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Books Are Not Movies May 21, 2020

I haven't written a word of Kagemusha 2019 since 2019. I've been telecommuting since my college shut down campuses in March, but the extra time I get from staying home goes into my home: doing extra cleaning because I cook twice as much, working on the yards because I need to get outside, fixing the many problems I see now because I'm here when the sun is up.

This week I dipped my toe back into the literary world by visiting Scribophile. I'm not up to writing my own drafts yet, but I will happily dispense unqualified advice on others'!

Reading the chapters and short stories people have posted, I noticed a pattern. Many authors tend to write as if they're describing a movie or TV show in text. But what would make for an interesting viewing experience makes for a very dull reading experience.

Here's a pastiche, imitating multiple stories equally.

The soldier sat patiently on the wooden bench outside the general's office. The hallway was old and shabby, with unattractive orange wood paneling and a threadbare gray carpet. A painting hung by the office door, portraying a rural town at sunset. The soldier gazed at the deep oranges and purples, wondering if the town was a real place once. No town had known peace since The War began.

The office door opened. A surprisingly small and wiry man stepped into the hall. The soldier knew he was the general by his standard-issue heavy blue uniform, with the three badges signifying his rank pinned under his left shoulder.

"Officer James?" the man said.

James sat for another moment, taking one last look at the painting. Then he stood up. With a start he realized he was a head taller than his superior. He arranged his face in a deferential expression and greeted the general with a curt bow. "You wanted to speak with me, sir?"

The general blinked. "Yes, I did. Come in."

James followed the general into the office, which was as small and worn as the man himself...

This isn't a good opening for a novel. It's a scene the writer (me) envisioned through the lens of a camera and wrote down in the most boring way possible.

Excessive Description

Let's say this is the first chapter of a novel. I have one page to grab readers and get them excited for the next 250 pages. And I spend it describing what a hallway looks like.

In other story openings I've seen detailed descriptions of dystopian cityscapes, exotic deserts, fantastical airships, and quaint village bookstores. To the authors, they're creating a riveting establishing shot—that cool drone footage of the vast landscape that sets the tone for the story. To readers, they're slogging through dull description.

Describing scenery isn't world-building. It's picture-painting. Those dystopian cityscapes in CGI would be breathtaking, but words as a medium can't produce the same effect. An exotic desert on film makes audiences gasp, "Wow!" The word "sand" in text makes readers feel very little.

Reactive Characters

Agents and editors complain about protagonists waking up in chapter one, but more often I've seen them sitting. They sit, they wait, they analyze, and they realize (suddenly!) they're in the middle of doing things.

When they do take action, it's to follow stage directions. They step into halls, walk down streets, climb up or down stairs, move through Room A towards Room B, turn left or right to examine a clue and spin around to look at another character.

This works fine in TV shows. A handsome actor sits on the beach at night, gazing out at the waves. Enter another handsome actor who steps out of an intimidating black limousine and walks down the sand towards the first actor. Close-up of his hand holding a mysterious USB flash drive. Plots ensue.

Or a stunning actress walks down a busy city street in high heels, her face hidden under a hat and sunglasses. She enters a glimmering skyscraper and hurries past employees in crisp suits to the elevator doors. She exits on a higher floor and approaches a receptionist. She dramatically removes her hat and glasses. Close-up of her pretty face. The receptionist looks shocked! And so on.

In text, these purely external descriptions of people sitting, walking, and holding things is boring. So are close-ups of characters making expressions and blinking. How often modern book characters blink! They blink when they don't know how to react. They blink in bright lights. They blink away sadness and unwelcome thoughts. They blink to fill space on the page before speaking.

Temporal Cues

The plague of blinking might arise from writers attempting to recreate "beats" on the page. Moments pass. Characters pause before acting. They fill seconds by considering, mulling, choosing words carefully, and blinking.

Time is flexible in writing. Readers don't need (beat) specified between lines. Writers can control the pacing of a story in many interesting ways, but temporal cues are not one of them.


Writers seem to think they're "showing" by slipping information all casual-like into dialogue or paragraphs about other topics (E.g., "No town had known peace since The War began.") Or by sending a protagonist running across the rooftops, looking down at the people fighting over scraps of food because of The War. This is still telling readers what's going on, instead of allowing them to figure things out for themselves.

