likelihood.  Twelve drafts later, a project might die in film development–and that’s if you’re lucky enough to get twelve drafts.

And screenwriters of color face obstacles that make a tough industry even tougher.

But watching Danger Word come to life–hiring a veteran actor like Frankie Faison to star in it,  watching an excellent team assemble around a story about a girl and her grandfather–has convinced me that I can make a film.

And if I can make a short film, I can make a longer film.   If I can make a longer film, I can make My Soul to Keep one day.

My Muse likes that idea just fine.

Learn more about Tananarive Due at www.tananarivedue.com 

To contribute to Danger Word, CLICK HERE TO GO TO INDIEOGOGO 

To see the panel of authors at Spelman College’s Octavia E. Butler Celebration of the Fantastic Arts on March 21, 2013, CLICK HERE for the YouTube video.  (Panelists included Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, Samuel R. Delany, Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl, Sheree R. Thomas, Brandon Massey and Jewelle Gomez.)  

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