Sunday, August 26, 2012

Cult Classics and Those Who Follow Them

cult* noun

  1. a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies.
  2. an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers.
  3. the object of such devotion.
  4. a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.
Often times, when we think of a cult we envision bizarre, dangerous events involving sweat lodges or followers drinking tainted kool-aid. Or maybe you just think of Tom Cruise and that crazy You-Tube video. That's all well and good when we're talking about the spiritual realm, but when it comes to pop culture and literature, the idea of a cult takes on a whole different meaning. (See #2 above.)

The current Dr. Who crew.

I recently read an article in Entertainment Weekly✝ dispelling some of the myth and magic behind the scenes of one of the longest running shows on British television (49 years!), Doctor Who. *and a loud roar goes up as the Who-obsessed fans shout their praise* I, myself, have a few fuzzy and warm memories when it comes to Doctor Who. We didn't have cable growing up (heck, we were lucky to have a TV at times!) so as children, we were left with a lot of daytime soaps, TGIF comedies and PBS on the weekends. My stepdad had a penchant for the Who-man, and occasionally I'd sit in on a time travel or two. My dislike for anything sci-fi must have started there, because I remember a lot of eye rolling on my part. The point I'm getting at here is that cult classics tend to have an amazing, and yet very loyal following. If it's still on PBS today (and I have no idea if it is) then I'm sure my stepdad is still cozying up to the tube all these years later, watching it.

Original U.S. cover
Cult classics aren't instantaneous and for the most part, the show, film, or book can fizzle overnight. One of the most fascinating stories translated to film is Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Although Dahl's fantastical story of a boy who enters into the secretive chocolate factory of Willy Wonka has always been considered a children's classic, the 1971 film starring Gene Wilder as the eccentric Wonka was released to very little fanfare and bland reviews alike. Dahl disowned the film and was very disappointed with the rewritten script. Not counting the 2005 remake of Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp, the story and the first film went on a slow burn of collecting rabid followers. By the mid-80s, VHS was big and the film was rereleased and eventually repeated in regular broadcasts for television. This little children's classic of Dahl's went on to become one of the top 50 cult classics of all time.

But what does it take to become a devoted cult follower? I think EW's article, "25 Best Cult TV Shows from the Past 25 Years"** says it best:
❝No, cult TV isn't for everyone, even when it wants to be . . . Yet the fan communities they inspire endure, their members known to one another by secret handshakes or catchphrases and unresolved debates, bonded by nostalgia and martyrdom, and sustained by a new media world where no show ever truly dies -- it just gets streamed in perpetuity on the Interwebs.❞
Cult classics don't die, because they can't. For some reason they seem to reach out to generation after generation. My belief is that it takes a very special individual to obsessively follow a piece of culture to the point of distraction. I've sat through Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and fan-obsessed series like Firefly. They're watchable, but nothing so special as to stop me in my tracks when I run across them on TV. But those who do connect fall wholeheartedly into the storylines and eventually show up at Comic-Con dressed as Mal Reynolds, the captain of the ramshackle Firefly crew. These fans know what they like and aren't afraid to express themselves.

Some more recent trends delve into the world of Fantasy *and a roar goes up as Game of Thrones-obsessed fans shout their praise* and Dystopia. While some classics last for a season and then die, there are those who have lasted longer than some of our times here on earth. (Hello, Doctor Who! I'm talking to you!) In the years since it debuted on television, Lost racked up a rather eclectic audience prepared to wait out the original creators' visionary take on the project. Those who couldn't take the mythological madness into which the show descended didn't return until the ending, wanting to know what all that complex storytelling was about in the first place. To this day, fans are split on that final episode, some enjoying the thought of purgatory while others think they wasted a perfectly good hour every Thursday night.

Sometimes this is why fan fiction and unauthorized sequels fail to pan out. (Although, don't tell E.L. James that -- she's laughing all the way to the bank.) Many of us are just itching to rewrite the ending on something, but we know if we did that it wouldn't read anything like what the author had in mind. If the original storytelling doesn't have the feel of the original author, like in the cases of Scarlett and Rhett Butler's People, then the audience isn't going to buy it. They're looking for that special "something" that just doesn't add up when another writer takes over the reins, especially if the original is already a classic and has a strong following.

