Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Cage of Myself

Pretty homemade bars
There was a time, not too long ago, when I loved to write. All I wanted to do was write. I preferred writing to socializing, cooking, and even eating. Which is saying something, because I really love eating.

Then something happened, and I still don’t know what. About a year ago, it became harder to write, and about six months ago, the writing machine in my head began shutting down almost entirely.

I am now at a complete standstill. I am locked in a cage of my own making, of my own mind. Somewhere in the depths of me, there might be a key — there must be — but that sucker is well hidden.

This is distressing, to say the least. I’ve tried various tricks to free my inner writer: reading excellent fiction, reading how-to-write books, trying out writing prompts, reviewing my works-in-progress, joining NaNoWriMo, and finally, simply forcing myself to sit down and pound out words. “Even if it’s terrible,” I said to myself, “do it anyway.” I granted permission to write crap, to write a string of nonsense words, anything. I figured if I faked it for a bit, my little prison might open. At least, the gap between the bars might widen a tiny bit.

I figured wrong.

This is not writer’s block. At least, not the way I understand it. Writer’s block is when you can’t think of what to say next, isn’t it? When you lack inspiration. I know what needs writing. I write in my head every night as I drift off to sleep. I already have a first draft of one novel mostly written. I’ve got an outline, solid characters, and a trajectory of scenes. It really should be quite straightforward. 

No, this is not writer’s block: it’s more like writer’s phobia. When I sit at the computer and open up Word, I feel nauseous. Literally sick to my stomach. Even the icon for Word, that little blue W, makes me break out into a cold sweat.

The stuff of nightmares

White Page of Doom
It’s not just with fiction, either: I got it writing my last non-fiction piece — and normally that’s work I can knock out practically in my sleep. I got the shivery-jivvers today, too, when I readied myself to write this blog post. I moped around the house for fifteen minutes, moaning to my family, clutching a cup of tea in my chilly hands, before I worked up the courage to face The White Page of Doom.

I never thought this would happen to me. I used to zone out at parties or school functions, daydreaming of my characters, desperate to get back to my computer so I could write more, more, more. I was so smitten with the act of creation; it felt like falling in love. It was blissful. It was maddening.

I miss it.

I’m not sure what to do next. Faced with a lack of alternatives, I’ve accepted that there’s nothing I can do. As I’ve watched the end of NaNoWriMo ticking by, I’ve hit a point of fatalistic ennui. A sad kind of acceptance.

But! There is a silver lining to my little cloud of writerly doom. I have a feeling, for no good reason whatsoever, that this phobia (or whatever it is) will pass. I have a feeling that not only will the ability to face the white screen come back to me, someday, but the joy of writing, the obsession of it, will come back, too.

I just hope it doesn’t take too long. I don’t want this cage getting too comfortable.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Mysterious World of ... Ghostwriting

Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my! No, silly. There's nothing scary about ghostwriting, unless you consider the lack of recognition many of the "real" authors receive.

Let's play a little game, shall we. Can you tell me which one of the following five books has been written by someone other than the name slapped on the front cover?

  1. Ronald Reagan:  An American Life
  2. Ecstasy and Me:  My Life as a Woman
  3. Tennis as I Play It
  4. Under the Pyramids
  5. The Hardy Boys:  The Secret of Wildcat Swamp
Unless you cheated and looked at the links above, then you might not know that all of them have been ghostwritten. (Here's a link to "The Top 50 Ghostwritten Books" if you'd like to see more.) Perhaps you're thinking about taking on the role of ghostwriter, or maybe you're searching for the perfect ghostwriter to write your self-help book, series, or memoir. If this sounds like you, there are a few things you'll need to know.

What is a ghostwriter?

