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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 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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In anticipation of the paperback release of my latest novel, Bird in Hand, my friend Gretchen Rubin invited me to answer some questions about happiness for her wonderful blog, The Happiness Project.  One of her questions is, “Is there a happiness mantra or motto you’ve found very helpful?” I do have one — which I’ll write about for Gretchen (and link to here!) in a few days — but I love the answer to this question given by Larry Smith, creator of the brilliant Six-Word Memoir Project (“Fall down. Get up. Repeat process.”):

“My motto for writing (which is a big part of my daily existence and own happiness), one that I think applies to life as well: “Write drunk, edit sober.” Not that you should actually be drunk (the inebriated writer is a silly, antiquated idea, among other things), but that you should just get the words down whether you’re writing a letter, a report for work, or the story of your life, in six words or 60,000. Put the words down, don’t obsess over them, just effusively spill them down onto the page. Then step away—for an hour, a day, a week, whatever you need. And then edit. Edit like crazy. Be hard on words and yourself and make it better. And when you think you’re finished, edit it one more time.”

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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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In which the intrepid C. M. Mayo (whose recent novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, is not-so-coincidentally out in paperback) explains why guest blogging is a flourishing new literary genre and a powerful tool for promotion, and provides 10 hot tips for coming up with your own guest blog posts. And does it, of course, in a guest blog.  Derrida would have a field day.

I felt very avant garde back in 2006, when I wrote my first guest-blogs for Wendi Kaufman’s now, alas, apparently abandoned “Happy Booker” blog (“If I Had an iPod: Top 5 Mexican Music Selections “) and for the travel blog World Hum (“The Speed of Rancho Santa Ines”).  But over the past year, in promoting this new novel, Holy Smokes! I’ve written for:

I’m not unusual in this regard; many long-established writers are newly busy with guest-blogging— and hosting guest-bloggers. On my own blog, Madam Mayo, I’ve hosted several other writers on their so-called “blogtours” — Sandra Beasley, Sandra Gulland, Joanna Smith Rakoff, Porter Shreve, Tim Wendel, and many more (view the full line-up of Madam Mayo’s guest-bloggers here). Two more examples: Leslie Pietryk and Christina Baker Kline, both outstanding novelists, frequently host other writers on their blogs, Work-in-Progress and, well, this one here.  (Editor’s note: praise unsolicited.)

And so — 10 tips for coming up with your own guest blog posts:

1. Think about music: what songs might make a great soundtrack? Which songs might your characters would sing in the shower?

2. Think about food: any recipes from the book? Any recipes your characters might concoct?

3. Think about places: perhaps a certain city or mountain or lakeside resport in your book (or etc) is special. Photos, please!

4. Fantasize: which actors could play the parts in the movie? If your character were born in Virginia in 1960 instead of say, France in 1765, where would she work?

5. Tell a story about the book (e.g., how I found my agent; why I finally, with much gnashing of teeth, threw out chapter 1; the day I got the idea to write the book).

6. Thank those who helped you (Chekhov? Tolstoy? Teacher? Mom? Husband? Dog? Cat?).

7. Select an excerpt that might work.

8. Interview yourself (don’t be shy!). Ask yourself three questions about the book.

9. Offer helpful hints (How to bake bread; how to write a novel in 12 easy steps (ha ha); how to keep your cat off the laptop; how to find time to write; how to find an agent).

10. Generate lists, e.g., three poets who influenced my understanding of rain; 10 reasons to take a writing workshop; 7 cities I wish were in the novel but they didn’t make the cut ; my favorite places to write in Washington DC; 5 books everyone in Bethesda should read right now; 4 yoga poses to make your creativity bloom …

In sum, guest-blogging is at once a flourishing new literary genre and a powerful tool for literary promotion. While you probably won’t get paid in cash to write a guest blog, you will get paid, and sometimes very handsomely, in clicks. And if you don’t think that counts, check out what Facebook charges per click for advertising. (Speaking of which, please click here.)

P.S. More resources for writers here.

C.M. Mayo is the author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, an historical novel based on the true story and named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2009. She is also the author of a travel memoir, Miraculous Air, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. A long-time resident of Mexico City and an avid translator of Mexican poetry and fiction, she is the editor of Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion. She divides her time between Mexico City and Washington DC, and blogs on sundry subjects at Madame Mayo.  This was adapted from a post on First Person Plural.

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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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Hooray and congratulations!  It’s pub day for Debra Galant, whose new novel, Cars from a Marriage, “delivers wit, charm and characters who feel like next-door neighbors,” according to Booklist. So why does Debra feel like she’s tap dancing on the beach?

Politicians kiss babies. I take pictures of them chewing on postcards advertising my new novel, Cars from a Marriage.

I know this is neither dignified nor author-like.

Nor are a lot of things I’ve been doing in the six weeks leading up to my April 27 pub date.

I’ve become a regular in the Staples’ label aisle, because advertising postcards are nothing without labels reminding people that the book is “Perfect for Mother’s Day!” and that they might win a free iPod nano if they enter a contest by telling me their best story about love and cars.

I ambushed the New York International Auto Show in early April, handing out several hundred cards while my husband followed me around, camcorder in hand, to record my rejections Michael Moore style.

I’ve spend ungodly amounts of time on Facebook, and have searched every nook and cranny of the internet looking for every book blogger I can find and charm.

I’m doing this to keep my own spirits up because it appears that neither my publisher nor the book industry at large is particularly excited about the publication of my third novel.

My first two novels were proudly displayed at the front of Barnes & Noble stores all over the country. This one won’t be. B&N has only ordered 1,000.

It breaks my heart that a book that comes out barely two weeks before Mother’s Day – a novel that should really appeal to reading women – won’t be seen by the shoppers who might be looking for a present for their reading mothers and wives.

It breaks my heart that my parents, who were so excited by my first novel, have become so jaded by the bruising process of trying to hand-sell my books to their friends that they practically don’t want to ask anymore. And the few friends they do ask will most likely march into a Barnes & Noble, not find it, and feel that they’ve done their bit.

Sure, sure, poor me. Poor published author. I’ve actually got a novel coming out from a major New York publishing house and I’m whining. And I have the poor grace to be whining at exactly the moment when friends and relatives are coming up to me with cheerful congratulations.

But the truth is, even though my friends want me to be, I’m not excited. I’m not remotely optimistic about my book’s chances. Like Hollywood and junior high school, the book industry is increasingly dominated by a few stars, and it’s pretty obvious that I’m not one of them. What I’m feeling, at this moment on the cusp of publication, is small and inconsequential.

The irony is, when a new book comes out is when I feel least like a writer. It’s when I feel like Willy Loman.

Eventually, sometime late at night, when I least expect it, I’ll feel like a writer again. I’ll be lying in bed reading a great book, and I’ll notice a fabulous sentence or a great plot device or a marvelously unreliable narrator, and I will appreciate the sentence or the device or the narration the way a tailor would note the stitching on another tailor’s suit.

I might even write a fabulous sentence, or get an idea for a story or a novel that will thrill me. And then I’ll remember that I really am a member of a great guild and that having my words published and read by complete strangers is an honor and a privilege – maybe even a piece of immortality.

In the meantime, though, to stave off depression, I’m using every wile I have to eke out new fans. One by one by one. Handing out cards to babies, barnstorming auto shows, leaving stacks of cards at the YMCA. It feels a little like tap dancing on the beach — kicking up a lot of sand, but making no noise whatsoever.

Absurd, perhaps. Yet it does take place on a comfortingly human scale. The other day, shopping at Coldwater Creek, I made friends with two ladies in the dressing room, both teachers. We were advising each other about how we looked in various outfits and whether our fat rolls showed. One of them wondered whether I would wear a certain blouse, which was the tiniest bit sheer, to work. That’s when I dug into my purse and handed them each a postcard for Cars from a Marriage.

“I’m an author,” I said. “I have a new book coming out.”

They were delighted – just completely bowled over – to be in the presence of a real writer. And that delighted me.

Debra Galant’s new novel, Cars from a Marriage, comes out today — April 27 — from St. Martin’s Press. You can read more on her website, her blog or her Facebook page.

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“The older we get, the more … you realize there’s a whole range of things you will never do, of things and people you will never be.  As life becomes more and more limiting, there is something wonderful about being able to get inside the skin of people unlike yourself.”

— Lee Smith

Lee Smith is the author, most recently, of Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger

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This was never the way she planned — not her intention.  But journalist Cindy Schweich Handler wrote some fiction.  And she liked it.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. And since I was an avid reader of fiction as a kid, that meant being a novelist. I was in fourth grade when I wrote the vaguely titled “Castle of Things,” a blatant rip-off of “Alice in Wonderland.” A year later, I followed this up with “Queen Elizabeth Alive,” a “Bewitch”-inspired imagining of the Tudor ruler coming forward in time to hang with a grade-schooler who happened to be a lot like me. Writing for fun was … well, a lot of fun.

