The worst writing advice ever. Not kidding.

The worst writing advice ever. Not kidding.

“But the novel is set in Mexico,” she said. “All the characters are Mexican.”

“That’s right,” I replied. “Lives of the people fighting the drug cartels. And Mexico’s class structure.”

More than 5 years ago, I was speaking on the phone to a well-known American author about potential agents and publishers for  THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY. She was enthusiastic about the quality of my writing but we kept circling around an undefined problem.

“New York will never touch it,” she said finally. “And a New York agent is the only kind worth having. New York agents are looking for the next Sex and the City. Glossy. High heels. New York.”

“This is a political thriller,” I countered. “Makes the real Mexico accessible to the American audience the way Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series did for Russia.”

GORKY PARK, RED SQUARE and the other Arkady Renko novels were ground-breaking, taking us inside a crumbling Soviet Union and then a mafia-riddled Russia.

My book took the reader inside the real Mexico. How was it any different?

New York won’t buy a book with all Mexican characters

The famous author didn’t care. Her sniff was audible.

“New York won’t buy a book with all Mexican characters,” she said.And your main character is a maid. At least couldn’t you make her American?”

I made a gurgling sound.

“You know,” the author blithely went on. “A college girl from Pittsburgh named Susan or Tess who goes to Mexico on a cultural exchange program to work as a maid for a semester. Something like that.”

I could have tossed off a barbed remark about how it would cost an American in Pittsburgh more to get to Mexico than they would earn as a maid in three months, but I was too busy being appalled.

This was a book about Mexico’s drug war, the people fighting it, and their chances of survival. It was also a Cinderella story taking on Mexico’s unspoken caste system. Sue and Tess were not part of that narrative.

Related: Read Chapters 1 & 2

Was she right?

Most of the New York agents I queried never replied. The few that did were only taking on a few select projects. One agency well known for representing fiction and thrillers said they didn’t take on my specific “genre.”

Ahem, I was pitching a political thriller.

Related post: How to Solve Hollywood’s Lack of Latino Roles

Trend or snub?

The question became unavoidable. Was this the classic snub of a new author by the New York cognoscenti? Or a mainstream publishing industry bias against Hispanic-themed popular fiction?

I don’t have any empirical evidence either way, as I update this in 2018. But in 2014 I wrote:

“If this is a trend, then it is a trend that runs counter to both population demographics and marketing statistics. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics made up 16% of the US population in 2010 and that rate is projected to rise to 29% in 2050. This group has significant buying power.

The Latino buying power will be $1.5 trillion and steadily increasing by 2015, as asserted by The Nielsen Company in its early 2012 report “State of the Hispanic Consumer.” Meanwhile, ever alert to trends, Amazon introduced a bilingual English-Spanish Kindle e-reader.”

To play devil’s advocate, the lack of response to my queries is to be expected for most authors who try to break into traditional publishing. Some time later, an agent told me they couldn’t publish the first Detective Emilia Cruz because “I don’t know anyone who knows you.”

There are many more would-be authors knocking on agent and editor doors than there is interest in offering a contract to an unknown. But I think the message in that author’s suggestion to change the nationality of the main character speaks for itself.

Update

Drug violence on America’s border is constantly in the news and the US national debate over immigration is acute.  Fiction can help to socialize these issues and give them an understanding, a face, and an immediacy that often the news cannot.

Meanwhile, THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, with all of its Mexican characters, is available on Amazon in print and ebook formats. It is rated 4.8 out of 5 stars with comments like:

It’s a perfect blend of action, suspense and romance. The action keeps you turning the pages as the author portrays the gritty reality of the city. Amato captures the complexity of life in one of the world’s largest cities, expertly depicting the sleazy politicians, the drug lords, their violent lieutenants and the common Mexicans who are victimized by them. Her characters are sharply drawn and totally believable.”

Read the book and you will learn something about the drug wars cost and the people who are determined to end the corruption. You’ll learn about the class system that divides the Mexican culture. Amato fills the pages with three-dimensional characters that you care about. You will be thrilled with the way Amato shares the dinner between Eduardo and Luz. I wanted to read that whole scene out loud to my wife.”

And this from the Literary Fiction Review: “The Hidden Light of Mexico City by Carmen Amato is a rivetingly dramatic tale of politics and corruption, and a man and a woman from opposite ends of the social spectrum who fall in love.” 

The most viewed page on this website is the dreamcast of Latino actors who I think should star in any movie adaptation.

