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New Year Reflections

In five days, 2013 will be merely a memory. In six, 2014 will come gallivanting and we’ll start over. New year, new possibilities, new hopes.

When I was a kid, I spent New Year’s Eve at family parties, where we’d blast the salsas, vallenatos, cumbias, and merengues, and dance, eat, and have fun while we counted down the remaining hours and minutes of the year. Then, right before midnight, the tias and tios would pass around 12 grapes, the suitcases would be placed by the door, and we’d get our champagne–or apple juice for the kids–ready. At the stroke of midnight, the room would burst into a frenzy of hugs and kisses, spilled champagne and “Happy New Year!” Those who wanted to travel in the coming year would take to the streets and walk with the luggage in hand. Those who wanted luck every month of the new year gobbled down the grapes. And everywhere, the air was ripe with the energy of possibility.

Now, I don’t always go out on New Year’s. Some years, like last one, we travel. Others, we stay home, watching the shows in NYC and counting down with the world. But the end of el año viejo and the anticipation of the new one continues to bring about that eagerness of all that could be. And it’s a great moment for reflecting on what was, what is, and what is to come.

This last year was a mixed bag.

Health: there were many challenges, like a flare from hell that lasted for more than half the year and an allergic reaction to a new medicine. But there were also breakthroughs, like the relief that came after getting off said medication and the ensuing period of remission. There were still some hiccups, but overall, the worst (for now) is over.

Writing: I finished a second manuscript and started a third. The second is in the query and contest trenches. I learned more about my writing process, about where my strengths and weaknesses lie. I attended three conferences, finished a Certificate in Creative Writing. I made it through final rounds for Pitch Madness and Baker’s Dozen and even snagged some requests. And I’m finishing off 2013 by working with Dannie Morin, who is my PitchWars mentor. It’s an amazing opportunity. Overall, 2013 for my writing career was successful. I am in a better place than I was at this time last year, and that is success. Sure, there have been rejections and self-doubt and “what-the-hell-am-I-doing?” moments, but I’m coming out all the much stronger for them.

Work: I got to teach some fun classes this year. Hispanic American Literature. Creative Writing. Special topics composition courses, which included The Hunger Games and creative nonfiction. I had students wow me with their work. I’ve heard “You’ve made a reader out of me” and “Because of what we read in class, I knew the answer to a question on Jeopardy.” And I came across this comment, which made my heart swell: “She completely changed the way I read & write and really helped me find my voice in writing.” There were times in the beginning of the year where I struggled–mostly because of my health–but I pushed through. The rewards far outweighed the challenges.

Home: We’ve gotten older and wiser and our faith has grown. We saw our son finish Kindergarten and begin first grade. We rejoiced when he got Principal’s Honor Roll, even though he’d struggled at the start of the year. While we didn’t travel out-of-state this year, we did get to visit Orlando and Jensen Beach a few times. We relaxed and enjoyed our times together. Summer, especially, was nice as I didn’t teach this year and got to fully disconnect. More than anything, I’m in awe of how much my son has grown in one year. It’s insane and scary.

I’m looking forward to what 2014 might bring. I’m hoping for some good news in all fronts, of course, but also excited for what is promised. Friends are having babies, stories are being written, hubby and I are celebrating our ten-year anniversary (and hopefully taking a belated trip to Europe to celebrate!). I’m looking forward to being on break, to more writing conferences, and for the magic of storytelling to continue.

What are you most looking forward to in 2014?

Blog, Writing

I have a blurb for WIP!

It’s still a work in progress, obviously, but here’s the blurb I’m using for NaNo:

Seventeen-year-old Mia Salcedo has her entire future planned out: She’s going to leave Miami and the disaster of her parents’ divorce, attend NYU, and become the world’s greatest writer. But when she’s diagnosed with lupus, her entire world comes to a crashing halt. Determined to stay in denial, she confides in no one, not even her best friend and boyfriend. But it’s not enough. Even the everyday tasks are excruciating, and soon, she’s alienating everyone just when she needs them most. To escape the pain and exhaustion and mockery, she turns to her writing, which literally takes her to the worlds she creates, where she’s free from the constraints of the disease. As she retreats from the real world for longer periods of time, however, her words and worlds become darker, and she’s forced to make a choice: stay and watch everyone she loves fade away, or return to reality and face her reality. But will it be too late to mend the relationships she’s worked so hard at pushing away? And will her health fail her when she needs it most?

Blog, Writing

Eradicating Self-Doubt

One of my favorite quotes about writing is this:

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” –Sylvia Plath

It’s the reminder that, above all, I can never let self-doubt win. Because let’s be honest: everyone doubts themselves. Even if on the exterior they ooze confidence, I guarantee that in the darkest corners of their being, they sometimes, at some point, feel it creeping in. It’s inevitable. I’ve stopped asking, “Is this normal?” and started thinking, “Beat it, punk. I don’t have time for you.”