As I neared college-age, though, and considered how I would eventually make a living, I decided to become a journalist. That way, I reasoned, I could consistently get paid to write, I’d experience the relatively instant gratification of seeing my work and byline in print, and I would learn about a variety of subjects while covering them. I ended up working in magazines for years and freelancing for them after starting a family, and I never regretted the decision.

That is, until years later, when I wearied of reading the final, heavily edited versions of my service pieces—those articles in women’s and parenting magazines that tell you, in strictly formatted, nearly style-free prose, how to raise a child, budget your time, or achieve any number of perennially visited objectives. Writing them paid well, and (before the market crash and digital revolution smacked the publishing industry) there was a demand for them. But I started to feel as if my writing was merely meat fed into a hamburger grinder. And it wasn’t satisfying.

It was at this point that I started hungering for a more enriching writing experience. Coincidentally, a friend who’s a successful fiction writer suggested that I attend a class for beginning novelists she was teaching in her home. With some trepidation, I took her up on her offer.

That was four years ago. Since then, I’m gratified to report, I’ve written one novel and nearly completed a second, scored a world-class agent whom I adore, and I continue to meet with my extremely supportive fellow students of fiction. (I wish I could say I’ve sold my first novel, but despite three near-misses, I haven’t. Yet.) What I’ve learned during this time, with the guidance of my excellent teacher, is that the leap from nonfiction to fiction is less about blind faith, and more about understanding what all good writing has in common. Among the observations I’ve internalized are:

  • What Stephen King observed in his wonderful guide, On Writing, is true:  the magic of writing lies in successfully transferring a thought as it exists in your head into someone else’s. That is, when you visualize an image or scene, no matter what genre you’re writing in, you need to convey it exactly the way you see it, as economically as possible for maximum clarity.
  • Always keep your theme in mind. This is true whether you’re writing an essay on, say, why cell phones are evil, or a novel about a woman who discovers that her dead son was a sperm donor (my current project). Your writing is an argument, basically, and you’re trying to persuade your audience of something. With non-fiction, of course, you do your research upfront, whereas with fiction, it’s an ongoing process of discovery that takes place in the course of the writing itself. But in both instances, there’s a lot of trial and error before it’s clear what’s extraneous and what gets you closer to your goal. The longer the work, the more arduous this process will be. Which brings me to:
  • Trust the process. A short story might be comparable in length to a long non-fiction piece, but a commercial novel probably averages around 90,000 words. It can take so long to write that first draft that it’s easy to look at the thing, after a year or two of effort, and think, “Wow, this sucks.” Maybe it’s helpful to remember an analogy I read by an online writer. The first draft, he said, is akin to your kitchen sink after you’ve washed off the Thanksgiving dishes: After a thorough going-over, there are bits and pieces that survive, and you go on from there. Sounds harsh — but it’s not, because that realization makes it easier to continue, and the next draft will work itself out a lot faster.

Commercially, fiction is harder to sell, since fewer people read it. And in my experience, it requires more focus and attention to write, because it’s more personal. But in that respect, I find it more rewarding. And not a mysterioso, you’re-born-with-it-or-you’re-not phenomenon, but rather a process that can be learned, and savored.

Cindy Schweich Handler is a former magazine editor whose nonfiction has been published in The New York Times, Newsweek, O: The Oprah Magazine, Redbook, and many other print and online publications.  She writes about politics for The Huffington Post and is currently at work on her second novel, Disaster Recovery.

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Write what you know?  On second thought …

“Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last instructor who has uttered the words ‘Write what you know’ is confined to a labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don’t. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed The Iliad, how much combat do you think he saw?”  — P. J. O’Rourke

“It still comes as a shock to realize that I don’t write about what I know; I write in order to find out what I know.”  — Patricia Hampl

“Writing what you know ignores the whole purpose of creative writing. Writing is an act of the imagination. Good writing is generally bigger than the writer — if we only write about ‘what you know,’ our work will never be more compelling than we are.”  — Willie Davis

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The novelist and creative-writing teacher Susan Breen offers consolation, hope, and advice for anyone trying to get published:

I’ve come to think that publishing stories are like birth stories. There’s usually a lot of pain, but once you hold that bundle in your hands you forget all about it. Then you say, Let’s do it again! My own story, if I can hang on to this image a little longer, was like a very delayed labor. In fact, I’d come to think it would never happen.

It was 2006 and I was in that terrible limbo in which unpublished novelists reside. Every conversation went like this:

What do you do?
I write novels.
Where can I buy one?
You can’t.
Oh. Nice to meet you.

By that point I’d written two (unpublished) novels and had started work on a third, which I thought was good, though I didn’t think it encouraging that my agent stopped returning my calls after I told her about it.  I was gearing up to start looking for a new agent, but I was feeling gloomy. One night, clicking around the computer, I came across a sign that said, “Meet Four Editors.” I felt a little like that kid in Willy Wonka who’s looking for the last chocolate bar. But I clicked on the icon and an ad came up for the NY Pitch and Shop Conference.

To make a very long story short, I went. And I did meet with four editors, each of them from a big New York publishing house. I had to give each one a pitch for my novel, which required me to think about what my novel was about. The whole experience was surreal, made more so by the fact that the conference took place in a dance studio. One whole wall was mirrored, which was the wall I was facing. So to my great joy I got to watch my own face contorted with embarrassment as I pitched my novel.

The first editor hated it. The second and third ones seemed interested. But the fourth editor, Emily Haynes, who was a treasure beyond all value, smiled at me and said, “I love it.” She was from Plume, a division of Penguin, and she wound up buying my book, The Fiction Class. It was published in 2008.

What did I learn from this experience?

1. You have to keep writing. If two books don’t sell, write a third. If five books don’t sell, write a sixth. The more you write, the better you’ll get.

2. You have to take a really long view. From the moment I first started to work on a novel to the day it was signed, took me ten years. And I got lucky. (Of course, there are exceptions. So don’t panic.)

3. You need to get out there. I know you’re shy; I am too. But you learn so much from meeting other writers and agents and editors.

4. You don’t need to be related to someone famous to sell a book, though it probably helps.

5. You don’t need to be tall and gorgeous to sell a book, though that probably helps too.

6. This is the final one. Write about things you really care about. Then it won’t matter so much whether you’re published or not because you’ll know you’re doing something meaningful.

Susan Breen is the author of The Fiction Class. She also writes short stories, one of which was anthologized in 2009 Best American Nonrequired Reading. She teaches classes in fiction writing at Gotham Writers’ Workshop and lives in Westchester with her family.

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Last week I posted James Cameron’s answer to the question “What’s the most important thing you know about storytelling?” Discussing Cameron’s ideas with the writer Bonnie Friedman – with whom I have an ongoing, percolating conversation about craft and creativity (as regular readers of this blog well know) –, I mentioned that I particularly liked his idea that “you have to take [your characters] on a journey – and then you have to make it excruciating somehow.”  Excruciating – such an intriguing word!  Bonnie agreed, as usual responding with nuance and subtlety to my own visceral reaction:

“It seems to me sheer genius to come at storytelling from this vantage point,” she said.  “So many of us begin from a thing in us that demands to be told and whose unleashed energy we hope will fuel us all the way along, rather than from this distant and perhaps more masterly height.  And that term ‘excruciating’ is somehow so validating.  Because one does find those sequences late in a film just torturously suspenseful.  So many romantic movies end with a chase scene, the main character running: The Graduate, Manhattan, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Up in the Air, Sleepless in Seattle, Casablanca, etc.

“It’s interesting to think about this in terms of novels.  Even in Great Expectations, a book that precedes the movies by half a century, there’s a grand, excruciating chase scene at the end.  When Pip finally discovers who his benefactor is, late in the story, he also discovers that it’s urgent he help his benefactor run for his life, with the grand escape via the river, the race to intercept a foreign ship — and that sinister mystery craft which shoots out of the gloom and pursues them.  The whole race and apprehension of the benefactor Magwitch has this very quality of the excruciating about it.

“It occurs to me that one effect of this is that the audience is left with fast-beating hearts and an upswing of energy, even as they are haunted by the final, grand, masterpiece-sized vision – and so instead of feeling exhausted by their long journey, they end up energized, and want to relive the thing or recommend it to their friends.”

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Last month I received an early copy of Dawn Raffel’s new story collection, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe, which officially debuts this week.  Reading it — a slim, spare set of 21 stories in just over 100 pages that Publishers Weekly calls “a model of economy and grace” — I was struck by how well Raffel writes dialogue.  So I asked her to articulate how she does what she does.  And here’s what she said:

Before I was a fiction writer, I was a journalism student, a theater student, and a fiction editor. All three pursuits taught me some lessons about dialogue:

People almost never speak in perfect sentences. In journalism school, I spent hours writing down verbatim what people said. Real people mix up tenses and subject/verb agreement, repeat, trail off, and go off on tangents halfway through a sentence. Too much of this on the page would be annoying, but a little goes a long way toward establishing authenticity.

