does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, April 24, 2010

About My Blog and Me

Some of you may have noticed that last week I modified slightly the layout of this blog. Where the About Me section used to be, I introduced an About This Blog paragraph to identify the themes of Pilgrim Soul. The About Me section moved to the right column.

This change may seem minor, but it reflects an important evolution in me as a blog writer. When I first began Pilgrim Soul in 2009, it was to develop a platform to introduce my fiction. Very quickly, though, blogging turned into something more as I began meeting fellow bloggers from around the world who engaged me on fascinating topics with varied points of view. Their comments have even resulted in my incorporating topics I had not expected to address separately from my fiction; for example, my series on Puerto Rican identity. Pilgrim Soul became my gateway to an international party, and I didn’t even have to go through airport security to get there!

That would have been rewarding enough but along the way, I made another discovery. In writing for Pilgrim Soul, I also met myself fully. The blog’s label gadget surprised me by highlighting just how often I wrote about topics having to do with the intersection of culture and religion. That made me conscious of something I have lived with all my life, but which I had not acknowledged fully, the degree to which I have been formed by that intersection and how it continues to influence me.

In my exchanges with the international community of fellow bloggers, I also became aware of how my personal experience was part of a greater development. The identification of historical shifts is often left to historians after the fact. I believe we are living in a time in which those shifts are so palpable we don’t have to wait for historians. Important cultural and racial paradigms are at a juncture in which the old definitions are faltering but new ones have not yet been well established. I thank my blog for helping me personally to acknowledge and revel in the blessing and challenge of experiencing an historical turning point like this one. I also thank my readers for facilitating my pilgrimage of self knowledge.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Writing on a Budget

My early drafts are long. A 125,000-word novel is not unusual. Mindful of market realities limiting first novels to a range of 80 to 100,000 words, I then use a scalpel. Usually I start this process grudgingly. After all, which of my darlings will I have to sacrifice, and won’t my novel be mortally wounded by their exit?

Having gone through this process recently with two of my novels, I have made an interesting discovery. A goal of reducing my novel to 100k or less is my best friend. The resulting novel post-surgery turns out to be a much better novel. Mind you, I am usually closer to 100k than to 80k; but, hey, a 25% cut is huge, and I’m proud of myself for pulling it off.

My process has two steps. I usually cut around 10k words just by eliminating passive voice, avoiding thens, ands, buts, ofs, saids, excessive stage direction, etc. That’s the easy part, especially when I see the salutary effect on the word count at the bottom of the screen. The hard part comes in stage two when I must excise an entire scene or, oh my, a chapter, maybe even a character. That hurts.

That 100k taskmaster, though, pierces my sentimental balloon quite easily. Of course, I save the earlier draft so that I can always rescue my maimed darlings. In the meantime, though, reaching that 100k-or-less goal clarifies in no uncertain terms what is at stake. Is this darling really, really necessary? Because if I save her, I might have to kill two other darlings instead of just this one.

I do sometimes gaze longingly at the long novels of prior times and wish our standards had not changed. In this Twitter et al. world, though, it is probably best to discard that sentiment. Otherwise, I might be ensuring that my novels never come out of their inglorious residence in computer memory.

As for those novels already succesfully reduced to below 100k, alas, I have since found out that to land an agent, I probably should reduce them further to fit the even shorter but Totally Cool category, as described in the Guide To Literary Agents Editor's Blog.

· 80,000 - 89,999: Totally cool
· 90,000 - 99,999: Generally safe
· 70,000 - 79,999: Might be too short; probably all right
· 100,000 - 109,999: Might be too long; probably all right
· Below 70,000: Too short
· 110,000 or above: Too long

I was therefore about to wield my scalpel again when I heard from a writer friend:

“You can actually reduce so much that you have only Story left and have eliminated your individuality as a writer, your Voice or whatever it is that makes your work particularly you... which is what agents really want. Maybe the unique Voice of your piece is still strong or even stronger because of all your cuts, but just in case, it might be interesting to focus as much on Voice as on Word Count... at least for a while.”

So I'm taking a breather from editing to finish my current work-in-progress novel. Oh, and to do food shopping, too.

Other relevant posts:

Write What You Know,” Marketing, and Me

What is Multicultural Fiction?

For Whom Does the Writer Write?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Hero's Journey - Gilgamesh: The Original Literary Hero

The following selection from The Epic of Gilgamesh was etched onto stone tablets about four thousand years ago:

"Now there is a sound throughout the land
that can only mean one thing.
I hear the voice of grief and I know that you have been taken
somewhere by death.
Weep. Let the roads we walked together flood themselves with tears.
Let the beasts we hunted cry out for this:
the lion and the leopard, the tiger and the panther.
Let their strength be put into their tears.
Let the cloudlike mountain where you killed
the guardian of woodland treasures
place grief upon its sky blue top.
Let the river which soothed our feet overflow its banks
as tears do that swell and rush across my dusty cheeks.
Let the clouds and stars race swiftly with you into death.
Let the rain that makes us dream
tell the story of your life tonight.
Who mourns for you now, Brother?
Everyone who knew you does.
… a cruel fate robbed me
of my dearest friend too soon.
What state of being holds you now? Are you lost forever?
Do you hear my song?"