Whatever floats your boat -- whether it be an underrated book, a long-ago film, or a recently pulled TV program -- do you consider your consumption of entertainment to border on, or maybe even fall into, the cult category? 

*According to
✝Collins, Clark. "The Doctor Is In." Entertainment Weekly 3 August 2012: 29-35. Print.
**Franich, Darren et al. "25 Best Cult TV Shows from the Past 25 Years." Entertainment Weekly 3 August, 2012: 36-43. Print.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Girl Who Waited: My (Long) Road to Finding an Agent

Manuel Alvarez Bravo, El Ensueño (1931)
I usually don’t get too personal in this blog, but I thought this event was big enough to share with my fellow writers (drums, please): I HAVE AN AGENT!

Dying to know all the details? Not really? Well, I’m writing them anyway. :-)

In the beginning there was a man and a woman (ok, ok, I’ll spare you). Let’s start at around 2005. I had two babies (real human babies) and had been writing a variety of projects in both English and Spanish for contests, classes and myself: short stories, soap opera scripts (obviously NOT complete, but fully outlined) and half of a screenplay. There was one particular story that had taken root when I was still a graphic designer and illustrator (circa 1998-2000). It kept coming back to me in the form of a soap opera. Problem. I lived in the USA. There was not a big telenovela industry here (now there is), and I didn’t know how to reach Mexican or Colombian producers (two of the largest Spanish-speaking markets, which, I had heard, were more difficult to infiltrate than Russian mafia or the publishing industry in the US). I didn’t have any connections in those countries and I wasn’t planning a trip there any time soon. Besides, there were horror stories roaming the internet about plagiarism and writing apprentices who worked long hours for little pay in the hopes of getting their big chance one day with their own ideas. Not too appealing.

One day, my friend Malena (aka Sister Violante), shared with me some big news: she was writing a novel in English (gasp!) and she encouraged me to do the same. I hesitated. I had written short stories in English, and had lived in this country for several years, but I didn’t know if I had it in me to write a WHOLE novel in English.

I told her I didn’t think I could do it, but the writing bug stayed with me for a few days. The drive was stronger than my fear and so I evaluated my extensive telenovela outline/summary and decided right then and there that I would turn it into a novel! I rushed to the nearest bookstore and bought two books on the craft of writing a novel and devoured them in a week. I took a deep breath and, using my outline as a guide, I started writing a novel in English. Many moons passed until I finished the project but was terrified to share it with anybody. Somewhere between 2006 and 2007, I finally gathered the courage to share my writing with Malena, who was encouraging and patient with the sporadic pages that arrived in her inbox. Not sure of what direction to take (the thought of a critique group hadn’t occurred to me yet)  I attended my first writers conference and met a sweet editor who requested a partial of my novel. My first partial! I was so excited I sent the pages to her right away, certain that this would be “it.” In the meantime, a friend of mine introduced me to a couple of talented writers, Rosslyn and Barbara, and we formed a critique group.

Right away Rosslyn spotted POV problems and too many subplots (I talk about the problems of my first manuscript here.) Sure enough, the encouraging editor I had met at the conference wrote me back expressing the same concerns. With my critique partners’ help, I started rewriting the novel. I had to go through a killing-character spree for the novel to take form. I took an advanced novel course at my local community college, where I met two supportive and patient writers, Joycelyn and Don, who also helped me polish my novel. I finished my second rewrite and thought “now I’m ready.” I shared the novel with my husband, but he fell asleep over chapter four (literally!) Biting my hand to hold back my sobs, I wondered: Was my novel not as good as I thought, or was he simply tired?

