I listened to a webinar this past week on shewrites.com by Guy Kawasaki, who is BIG right now for his (self-published) book (along with Shawn Welch) on self-publishing: APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur. I found the talk superficial and simplistic but maybe you get what you pay for (it was free). I can’t judge the book by a 30 minute webinar, but Kawasaki is one smart guy, “chief evangelist for Apple” (what does that mean? Is that an actual job?), author of 12 books, including Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions, which was a New York Times best seller, and What the Plus! Google+ for the Rest of Us. He’s a marketing genius, apparently, and is now an expert on self-publishing, which he refers to as “artisanal publishing,” meaning writers who love their craft and are involved in every aspect of it from beginning to end, just as there are “artisanal” beer makers, bakers, cheese producers, etc. Guy can coin a phrase.
During the webinar, he did acquaint me with a term I had never heard of: crowdsourcing. What the heck. He crowdsourced APE, sending out first an outline of the book, then the manuscript-in-progress, and the final draft to all his considerable social media contacts, soliciting feedback, expert info others had that he lacked, fact-checking, and even copy-editing. He didn’t go into a great deal of detail about his crowdsourcing in the webinar, but I found a more detailed description of it on a website called The Creative Penn, by Joanna Penn.
Penn asked Kawasaki how he managed to get 145 reviews on Amazon for APE within a few days of publication, 135 of which were five stars. He said he sent an email to 4 million of his social media contacts (and you thought you were popular), offering a review copy of the near-final manuscript. That enabled him to have 1,100 readers before it went live. 4 hours before Amazon turned it on he sent emails to those readers asking them to post a review for him. He woke up the next morning to 45 five star reviews.
Not many of us have 4 million social media contacts, the publishing track record Kawasaki has, or his incredible business background and marketing savvy (not to mention ambition and energy). Nor are most of us publishing a book like APE, which is right place/right time. Still, I was fascinated by his experience. Crowdsourcing sounded so savvy, especially for a non-fiction book like APE: solicit alpha and beta readings from people who have self-publishing experiences, stories, and expertise he could draw on! It makes tremendous sense–an on-line, stream-lined version of research.
Still, crowdsourcing seems anathema to writing novels. What happened to the writer alone at her desk with nothing but her own mind (such as it is), trying to open that proverbial vein?
Someone in the webinar asked him if it would work for novels, and he breezily said yes but spent no time discussing how.
I pooh-poohed the whole idea of crowdsourcing a novel, until I had dinner one evening with my friend Susan. When I told her how it would never work for a novel, she—a fiction writer—said it sounded interesting to her. I began to reconsider it. Had I dismissed a potentially good idea too quickly? I decided maybe I should try a little crowdsourcing of my own!
Here’s how. I’ll give you a couple of pages of my Willie-Earle-novel-in-progress below, and if you have any feedback, please tell me.
For those few of you for whom “Willie Earle novel” doesn’t ring a resounding bell, I started this novel some time back (before I got side-tracked by publishing The Answer to Your Question). It originated when I came upon a brilliant piece in the May 1947 New Yorker by Rebecca West, a brilliant writer if ever there was one, who covered the Willie Earle lynching and trial in my hometown of Greenville, S.C. When I was growing up in Greenville, I never heard of this incident, in which a black man was murdered by a mob of white taxi drivers. I only learned about it a few years ago when I was doing research in the Greenville library on a different matter.
The circumstances were that Willie Earle, twenty-four, was taken at gunpoint from the Pickens County jail near Greenville the night after he was arrested on suspicion of robbing and killing a white taxi driver. He was beaten and shot and his battered body left in the woods near a slaughter house. Shortly thereafter, 31 drivers were arrested. Strom Thurmond, the recently elected governor of South Carolina, called in the FBI and made sure that there was a trial, which was widely covered in the national and international media. 26 of the men confessed to participation in what happened that night in written statements, but no one owned up to the actual killing. The judge ruled that one man’s statement couldn’t be used against another, but regardless, no white jury in South Carolina was likely to convict white men of killing a Negro. They walked free.
For my novel I’m using a structure cribbed from Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter, which has four main point of view characters telling their stories about a bus accident in which several children were killed. I want to create four fictional characters who are impacted emotionally, spiritually and psychologically by the Willie Earle murder and trial. One is a white taxi driver involved in the lynching, Lee Beaumont; another is one the prosecuting attorneys, Lawton Chastain; then there’s a black maid who works for the attorney’s family, Alma Clement; and Lawton’s 17 year old daughter, Betsy Chastain.
I’ve drafted the first two sections, Lee and Lawton, and now I’ve started writing Alma. I have a lot of trepidation about trying to write from a black maid’s point of view, not to mention I’m having to research every little detail about 1947 (did they have dishwashers back then?). I feel anxious about trying to write about race relations at all. But I was raised in Greenville in the fifties, always with a black maid in the house (I did so hate The Help, mainly in its cheap-shot portrayals of white Southern women). It is only by writing about that time and place, by at least trying to, that I will understand better my own experience growing up in Greenville. Something in me is committed to this project, and I hope to see it through.
So I thought I might do my own little version of crowdsourcing with you, my “crowd” – by giving you the opening of the Alma section. This is first draft stuff, just trying to get something down, to get going. (Though as soon as I pasted it in below, I began to tinker with it, trying to improve it; there’s nothing like knowing other people will be reading something to make you snap to.)
It IS so isolating to work on a book and it takes SO long (years). Whether I’m crowdsourcing or not, I don’t know. But I think it will give me a boost to put something out for some feedback. It’s not unlike submitting work to a workshop or an on-line course perhaps, except some of the readers may be strangers.
