Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Ant Men test

When I was a kid, I read everything that I could get my hands on.  It got to the point that I started reading the labels on our canned goods at the dining room table.  My teachers, in an effort to feed my voracious appetite for words, gave me old textbooks and readers to take home... all of which I promptly and greedily studied and scrutinized.  By this time I had also read every book in the school library.  Now, along with my love of reading, I also longed for adventure (as if living in East New York, Brooklyn during the '60's & '70's wasn't adventure enough!).  I loved westerns, Sci-fi, action-adventure, horror... anything that involved danger and feats of derring-do!  I loved the idea of adventure in faraway lands, with an element of danger to spice things up! 

One day while at the school library, the librarian recommended a book that had just arrived in their collection, it was titled, "The Ant Men" by Eric North.  The colorful cover immediately caught my attention, and I spent the rest of the school year reading the entire book over and over, from cover to cover, at least ten times!  It wasn't that the book was particularly that great, but it contained all of the ingredients necessary to keep me thoroughly engaged!  I loved it (imagine, more than 50 years later and I still remember it vividly)!  When the next school year started, the first thing I did was to rush to the library and checked this same book out of the library.  Then, as I leafed through it's pages looking for all of the great illustrations that I remembered, I was dismayed to find that the drawings were all gone!  When I reported this to the librarian, she told me that the book never had those illustrations.  Apparently my imagination, coupled with the vivid storytelling in the book, had been enough for my mind to make up a bunch of artwork that didn't really exist!

So why am I telling you this story?  Because my question to you today is... does your writing pass the "Ant Men" test? 

Now, I'm not saying that your work must have the power to conjure up non-existent illustrations in the minds of your readers, but your work must still have the ability to capture your reader's attention - if not their imagination.  A reader must be able to momentarily suspend their existence in their world in order to immerse themselves totally in yours.  Your reader must be able to trade places with the characters in your book.  Your protagonist's concerns must become their concerns, the things that make up their world and their life experiences, must for the time that your reader is involved with your work, become what they see, hear,taste and feel.  If not, then sorry but you have failed your reader.

Katie Oldham, author of the "Love of your Life series, once said, "Have you ever realized how surreal reading a book actually is? You stare at marked slices of tree for hours on end, hallucinating vividly."

And that's pretty much the gist of it.  You want your readers to forget about the reality of things, and instead choose to believe in the reality that you have created for them.  You want your writing to be vivid enough for them to believe in it as much, or even more, than you do.  You want your words to form the artwork in their mind that brings them back for more.

Does your writing pass the Ant Men test?

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Haters Gonna Hate (Reprinted from 2015)

Writers write. Painters paint. Knitters knit. Haters hate. Yes, unfortunately the phenomenon of various people disliking you for no real or obvious reason exists. I hope you're not shocked... or even dismayed. That's just the way it is and always has been. Remember the story of Cain and Abel? Joseph and his brothers? Haters gonna hate.

  Why am I bringing this up? Because I talk to a lot of writers and artists, and one common topic of discussion is how often a person's creative work is met with negative comments, open derision, or even outright hostility. Unfortunately, especially among aspiring and new writers and artists, this can be devastating. At the very least the actions of a "hater" can cause someone to second guess their work or even their career choice.

  Don't let this happen to you. The vast majority of people in the world are not only not creative, but don't understand the creative process. Some of these folks, not all but some, even feel that it's their duty to "offer" their version of they think of as "constructive criticism."  It is much easier for these folks to pick out real or imagined flaws with your work than it is to say something encouraging. I remember that right after my first novel was published, I excitedly handed out free copies to family and friends.  To my dismay, I learned that most of them never bothered to read it, and the only comment I received from the one person that claimed that they actually did read it was, "It has a lot of grammatical errors."  Do folks do or say these kind of things out of some sort of bias? Jealousy? Anger? Actual hate?  Do they actually believe that they're helping somehow? Who knows? But what I do know is that the subtle or not so subtle poison they so willingly offer to a creative person can have the effect of discouraging a creative soul and in extreme circumstances even sabotaging a budding or existing art or writing career. And that's a doggone shame.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about folks that offer up actual insight concerning your work, or truly constructive criticism, or sincere feedback. I'm talking about those folks that casually toss you negative remarks about your work (or writing in general); sometimes in an off-handed, I can't be bothered kind of way. I remember one person telling me that he placed my book in his bathroom since that's where he does most of his reading... was I too sensitive in feeling mildly insulted?  Was that his way of telling me what he thought of my novel?  I know that I would never tell someone that I keep his/her work in my bathroom.  I know an extremely talented and creative person whose work was constantly disparaged by an art professor to the point where this artist was on the verge of giving up.  The artist however stuck it out and is now much sought after in the art world... including by that same professor who, having forgotten his negative haranguing of this artist, now praises those same exact works of art he once ridiculed and tries to get her to attend his conferences or exhibitions.  The thing is that this person's actions show that his initial disapproval was triggered by something other than simple artistic opinion. Was racism involved? sexism? Did he have a knee-jerk dislike for this person's lifestyle? Either way, he was willing to destroy this person's self-esteem and budding artistic career.