In a screenplay you might write, "A dirty dystopian city in the near future. People fight over scraps of food on the streets. A newsboy shouts wartime headlines. OFFICER JAMES runs across the rooftops, in hot pursuit of a criminal."

But like establishing shots, establishing information in writing doesn't have a strong impact on readers. There's a war and people are starving, okay, cool. We're not immersed in the world, and we don't have much reason to care.

How can we fix it?

The sample passage I wrote can't be salvaged, because the very idea of the scene is boring. This theoretical story should begin later, when Officer James undertakes his mission. We don't need a doddering general to explain who the bad guys are beforehand.

To fix smaller flaws like long descriptive paragraphs, stage directions, and characters blinking moments away, we need to change our thinking. We write this way because we see scenes in our heads, and we think we need to communicate our visions precisely: how long characters paused before speaking, what they looked and sounded like, where they moved and what they were wearing.

We're trying to capture everything a camera would show. That's just not possible. We can't invoke the same emotional responses movies can through sight and sound, and trying wastes valuable space on the page.

Instead, we should embrace the primary advantage books will always have over visual media: interiority. Getting inside characters' heads is the one thing a movie or show could never do as well as a written story. They can try with voice-overs and flashbacks, but those techniques are overused and much-hated.

If you want to describe scenery, do it through the lens of the protagonist, not through the lens of a camera pointed at the protagonist. Infuse the description with voice and character to engage readers. Preferably, incorporate description into actions that move the story forward, instead of making characters sit still and look around.

Instead of dragging out conversations with empty fillers like characters pausing and moments passing, think about how we tell stories naturally in real life. Imagine a friend calls you and says, "My boss called me into her office today. She sat down behind her desk and took a moment to gather her thoughts. I sat down too and stared out the window at the birds in the blooming magnolia trees, and the people eating lunch in the courtyard below. Then my boss took a deep breath, and she said..."

You'd probably think man, this person doesn't know how to tell a story. Get to the juicy stuff already!

Few people talk like that. Your friend is more likely to say, "My boss called me into her office today. I was so nervous, like, what did I do? Am I gonna get fired? I wasn't sure if she looked angry or what. Then she said..."

Fiction will always be artificial, but we can take hints from natural storytelling to figure out what interests people. If someone blathers on about boring details, people cut in, "Yeah, but what did she say? Why did she call you in? How did you react?" We care about interpersonal interactions, conflicts, and emotions, not what kind of trees grow outside the window or how deeply someone breathed.

Fiction is Not Reality April 6, 2020

"People always said they wanted the truth, but really they were perfectly content with a facsimile."
- from Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Earlier this year, I deleted the Twitter app from my phone. This past week, cooped up at home during the coronavirus outbreak, I wandered back onto the platform to amuse myself between manic bouts of home renovation. I quickly remembered why I quit.

Twitter adores outrage.

With the economy plummeting and everyday life rapidly evolving, many people feel unstable, afraid, anxious, and bored. It's tempting to say they're only picking fights online to vent their frustration and uncertainty.

But Twitter has ardently devoted itself to manufactured conflict since long before the current pandemic. Social media rewards content that generates intense emotion: shock, fear, and anger. When Twitter can't find anything to be afraid or angry about, they'll invent something and whip themselves into a frenzy over it.

Example #1: In January a romance author aged 60+ opined that using profanity in fiction is lazy. The #writingcommunity responded that she's a judgemental fucking bitch who needs to grow up, because in the real world every mature adult adores profanity. How dare this puritanical cunt try to sanitize literature?

Example #2: The same week, a writer posed this question ostensibly for discussion, but transparently for drama: "Is it okay to write a main character who's a misogynist? Or are people today just too sensitive?"

When others responded a sexist hero is a bad idea, the writer and his friends railed against censorship and cancel culture. They argued many men today are misogynist, and shouldn't art reflect real life?

"Realism" seems to be the favored excuse for bad morals and plain old bad writing. Whenever writers face criticism for writing unethical lessons, racist/sexist stereotypes, or language that needlessly upsets readers, the common response is, "But those things are realistic."

Fiction is always artificial.

Art does reflect real life, but only one tiny slice of it at a time.

When painting, a visual artist decides which details to emphasize and which to discard. Too much noise clutters a composition. Even when taking photographs and videos with a high-resolution camera capable of capturing every individual bump on the wall and thread in the carpet, the artist decides what to focus on, what to blur, and what to crop out of the frame.

