Sunday, June 26, 2011

Blogging hazards: The dangers of going public.

Blogging is one of the twentieth-first century’s major inventions. It allows us to express opinions, to share common interests with people all over the world, and to refine our writing technique. It gives the established author a forum to dialogue with readers; agents use it to hook new clients, and for novice writers blogging can be a way to display their work or to kvetch about the apprenticeship’s pitfalls and woes. But as it happens with everything on the net, blogging forces you into the public light which has its dangers.

Several governments are creating policies to restrict blogs that, according to them, promote “social unrest. Since “social unrest” has a very broad meaning, we could all be guilty of such crime. The term already shows us how blogging could easily turn into a high-risk sport.

Recently, a friend of mine told me about her fears of blogging on the subject of an incident involving an agent she was hoping would represent her. Suddenly, I realized that a blog entry could be as risky as posting a compromising photo on Facebook. Anybody could read you: the FBI, your boss, a former boyfriend or your mother-in-law. Anybody could misinterpret your opinions and distort your public image. Blogging unwisely might shorten your chances of getting published or getting a job or might help you lose the one you already have.

Aside from collaborating with the Sisterhood, I own a personal blog and manage a professional blog at work. The three of them deal with different subjects, nonetheless I always use a pseudonym and even in my private blog, I seldom give my e-mail to people. So much secrecy could limit your attempts to expand your social network but in the long run it‘s for the best.

It´s every blogger’s goal to gather a large audience and plenty of comments, but sometimes we draw in the wrong type of visitors. Remember, trolls abound in the Internet. Of course, the blogger has the power to veto them, but what happens when regular and friendly followers become trolls? It could happen. Hear this story. A friend of mine started a personal blog that eventually took a political stand. She called herself a “social observer” and started to treat her blog as a column to discuss current events.

In time, she collected a circle of faithful retainers with whom she debated at a personal level, certain they shared her same views. But one day, she wrote a post that bothered several of them. Something hit the fan, the debate heated up and turned rude, reaching the point where my friend received remarks that amounted to racial slurs. It was an eye-opener for her to know that people she had grown fond off were, in fact, hostile strangers.

Even anonymity has its drawbacks. Many a time, I have been taunted by users who accuse me of cowardice because I hide behind a nick. Whatever! But another friend in her incognito efforts had a bizarre experience. Not only did she blog under a pseudonym, she made an avatar using a snapshot of a character in a well-known soap. Then she met a fellow blogger who started to come frequently to her place. In a nutshell, they became friends, and he began to court her. She was very flattered by the courtship until she realized he had fallen in love with her avatar assuming it was the blogger’s real likeness!

Finally, a word of caution to authors. Beware of growing too chummy with readers that flock to you blogs. We are all very protective and sensitive of our work, so, let´s keep off harm´s way. I know of agents who had been harassed by disgruntled clients; authors’ followers who pester them with requests, and novice writers hurt to no end by biting comments about their manuscripts.

Oh yes, you can block them, but even reading nasty comments is a hassle you don’t wish to endure. I was tickled pink to have a published Argentine writer reading my blog, but I made one thoughtless comment in Facebook, and he departed for friendlier meadows not to be heard from again. That incident forced me to understand that there should be a certain distance between readers and their favorite author, just to keep the balance.

Finally, I came across an article that alerted me of another blogging hazard, one that affects writers in particular. In blogging you might lose, rather than gain, writing skills. Proper language and style are bypassed in favor of quick, brief, witty exchange, pretty much like it´s happening in Twitter. You don´t want to be pedantic, you don´t want to write over the heads of potential followers so you lower your writing standards. Ouch! I never thought of that danger.

I want to hear your opinions, bloggers and readers. In which ways do you think blogging could help your writing careers and in which ways being a blogger could jeopardize your work as well as your mental peace?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Confessions of a Former Telenovela-Addict

Say the words telenovela* or soap opera among a literary circle and you will get one of two reactions:

a. A smirk
b. Silence

Writers would rather have their wisdom teeth pulled out than admit that at any point in their lives they watched a soap opera.