Conversations are rarely entirely logical. One person asks a question and the other gives an answer that doesn’t quite match. One makes a comment and the other changes the subject. This happens when we’re obfuscating and when we’re genuinely trying to communicate. We invariably have our own agenda, our own distractions, our own inner drama playing loudly in our head.

Words carry only a portion of the meaning of dialogue. When you study a play, you realize how much is conveyed by tone of voice, by timing, by physicality. On the page, you can utilize the cadence of the dialogue to convey mood (i.e. Is it percussive? Fluid and languid?), and you can make use of a character’s body language (Is she looking at the door while she’s talking? Picking at food?). What’s not said can be important. And colloquial dialogue juxtaposed with a lusher, more expressive narrative voice can convey the sense of a rich inner life behind the words.

“Said” is your friend. “She declared, she exclaimed, she cajoled, she fulminated, she shrieked….” These just call attention to themselves and feel manipulative; they’re cheap ways to conjure emotion. As a fiction editor, I saw how “said” disappears on the page and allows the dialogue and action to stand out.

Using dialogue as a delivery system for lots of exposition is also a cheap shot. People don’t give each other a ton of back story in real conversations (“Remember when we got married ten years ago…”).  Let dialogue advance the story.

Having one character tell another character a story can establish character. In my novel Carrying the Body, one of my characters keeps trying to tell the story of the Three Little Pigs; the way she corrupts the fairy tale is a way of showing the reader who she is.

My best piece of advice is this: Always read your dialogue aloud. If it makes you cringe (which happens to me often on the first round), if it comes out sounding like words no one ever spoke, you know you have your work cut out for you.

Dawn Raffel’s newest book, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe, is a collection of 21 very short stories (several made up almost entirely of dialogue). She is also the author of a novel, Carrying the Body and a previous collection, In the Year of Long Division. Her fiction has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories and numerous journals and anthologies. She has taught creative writing in the MFA program at Columbia University and at the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia, and is a longtime magazine editor. Her website is DawnRaffel.  Her YouTube video is Further Adventures in the Restless Universe.

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Katharine Davis just finished writing a novel.  Now comes the hard part:

Writing a novel is a long journey.  From the simple physical endurance of turning out all those pages to the emotional ups and downs of the creative act—it’s an enormous endeavor, consuming one’s life for years at a time.

Writers often talk about the difficulty of getting started.  How do you find the voice, where to begin, which point of view, the time frame, the setting?  There are thousands of questions to consider, big and small. Then there is the problem of sticking to it, finding the time to write, getting blocked.  Oh, the agony of finally understanding a character in the thirteenth chapter and having to re-write the previous 200 pages.  How painful it is to discover you’ve gone off on a tangent, another 60 pages.  You love every word, but you have to take them all out.

Eventually, you do the tedious revisions.  Sentence by sentence, word by word, the work of getting the prose just right.  Some days it’s nothing but a pleasure to revise, working on the rhythm, having the perfect metaphor seem to land in your lap.  You might experience the thrill of coming up with that one word that changes everything.  But, the countless hours spent on dialogue that clunks along like the rattle in your car that the mechanic can’t fix, or the flashback that’s brought your narrative drive to a halt – these trials are part of the process too.

Yet, to me, one of the hardest parts of writing a novel is letting it go. You type ‘the end’ in all caps.  You send it out.  You want to celebrate, drink champagne, eat an enormous chocolate cupcake and tell all your friends, “I did it.  I’m done. It’s the best book ever!”  And then, wham.  What have I written?  I didn’t get deeply enough into that character’s head.  Did I tell enough about the mother?  Oh God.  That part’s too sappy.  I should have made it better. These thoughts come at 3 AM, thanks to the champagne, the cupcake, or both.  At that moment, the initial thrill of finding the story, and the enthusiasm of bringing it to the page is like some prehistoric event.

The next day, I feel somewhat better.  There’s that scene where . . . and, remember when . . . , and the ending that can still make me cry.  I find a paragraph I truly love.  When did I write that?  The next few weeks bring a combination of highs and lows.

Letting go of a novel is like sending children off to college.  They’ve spent the last few years of high school driving you crazy, but also bringing you joy and delight. You experience the relief of getting them out from under your roof, to deep sadness.  You miss them.  You want your child to have his own life, to succeed.  But it’s no longer up to you.  Your baby is gone.  Still, you’ve created something with love and hard work.

Months later, when your carefully worked-on manuscript pages have become an actual book, you have the satisfaction of knowing that your story, like your grown child, is out in the world at last.  The joy of connecting with readers and contributing one more piece to the human experience lifts your spirits and brings you the courage to reach for your pen to start writing again.

Katharine Davis’s novels include East Hope and Capturing Paris. Recommended in Real Simple Spring Travel 2007, Capturing Paris was also included in the New York Times suggestions for fiction set in Paris. Davis’s new novel, A Slender Thread, is coming out later this year. She is an Associate Editor at The Potomac Review.  She can be reached at www.katharinedavis.com.

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With a challenging, fulfilling job and a satisfying personal life, Anne Burt questions her desire to write a novel – and finds the answer in an unexpected place:

Thomas Roma, Untitled, 1984

Motivation has always been as cruel to me as it has been – well – motivating. I’ve been motivated to write because: I imagine glory when the world reads my masterpiece; I need to act out some childhood revenge fantasy about surpassing my father; I have a contorted sense that immortality is achievable through words on a page.  Any analysis of my past motivations leaves me thinking I’m either a narcissist or an idiot or both.

I’ve won enough self-awareness through experience and therapy over the years to dispel the notion that any of my three aforementioned motivations for writing are a) possible, or b) matter.  I’m over it, and I sleep better at night and enjoy my life far more as a result.

The truth is, I have a creative, absorbing job I love that uses my skills and education, puts me in the company of artists each day and takes care of my family of four.  I have a meaningful career as a writer and editor as well; while I haven’t published a novel, I’ve published books and essays on subjects that move me and have given me great pride and sense of accomplishment.

My old demons don’t scare me into action anymore – for better (who needs the agitation?) or for worse (the agitation drove me to my writing desk, after all).

But a nagging question remains: do I need to recapture the negativity of these old motivations in order to see the writing of a novel all the way through from beginning to end, or has general life happiness turned my old desire to write a novel into phantom-limb syndrome?

Last week I attended an artist talk, one in a series I oversee as part of my job, by photographer and Columbia University School of the Arts professor Tom Roma. I know Tom, so I was prepared to be entertained by his banter, and I know his photographs, so I was prepared to hear about the extreme care with which he approaches every level of the process.  I was unprepared, however, to find the answer to my question.

Discussing his teaching philosophy, Tom described an assignment he gives his undergraduate and grad students in which he sends them to the library or a bookstore.  “I tell them to scan the shelves, feel the spines, look at the size and shape and heft of the books,” he said. “Then I tell them to pull out the one that speaks to them as an object.  Subject doesn’t matter; what matters is how it feels in their hands, how satisfied they are by holding this thing, whether they feel they need this object in their lives.  When they find the book, they must check it out of the library, or buy it from the store, and that will be the inspiration for the size and feel of their book of photographs.  Whenever they get lost in the middle of the work, or feel directionless or confused, I send them back to hold and feel the book because that book is their goal and will motivate them to create.”

And that was it.  I realized that I was missing something so obvious, so straightforward that it was not only staring me in the face but spilling out over every surface in my home, weighing down my shoulder bag week after week, keeping me up late at night reading, making me miss subway stops, informing my favorite conversations, and even creating the best moments spent with my children:  novels are the book for me.  Novels are my goal, and motivate me to create.  The the-ness of a novel matters to me; I run my hands over its spine and feel its weight and size and heft. Essay collections, careers, articles – not so much.

I want to create something I am truly passionate about, and until I commit myself to seeing a novel through, beginning to end, I won’t have done it. My true motivation is as simple, and as complicated, as that.

Anne Burt is Director of Communications for Columbia University School of the Arts. She is the editor of My Father Married Your Mother: Dispatches from the Blended Family and co-editor with Christina Baker Kline of About Face: Women Talk About What They See When They Look in the Mirror.  Anne received Meridian Literary Magazine’s Editors’ Prize in Fiction in 2002.

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As a project for school, my 13-year-old son, Will, spent several days carrying an egg around. His task was simple: all he had to do was keep the egg from breaking.

The experiment was intended to show what it’s like to have a baby, to approximate the feeling of constant vigilance that never leaves you once you have a child.  Ultimately, of course, it was supposed to make hormone-addled adolescents think twice before doing something stupid.

As a mother of three, though, I wasn’t convinced by this analogy.  A baby is nothing like an egg, unless it’s an egg that cries, wets itself, sucks on you constantly, and wakes up four times a night.  But as my son described the feeling of carrying his egg – he named it “Rosalito” – around, I realized that it did remind me of something. “It’s always there,” Will said.  “You can’t forget it or take it for granted. You feel protective and anxious all the time.”

And it dawned on me:  Carrying an egg around is like being in the middle of writing a book. No matter what else you’re doing, the fact of the book is in the back of your mind.  If you go too long without attending to it you get nervous.  Maybe there’s a crack, a hairline fracture, you haven’t noticed!  It is always with you, a weight solid and yet fragile, in constant danger of being crushed.

