Category Archives: Writing Wisdom

Between the Pages With Valerie Block

About seven years ago, my mother in-law gave me a copy of Valerie Block’s novel, Was It Something I Said. I remember thinking that it was a clever anti-romantic, romanctic comedy in that the hero and heroine meet when their plane is about to crash and when he tells her that they were fated, she thinks he’s nuts. I loved it and through the years, scenes from that novel would pop up in my mind.

So imagine my surprise when Valerie’s publicist contacted me about her new book, Don’t Make A Scene. I couldn’t believe my luck that I’d get a chance to talk with an author I’d admired for so long.
Chica Lit: What inspired Don’t Make A Scene?

Valerie: I wanted to write about what happens when the eternal allure of classic movies collides with the daily indignities of contemporary life. I had a situation, a woman who begins a romance that ends before it has a chance to take off, with a man whose wife refuses on principle to grant him a divorce. Although they’re attracted to each other, things don’t move forward, and not necessarily because of the stalemate with his wife. Just because he’s a man and she’s a woman, doesn’t mean that they fall in love, and burst into song on public transportation, the way it happens in the movies. I saw their story as the kind of anti-climactic stuff that movies just don’t deal with. The characters of Diane and Vladimir emerged as people as I began to write.

Chica Lit: What were the challenges you faced when writing it?

Valerie: I started writing the novel, and although I was enjoying all the cinema business, the story wasn’t moving forward. I looked over at my husband, Alexis Romay, who grew up in Cuba and came to the US as an adult, in 1999. Alexis is also a writer, and we talk about Cuba every day. At any given time, he is cursing in anger, crying in pain or laughing hysterically about something happening in Cuba that he is reading about on the Internet. Alexis has written editorials that could have been published in 1967 or the day before yesterday. The situation worsens, but never changes.

And at some point, I got jealous. I certainly didn’t envy the repression, the censorship, the privations, the hunger, the anger or the frustration that being born in Cuba entails. But for a writer, Cuba is a never-ending source of great material. I felt sheepish, and wondered if he would call me a colonialist for appropriating his stories, but I asked my husband: Would you mind if I wrote about this? And he said, “You and I could write about the same thing, and it would come out completely differently.” So the leading man became Cuban, and that seemed to make the whole enterprise take off.

Chica Lit: Recently, Hollywood has been seeing a lot of misses versus hits. Do you feel that the quality of storytelling has suffered from the rise in celebrity when audiences are more interested in Brad & Angelina’s personal life, versus their movies?

Valerie: The public has always been ravenous for trashy gossip, and the Hollywood stars have always had two jobs: embodying our higher aspirations and desires on-screen, and feeding our darker needs off-screen. Or, you might say, they are idolized by the public for what they do on screen, and then must pay for the deification by having their personal lives dissected and their privacy invaded at every turn. It’s part of the package. There’s a very interesting book, Intimate Strangers, by Richard Schickel, about the ill-will ordinary Americans bear the very people they put on pedestals. It’s almost a law of nature: when people get that big, they have to be shot down, sometimes – tragically – literally, as in the case of John Lennon.

Film has never been the writer’s medium, but in the studios of yore, there used to be a script department, writers on staff. These days, there’s so little respect for writing in the average Hollywood product, you get the feeling that they want to just eliminate the writer altogether. Sometimes films seem to have been written by the wardrobe designer – did you see the Gwyneth Paltrow bomb Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow? – or by a sleeping accountant using a previous script for easy reference. When I found out that Titanic had started shooting before the script had even been started, I decided that I didn’t need to see that movie. I may have been the only person on the planet who made that decision, but I stand by it.

Chica Lit: When you switch on the TV and see some of the reality shows that are produced, do you feel as you write/craft novels that you’re casting pearls before swine?

Valerie: You make me laugh! I reject the very premise of reality TV. And as you know, even the least popular cable channels on television – the wood grain channel, the vitamin channel, etc. – get millions of viewers, even on a Saturday at 1:30 am. There are days when I feel like I’m in a dying business. On the other hand, I can’t watch much of what is popular now – I feel unclean! I know there are others who feel the same, and this is who I write for. Books reach people on a very different level. I hope there will always be a call for that, although I know the numbers are mere, when compared to televised competition of any kind.

Chica Lit: How have you grown comfortable in mixing your Jewish heritage with your husband’s Cuban background? Or, does it remain a work in progress?

Valerie: My husband is fascinated by Jewish history and customs, amused by Yiddish, and absolutely enthralled by the ultra Orthodox. I come from a very secular family, and he’s getting a little too Jewish for us! For my part, I’ve been learning Spanish, reading Cuban history and fiction, watching Cuban movies. I am a fanatic for Cuban jazz. But I’m a gringa in the dancing department, alas: I just cannot follow, and we’ve had some very tense moments, as my husband is a terrific dancer, almost professional, and a big showman who likes to do very complicated moves with the hands above the head. I must spend every neuron keeping the beat, etc. Our wedding countdown unfolded like a real-life version of the rehearsal montage from Dirty Dancing, in which the nice Jewish girl doesn’t exactly “get it” in the end.

Enter to win a copy of Don’t Make A Scene by emailing me at mary@marycastillo.com with “Don’t Make A Scene” in the subject line. Next Tuesday, I’ll draw one name from a hat and announce the winner!
Visit Valerie Block’s website, or buy her books!