Not me. I admit openly and freely that I once was a telenovela lover. A lifetime of watching soaps from many different countries, gives me the freedom to say without prejudice that many of them are bad and I probably shouldn’t have wasted my time on them. But there are others that I still remember fondly, which have inspired and influenced my writing. Stories that portray the idiosyncrasy, culture, history and charm of a country. Stories with complex and three-dimensional characters, or plot twists that kept me on the edge of my seat (cursing that it was Friday and I had to wait till Monday for the next episode.) Some have touched me deeply or impressed me with their settings and costumes (admittedly, historical soaps are my favorite.) As a writer, I’ve been a weary observer of contrivances, clichés and predictability of some telenovelas, but I’ve also absorbed and learned from those with the flawed heroines, entangled relationships and unexpected developments.

Ramona (2000), based on the 1884 American novel written
by Helen Hunt Jackson,
explores interracial relationships and incest.

The common misconception is that all telenovelas are the same: poor girl falls in love with rich guy, guy must marry wicked/rich antagonist (pregnant with someone else’s child.) After a series of misunderstandings (and poor protagonist’s improved look and economical status) hero and heroine come together. This formula, with hundreds of variations, is used over and over again.

Sure, many telenovelas follow this simple recipe. But there are many that have broken away from the mold. Let’s take a look at the different categories:

Classic Telenovelas

The traditional Cinderella-story that has given the genre a bad name. This is the bread and butter of the Mexican Televisa, the second largest media conglomerate (after the Brazilian Rede Globo). To be fair, it has been used in other countries, too. This easy, predictable plot still sells and Televisa would rather mass produce ten Big Macs than one Lobster meal. After all, they’re faster and cheaper to make, and they already have an audience. This category is the comfort food of many who like easy-to-follow plots and clear-cut good and bad characters.

It should be noted that when done right, this subgenre can be quite enjoyable, like the Colombian hit Café, con aroma de mujer. It only took a few tweaks from the traditional mold (a charismatic protagonist who sings while collecting coffee grains and a hero whose weakness is aguardiente and an impotence problem only resolved in the arms of the heroine.) This telenovela sky-rocketed to novela royalty, together with the Venezuelan Cristal (which is currently in its second Televisa incarnation.)

Café (1994) a classic and beloved Colombian telenovela written by Fernando Gaitán,
the author of the groundbreaking
Yo Soy Betty La Fea (Ugly Betty).

Costumbrista** or Rural Telenovelas

In Colombia, Chile and Brazil, this subgenre has proven very successful. The writers/directors figured (around the 80s?) that in order to compete with the big Televisa monster, they had to offer an alternative for viewers. Except for Brazil, the other countries couldn’t compete with the expensive production of the Mexican telenovela empire, so they focused instead on telling different stories, displaying charming traditions and idiosyncrasies through eccentric and humorous characters. And so, the Colombian novela was born. Here you can find quirky antagonists you can’t hate (their plans always go wrong and they often have colorful sidekicks) like in Gallito Ramirez (with the popular singer Carlos Vives), Caballo Viejo and Me llaman Lolita. It should be noted that Televisa has been paying attention and has now branched out from their flat, one-dimensional antagonists in some of their soaps. This is also the forte of Brazilian and Chilean telenovelas (known as teleseries). Their “themed" soaps focus on a particular immigrant group and how they relate to the locals (Gypsies, Muslims, Italians, etc.) Or a particular setting (ex: circus.) One of my favorite Chilean teleseries (Aquelarre) is about a small town with a strange problem: only females are born here. The secret behind this phenomenon drives the plot and is only revealed at the end. Rural novelas in Mexico usually involve a hero and a heroine caught between feuding families a la Romeo and Juliet (Cañaveral de Pasiones, El Manantial) but they are a lot more dramatic.

The Brazilian soap opera O Clone (2001) explores the possibilities of cloning
and introduces us to Muslim traditions and other subthemes, like drug addiction.