Like the egg, the weight of a book-in-progress is both literal and metaphorical.  Within the accumulating pages, as inside the delicate eggshell, are the raw ingredients for something greater.  But if you don’t nurture it properly you risk ending up with a mess.

My son’s egg stayed intact for a day and a half, largely because he swaddled it in straw.  A spontaneous pick-up game of touch football, with Rosalito in his pocket, momentarily forgotten, spelled the egg’s demise.  It was all right; in fact, Will said he was relieved.  No way was he ready for that kind of responsibility.

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Last week Bonnie Friedman found out something big …

As soon as I finished writing my guest post for this blog last week about how “people don’t do such things,” I put the computer in “sleep” mode, stood up, and the answer to the question I was secretly asking washed through me.

Why couldn’t I really believe that people in the world do mean and otherwise outrageous things (things that, if I could believe in them, I could let my characters do, as well)?  Because my sister was mean and I couldn’t let myself know it. Voila! Also: not so earthshaking, since she’s my sister, not yours.  But here’s the part that likely does apply to you.  We all have blind spots — things that we can’t let ourselves know and yet which we write in order to find out.  And if we don’t believe what our pens reveal, we have to keep writing the same thing time and again until we do.

What does the blind spot feel like?  What does denial feel like?  It feels like a numbness.  It feels like the bloated anesthetized lip at the dentist’s.  It’s large, it’s tingly, there’s a temptation to bite it and bite it again until one’s mouth drips.  It feels like something is there, but you can’t say what.  It feels like being stupid — others can see what you can’t.  They even laugh at how obvious it is!  And as you become more acutely aware that you are in denial, it feels like needing others for a verdict on your own experience, as if you have to steer your car by looking in a series of tilted mirrors rather than by looking straight ahead at the truth.  There’s something there, you need to know it, but when you look it’s subsumed in fog.

Which is why many of us write.  We want to get at that thing suffused in fog.

Why couldn’t I know that my sister was mean?

Because I loved her, and she was suffering.  She was a bossy, dear, acne-stricken, wounded girl who shared my bedroom and who frightened me.  I thought she was right that my existence was an imposition on her.  She’d been alive six years before I was born, and that proved in both our minds that I was an inconvenience she should not have to put up with.  I cringed, I obliged, I believed I was a doltish, messy thing — as if I lived inside a gooey, disgusting jellyfish or as if the jellyfish was all over me. I was forever pressing my eyeglasses against my face, trying to see better through that jelly haze.  I believed what my sister said. She was a clever, shrewd, unobliging sort, quick to point out others flaws.  I’d gawp, astonished at what she’d illuminated.  And I felt sorry for her, because her suffering was obvious.  And if she were alive today I certainly wouldn’t be writing this.  She passed away four years ago, freeing me to articulate and understand what before I’d had to keep concealed in the slam book of my heart, where I inscribed, under my observations about her, my own verdict on myself: wrong, impulsive, prone to distortion.

Even now it seems unkind and exaggerated to call her mean.  Surely she was merely outspoken. Surely she’d only spoken rashly from time to time.  The old denial wants to subsume me.

I could not see mean people in the world because I could not see a mean person in my bedroom.  And so my writing was hampered by a certain obligingness, a certain vacillating wateriness, a certain wishy-washy tepidity.  And it was only when I started admitting that certain people are bold and spiky and mean, or at least do mean things, and that I can trust my own perceptions, that my own world and writing acquired a greater clarity.

What would you see if you trusted your own vision? I ask myself.  What preposterous things would you know are true?   You are the person riding alongside the blind-spot girl.   You are the tilted mirror she needs.   Oh, believe the truth, believe it, I urge her.  Because in her other ear is the old whispering voice, still suggesting: You’re wrong.  You’re bad.  You don’t know what reality is.  Surely the truth isn’t as stark as all that.

This is the third in a series of three essays – including “The Novel Terminable and Interminable” and the above-linked “People Don’t Do Such Things” – that Bonnie Friedman has written for this blog this month.  Her book Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, is a modern-day classic, and has been in print since it was first published in 1993.

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Dani Shapiro explains why fiction writers shouldn’t think too much:

Over the weekend, I was talking with a friend about a particular writer who shall remain unnamed here for reasons which will soon become clear. She’s published quite a lot of books–fiction, essays, polemics–and in this case, we were discussing her fiction, which isn’t, in my opinion, very good.

“She’s a particular kind of too smart to be a good fiction writer,” I said.

My friend nodded in agreement. That was it. Too smart.

I’ve told my students for years that we need to be dumb like animals in order to write good fiction. What do I mean by this? To try to understand what I mean, I’ve been looking at my two dogs resting by my feet for the last few minutes. They’re relaxed but alert. Their ears are pricked, their bodies loosely spilled onto the floor, their eyes are open. They’re ready for anything–ready to leap to their feet at the slightest provocation. They see, smell, hear, taste, touch everything in their environment–or at least I think they do–but from a place of calm attention.

That kind of relaxed attention has a lot to do with writing good fiction. If I am thinking too hard, or too much–if I am layering thoughts and suppositions on top of the tender, frail beginning of story before I’ve barely begun, what I end up with is a collapsing heap of abstraction. When a writer is too smart for her own good, you can feel the weight of her thoughts on the page, like a truck straining uphill. You experience the author’s mental exertion, rather than the story itself.

The best writers, of course, are able to do both: feel and sniff their way through a story like a sure-footed animal through a thicket, and then, but only then, once there is a draft on the page, they’re able to think about it. To become first, willfully sensate and dumb like an animal, and then to become smart, lucid, clear-headed when approaching revision. We all know writers who are good at one or the other. The best writers are good at both.

It’s so easy to forget this. To think: I need to write something clever, something ironic, something The New Yorker might like. To think: but what’s the big picture? I need to know the big picture before I begin. The paradox of the big picture is that it’s only revealed one tiny picture, one small moment at a time.

Dani Shapiro‘s new memoir is Devotion.  Her other recent books include Black & White, Family History, and the best-selling memoir Slow Motion. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Elle, Bookforum, Oprah, Ploughshares, among others, and have been broadcast on National Public Radio. She is a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure and guest editor of Best New American Voices 2010. This essay originally appeared on Dani’s blog, Moments of Being.

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Several days ago I received an email from a woman who’d recently read my latest novel, Bird in Hand.  She mentioned that she appreciated my “honesty” – she liked that my characters had “definite real quirks instead of being perfectly lovable all the time,” and discussed her own novel manuscript, currently facing rejection from publishers on the grounds that the characters “aren’t sympathetic enough.”

I don’t know anything about this woman’s manuscript.  But the question of what it means to create sympathetic characters, and whether it matters, is an ongoing source of discussion and debate in writing classes and even among working novelists I know.  Without alienating the reader, how does a writer create characters who embody the complexities of real-life experience – the petty preoccupations, self-delusions, and misplaced vanities that all of us possess; the qualities that, it could be argued, make us human?

Writing about Robert Stone’s story collection, Fun With Problems, in the New York Times Book Review several weeks ago, Antonya Nelson addresses this question head-on.  Noting that Stone “declines to make his heroes ‘likable,” Nelson goes on to say, “The writer pays his reader the deep compliment of refusing to simplify his creations.  They are as flawed and sophisticated and complex and conflicted and naughty and tempted and contradictory and brutal and surprising as readers themselves.”  Nelson concludes the review by saying that Stone’s stories are not for everyone.  “You might turn away from the uncomfortable truths you don’t wish to receive, from the mature, dissolute, ultimately heartbreaking rites of passage that fill these pages…. [But] Fun With Problems is a book for grown-ups, for people prepared to absorb the news of the world that it announces, for people both grateful and a little uneasy in finding a writer brave enough to be the bearer.”

The graduate students I teach tend to disdain the idea of the sympathetic character, viewing the entire notion as suspect. “Whether a character is likable or not is irrelevant in literary fiction,” they say.  And they have a point.  In certain – some might say formulaic – kinds of popular fiction (romantic comedies, detective stories, “chick” or “mommy” lit), the hero or heroine is expected to follow prescribed rules of likability.  That is, she should be smart but unpretentious, fallible but fundamentally decent; life has knocked her around, but she remains optimistic and open to the world around her.  These rules don’t apply to Robert Stone’s characters; his readers expect to be left feeling a little uneasy as they ponder uncomfortable truths.

But I think that generally what readers want from a character — even in commercial fiction — is something more complex than likability.  They want to understand the character’s (or, in the case of memoir, the writer’s) motivations, whether or not they can empathize with him or her.  A character’s likability is largely irrelevant.  What matters is that the character is richly developed in three dimensions.