  So what can be done? Well, there's not much you can do about the hater other than staying away from them or just not including them in your creative process. But there is something you can do about YOU. Creative people are notoriously thin-skinned. You have to toughen up and realize that some people will just never support you or see what you do as being a worthy enterprise. In that case, suck it up, dust yourself off, and get back to work. Not everyone is going to be a fan. Just like not everyone can write or paint or play the cello or crochet a capelet. You have something special to say via your art so get to it, that takes precedence over the negative mewlings of any naysayer.

  And haters? Well, they're just gonna hate.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Louis Reyes Rivera

“Always there is need for song… And every human has a poem to write..." - From the esteemed essay “Inside the River of Poetry,” by Louis Reyes Rivera.

Louis Reyes Rivera (1945–2012) was a fellow Puerto Rican born in Brooklyn, New York, and already a legend when I reached out to him and asked him to speak at my organization's first writer's conference.  In 1969, it was Mr. Reyes Rivera that fueled the CCNY student movement that led to the creation of the Ethnic Studies Department, he also cofounded "The Paper," the first newspaper run by Puerto Rican and African American students at the school.

Louis Reyes Rivera’s well-known devotion and work in matters of social justice led to his extremely active role as a union organizer.  He was also instrumental in helping to establish the Freedom Party, and was also involved in the Writers for Mumia initiative.

Affectionately referred to as the "Janitor of History", Rivera’s many honors, and awards included a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, a Special Congressional Recognition Award, and the CCNY 125th Anniversary Medal. Committed to the progressive and political power of jazz as well as poetry, Rivera appeared at dozens of jazz clubs and festivals and was inducted into the Brooklyn Jazz Hall of Fame.

One of his best known works is a 150-page epic poem "Jazz in Jail" that he was able to finish just before his passing in 2012. In a Spring 2009 interview with Eric Serrano, Rivera explained its purpose: “This project began roughly seven years ago. What happens if Jazz (personified) gets busted and put in jail? For what? For trying to stand against the exploitation of music by the music industry… For trying to bring together all of the music that comes out of the Diaspora—Reggae, Samba, Mambo, Calypso, Merengue, Hard bop, Cool bop, Be bop, the Blues, Mother Blues (the mother of Jazz), Grandpa Dirge, Grandma Praise Song, Work Song, Birth Song, the Chant—into one huge convention of the music, a family reunion – Let’s discuss our condition… So I had an opportunity to pay homage to poetry and music, to show you the conditions inside a prison and inside the court room, and I could even trace the history of it.”

So it was that this talented, accomplished poet, writer, essayist, historian and activist came to my writer's conference and blew everyone away with his eloquence,  and his mastery over words. I will always be grateful to Mr. Reyes Rivera for his presence at the conference, and many of us should be grateful for his many positive and creative contributions to the people of New York City, and for the community of persons of color in general. Wepa!

Monday, December 17, 2018

The 5-senses of Writing

Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader - not the fact that it's raining, but the feel of being rained upon. (E. L. Doctorow).

It has often been told to a writer:  "Don't tell me, SHOW me!"  As a writer, it's often simple enough to get totally involved in your writing and thus get lost in the storytelling.  In doing so we forget that we're not simply telling a story, we're asking our readers to believe in it; to immerse themselves in the world that we have created and to invest their five senses in it.  Unfortunately too many writers approach their stories as if their characters, and their readers, are devoid of one or more of these senses: Seeing, Hearing, Touch, Taste, and Smell.  This makes their writing, despite how good the story is, hard to fully invest in. 