Similarly, every writer decides what to represent on the page and what to leave out. The goal of fiction is to entertain, and/or to communicate specific themes and lessons. If the goal were to reflect reality, characters would take bathroom breaks once an hour, spend half of the book doing mundane chores, and speak in fragments with meaningless filler words.

A realistic adult conversation looks like this.




"Tell me."

"Nothing, I said. Really just, uh, stupid..."

"That again?"

"Just, yeah. My brain just know?"

"Well, stop."

"Yeah, yeah."

We don't write fictional dialogue like that. We mimic natural speech; we don't transcribe it. Our characters fully articulate what they're thinking without the clutter of unnecessary adverbs.

Much of the profanity I see in contemporary fiction is equally unnecessary clutter. Characters use "fucking" like an edgy version of "really." I fucking hate this. This is fucking boring. She's fucking pissed at you right now.

If the people who vehemently defend extraneous "fuckings" were truly devoted to realism, they'd be equally incensed by the idea of cutting out excessive repetitions of "really" and "actually." Yet they're not, because realism isn't their real problem.

The defense of "realism" is usually about pride, not art.

People flew off the handle over the sexagenarian romance author's comments on Twitter not because she threatened literature, but because she threatened egos. Writers felt like children scolded by the English teacher, so they lashed out in the name of defending artistic integrity.

Similarly, people who use realism to excuse bad morals in fiction are usually battling a perceived threat to their self-image.

When people expressed anger about Chinese stereotypes in Somewhere Lies the Moon, the author asserted that she studied Chinese history for seven years, and therefore those offensive passages were accurate, not racist.

When readers objected to a rape scene in the historical novel Voyager (the third novel in the Outlander series), the author responded that consent is a "useful fiction" constructed in the last fifty years. Real people of the time period wouldn't have called the encounter rape, Q.E.D the hero did nothing wrong.

Both of these authors cited "historical accuracy" as justification not because they're passionately devoted to scholarship, but because the criticisms called their ethics into question. From their angry and self-righteous responses, you can see both considered themselves highly intelligent and enlightened women. The implication they could ever write something racist or sexist seems deeply unfair.

Did people have a different definition of rape the 18th century? Probably. But that's clearly not what the Voyager author was thinking about when she wrote...

Half-dazed, he fought to keep her under him, while groping madly for something to say to calm her.

"But—," he said.

"Stop it!"


"Take it out!" she screamed.

He clapped one hand over her mouth and said the only coherent thing he could think of.

"No," he said defiantly, and shoved.

When the author asserts this is a portrayal of a totally-not-rape sexual encounter in 1746, she isn't fighting for her right to teach history through fiction. She's fighting against the obvious conclusion that when she wrote this book, she thought "forced seduction" is fun and sexy.

Fiction exists for an audience.

According to the Voyager author's Facebook rant, the hero had admirable motivations: he was trying to show the girl a good time, he believed she was only panicking because she was a virgin, and he was convinced the hysterics would drag on all night if he didn't get it over with.

The scene she actually wrote gives readers a different impression. (That's a lot of supposed thinking for a man who couldn't dredge up a coherent thought.) Contrary to the willful belief of writers everywhere, we don't get to decide how readers interpret our publications. If many people read a scene and say, "This idealizes rape," then the scene idealizes rape. If we feel compelled to explain that our intentions were different, then we failed as writers. It's our job to communicate clearly on the page, so readers will see what we want to show them.

Reality check: no art exists in a vacuum. If you want to successfully convey a message, you must keep in mind who will receive it.

Many people have a visceral negative reaction to profanity. Strong swear words disgust them. If you sprinkle "fuckings" around like "reallys," you will alienate those readers. If you're writing a story that might appeal to those people, ask yourself: Is it worth it? Is the de-stigmatization of angry four-letter words an important battle to pick right now? Or will profanity unnecessarily limit my audience and muddy up my message? The answers are up to you, but "those readers need to stop being so sensitive" is not an option.

Many more people hate misogyny. You want to write about a hero who looks down on women because it's realistic? Go ahead, but you can't act surprised and hurt when readers assume you're a misogynist.

Fiction communicates ideals.

Readers will interpret a book within the context of their experiences with other books, TV shows, video games, etc. And those experiences will have taught them that protagonists represent our cultural ideals.

