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Justin Kramon didn’t think he was qualified to call himself a writer.  And then he thought about his favorite books, and had a change of heart:

For some reason, I used to have the perception that writers should be interesting, well-rounded, generally knowledgeable people.  I got this idea before I’d met any writers, and certainly before I started trying to become one.  In fact, my perception of writers was a big obstacle to writing, because – and I have to be completely honest here – I’m not that interesting, am poorly rounded, and most of what I have to offer in the way of knowledge concerns the time it takes to heat various foods in the microwave.

A few years ago, I’d started working on a novel, but it hadn’t come alive.  The voice was wooden and the characters seemed predictable, too polite with each other.  It was like watching my novel through a window.  I wanted to get in there and tickle everyone.

The problem, I realized, was that I wanted to be a good writer.  I wanted to sound like the writers everyone had been telling me were great writers, the best writers, the important writers. A lot of these writers happened to be men, and happened to write in wise, commanding, and slightly formal styles.  Reading them made me feel like a slow runner in sixth-grade gym, sweating and hyperventalating while everyone else rushed by.  They were doing something I could never do, that I wasn’t built to do.

But these great writers were not actually the writers I most enjoyed reading.  Picking up their books was more of a responsibility than a pleasure.  The writers I loved, the writers who had meant most to me, who had entertained me and stuck with me and let me lose myself in their books – this was a completely different list.

So one morning, when I couldn’t face my own fledgling novel, I decided to make a list of writers I loved.  A writer who immediately jumped to mind was Alice Adams, who died in the late-1990’s and unfairly seems to have fallen off the map.  She wrote some of the most entertaining and insightful books I’ve read, including the novel Superior Women and a story collection called To See You Again. I can’t think of many writers I’d rather sit down and read than Alice Adams.  Her books are so absorbing that I feel like I’m reading gossip from a close friend, about people I actually know, except the writing is so much funnier and clearer and more beautiful than any gossip I’ve ever read. John Irving is another one.  I love his intricate plots, the slightly larger-than-life characters, the comic set pieces, and the sense of bigness and adventure in all his novels.  I think of Irving’s books, as I do of Charles Dickens’s, as treasure chests of ideas and characters and funny moments.

Making this list helped me let go a little bit of the desire to be important. I realized that these are the kinds of books I want to write – books filled with unforgettable characters, books that give me an almost childlike sense of wonder.  I started a new novel, Finny, with a narrator whose voice is informal, quirky, a little devilish.  Finny’s voice made me laugh, and I honestly cared about her and wanted to see what would happen to her, the people she’d meet, the man she would fall in love with.

Part of the process of becoming a writer has been acknowledging my own limitations, the things I don’t know about.  And also being honest: about what I like, what I enjoy, what moves me. To be truthful, I don’t enjoy research.  I’m not all that interested in history, and even though I try to stay informed, I’m not ardent about politics.  I don’t get a huge kick from philosophical or intellectual discussions.  I’m interested in psychology, food, loss, sex, death, awkward social situations, and I’m passionate about the subject of why people are as annoying as they are.  I may not win a Nobel Prize for this, but it’s the only kind of novel I can write.  Making my list, I saw that what I wanted to do was write books that people love reading, that make them laugh and cry, and that allow me to bring a little of myself into the world.

Justin Kramon is the author of the novel Finny (Random House), which was published on Tuesday.  Now twenty-nine years old, he lives in Philadelphia.  You can find out more about Justin and contact him through his website, www.justinkramon.com.  You can watch a book trailer for Finny here, and you can access Justin’s blog for writers here.


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The writer Elizabeth Strout, explaining what it’s like to write from the point of view of an irascible retired schoolteacher in her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Olive Kitteridge:

“I actually see myself in all my characters.  In order to imagine what it feels like to be another person I have to use my own experiences and responses to the world.  I have to play attention to what I have felt and observed, then push those responses to an extreme while keeping the story within the realm of being psychologically and emotionally true.  Many times after writing a story or a novel, I will suddenly think, oh, I’m feeling what (for example), Olive would feel.  But in fact the process has worked the other way.”

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The novelist Gayle Brandeis wrote about a traumatic and terrible event.  And then it happened to her in real life.

