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.


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.


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.”


*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.

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.