In the meantime, Rosslyn read my entire second draft and found more problems. (Yes, I’m lucky to have her and no, you can’t have her!)  I redesigned my novel and rethought my main plot. Not a small task. Months later, the third draft was born. I continued taking courses, attending conferences and meeting new writers, among them my friends Suze and Sister Mary, who read the third draft and helped me polish it more. I won a blog contest and received a thoughtful critique from a respected editor who made me realize a crucial problem in my plot. (Thank you, Nick Harrison!) I met more editors and agents who read portions or my entire novel. They were encouraging (an editor even referred my novel to another editor in her publishing house), but none of them committed to my project. I kept hearing I was almost there. (Please bear with me, Dear Reader, I’m almost there with this story, too.) It felt like running a marathon with no trace of a finish line.

By now, a new idea was born in my mind: a historical novel set in the Galapagos Islands (my obsession). I researched. I outlined. I started writing. I stopped querying my first novel. Two big things happened next: my friends and I started the Sisterhood blog and  my second novel won an international writing contest.

The Sisters (including the brilliant Stephanie) kept reading and helping me polishing my second novel (no extensive rewrites on this one. I had learned something!) And in December 2011, I entered the Baker’s Dozen Agent Auction sponsored by Authoress at Miss Snark’s First Victim blog. Two agents ‘fought’ for my novel. The feeling was exhilarating. And so I decided to start querying the project after both agents requested my full. After my earlier and failed querying experience, I realized two things:
  1. I was going to have to query more aggressively than the first time (meaning more agents in a shorter amount of time).
  2. I had to query in a smarter way (meaning targeting agents a little better by doing more research than the first time). And so I bought a Premium Membership at Query Tracker.
I developed a plan of action: I would query an agent a day (except during trips or family visits). And if I got a pass, I was obligated to query someone else the same day. Plus (and this was a big change from my first querying experience) unless an agency specified against it, I would query other agents at the same agency after a few months of being ignored or rejected.

I started getting requests (mostly fulls, but a few partials as well). I started getting rejections (several) but on my birthday, I received the gift of a partial request. I should have known this apparently casual event meant something. A couple of days later, said agent upgraded the request to a full.

I sent the material and kept querying, went to a writers conference and met a couple more agents who requested material. I sent them the novel and waited. And waited. And waited. Until this summer.

I went on a trip to Spain and then to Ecuador to visit my family. On July 23rd, I casually checked my Spam folder, ready to clear it, when the name of the agent who had requested on my birthday popped up.

The agent-in-question was brief. She said she had finished reading my novel and wanted to offer representation. I was confused. This was not the kind of letter I was expecting. (Could this be a mistake? Was this letter meant for someone else?) I entered a stage of numbness/confusion/anxiety. The agent and I corresponded a little bit and agreed to talk in a couple of days. That evening and the next morning, I notified the ten agents who had my novel and a few more whom I had queried. The next two days, my inbox filled up with correspondence from agents: nine requested a week to read while three passed on the project. (A few others were forever silent.) It was a writer’s dream come true! (Incredible the power those three little words “offer of representation” have.)

I spoke to the offering agent and was delighted with our conversation. She was so enthusiastic about my novel and my writing that I thought I was dreaming. Four days later, a second agent made an offer and scheduled a conference call with me.

I spoke to the second agent and her boss and they impressed me with their projection for my novel and their experience. I was in trouble. I liked them, too!  I thought a lot and talked to my close friends/family members about my offers when a third offer came. Another call and more doubts. How was I going to pick (Did I have to? Couldn’t I keep all of them?)

I sat down and thought hard. The first agent had an enthusiasm that was contagious (she even got me excited about my novel again!) and we shared the same vision (editorially speaking). Plus she expressed an interest in my first novel and her track record was good. Also, when I went through her list, I found that I was drawn to the books she had represented and sold. It was a perfect match! So without further ado, I’m thrilled to introduce my brand new agent: Rachael Dugas with Talcott Notch Literary Services!

For those writers who are feeling a little discouraged and depressed, check out my querying statistics so you can see that THERE IS HOPE for you, too!

