Novel or Screenplay?

This past Saturday I attended a wonderful writer’s workshop put on by the Scriptwriter’s Network. The topic was self-publishing. And, though I received some very helpful information about self-publishing, the biggest revelation I received had almost nothing to do with the workshop.

In the beginning of the workshop, the speaker asked how many of us were working on novels, and how many were working on screenplays. Someone in the group said they were trying to decide which one their story should be. In an instant, although I have been working on a screenplay, I realized that my story needs to be a novel.

There is no cut and dried way to know which format one should use. But I realized that my story needs to be a novel because:

  • It is about a woman’s inner transformation through her relationships
  • There is not a lot of action in the story
  • I want my main character to narrate the story

None of these items, in my opinion, makes for a great screenplay, so novel it is. I also realized that the reason I had shied away from writing a novel is that I feared it wouldn’t be long enough. Publishers tend to seek specific word count ranges, and I have no clue yet how long my story will be. With screenplays, it’s 80-120 pages. I feared that I might start writing a novel and then only have 80-120 pages. Who would want it?

However, having the option of self-publishing solves this problem. If I choose to self-publish, the word count is up to me. I haven’t decided yet if I want to self-publish or not.  But, somehow, having this option freed me from fear. I feel energized to abandon the screenplay and start my novel. I’m excited.

Speaking of excitement, one of my Facebook friends posted a video of a woman who raged against the notion of “inspiration.” When it comes to achievement, inspiration is overrated, she said. Most of the time we won’t feel like creating or doing what we need to do. Do it anyway.

So, although I am excited, I accept that excitement might be the exception rather than the rule. To accomplish my goal I will need to just work towards it, little by little, inspired or not, until it’s finished. That, actually, is also liberating.

Happy Reading,


Stacey Dash – Right, Wrong, or Clueless?

Stacey Dash made headlines this week for disparaging “racist” activities such as the airing of the B.E.T. Awards and the celebration of Black History Month. Although she has been vilified as a cooning, sell-out, Uncle Tom figure, I want to try to take her statements seriously. Her point seems to be that since white people are excluded from the B.E.T. awards, black people shouldn’t complain about being excluded from the Oscars. In other words: is there something hypocritical and racist about having an all-black awards show, and a month devoted to black history?

2015 BET Awards - Show
LOS ANGELES, CA – JUNE 28: (L-R) Recording artists Tori Kelly, Ne-Yo, Lifetime Achievement honoree Smokey Robinson and recording artist Robin Thicke perform onstage during the 2015 BET Awards at the Microsoft Theater on June 28, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mark Davis/BET/Getty Images for BET)

My answer to that question is “no” for two main reasons. First of all, no other accolade in the industry has the prestige and power of the Academy Award. So, being routinely excluded is inherently career-limiting. Secondly, separate institutions for black people arise out of necessity, not bias.

Here are a few examples of separate institutions and why they arose:

  • Black beauty was considered an oxymoron. Although the Miss America contest began in 1921, it did not admit its first black contestant until 1970. The first black Miss America was Vanessa Williams in 1980. She was also the first Miss America to receive death threats. Thus arose the need for local all-black beauty contests.
  • Blacks were excluded from many colleges. Even the American Medical Association prohibited black members until 1950. When blacks were finally admitted to colleges as a matter of law, there were few support systems to help them navigate the overwhelmingly hostile or indifferent environments, so Historically Black Colleges and Universities were created. Incidentally, HBCU’s have always admitted anyone, regardless of color.
  • Most people on dating sites are white, and tend to request other white people only – or they will specify “only white, Asian, or Latino.” Therefore, black dating sites sprang up.
  • Black history month was created because the accomplishments of black people were often ignored, hidden, or lied about in the mainstream history books.

I could go on and on. Separate institutions began and continue out of necessity, not “reverse racism.” Racism, unfortunately, is not dead. Just recently I heard a black female producer recounting a tale of professional racism. She and her white business partner were pitching a science fiction series whose main characters were black. Before they had even completed the pitch, the producer interrupted and rejected the idea. His reason: black people don’t watch science fiction because they don’t see themselves in the future. First of all – what?! Second of all, how would he know? In any case, the lady and her partner went on to develop the idea on their own, and it’s doing quite well as a graphic novel series.

It should be plain for any thinking person to see why there are separate institutions. In order to maintain our self-esteem and dignity, we transform rejection into new opportunities. Robert Johnson created BET in 1980 due to the types of frustrations mentioned above. When he sold it in 2000, he became one of the first black billionaires. Not bad.