According to Toni Robino's essay,* "Secrets of Ghostwriting and Collaboration Success," this is what ghostwriting boils down to:
❝...a ghostwriter gathers the author's original materials and research and turns them into a book, based on the author's specifications (if the book will be self-published) or the publisher's specifications (if the book has been sold through the proposal process.) Theoretically, although ghostwriters do conduct interviews and undertake additional research, they do not contribute their own thoughts or ideas to the content of the book.❞
Robino later goes on to say:
❝Do not overstep your boundaries as a ghostwriter by adding your own thoughts to a book, unless the author specifically asks you to do this.❞
Book Series:  Rainbow Magic fairy books are
all by Daisy Meadows, who is really
four women.
While researching the topic of ghostwriting I learned that the majority of what's ghostwritten can be broken down into three main categories:

  1. Book Series -- In this category, you'll see books from longstanding series such as The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. A more current example would be the Rainbow Magic series for grade school-aged girls. All of them are written by Daisy Meadows, but according to goodreads, "Daisy Meadows is the pseudonym used for the four writers of the Rainbow Magic children's series: Narinder Dhami, Sue Bentley, Linda Chapman, and Sue Mongredien."
  2. Celebrity "Autobiographies" and "Memoirs" -- Ronald Reagan's life story would fall into this category as would just about any other celebrity autobiography out there (grant it, there are a few who write their own life stories). A well written memoir or autobiography needs the proper writing skills behind it, and this is why many celebrities turn to ghostwriters. I found a little humor in a Wall Street Journal article -- "Fascinating Story, but Who Wrote It?" -- "Earlier this month, the Borders bookstore at Time Warner Center hosted a reading of 'Fall to Pieces,' a memoir by Mary Forsberg Weiland, the former wife of rocker Scott Weiland. As photographers snapped pictures of the author, another woman stepped up to the podium. 'Hi,' she said. 'I'm Larkin Warren, and I was Mary's midwife on the project." I think the role of midwife is an appropriate way of describing the work of ghostwriters.
  3. One of the biggest questions
    plaguing the free world today:
    Did Ronald Reagan really write
    his own autobiography?
  4. Writers under a popular author's name or author's novel series -- In this category you'll find long-time authors doling out rights to other authors who want to continue a series under the original author's name. A couple of recent examples are The Race by Clive Cussler and Justin Scott and Locked On by Tom Clancy and Mark Greaney. In both instances, Scott and Greaney would be considered the main authors, but in order for the books to sell they are written in a popular series (like Clancy's Jack Ryan series) and titled under the bold lettering of Cussler's and Clancy's names.
Can you see Mark Greaney's
name in teeny tiny blue?
Then there are those who ghostwrite just about anything else, from self-help books to short stories to cookbooks. But how do you know if you could succeed at being a professional ghostwriter? Robino says you need to treat writing as a business and the more you learn about running a business, the better off you'll be. Here are ten things Robino says you need to learn before going into operation:
  1. Assess Your Writing Skills -- The more published you are the better your odds are at landing a deal.
  2. Make Your First List -- Who are the experts you know and are they pioneers in their fields? Resist the urge to contact these individuals until you are professionally prepared for your meeting.
  3. Prepare a Professional Package -- This should include your resume, bio, services you offer, writing samples, and different styles and topics.
  4. Set Your Rates -- Know how fast you can write a final copy, and remember the chapter isn't finished until you've edited, polished, and proofread it. Also, be aware of what first time ghostwriters make -- anywhere from $1,000 - $8,000.
  5. Polish Your Interpersonal Skills -- Practice listening closely to what the client wants without interrupting.
  6. Know When to Run -- Not every book will be a good match.
  7. Close the Deal -- Make sure you sign that contract and don't be afraid to ask questions.
  8. Capture the Author's Voice -- I good way to get a sense of the author's voice is through taped interviews.
  9. Create and Keep Deadlines -- Stay accountable to the deadline.
  10. Ask for Referrals -- The best way to market yourself is through word of mouth marketing from clients who are satisfied with your work.
If you're still wondering if ghostwriting is a good fit for you, then I encourage you to read up on the subject. Toni Robino's essay is quite insightful on the matter and there is plenty of info out there on the web for you to devour. If you do decide to jump into the mysterious world of ghostwriting -- Best of Luck to You!

Are you interested in ghostwriting or have you ever done similar work? If so, what was your experience like? Would you encourage other writers to become ghostwriters?