Protagonists can have relatively minor flaws. They can have anger management issues, or self-esteem issues, or hard snarky exoskeletons to protect their soft golden hearts. But they must be relateable and sympathetic, and in most genres they must ultimately act heroically, the way readers want to believe they'd act in the same situations.

Misogyny and racism are too abhorrent to be minor character flaws, and they're still too prevalent to be obviously villainous traits. Murder has been taboo for millennia, so when you write from the perspective of a serial killer, everyone knows you're not trying to say murder is okay. But because many people today say sexist and racist things all the time, readers will assume a sexist/racist protagonist must have been written by someone who wants to promote those views.

Bias shapes what we call "realistic."

People say depressing literary fiction and violent thrillers are realistic, but romances with happy endings are not. They say depictions of selfish anti-heroes are realistic, but nice heroes and heroines are "unrealistically perfect."

Humans fall in love and get married more often then they get violently murdered by psychopaths. Most people I meet are nice and civil, not bitter and self-destructive. Even the angstiest teens can't brood 24/7—they have to take a break for sandwiches and cat videos eventually. Everyone has issues, but they rarely go to the extremes of despair and moral failings portrayed in fiction.

Yet we stubbornly insist dark subjects are "real" and light ones are not. Our long tradition of misogyny in literature has much to do with it. Nathaniel Hawthorne and John Steinbeck are classic geniuses, but Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott are a waste of time. Or, as Hawthorne himself put it, they're "a damned mob of scribbling women" ruining the exalted art of wordsmithery with their sentimental tosh.

What is realism in fiction?

To sum up so far...

  • Fiction is never completely "realistic," and it shouldn't be.
  • People tend to twist the idea of realism to excuse content that upsets readers and teaches bad lessons.
  • Western culture considers misery more "real" than joy.

None of this means realism in fiction is a worthless concept. When it's not used as a weapon to beat down "too sensitive" critics and damned mobs of scribbling women, realism is a valid goal for writers.

But if realism isn't romanticized rape, offensive cynicism, or shocking rude words, what is it?

There is no objective definition of realism, because realism is all about feelings. A story either feels real to a reader, or it doesn't.

When readers can identify with characters, place themselves in the same fictional world, and experience the same emotions, they'll say a story feels real. Think about books like the Hunger Games series, The Handmaid's Tale, or any Ursula Le Guin or Stephen King novel. The premises are objectively outrageous. Yet thousands insist the stories are "so real it's scary," because the experiences of the characters resonate with them so strongly.

Does Katniss Everdeen say "fuck" in every sentence to prove she's a real teenage girl? No. Does Peeta make sexist comments because "locker-room talk" is common among boys his age? Also no. These characters are highly idealized, but to young adult readers, they're real. Not because they use current slang or make sarcastic pop culture references or any other minute details writers obsess over, but because they have relateable emotions. Peeta gets scared and hurt. Katniss gets angry at the numerous structural injustices hurting her loved ones and ruining her life. Both feel trapped and lost in a messed-up world run by selfish adults. What fifteen-year-old couldn't relate?

To write realism, we need to dig deep. Deeper than mimicking verbal crutches, deeper than facts we learned in history classes, and certainly much deeper than "people do bad things." Realism is creating the illusion of humanity on the page.

Writing Experiences Other Than Your Own January 1, 2020

I thought I'd said all I had to say in my previous post about the RWA dumpster fire. I wrote that post after reading the complaint and supporting documentation from a publisher against Courtney Milan. But I hadn't yet read the complaint from the author of the historical romance novel Milan criticized. Yesterday I thought I should take a look at it, because maybe it wasn't as bad as the complaint from the editor.

I was right, it isn't just as bad. It's worse.

I am not and never have been a racist. Rather, I am a scholar dedicated to factual history... [More quoted later.]

Ms. Milan is demanding that I not write about cultures other than my own, which is clear discrimination, and she is doing it with vitriol... She is assuming that my portrayal of China is negative, which is not the case. I refer you back to my study of history.

It seems that for her, innumerable things reinforce racist tropes. In addition to encouraging authors of color, holding them up as examples of success, she is searching with great energy for white writers to destroy with her rage.

I've seen this attitude over and over: "White people aren't allowed to write anything anymore without getting called racist by cyber-bullies!" Taking off my Chinese hat and putting on my German-Irish hat, I say to my fellow Caucasian writers: please put your screaming pride down for a nap and listen.