Historic or Period Telenovelas

I’m constantly in awe of Mexican, Brazilian or Chilean period telenovelas. The attention to detail, fashion and setting is impressive (in Brazil, they built a village for Xica da Silva.) These stories feature extraordinary characters. You can find strong heroines who are not afraid to travel alone across the continent in search of the men who impregnated them (Alborada), upper class women who become mistresses of married, older men (Alondra), protagonists who use their beauty and sexuality to become powerful (Xica, Dona Beija), vengeful women who cook those who betray them and feed them to their enemies (Xica), female doctors who dress up as men in order to be near their estranged fathers (Pampa Ilusión), women who flee their stable haciendas to follow their beloved to remote Indian tribes under attack (Ramona) or divorced mothers who become singers in spite of the rigid societal rules constricting them (Si Dios me quita la vida.)

The protagonist of the Chilean Pampa Ilusión (2001), Inés Clark,
impersonates a male doctor to learn why her father sent her away as an infant.

Unexpected pregnancy, spousal abuse, divorce and a judgmental daughter
won't stop María from pursuing her lifelong dream of becoming a singer in the 1930s.
(Si Dios me quita la vida, 1995)

You may also find heroes with serious flaws: pirates who traffic slaves for money (El Antillano in Pasión), leading men who are willingly unfaithful to the heroine (El Comendador in Xica), hardened men feared by all in town who succumb to the heroine’s noble heart. (Juan del Diablo in Corazón Salvaje.) You will also find antagonists who’ll do anything to keep their weakling sons in power (Doña Juana in Alborada), women who use religion to punish and manipulate (Violante in Xica), and daughters who cut ties with their mothers based on appearances (Tete in Si Dios me quita la vida.) Sprinkle these unusual characters with fascinating subplots and you’ll have the complete package of a good story, amazing performances and visually-stimulating scenes.

Xica da Silva (1996), the former slave-turned-most powerful woman in
El Tijuco,
never forgets her friends or forgives her enemies.

There are also telenovelas based on real historical events with fictionalized characters. The late Ernesto Alonso produced beautiful work about the history of Mexico in three series: El Vuelo del Aguila, La Antorcha Encendida and Sendas de Gloria. Currently, Colombia has ventured with a historical piece based on the life of a mestiza who fought against the Spaniards during post-colonial times but fell in love with one. (La Pola) (Currently broadcast in the US.)

The pirate El Antillano (Pasión, 2007) carries the trafficking of slaves
on his conscience.
Will the love of his life ever forgive him?

Contemporary Telenovelas

These are the kinds of stories you find in American soap-operas. The protagonists are professional women who are no longer virgins and may have more than one boyfriend. They may have marital or infertility problems. Or they may be older women having extra-marital affairs. These telenovelas usually take place in urban/cosmopolitan settings, and more often than not, are stories with “issues” (the soap opera equivalent of Jodi Picoult.) In Brazil, Globo found a gold mine telling controversial stories about surrogate mothers, cloning, drug abuse, twins separated at birth, mothers and daughters in love with the same man, etc. Many of them revolve around the world of fashion. My favorite of this category is the Brazilian Tititi (80s version), a modern-day Romeo and Juliet where the feuding fathers are competing fashion designers. These telenovelas often show two sets of characters: the affluent in their mansions and the poor in marginal neighborhoods (usually the humorous characters are found here.) Colombians have also found success in this subgenre with the iconic Yo soy Betty, la fea, the original version of Ugly Betty, and more recently Vecinos (Neighbors) where these two conflicting worlds meet when a taxi driver wins the lottery and buys an expensive apartment in an exclusive Bogotá neighborhood. As an alternative to Televisa’s classic telenovelas, their Mexican counterpart, TV Azteca, produces this type of scenarios. Televisa has also tried this subgenre. An example is Alguna Vez Tendremos Alas, the story of a tormented orchestra director who loses the will to live after his wife dies, but finds true love in a much younger woman with a trauma of her own.

This far-from-perfect hero is a temperamental womanizer with alcohol and
anger issues. He's also a musical genius who loves his daughter above all.