Second novel:

Queries sent: 119
Requests (before offer): 17
Requests (after offer): 3
Total requests: 20
Rejections to queries: 74
Rejections to submissions: 15
No responses to queries: 25
No responses to submissions: 2
Offers: 3
Agent: 1

Time querying second novel: Almost 8 months

First novel:

Queries sent: 50
Requests (including conferences): 12
Rejections: 31
Rejections to submissions: 10
No responses to queries: 19
No responses to submissions: 2

Time querying first novel (not including conferences in 07 and 08): 1 year, 8 months

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Falling in Love Again: Recovering the Magic of Fiction Reading

In a couple of weeks, The Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood will celebrate their second anniversary. It has been two very rewarding years, packed with happy moments. We Sisters have grown close to one another and to our followers. A new part of us has emerged in this blogging journey. We have become award-winning  bloggers, we have learned fresh skills and passed old knowledge to new friends. But in this post I would like to share my own personal experience, the gift that these two years have given me, particularly the faculty to fall in love again…with novels!

I started this blogging trip with a baggage of preconceptions about the whole process of writing, publishing and the mechanics of reading. After two years, I´m sorry to confess that my prejudices against the publishing industry and its minions have increased, but I have lost fear and gained respect for self-publishing and e-books. I truly hope many novice writers learn about these new paths before subjecting themselves to the anguish and self-doubt the other road could lead them to.

Alas! Self publishing is not an option for me since along the way; I lost one piece of luggage, the one containing my dreams of becoming a published author. Does that mean I have learned humility in this trip? Perhaps I will when I discard one last dream, writing fiction altogether. I am still clinging to that bag, but reason and conscience tell me that writing non-fiction is my thing. In these two years I have acquired appreciation and reverence for the blogging profession and for non-fiction writing in general. I will not stop scribbling, but I may stay away from fiction (and yet I have such a wonderful story in my mind that I shall take to my grave).

Most important than giving up on writing, is the recovery of an old romance that shaped my personality in the past. I am talking about my love for novels. Reading novels plays different roles in each individual life. Some read to learn, some to escape reality, some seek entertaining; others search for models to apply to their own craft. In Sister Mary Mary’s blog there is a quote that reads “a book is a present that you can open over and over again.” According to Carlos Ruiz Zafón, books are “mirrors” that return our reflection. Indeed, in more than one occasion fiction has thrown my own reflection back at me, the old  "identification thing” that I have so often mentioned in my posts. Indeed, they are presents that constantly renew their promise of joy, but they are more than that, and this blog helped me discover it.

 “What are books for you?”an interviewer asked me years ago. “Friends,” I answered regretting what could sound like a cliché. They are friends, but once in a while, some charismatic piece of fiction has also been my lover.  I have struck friendship with novels into the past, but I also became romantically attached to certain stories. There is such  intimacy in burrowing inside a good tale, wandering into plots that make me meet the unconventional, the unpredictable and the  incredible while forcing me to see my image mirrored on them like on a lover´s eyes. Losing that experience was akin to losing part of my womanhood, and yet I let it happen.

I wonder if all of you writers have gone through something similar, but as I ventured into writing land I became disenchanted with literature. Fiction ceased to charm me. The more I learned about style principles and publishing rules, the more judgmental I became. Every novel that had come to the market after 2000 seemed flawed, artificial, lacking of charm and mystery. As my capacity for self-criticism increased, so did my cruelty in judging imperfection in others, especially those who had found agents and publishers. It went beyond envy as I never judged out of spite, I never criticized without grounds. The manual was there, always at hand to remind me that those who broke the rules made it to the top.

Enough of that. Just know that reading fiction became a painful, exhausting and eventually boring affair.  It resembled a mathematical exercise, leaving no space for romance. Blissfully, I did not regret it much. Like so many things that age had banned for me, I accepted it. But the enormity of what I had lost only came to me when I recovered it, and I have only this blog to thank for that. In order to write a monthly post, I was forced to read fiction (and sometimes watch films as companions to the text) again. Little by little, I gave up on the stylistic examination and let great plots sucked me in. I narrowed down my criticism just to apply it to the content and character development aspects of a novel, exactly as my undergrad and graduate studies had prepared me to do.