Several months ago, as I was proofreading my new novel, Delta Girls, a sentence I wrote last year kicked me in the gut:

“My mother killed herself, you know.”

It took me a moment to remember how to breathe again. I had not recalled writing that sentence, had not recalled that this was part of a character’s history, part of that character’s motivation. I wanted to slap myself for writing that sentence so off-handedly, for forgetting it so easily.

My own mother had killed herself about a month before I received the page proofs, one week after I had given birth, and I was still reeling. “My mother killed herself, you know” was way too casual a sentence for someone to utter. I could barely say “My mother killed herself,” and couldn’t imagine tacking on “you know” as if it was common knowledge, something easy to understand. I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand her suicide. But my character had already had years to process and learn how to talk about the loss, so those words had a different context in the story.

Sometimes we don’t know what we know until we write it. I don’t believe I foresaw my mom’s death as I wrote that scene—her suicide was unexpected although she had been suffering from paranoid delusions off and on (mostly off—most of the time she appeared to be fine) for several years and was especially fearful the last two weeks of her life. Even though my initial reaction to the sentence during proofing was shock, some part of me must have wondered what it was like to lose a parent that way when I first wrote it. Some part of me must have known my mom was capable of such an action, even though she had the strongest sense of self preservation of anyone I knew. As writers, we often have to go to dark, painful places in our work; perhaps this can serve as a kind of rehearsal for the more difficult moments in life we haven’t experienced yet.

Sometimes, of course, life teaches us that we got it all wrong on the page, that we were naïve or misguided when we wrote about something we hadn’t lived, that what we wrote pales in comparison to real experience. That is certainly my experience with Delta Girls; there are depths to the aftermath of a mother’s suicide that I couldn’t have foreseen when I wrote that simple sentence.  But sometimes, somehow, we are lucky enough to tap into some collective human database of emotion, some authentic vein. I love this quote from Terence, 190-158 BC: “I am human. Nothing human is alien to me.” Writers have to come from that place of openness, of readiness to explore humanity in all its surprising contradictions, shallow and deep and strange. I know that I have a different relationship with my Delta Girls character now, and feel more compassion as a result of going through a similar loss. And I understand that character’s actions in a way I couldn’t have before (so maybe part of me did kind of know what I was writing, after all).

“My mother killed herself, you know” is still not a sentence I can say easily. I can say “My mother killed herself” now, perhaps almost too readily—I can’t seem to stop talking or writing about her death – but the “you know” still feels too pat. Perhaps it was glib in my character’s mouth, as well. It’s true that often we don’t know what we know until we write it, but sometimes even then, that knowledge is just a glimmer, just the beginning hint of insight. We write towards what we need to understand.

In addition to Delta Girls, Gayle Brandeis is the author of the novels Self Storage and The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction. She recently published her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns, and is also the author of the creativity guide Fruitflesh. She lives in Riverside, CA and is mom to one college student, one high school student, and one seven month old.

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When novelist Laurie Albanese and art historian Laura Morowitz began collaborating on a novel about the 15th-century painter Fra Filippo Lippi, they discovered that their biggest challenge was to make the truth seem believable.  Laurie Albanese explains:

When my good friend Laura first handed me a book of Fra Filippo Lippi’s 15th-century paintings three years ago, she opened the door to a world as intriguing as it was unknown to me.

The paintings and frescoes were vivid and arresting: A stunning blonde Madonna surrounded by irascible young angels who looked as if they’d been plucked from the cobbled streets of Florence.  A cloaked man handing an infant to a maid in a hidden doorway, two women whispering to one another as John the Baptist’s head was carried into the room on a platter.

“They had a love affair,” Laura said. “Fra Lippi, the painter-priest, and the young nun who posed for the Madonna painting.”

Laura brought years of art history scholarship, boundless energy and skills, and a zest for research to our collaboration for our novel The Miracles of Prato. But the task of the novelist is markedly different than that of the historian.