*"Secrets of Ghostwriting and Collaboration Success" by Toni Robino can be found in the 2010 version of Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents.

"Fascinating Story, but Who Wrote It?" by Joanne Kaufman was published in The Wall Street Journal on Dec. 1, 2009.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Time to open your surprise package!

Dear Friends and Followers,
I know we’ve been keeping you in stitches all week, but the time has come to reveal our great surprise (s).
The first has already hit your eye-. How do you like our new design? Feel free to comment.
Second as you may see above this message, we have opened a new gadget, a Sisterhood Forum. Come, visit us and learn what it is all about. We hope it serves you well and you turn it into your home.
Third. Now you may follow us on Twitter @DSWSisterhood. Become our followers and tweet us all you like.
And then there is a bonus. Sister Violante has finally decided to crawl out of her lair and let you know her true identity. Se shall be posting and replying in the forum under her real name “Maria Elena Venant”. For bureaucratic ad technical reasons (e-mail, avatar, etc.) she’ll continue to blog under her “Violante” nick. But now you know who she is and may contact her at or follow her at @malenav2010.
Well, that’s it folks! It´s your turn to comment, follow, ask, etc.
With all our affection
The Sisterhood

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Marriage of Art and Craft

I come from a traditional art formation. From ages fourteen to eighteen, I studied in the afternoons under a renowned painter in my country. We focused on watercolors and pastels, and did collective exhibits at the end of every school year. My earliest mentor was ruthless about color and proportion. Any mistake in our rosa cromática meant we had to repeat the entire project and no matter how much my girlfriend and I begged, we couldn’t advance to color pastels or watercolors (much less the human body) until our still-life charcoal drawings and color combinations were flawless. The word “repita” (repeat) became his trademark.

An early painting by Cesar Tacco. With the years, he became more impatient and would take painting “field trips,” where he would do a series of quick landscapes in watercolors (without preliminary drawings).
“Watercolors are demonic,” he used to say.

From my maestro I learned that mastering technique is fundamental for every artist. He believed that without drawing or color foundations, a painter could not excel in his craft, even if he would end up becoming an expressionist or abstract artist—the case of my late uncle, Ramiro Jácome, who studied classic art and slowly developed his style, known as “feismo.”

My uncle once told me that an artist never stops learning. (Photograph by Carsten Behler)

When I moved to the US to go to college, I entered the School of Fine Arts, but things were quite different here. The focus of most art classes was self-expression—even in the lower level courses. One of my instructors told me that the only way to produce art was if you had something to say. Otherwise, it was an illustration—a profane word that silenced the entire classroom and left the student-in-question red with shame. There was not a lot my eighteen-year-old self had to say about the world other than shyly pointing out to a couple of my peers that their drawings were disproportionate or too much water was making their acrylic paintings look muddy. 

Part of the evolution of an artist is to find his own style. In editorial illustration, the goal is to make quick and simple drawings to catch the reader’s eye (people don’t spend a lot of time looking at newspapers illustrations.) To me, this has been one of the hardest challenges as an artist. During the brief period I worked at the Illustration Department of this newspaper, my boss used to say that in order to reduce a drawing to its simplest form or “deconstruct” it, you had to be a proficient draftsman. (In Spanish the abstraction/simplification of a figurative drawing is called “desdibujo.” It is the aim of many editorial illustrators to achieve this.)

An editorial illustration by Pancho Cajas.

I believe that novel writing is not that different from painting, except that in the visual arts, an (accidental) mistake is a lot more obvious than in the written word. I didn’t always believe this. When I turned to writing fiction, I thought that because I was literate and had good ideas, I could publish a novel. With time and many bumps along the road, I came to realize that craft is just as important as ideas, enthusiasm and dare I say, talent. But like with painters, there seems to be a prejudice among writers that too much technique equals less art. They don’t realize that technique is just a tool to help them express their ideas better.

Let’s take a look at what Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa says on this issue:

“The mysterious thing we call talent, or genius, does not spring to life full-fledged—at least not in novelists, although it may sometimes in poets and musicians (the classic examples being Rimbaud and Mozart, of course). Instead it becomes apparent at the end of many long years of discipline and perseverance. There are no novel-writing prodigies. All the greatest, most revered novelists were first apprentice writers whose budding talent required early application and conviction.”
(Letters to a Young Novelist, p.13)
Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa poses in front of a "desdibujo" of him.

