does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Monday, March 29, 2010

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Quarterfinalist! has selected my novel Choosing Sides as a quarterfinalist in its third annual international competition for unpublished and previously self-published novels waiting to be discovered. The winner will receive a publishing contract with Penguin.

Like any Amazon offering, my novel is open to customer reviews. While these do not determine who progresses to the semifinals and finals, the judges may read these reviews as they deliberate. I would welcome your customer reviews. You can download for free Amazon’s excerpt of Choosing Sides here. If you do not have a Kindle, Amazon provides on the right hand column an app for downloading Kindle capability to your PC or Mac; also, for free.

A description of Choosing Sides: Forced by ruinous poverty to emigrate from Puerto Rico to the Midwest, Angélica Miranda's family abandons its rain forest cabin for a two-room walk-up next to busy railroad tracks. They find the stark English language as unwelcoming as the frigid winter and yearn for the palm trees, gardenias, and gurgling mountain stream they left behind. This family of a former sugarcane field laborer is barely making ends meet when Angélica's father suffers a disabling industrial accident. Already esteemed by the Latino Pentecostal community for his spiritual wisdom and kindness, he accepts, after a protracted recovery, becoming their ill-paid minister. Angélica must now navigate two cultural divides: her American versus Puerto Rican worlds and also the secular world of school versus the spiritual one of church. After violent confrontations with her mother, Angélica abandons her parent's church and belief system, only to learn the high cost of choosing sides.

The semifinalists will be announced on April 27. I have my fingers crossed.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

“Write What You Know,” Marketing, and Me

Every writer who has taken a writing class or received a critique has heard, “Write what you know.” It is a good rule, encouraging depth and originality. Defining What I Know, though, can get really complicated. Of all the various facets of a person, which is worthy of being mined for a story? To make self branding effective, should a writer always aim her pick at the same pile of rocks? And why does this matter in the quest to publish one’s novels?

My novels and short stories address such disparate subjects as religion, Latino culture, the immigrant experience, life aboard a boat, the business world, the challenges of poverty, illness, addiction, et al. What I Know comes from having sojourned among the religiously devout as well as the devoutly atheist. I have lived in a mountainside shack and have worked in the White House. I have mingled among the wealthy and powerful and have lived among the humble and destitute. I consider both English and Spanish to be my native tongues. This is the What I Know that has fed my writing.

Viewed singly, samples of my writing might be construed by a marketer to fit any of the following genres: literary, religion/spiritual, ethnic, multicultural, adventure, inspirational, politics, and business. In my understandable reluctance to force fit myself into any single genre, I apparently am not unique among authors. I can hear my compatriot writers chant, “I am not a uni-dimensional being.” The problem is that this self-reinforcing sense of specialness will not help us facilitate our work’s journey from computer disk to bookstore.

I come from a business background and deeply respect the business world’s imperative to create market segments in order to sell effectively. Certainly, in the publishing realm, we recognize that the market for a John Grisham novel might be different than that for a Salmon Rushdie one. If I want someone to invest real money to publish and sell my books, I have to be mindful of market realities. If good writing has its rules of engagement so does good business. Stacy Glick from Dystel & Goderich says it best. “I usually find this [inability to choose a single genre] problematic for the simple reason that a book that is described this way often suffers from an identity crisis, and publishers want to be able to clearly identify how a book will be positioned, marketed, promoted, and at its most basic level, where it will "live" in the bookstores….”

Practical person that I am, I acknowledge that if I want to achieve my publishing dream, I must take a stand about the nature of my work, i.e., choose a genre. This is true even if I believe that all the genres listed above, while each a possible fit, miss the point of my work. I write, I like to think, not about my chameleon-like residence within any of the multiple genres, but about my pilgrimage across their boundaries. If I’m going to play with other people’s money, though, I think it’s a fair requirement to follow their rules.

Luckily for me, I have been told that the quality of my writing is good enough to fit into that, itself, amorphous genre known as Literary. From now on, whenever I write a query letter to an agent, I will call my work literary. Sure, Literary is apparently not selling at the moment, but the issue of publishing fads has to be the subject of another post or else this already long one will never end.

Perhaps for me, though, What I Know is Not Belonging. One of my blog readers once said that “belonging to not belonging” might better define my writing. She wrote that in a comment about my short story “The Cry of Lares,” where the protagonist talks about living with a dual awareness of “…who I’ve left behind versus who I’ve taken up with.”

My deep suspicion is that many of us live with a sense of Otherness that we mask by fostering intense attachment to some group, be it school, nation, sports team, culture, family, advocacy group, etc. My other suspicion is that, in our increasingly mobile and interconnected world, more and more of us will navigate the interstices of previously rigid national and cultural boundaries. In the here and now, though, publishers, agents, and authors must acknowledge those boundaries.

Does this mean that the commercial realities of publishing will favor those who can self define easily at the expense of those squiggling across borders, when ironically the latter might represent an increasing percentage of writers and readers? What do you think?