In my work as a manuscript editor I have found that there are lots of ways to improve a book that isn’t working, but one of the hardest things to fix is a story in which you don’t relish the thought of spending 300 pages in the central character’s world.  There are all kinds of reasons for this: the character isn’t developed enough; he’s too much of a caricature; the author makes him superficially ornery, irritable, and quirky (rarely a winning combination) as a way to incite drama that would otherwise be lacking.  Whatever the reasons, these characters are wooden, lifeless.   They don’t live and breathe.  True, the character may be unlikable.  But more significant is that he is not fully developed.

Lots of books are published – great books – with difficult and irascible central characters.  These are the ones that Antonya Nelson calls books “for grownups.”  But there’s a difference between these books and the manuscripts that languish unpublished because the characters aren’t rich or deep or full enough, their unlikability a problem of the writer’s, not the reader’s.

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Sheila Kohler, author of the new novel Becoming Jane Eyre, offers a nuanced answer to this perennial question:

Shortly after the publication of my first novel, The Perfect Place, my husband and I were invited to dinner by friends. I can still see us sitting somewhat awkwardly side by side while our hostess, a book critic, quizzed us about the new book.  The book, you need to know, is narrated by a cold, detached woman who moves through her isolated life observing rather than feeling. It becomes increasingly clear that she is not entirely innocent of a violent crime that has been committed.

Looking at us a little askance, our hostess asked, “But do tell me, I’m dying to know, how much of the book is true?” My husband and I both answered the question immediately and at once: he said, “Every word of it!” and I said, “Not one word!”

In a way we were both right.  Though my character seemed very far from me—indeed I thought of the aloof, narcissistic woman as my opposite – no doubt she reflected facets of my hidden thoughts and feelings which I was able to express thus disguised unto myself.

This question which always fascinates readers, “How much is true?” continues to come up more than twenty years later, though I have now published ten books and could hardly have lived all the adventures of my many characters!  I am even more frequently asked this because I have now turned from my own life, which was the basis of much of my earlier work, to the lives of others.  For many years I wrote repeatedly and in many different forms about the early and tragic death of a beloved sister who was, I believe, murdered, though her husband, himself, who was driving the car, survived and was never accused when my sister died in the accident.  This theme, of lost girls, comes into so many of my early books.

Recently, I have written about other women, famous and not so famous.  In Bluebird or the Invention of Happiness I wrote of a relatively unknown eighteenth-century woman, the Marquise de la Tour du Pin, who left France during the Revolution and became a dairy farmer in the Albany area, and now with my latest book, Becoming Jane Eyre, I have turned  to the well-known lives of the Brontes.

When one takes a real life, particularly one that is so well known to many readers, like the lives of the Brontes, and turns it into fiction, one has obviously to be careful not to alter the facts that are known, or not to alter them too much, but that leaves, of course, ground to cover. As Fritz von Hardenburg has said, “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.” There are so many things we do not know even about those nearest and dearest to us and of course we always make a selection. Real life is often too long, too complicated, and too boring for any book. In a way, when one takes a historical character that person acts as a sort of screen behind which one can both hide and onto which one can project so much that is true in one’s own life.

Believing I had left my own life behind, I found myself finding parts of it in Charlotte Bronte’s: the death of her sisters, of course; the sharing of her creative work with her sisters, which I have done so often with my daughters who write; the role of the teacher, which has been such an important role in my own life as well as my life as a student. Writing about the Brontes, tricking myself, in a way, into believing I was writing about someone else’s life, I was able to create a middle distance and to find myself in her story, as I hope many of my readers will find his or her own in my book.

Sheila Kohler is the author of seven novels: Becoming Jane Eyre; Bluebird or the Invention of Happiness; Crossways; Children of Pithiviers; Cracks; The House on R Street; and The Perfect Place. She has also written three books of short stories, Stories from Another World; One Girl; and Miracles in America.  Her work has received an O. Henry Prize, the Open Voice prize, the Smart Family Foundation Prize, and the Willa Cather Prize.  This essay, in a slightly different form, originally appeared in Penguin Group USA’s blog.

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Writer Julie Metz offers some hard-won advice:

Like many of you, I am working on a new writing project, a novel. What made me think I could do this, anyway? But here I am, too far in to let go, committed to my characters. Some days are thrilling, but lately I often find myself stuck, wondering how I will push out the next sentence.

My first book, published last year, was a memoir titled Perfection. The great thing about writing a memoir is that you know the story; the art is in the writing. With fiction one has that same challenge but in addition the pesky problem of not really knowing where it’s all going to end, or, for that matter, what’s happening in the beginning or middle either.

So here’s what keeps me going on the dark writing days:

1.  Reading a very good novel. At first, as I am reading the very good novel, I’m filled with self-loathing and fear of failure. Wow, this book is so effing amazing, I’ll never be able to write anything like this! But then I relax and begin to enjoy and finally adore the world the author has created, and to see that we all can create our own worlds. I won’t be writing a novel about the day a tightrope walker crossed the space between the World Trade Towers, but I might be able to write a good book about something else. Like a demanding but inspiring teacher, a good book elevates my day-to-day language and my life.

2.  Exercise. While I might tell myself that I don’t have time to take care of my body, because I should be busy writing, taking time to keep fit helps my mind work so much better.  I have begun the year with frequent trips to the gym, which I hope will help me through the winter doldrums. It’s a cliché that our body is our home.  Right now I feel like my body is my home office. If I can keep it clean and tidy, there is room for clearer thinking and perhaps some inspiration.

3. Accidental moments of insight. Just when I think it can’t get worse, that I’ll never write a decent sentence again, that my first book was a weird fluke and now I am doomed, doomed, doomed to utter failure, I’ll have some odd revelatory moment about my story and characters. Often it’s feedback from one of my readers that I have been resisting (grumpily), but suddenly realize is fantastically clear and true. Other times there’ll be some small moment out in the world, a scene at the grocery store or an encounter with a friend in my neighborhood, that allows me to understand a character or scene. These moments help me clarify a point, and then I can move on. Not at the pace I wish, but I move on nonetheless.

Julie Metz, a memoirist, book designer, and soon-to-be novelist, is a frequent contributor to this blog.

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The writer Bonnie Friedman considers what it means to create ‘realistic’ fictional characters:

“People don’t do such things!” is the last line of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler — words cried out by the scandalized judge after Hedda has shot herself off-stage.  His words echo in our ears as the curtain rings down and as the actors gradually emerge to take their bows, and as we shuffle out onto the street and back into our lives.

People don’t do such things! Well, if the blowhard who exclaims these words had actually believed it possible that the stymied Hedda might do what she threatens, maddened by the asphyxiating, conformity-bound society in which she lived . . . all might have ended differently.

Do people do such things? I’ve often wondered, reading about heroically outspoken or shockingly rude or tin-eared or laughably selfish or otherwise outrageous people in fiction. Yes, they’re great for the story, but do people in real life actually do such things?  I’ve often wondered about this because I wanted to write characters who confronted one another, who weren’t as nice as I was, who weren’t as cowed by convention, who had an edge, had bite – and yet it was hard for me to actually perceive such people in my life.  And I couldn’t write them if I didn’t believe in them.  I wanted to write realistic fiction.  Why couldn’t I perceive such people if they did exist?

One thing I’ve found about writing is that if you ask a question, the answers appear.  The main thing is to formulate the question.  Life starts supplying the answers.

In this case, I immediately heard a doctor say to a nurse, “You dress like a clown.  Don’t come to work dressed like that!”  I grabbed my notebook and scrawled his words.  I was sitting in a clinic in Iowa City.  I don’t recall what was wrong with me.  But I do recall thinking: “Oh, my gosh!  People actually do say such things.”  How could that doctor be so mean? How could he be so ridiculing?  What did he mean, “dress like a clown”?  Surely the nurse didn’t have a red rubber nose on (although in fact I pictured that she did).  Both were down the hall and my door was open.  A moment later the doctor appeared to treat me; he was a brusque, starchy person with a peremptory manner.  All these years – twenty years – later, I recall him.

And just yesterday I wrote in my notebook something else I wanted to remember because it, too, was so strange that my sense of reality wanted to subsume it, to deny it.  A man and his date slid into seats my husband and I were about to sit down in.  “Why don’t you see if you can move somebody else over?” said the man when I protested. Rather than argue, my husband and I raced to find other available seats, which were vanishing fast.  “What exactly were his words?” I asked my husband a moment later, and I wrote them.  This man was a handsome-ish man who’d stood near us in line, and had given away the whole end of “Up in the Air.”  Fortunately he’d said loudly, before doing this: “Did you expect that ending?” and I’d flung my fingers into my ears.   But the man talked on and on about the ending, while I pressed my fingers hard in my ears and hummed.  Now I thought: sociopathic people do exist!  And they are sometimes handsome, and obdurately oblivious or purposely uncaring of others, and they are real, and sometimes even steal your seat.

Such people exist in my blind spot.  As do many other people so rude or infuriating I automatically tell myself I misperceived.  So now I make an effort to notice when I stumble across them or they stumble across me, and when I find them occupying my seat.  One of the uses of writing, it seems to me, is to broaden our perspective, to wake us up, to end our innocence.  And one aspect of this, for me, is to behold what a fabulous world we live in, with the most stupendous people living here with us, and grand stories springing up all around.  How dull to be confined only to what we expect! I want to keep finding out what lives in my blind spot, what I tell myself can’t be true, isn’t real.  How tired I am of my own limited vision!  How eager I am to allow myself to see the unacknowledged aspects of my reality, and, alas, of my own quite flawed, loud, offensive, mistaken self.