When I was a kid, I took a book out of the school library titled, The Antmen.  It was a great story! When the summer ended, I made a beeline to the library and took the book out again.  But I was disappointed when I found that all of the wonderful illustrations had been removed!  When I reported this vandalism to the librarians, I was shocked when they told me that the book had no illustrations inside, except maybe one at the beginning of each chapter!  Apparently, the story had been so vivid that my mind conjured up a bevy of non-existent artwork to go with the story!  That's what you want from your readers.

The characters in your book must not only go through their paces in moving the story forward, but must also allow you to see, taste, feel, smell, and hear what they are experiencing as they live out their lives in your novel. Is that lemon meringue pie tart? Does it melt on the tongue?  Just how crusty is that crust?  Just what does the rain feel like on your protagonist's face? Hands?  Is it just sunny out? Or does your heroine find it uncomfortably warm?  Is it making her sweat?  Does it evoke memories of other times she was hot?  Or uncomfortable? 

Don't be afraid of experiencing the world that you created.  Let your characters walk you through old neighborhoods awash in the scents of fresh baked bread and a recent rain.  Let them invite you to run your fingers through the rough stubble on their chin. 

So go ahead, live a little.  And use all of your senses.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Writers and the daily commute...

One of my favorite authors to follow online is a talented gentleman by the name of Manuel Melendez.  I not only admire his well-crafted stories and heartfelt poetry, but I also admire the sheer volume of his work (11 books and counting!).  He is the type of prolific writer that I, and I'm sure many others as well, aspire to be.  Now, if memory serves me right, I'm pretty sure that I remember him mentioning that he has done plenty of his writing while on his daily commute to and from work.  And if you live and/or work in New York City, that means that your commute probably includes taking the bus and/or subway.  Many, if not most, of us grab our newspaper, bagel and coffee, and make that mad dash for the mode of public transportation that will take us to or from the place where we make our daily bread.  It's just the way it is; heck, it's practically a tradition!  Personally, I live in Queens, NY; and my daily commute to work was almost 2 hours long, with another 2 hours thrown in for the trip back home.  Most of that time was spent riding the subway, where I used to juggle my paper, coffee, and bagel on my lap (if I was lucky enough to get a seat!), while I lamented the waste of time this commute was.  Then one day I brought along a story I was working on and a pencil, and as I delved into writing, the time just seemed to melt away.  The commute seemed to go by faster and much more interestingly, and instead of viewing it as a waste of my time, I was able to see it as an opportunity to write.

  And I'm not the only one.  As I've mentioned earlier, prolific writer Manuel Melendez uses the opportunity offered by his commute to get some writing done.  I actually finished my first novel while commuting back and forth from work.  I also notice lots of folks working on their laptops or other devices while sitting on the train, and I like to think that they're taking advantage of this time to work on their latest poem, novel, or book.  But is this a good idea?  Can someone actually effectively use this sometimes chaotic block of time to work on their writing?  Is it realistic to think that you can concentrate and "get into" your writing while surrounded by hundreds of your fellow commuters; not to mention all of the other distractions that public transportation has to offer?  The answer is, and has been for many of your fellow writers, a resounding YES!

Here are some other examples...

Fiona Mozley, the author of Man Booker shortlisted and Dylan Thomas Prize longlisted Elmet, wrote her debut novel while travelling between Peckham, in South London, and her nine to six job in Central London.

Peter Brett's first novel is a dark, demonic fantasy - the Brooklyn author wrote it while riding on the F train.  Brett, 36, tapped out most of "The Warded Man," which hit U.S. bookshelves last month, on his smartphone on daily trips from the Fort Hamilton Parkway stop near his Kensington home to his job in Times Square.

Gabriel Gambetta, author of the Golden Legacy, says, "It is said that everyone has a book in them. Ask around and you’ll find most people have an amazing idea that would make for a great story — if they only had the time to write it! Having a full-time job, family, friends, and all these annoying “adult” responsibilities leaves little time to write. But I found the time I needed in the otherwise dead time known as “the commute”.

Anthony Trollope commissioned a knee-mounted desk to extend his morning writing session into the train journey. John le Carré squeezed in his first novel en route to his office. Jeffrey Deaver used the trip to his Wall Street law firm to crack one of the few things that pay better than a Wall Street law firm: bestselling crime novels...