Related posts

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A library-loving blog challenge. You comment. I donate.

Today, I join other bloggers who have chosen to promote awareness of and raise funds for local libraries. For every commenter on this post between now and March 27, 2010 12:01 a.m., I will donate $1 to my home town library: East Chicago, Indiana Public Library, up to a total amount of $200.

My hometown’s libraries were an oasis for me when I was young. There, I met great thinkers from centuries past as well as the popular writers of the day. Today, my home town suffers from significant economic hardship due not only to general economic woes, but also because much of its industrial base has left. A substantial portion of the town’s residents, predominantly African American and Latino, live below the poverty line. The East Chicago Public Library once helped me to dream. I’d like to help others do the same.

The challenge is easy. If you comment below, I will provide the East Chicago Public Library a gift. If you don’t know what to say in your comment, “I love libraries” will do.

Note that my pledge is “per commenter”—so if a single person leaves 50 comments, that still only counts once! But you can do more by spreading the word ... please link to this post, tweet about it, and send your friends here so they can comment and raise more money.

If you’re moved to make a flat-fee donation to your library, or to start your own challenge, you are quite welcome, and please leave that information in the comments.

The official time period for this challenge is March 23-27. You may find a complete list of participating bloggers (or other sites where you can help libraries just by leaving a comment!) at the following link:

UPDATE: 65 wonderful people left comments. Thank you! I increased my contribution to $2 per commenter and have sent the East Chicago Public Library a check for $130.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Puerto Rican Identity - Birth Certificates

A recent AP article said, “Native Puerto Ricans living outside the island territory are reacting with surprise and confusion after learning their birth certificates will become no good this summer.”

This news got my attention. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens at birth, and while this new requirement does not imperil their U.S. citizenship, it highlights the unique political circumstance of Puerto Ricans.

The reason for the new requirement is a recently enacted island law targeted at combating identity theft. According to the U.S. State Department, as much as 40 percent of identity fraud in the U.S. involves birth certificates from Puerto Rico. It would be speculation on my part to say why that might be. Perhaps, for people needing Spanish surnames for entry into the US, a birth certificate from Puerto Rico is akin to gold. Another reason may be, according to Puerto Rican government official Kenneth D. McClintock, that in Puerto Rico, “…. birth certificates were required and filed away for everything in life, every school you registered in, every summer camp, ballet school, little league and other activities. Up until last December schools were broken into, not to steal computers, but old school records.”

Whatever the reasons for or the effectiveness of this new law, what is clear is that millions of Puerto Ricans must get new birth certificates this summer, including more than a third of the 4.1 million people of Puerto Rican descent living outside the island. The other thing that is predictable is that among those millions will be many irritated folks who probably can’t even remember the last time they had to access their birth certificate, but who now must obtain a new one. When was the last time you had to produce your birth certificate?

Related Post:

Saturday, March 6, 2010

My Debt to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ayn Rand

At fourteen, I devoured countless pulp romance novels, in addition to Hugo, de Maupassant, Austen, et al. They did not change my life, though, the way two other writers did: Ayn Rand and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In retrospect, this was an improbable combination of mentors since transcendentalist Emerson would have thought little of atheist Rand, and Rand herself dismissed Emerson’s abilities as a philosopher. Perhaps, then, it is a testimony to how unformed a person I was at fourteen that both of them had a towering influence on me at the same time.

The first mentor, Ayn Rand, helped me address my unease with the highly charged religious atmosphere I was born into. I became her devoted acolyte (!), reading all her novels and essays. Indeed, I hung on to her every word for years until, well, I didn’t anymore. I am no longer an atheist . For a summary of my current beliefs, read My Religious Primer post.

Apart from easing my transition into my then atheism, Rand is directly responsible for steering me into a business career. I so admired her fictional heroines, who tackled as equals men in the business world, that I thought, “I can do that!” Much to my family’s amazement, I went on to get my MBA and to embark on a business career that eventually took me to several continents. I left that career quite early, but I remain forever grateful to Ayn Rand for spurring me on to try something which, given my family background, I would never have known existed; much less, tried.

My other mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote an essay, “Self Reliance,” which gave wings to my inner sense at fourteen that my differentness should be honored and not repressed. I was so smitten by this essay that I taped excerpts from it all over my bedroom walls. My mother never learned English but when she saw those yellow bits of paper stuck on the walls, she’d grumble, sensing correctly that their content was rebellious somehow. My father and brother did understand English but their reaction was simply to stand in front of the quotes and then turn around to look at me quizzically. My brother might even have said I was nuts.

Recently, my discussion group studied this Emerson essay, and I quickly found myself remembering that bedroom wall papered with Emerson quotes. I also re-discovered the source of the quote I had coincidentally added last year to this blog’s favorite quotes section.

“Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession ... Do that which is assigned to you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much.”

The more mature me can take issue with Emerson on many fronts, but this quote remains compelling in its admonition to honor my uniqueness. This is true not only for my personal life, but also for my fiction, where I always strive to avoid being derivative.