Part of the problem is impatience. We don’t want to waste time reading books about the seven basic plots, the hero’s journey, or a long list of rules (~shivers!~). We just want to write! After all, literature is not math, right? It’s not a matter of equations and formulas.

True, writing is not a science, but there is a method to storytelling nonetheless, a plot structure and archetypes which have worked for centuries. Wouldn’t the aspiring writer benefit by knowing why this is? (This is not to say that more experimental works of fiction won’t work, but like in painting, a strong foundation will give the writer the training and experience to be able to evolve in whichever way he chooses and find that coveted “voice.”)

If we want to be published we must come to terms with the fact that literature is not just an art form, it’s also a business (which equals appealing to a large group of people and yes, turning our thoughts and words into a commercial product). Like many art students I encountered during my college years, many writers seem to believe that novel writing should be unrestricted and inspired by an intangible source. One of my dearest friends and colleagues equates writing with having sex. She says too much explanation and instruction can “kill the mood.” I agree that spontaneity plays an important role in writing (there’s an undeniable magic to storytelling that is what makes it so enthralling—and addictive—to both writer and audience.) But I also think that, like in any other art form, we must learn how to use our tools and look at the masters (and our peers) to better understand what resonates and what doesn’t. This may mean having to put up with “how-to-manuals” and “rules” (all blasphemous words in the writer’s lexicon). Even if you think you’ve learned everything there is to know, there may still be something new, a bit of undiscovered information that may come to you in your hour of need (or insomnia) and spark an Aha moment that may just bring a solution to your story’s dilemma.

Yes, writers of the world, art and craft can work together! The left and right sides of your brain are not sworn enemies, and information (even if it’s not applicable to every case, or even if you disagree) won’t necessarily block you or take away from your creativity—but it will make your writing decisions informed ones so you can create your own desdibujo. It’s not about NOT breaking the rules, it’s about knowing them before you break them and doing so with a purpose. Like my husband says: "You can't think outside the box if you don't know where the box is."

For more about my art mentors:

Articles about Cesar Tacco (in Spanish):

On both Cesar Tacco and Ramiro Jácome:
Pequeña Antología de Quito en el Siglo XX

Articles about Ramiro Jácome (in English):
Short Biography
Ecuador Cultural Essentials The Arts

Comprehensive analysis of Ramiro's art (in Spanish):

Pancho Cajas caricatures:

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Coming a blog near you

The Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood Blog is happy to announce a double incoming surprise to take place very soon. Always looking forward to assist our faithful fandom (and to hook fresh followers as well!) we have prepared new and thrilling changes. What are those? You can’t even imagine! Stay tuned and in a little while your patience shall be rewarded.
To be continued…
The Sisterhood

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Nothing New under the Sun: Plagiarism, Literary Cloning or Inmortal Formulas?

Whether it deals with vampires, conspiracy tales, or the old-as-ages Macguffin, formula plots sell and are here to stay. Most bestselling books, films and even television series will elicit replicas in the never-ending search for sales and ratings. But do literary formulas grow old? When do they become immortal archetypes, and why some bestselling ideas never bring forth clonification?

There is nothing wrong about formula. Just call it “genre” and make it respectable. Without formula we wouldn´t have great detective mysteries, great love stories or complex genres like science fiction or fantasy. Details vary, but you always have the same ingredients. The art consist in combining the basics, and reaching out to an audience hungry for a story similar to the one that just captured its imagination.

Recently, I read that part of Boardwalk Empire´s appeal lies in that it attracts The Sopranos’ large fandom. All the producers had to do was take elements that had turned The Sopranos into a hot series and reset them into another milieu: Atlantic City in the Twenties. But not all winning formulas are ripe for imitation.

                  Boardwalk Empire o What if Tony Soprano had lived through The Prohibition?                          