Written well before Homer’s Odyssey, this epic poem might represent literature's first treatment of a hero. Margaret Atwood has said, “It all started with Gilgamesh.” The poem’s events unfold in what is now Iraq. They recount the tales of demigod King Gilgamesh and his half-wild best friend Enkidu as they undertake dangerous quests and face issues of immortality, love and sensuality, power and greatness, the battle between our mythic and ordinary selves, and the nature of grief.

The poem, first discovered by westerners in 1849, also describes a great flood and an “ark” whose common elements with the Biblical story electrified the western world of the late 1800s. The Epic of Gilgamesh, though, was written about 1500 years before the similar tale told in Genesis. It also predates other Greek et al. recountings of the destruction of humanity through flood. Written in cuneiform on clay tablets, the poem is believed to have been inspired by the real-life King Gilgamesh who ruled circa 2700 BCE.

Because the tablets are fragmented, translators since the late 1800s have struggled to provide meaningful translations. Not only have they had to fill in the gaps of missing sections, but they have also been challenged by differing versions of the epic found in the ongoing series of discoveries.

All of the above would be interesting enough on its own. What brings me to write about The Epic of Gilgamesh here is that I was so struck by the sophistication and beauty of a poem which antedates us by four thousand years, long before Plato, the Enlightenment, and modern psychology. This is a wonderful piece of literature about profound transformation brought about by hardship and loss. King Gilgamesh evolves from a despot into a compassionate leader as a result of his friendship with Enkidu, their challenging adventures, and finally Gilgamesh’s desolation after Enkidu’s death. Rather than continue his search for immortality and dwell on his grief, Gilgamesh was encouraged to do the following:

“What is best for us to do
is now to sing and dance.
Relish warm food and cool drinks.
Cherish children to whom your love gives life.
Bathe easily in sweet, refreshing waters.
Play joyfully with your chosen wife.

“It is the will of the gods for you to smile
on simple pleasure in the leisure time of your short days.”

That still sounds like great advice. If you find an opportunity to read this seminal work, I think you might find it both startling and rewarding.

The above selections from The Epic of Gilgamesh are from the Danny P. Jackson translation.

Other posts in the A Hero's Journey series:

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Puerto Rican Identity – The U.S. Census and Race

Filled the census form
and was left shaking my head.
I don’t know my race.

Hispanics carry
the gene pool of the planet.
Europe Africa Asia ….

I marked three boxes
proclaiming my race to be

Marking three boxes, incidentally, is permissible. However imperfect their designations are, I salute the Census Bureau for at least recognizing that some of us do not fit into the old either-or categories. Indeed, they go to great lengths to accommodate the question of Hispanic origin, with question 8 asking whether the Hispanic origins were Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban et al. That said, how does an Hispanic then answer the next question about race? Here are the options:

Question 9. What is Person 1’s race? Mark one or more boxes.

· White
· Black, African Am., or Negro
· American Indian or Alaska Native
· Asian Indian
· Japanese
· Native Hawaiian
· Chinese
· Korean
· Guamanian or Chamorro
· Filipino
· Vietnamese
· Samoan
· Other Asian
· Other Pacific Islander
· Some other race

I’ll stick with the question of Hispanic racial origin and not address why Asians got so many variants, and whites and blacks so few; or even why Koreans, for example, are now considered a race. At least the Bureau was trying to accommodate racial diversity. The problem for me is that because Hispanic racial mixture took place over centuries, identifying racial origin with certainty is difficult. My racial identification has always been problematic. Most people looking at me would instantly identify me as white. A careful look at my features, though, gives evidence that somewhere in my gene pool also existed the Africans and Amerindians who contributed to the genealogy of those now identified as Puerto Ricans.

I marked all three boxes, albeit with a lingering uncertainty about whether I was answering properly. I am not sure, for example, whether the decidedly Asian cast of some of my relatives' features has its origins in Puerto Rico's Taíno Indians or whether it is the result of cross fertilization occurring in the Canary Islands from which some of my ancestors came. The racial mix is there. Where it came from, I really can't say.

Responding to the Census question also made me uneasy because it prompted me to think of the shortfalls we Hispanics still have in our own racial self identification. Hispanics, who have been called The Cosmic Race because of our racial inclusivity, should glory in our broad racial heritage. We are in the vanguard, after all, in a world with increasingly permeable cultural and racial boundaries. Yet, if one looks at the race of actors appearing in popular telenovelas, arguably a substitute for prevailing attitudes, the preponderance of the Caucasian Hispanic is striking. Sometimes when I look at Spanish-speaking television, I feel as if I am in a time warp because the lack of racial diversity resembles what existed in English-speaking media back in the 1970s or earlier. Maybe by forcing a discussion among Hispanics about racial identity, the Census Bureau will have done us a great service.