Criticism is not suppression of speech. Writers of all races are allowed to write whatever they please, and readers are allowed to complain when they're offended. The closest Courtney Milan ever came to "demanding" this author refrain from writing about other cultures was in this tweet.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Don't write books about how much a culture not your own sucks. Just don't. You're not going to get it right and you're going to sound like a fucking racist.

There's a vast difference between "don't write about other cultures" and "don't write about how much other cultures suck." For example, including Asian characters in your novels is awesome. Please do it more often! But using those Asian characters to portray Eastern cultures as backwards and oppressive is insulting.

We should all write about people from other cultures. How lame it would be if every fictional world were populated by characters from only one background. But we have a responsibility to write respectfully and well, in a way that makes the real world better.

Are you writing in generalizations?

The author asserts that nothing in her novel is racist because it's based on "factual history."

I studied Chinese history intensely for over seven years. Its culture was indeed oppressive and restrictive to women (bound feet being the most obvious example). To say that women were not oppressed in China in the 1870s is absurd.

Okay, fair enough. Confucianism taught filial piety. Foot-binding was a common practice. These are the facts the author picked up from her studies.

But then she applied these facts by writing in sweeping generalizations.

"I was no' askin' what your parents wanted, but what ye want for yourself."

"It is not important. It is not a question I ask myself. In China shun, compliance, is the rule for women."

"We remain inside the walls of the women's compounds; we are demure and quiet, as our mothers have trained us to be. We walk with eyes lowered politely, and may not look higher than a man's breast. Young unmarried women are even more modest and submissive, so they will make good wives."

In China, no woman was taught much more than cooking and sewing and the graceful art of pleasing her husband.

It's one thing to say in academic discussion that the treatment of Chinese women in the 1800s was oppressive by modern standards. It's another to write in a novel that no woman in China was educated.

By writing in generalizations, the author gave up any claim to accuracy. It's not true that no Chinese women were educated. It's not true that compliance was "the rule." Compliance was taught as a virtue, but believing all Qing-era women were actually compliant is like believing all Victorian Englishwomen were actually chaste and temperant. In classic Chinese literature and folk tales, idealized female characters are not submissive dolls, but vivacious poets and sensible household managers. Fabled heroines were lauded for their wits, their prudence, their courage and self-sacrifice.

Research is great. Research is necessary. If you deep-dive into a culture for many years before attempting to write about it, good for you! You're miles ahead of the people who write in ignorance. But research should be used to inform individual characters' thoughts and behavior, not to promote stereotypes and label them "historical facts."

In your imagination, travel back to a century before the Internet, before discussions of civil rights, before the word microaggression was in any dictionary. You're a young woman, and someone asks what you want to do with your life. Is your natural answer...

  1. I'm afraid of that question. My mother sacrificed so much for me, and I'd feel guilty disobeying her wishes.
  2. Well you see, in my culture women are taught the concept of shun, or compliance, and as a rule women of Han descent are expected to respect our parents' wishes in accordance with the teachings of Confucius.

The first response is both historically accurate and universally relateable. The second is a non-Chinese person's idea of the way a Chinese person thinks. The writer sees "the Chinese" as foreigners, so the heroine also sees herself as a foreigner who must explain her strange way of thinking to normal people.

Would you write the same way about your own culture?

The author of the historical romance had a very specific mental image of a Chinese person, so she felt comfortable writing this description of the heroine.

Lian was twenty-five, tall and lithe, with the thick black hair and bronze skin of the Chinese.

And this description of other Chinese characters.

Nonetheless, their thick blue-black hair and bronze faces, turned slightly yellow by the London climate, were unmistakably Chinese, as were their slanted almond eyes.

Imagine how ridiculous you'd look writing a similar character description below.

Susan was voluptuous, with the curly golden hair and freckled skin of the Americans. Her walnut-shaped eyes twinkled with intelligence. In America, all women attend public schools from an early age, where they are instructed in literature, math, and sports. They are bold and outspoken, as their mothers taught them to be.

Readers would laugh out loud at this. Obviously, "the Americans" don't all have curly blond hair. Our eyes come in different shapes that might or might not resemble tree nuts. Many children attend public schools, but many don't. And who in their right mind would think all 168 million women in the U.S. have the same personality?

Historical fact: "the Chinese" are diverse too. China is country of 3.7 million square miles inhabited by 1.4 billion people from multiple ethnic groups. Chinese people can have dark skin, reddish hair, body types and facial features that appear East Asian or South Asian or Turkic. Like in every other country, people can be wealthy or impoverished, highly educated city slickers or rural subsistence farmers.

