Love’s Labor: The Story of a Book, Part I

Ten years ago, I handed an essay to my creative writing professor. He read it, ran off to the department chair and lobbied for me to be accepted into the Master of Fine Arts program at FIU. The essay grew into a master’s thesis, and now, at last, it’s a book.

LeavingLittleHavana_Cover

Leaving Little Havana: A Memoir of Miami’s Cuban Ghetto is a 90,000 word epic with the most beautiful book cover ever designed by Kristi Peters and illustrated by the Orlando artist Victor Bokas.

This is what author Virgil Suarez had to say about it:

Every so often along comes a book that seizes you by the collar and arrests you on the spot. From page 1, LEAVING LITTLE HAVANA is a brilliant, voice-driven book that will make your heart skip a few beats. My experience reading this book was similar to the first time I read THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET by Sandra Cisneros when you instantly know you are reading a classic, a story so achingly beautiful and unforgettable you relish every last word as if it were the buzzing of a hummingbird at your lips feeding you honey. This book is about family, about what happens to family in exile, about how people come into a great world of struggle and manage to get by and survive. The author has a great gift for capturing that world-known enclave of Miami we love and call Little Havana. This might be the book that puts in the literary map for good and forever. — Virgil Suárez, author of LATIN JAZZ, THE CUTTER, and 90 MILES: SELECTED AND NEW POEMS.

bookfair

Leaving Little Havana will be available at a pre-release sale at the Miami International Book Fair from 10 am to 6 pm, Friday, November 22, (free entry) and on Saturday, November 23 and Sunday, November 24 ($8 at the door). Put this on your calendar! But there’s more: the official book launch and reading will be at 7 pm Saturday, December 7 at Books and Books in Coral Gables. Put this on your calendar as well! BYOB???

booksandbooks

Now that I see and touch my book, a dream deferred for so many years, I feel as if I’m hurled like a storm of fireworks into an impassive sky, emitting sparks that shake up its aloof countenance, lighting up both illusion and reality. I now know what F. Scott Fitzgerald meant when he said: “life was radiant and time a phantom and their strength eternal.” I wish I could fly into the Jazz Age, dance the Charleston and dive into a pool of champagne.

This is the man who started it all.

DanWakefield

Last spring, Dan Wakefield, my creative writing professor, mentor, novelist, memoirist, and television script writer, connected me with a publisher who he thought might like my book. He was right. Matt Peters, publisher of Beating Windward Press, related to the story and offered me a contract.

MattPeters

Then he plowed into the editing process, pushing and pulling my narrative into publishable shape, making it the very best it could be. Most writers resent this process. I don’t. What could be better than joining forces with another creative professional who is just as invested as you are into getting the book into the hands of readers??? So lucky that Matt and I share a vision! Meet him at the Book Fair.

Writing is not the lonely pursuit most people think it is; a collaborative enterprise, writing draws in a variety of people – with a stake in the book’s success – who pour their creative talents into bringing a book to market. More often than not, their input distills the book’s soul.

This is my colleague, MIU professor Dave Bricker.

DaveBricker

He writes in his blog: “Good writing is characterized by the same conscious application of order, balance, tension, tone, spirit, relevance, and clarity as good design.” Editing requires the same applications.

During the first round of editing, I transformed every “telling” section into a “showing” section: I constructed scenes, which make a narrative spring alive. I found all the passive constructions and made them active; I eliminated the generic verbs “were,” “was” and “is” and substituted action verbs in their place.

In the second round, Matt shoved chapters into place, creating movement throughout the entire book, providing harmony between its parts. He posed questions that had never occurred to me, so I did more research, adding historical context and facts from my journals to reconstruct important new scenes.

The third round – line editing – offered another chance to polish each word and pushed me to dig into the secret, dark vault that both stores and represses memories, holding them hostage until a trigger releases the ghosts. I faced what I feared most and constructed scenes for those scary sections. I concluded that editing has no end.

The novelist Henry James, author of The Portrait of a Lady and The Bostonians, would agree. He revised his work until the end of his life, publishing several editions of each book with different plot twists, new scenes and details that he added through the years.

HenryJames

Writers struggle with eking out precious minutes of each day to devote to their art and craft. Between editing sessions, I had to teach classes, help out with family emergencies, nurse the flu, buy groceries, and bathe the dog, among other things. Fortunately, at this point in my life, with a college instructor’s semi-flexible schedule and my children grown, I have the luxury of editing three and four days straight, twelve to sixteen hours a day, varnishing the raw product to my heart’s content.

cropped-typewriter

I wrestled with a slow process; when I got up to walk around every so often, I found that each time I did, the best ideas flew into my head so I had to run back to the computer and add a scene or a section. I discovered that editing did not stop as I went about life’s daily tasks. It forced me to step into another plane of existence I never wanted to release. Happiness, as writer Anais Nin says, is “the positive assertion of the will through the consciousness of creation.” Who would ever want to leave that space?

anais1

Bedtime was agony. During the pre-dawn hours, most of my “brilliant” ideas demanded attention, ruthlessly compelling me to keep on working even if I had a morning class. Finally, wild-eyed and desperate for sleep, I emailed the final draft to Matt.