And there are so many others!  And really, there is no reason why you can't join them.  So next time you're lamenting about what a waste of time your daily commute to your daily grind is, whip out that story or poem that you've been working on or thinking about and make that time productive.  Who knows, it could be the next commute-driven best-seller!

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Making Pasteles

There's a traditional Puerto Rican dish that outgrew its humble beginnings to earn the status of culinary legend.  Pasteles, a tasty compilation of yuca, plantains, and various other ingredients, often occupy a place of honor at the tables of millions of Americans.several times a year.  If you've ever had one (or more!), or prepared them, then you know that not only are they delicious, they're also quite labor intensive. In fact, they take so much work to produce that they're usually relegated to the role of "holiday" food. Writing can also be labor intensive, but unlike the aforementioned (and delicious!) pasteles, you want your writing to be the opposite of holiday fare.  Just realize that if you want to produce writing that is enjoyed by your readers (delicious!), it will take more than just the casual rattling of those figurative pots and pans, you have to make pasteles...

Jane Trombley, a well-known travel writer, gives you 5 reasons why writing is so labor intensive:

 1. Writing requires focus
It sounds simple, right? But here’s the first catch: topics don’t fall from trees. You have to think them up. And think them over. It’s one thing to say, “here’s a topic”….and quite another to say, “Here’s what I have to say about this topic that is interesting, fresh, and authentic.”
Writing is hard.

2. Writing requires practice
The pros, the charlatans hawking writing e-courses, they all say you’ve got to write practice, a lot. And post frequently, here on Medium or a platform of choice. Practice your craft, they all advise.
The first week or so, that’s easy. The second week, not so much. By the third week the only thing that’s easy is to say, “not today”.
Writing is hard.

3. Writing requires diligence.
If you’re serious about writing you have to be all in. Or don’t bother. It’s too hard to be half-assed about it.
That’s where diligence comes in.
Diligence is not quite like focus, not quite like practice. Even worse, diligence is like commitment.
It’s about being dedicated. You’ve got to do it every day. You’ve got to be committed to getting better, to wrestling this tiger to the ground. It’s hard, the diligence thing.
Writing is hard.

4. Writing requires courage
Writing requires exposing your most vulnerable and insecure self…and that my friends, takes courage.
Taking up the mental exercise of focus, gingerly attempting to practice with diligence until the practice is a practice, you’ve revealed something essential about yourself.
You’ve revealed you have the courage to step outside of your comfort zone.
Writing, whether as a rookie or a veteran, requires the courage to be emotionally susceptible. Writing the courage to put your own insecurity — that uncertainty and anxiety that comes with the new and unfamiliar — aside in the service of the endeavor.
Writing is hard.

5. Writing requires humility
There are days when you’re just humming along. “Oh, I’ve got this,” as the focus is crystal clear, the muse is bouncing on your shoulder spewing garlands of poetic prose. The sense of accomplishment may be a bit premature or it may be valid, but it is probably short lived.
Writing not only requires humility, it demands humility.
To be good at writing is to take your ego out of the story, or at out of least the headline and certainly out of the lead. And that’s hard because at the same time, as confidence grows, the ego is encouraged as well.
There is a fine line between your creativity, the fruit of your ideas, your communications skills and your self-importance. It’s not about you. You, as the writer, are the vessel, probably not the source. Your gift is one of expression. Ideas themselves, most good ones at least, are also timeless.
Writing is damn hard.

So, now we're sure that writing is hard.  Does that mean you should give up?  Find something easier to do?  No, not at all.  It just means that you square your shoulders, hunker down, and get the job done!  As Stan Lee would say... "Excelsior!"

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Best Halloween Reads.....

Hello all, just a reminder that the scariest season of all, Halloween, is almost upon us.  So as a way of celebrating the season in a literary fashion, I'd like to introduce you to works of horror with a Latino touch.  All of these books are available on amazon's and barnes & noble's websites.  I urge you all to treat yourselves to at least one this Halloween season, or who knows... you may be in for a trick!
Happy reading, bwah-ha-ha-ha!
Manuel A. Meléndez was born in Puerto Rico and came to the United States when he was ten years old.   He was raised in Spanish Harlem, better known as El Barrio.  His stories are gritty dramas of life that capture the flavor and the rawness of the everyday people that he sees or meets on the streets of New York. His novel, Wicked Remnants, dares you to walk with him on the dark side and enter into the macabre in this collection of 16 bone-chilling stories that will take you to the place your nightmares begin. From an old Gypsy curse to a serial killer at large to a whining tree possessed by old secrets to a diabolical enigmatic vampire, there is something here bound to scare you into the holiday spirit!