Imagining myself in Fra Lippi’s Prato 1456 studio, I was faced with a variety of challenges:  First, to conceive and convey the internal life of a man who was both a celebrated painter and a scandalous monk.  Second, to put myself into his mind as he created the enduring fresco series in Prato that reflected his inner and external turmoil, his natural talent, his faith, his pride, his arrogance and his fears. Third, to understand how Fra Lippi, an orphan who’d been sent to a Carmelite monastery before his tenth birthday, might feel about the church as his protector, his sustainer, and his jailer … not to mention how he might actually find the place, the time, the nerve and the charm to successfully seduce a beautiful young nun.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction:  Lippi had done things that were implausible and even unimaginable. But he’d really done them, and so we had to make them seem believable.

Laura and I had no diaries, no journals, only a few scant letters, and no definitive record of the painter’s life. Everything but the barest outline of the story had to be invented.

It was equally challenging to imagine what would drive the gorgeous Lucrezia Buti into the arms of a painter-priest who was twice her age and nowhere near as attractive. What would compel her to risk scandal and scorn? How would she deal with the opposing tugs of sin and virtue, love and duty?  We could hardly ignore the fact that in Renaissance Italy, as elsewhere in Europe at that time, a woman had few options once she left her father’s home: she could be a wife, a nun, or a whore. Lucrezia Buti would not have been in a position to envision any other trajectory for her life. And yet, she found one.

In literary fiction, plot grows out of character. If your readers don’t believe that your characters would act the way you’ve imagined them acting, your novel will be as thin as a piece of deli Swiss cheese, and as full of holes.

Laura and I wrote long, imagined histories for Fra Lippi and Lucrezia – passages from their childhoods, stories and details that never made it into the book but that allowed us to get to know them better. We wrote lengthy scenes of internal dialogue and reflection, trying to puzzle out what they might have been thinking – this nun and this priest – when they recognized their mutual attraction.

We studied Fra Lippi’s paintings for clues to his psyche. To imagine his young life, we visited a monastery in New Jersey and the Santa Maria del Carminchurch in Florence where Lippi had lived and studied under the famed early Renaissance painter, Masaccio.

For clues to Lucrezia’s interior and exterior reality, we read up on daily life in Florence and devoured a nonfiction book, Iris Origo’s The Merchant of Prato, based on the life of a prosperous 13th century Pratese, Francesco Datini, then visited Datini’s well-preserved palazzo (now a museum and archive) in Prato.  We imagined we were nineteen again, with all the hopes and aspirations a nineteen-year-old girl might have for a happy future that is suddenly snatched away.

We climbed to the top of the bell tower in the Cathedral of Santo Stefano – the same bell tower that stood over the city when Lucrezia and Lippi lived there. We would have liked to visit the Convent Santa Margherita and Lippi’s studio, but those places have been swallowed by time and so we had to build them in our minds and map them out on paper, literally drawing out the convent grounds as we imagined them, acting as architects for Lippi’s simple studio quarters – the kitchen hearth here, the curtain across his studio chamber there, the sack of egg yolks, chemicals and powdered dyes for mixing paints on a crude wooden shelf beside his easel.

At some point we began thinking in archetypes: Fra Lippi as the passionate, tormented artist and Lucrezia as the vulnerable virgin beauty. From there we invented two other fictional characters who rounded out the dramatic action and also served as counterpoints to our characters.

These were Sister Pureza – a wise woman/crone – and Prior General Saviano, a corrupt patriarch.   We gave Pureza an herb garden to tend, and Saviano an appetite for rich wines and other things.  (I spent many pleasant afternoons wandering the paths of the medieval medicinal garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters in the Bronx.)

Once we knew that Lucrezia loved blue silk and had learned the art of silk dying from her father; that Fra Lippi understood the relationship of sinew, muscle, bones, flesh and spirit from early years in his father’s butcher shop; that Sister Pureza had taught herself the many natural properties of rosemary, thyme, nettle and so on under great personal distress; we had our characters. And then we were ready to let them tell their stories.

The Miracles of Prato is a Summer 2010 Reading Group List selection of IndieBound, the American independent booksellers group.  Laurie Albanese talks about writing, life, and walking at her blog My Big Walk.