My sniff is audible.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Book Review: Hotel Pastis by Peter Mayle

Book Review: Hotel Pastis by Peter Mayle

Up for a trip to southern France, where mirth, mayhem, and Champagne rule? C’est vraiment drole! Translation: keep reading.

I not only write mysteries but I love reading them, too. My favorites are the ones that take me to new places and this week it’s a trip to France, all expenses paid by advertising magnate Simon Shaw.

In this week’s book review, Peter Mayle, the UK writer best known for his non-fiction memoir A YEAR IN PROVENCE, checks us into HOTEL PASTIS. It’s a mystery with a light touch and Gallic flavor, along with a generous helping of humor. The novel is perfectly plotted and beautifully choreographed with descriptions and dialogue that match up to both location and characters.

As the novel opens, Simon Shaw is getting divorced (#2) from shrewish gold digger Caroline. His London house is empty–she’s taken everything. But Simon is mega-rich and has the support of his long-time driver/butler/event manager/best friend Ernest who convinces him to take a vacation to France. A small car accident maroons Simon in a small town in Provence, where he meets the lovely French businesswoman Nicole.

Back in London, Simon knows the trip to France has demonstrated just how much he’s fallen out of love with the megawatt advertising world, his US business partner, and the staff at the ad agency Simon built. When Nicole proposes that he buy a half-finished building in Provence and turn it into a hotel, the idea first sounds absurd. But eventually Simon–and Ernest–jump off the corporate ship, bid adieu to London, and build the Hotel Pastis in Provence. (FYI: pastis is the licorice flavor liquor that turnes cloudy when mixed with water. Surprisingly refreshing, it is ubiquitous in the south of France. Pernod is one of the most popular brands.)

Interspersed with the Simon/Ernest/Nicole story line is the subplot of a group of locals who were once in prison together and are now plotting to rob a bank which has foolishly installed a new vault over a riverbank storm drain. The big robbery will take place on a festival day and the thieves will make their getaway by cycling away, hiding in plain sight amid the thousands of cyclistes there for the festivities.

Will the thieves succeed? Will their path cross Simon’s? What about Enrico, the Mafiaoso who threatens Simon and from whom the thieves must buy their false passports?

I can’t give any more away, except that this book draws you in with just the right amount of French lingo. You’ll want to go buy Champagne and foie gras and have a picnic in the sun. There is amusement on every page–Mayle’s writing style is light and deft, with a few laugh-out-loud moments, and just enough suspense to keep the action fresh and brisk. The characters, especially Simon and Ernest, are very well drawn. Not a traditional mystery, but high quality writing, supreme entertainment, and a joy to read from start to finish

Simon’s not the only one who gets to escape in HOTEL PASTIS.

 

How Deep Are Your Reading Roots?

How Deep Are Your Reading Roots?

I blame my oldest sister, really. She was studious and serious and had a lot of books. She organized them tidily on bookcases in the basement where they joined books my uncle had left when he joined the Navy and headed for Vietnam. The shelves also had room for an ever-growing collection of hardbacked Readers Digest Condensed Editions and assorted odds and ends from friends and church jumble sales.

Those basement books became my reading roots; books that formed my reading tastes, taught me the power of words, and inspired me to take on a literary career. There’s usually fewer than seven degrees of separation between those roots and whatever I’m reading now.

HEAVEN HELP US! by Herbert Tarr

A dog-eared paperback came to live in the basement donated by a friend. It was an unlikely book for a young Catholic girl to pick up, with a cover showing a man in a yarmulke. But the 1968 story of young Rabbi Gideon Levi and his Long Island temple congregation was and still is one of the most cleverly written books ever.  Tarr, a rabbi and former Air Force chaplain who wrote several other books, made the Jewish religious experience universal. He had an engaging, lighthearted style that I’ve never quite seen replicated. Sophie Kinsella comes closest albeit from a female perspective.

HEAVEN HELP US on amazon.com

EXODUS by Leon Uris

Rabbi Levi’s congregation exclaimed so much over it I wondered if it was a real book and lo and behold it was. EXODUS was published in 1958 to major acclaim and turned into a movie starring Paul Newman and Sal Mineo (neither of whom looked anything like the character they played). It is the sweeping, engrossing story of Israel’s birth, moving from the early Zionist movement to Polish Jews escaping the Nazis, Ethiopian Jews emigrating after the war and the start of hostilities with neighboring Arab states. Although a novel, it was my first primer on Middle Eastern politics and shaped my political views for years.

All of Uris’s epic historical novels (MILA 18, QB VII, TRINITY) have the same breadth, strength, and excellent writing but EXODUS stands apart. It made me wonder if I could ever write anything so big. Still wondering.