Between The Pages: Caridad Ferrer

Cari and I met online when we were both dreaming of the day we’d sell our first books. She was one of my first fans and has been actively promoting chica lit and chick lit through the Chick Lit chapter of Romance Writers of America. But now, she’s stepped out from behind the scenes to become a rising star in young adult fiction.

Her debut, Adios To My Old Life placed second in the Florida Writers Association’s Royal Palm Literary Award, was named by Latinidad as the Top Teen Read of 2006 and received the Rita for Best Contemporary Single Title Romance, the most prestigious award given by Romance Writers of America.

Today, Cari is releasing her second young adult novel, It’s Not About The Accent. She sat down to share her story of publication and how music has played a role in all of her books.

Chica Lit: It’s Not About The Accent is about Caroline who transforms herself into Carolina during her first year in college. Where did the story and Caroline come from?

Cari: It came primarily from the basic premise of how at some point or another, we all want to be someone or something else than what we are. Growing up, I remember a lot of Latina girls wanting to be more Anglo in their appearance with hair color and dress and tinted contact lenses. What I thought would be fun for this story would be to take a girl that on the surface is as white bread as they come (by her own reckoning) and have her try on the persona of a Cuban girl. It’s not entirely a random choice either— her great-grandmother, whom she adored, was Cuban although that was a fact my character didn’t find out until after her Nana’s death. But for her, it was like pieces of a puzzle falling into place— her great-grandmother had been the one person in the family who had had these exciting adventures and had traveled many places and she was the only one who hadn’t been born and bred in this small, Ohio town.

Chica Lit: Tell us about your journey to becoming a published (and award-winning!) author?

Cari: I wrote. And wrote. And wrote some more. Seriously, though, I’ve been writing my entire life, but seriously with an eye toward publication for about the last six years. My original focus was women’s fiction, which I still write and it was one of those manuscripts that captured an agent’s attention. While she was shopping that manuscript to editors, she heard that another editor was looking for Latina-themed young adult novels and did I have an idea? I was a little thrown initially, since I’d never considered YA— I honestly didn’t think I’d have a good voice/tone for the genre. But I gave it a go and well… here I am.

Chica Lit: If you could back to the time before you published your first book, what would you tell yourself?

Cari: Don’t ever assume ANYTHING. I know that publishing is a freaky, unpredictable industry, but if you had told me that my first published novel was going to be young adult and that it would win awards not only for young adult books, but take a RITA in an adult category and that nearly two years after selling my first young adult novel, I’d still be waiting on that first elusive sale for one of my women’s fiction novels, especially considering how close I’ve come a few times with those manuscripts? Well… let’s just say I’d be asking what you smoked.

Chica Lit: What turns you on creatively?

Cari: Oh, music. Without a doubt. A musical passage or a lyric can inspire whole scenes, if not entire storylines, in a flash. There’s nothing that brings me peace, fires me up, stirs the deepest core of my emotions as music— any kind of music.

Chica Lit: What turns you off?

Cari: A lack of respect for the creative process, especially when it comes from other writers, who are the first ones who should respect that the process is different for everyone. Actually, just a lack of respect in general— all of us who do this gig have first hand knowledge of how hard it is, both creatively and from a business standpoint. The last thing we need to be doing is tearing each other or what we write down.

Chica Lit: Best piece of advice ever given to you?

Cari: The classic, BICHOK- Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard. You can’t write a book without actually, you know, writing.

Chica Lit: What’s next?

Cari: I’m currently working on a modern retelling of the story of Carmen, from Bizet’s opera. My Carmen is a dancer, and rather than an army officer and bullfighter, she finds herself between an intense, disciplined music prodigy and a flamboyant, let it all hang out, soccer player. It’s been a lot of fun writing this so far, since the overall setting is the world of competitive drum and bugle corps (it all makes sense, I SWEAR). Anyhow, drum corps was an activity that formed a huge part of my adolescence and it’s been a blast being able to revisit some of the best times of my life while writing this story. Right now, the working title is, “A Thin Line” and it’s scheduled for a Spring 09 release from Dial.

After you run out and get Cari’s new book, It’s Not About The Accent (so she’ll become a best seller and buy me a drink at next year’s RWA Conference!), here’s the soundtrack she created for the story!

The Seven Unhealthy Habits of Unsuccessful Writers

I shouldn’t be posting this because you’re probably going to think, “Who does she think she is?” Well, it all started when I was taking a break from revisions and came up with the following list based on some of the bad habits I’ve had to undo (yes, me), and the habits I’ve observed in others.

So before you hate me, hear me out okay?

The Seven Unhealthy Habits of Unsuccessful Writers
1. Wrote to get published when I should’ve written to uncover my voice
2. Spent more time talking about writing than actually writing
3. Believed my own excuses as to why I never had time to write
4. Needed the approval of others whether it was a contest judge, a “get-published-quick” seminar or a critique partner
5. Said “if I finish a book” instead of “when I finish the book”
6. Couldn’t keep my behind in the chair, or worse, played online Mah-jong for “inspiration”
7. Gave up too early

What bad habits have you had to undo, or are in the process of un-doing?