Fiction Tips From Terry McMillan

Terry McMillan is content to leave the pulse-pounding plots to Tom Clancy and John Grisham; it’s characters who drive her novels. The women McMillan crafts draw readers by the millions. These characters seem familiar enough to walk through your apartment door, drop a Coach bag on the coffee table and flop down on the couch for a chat.

And although her characters are primarily middle-class African-American women, the issues they confront are universal enough to draw readers from across race, class and even gender lines. Her cast of women invite readers in for an intimate look at the struggle to balance homemaking and careers, follow their ambitions, hold together extended families, manage their men, and wear the hell out of “bad” dresses.

As McMillan puts it: “The grocery store where I shop is predominantly white, and I get stopped by these little old ladies and they’re like, ‘workin’ on another book? I loved all the others.’ And it’s this little old lady with a cane — it’s just amazing.”

“Amazing” could also describe McMillan’s rise in publishing. After just six weeks, her first novel, Mama, was already in its third printing. Disappearing Acts earned her critical acclaim for her first-person handling of her male lead character, Franklin Swift. The paperback rights for Waiting to Exhale brought $2.64 million, one of the largest deals of its kind in publishing history. And those who missed the books are catching the movies — Waiting to Exhale was one of 1996’s most popular films, and the film version of How Stella Got Her Groove Back was released this past fall.

“I never dreamed in a million years that this would have happened,” McMillan says. "I had no expectations. All I ever wanted was a decent audience, and for people to appreciate my stories.”

McMillan came to writing in the mid-’70s through a fiction class at the University of California, Berkeley, after a middle-class up-bringing in Port Huron, Michigan. “I don’t even know what made me take my first fiction writing class, but I had heard of Ishmael Reed,” McMillan said. “I ended up writing a story for his class, and he said my voice was just amazing. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I have a deep voice, so when I talk a lot of times people think I’m a guy. Until he explained what ‘voice’ meant, I didn’t even know what he was talking about.”

After her first short story publication in Reed’s magazine Yardbird, the going got rougher. She took Mama with her to the Harlem Writer’s Guild, where they encouraged her to work what was then a short story into a novel.

Terry Talks
McMillan on Dialogue
I think sometimes writers try too hard; every word has to be perfect. They don’t understand that everybody doesn’t talk like they were a literature major, or in metaphors, and that everybody isn’t well-educated.

McMillan on Finding Agents
One of the things I know now that I didn’t know then was that almost every writer thanks his or her agent — look at the acknowledgments page. And that’s just one way [new writers] can pinpoint an agent. If you know an agent really appreciates a certain sensibility and writing style, that’s one way to do it. And the other way is to get that book called Guide to Literary Agents (Writer’s Digest Books) where the agents talk about writers who they represent. It was really helpful to me — that’s how I found my first agent. I ended up firing her, but she’s still around and she’s still a good agent. She just wasn’t the agent for me.

Brief stays at the McDowell Colony and Yaddo yielded 400 pages of a novel and a previously written collection of short stories she was determined to sell. The response from Houghton Mifflin a year later was that her short-story collection might be difficult to sell, but would she send along her novel?

Houghton Mifflin published Mama in 1987, but it was McMillan who sold the book. “As soon as I found out the publicity department wasn’t going to do any publicity other than send out the standard releases, and that I wasn’t going on a book tour, I said ‘what is going on here?'” McMillan wrote bookstores, colleges and universities, setting up readings and promoting the book, and sent her publicist her itinerary. She ended up selling about 10,000 books.

After stumping for Mama, McMillan has continued coming on to her readers like a country preacher, with a steady stream of readings, book signings and television appearances on national programs such as the Oprah Winfrey Show and Today. She became as familiar as her characters, available and comfortable, sitting on the couch.

McMillan explains: “People read these books, and they’re moved by them, and you don’t want them to deify you,” she says. "You want them to know you’re just an everyday person who happens to write books. And that’s why I will sign everybody’s book who walks in that room and stands in a line.

“I mean, I have a built-in audience; I don’t have to go on book tours anymore,” she says. “But a lot of times I’ll take readings where I read stuff in progress. I don’t mind if it’s kind of tacky; I’ll tell an audience in the opening some of this stuff isn’t finished, but I’ll try it out on you guys.”

I caught up with McMillan as she was putting the finishing touches on her next novel. And like the characters in her books, McMillan proved to be candid, funny and gracious.