EXODUS on amazon.com
THE LITTLE WORLD OF DON CAMILLO by Giovanni Guareschi

Don Camillo is a strapping fictional parish priest in Italy’s Po Valley, ministering to a small village congregation. His arch frenemy is Peppone, the Communist mayor of the town, who–as is to be expected of a Communist–says he does not believe in God. It is sometime after WWII and the two men fought together as partisans in the hills against the Nazis. The book is a series of softly humorous and philosophical stories in which Don Camillo and Peppone argue over conflicting beliefs (Peppone wants to baptize his son Lenin–oh the irony!), the welfare of the little village (both try to rig a soccer tournament between the church team and the People’s palace team), and the true meaning of friendship. Oh, and Christ on the cross in Don Camillo’s church talks to him/is his conscience.

I routinely re-read this book when feeling unsettled and always find both humor and solace.  Guareschi, a journalist from Milan who also illustrated the book, wrote other Don Camillo stories and several unrelated novels and stories which can often be found on amazon or abebooks. I was recently thrilled to find an excellent blog on the Don Camillo series. Enjoy!

THE LITTLE WORLD OF DON CAMILLO on amazon.com
THE CODE OF THE WOOSTERS by P.G.Wodehouse

My sister had a copy of THE MOUSE THAT ROARED by Leonard Wibberly. It was clever and inventive and I hoped there were others about the silly Duchy of Grand Fenwick. So I’m a high school freshman at the public library searching the Ws in Fiction and where WIB should be there was WOD. Wodehouse to be precise, which was almost as silly a name as Wibberly, and I was hooked.

Wodehouse’s books are all suspended in 1920’s England, where people pass time at big country houses getting wires crossed and trying to extricate themselves from nonsense. His language is a swift patter of hysterical dialogue, British slang, and light comedy. THE CODE OF THE WOOSTERS is my favorite, with a cast of characters who appear in many Wodehouse books. It is one of the Jeeves books narrated by Bertie Wooster, whose valet (“my man, don’t you know”) Jeeves is constantly extricating Bertie and friends from impossible romances and other ill-judged escapades. I have multiple copies of this book, including the one in the 20-lb set of all the Jeeves and Bertie books I bought at the oracle of British bookstores, Hatcherd’s in Piccadilly, and hauled home back in the days before there was a 50-lb weight limit on suitcases.

THE CODE OF THE WOOSTERS on amazon.com

THE KITCHEN MADONNA by Rumer Godden

This book is firmly rooted. It was in at least two of the Reader’s Digest Condensed Editions. Wikipedia lists it as a children’s story but it is a universal story of a dysfunctional family in London that changes for the better when the young son decides to make a homemade icon for their Ukrainian housekeeper, Marta. His effort takes him across London on a quest to do something for someone else for the first time in his life. Rumer Godden, who was raised in British India and wrote numerous books for adults and children, nine of which became movies, created one of her most uplifting stories. The book is sweet and thought-provoking and makes a unique gift.

THE KITCHEN MADONNA on amazon.com

GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell

I can still see this book in my mind’s eye: the hardback cover is deep blue and the bottoms of the pages are wrinkled from having been inadvertently dunked in the water while I was reading and taking a bath at the same time. It topped my 5th grade reading list, back in the days when I knew what a “beau” was but had never heard the word pronounced.

The book got progressively more dog-eared through middle school as I read and re-read it. It wasn’t the Civil War theme or the love triangle between Ashley, Scarlett and Melanie. No, it was the way that Mitchell put me right into Scarlet’s head.

Do you remember the scene when Rhett deserts Scarlett as they flee Atlanta before Sherman’s army? There was a line something like this: “Her mind jumped around, trying to remember what Gerald had called balky mules and Mr. Lincoln.” But nothing came and Scarlett ends up just calling Rhett a cad. My quote may be imperfect, but it was the first novel I read that showed how to bring the reader deep inside a character’s point of view.

Gone With the Wind on amazon.com

The novel was better than the movie, too.

Fiddle dee dee, Carmen, how you do run on.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

5 Life Lessons from a Month of Writing Dangerously

5 Life Lessons from a Month of Writing Dangerously

NaNoWriMo can be described as a cult phenomenon, a virtual writers gathering, a very strange hobby or God’s gift to global coffee sales. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, the goal is to write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. It’s a tough thing to do—not tough as in survive cancer or send a rocket into space sorts of tough—but it truly tests your self-discipline, imagination, and relationships with others.