Gothic Telenovelas

This subgenre was quite popular in the 80s. Usually the protagonist enters the lives of a powerful family in an obscure mansion (as a maid or an impostor or a naïve young wife) where she’ll make allies and enemies, uncover warped family secrets and find true love. (Some are inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s novels.) Examples: La Intrusa in Venezuela, Cuna de Lobos in Mexico, Luz María in Peru (also historical) and Antonella in Argentina, among others. The most recent loosely-gothic novela I watched (and loved) is Televisa’s La Otra.

Crime or Drug-Trafficking Telenovelas

These telenovelas are fast-paced, bloody and often feature male protagonists. They show us the underworld of drugs and crime and it’s not unusual for the protagonist to spend time in prison (guilty or not.) My favorite is the Colombian La Mujer del Presidente, the story of a man who hides the body of his boss’s wife after she drops dead while seducing him. This is only the beginning of the protagonist’s nightmare who becomes the target of a powerful enemy and goes from prisoner to fugitive while trying to prove his innocence. Every episode ends with a cliffhanger, but even in this dark world, there are enormous sacrifices, loveable characters and touching scenes. (If you're a fan of The Fugitive, you'll love this one.)

More recently this subgenre feature powerful drug lords in Mexico and Colombia and the women beside them. A few of them are based on literary successes, such Arturo Perez Reverte’s La Reina del Sur and Gustavo Bolivar Moreno's Sin Tetas No Hay Paraíso (Without Boobs There's No Paradise--thought you all would get a kick out of the title, ha!)

Young Adult Telenovelas

Popular in Argentina and Mexico, this subgenre often features a group of teenage friends at a boarding school or in a music band. Many of these stories originated in Argentina and were later remade in Mexico, where the careers of many singers bloomed (RBD). Members of Timbiriche and Menudo (including Ricky Martin) participated in these telenovelas.

The young Ricky Martin tried his luck in Mexican soap operas
(after Menudo)
before becoming a world-wide musical sensation.

Children Telenovelas

One of the biggest stars in Mexico started as a child actress in soap operas: Lucero. At the same time, in the other extreme of the continent, her Argentinean counterpart, Andrea del Boca, was also featuring orphan girls in search of their mothers and adopted by lovable widowers. Other soaps feature a group of kids in a school without one single protagonist (Carrusel).

The child star Lucerito went on to become one of the
most respected actresses in Latin America.

Telenovelas in the US

The youngest industry of telenovelas is based in the US. During the last decade, Telemundo (now owned by NBC) has been working hard at co-producing with Colombian, Mexican and Brazilian companies telenovelas of quality. One of their most successful endeavors has been Doña Barbara (based on the literary classic by Rómulo Gallegos ). Their casts usually feature an eclectic group of popular actors of different nationalities. Their biggest competitor, Univision (partly owned by Grupo Televisa) has also been featuring US-produced telenovelas for years.

Based on the novel Doña Barbara, this dark
heroine loses
the man of her life to her daughter, Marisela.

My Conclusions

As in literature, there are well-executed products and a lot of mediocre ones, but it’s hard to assign them a label since appreciations of this nature are subjective. As writers, we should study all forms of storytelling, be it novels, films, theatre and yes, telenovelas.

Telenovelas are part of the Latin tradition. Wherever Latin families are found, there will be a telenovela in the background (or a soccer game). Telenovelas have the power to paralyze a city (when the final episode is aired) or have everyone at work or school taking about them (yes, even men.)

Alondra (1995) and the two men in her life.
Her pick was revealed during the final episode.

Confession time: have you ever watched a soap opera (American or from another country)? Is there any one that you remember fondly? Have you ever been happily surprised by a performance, character, plot or setting in a telenovela?

*Unlike their American counterpart, telenovelas differ from soap operas in that they have an ending. They can last from three months to more than a year, but no matter how long they are, there is an ending in the horizon. Telenovelas in Latin America are also given prime-time schedule and not the morning slots, like American soaps.

** Costumbrista: Sp. Describing the customs of a country or region. (Also an artistic and literary genre in Spain and Latin America.)

