My Writing Process: Blog Tour

My friend and mentor Tananarive Due asked me to take part in this excellent blog tour about writing process. It was passed to her by another friend of mine and fellow VONA alum Serena Lin. Here’s Serena’s post and here’s my contribution:


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1) What are you working on?
I’m juggling! About to start edits on Half-Resurrection Blues, the first in the Bone Street Rumba series which comes out from Penguin’s Roc imprint in January, and Shadowshaper, a Young Adult novel about a Nuyorican girl that brings her murals to life with spirit magic in Brooklyn, that comes out from Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine imprint next summer. Both are winding up edits at the same time.
I’m also right in the middle of writing the (still untitled) sequel to Half-Resurrection Blues, Bone Street Rumba Book 2. I got right up to this pivotal halfway point and then stepped away to jump into these other projects and I’m almost aching to get back already, but I know I will when the time is right.

2) How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?
Well, Urban Fantasy has, in its mass-market published form anyway, been a very white genre, and I write work that actively degentrifies it. Of course, people of color have always told amazing, fantastical stories about The City, but they don’t get published or boosted or supported. I think it matters that we tell stories not just with characters of color but that we allow our sensibilities and voices and complex truths to be absorbed into the very narrative arcs, the rhythms, the mythologies of our work.
3) Why do you write what you do?
To continue from Question 2, I write like I do so that others can too. When I read great works of fiction written in voices that are familiar to me, that are Home to me, I’m given permission to do the same. So I hope my work tells other writers that yes, our voices matter, our voices are exceptional and crucial and we will be heard, loud and clear and true.

4) How does your writing process work?
I love the creative process. An idea shows up. Sometimes it’s a situation; usually it’s a character. The character is so alive, I can’t help but play the story out. It thrives and surges forward and I wrastle it one way then another, let it flow then steer it back towards plot, a turning point. It’s so much fun. At some point, I know: it’s time to write. Sitting down too early can be fatal. That’s when you just sit there staring at the screen like an asshole and feel like shit. You gotta know when to strike. So I walk with it, dance with it, move and sleep and sometimes even draw it out, and then at some point I know it’s time so I sit and pour it out onto the page.
For the actual writing process, I like to have a cup of something hot to drink while I sit there mulling it and listening ot music, then I just really focus on flow – not grammar or sequence or anything else but getting those words out into sentences that flow into paragraphs and push the story forward. Flow is the kind of thing you can’t fake – it’s almost performative, not in the sense of acting or putting on a ruse so much as an action that happens in the very moment. Other things you can go back and fix: plot and character development, word choices, clarity. But flow is magic. You can’t explain it or teach it. So when I’m writing, flow is what matters. All that other shit gets handled in editing.
NEXT WEEK: Sofia Samatar and Sofia Quintero write their process posts!

Pub Deal Announcement: SHADOWSHAPER

In January 2009 I decided to write a book. I’ve always written, always made up strange worlds and sent characters hurdling into them, always dreamt of monsters. But until that day, I was scattered: a screenplay here, a few essays there. Some poems. None of ‘em went very far.
I’d read all the Harry Potters and loved them, loved how they immersed me in the world so thoroughly and stayed grounded and exciting. And I wanted something more… I’d just finished Junot’s Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao and Walter Mosley’s Six Easy Pieces and the combined ferocity of those two singular and relentlessly truthful voices lit a fire inside me. Octavia Butler’s work stoked that fire and Stephen King’s On Writing reminded me that writing a book was something that can be done, long as you sit down and do it.

So I did.

I was working graveyard shifts on an ambulance in Brooklyn, getting home at dawn and waking up at noon and writing, plotting, thinking, pacing. Mosley and Butler and Díaz gave me permission to write in my own voice, and I wanted to use that voice to take a seat at the table of magical Young Adult literature and urban fantasy.

So I did.