I make it a practice now to record the unexpected, what makes me want to gawp and say, “People don’t do such things!” Contemplate the indigestible, the it-can’t-be-so, the but-people-don’t-do-such-things, I tell myself.  Because I don’t want to be that conventional judge crying his verdict in amazement at the last instant.   It benefits my writing to allow such characters in, and it benefits, as well, my vision of reality.

This is the second in a series of three essays Bonnie Friedman is writing for this blog this month.  The first was “The Novel Terminable and Interminable.”

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How do you come up with an idea that’s big enough to sustain a novel or memoir?  And how do you know when you’ve got it?

As a teacher of creative writing, I get asked this question a lot – and as a novelist, I can tell you that it torments every one of my beginnings.  A few days ago I put this question to the writer Katharine Weber, whose new novel, True Confections, was hailed by the Times Book Review this weekend as “a great American tale.”  (“It’s got everything,” Jincy Willett raved: “Humor, treachery, class struggle, racism, murder, capitalism and mass quantities of candy.”)

And here’s what Katharine Weber said:

I have been thinking about this for a few days since you asked me to consider this intriguing question, Christina. I am grateful to you for forcing me to think directly about something which is present in me as a writer but is intuitive and a bit organic, so I have to rummage a bit to explain it (which is always helpful to me as a writer, explaining what I do habitually without necessarily having full awareness).

I always have too many ideas. The question for me really isn’t ever Where do you get your ideas so much as How do you identify your best idea?

E.M. Forster wrote: “The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot. The queen died and no one knew why until they discovered it was of grief is a mystery, a form capable of high development.”

So how do we know when we have moved from story to plot to something we can develop? This is the critical and significant kind of self-editing and revision and expansion necessary if one is going to write and publish novels in which the world is going to take an interest.

I think about the number one problem I encounter in writing I see in workshops: Often, a story or a novel manuscript will have sentences that are good, page to page, and the writing is “good enough” too, overall, yet there is something wrong, something not working. And that flaw can usually be characterized in this way: there is something about this writing, even if I am not sure what it is — plot, character, sensibility, key details, events — something, that means a great deal more to the writer than it can ever possibly mean to any reader. The specific details of what that is, only the writer may ever fully understand, but it signifies a serious discrepancy between the writer’s overly personal relationship to the material and any reader’s possible way of finding enough meaning in the material to want to keep turning the pages. So that’s crucial. You cannot fill your novel with personal elements that signify enormously to you and expect those things to glow with meaning for anyone else unless you have made them glow.

But I suppose the only real test for me of whether or not an idea for a novel is enough in every sense of the word — big enough, interesting enough to me first and foremost, nuanced enough, original enough, rich enough for me to write interestingly — is that usually I have dwelled with it for quite a while before I start to write. It has sustained me imaginatively as I dwell in the world of the novel that lies ahead. And that original idea may have in that time shifted and mutated into something different or tangential as I worked it imaginatively and strategically. It would be unlikely, in fact, if the original kernel of a really good idea did not expand in some direction, perhaps a surprising direction, befoe the actual writing began.

And you just have to learn for yourself what works for you, and be willing to trust your instinct even as you develop your instinct, so that over time, experience will tell you when your ideas are enough to sustain a novel, more than enough to sustain a novel, or on the verge of way too much — too much going on, too many disconnected ideas — which can be the mark of insecurity. You have to be able to make decisive choices. Everything in the novel should be necessary to the novel. So for me it is sometimes as much about throwing elements and ideas overboard as it is about finding ideas.

Katharine Weber is the author of five novels: Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, The Music Lesson, The Little Women, Triangle, which takes up the notorious Triangle Waist company factory fire of 1911, and the brand-new True Confections, the story of a chocolate candy factory in crisis. She is working a memoir about family stories and the narrative impulse, Symptoms of Fiction. You can learn more at www.katharineweber.com.  Also, follow her brilliant blog: http://staircasewriting.blogspot.com.

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Bonnie Friedman writes about the lure of (and cure for) the endless novel:

I just finished my first novel.  This isn’t the first novel I tried to write.  Before publishing a book of essays and then a memoir, I’d been a devoted fiction writer.  I’d written hundreds of pages of two vast novels, one when I was in my twenties and one in my thirties.  But this last one is the first novel I’ve finished.  Those other novels were a great pleasure and torment to work on — I got to explore internal states that haunted me, and I got to wander amongst skeins of gossamer prose sticky as butterfly wings, and I got to understand (among other things) aspects of my childhood with my sister, who had been a grand volcanic, wounded girl.  But I didn’t know how to finish either of the books I started.

They were all middle and no end.  They were all sprawling, surging second act.

I didn’t know that I was allowed to figure out where my characters ought to end up, and then explore how they might get there. I didn’t know how conscious I was allowed to be during the writing process.  I didn’t know that if I focused on one particular problem that a character was trying to solve, myriad others would snap into clarity.

I’d grown up reading experimental writers — Woolf, Stein, Barnes, Joyce — and really didn’t understand the least thing about novel structure. For me, reading a novel was a state of immersion.  I read slowly, savoring the serif type and the glow of the linen page (I’m thinking of a certain paperback of Mrs. Dalloway that I was given for my 21st birthday, and which I read munching Mint Milanos and sipping sweet instant coffee from a tin).  “How true!” I’d write in the margins with a coal-soft pencil.  I’d assumed that to write a book one must simply get immersed.  And I liked immersion.  It was less scary than decision.  “Discover, discover!” I told myself — the mantra of writing schools in those days.

I wrote in order to set on the page certain internal states.  I wanted to see what they meant.  I didn’t yet know how useful it is to give one’s traits to a character who is a bolder version of oneself.  I didn’t yet know that a novel must involve a character who changes by the end. At a certain point I recognized with this last novel that it too might go on forever accumulating pages and becoming less and less publishable if I didn’t impose a bit of discipline on myself.

I bought screenplay writing books, playwriting books, and even a novel-writing book or two — those dreaded texts I was convinced would flatten all my originality, what there was of it, to mere formula.  And all proved useful.  I hadn’t understood that the effect that a novel creates isn’t the same as the technique used to create that book.  Nor had I understood how entirely I merely loved the dream-state of adding to my novel.

Now what’s thrilling is pacing through other people’s novels and seeing how they’re hinged and braced.  Noticing the decision points.  And allowing my own characters to make decisions.

Gone — I hope — is some of that sticky enthrallment that kept me caged in mammoth manuscripts for so long.  Each writing temperament, I’m convinced, has its own perils.  The peril of mine was to remain for epochs in a prolonged inchoate state of mazy inconclusiveness.  The heroine of my novel altered, as did I by writing her.  Now I see a book as a device to discover more than one could have known beforehand.  And that acquiring technique is essential.  It is the artifice that, like eyeglasses, lets the world become clearer.  I’m all for it now, when once upon a time it was anathema to me.

Bonnie Friedman is the author of the Village Voice bestseller Writing Past Dark, Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, a widely anthologized book of essays.  She is also the author of the memoir The Thief of Happiness: The Story of an Extraordinary Psychotherapy.  Her essays have been included in The Best American Movie Writing, The Best Writing on Writing, The Best Spiritual Writing, and the Best of O., the Oprah Magazine.

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Lorrie Moore is one of my favorite authors (Like Life and Birds of America, her story collections, are on my shelf of prized books), but I did not love her new novel, The Gate at the Stairs.  I found it emotionally arid, the dialogue too clever by half, the twists, when they come, both unsurprising and unearned.  I think it was a mistake for Moore to graft her own distinctive, sardonic voice onto the college-aged farm girl who narrates the story.

And yet.  Moore is undeniably a good writer, a real writer.  I marveled at her language, from the sound and simile of “In the sky the returning geese were winging over, their honking alto bark like the complaining squawk of a cart” to a starkly vivid “hot lemony sun.”  The novel contains observations so acute and thoughtful that I had to restrain myself from underlining them in my borrowed book.  (I used Post-Its instead.)  Moore captures small moments in all their fibrous complication, as when the narrator catches a little girl before she tumbles to the ground:  “Her face seemed to smile and sob at the same time, a look that said That may be fun for some people but not for me, and I placed her securely on my hip, feeling the biceps in my arm already beginning to strengthen and my jutted hip on its way to socket stress and limpage.”

Toward the end of the book, Moore makes a quiet, incisive comment about authorial intent that resonated with me, one that I think many writers can relate to.  The narrator muses that “in literature — perhaps as in life — one had to speak not of what the author intended but of what a story intended for itself.  The creator was inconvenient — God was dead.  But the creation itself had a personality and hopes and its own desires and plans and little winks and dance steps and collaged intent.  In this way Jacques Derrida overlapped with Walt Disney.  The story itself had feet and a mouth, could walk and talk and speak of its own yearnings!”

