Author Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés in New York City

Rodríguez's newest book.
Rodríguez’s newest book.
I recommended not one, but two of Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés’s books in my round-up of essential reading about/related to Cuba for The Guardian, so I’m especially excited that I’ll get to meet her in person when she’s here in NYC this month.

The events below are open to the public. I hope you’ll support Cecilia, whose newest book, Oye What I’m Gonna Tell You, was released by Ig Publishing just this year.

Monday, June 15, 7 PM
Bluestockings Bookstore, Café, & Activist Center
172 Allen St, New York, New York 10002
Oye What I’m Gonna Tell You: A Reading and Signing

Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés will be presenting a reading of fiction from her newly released short story collection Oye What I’m Gonna Tell You followed by Q & A and signing. Her work reflects on the lives of Latina/os in the U.S.—especially those who settled in “el norte.” The characters populating her stories cope with challenges such as immigration, assimilation, poverty, race and gender issues; their voices call out to us to listen—oye!

Tuesday, June 16, 7:30 PM
Greenlight Bookstore
686 Fulton St, Brooklyn, New York 11217
An Evening with Ig Publishing: Sailing, Skating, and Cuba

Featuring Cecilia Rodriguez Milanes, author of Oye What I’m Gonna Tell You
Tracy O’Neill, author of The Hopeful
Diana Wagman, author of Life #6
Reception to follow

Fort Greene’s own independent press Ig Publishing publishes “original literary fiction from writers who have been overlooked by the mainstream publishing establishment, and political and cultural nonfiction with a progressive bent.” At this event, Greenlight and Ig celebrate the release of three exciting new literary works with a joint reading and reception.

From “Good” to “Great”: Tips for Becoming a Better Writer

As a writer, editor, and translator, I spend my days (and nights) surrounded by words.

I’m lucky: I love what I do and I’m regularly reminded why I love writing and why I think it’s important. Just today, for instance, I received a submission for Matador Travel from a writer whose opening lines read: “As the rooster announces the arrival of morning, Grandmaster Dai Kang’s slippers hit the concrete. It is 4am.”

It’s a perfect opening: the details are plentiful, yet the phrasing is tight. There’s an economy of language that confirms the writer’s skillfulness while successfully putting the reader in a specific place and time. The writer also introduces a character and provides just enough intrigue to engage the reader.

I knew the piece “worked”, but I sent it to a couple of other editors for their input. “Amazing,” one e-mailed. “I actually read it twice.” Another editor responded, “Fantastic.” Everything about the piece was well-crafted, and we look forward to publishing the piece so that other readers can enjoy it as much as we did.

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For every moving, entertaining, or informative piece I read, though, there are many that fail to impress, that fall flat and leave me wondering what can be salvaged and reworked. As an editor, I view my job as including the tasks of determining whether the piece is thematically and stylistically consistent with the format, vision, and interests of the publication for which it has been submitted; asking the question: Will this be meaningful to a large readership?; and nurturing the writer’s own voice and style while making sure the piece meets the preceding two criteria.

It’s not always an easy task, or a fun one–many writers are notoriously sensitive to criticism and rejection. But it’s through my own experiences as a writer that I’ve come to understand my work as an editor. It’s in that spirit, then, that I offer the following observations and tips for writers who are hoping to be published:

1. Trim the fat. I once heard a writer refer to revising and editing as “killing my babies.” As someone who writes long, Saramago-esque sentences myself, the metaphor resonated with me… it can be painful to cut the words we’ve worked so hard to birth onto the page. It’s true that some stories and subjects warrant 3,000 words. Many, however, do not. And in either case, even the most devoted, enthusiastic reader has a limited attention span.

When I say “trim the fat,” I don’t mean that you should force your piece into a word count (unless the publication requires that). Don’t kill rich details. Don’t omit a crucial character. But read through your piece before submitting it and ask yourself: Is every word absolutely necessary? Does every word advance the narrative? If the answer is yes, keep it. If the answer is no, start trimming.

2. Read with a critical eye. So how do you separate the lean from the fat? Simple. Get rid of filler words. So many words we use in everyday speech are unnecessarily imported into our writing: this, that, these, those, them, there are, there is, it, and etc. are just a few examples. Take a sentence with filler words and look at it critically: what can be eliminated without sacrificing detail? Try this tip consistently. I promise you’ll be surprised by how many words are simply unnecessary.

