Tuesday, October 25, 2016

(Video) Writing and Inspiration: Where Novelists Get Their Ideas - Part 2

In this installment, I continue to explore the question of where novelists get their ideas. 

In this episode, I use my first published novel, Bernardo and the Virgin, as a case study.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

(VIDEO) Where Do Novelists Get Ideas - Part 1

In this video series about "Inspiration and Writing," I discuss where aspiring novelists can find ideas

Ideas are everywhere. Scott O'Dell, one of my favorite authors says: "You don't have to look far. Open your eyes."

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

(VIDEO) A Word about Writing and Choice

In this video I discuss the biggest challenge I faced when deciding to write The Season of Stories. 

Writers always face choices--in every page, in fact. That's when our background as readers can come in handy.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Season of Stories: A Reader's Opinion

The Season of Stories relaxing on the beaches of Otranto, Italy.

Writers love hearing from readers, especially ones like my friend Troy Fuss. He reads voraciously and he knows books. In fact, he owns Lucha Libro Books in Granada, Nicaragua. As a result, his opinion means the world to me.

Dearest Silvio,

I loved your new book! Loved, loved, loved it! I was so invested by the end that I found myself a bit weepy throughout the last chapter (though I don’t think I’ll admit that to anyone but you). I was surprised to find out that you’d never met the author. (I couldn’t believe you let the answering machine get in the way!) or Wally Moon. I wasn’t sure how the stories were going to come together and you did it masterfully. There was so much to love in both stories. You should be very proud.

Congratulations on a fine work!


PS: All hail Vin Scully! I have listened to every Vin-called game I can the past couple of years, knowing we’ll never be able to enjoy someone so amazing again. Losing his broadcasts is devastating to the many who love him, but we’re lucky to have had him for so long. Many of us have never known a world without him!

Sunday, September 4, 2016

(VIDEO) 'The Season of Stories' and Young Adult Literature

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting videos in which I discuss the stories behind the creation of my novels. Also, I will be occasionally posting videos providing some tricks of the trade that I've learned along the way that I think will help aspiring novelists.

Today, I'll start off discussing how my love for reading Young Adult Literature and my admiration for the many talented writers who cultivate this genre inspired me to write The Season of Stories.

Enjoy, and you're invited to like us on Facebook.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Say Yes: A Graduation Speech

Members of Balboa Academy's Class of 2014 who were in my writing class.
On this occasion, they were mentoring third-grade writers.

(This Saturday, May 28, will mark the graduation of Balboa Academy’s Class of 2016. The Class of 2014 invited me to be their graduation speaker, one of the greatest honors of my life. This speech went on to form part of the wonderful collection of writings titled The Yes Book.)

I floundered for several weeks, searching for something meaningful to share with you on this special day. But the harder I tried, the more elusive my quest became. Although I seldom suffer from writer’s block, I was now adrift in a sea of useless ideas, crossing out page after page of false starts.

When I thought about my difficulties, I traced them back to when you were ninth-graders and, for reasons that still remain a mystery to me, the Class of 2014 earned a special place in my heart. Because of this, when you invited me to be your commencement speaker, the honor soon became a millstone around my neck, and the weight of delivering a message of consequence grew heavier each passing day.

I was on the verge of panicking when, unexpectedly, inspiration struck. The muse greeted me the instant my wife and I stepped into the home of a fellow teacher. There, stenciled on the living room wall in large, attractive letters was the phrase:

You are living your story.

I let out a long sigh of relief because I knew that, at last, the drought had ended. There, calling out to me, was the idea I wish to share with you today.

You are living your story.

As I have often told you, we have the power to make our stories wondrous—full of love, light, hope, and beauty. This is one of the main reasons you’ve been going to school all these years, and certainly one of the reasons you’re going off to college—the more educated you become, the more control you’ll have over your narratives. There is nothing in life more empowering, I assure you, than the ability to chart the course of our stories.

When I reminisce about you as ninth-graders, I think about how malleable you were back then. Eager to please your new teachers, you were easy to bend, mold, and shape. Your eyes glowed with excitement every day. Your hearts brimmed with high expectations of everyone and everything: your schoolmates, your teachers, and the world. Yes, beyond a doubt, as ninth-graders you were naïve and easy to fool.

Over the last four years, however, a small measure of cynicism has trickled into your lives. By that I mean that you now mistrust the values your elders have been trying to teach you. But we need not be concerned over this. It is only natural. It happens to everyone on the road to adulthood. I say that we don’t need to be concerned because I have witnessed that you and your Balboa Academy schoolmates have an optimistic outlook. I’ve seen your selflessness in the houses you’ve built for others, the people you’ve clothed and fed in times of need, the countless smiles you’ve placed on the faces of the less fortunate, and the work you’ve done to slow down the clock of ecological doom. Wherever you go from here, then, please endeavor to keep cynicism at bay, and please, continue your efforts to make the world a better place.

As your Spanish teacher, instead of making you jump through grammar hoops, by way of poems and stories I tried to fill your hearts with the beauty of language. I also wanted to make these great achievements of the human imagination an essential part of your lives. I wanted you to understand that a poem, a story, or a novel can serve as a beacon during those times when we’ve lost our sense of direction, because, I now warn you, your life, like everyone else’s, will contain painful events. As César Vallejo wrote in Los heraldos negros: “Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes . . . ¡Yo no sé!’” (“There are in life such hard blows . . . I don't know!”) Sentiments such as the one the Peruvian poet expressed with sparking clarity can put things into perspective and help us get our lives back on track when our stories have been momentarily derailed. Great tales, when closely examined, reveal our potential, our strengths, and even our claims to sainthood.