As a writer, I find it freeing to remember that my conscious intentions for my work are only one part of it, that a fully realized story takes on a life of its own beyond the will and intent of the creator.  This moment of insight – one of many such illuminations – redeemed the book for me.

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Beginning a story or a novel, Alice Munro says, is the easy part …

“Endings are another matter.  When I’ve shaped the story in my head, before starting to put it on paper, it has, of course, an ending.  Often this ending will stay in place right through the first draft.  Sometimes it stays in place for good.  Sometimes not.  The story, in the first draft, has put on rough but adequate clothes, it is “finished” and might be thought to need no more than a lot of technical adjustments, some tightening here and expanding there, and the slipping in of some telling dialogue and chopping away of flabby modifiers.  It’s then, in fact, that the story is in the greatest danger of losing its life, of appearing so hopelessly misbegotten that my only relief comes from abandoning it.  It doesn’t do enough.  It does what I intended, but it turns out that my intention was all wrong.  Quite often I decide to give up on it.  (This was the point at which, in my early days as a writer, I did just chuck everything out and get started on something absolutely new.) And now that the story is free from my controlling hand a change in direction may occur.  I can’t ever be sure this will happen, and there are bad times, though I should be used to them.  I’m no good at letting go, I am thrifty and tenacious now, no spendthrift and addict of fresh starts as in my youth.  I go around glum and preoccupied, trying to think of ways to fix the problem.  Usually the right way pops up in the middle of this. A big relief, then.  Renewed energy.  Resurrection.  Except that it isn’t the right way.  Maybe a way to the right way. Now I write pages and pages I’ll have to discard.  New angles are introduced, minor characters brought center stage, lively and satisfying scenes are written, and it’s all a mistake.  Out they go.  But by this time I’m on the track, there’s no backing out.  I know so much more than I did, I know what I want to happen and where I want to end up and I just have to keep trying till I find the best way of getting there.”

From the Introduction to Selected Stories.

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Just in time for the new year, the fabulous C. M. Mayo shares her strategies for writing – and finishing – your book:

Last spring my latest novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, was published. This was not a go-to-the-cabin-by-the-lake-and-churn-it-out kind of experience.  No, my novel is a nearly 500-page historical epic based on extensive original research, every line of prose polished to shine like the lighthouse in Alexandria, with more characters than you could pack into a Starbuck’s.  Is it any good?  You be the judge.   What I know for sure is that over the more than seven years it took me to write it, I hung in there.  And eventually I finished.  And then I sold it.  How did I do it?

Herewith one dozen tips:

# 1. Before you begin, state your intentions
It’s important to write them down, stating them specifically, and in present tense.  For example, I write a novel that… you fill in the blanks.  I don’t mean, write down what your novel is about; you might have to fiddle around for a few hundred pages before you figure that out.  But ask yourself, do you want to write a novel that places you among the immortal literary stars?  Or achieve a modest success that might help you get a teaching job?  Or do you just watch to check “publish book” off your “to-do” list?  And how much time and effort are you willing to put into the enterprise of finding a publisher?  It might be easy to find one, or it might take a few years, a bundle of postage, and a mountain of paperwork.  Not to mention heartbreak.  Whatever your path may be, it will be more difficult if you have not clearly identified and acknowledged your intentions.

# 2. Be here now
If you are regretting the past (“I should have started sooner …”) or worrying about the future (“Will they laugh at me?”), you are not writing. And if you are waxing nostalgic about the past (“How wonderful that they liked my short story!”) or daydreaming about the future (“My agent will sell it to the movies for a million dollars!”), you are not writing.  To get the book done, you have to be writing.

# 3. Treat yourself kindly
If you do, your artist self will show up more frequently, and play more freely.  If you bully and criticize yourself, you can sure you’ll end up blocked.

# 4. Keep a pen and something to write on with you at all times
When you’re out and about – driving, at the dentist’s, walking the dog – you just might capture the perfect fragment of dialogue, or hear the opening line of the next chapter in your head.  I don’t recommend those lovely bound “writer’s” journals because they are too big to carry around easily.  I use Moleskines, index cards and sometimes even a small pack of Post-Its.

# 5. When you are writing, always keep your pen resting lightly on the page (if at the computer, keep your fingers on the keyboard)
If you sit back in your chair and lift your hand to your chin, as so many people do, your body is signalizing to your writing self, no, I am not ready. This can contribute to a bad case of block. It’s such a simple thing to always keep your pen on the page, yet very effective.

# 6. Music helps
I find that drifty, New-Agey music in a minor key works best for bringing on the Muses. There is a large literature about music and creativity. I offer a couple of blog posts (with links for more information) on this subject here and here.

# 7. Mise-en-place
This is a French term chefs use that means, more or less, everything in its place. Briefly: start clean, then assemble utensils and equipment; then assemble all ingredients; then wash, cut, chop; then cook. Doing things out of order makes the whole process take longer; the product often come out mediocre (or ruined), and can cause needless stress for the cook and the diners.

This explains why many of the most productive writers write in coffee shops and the rest of them do a lot of housecleaning, n’est-ce pas? It’s not the easiest thing to write a novel when your desk is cluttered with phone bills and stacks of unanswered letters, the dog needs to be walked in five minutes, and, by the way, you’ve left the phone on and your Facebook page tab open. There are people who can work amongst piles and general chaos, but I am not one of them, and I cannot recommend it.

# 8. Learn from other novels
The novels you have already read and love can be your best teachers. But don’t read them passively, for entertainment; neither should you read as an English major might, ferreting out “interpretations.” Read them as a craftsperson. How does Chekhov handle endings? How does Austen handle transitions? How does Hemingway describe food and clothing? Any question you have about your writing conundrums is probably answered, right there, in the books you already have on your shelf. And continue to read, and read actively, with a notebook and pen.

# 9. Learn from books on creativity
Why reinvent the wheel? Whatever your problem (block, confusion, utter despair), you can be sure another writer (or artist) has wrestled with it and has something helpful to say about it in a book. The cost of a book is lentils compared to that of needlessly painful experiences. You’ll find my list of recommended books here.

# 10. Get feedback on your writing
From a writers group, a writing teacher, a freelance editor, workshop participants. You’ll find my 10 tips to get the most out of your writing workshop here.

(For some years I was in a writing group with novelist Leslie Pietrzyk; read what she has to say about it here.)

# 11. Get to know other writers
This is how I found my writers group (thanks, Richard Peabody!), my publisher (thanks, Nancy Zafris!), and my agent (thanks, Dawn Marano!).

Go forth with a spirit of generosity. You never know who will help you, and you might be more helpful to someone else than you realize. So go to readings (they are almost all free!); take workshops, attend conferences, and stay in touch.

# 12. Consistent Resilient Action
Again, why reinvent the wheel? Writers are not the only ones who grapple with their emotions in the face of rejection, failure, criticism, and indifference. There is a large literature on sports psychology. The book I recommend most highly is The Mental Edge by Kenneth Baum. Consistent Resilient Action (CRA) is what sports champions do:  Dropped the ball?  Well, pick it up.  So your first draft is crap?  Write a new one.  An agent rejected you?  Send your manuscript to the next one.  Take a workshop, get feedback, re-read Proust, go write a poem— and so on.  In response to anything negative, instead of wasting your energy in anger, it is crucial to take a positive step, however small, and immediately.

P.S. Many more resources for you here.

And good wishes.

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Fiction writer David Jauss analyzes Chekhov’s endings and explains why they were revolutionary at the time — and what we can learn from them today:

Early in his writing life, Anton Chekhov became convinced that new kinds of endings were necessary in literature.  While writing Ivanov, his first major play, he complained to his publisher about conventional endings—“Either the hero gets married or shoots himself”—and concluded, “Whoever discovers new endings for plays will open up a new era.”  And that is exactly what Chekhov did, both for plays and for short stories.  Even now, more than a hundred years after his death, we are still very much in the era Chekhov opened up.  Chekhovian endings have been adopted, and adapted, not only by the usual suspects — Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, Tobias Wolff — but also by such otherwise un-Chekhovian writers as Donald Barthelme and John Barth.

Whereas most fiction, past and present, focuses on a character’s climactic change, Chekhov’s stories are frequently less about change than they are about the failure to change.  And even when his characters do change, their changes fail to last, merely complicate the existing conflict, or create a new and often greater conflict.  His endings tend to emphasize the continuation of conflict, not its conclusion.  Chekhov commented on this fact in one of his letters, saying, “When I am finished with my characters, I like to return them to life.” A great number of Chekhov’s stories end by saying implicitly what one story says explicitly: “And after that life went on as before.”

But for all of their apparent inconclusiveness, his stories do have endings; they’re just not the kind of endings favored by previous writers.  They are subversive endings, endings designed to undercut our expectations and, thereby, force us to examine our conceptions about life and human nature.