Writer’s Yearbook: Why do you think your characters are so compelling, and why do they connect with such a wide range of readers?

Terry McMillan: There’s a saying that you’ll never understand a person until you write his or her story, and I don’t write about characters unless I don’t fully understand why they do what they do. And it’s sort of like the only way — even if that person is confused and flawed, like most of us are — you get a chance to connect with them. A lot of times when I do that in first person it gives me a chance to forgive myself for my own weaknesses, because I realize that I’m not alone. Sometimes it’s the characters you like the least that you end up liking the most, and I think that it’s those kind of decisions that end up making your work come alive. That’s what it is for me.

Also, I let my characters do the talking, simple as that. And I don’t try to put words in their mouths. I let them talk. And that’s why there’s profanity in my work — even though I do use profanity, I don’t use it the way a lot of them do. I give them a voice, and I’m dedicated to that voice, simple as that. A lot of times, once I know my characters, I sort of know the words that are going to come out of their mouths in a certain situation, and that’s the fun of it.

WY: A New York Times article published shortly after the release of Waiting to Exhale described your novels as focusing on the lives of essentially conventional, middle-class blacks. How do you explain their crossover appeal? Is it feminism at its core?

McMillan: Everything I write is about empowerment, regardless of what kind it is. It’s always about a woman standing up for herself and her rights and her beliefs, and not worrying about what other people think. But one of the things I think fiction should not do is be didactic. I’m not here to preach, I’m not trying to be Gloria Steinem in disguise. I would prefer that you be affected, that by reading something you get a sense of empowerment, and hopefully if it’s subtle enough you won’t even know it happened.

WY: Your characters have gotten you into trouble. You were sued for defamation over the character of Franklin Swift, from Disappearing Acts, by a former lover who claimed you used him as a model. Although the New York Supreme Court ruled in your favor, did this affect the way you draw your characters?

McMillan: I wasn’t worried so much for myself. My fear was the effect it could have on other writers who use real people as a pool from which to get material.

That was when I started doing character profiles, that’s when I created Franklin and gave him those nuances. Yes, he was my boyfriend and yes, he worked construction, that much I kept. But there were like two scenes in that entire book I could say sort of actually happened, and even the way I handled it was different. The bottom line is I have a right to do what I want to do with information and my life experiences. I have a right, and I’m not going to be bullied.

WY: How do your character profiles work?

McMillan: I’d go to places and act like I wanted a job, and get these employment applications and then I’d retype them on my computer like a form, and then I’d add to it: What is your biggest secret? Do you pay your taxes on time? Do you lie? What is it that really gets on your nerves about other people? What do you think your strengths and weaknesses are? How do you see yourself? What are your hobbies? What foods do you eat? What are you allergic to? What shoe size do you wear? Are you overweight? I’d do that for all my characters.

I’d end up with this profile, even if it’s stuff I don’t ever use. My favorites are strengths and weaknesses, what pisses them off, and what the biggest obstacle in their lives are right now. And they answer that for themselves or I give it to them, and that determines what sort of situations I will put them in, so that they will have to deal with it. I test them, but you’ve got to know them first.

WY: Have you created characters who’ve ended up edited out? Who just didn’t work?

McMillan: In Waiting to Exhale I created a character who was part black and part Chinese. Somebody published the chapter as a short story. It worked as a short story, but I was trying too hard, with the Chinese part of it, to show these mixed cultures.

WY: Your style is very engaging — there’s nothing formal or practiced about it — which may have a lot to do with your characters’ appeal. Who were your stylistic influences?

McMillan: I think I was influenced by Ring Lardner, just the real conversational tone. And I’d have to say J.D. Salinger and Catcher in the Rye — that whole stream of consciousness thing. It’s just the fact that you can weave this whole monologue with things and make a story out of it, and it’s as if you’re talking to someone. That is really quite effective. Also, just before Mama was published, I began reading Zora Neale Hurston, which was hard for me at the time because it was in dialect, but it became easier.

WY: When you first started writing were you bothered by the relative lack of African-American women novelists?

McMillan: At the time I didn’t really think of it in those terms. I still think that good writing is good writing, no matter who writes it. Back then I read Katherine Anne Porter and Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf — those writers I really found powerful. Katherine Anne Porter in particular is one of my favorite writers. What she could do with a short story just blew me away. Back then you don’t know what’s affecting your work, you just know what moves you, and their work moved me.