This article first appeared in La Bloga on June 7, 2011

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Creating Compelling Characters

“So her dog died and her husband is leaving her and her teenage son is peddling meth and now she’s fallen into a viper- and rat- infested mineshaft in the middle of Waziristan,” my friend said. “But I just don’t care. I don’t feel anything for this character, so I’m not emotionally invested in her outcome.”

We were discussing the most recent book she’d abandoned (I’ve taken liberties with the plot outline). This was usually the problem, she said: too many books about perilous things happening to utterly boring – or downright irritating – characters. I empathized, having recently slogged through a series of novels (from such literary darlings as Colum McCann and Joyce Carol Oates, no less) full of characters I didn’t care about.

Plot is important, but character is, perhaps, more important still. If you can create a few fascinating characters, it almost doesn’t matter what they do. People want to read about them anyway. But oh man, is this hard to pull off. It seems the job for a god: give me some clay and a puff of magic, life-infusing breath. How can I make a fascinating character from scratch? What’s going to convince the reader to care about her troubles?

Maybe it helps to look at actual people who fascinate us: usually they’ve got some combination of admirable qualities and sympathetic flaws. We’re rarely interested in the guy down the street who just goes about his workaday business, being pushed along through life, asleep at the wheel. The drama queen also annoys us: she is reactionary, fluttering her hands and bemoaning her fate. We root instead for dynamic people, larger-than-life people, people who surprise us with their boldness. We like quirky folk, too, so long as their eccentricities don’t cross over to psychoses.

Some authors can get away with creating thoroughly unlikeable characters: Nabokov with Humbert Humbert, for example. I’m reading John Updike for the first time and finding Rabbit Angstrom to be quite despicable. But Nabokov and Updike can get away with this because they’re masters of the craft. Most of us can’t afford to toy with unsympathetic characters, not even if we have a great plot.

When I took a hard look at my protagonist recently, I realized she was mired in self-pity. If I was reading about her, I’d want to smack her and tell her to stop brooding. Nobody wants to read about a moper. I had to make her more dynamic. Yes, she’s gone through some horrible things and is about to go through more, but I want my readers rooting for her, not pitying her. So she’s not always gloomy, I gave her an acerbic wit. Ideally, her observations will make the reader laugh, or nod in agreement. So that she’s not passively accepting her fate, I made her scrappy: I borrowed a situation I was in, and then had my hero do what I wish I’d done: when a teacher fails her unfairly, she takes the test from him, lights it on fire, and drops the flaming paper on his desk. I hope these changes have made her more compelling: certainly she’s more fun to write.

I find inspiration in Claire Fraser, Diana Gabaldon’s fabulous protagonist from her bestselling Outlander series. Claire would be justified in some passive brooding, given what she goes through, but she’s a fighter. Often her attempts at getting herself out of trouble land her in further trouble, but that’s not always the case: sometimes her toughness keeps her alive. Sometimes the man rescues her, but pretty frequently she’s rescuing him: a refreshing change from the distressed damsels of vampire lit. Claire is not a perfect character, her primary flaw being stubbornness, but she’s immensely likable.

What about you? What makes your favorite fictional character(s) so compelling? Do you find yourself putting down novels because the protagonist isn’t sympathetic enough? What about the characters you create? How do you ride the balance between creating flawed characters and likable ones?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Want to Write a Memoir? If so, Be Honest!

What is the memory capacity of the human brain? This might be a question some of us think about from time to time, or perhaps you're one of those who doesn't remember to think about much at all. According to Scientific AmericanPaul Reber - a professor of psychology at Northwestern University - says:
The brain's exact storage capacity for memories is difficult to calculate. First, we do not know how to measure the size of a memory. Second, certain memories involve more details and thus take up more space; other memories are forgotten and thus free up space. Additionally, some information is just not worth remembering in the first place.
When it comes to writing a memoir, sometimes, it seems, that fudging our memories means more money in the end. If you are planning to write your life story down for all to read, keep in mind that those who lie about their pasts tend to (a) Still be read about today and (b) Carry a never-ending shame when it comes to a story that should have been slapped with a "fiction" label in the first place.