Few television series have merited the accolades that befall on Mad Men, and yet one would expect a thread of series cloning that bitter view of Madison Avenue in the 60’s. Recently there were two attempts (PanAm and The Playboy Club) to recycle that nostalgic fad. Both have poor ratings, showing that mediocre reproduction does little honor to the real McCoy.

                                          The Real Mad Men: Beware of cheap imitations

But the search for novelty is becoming exhausting and futile. The Biblical proverb “there is nothing new under the sun” applies even to literature. Most fiction is, to some extent, formulaic. It’s why many of us have turned to fantasy, the last refuge of originality. However, even in Fantasyland you will run into the “copycat syndrome.”

We live in the Era of Fangs. A plethora of vampires lurks on our TV screen, in Hollywood blockbusters and hide between the pages of bestselling novels. All over the world, writing about vampires has become a lucrative business. As long as readers remain mystified by bloodsucking protagonists, the vampire formula will live on.  Universal folklore has plenty to offer in vampire habits and etiquette, so variations on the subject are inexhaustible. It´s why Count Dracula, The Cullen Family and Sookie Stackhouse’s paramours are so different, sharing only a thirst for human plasma.
                                    Eric and Sookie, a far cry from Dracula and Minna Harker.

The problem is that several of the current vampire yarns are too similar for comfort. Sometimes they are nothing but duplications of a successful novel, and publishers aid in the plagiarism scheme by even using the same marketing techniques. A good example is Claudia Gray’s Evernight. Its cover is a blatant New Moon's take off.

Some of us who do not care to read or write about vampires (werewolves are my game) just hope and wait for the craze to go away, because formula is not forever. The best plots have their day of reckoning.  There is an unwritten law that popular books (as well as film and miniseries) will spawn clones, but the formula can be done to death.

After J.K. Rowlings struck gold with Harry Potter, cutesy teen witches and wizards flooded the literary market. A plot centering on a brooding maladjusted adolescent that found her/his secret powers at boarding school was tried and tried all over again, until it ran its living time. Now, no respectable agent would touch a manuscript that deals with such a tedious, predictable and overly-tried subject.

Not all fantastic elements have expiration dates. The quest for a particular object, otherwise known as Macguffin (according to the late Alfred Hitchcock), has been around since the Holy Grail, and you may find it in all genres not only fantasy. Historical fiction, thrillers, adventure and detective stories twirl around various documents, parchments, utensils, gems and even statues, think of The Maltese Falcon. Although agents may clench their teeth at reading another tale of a magical object that needs to be found in order to save the world, the Macguffin has become an immortal archetype.

We tend to associate the fad of conspiracy tales with the publication of The Da Vinci Code. But secret societies, mysterious agendas and Templar mysteries have been around since Sir Walter Scott. A serious writer like Umberto Eco made a name for himself mixing all those elements that have made Dan Brown rich and infamous. But since Eco was considered a “high literature” master, nobody would dare accuse him of being formulaic or using worn out literary premises.

In truth, those premises are not really worn out; you may still refresh and refine them. Sadly not all writers do it. It´s much more comfortable to rewrite the same formula with just the necessary variations to prevent plagiarism. The main problem of this semi-plagiaristic craze is that it encourages sloppy style, mediocre storylines and cardboard characters.  That is why “formula” has become a bad word in the writing community.

The industry’s lame excuse is to cry out “the public demands it!” But we readers are the first to notice when our favorite themes are cloned mercilessly. For fifteen years, I was a bodice-ripper addict. I read and collected the best of the genre, eschewing dull imitations. Eventually it came to my attention that even some of my favorite authors were displaying signs of writing fatigue.

By the time I grew out of my obsession with the genre I was conscious that Rosemary Rogers’ heroes were all mean, chauvinistic pigs and her heroines were a bunch of promiscuous losers. With Beatrice Small, the boredom arrived when I found myself reading the same bedroom scene sequel after sequel.

Have you gone through a similar experience? As a reader,  how can you tell when even your favorite formula is growing stale? And as a writer, how do you battle the need to be innovative while trying to pay homage to that novel you so much love? After all, imitation is a form of love.