At that time Toni Morrison and Alice Walker were just coming to the forefront, and I was barely in college. Prior to being in college I hadn’t done a whole lot of reading of literature by African-Americans because I didn’t know it existed and because I didn’t think, hey, why don’t black people write books? I wasn’t there yet.

Later I moved to LA and they had a class on African-American literature, and I thought what is this? And they had a whole ocean of writing by black people, male and female alike.

WY: Your first writing experiences must have come later in life.

McMillan: It was 1971 or ’72. I was living in LA, and I wrote a poem. I think it was my first experience with heartbreak. I started writing more poetry after that, because it seemed like it was gratifying, it felt good to be able to express how you felt and it was a way to react to things, and you could keep it to yourself. That’s how it started, and it just kind of evolved.

WY: Having spent time writing Mama at McDowell Colony and Yaddo, what’s your opinion of writers’ groups?

McMillan: They’re dangerous. In some groups, nobody knows what they’re doing, it’s not led by someone who is knowledgeable about the craft itself. I don’t know that someone leading the workshop has to be published, but it wouldn’t hurt to have someone who at least has a clue about structure, and the rules of fiction, and advice about what would make a greater character, as opposed to just responding to what you think you would like.

Someone once said you should never stay in a writers’ group longer than a year because there are people who’ve been in these groups for years and it’s just comfortable, (they lose focus on) the product.

WY: As an instructor, you’ve been known to caution writers not to put the publishing cart before the writing horse.

McMillan: A lot of young writers, all they think about is being published. That’s their priority — how much money can I make, how many books can I sell, can I make it on the bestseller list? You don’t know how many books I see and it’s written all over them. It’s kind of sad. For some of these young writers out here it’s like prostitution.

A lot of people don’t see writing as an act of self-discovery, and I think that’s a very big danger. A lot of them are more interested in telling you what they know, or what they think they know. They’ve already figured it out. If they’ve already figured it out, what’s the point?

Each book is a different kind of challenge. How Stella Got Her Groove Back was my reaction to what happened to me and I was trying to question it. So I wrote that book in like three weeks. It started out as a poem, and then I decided to establish some distance in which to create this woman. So it was going to be a little story, and then it was going to be a novella, and then it was going to be a little short novel, just so I could get it off my chest. Next thing I know my agent says, “Terry, shut up and just write it, okay?”

It wasn’t planned at all, but what it ultimately ended up doing was freeing me to make some other decisions in my life; you don’t owe anybody any apologies or explanations for your behavior. And in some ways I think a lot of other women feel the same way, not so much about being with a young man, but being in a job you hate, or doing things that make you feel good.

WY: So you don’t have a road map when you start on a novel? They change as you work?

McMillan: I’m working now on a novel I’d started a few years back, and I’m about 80 pages into it, and there are these adult children — it’s a family — and the mother was in first person and the kids were all in third person. The first chapter is somewhat of a monologue. It takes place in this hospital, and you get the mother’s take on everybody else, on her kids and her husband. Then you meet her husband, and his character is in first person, and you get his take on her. Then you meet the son. Originally I’d written the son and three daughters all in third person and I realized that it wasn’t going to be as effective once I got the structure down. I had this chapter sitting here, an old chapter and it worked perfectly fine in third person, but it was… it was so easy to do, and you can’t go emotionally where you want to go. I mean, there’s a way to do it, but it’s the safer way. And by doing it in first person, it’s not as safe, it takes more energy.

My old editor said the other day, "You don’t have to do it in first person." I know I don’t have to, but the story dictates the structure. Just before you called I read the whole thing in first person and it’s right. It’s right. Now if you ever see it published and it’s in third person you’ll know I changed my mind.

WY: Is the market healthy for young writers aspiring for their first publication?

McMillan: I’d say for young writers who take the craft seriously, who aren’t worried about stardom, the climate is still very good. Because editors are always looking for a good story, with really compelling characters and writers who use their own voice. Not Terry McMillan’s voice, not Anne Tyler’s voice, their own voice. Unfortunately there are a lot of young writers who are scared, and they don’t trust their own instincts. That’s what they need to do. And they need to stop having these visions of grandeur, and just be honest and write a good story.

Anne Bowling is production editor of Writer’s Market by day and a freelance writer and editor by night. This piece originally appeared in the September 1998 issue of Fiction Writer and is copyrighted 1998 by Anne Bowling, with whose permission it is reprinted here.

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