The book I wrote over the next few months is a world away from the book that I’m finishing edits on now. I tore it apart and put it back together more times than I even want to remember. I discarded characters and recycled them into other stories. Nathan Bransford guided me through many of these revisions and helped me understand mechanics of plot and how to raise the stakes.
Fast forward fast forward fast forward through countless submissions and rejections, agents coming and going and in the meantime, I did what they always tell you to do after you finish a story and send it out: I started another. And then I started another. And that’s how Salsa Nocturna was born.
Today, it’s with a tremendous amount of joy and excitement that I announce that this book, the book I started five years ago in the basement of my Brooklyn apartment and have finished and started again many times since then, will be released from the same publishers that brought Harry Potter to the US, Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine Imprint, in the summer of 2015.
The book is called Shadowshaper and it’s about Sierra Santiago, a Puerto Rican teenager in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn that learns how to bring her murals to life with spiritual magic. I’m grateful to my amazing editor, Cheryl Klein and my always fantastic agent Eddie Schneider for making this all happen and believing in this story and this voice.
As you can imagine, I’m over here mamboing my ass off.

Some Awesome Story Things About Breaking Bad Seasons 1 & 2

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Just finished season 2 of Breaking Bad, #EpicLatePass I know yes, shut up whatever I’m a busy man so there it is. Anyway, I guess everyone already knows it’s amazing and all that but here are some things in the story-craft department that struck me as particularly above and beyond the regular bullshit we’re used to. Mad spoilers ahead, duh.

No Easy Answers:

This comes mainly in the realm of character. Take Ted Beneke, Skyler’s recently-divorced boss/work crush and Don Margolis, Jane’s dad. An average, lazily written show would’ve made Ted a lecherous creep – he’s the protagonist’s love-realm competition so we’re supposed to dislike him. He’d make a pass or be somehow grovely and pathetic, victory would be sweet for how sniveling dude was in comparison to Walt’s awesomeness. Instead, Ted is a decent guy, he’s not over the top, he’s corrupt but struggling with the morality of it (and who is NOT corrupt on this show anyway…)  and Skyler has righteous grief with her lying ass husband. She might even be better off with Ted. Don Margolis appears at first like an overcontrolling dickhole of a dad, through the eyes of his daughter Jane, and we’re all set to see him square off with her and Jessie as they fall in love and get all cutesy. Then Jane relapses and we see Don has been going to NA meetings with her and standing by her, apparently patiently, through her struggle with addiction for ten years. He doesn’t lose his mind and kill Jessie when Jane dies, he just stands there stunned.

Hank is another one. He’d be so easy to write as the idiot cop brother-in-law and in a lot of ways, he is. But he’s also brilliant and it’s clear that he needs to be, because it looks like one day it’s going to come down to him and Walt facing off and Walt is already smart as fuck and learning from each of his mistakes so if things are gonna get real, there better be an evenly matched splay. I’m sure allyall that already know what happens are snickering. Har har.

Colliding Layers of Disaster

It’s never just one thing gong wrong on Breaking Bad, it’s EVERYFUCKINGTHING at once. Not just in the finale, in everyfuckingepisode. The most important drug deal ever is about to happen and if it doesn’t they’re fucked and Skylar’s in labor and already distrustful and Walt doesn’t know where the stash is and Jessie’s all fucked up on heroin and and and…it’s awesome.

Colliding Layers of Meaning

Which gets to what works overall about the show – it’s not just about a chem teacher turned meth dealer, it’s about surviving cancer. Neither is just a cheap sideplot, each could be the full focus of the show, each gets treated with respect and patience. Most shows it’ll be like A SNARKY ALLIGATOR FARMER oh and he’s also a wall street banker wow! And one or the other will be utter trash, cardboard cut out version of fake ass TV land reality that no one gives a fuck about. 🙂

Cause and Effect But Also, Chaos

There’s an amazing amount of this happened which made this happened which made this happened going on. For ex: homeboy gets shot, so they lose their distributors and Jessie gets high, so they seek dude at the Pollo spot and Jane relapses and gets Jessie on heroin, so they need to make the big deal go down and Jessie’s high, so Walt cuts him out of his money, etc etc all the way through to the plane crash – which to me tipped the boundaries of possibility and relevance some but was still epically built up to. This domino/butterfly effect makes everything so fucking interesting, because nothing happens in a vacuum and each action is buffeted by everything that comes before and after it. This is so much richer than the typical One Off Episode strategy – “this is the episode about time travel! This is the episode about addiction! and so on into oblivion.”

Within all this dominoing though, there’s always chaos hard at work, jacking things up. Obstacles pile on top of each other and when they’re peeled off it’s generally not deus ex machina but some deeply built in mechanism of relief that had been there all along. The old tío in the desert shack that both almost gets them killed by dinalinging that damn bell to alert his sociopath nephew he’s being poisoned AND ALSO saves their asses because he wont’ break the code of silence, even to implicate his sworn enemies. Yes. Saw it coming and didn’t care at all, because it made sense. Built that shit right in. Amen.