I’m definitely interested on any thoughts on the project as a whole; on this particular writing; on writing about race relations, especially your own experience with racial matters or writing about them; if you know of resources for learning more about the 1940s; or even a detail like what a suitcase would be called in 1947 (a grip? maybe just a suitcase.).
Writing these notes, I can see the advantages of crowdsourcing. Ask for help!
I certainly can use some.
So here’s the start of the Alma section thus far.
The night Willie Earle was taken she dreamed of the Promised Land.
“I am bound for the promised land, I am bound for the promised land. Oh who will come and go with me. I am bound for the promised land.” They had sung that hymn on Sundays and the words still rang in her, raising her up as she lay there beside Huff, who slept so hard he moved not a muscle, still as a corpse. But Alma was soaring, flying out over the muddy waters of the Reedy River below, out beyond Main Street, the Poinsett Hotel, the Greenville County Courthouse, past the fine homes along McDaniel Avenue (she thought she spotted the Chastains’ house, with Betsy in the backyard in pigtails, waving to her), past the green spine of Paris Mountain at the edge of town, on out into the countryside, dense with pines and kudzu, bottomlands lying fallow now in winter, then up over the mountains, the craggy rock of Cesar’s Head and Mount Pisgah, which she had only heard about. She was leaving it all behind, free and joyful in her flight. She could see in the distance the Promised Land, more beautiful than anything she had ever imagined, bright and shining, gold and glitter.
Suddenly she was plummeting headfirst towards earth, the wind whipping her gown—she was wearing silk, something she had never owned in her life—tight around her, binding her. She had forgotten how to fly. Just as the red dirt raced up to meet her, she woke up, saving herself, her heart pumping hard beneath her flannel nightgown. She sat up in bed, burying her face in her hands, and now tears came, copious, wetting her lap where her hands could not contain them. She didn’t know why she was crying. There had been terror, but it wasn’t that. It felt like her heart had burst.
Beside her Huff woke with a start. When he saw that she was shaking and sobbing, he took her in his arms and leaned them both back against the wall, stroking the tears away with his big thumb. He was a silent man, not given to talk. His body was comforting in its mass, his smell musky and familiar, his skin so black she couldn’t see him when she turned to search his face in the dark room. “What’s wrong, baby?” His voice disembodied. Alma could only shake her head. She didn’t know. Just something, something . . . Already the Promised land was fading. She longed to see it again, one more time. Please! But it was gone. She sheltered in his arms, she shook her head to try to clear it. Her heart, a runaway horse that had lost its spook, was beginning to calm down.
If only she could curl up under the covers in bed all day. Something she never, ever did. A stolen day in bed had never been her lot. Not even when she was a child, when her mama would rouse her and Dew before she left for work. Nana, her grandmother, was old and broke from her own life of working for white folks. Alma and Dew had to do the chores, wash and wring the clothes, hoe the garden, milk the cow, feed the pigs, clean the cabin that had been there since the turn of the century, the walls black from wood smoke. Alma had never known her daddy, it was a house of women except for Dew.
Five thirty, she better get up. She rubbed her hand over her face, which was aching from crying, rubbed her jaw that was clinched. “Who you got today,” she asked Huff , to come back to this world. She hoped he had some yard work. There wasn’t much to do in February. A yard man, he worked for six white families, with lots of work in the spring and summer. She wasn’t always sure how he spent his days, and she didn’t want to ask too much. A man had to have some privacy, some dignity. “Hawkins got some brush out back they want me to clear up,” he said in his bass voice. He was getting out of bed, leaving her bereft when he took his warmth away. Alma curled around herself when he switched on the overhead bulb, the room taking shape in the stark light. He started the kettle on the stove to heat water to shave, poured cold water from the pitcher into the basin on the washstand. As he washed his face and armpits, Alma studied him, his strong back and arms, the result of manual labor all his life. A proud man who had to keep that under wraps.
He had been a star on the basketball team at Sterling High. She had moved to town, to Greenville, when she was fourteen, to live with her aunt and uncle so she could go to Sterling. Her mama wanted her to get a good education, knew that Sterling High had a reputation for high achievement in its Negro students. At fifteen she became a cheerleader, still country and shy. She remembered the excitement of the games, the pride of being part of Sterling, her white uniform with its big bold “S.” Huff was larger than the other boys, 6’2”, but lithe and naturally athletic. How he could move down the court, the way he laid the ball in the basket! She never dreamed he’d notice her, but notice he did. Now it occurred to her that those years, at Sterling, had been the happiest of his life; of hers. Inside the classrooms and halls of Sterling High, so much had seemed possible. Over the years Huff had bulked up. He had grown more silent, wary.
Her mind skipped ahead, away from the past. Today was Miz Chastain’s beauty parlor day and garden club. Alma would be alone most of the day in the house, the way she liked it. Miz Chastain would want her to vacuum and dust the whole house, make everything perfect that was already perfect. Mr. Chastain’s birthday dinner was coming up on Thursday. Polish the silver, though it was never tarnished, make sure the sherry glasses had no water spots, iron the white linen table cloth, and of course Mr. Chastain’s shirts like always. But there would be nothing to keep her from her own thoughts while she went about her work. They got along well enough, she and Miz Chastain, both knowing their places. Miz Chastain was just like every other white woman she knew. It would be a day just like any other day, the routine and rhythms predictable. When Huff went out back to use the privy, she swung her feet onto the cold wood floor, stretching her back by thrusting her chest forward. Her back always hurt, it was just part of living.