If you find yourself writing about almond eyes, molten chocolate skin, exotic cheekbones, etc., turn your sentences around on your own culture and see if they'd be reductive, offensive, or just plain silly. (Who's up for a hero with a marshmallow creme complexion? No? How about skin like warm tofu?)

Are you reinforcing stereotypes?

Writers create fictional characters by emphasizing certain traits over others. When writing about characters from other backgrounds, you might unconsciously emphasize the traits that play into the stereotypes you've absorbed over your life.

For example, a heroine's best friend might be a Latina who loves tacos and Shakira, has enviable curves, practices Catholicism, and spends the holiday break in Mexico with her large extended family.

I've had multiple Latinx classmates and coworkers with these traits. The description is not inaccurate, as many would point out to assert there's no problem here. But there is a problem here. This character might not be unrealistic, but the specific traits chosen are stereotypical.

Why pick tacos and Shakira over the many other things that can make a person unique and interesting? The best friend could be a watercolor artist, an avid runner, and/or a Rubik's cube champion. She could have some of the many quirks given to characters who aren't wholly defined by race. Would you build a non-Hispanic Caucasian best friend by saying she loves pizza and Katy Perry? How dull that would be.

In a perfect utopia, you could describe a Latina as a taco-loving Catholic, and the portrayal would be boring but harmless. But we don't live in a utopia, and we can't be willfully blind to the fact that our readers have been absorbing stereotypes their entire lives, too. When we play along, we reinforce the idea that every Latinx person is the same. They're not individuals worthy of respect, but "those people."

When Milan brings up domestic violence against Asian women, it is willful blindness when the author responds with indignation:

Is she honestly saying that a fictional book describing Chinese society in the 1870s would inspire a contemporary man to assault her?

No, an upstanding gentleman will not suddenly get a hankering to rape a random Asian woman after reading one novel. But that one novel supports a longstanding pattern in many books with demure Oriental love interests, many movies with actresses in cheongsams purring "Me lova you long time," many thousands of men joking about prostitutes in Thailand and sharing porn of Japanese schoolgirls who sit still and cry while faceless actors humiliate them. Knowing all of that exists, do you really think it's responsible to write that Asian women are "modest and submissive, so they will make good wives"?

Do you identify with the character?

I feel a deep connection with China, as did my mother. I have always marveled at how far advanced their culture was intellectually, creatively, and scientifically.

Here's the root of the problem: this author thinks of her Chinese characters as people different from herself. She "marveled" at "their" culture. She didn't write about fully formed humans she identified with.

Maintaining the balance between cultural differences and self-identification is tricky. You don't want to write about a Chinese person who acts thoroughly American—then you end up with faux diversity. You need to understand how culture shapes personal beliefs and learned behaviors, and use that to inhabit the character without generalizing or awkwardly pontificating.

The hardest part of this is recognizing your own cultural values and overriding them. Values are invisible. People internalize them as facts "everyone knows" and have difficulty articulating them. An 1870s Chinese character would internalize that respecting your elders is important, expressing strong emotion is immature, and good women prioritize others' needs and feelings above their own. This probably conflicts with your modern American values of being open and honest, speaking truth to power, and asserting yourself. A certain situation might give you one gut reaction (e.g., "You go girl! Put that old misogynist in his place!"), but your character another (e.g., "What a horrible woman, disrespecting a grandfather like that.").

As evidenced by the complaint, self-reflection is not that author's strong suit. If it were, she would have written the book differently to begin with. Writing characters from backgrounds other than your own requires humility first and foremost. Demolish the idea that you're a perfect human who could never be racist. Do it gleefully with a sledgehammer, like those people on home renovation shows tearing down unwanted walls. You want an open-concept mind, so you can see your thoughts misbehaving from the kitchen.

Then do your best to write about people. Not mass-produced plastic action figures of people wearing native headdresses or kung fu costumes, but real, complex people. Don't reduce people of color to a handful of stereotypical traits. Give them your own emotions, quirks, and dreams. Regardless of culture, gender, or religion, we all love our families, sulk over slights, whine when we're hungry or tired, find amusement in strange things, and yearn for acceptance and understanding from other people. We're all individuals with unique tastes, interests, and ways of expressing ourselves.