It’s easy to let the crippling fear of self doubt paralyze you. That bugger is a thorn who craves breaking you. But I think when we realize that this isn’t something unique to us, that even the most fabulous, amazing storytellers among us have felt it and probably still feel it at times, then we can square our shoulders and push self-doubt out. Slam the door shut in its face. Recognize the bait it uses, the repeated pattern of assault and re-entry so we can squash it before it takes hold.

Because if you let it take hold, you will quit. And if you quit, you’ll never reach your dreams. This is something I can’t–and won’t–afford. I know in the deepest part of me, the part that self-doubt tries to overshadow, that I can do this. That I will do this. It’s just a matter of time. In that time, I’ll keep learning, improving because that’s what we have to do. We can’t stay static. (Heck, this is a human reality, not just a writer one. We never stop learning and we never should. Otherwise, what good are we to society? To the world? To ourselves?)

I know I’m not alone. I’ve read blog posts of New York Times best-sellers who tackle this issue. The fear that seeps in with a blank page, with a new series, with revisions. Can I do this? What if I have no more words in me? What if…? And time and time again, the answer is yes, I can do this. Yes, I have more words. Yes….

So self-doubt, hear me: Get the eff out. You’re not welcome in this creative space.

Blog, Writing

The art of working hard

Our culture seems to have an aversion to working hard. Everywhere I turn, there’s a clamor for instant gratification. Forget sweating, forget busting our behinds. We have a dream. We have a vision. This is what we’re MEANT to do. But we don’t want to wait. We don’t want to do the dirty work. We don’t want to put in our time and effort to get there. We want it, and we want it NOW. And we want it easily.

Reminds me of a toddler cranking up towards a massive meltdown.

The thing is, the only way to get to that dream, for it to really mean something, is by working hard. By paying our dues. I was talking with a friend and former colleague, author Christine Kling, many moons ago about writing, and she said something like this: to get close to having something ready to publish, you have a million-word internship. In fact, she wrote this post about The Million Word Rule. And I believe it because, as clichéd as the saying is, it’s true that practice makes perfect (or better yet, practice makes better.)

Sometimes, I’ll hear well-meaning friends say, “Hurry up and write it!” Or family will want me to finish, but don’t understand the time I take away from them. But if I don’t sit on my behind and write, if I don’t spend the time to develop the characters and the world, to run through the steps that it takes to start and finish a draft, and then to revise it (over and over and over again) until it’s ready to send out, it won’t happen. I’ll have a half-finished story, a draft full of possibilities that’ll simply evaporate because I didn’t put in the time and effort. A book’s not going to write itself.

And on the same note, a first draft will NEVER be good enough. It can ALWAYS be better. It’s not called a shit-draft for nothing! I drill this into my students: the importance of writing multiple draft, of reading and re-reading and revising to polish their work. I take this to heart, and it’s what’s allowed me to silence my inner editor temporarily while I get the story down into that first, exploratory draft. But again, this is work. It takes time, dedication, patience, and endurance.

I haven’t reached my dream yet of being published, of sharing my writing with the world. I also don’t have an agent…yet. But I’ve seen how much I’ve grown in the past five years since I started taking writing seriously, as a career. Every class I take, every workshop and conference I attend, every critique I receive and every story I write puts me that much closer to reaching my goals. That’s what I have to do. If I want this with every cell of myself, then there’s no other option but to keep on writing, keep on trying, keep on paying my dues so that eventually, it will happen. And when it does, the prize will feel that much sweeter because I reached it with my own effort.

i-did-my-waiting-gif

Sure, there are days where it’s harder than others, days where the inner doubt creeps in and tries to take over. But that negativity is just an excuse. It’s a way of trying to take the easy way out, which I guess we’re programmed to want. So stuff a pillow in doubt’s mouth and keep going–the only way to reach that dream is by persevering! You can do it. And when you think about quitting because it’s just too hard, remember this:

“There’s only one thing that can guarantee our failure, and that’s if we quit.” – Unknown

And these:

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” – Richard Bach

“It’s when things get rough and you don’t quit that success comes.” – Unknown Quote

“Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success. They quit on the one yard line. They give up at the last minute of the game, one foot from a winning touchdown.” – Ross Perot

Keep going, keep writing (or keep doing whatever it is you need to do to succeed)!

