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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Hey America! I just wrote a screenplay from scratch!

Or at least I tried to.

I had this idea for a story about a thirtysomething former teen starlet festering in my head for over a year. Despite plotting an outline and sketching it up, I could never get it to work as a novel. The story just wasn’t strong enough for a full-length book. But the idea just kept coming back to me over and over again. I had to get it on paper. Since it wasn’t working as a book I opted to write the next best thing: The screenplay.

I’ve dabbled with screenwriting in the past, but nothing serious. An adaptation of Isis, and some other stories I’ve written. But this is the first time I’ve written a screenplay from scratch. The project was an attempt to see if I could write an original story within the extremely rigid format of the Writer’s Guild of America. To my surprise the finished script turned out better than I expected.

From a format standpoint I was able to get the story to fit within the WGA standards. The script is a good length fitting within the standard 90-120 pages allotted for a drama. (112 to be exact) I was also able to follow most of the rules for things like dialogue, and scene descriptions. It’s frustrating fitting a story within those parameters, but I’m getting used to it.

From a storytelling standpoint I was able to tell my story effectively. In most of my novels I use the character’s eyes like a movie camera to describe the action to the reader. So it was easy to adapt that “camera” style I use in my storytelling to the screenplay format. Even though I was writing in a Third person narrative, everyone sees what the “camera” sees. I know my descriptions are a little longish, and the dialogue’s a little rough, but it’s my first script. The more I learn the better I’ll get at screenwriting.

What’s even more of a surprise to me is how solid my writing is in this style. The spirit of my distinct style is in every page. The script still has all the irony, depth and humanity of one of my novels. From first page to last, the reader knows it’s a “Shawn James” story.

I’m very pleased with my first original screenplay came out. Now I’m just going to print it out and throw it in a box. For me, this isn’t the time to go out pitching scripts to agents. There’s a lot more for me to learn about writing. The more new projects I pursue, the better I’ll get at it.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

African American Fiction - A Cesspool at the Bookstore

A couple of weeks ago I walked into a Borders bookstore on 34th and Broadway. I was looking for DVDs, but I wound up taking a look at the African-American Fiction section to see what the market was currently producing. What I saw on the shelf turned my stomach. I had to look out the window to make sure I was still in Borders and not a Times Square sex shop.

The entire African-American section was nothing but “Erotica”, and “Gangsta” titles with overtly sexual themes. Most of the cover art featured half-naked and naked people in sexually titillating poses. As I flipped through some titles I became even more disappointed about how poorly written they were. Poor grammar, poor sentence structure, typos, and no semblance of a plot. It just was one graphic sex scene after another. Characters had no personalities or distinguishable traits. It was just one graphic sex scene after another.

I wouldn’t have felt too bad if these titles were self-published or Print-On-Demand; I know from experience there isn’t much one person working alone can do about quality. However big name publishers like Three Rivers Press (A subsidiary of Random House) and Kensington books have the staff to produce a professional quality book for their readers. I wondered if there was any copyediting or proofreading done at all on these titles. I also wondered if their editors had any sense of taste or style when it came to buying manuscripts for African-American audiences. The Black community is in SERIOUS trouble if these are the best manuscripts literary agents are submitting to publishers.

I left the store buying nothing and asking myself more questions: What happened to the broad pool of talented authors of the 90’s. People like Connie Briscoe, Bebe Campbell Moore (Lord rest her soul) Terry McMillan, and Sista Soulja? What happened to plots in Black fiction? What happened to themes in Black fiction? What happened to storytelling in Black Fiction? What happened to grammar in Black fiction? What happened to Vocabulary in Black fiction? What happened to the writers who wanted to give readers a unique perspective about the Black experience? What happened to the diversity on the Black fiction shelf? How did African-American Fiction turn from general reading audiences into XXX adults only? Why is every Black fiction title lately so sexually explicit?

I can’t give money to authors and publishers who are doing harm to my community. What publishers are currently producing as African-American fiction is unacceptable from a creative, educational and a professional standpoint. When publishers clean up the cesspool in the African-American Fiction section, I’ll start buying Black books again.