3. Write with precision…and passion. I recently landed a contract to write a guide to Mexico City for an online travel planning company. I was given a style guide to follow; though it was strict, it was not constraining. I was confident about my subject–I know my second home well–and I completed the guide with passion. I was satisfied with what I’d written and sent it off to the editor, sure it would be accepted immediately with praise and no requests for revisions.

I was wrong. “I just have a few revision requests,” the editor wrote. When I opened the document, I could see red marks all over my draft, the editor’s frustrated notes electronically penned into the margins. “WHY IS THIS PLACE GREAT?!!” she wrote with evident exasperation. “WHY IS THIS RESTAURANT ‘CELEBRATED’?!” I could almost see her, sighing and rolling her eyes, and I felt chastised by her feedback.

As I sat with the draft and reviewed it with fresh eyes and an open mind, I realized she was absolutely right. Words like “good,” “great,” “must-see,” and “celebrated” have no meaning for a reader who has never been to Mexico City. I knew the places I’d included in the guide were good, great, celebrated must-sees, but I hadn’t taken the reader there. I had to be more precise. The second draft–and the final product–were better because the editor pushed me to get rid of vague adjectives, forcing me to be precise.

So here’s the tip: Avoid “good,” “great,” and all other vague adjectives that mean nothing. Remember the 5 “Ws” of writing: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. WHY is the place great? Pushing yourself to be precise won’t just benefit the reader; you’ll become a better writer and you’ll fall in love with your subject all over again as you struggle (and succeed!) to articulate precisely why it’s so important to you.

If you find precision challenging, ask a trusted friend to read your draft. Can he or she understand the place or experience you want to convey? If not, what would the reader like to know that’s currently missing?

4. Be yourself. Recently, I had the painful experience of working with a writer who was simply trying too hard to channel her voice to fit the vibe of our publication. I could sense the talent underneath her words, but so much of her writing felt stilted. Something simply didn’t ring true, though it was difficult to express this to her.

Writers are constantly trying to fit their resumes and themselves into the varied visions and expectations of editors and the publications they represent. Don’t. Be yourself and always channel your authentic voice. When you force your writing to be something it’s not, the reader can sense the inauthenticity. And besides, you’ll be left with the yucky feeling of defeat and compromise. If the piece doesn’t fit, don’t force it. You’ll find your place. In the meantime, keep writing.

What tips do YOU have about improving as a writer? Please share your comments and experiences below!

Photo: thorinside (Flickr creative commons)

In Defense of Good Spelling

I did a quick Google search and confirmed my sneaking suspicion: Good spelling is no longer important in America.

Enter ‘”why good spelling is important” and you’ll see what I mean. Four entries are retrieved, and not a single one of them is truly a defense of good spelling.

Maybe it’s the fact that I won the spelling bee in elementary school–triumphantly taking home my very own hardback copy of a red fabric-bound Webster’s Dictionary— but I really do still believe that good spelling is important. I find people like Jeff Deck and his Typo Eradication Advancement League to be nothing short of heroic.

I know. I’m nerdy.

As I’ve been thinking about why good spelling is important, none of the predictable, conventional explanations seem too relevant anymore. One doesn’t necessarily need to spell well to communicate his or her message. In fact, the sad fact seems to be that few people notice or care when a word is spelled incorrectly. Increasingly, no one buys the argument that good spelling reflects anything important about one’s intelligence, and few people accept the idea that good spelling indicates, at the very least, that the writer isn’t lazy and can at least run a document through spell check.

But here’s why I think good spelling is important. Good spelling affirms that you respect yourself, your reader, and your subject. Spelling well shows that you’ve taken the time to review your document, that you want to present your ideas in the clearest manner possible, and that you care about the reader’s standards (even if they’re low).

Above all, spelling well shows your respect for the power of language, its power to name and describe and explain. No, the world won’t fall apart (hell, it might not even notice) when you write “it’s” when you really mean “its,” but trust me, the world does become a little bit clearer when your spelling is as powerful and as precise as the message you want to convey.

For a few quick guides to common spelling errors–and how to avoid them–click here, here, and here.

Photo: dawn m. arfield (creative commons)