Now. Can we have some none drug dealing Mexcian characters or is that too much to ask?

Don’t answer that. And don’t Do Not doooonnntttt post any spoilers from future seasons in the comments sections or I’ll block that ass like Gandalf. Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

El Sendero: Next Big Thing Blog

 

So this is a blog thread going around where different writers update on what we’re working on and then pass it along. I was tagged by Kiini Ibura Salaam who got it from Ibi Zoboi, both amazing writers I’m proud to be in a collective with.

What is the working title of your next book?

The Book Of Lost Saints

Where did the idea come from for the book?

My friend Sam The Mad Astrologer and I were taking a walk, I was harrumphing about maybe writing something directly about Cuba instead of just symbolically about it, he said what about ghosts from the Isle of Pines prison? My uncle was a political prisoner there, although this isn’t his story by any means. Something clicked when he said that. I got quiet, went home and started plotting. Growing up hearing stories about the mostly forgotten struggles in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban Revolution has left me fascinated by the crossroads of myth, family memories and history. This book sits right in those crossroads, smoking a cigar.

What genre does your book fall under?
Literary Fiction
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Gael Garcia Bernal (From Y Tu Mamá También) could be Ramon, the DJ/hospital security guard that ends up traveling to Cuba to find out what happened to his long lost aunt, Marisol.
Marisol could be played by the great singer Chavela Vargas. That fact that she’s dead shouldn’t be a problem, the aunt shows up mainly in spirit form anyway. And yes, as Mexicans they’d have to work to get that Cuban accent right, but if a Spaniard like Javier Bardem can do it in Before Night Falls so can they.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

The spirit of a disappeared Cuban political dissident tries to get her DJ nephew to uncover the truth about what happened to her.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m currently repped by Eddie Schneider of JABberwocky Literary.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I’ve been writing for a year and I’m about 2/3 through it. Plan to finish in the next few months and have the second draft done by December.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
There’s a fantastic Spanish book called Soldados de Salamina that plays with a lot of similar ideas about uncovering the troubled history to understand the troubled present. La Sombra del Viento is another Spanish one. Both are about the civil war there. Tananarive Due’s The Good House is a great example of spirituality and family history interconnecting that I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?Besides the stories I grew up on, I’m inspired by the many, many untold stories of the Cuban experience that don’t fit into the simple, one extreme or another equation we generally see presented. We’re so much more complex than just right wing or communist fanatics; this book is about people who believe passionately in freedom but don’t fit into such easy categories.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I crafted the hospital scenes from my experience working as a 911 paramedic these past nine years in NYC. I crafted the club scenes from my experience…going to clubs…these past nine years in NYC. There’s also several Santeros (also crafted from experience), a parallel storyline dealing with the Cuban Revolution, an old corrupt politico and a whoooole bunch of sex (also craft…nevermind).

Coming up: posts from three super amazing writers- my sister Malka Older, my mentee Sorahya Moore and my friend S. Nicole Brown…

 

El Sendero: Saying No To Your Characters

Soooo while writing today I did something totally against my nature as a writer: I went back and edited a scene I’d written the day before. IN FACT I literally just blogged about how I don’t do that. What I do is steam power through first drafts, chop chop chop and mark down any changes I know will have to be made in a separate document. Because to me first drafts are all about momentum, write with your whole body yes? Yes.

BUT.

Several things: I was feeling a little stuck on some minor but aching plot points. And I have this one character – he’s not the most emotive dude in the playground. Which could be okay, growth and arc and whatnot yeah, but he’s the protagonist AND his life is narrated by a very very emotive spirit AND he’s always meeting interesting people that know how to deal with their emotions aaaaaand I’m like what? 2/3 in. So yeah, the dude has to start dealing with his shit.  And in this scene i wrote he’s really just going through the motions.

AND

I’m reading Robert McKee’s STORY, which is actually about screenplay writing but is a must read for any writer, i totally recommend it x 1 million and in it, he drops this interesting little dewdrop of story theory:

“True action is physical, vocal or mental movement that opens gaps in expectation and create significant change. Mere activity is behavior in which what is expected happens, generating either no change or trivial change.”