Here are some of the more notoriously failed (?) memoirs filled with a lot of fibbing and a thin (if any) thread of truth:
A Rock and a Hard Place: 
One Boy's Triumphant Story

by Anthony Godby Johnson
A Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy's Triumphant Story is the heartwrenching "memoir" by Anthony Godby Johnson. That is if Anthony Godby Johnson had existed. When the book first came out in 1993 it was described as an autobiography of a boy who'd survived an abusive childhood with parents who repeatedly beat and raped him. Questions were raised when several magazines and journalists attempted to interview Anthony, but only got through to his adoptive mother, Vicki Johnson. Only Vicki had ever actually "seen" Anthony, therefore leading many to suspect the boy never existed in the first place. In the end, many suspected the story to be a mere fabrication of Vicki Johnson's imagination.
Note to self: If I'm going to completely create all my characters from scratch, then I might as well avoid calling it an autobiography.

A Million Little Pieces
by James Frey

This story is now touted as the semi-autobiographical memoir by James Frey. This is the story of a 23-year-old alcoholic and drug abuser rehabilitating through a 12-step program. Now, if you haven't heard the brouhaha over Frey's little book (and who hasn't), then visit Oprah's website. She flogged him royally on her show back in 2003 (and forgave him just a few weeks ago in one of her farewell episodes), after being forced to see that the author had pretty much elaborated on many aspects of his so-called "memoir." Note to self:  No one likes to be made a fool, including Oprah.

Three Cups of Tea
by Greg Mortenson

Greg Mortenson's 2006 memoir has recently come under attack by 60 Minutes. The story states that in 1993, to honor his dead sister, Mortenson attempted and failed to reach the summit of K2 (the second largest mountain peak in the world). He got separated from his party and ended up in the small town of Korphe. The non-profit organization Mortenson set up afterwards has come under fire for mismanagement of funds. Many of his early backers (including President Obama who donated $100,000 to his charity that promotes education in remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan) have cried foul over the story Mortenson wrote. According to *Entertainment Weekly, his memoir "has fallen under suspicion, particularly passages about finding the Korphe village and being captured by the Taliban." Note to self: Don't make up the story, make up the charity, and then use all the money on myself.

Love and Consequences:
A Memoir of Hope and Survival

by Margaret Seltzer
I read a blurb about the hoax behind this wonderful little gem of a story (sarcasm intended) about a year or so ago when I learned that all copies of this "memoir" were being recalled due to the fact that the whole story was essentially a work of fiction. According to Wikipedia, this is what they have to say about Margaret Seltzer's book:
Her first book, Love and Consequences:  A Memoir of Hope and Survival, about her alleged experiences growing up as a half white, half Native American foster child and Bloods gang member in South Central Los Angeles, was proven to be fictitious. She actually was fully white, grew up with her biological parents in the upscale San Fernando Valley community of Sherman Oaks and attended Campbell Hall, an affluent Episcopalian day school in the North Hollywood area of Los Angeles.
Note to self:  If I'm planning on creating a completely different story from the life I've lived, then perhaps I should just call it a work of fiction.

As humans, we all have what James Frey coined as "individual recollection." Our recollection of a given situation may not be like that of another individual who experienced the same event. Facts can be checked, but in the end it does boil down to how and what we remember. As Reber stated in the quote above, we tend to forget certain memories, freeing up that extra space in our brains. But if we want to revisit that fuzzy or forgotten memory how do we go about putting it into words? Should we make it up as we go along or, perhaps, even make it a blatant lie just for the sake of putting a well-written "nonfiction" story on the page? As you can see from the "memoirs" I've highlighted in this article, those lies can bring about a notorious sort of fame one may never live down in his/her lifetime.

How about for you? Can you think of any memoir you've read that turned out to be mostly false? How did that make you feel as the reader? Perhaps you're writing your own memoir. Are you tempted to slip a few fabrications in just to enhance the story?

Be sure to stop by The Random Book Review and check out what I've read this week!

* This quote can be found in the May 6, 2011 issue, #1153, in the article "The Biggest Book Hoaxes of all Time."