Remember, then, that it is important to study the stories of others as you live your own. You have often heard me speak with reverence of the Aristotelian concept of imitatio. In this construct, the Greek philosopher advises artists who aspire to greatness to imitate the best models. That’s the starting point. The outstanding painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, and writers of the Renaissance took Aristotle’s message to heart, raising the level of human expression to the loftiest heights in Western civilization.

What Aristotle suggested for artists over two millennia ago works well for writing our own life stories. To succeed, all you need is the commitment and the discipline to follow these five steps: pick a worthy model, study your model intently, learn the vocabulary necessary to understand and discuss your model, and then write your story following the example. Ah, but then comes the hard part: you need to keep revising until your story surpasses the quality of the original.

If you follow Aristotle’s teachings conscientiously, imitating excellent models as you live your own story, you can achieve anything.


To demonstrate that I practice what I preach, before committing these thoughts to paper I consulted a few outstanding models of commencement speeches. For me to presume to offer better advice that what these contain would be absurd. And since I wholeheartedly agree with the wisdom they impart, I will take the liberty to capsulize them for you.

President John F. Kennedy pleaded with the Harvard Class of 1963 to believe in and to work for world peace. “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings,” he stated on that occasion.

More recently, the novelist Barbara Kingsolver, speaking at Duke University, told the Class of 2008 to reject the emphasis that modern society places on accumulating wealth. In doing so, she said, we commit to using less resources and the healing of the planet will begin.

The Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Russell Baker advised the 1995 Class of Connecticut College to take the time to listen to the life that surrounds us, as well as to what’s in our hearts.

In addressing Syracuse University’s Class of 2013, the writer George Saunders stressed the importance of being kind. In his speech, he asked, “Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kindest to you, I bet.”

Getting closer to the crux of today’s message, Steven Jobs urged Stanford’s Class of 2005 to have the courage to follow their hearts and their intuition. “Stay foolish, and stay hungry,” he counseled.

I was delighted to discover that the idea that we live our stories was at the heart of several of my models.

Conan O’Brien told Harvard’s Class of 2000 not to fear making mistakes. He said, “Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally. And remember, whatever happens, the story is never over.”

The actor Bradley Whitford, who played the role of the president’s adviser in the television series The West Wing, urged the Class of 2006 of The University of Wisconsin to take action. Only in taking action, he noted, can we become the heroes of our own stories.

And I’ll conclude with the model that most closely resembles the spirit of what I’ve tried to share with you today. Speaking at Knox College to the Class of 2006, Stephen Colbert told the graduates to avoid cynicism. He highlighted the need to trust others, as well as the need to believe in ourselves and in our communities. "Cynicism,” he said, “is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or be disappointed in us. Cynics always say no ... for as long as you have the strength to, say yes."

And so, in parting, I ask Balboa Academy’s Class of 2014 to always say yes to finding and imitating exceptional models, to say yes to working for world peace, to say yes to living in simplicity, to say yes to taking the time to listen, to say yes to committing acts of kindness, to say yes to staying foolish and hungry, to understand that it’s okay to occasionally make a mess of things, to say yes to taking action, and, more importantly, to go forth and make your life a story that inspires others.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Things We Leave Behind: A review of Raúl Ramos y Sánchez’s 'The Skinny Years'

The things we leave behind play a significant role in defining who we are. Moreover, as youth, what life forces us to jettison helps to give shape to the adults we become. Raúl Ramos y Sánchez knows this well. The Cuban-American writer, author of The Class-H Trilogy—a prescient series of novels that foresaw the hostile, anti-Latino sentiments that hover over the current presidential campaign—takes his readers on a journey of what it was like to be a refugee of the Cuban Revolution.

The Delgado family, as was the case with thousands of other Cubans who were compelled to leave their homeland, had enjoyed comfortable existences before Fidel’s triumph. They left behind a high social standing, a lovely home, and then they were obliged to start all over again at the bottom rung of the ladder in the formerly working-class neighborhood of Wynwood, in Miami. The abrupt change takes a heavy toll on the parents, the Abuela, and the children—particularly the eldest, eight year-old Victor, the novel’s main protagonist.

In sparkling clear prose, Ramos y Sánchez guides his readers through twelve years of hardships—financial, familial, personal, and cultural—as the Delgados struggle to adapt to an entirely new language and way of life. The adults in the family often stumble in their efforts to reinvent themselves, especially financially. Because of his tender age, Victor is the first to learn English and become acculturated. For him, however, the tension of being caught between the agonizingly slow adaptation of the adults and the wondrous good fortune he sees in becoming fully “American” is, at times, unbearable.

As The Skinny Years deftly explores, adapting to a new culture is a long, drawn-out, and often painful process. Yet in this novel, as well as in his previous ones, Ramos y Sánchez shows that humans are resilient and, if given a chance, they will eventually embrace their present in the hope of a better future.

Over the years, the emotional blows Victor received along the path toward becoming “American” leave serious scars. As the damage was being inflicted, the danger that he would surrender to bitterness and despair was always present. Yet, in The Skinny Years, a highly readable coming-of-age tale, Ramos y Sánchez assures readers that when immigrants are allowed to leave behind their former selves at their own pace, renovated identities will emerge. And although these new “Americans” will carry the bruises of their efforts to assimilate, most become grateful and wise contributors to the continuing saga of the United States of America.