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The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, photo by Bernard Handzel

A small, bare room.  An old lamp, an upholstered chair, a wooden desk by the window.  Cows and trees beyond.  No papers to grade, no phone calls to return.  All the things that distract me, keep me from writing fiction — the to-do lists, children’s schedules, work-for-hire, committee meetings — are gone, gone, gone.

Some people are here at the Virginia Center for the Arts for six or eight weeks.  Me? Only one.  And carving this week out of my busy life with three kids, teaching, and editing was like chipping a cave out of rock.  But I was determined to do it.  For this reason: to winnow my life down to one simple thing.  I know from experience that if I can leave this place with a sense of clarity about my novel-in-progress and a handful of pages, I’ll be able to keep going, even in the midst of my busy life.

The day stretches ahead.  My choices are few, and therefore simple.  I am here to write.

What are your writing conditions today?  How do you plow through the clutter to find a clear space in your head — and on your desk — to write?

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Recently I shared some exercises I use with my students at Fordham for revising fiction and narrative nonfiction.  But a lot of us need inspiration at the other end of the process, too — right at the beginning.  So below are some of the best writing prompts I’ve used over the years.  Some I made up, some I gathered from other writers, and some I found in books.

You can approach these any way you wish: write about yourself, another person, or a character you’ve created.  Don’t think too much — just start.  Here’s an idea from Monica Wood, in The Pocket Muse:  “Set a timer for forty-five minutes, and don’t get out of the chair until the timer dings.  Even if you sit staring at the page the entire time, you’re ingraining the habit.”  And another piece of advice from Monica: “Tempted to quit early?  Make yourself this promise: One more sentence.  Say this every time you want to quit early:  One more sentence.”

So — to write!  Here you go:

  • Write about your hidden talent.
  • Write about the first time you felt dispensable.
  • Write about a disagreeable person who, for whatever reason, you have an attachment to.
  • Write about a photograph that means something to you, and why.
  • Give me your morning.  Breakfast, waking up, walking to the bus stop.  Be as specific as possible.  Use the five senses.  Take it slow.
  • Write about “leaving.” Approach it any way you want. Write about your divorce, leaving the house this morning, a friend dying, packing for a trip.
  • Everyone has a secret — some dark only because hidden.  Give a character a secret and a reason for hiding it.
  • Write about a family story.  The one you don’t like.  The one your mother always tells on a third glass of wine.
  • Write a story about two overlapping triangles in opposition, the most obvious being two lovers and their four parents.
  • Finally, a great one from The Pocket Muse: Almost any situation includes insiders and outsiders.  Most human beings, no matter what their stations, consider themselves outsiders.  Write about being an insider.

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A page from James Michener's rough draft of his novel The Covenant

This week I’m working on revising fiction with my undergraduate and grad students at Fordham. Below are some of the tips and ideas I’ve collected over the years that my students find most useful. (Next week I’ll talk in this space about the best exercises I’ve found for revising nonfiction.)

1) First, answer these questions:
What is my story about? Another way of saying this is: What is the pattern of change? Once this pattern is clear, you can check your draft to make sure you’ve included all the crucial moments of discovery and decision. Is there a crisis action?

2) Write three new openings. Each one should be at least a paragraph long. In each opening, start from a different moment in the story – maybe even at the very end.

3) For a dialogue scene in your story/novel: go back and ground it in the physical world by adding:
a. two actions or gestures that will help us see another important character
b. two physical descriptions of another character that will help us visualize him or her
c. two setting or atmosphere details that will help put readers in the scene

4) The dramatic elements of a story/novel – crisis, power shifts, emotional connections, and withdrawals – are often mirrored on a smaller scale within a scene.

Try analyzing one of your own scenes, asking yourself:
a. What kind of power does each of the main characters have?
b. Where is there at least one shift in power – or even a failed attempt to take power?
c. Where is there at least one moment of making or breaking the emotional connection between the characters? Does it raise the emotional temperature?
d. Is there a mini-crisis or turning point? Something that is said or done, however minor, after which things cannot go back to quite the way they were before?

5) Are your most important lines in direct dialogue, or summarized? Generally, these should be direct. Is information or idle chatter direct or summarized? Generally, these should be summarized. Revise to make sure that the most important moments are in direct dialogue.

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