Besides, Stacey Dash is wrong. The BET awards do not exclude white people on any level. First of all, the channel is now owned by Viacom, which also owns MTV and VH1. Moreover, you do not have to be black to win an award. The awards go to individuals and works of art that appeal to B.E.T.’s version of The Academy. Sam Smith, Robin Thicke, Eminem, Mindy Kahling, and Erik Valdez are a few examples of non-black nominees and/or winners. It is a niche award show. And just like the People’s Choice Award, or any of the other niche award ceremonies, such as the Cinema Audio Society awards or the Costume Designers Guild Awards, the focus is specific. Separate award shows complement – but do not compete with or replace – major award shows such as the Oscars or the Grammy’s.

The most important thing to remember, though, is that awards and accolades are not the primary motivators of true artists. We do what we do out of love and passion, not for statues and labels. And – artist or no artist – you should never wait around for someone else to appreciate you. Look in the mirror and appreciate yourself. Awards can be wonderful, career-enhancing (not career-defining) things. But they should have no effect on the love we have for our work, or the effort we put into it.

Let’s make this week a week of gratitude for the gifts and talents we have, and our ability to express them – whether or not we receive any praise.

*Movie Recommendation: Dope (2015), directed by Rick Famuyiwa*

For Your Consideration: Oscar Michaeux, and Thoughts on The Hateful Eight

Life is a series of actions and reactions. Everything we do, everyone we meet, subtly changes us, moves us in faintly different directions, changing the course of our destinies. Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie The Hateful Eight was an unpleasant experience that dramatically changed my course of action. I had such high hopes for it, and was so bitterly disappointed and offended. But the experience lit a fire under me that hasn’t diminished in the slightest, though it has been a couple of weeks now.

I feel that there absolutely MUST be alternative voices in the film industry, a persistently racist industry “birthed” by D.W. Griffith’s bigot-porn, Birth of a Nation. Like Samuel L. Jackson’s character Major Warren in Hateful, who is surrounded by white people calling him (and me, basically) “nigger,” I found myself in an auditorium full of (mostly) white people who were thoroughly entertained, laughing at things that really weren’t funny. To be fair, the movie was beautifully shot, the music was stellar, and the dialogue and pacing were expert. And the over-the-top, revolting, cartoon violence is to be expected in Tarantino’s movies. Still, if I wanted to be called names for 187 minutes, and watch poor Samuel L. Jackson’s balls being blown off (a further degradation reminiscent of Ving Rhames’ character Marsellus being man-raped by a white man in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction), I would expect some prize at the end. (Raven Burnes, you witnessed and endured a filmmaker belittling and degrading your people for over three hours. Heeeeere’s – A NEW CAR!)

But, the first amendment is the first amendment. Rather than continue to protest or complain, I’d rather respond. That desire – to be part of the emerging artists who are working on projects that uplift all people – projects such as movies, and comic books, and web series, where people of all colors are treated like real full-fledged people – led me to research the pioneering voices of the past. That research brought me to the amazing and satisfying discovery of Oscar Micheaux.

Micheaux was a black filmmaker and author who lived from January 2, 1884 to March 25, 1951. He was a contemporary of Griffith, though few (including me until a few days ago) have heard of him. He was highly prolific, making 43 films completely outside the Hollywood system. This is an amazing feat in any era. But, doing so as a black man during the Jim Crow years is nothing short of stunning. He wrote, produced, directed, and distributed his movies himself. His movies were meant to be a response to the racist narratives of works like Birth, and the blackface minstrel shows that were popular in the 19th and early 20th century. Micheaux’s films featured middle-class, educated black and multi-racial characters overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve success. The fact that Micheaux could achieve so much in such a hostile environment leaves me wondering – what’s my excuse?

So, I view Micheaux as a professional mentor and role model, though he exited the planet long before I showed up. I respect what he tried to do, and I relate to the passion with which he approached his subject matter. Though D.W. Griffith’s name continues to be hailed as the “father of film”, and there are box sets upon box sets of his restored work, it is Micheaux’s legacy that inspires me to keep trying to do what I do. Regardless of how much money, if any, I ever make, regardless of how many people ever hear me, it is the work itself that matters. Whenever I make my own exit from the planet, I want to be proud of what I leave behind. Though we can never control the majority culture’s response to us, we do have absolute control over our own integrity. I am grateful to Oscar Micheaux for blazing the trail.

Whatever is yours to do in this world, do it right.


RS Burnes