Mariana Enriquez is an Argentine journalist, novelist and short story writer. This year saw her English-lanaguage debut in the form of a short story collection called “Things We Lost in the Fire.” The collection serves as a great example of how horror can be a powerful vehicle for social commentary. Macabre and disturbing, the collection features stories that will chill you to the bone while also offering an insight into Argentina as experienced by the author.

Edgar Cantero originally hails from Spain. His English-language debut, “The Supernatural Enhancements,” is part classic ghost story, part mystery, as the two protagonists uncover the secrets of the haunted house they inherited.

Zoraida Córdova is quickly becoming a rising star in the literary world. “The Vicious Deep,” her mermaid series, is definitely worth a read. Her most recent novel and the first book in her Brooklyn Brujas series, “Labyrinth Lost,” just won an International Latino Book Award, among other accolades, and has been optioned by Paramount. In this book, a teenage bruja tries to rid herself of her powers and accidentally makes her family disappear. This precipitates a journey to an in-between underworld called Los Lagos to bring them back. Dark and magical, this is a fabulous Latino update for “Alice in Wonderland” devotees.

Carmen Maria Machado has been killing it for a long time as a short story writer, critic and essayist. Her stories have been reprinted in “Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy,” “Best Horror of the Year” and “Year’s Best Weird Fiction.” Her debut short story collection, “Her Body and Other Parties,” has already generated a lot of buzz, and is a finalist for the National Book Award. Machado brings women’s issues to the forefront with an approach to horror that will delight fans of the genre and bring those who are on the fence about it on board. It’s original, it’s feminist af and it will blow your mind.

Michael Paul Gonzalez is always busy with a new project. His body of work can best be described as noir with a healthy dose of carnage. His stories have been included in many anthologies, including “Gothic Fantasy: Chilling Horror Short Stories” and “Year’s Best Hardcore Horror.” If you are someone who likes audiobooks or podcasts, his newest endeavor is “Larkspur Underground,” a serialized fictional account of a woman with Stockholm Syndrome who is the sole survivor of a serial killer’s house of horrors. It is not for the squeamish.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a Canadian short story writer, novelist and editor. In her short story collections and novels, the real and the magical overlap, often examining contemporary issues like her modern take of La Llorona, “Lacrimosa,” which was printed in the November 2015 issue of Nightmare Magazine. Her second novel, “Certain Dark Things,” was on many best of lists in 2016. Vampires in Mexico City. Need I say more? As an editor, she is unapologetic about championing the work of writers of color, making her a great follow on Twitter.

Samanta Schweblin is an Argentine author who has garnered much attention for her Spanish-language work, being named one of the 22 Best Writers in Spanish Under 35 by Granta in 2010. Her novel, “Fever Dream,” was translated into English and published earlier this year. It’s part ghost story and part psychological thriller that you will find yourself compulsively tearing through, hurtling towards the end. It’s a wave you feel compelled to ride. Fans of David Lynch will find a friend in this book. It’s brilliant and grotesque.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a much-celebrated author in Spain. His most popular series, “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books,” is a noir mystery which just saw its final installment late last year in Spanish. However, English language readers have one more year to catch up on the first three books before the translation comes out. His novel, “Marina,” is a cult classic. It features two teenagers who get caught up in the mystery behind a woman who ritualistically comes to the cemetery at the same time every month to leave a rose on a grave. There’s a little creep factor, a little romance and a lot to love in regards to the beautiful writing.

While YA author Guadalupe Garcia McCall is not known for horror, she did write a novel that incorporates the mythology of Mexico into an epic supernatural tale. “The Summer of the Mariposas” takes place on and across the Texas border, and starts as a female-driven version of “Stand by Me” when four sisters find a dead body. From there, the story takes on a hero’s journey where the girls find themselves encountering all the monsters your abuela warned you about.