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.

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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.

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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???

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

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Seven Reasons to Read in 2013

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This new year, resolve to let all the action happen inside your mind, the most sophisticated virtual screen to be devised!

This is what reading does for you:  

  1. Finances unlimited journeys to every corner of the earth.  But be more than an armchair traveler.  Delve into the history of the world, and crack the code to the variety of cultures, religions, and political systems out there.
  2. Offers instant escape from your individual reality. Anais Nin says, “When one is truly rich, inwardly, ordinary life becomes a form of torture.” A book hands you an alternative life, easing you out of boredom and malaise.  
  3. Provides incomparable aesthetic pleasure derived from sharply chiseled sentences, startling imagery and stunning words.  Check out this image: “straight-trunked trees spread out canopies as dense and green as broccoli.”  And this one: “a crisp-cut suit defined him against the landscape, the way a line of India ink edged a drawing.”  Both from Erik Larson’s  Thunderstruck.
  4. Introduces you to a debate partner with whom to explore controversial issues.  Although it is silent, the conversation allows you to compare notes with a writer whose intellect you respect. A few of my debate buddies include Edward Said, Katha Pollitt, Louis Menand and Laura Kipnis.  
  5. Connects you emotionally with writers who mirror your innermost thoughts, anxieties, desires, and goals, affording you the knowledge that you are not alone: many others out there share your passions.
  6. Teaches you to appreciate the elements of good writing:                                           
    (a) A riveting plot containing reversals and recognitions, as set forth in Aristotle’s Poetic’s
    (b) An innovative narrative structure whose parts form an impacting whole,
    (c) Fluidity and depth of thought,                                                                                     (d) Language that sings, runs, yells,  soothes, soothes,  
    (e)  Fictional characters — or, in the case of nonfiction, real people — whose traits, actions and thoughts open up a world of possibilities,                                                 
    (f)  A setting that allows you to live in it.
    7.  Unlocks the secrets of survival for us, fragile humans buffeted by random blows from a haphazard world.

Here are seven books I’ve read recently that do all of the above:

The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance edited by Alain Locke

This is an incredible compilation of fiction, poetry, drama and essays by African-American writers –including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer and Countee Cullen — who lived during the exciting 1920s artistic revival called The Harlem Renaissance.

Paper Fish by Tina De Rosa

Writing in an almost mystical poetic prose, De Rosa tells the story of an Italian-American girl who struggles to survive in the slums of ethnic Chicago. The tale focuses on immigrants who grapple with harsh reality in 1950s America, but also hold on to cultural traditions.

One Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

If you want to experience an eye opener about Afghan culture, read this tale about two oppressed women who are almost murdered by their enraged husband.  Hosseini offers us an unforgettable portrait of what it’s like to be female in the sad Taliban culture of ignorance.

My Thirty Years’ War by Margaret Anderson

A passionate treatise on the splendors of the artistic sensibility, this memoir recounts Anderson’s  adventures as the publisher of innovative The Little Review in the early 1900s. She emerges as an ambitious, high-spirited woman and a role model for those aspiring to the literary lifestyle. 

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

Early twentieth century London is the setting for this portrait of the world’s scientists as they compete to develop wireless telegraphy.  Larson intertwines the stories of the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi and the homeopathic doctor, Hawley Harvey Crippen, charged with the North London Cellar Murder, for a compelling look at the Edwardian period.  

The Good Soldiers by David Finkel

A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter chronicles the lives of army infantry soldiers as they carry out Bush’s new strategy for war in Iraq during 2007. Finkel lived with the battalion in Baghdad and not only describes the horrific details of battle, but also reveals the private drama of these heroic young men.  The book will transform you forever into a pacifist. 

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Each Christmas this simple narrative reminds me that turning your life around is within reach. Scrooge, bitter and angry, transcends the pain of the past and transforms himself . He discovers that generosity of spirit is better than resentment.  

What books have you read lately?  How have they impacted you?