If you do it right, NaNoWriMo becomes a month-long learning experience. Here are a few universal lessons I took away from it this year:

 A goal is different from a plan

Writing 50,000 words is a goal. The plan to get that done defines the steps to take to achieve the goal. The more detailed the plan, the better the chances of achieving the goal. In this case, outline + schedule = plan. In my case, both the outline and the schedule changed but the initial planning helped me stay on track.

Use the Deadline, Grasshopper

A deadline is an overlooked luxury. It defines the project and allows you to work backwards from the hard line. This is a variation on Covey’s excellent axiom: Begin With the End in Mind.

You Can Have it all, not just all at the same time

Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane to Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan) said this in response to why she quit acting to have a family. By taking on a big project like NaNoWriMo, something else had to come off my plate. We stared at splotchy yellow dining room walls the whole month; your truly finished the paint job on 3 December.

Learn to Prioritize or Learn to Fail

My mother always said all you have to do is want it. Two things are implicit in her words: that her kids would be able to A. prioritize and B. not slack off. If we want something that bad, the actions to achieve it will consistently and consciously be at the top of the daily to-do list. I wrote about 1700 words each day, with a couple of spurts so I could skip a day here and there. A writing buddy friend who had to juggle exams in November wrote in bigger and fewer spurts but did nothing else those days.

Rewards R Good

A reward was in order because I’d set out a tough thing for myself and got it done. Yay me. When challenges are quiet and don’t get a lot of external attention, it doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy, they’re just quiet. A reward is still in order. It’ll help muster enthusiasm for the next challenge. (I bought a fish-shaped talavera jug. Don’t judge, it is waaay cool.)

So, yes, I “won” my NaNoWriMo challenge this year with a 50,303-word draft manuscript tentatively entitled SUN GOD. Over the next year, I’ll add another 20,000 words and rewrite a bunch of it and eventually, maybe, just maybe, it will become the 3rd EMILIA CRUZ mystery novel. It was great to spend the month in Acapulco with Emilia and Kurt . . . but let me tell you, it’s hot down there . . . 

2016 Update

SUN GOD got pushed to the side. DIABLO NIGHTS (Detective Emilia Cruz Book 3) and KING PESO (Detective Emilia Cruz Book 4) needed to be told first. SUN GOD was renamed PACIFIC REAPER and will be the 5th book in the Emilia Cruz series, slated for release in February 2017.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Why Read a Book About Mexico Now

Reading about Mexico now is a mix of highs and lows. Fiction can’t substitute for facts but it can lead us to become interested enough in an issue to find out what is really going on.  That is the impact I hope The Hidden Light of Mexico City can have.

The press release says:

 The classic Cinderella story moves to Mexico against a backdrop of government corruption, drug cartel violence, and pending presidential elections.  The Hidden Light of Mexico City’s raw exposé of Mexico’s rigid class society makes this political thriller a must-read before America’s next debate over immigration.

Why is this important

What’s happening today is Mexico is fairly staggering.  As reported by The New York Times, based on Mexican Government statistics released in January, over 47,000 people have been killed in the country’s crackdown against the cartels.  It’s common knowledge that many are dead as the result of competition between rival cartels. Other dead are those who were transiting cartel territory as they tried to immigrate and were pressed into service to the cartels and then killed.  Stories of the “disappeared” and mass graves remind me of news reports of Cambodia back in the day, of “The Killing Fields” movie.

The killing fields are spilling over onto America’s doorstep. Last September the New York Times published an interactive map showing Mexican drug cartel reach across the border and a map of US drug seizures from Mexican cartel shipments to the US.  Disturbing, hardhitting.

CNN’s  recent series is even more compelling. The reporting takes us from a walk through a cemetary in drug kingpin El Chapo’s home state of Sinaloa, to a cold hard look at the numbers, to the search for those missing amid the violence.

Mexico’s drug war isn’t just about the fight between the cartels and the military, about political will to stamp out evil or even about guns and agents moving across the US-Mexican border. More than anything, it is about a people and a culture under attack.

This is where fiction can help tell a vital story, by imagining the lives of those living through the struggle, making them breathe and love and cry and fight. Fiction can hold attention and provoke emotion in a way that the news might not.

Update 2016

The numbers of those missing or known dead in Mexico continues to rise. The re-arrest of El Chapo kept the various cartels at each others’ throats in the quest to dominate drug routes into the ever-voracious US, and violence continues in many parts of Mexico.

Whatever the US presidential election holds for us, the US-Mexico relationship is back on the agenda after having been eclipsed for quite some time by the Middle East. The southern border, immigration, and undocumented folks are likely to be addressed one way or another. If fiction can help focus attention on improving relations between these critical neighbors, so much the better.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

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