Over these last two years, I have bumped into new and fascinating genres like the historical whodunit and its partner, the historical thriller. I have re-discovered the poetry of Edith Wharton’s tales and made my peace with The Devil Wears Prada, to the point that I consider it above the mere label of “chick lit.” And I have fallen in love with George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. It had dazzled me, it had comfort me, and it had humbled me showing that whatever my work was before it could never reach that magnificence.

If I were to encapsulate the essence of that magical fiction that charmed me of my tree branch I should mention three qualities: characters that evolve to the point where you want them to be; a plot that combines every ingredient of the human tragicomedy including romance, and a sense that although the tale is set in fabled days it could have happen in a real historical setting, even in my own Twentieth Century. Most important, all those qualities transport me to a spot within those pages in which I cease to be a mere reader-witness but become both an actor and the writer-puppeteer that pulls the strings in that universe.

Have you ever experienced such degree of emotion with a book? I hadn’t reached these heights of passion since I read Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown in another continent and another century.  There´s something angelic in words that bring you to such heights. A quality that I can only find in Chopin’s Preludes or Ol’Blue Eyes’ voice. Perhaps that is why they make the perfect musical background for my reading journeys.

In many ways, reading can be a transforming experience, and a passionate one that moves you to tears of joy and fits of anger.  If I compare it to a love affair is because I cannot think of any other activity that provokes such a myriad of emotions in me. But what about you? What is your relationship with fiction? Do you read to learn, to distract yourself from everyday routine or do you experience once in a while rapture similar to mine? If so, could you share with us which novels have moved you?

Malena (formerly known as Violante)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

No Way Out

A friend asked me the other day if there’s one recurring theme I return to in my fiction. That is a hard question to answer (try it!). After some thought, I decided that “the moral dilemma” is something I find incredibly appealing in storytelling … both as a creator and consumer.

To be clear, when I speak of “moral dilemma,” I do not mean “controversial political issue.” The two are often conflated. A moral dilemma is a situation where every alternative available breaks a moral rule. Your character has to take some action, but there is no “good” action to take. If structured well, the reader will feel the pain of the terrible choice, and will leave the scene or story wondering what she would have done. The more anguished the character, the more powerful the story. The reader and the writer alike are left as unsettled as the character, and the story becomes unforgettable.

Reaching far back in world literature, we have the wretched decision faced by Abraham in the Old Testament. God instructs him to slay his own son, Isaac. Abraham has exactly two unpleasant alternatives: ignore God (and, hello! disobey the creator of the universe!) or kill his own child.

Agamemnon and Iphigenia
Abraham wasn’t the only one confronted with such a decision: the gods of many cultures are fond of putting their people in this particular pickle. Poor Agamemnon, for example: Zeus orders the warrior to lead an expedition to Troy to punish that city. En route, a storm breaks out that endangers the quest; Agamemnon is ordered by the goddess Artemis to slay his own daughter as a sacrifice, at which point the gods will stop the storm. If he does not slay his daughter, everyone on the ship (including his daughter, natch) will die. Ags also will be disobeying Zeus: if he does not murder his daughter, Troy will not be revenge-sacked. The flipside is obvious, and the same as Abraham's: he will have murdered his own child, one of the deepest taboos across time and culture. No good choice.

World mythology is full of people sacrificing their offspring to the gods, but in the case of Tantalus, the gods didn’t appreciate the act. He killed his son in offering to the Olympians, and for this he is eternally punished: he is sent to Hades, to stand forever in a pool of cool water with fresh fruit dangling above his head. When he is thirsty and bends to drink the water, it recedes from his lips. When he is hungry and reaches for the fruits, they retreat from his grasp. A miserable situation, all right: but not a moral dilemma. It’s good to keep in mind that being trapped or stuck is not necessarily the same as a moral dilemma — though it can increase the tension and pace of a story.