I had to read the whole section like 8 times to make sense of it, but in short, what was happening in my scene was mere activity. It was pretty, the words were nice and there were things happening that mattered but also not really. Not in the sense of TRUE ACTION (sounds like a bad Arnold movie). McKee is saying the source of tension that pushes fiction forward is in the difference between what characters think will happen and what really happens. This is puts fire under our people, ignites the many little movements that amount to a true arc.

I used to do comedy improv in college and one of the rules you use in improv is The No No Rule. It means no matter what the other person in your scene says, you can’t say no to it, because if you do the scene crumbles and there’s no trust developed between the actors. “And now I will fly us to the moon! Away we go!”

“No you won’t.”

“Oh.”

*Scene shatters into a billion little pieces*

Right. In fiction though, i think it’s the opposite. As the writer you have to be constantly saying no to your characters. Oh you thought this was gonna be easy? No. You thought she would love you back just like that? Nah. You thought if you finally expressed your emotions everything would go your way? Nein. And the stakes keep climbing, the gap between what’s expected and what happens widens and the action propels us forward. Yes.

So I went back, opened up a bunch of return keys in the scene and got deep in Ramon’s troubled head. And what happened? The story swerved off in awhole other direction. One that I wasn’t at all prepared for…in fact, I didn’t expect it (realizing this AS i type…) and so something great happened: True Action, both in the piece and my own writer brain, and my story opened up wide.

This ever happened to you? What unexpected gifts has leaving your comfort zone brought to your storytelling?

 

 

El Sendero: Morning Pages and For the First Time, Cuba

It’s still dark out. The tops of buildings on my block are silhouettes against the beginning of daybreak. A few lights come on; everything is so quiet.
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I’ve used this still-pretty-new blog to unload a bunch of heady thoughts so far – not sure anyone’s visited except the pornographers and pharmaceutical companies that like to post their all caps attacks on English grammar in the comments section. But it’s time to start being a human being on here, talking about where I’m at and what I’m doing with all this writing and life and reading. Because that’s the point, no?

So, here’s where I’m at:

Today is the first day of #WriteThursday. Why Thursday? Because that’s the day of my workweek I dropped to make room for writing. It was the biggest pain in my ass day on the ambulance – because of the hospital I was working at, not because Thursday is anything crazy in its own right – and from here on out it’s dedicated to doing what I do.

So what am I doing? Right right now, I’m writing a novel. It’s called The Book Of Lost Saints, it’s a bigger, more ambitious, more ridiculous project than anything I’ve ever done before and it’s so far been the hardest thing I’ve ever written. Which is why I love it with all my heart and how I know it’s exactly what I’m supposed to be working on. I’ve written about Cuba in so many ways throughout my life but never directly. I grew up hearing stories about it, that beautiful, heartbreaking mix of mythology, memory and history, went to college and heard a whole other set of stories about it, a whole other mythology. Went for myself and knew a new kind of heartbreak as I lived my own myths about it, ones that I’ll one day tell me kids and grandkids. And it shows up in metaphor and motifs all through my stories, little moments and hints here and there, but never never like this.

Book Of Lost Saints is about a Cuban-American hospital security guard and DJ named Ramon. The narrator is the spirit of his long-lost aunt; she disappeared during the revolution, a presumed suicide, and watches over Ramon, giving him glimpses of her own troubled life through his dreams. So, a lot is going on. The dreams lead Ramon to try and find out what happened to his aunt, chaos, intrigue, adventure, sex ensue. Alladat.

I’m about 2/3s of the way through the first draft. I’m in that plow through best you can stage, gonna sort it all out later, throw everything up in the air and go in machete swinging when the time is right, but for now it’s just write write write Ogun like smash through the wilderness to new territory and find out what happens. Which brings me to the word Sendero, which I’m using for these writer updates. El sendero is the path, I’m taking it from a poem. No. Not exactly. The poem says, camino, not sendero:

Caminante son tus huellas el camino y nada más;
Caminante, no hay camino se hace camino al andar.

By the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado. But sendero serves my purposes better, because I said so. The sentiment is the same though. We make the road by walking. Our own footsteps form the paht. This is writing, both the process and our journeys as writers. There is no map, no damn gps. We go, moving forward, finding our way, getting lost, realizing we’re never, never truly lost, starting over.

This is my path.