Thinking I could now relax, I found out that the work of publishing simply intensifies, as you will see in Part II of this post: after the final editing, promoting and selling the book take center stage and demand a creativity of their own.

I hope you will buy my masterpiece! Leaving Little Havana is available in paperback or e-book in December at Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com, SmashWords.com and your favorite bookseller.

See you at the Book Fair and/or the reading at Books and Books.
LeavingLittleHavana_Cover_Spread

Writing transforms every breath and step I take on this earth. Nothing to do but offer thanks.

My story “Beyond” Is Now on Kindle!

My story “Beyond” is now in the Kindle Store! Read it at: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B006T0Z122

It is my first– and humble– attempt at E-publishing fiction that has, hopefully, a semblance of plot.

Don’t have a Kindle? Click link above and download FREE KindleForPC! OR a FREE KindleForMac, Ipad, Iphone, Blackberry and Android phone. Once installed, register with an Amazon account, and search for my name!

Here’s the cover!

Loosely based on the life of an ex-boyfriend’s father, “Beyond” tells the story of the struggle for  economic survival and artisitc fulfillment by the first Cubans to leave the island in the wake of the 1959 revolution.

My tale shows Maximo, a struggling toy store owner and aspiring writer, tormented by desire for   his mistress and a longing to live the creative life.  On the evening of a small business exposition that celebrates the economic success of Cuban exiles, he fabricates a plan to escape from his humdrum life, pregnant wife and three sons. An unexpected catastrophe, however, forces him to place his plans on hold.

As I battled to construct a plot for my story, I realized how much of an impact the seemingly  plot-less early modernist writers had made on my writing style. Virginia Woolf, a member of the literary group that emerged on the heels of plot-driven Victorians such as Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, had the most influence.

When I encountered Woolf’s work in an undergraduate literature class, I was mesmerized by the stream of consciousness technique she uses in the novel Mrs. Dalloway. James Joyce, another early modernist, employs the same technique in his epic Ulysses. These authors forged a different way of telling a story: they explored emotional and psychological terrains from the inside of a character.

When writing “Beyond,” I decidedly drifted — and stayed – into stream of consciousness mode to tell the story of Maximo. But something wasn’t working: Maximo thought too much.

In Lynne Barrett’s fiction workshop, I encountered the joys—and rigors—of constructing plot.  In her class, I struggled with making my characters do something other than think.

Lynne, a much revered creative writing teacher at Florida International University and author of the story collection Magpies, insisted that plot was the most important literary element.

“Plot drives a story.  Plot means that characters cause things to happen,” she said. “Then there is an effect from those actions.”

James Hall, another FIU writing teacher, agreed with Lynne.

“Read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee,” he said. “You will see that the main character causes all the action.”

Lynn blamed my inability to construct plot on the English lit major’s obsessive focus on language, theme, imagery, symbolism and setting. Nobody teaches plot, she said. She picked up a copy of The Poetics of Aristotle and handed it to me.

“Every drama has a spectacle, character, plot, language, melody and thought,” Aristotle writes, “but the most important is the organization of events, the plot….For tragedy is not an imitation of men but of actions and of life. It is in action that happiness and unhappiness are found, and the end we aim at is a kind of activity, not a quality.”

Finally, a feeble beam of light pierced the fog.

“I get it,” I said to Lynne. “Plot is the trunk and the branches of a story. Language, theme, imagery, and setting are the leaves.”

Lynne’s eyes widened. Who knew what she was thinking? But the image helped me with my plot creation.

“A principal means by which tragedy exerts its fascination,” Aristotle continues, “are parts of the plot, that is to say reversals and recognitions.”

I sped over to the section entitled “Parts of the Plot: Reversal, Recognition, Suffering” and read: “Reversal is a change from one state of affairs to its exact opposite…..Recognition is a change from ignorance to knowledge, leading either to friendship or to hostility…..A third element is Suffering (pathos)… an action of a destructive or painful description.”

I admit that the protagonist in “Beyond” does a lot of thinking. He goes on a stroll ala Mrs. Dalloway and Stephen Daedalus, and, while he walks, he plots.

Does it work? I don’t know. Few writers are ever satisfied with their writing. Henry James never stopped revising, even after publication.

Without a doubt, plot is a challenging piece of the fiction writing puzzle.

Beyond” is part of a story collection I am writing entitled Through the Branches of the Guava Tree, showcasing the lives of Cuban exiles.