Stephen Blackpool and his burden
In Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, hardworking Stephen Blackpool is saddled with a wretched, drunken wife. He and his wife are estranged, and since then he's (chastely) fallen in love with another woman, the angelic Rachael. He desperately wants to obtain a divorce, but due to the class-biased divorce laws of the time, he cannot. One night, he comes home to find the wife back in his flat, drunk and aggressive. As she passes into semiconsciousness, he notices there are two bottles on the nightstand: one is alcohol, the other is poison. The wife wakes up blearily and reaches for the poison. Stephen is faced with a terrible moral dilemma here: allow the wife to poison herself, thus ridding him of his burden, or save her.

I know what I would have done. As I was reading along, I wanted to yell at him, “Let her drink the poison! Come on, Stephen!” Dickens masterfully draws out the scene, ratcheting up the tension, drawing you into Stephen’s agonized state of mind. (For the resolution, turn to the chapter entitled “Rachael.”)

Which child will you choose?
The classic moral dilemma in modern fiction is Sophie’s Choice. Written by William Styron in 1979, the story revolves around a young mother in a Polish concentration camp who must choose which of her two children will die. You don’t have to be a mother to feel the horror of this impossible decision. (But every mother who knows the story feels a particular knot of agony.)

Continuing forward in time, we have perhaps the current reigning queen of the ethical dilemma, Jodi Picoult. Her novel My Sister’s Keeper has the protagonist caught between continuing on as her sister’s bone-marrow donor, or seizing control of her own destiny and refusing to be part of her parents’ plans anymore. In addition to the grueling choice faced by the main character (it’s ethically muddier than it even sounds), you are also presented with the initial decision made by the parents: is it ethical to conceive a child for the sole purpose of becoming a bone-marrow donor for her sick sister?

In Erin Morgenstern’s magical, literary genre-bender, The Night Circus, young magicians Celia and Marco are caught up in a competition than lands them both in an ethical dilemma. The bad guy has set them up to choose between their love for each other and their own survival. Sound familiar? It’s quite similar to the situation faced by Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games: you love each other, but only one of you will get out of this alive. Hmmm, what to do, what to do.

One key to a good moral dilemma is that the writer and the reader feel just as torn as the character. Too often, writers think they are setting up a moral dilemma, when it’s clear they have a “right” answer in mind. An example would be the teen novel which has the girl choosing between the handsome-schmucky rich guy and another guy who’s not so rich or popular, but is obviously the better pick. See: virtually every John Hughes movie ever made. Writers should be alert for this easy-out, and work to ensure that the dilemma is real. You don’t know, and you don’t want your readers to know, what is the right thing to do.

What sacrifices will a mother make?
In one of my current WIPs, my protagonist is a young, extremely impoverished mother whose baby has been snatched by a wealthy woman. The rich woman hopes to pass off the child as her own, in order keep her husband married to her: he is married solely for the sake of acquiring an heir. He’ll dump any wife who doesn’t provide, and no wife has been able to provide thus far (shades of Henry VIII). The young mother eventually tracks down her child, without really thinking about what she’ll do when she finds him. Does she take him back, to live with her in the streets? Or does she leave him in his new home, where he stands to inherit an estate and a title? I think that's a genuinely difficult decision, especially when I take into consideration the setting and some other extenuating circumstances.

Ideally, however you resolve the moral dilemma your character faces, the character should change as a result. One of the most important signs of real adulthood is the relinquishing of a black-and-white worldview. It’s comforting to think that every question has a clear right-or-wrong answer, and many stunted adults still cling to this childish notion. But a developed person (and character) understands that many choices are far from straightforward, and that clarity is rare. A satisfying story can show a character moving through the moral dilemma and coming out wearier but wiser: able to approach life with a more nuanced view. Another possibility is that the character is simply ruined by the dilemma. Sophie, of Sophie’s Choice, is such a character: she never recovers from the devastation inflicted on her. Faust is another classic example: he is offered a deal with the devil: give me your soul, and in exchange I give you unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasure. Tough choice, and it does him in.

What are your favorite moral-dilemma stories? Do you try to work those into your own writing? Can you think of other examples of characters ennobled — or ruined ‚ by the decisions they face?