Endings 6: Something Has Changed

This is part one of an ongoing series of posts on elements that make endings work. The intro is here.

6. Something has changed

This element is a reinforcement of the general rule that no story should be just a day in the life. Specifically as it relates to ending though: The word climax really means a turning point. Something has changed inalterably during the course of the action. That’s why it’s point A to point B, not to point A. It may be a change in consciousness or societal norms. But it’s something, and it matters. Otherwise, it’s all ho-hum and the feeling will likely be wondering what the point of all that was.

 

 

Endings 4 & 5: Suspense And Inevitability

This is part one of an ongoing series of posts on elements that make endings work. The intro is here. Epic massive #SpoilerAlert: The whole last paragraph (but only the last paragraph) basically tells the whole ending of The Hunger Games (Just book 1). You been warned.

 

 

4. It Really Might Not Work Out

The sense of risk must be palpable. This is distinct from predictability. The general presumption of the reader is that yes, things will all work out all for the best, mostly because it usually does. So the challenge for the author becomes disabusing the reader of that assumption. This starts from the very beginning of the book but ratchets up more and more as the story plays out. Put another way, the hero must surmount seemingly insurmountable odds. Here’s where the whole writers must be sadists towards our main characters piece comes in. Or as they say, write yourself into a corner. Whatever it may be, without some sense that something nearly impossible needs to be accomplished, none of the other shit really matters.

 

5. But When It Does It Feels Inevitable

This can seem to be in conflict with #4 and I think here’s where the real challenge and opportunity for amazingness come to play with endings. Between these two seemingly at-odds elements, that success doesn’t seem possible at all but then once it happens, it’s the most natural thing in the world, lies the tension that propels the last section of a book into a momentous finale. This tension and its resolution can create a sense of finality and satisfaction that makes you close the book on the last page and just sit there smiling.

In the final moments of the Hunger Games, you’re exhausted from so much narrative climaxing, but not in a bad way. The danger has been coming relentlessly for chapter after chapter and its breathless and brilliant. Then, just when you think it’s all over, the worst possible scenario has been averted and the bad guy dispatched messily with a hint of discomfort appropriate to the humanity of the characters, the government makes a final, ghastly decree that will ruin all that hard work getting to this point. And you’re infuriated. But it makes sense, it’s totally within the scope of manipulation and power plays the government’s been doing all this time. You don’t know how they’re possibly going to avoid total tragedy now and you don’t have time to sit there thinking about a solution because it all happens so fast, you still haven’t caught your breath from Whastiname getting slowly chewed to death beneath the cornucopia. Then Katniss uses the poison berries, which she’d helpfully gathered earlier, but more than that she uses the government’s own sense of theater and fear of martyrdom against them. She outmaneuvers them at their own game. And of course she does: She’s been watching, skeptically, learning, all this time. She understands the theater of tragedy and triumph that the Ones have been playing, so her final, daring move is not only brilliant but has precedence to the earlier story. It all makes sense! But it seemed so impossible! Success.

Endings 3: Promise Fulfilled

This is part one of an ongoing series of posts on elements that make endings work. The intro is here.

3. The Ending Is A Fulfillment of the Promise Made at the Beginning

 

In Beginnings, Middles And Endings, Nancy Kress describes the beginning as a promise. Implicit within the prose, the way we’re introduced to characters, the flow and sense of danger – built into all that is a certain sense of how this story will play out, what kind of hard truth or humor we’ll meet along the way. The best endings, more than being surprising or explosive, need to be an answer to that question posed at the beginning. They fit within the pattern established on page one, even if they’re shocking, it’s within a certain realm of shocking. The same key, to use a musical analogy.

Endings 2: A Gathering Of Forces

This is part one of an ongoing series of posts on elements that make endings work. The intro is here.

2. A Gathering Of Forces

An ending is a culmination. At its most ethereal, this could mean the various emotional motifs through the book gather to explode and reveal some revelation. Generally though, it’s the literal accumulation of different physical forces involved in the story. The clearest example is the final showdowns in the Lord Of The Rings books, particularly The Hobbit and The Return Of The King, both of which end with epic battles that feature wave after wave of guest appearances by creature armies from throughout the story.

Imbedded in this gathering is the rising tension. Something important and out of the ordinary is happening, just by virtue of everyone finally being in the same room after being dispersed more evenly earlier on. The weight of importance is built in.