Writing

Writing Spaces

Last week, one of my critique partners and I were discussing our writing habits. I like to write with music on, set to a playlist for that specific project. I have earphones on to drown out all other noise, and I plunge in, letting the music carry me back into my world. I also prefer writing on a table, where I can rest my arms more comfortably. Because my inflammatory arthritis affects my fingers and wrists more than other joints, a good table is a must (though when push comes to shove, I can really write anywhere–I’ve been known to lug my laptop around and work anywhere, including my doctor’s office)! I can write alone in my house or in a cafe full of people–it doesn’t matter as long as I have my music, earphones, and laptop. She, on the other hand, can’t write to music, prefers writing in a big, comfy chair where she can curl up with her laptop and type. She has to work in a public place, like a cafe, where the mere fact of having to drown out noise helps her focus.

Isn’t it amazing how we approach the same creative process in so many different ways?

By the way, if you love peeking at where authors do their writing, you need to check out Meagan Spooner’s In Search of the Write Space series on her blog. In it, she features authors and their work spaces!

Writing

The magic of writing

I swear sometimes I think I sound like the corniest person alive when I say I love the magic of writing. The giddiness when the words start coming together to form a story. The excitement of discovery as I let these new set of characters take me by the hand and show me their world. I live for the moment when I can sit my behind in a chair and dive into this world I’m creating–all so I can experience the magic of weaving together a colorful tapestry, one that I couldn’t imagine my life without.

So yeah, writing is magic for me. And I hope the sense wonder never goes away.

Writing

Revisions are a beast

Really, they are. But they’re a beast I love.

I’m 3.5 chapters away from finishing the bulk of these revisions for SOUL MOUNTAIN. They started simple enough–changing one of the POVs from 3rd to 1st person. And then my UCLA class happened and I reached a moment in my process where I just didn’t know which way was up. I put it on hold, worked on THROUGH THE WALLED CITY, and just kept brainstorming. Because something wasn’t working. I knew it, I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

After much soul-searching and agonizing and tears (oh yeah, there was some of that), I had a glorious moment of clarity: I needed to rewrite this book. About 70% is new material. Other parts have been shifted. Characters strengthened, redefined. The ending is completely new. Most importantly, I worked on making sure the reader connects with the characters emotionally. I knew I was on the right track, when my instructor’s feedback went something along the lines of, You nailed it! (I imagine Haymitch from The Hunger Games saying it, like “Now that’s what I’m talking about, Sweetheart!) Talk about feeling the breakthrough! With the help of a newly redesigned book map and outline, I was well under way.

But let me tell you. It’s very, very scary, to look at your 65,000-word manuscript and open up a new, blank document, and say, we’re having a do-over. Holy crap it’s scary.

But I did it. I’m less than 4 chapters away from the end. It’s been a fascinating process, slow and steady, full of layers. Every day that I work on it, it goes something like this: read and revise previous chapter, then write new chapter. It’s a write/revise, write/revise pattern. And it works. Sometimes, I go back two chapters or three before I write the new one. But I’m moving forward and I’m excited about the end product.

And each new chapter I take to my critique group, who’ve been fabulous and awesome in their feedback and support.

The true test will be once I submit this revision.

So here’s something else I learned during this part of the process. My layers work (roughly) as such:

  1. Action/dialogue: I start writing a scene as I see and hear it happen. I know what’s going on, who says what, etc.
  2. Add emotional depth: After the first layer, most likely on a different day or after I’ve let some time pass (today it was a few hours), I add what the character is thinking/feeling. How what’s happening and what’s being said affects him/her. What’s at stake.
  3. Pretty up the words: Once I feel better about the action/reaction at play, I look at the language. I revise for my tics (too many coordinating conjunctions, for example). I make sure I’m doing mostly showing. I read aloud for the “flow” and the “rhythm” of the words on the page.

And then I move on to the next scene/chapter. I also update my book map/outline. Where I catch inconsistencies, or if I notice I’ve forgotten a thread, I make a note of it on the outline. Once I reach the new end (with the above layers), I’ll be doing another read-through, slipping in whatever I may have missed.

At this rate, I expect to submit the revised draft by the end of the month. Let the nail-biting begin!

Writing

Writing Reflections

Now that I have two projects on the table, one in final stages of an R&R and the other still in the drafting process (20K words in), I keep feeling that sense of wonder at the way the words come together to form these stories. It’s like a drug, an adrenaline high!

But what I find most fascinating lately is that no matter how different the stories and characters and feel of each individual project, I love each one just as much, even if differently. Does that make sense? I wonder if this is how parents with more than one kid feel. I can’t completely wrap my mind around it.

SOUL MOUNTAIN was my first love. I breathed and lived this story, these characters for about two years, from the moment I dreamt it to the moment a former instructor encouraged me to write Jimmy and Emily’s story. I have that email printed and posted where I can see it, for the days when self-doubt rears her ugly head. It took me a little over a year to decide this was something I wanted to do and once I did, I couldn’t stop. SOUL MOUNTAIN tested me. It’s a fantasy, so there’s world-building involved. Quite a bit, actually, and in doing so, I learned so much. But essentially, though there are scenes that take place in the real world, locations with which I’m familiar, a good chunk of it takes place in another level. The process of creating this other world (or rather, this other dimension of our world) was fascinating. It was dreaming put to the max: I am master of this universe and I create the rules. Pretty darn cool! And challenging. But nonetheless amazing. I started Soul Mountain with a feeling, a pair of characters, and a scene. The possibilities grew from there.

For THROUGH THE WALLED CITY, I wanted to turn to something that has always called my attention: magical realism. It was my focus for my MA thesis and I’ve long since admired the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, and Toni Morrison. So when I set out to brainstorm this story, I started with a setting (I wanted to tell a story in Cartagena, Colombia) and the desire to explore the magic of this city. Then came the main character, Micaela Uribe, who just sassed her way into the story. The rest started coming together as I researched the magnificent, and oftentimes turbulent history of Cartagena. And what a different experience writing it has been! Though there is some magic and I have to work out the myth that is accepted as real, TTWC is rooted in the here and now. And the best part hands down has been getting to write about that which makes me Colombian: the food, the people, the experiences. It’s like tapping into my memories, my experiences growing up while straddling both the Colombian and American realities while molding this story. It’s pretty awesome!

I can’t wait to see how the process evolves into the other stories I tackle. And I hope I never grow tired of it. Ever.

Because it’s pretty freakin’ awesome. 🙂

Health, Writing

An unlikely anniversary or, how writing’s kept me going

Two years ago, I was in the midst of health hell. I was hurting and exhausted, barely able to move my joints or complete simple tasks, like brushing my teeth, without experiencing pain. I felt like my world was crashing around me and I couldn’t hold up the pieces long enough to figure out what was wrong. My primary care physician (and friends) kept saying it was normal, that it  came with turning 30, that I was over-stressed. But it didn’t make sense. It didn’t feel normal.

I was overwhelmed and scared–my body wasn’t letting me function. Google didn’t help.

And then I made the decision to see a rheumatologist for some answers–best decision I ever made in regards to my health. My first appointment was on November 12, 2012. I remember sitting in the waiting room, aching and apprehensive because I didn’t know if she was going to take me seriously or not. I remember when she walked in and listened to me, really listened, and then said, “We’re going to figure out what’s going on.” It’s as if by just saying that, she validated what I knew in my heart. I wasn’t a hypochondriac or imagining things. She had her suspicions, but she was meticulous. I had vial after vial of blood taken, I made appointments with specialists. I saw so many -ologists in those following months I lost count.

And I wrote along the way. Many of my blog posts during that time can be found here. I wrote poems, blogs, and essays. I poured out my fear and frustration into words. It’s been one of the darkest moments of my life, and perhaps it’s because it came on the heels of my dad’s death. On the good days, I could breathe, get through the day. On the worst days, I felt like the sky was falling on my shoulders, crushing me against the floor. I felt as if I were failing at everything in my personal and professional worlds.

I was lucky. I only had to wait a couple of months for the first diagnosis–fibromyalgia–and another couple for the second–undifferentiated connective tissue disease. On support boards online, the overwhelming majority of stories showed how long many can stay caught in that black net of not-knowing. With a diagnosis comes a plan of attack, and hope. Medicines, lifestyle changes, education.

Knowing was half-the battle.

One of the hardest parts (the hardest, by far, was figuring out what the hell was wrong with me) of this journey, though, came next: changing my habits. It’s not easy, and I still don’t have a complete hang of it. It’s hard to go against decades of upbringing. But slowly, I started eating healthier, listening to my body, learning to say “No.” I went from trying to do it all to knowing when I had to stop. This part was filled with hope and grief. There was reaction to medications and readjustments, trying to find the right combination of medicine and lifestyle change that was right for me. There were many tears. And there was much, much writing.

I always knew writing was a release for me, but I didn’t realize just how much I needed writing to get me through this dark time. It wasn’t a matter of just recording how I was feeling, though that was a big part of it. But it resulted in creation and that process, it turns out, is just what my body needed to heal. In creating words and worlds and characters, in exploring this story, I get release. Stress drops, my body relaxes. I rest and regenerate and heal.

Writing is healing on so many levels.

Now, two years later as I write this, I’m in the middle of a flare. It’s part of this journey. I get it now. Flares are cyclical and will recur during periods of high-stress. In my line of work, I know when I can expect them, so I make amends in my schedule to manage them. But the flares are less intense. The medicines work and for the most part, I am so, so much better.

And I’ll keep writing. Not just because I love it or because I have a story to tell or because it’s a part of me. Those are certainly all reasons why I write. But high above those reasons, is the undeniable fact that I write because it heals me.