In an article forthcoming in 2010 in The Writer’s Chronicle, I discuss a dozen ways Chekhov subverted traditional short story endings.  Here are three of them:

1) Anti-epilogues

Like Henry James, who complained that epilogues were characterized by “a distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions, appended paragraphs, and cheerful remarks,” Chekhov despised such endings.  Many of his stories end by simply denying the very premise of an epilogue: the possibility of knowing what the future might hold.  Instead of giving us a pat account of how everything will turn out, he typically returns the character, and us, to the uncertainty of life, leaving us wondering what will happen next.

The fact that these endings leave his characters’ future fates open suggest that, although Chekhov was generally pessimistic about the possibility of change, he was also aware that sometimes lives change in dramatic and unpredictable ways.  Chekhov makes this point explicitly in “A Story Without an End.”  The narrator of this story—who is not-so-coincidentally a writer of short stories—presents two portraits of his neighbor, the first showing him as he was a year before, after his wife died and he attempted suicide, and the second showing him now, playing the piano and singing and laughing with a group of ladies in the narrator’s drawing-room.  Witnessing this change, which he compares to “the transmutation of substances,” leads the narrator to realize the impossibility of predicting what his neighbor’s future life will be like.  Thus, this story without an end ends with the unanswered question, “How will it end?”

2.  Reverse Epilogues

Instead of ending with a reference to an unknown future, a “reverse epilogue” ends with a reference to the known past. “The Chorus Girl” exemplifies this mode of closure.  In this story, a chorus girl named Pasha is confronted by the wife of a man with whom she’s been sleeping.  While the husband listens in the next room, the wife badgers Pasha into giving her jewelry that she wrongly believes her husband has given Pasha.  After the wife leaves, the husband returns and says, “My God, a decent, proud, pure being like that was even prepared to kneel down before this . . . this whore!  And I brought her to it!  I let it happen!”  He pushes Pasha roughly aside, saying, “Get away from me, you—you trash!”  Pasha starts to sob.

Since the story begins years after this scene, which is presented as an extended flashback, we expect what follows to “resolve” the flashback and inform us how the man’s cruelty affected Pasha’s future.   But instead Chekhov abruptly segues into her past.  The final sentence reads, “She remembered how three years ago, for no rhyme or reason, a merchant had giving her a beating, and sobbed even louder.”  By moving backward in time, Chekhov implies that she has been mistreated by men repeatedly throughout her life and that this pattern has continued after this event and will continue on into the future.

3.  External Climaxes

Chekhov sometimes omits climaxes in order to make the reader have an epiphany his protagonist fails to have.  A character may reach a “dead end,” in short, but the reader continues the journey in the character’s stead.  I suspect that behind this kind of ending, which we find most frequently in Chekhov’s later work, is the belief that an epiphany is more powerful if the reader experiences it rather than merely witnesses it.

One way Chekhov creates an external climax is through the use of an unreliable narrator, one who fails to see what his story reveals about him.  In “The Little Joke,” for example, the narrator recounts a “joke” he played on a woman who loved him, a joke he cannot understand—but we can, and do.  He tells of tobogganing with this woman and how, as they roared down the hill with the wind in their face, he whispered, “I love you” into her ear, then pretended he had said nothing, so she could not be sure if what she heard had been his voice or the wind.  She was terrified of tobogganing, yet kept on doing it—and even once went by herself—to see if she would hear those words.  The story ends: “And now that I am older, I cannot understand why I said those words, why I played that joke on her . . .”  The reader realizes that he actually did love the woman and that, despite his refusal to face the facts of his own emotions, he regrets playing the joke and losing his one chance at love.  And the reader also realizes that the joke was ultimately a big one, not a little one, and that it was on him, not her.

***

Virginia Woolf has described the effects of these inconclusive endings better, perhaps, than anyone.  When we finish a Chekhov story, she says, we feel “as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it.”  But, she goes on to say, the more we become accustomed to his work, the more we are able to hear the subtle music of Chekhov’s meaning and the more the traditional conclusions of fiction—“the general tidying up of the last chapter, the marriage, the death, the statement of values so sonorously trumpeted forth”—“fade into thin air” and “show like transparencies with a light behind them—gaudy, glaring, superficial.”  His endings, she concludes, “never manipulate the evidence so as to produce something fitting, decorous, agreeable to our vanity,” and therefore, “as we read these little stories about nothing at all, the horizon widens; the soul gains an astonishing sense of freedom.”

David Jauss’s fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and been reprinted in Best American Short Stories; Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards; Best Stories from the First 25 Years of the Pushcart Prize; The Poetry Anthology, 1912-2002; and elsewhere. The recipient of the AWP Award for Short Fiction, the Fleur-de-Lis Poetry Prize, a NEA Fellowship, and a James A. Michener Fellowship, among other awards, he served as fiction editor of Crazyhorse for ten years and now teaches at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.


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From October 2008 to October 2009, Nina Sankovitch read one book a day and wrote about it on her blog, Read All Day.  After learning about this project in a New York Times article, I went to Nina’s site and found some terrific insights into what makes a book great – so I asked Nina if I could adapt them here:

The traits of great writing are: genuineness, truth, fearlessness.  Say it out loud: no fear. Let your words flap in the wind and light up the sky and bring in the readers, like a boat into a harbor.  Write straight and true and without a safety net.  No safety net!  All the books I’ve read and loved have taken a chance and won.  They won me over with their honesty and beauty.  And I know the hard, hard work that goes into making a novel or a memoir or a short story or a poem. Only hard work and unfettered talent can make such beautiful and moving works of words.

An author who writes without fear – of rejection, of rebuke, of ineptitude, of foolishness or seriousness – can write a great book. If the writer is free of fear, she can go out there and express every aspect of a story, the smells of the characters, the sight of the places, the nature of the emotions, and the pull of the struggle being waged for or against the characters.

Why does greatness matter?  It matters not only because reading such books is a pleasure but also because a great book presents the world in a whole new way.  Not the whole world, necessarily, but a piece of the world, or a person or a thought, presented in such a way that the reader has not thought of before.  Seeing an issue or a person or a situation from a new angle changes the way your mind works, enlarges your mind and enlivens it, as well.

A great story makes us care, heart and soul, about the movement, the struggle, the change. We care when the characters are genuinely portrayed, when just a slight detail can define a whole person.  We care when the place where the story takes place breathes for us; when it is alive and it cradles or rejects the characters within its orbit: think of the Croatia of Josip Novakovich, the Brazil of Paul Coutinho, or the Ireland of Claire Keegan: “On either side, the trees are all and here the wind is strangely human.  A tender speech is combing through the willows.  In a bare whisper, the elms lean.  Something about the place conjures up the ancient past: the hound, the spear, the spinning wheel” (from Walk the Blue Fields). I could be in all those places and know someone who lived and struggled, and I am more, I am richer for having been there, having known the people and the struggle and the outcome.

The best books are the ones that do not follow a formula or try too hard to be a certain genre. When I read a book I know when I am being manipulated and when I am being told a truth. The best stories present a truth about life in any way that the author finds best, even if it is in lies. An author has to be fearless in just not worrying about the verisimilitude of the story, or is it too romantic, too gross, too quiet or too loud.  She has to write without fear of refusal.

Between reader and writer there is a kind of pact. The pact is that the writer will lay out his/her genuine thoughts and ideas through the medium of the best words and characters and plot he/she can work out, and that the reader will commit to reading the result.   I believe that in my year of reading my brain has become more robust and energized, and life all around me is better. The writer of a great book gives us, the readers, a new tank of oxygen, allowing us to dive again and again into life.  Great good comes from reading great books.

Since finishing her year of reading, Nina Sankovitch has been writing a book blog for The Huffington Post.  Recently she signed a contract with HarperStudio to write Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, a book about her year of magical reading.



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When I’m working on a novel I become obsessed with its themes, and look for inspiration anywhere I can find it.  Paintings, photographs, films, poems, essays, novels – everything I take in is filtered through the lens of my current obsession. (I’ve written about some of the visual inspiration for my new novel, Bird in Hand, here and here.)

Recently I opened a file I kept while working on Bird in Hand. It’s filled with newspaper clippings, handwritten and typed pages, poems torn out of magazines, Post-it notes in soft yellow and acid green. One 2”x2” fragment – the bottom of a “To Do” list – has only this, in my handwriting: Don’t worry about starting. Just begin. No story is too large to tell. (Did I write these words, or was I quoting someone? Either way, I must have found them inspiring.)

Leafing through this file, I can trace the genesis of my ideas. The scrap of paper, for example, with phone numbers on one side and Four danger signs for a marriage: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, emotional withdrawal scrawled in black pen on the other. Below this I wrote, “Is [Bird in Hand] a love story or a tale of betrayal? Is it about finding your soul mate, or losing everything you hold sacred? How can the two stories be the same?”

Below are some passages I found in the file that shaped my novel-in-progress –- and why:

1) “I used to think if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error, or at least an unfortunate accident. I hadn’t learned that it can happen so gradually you don’t lose your stomach or hurt yourself in the landing. You don’t necessarily sense the motion. I’ve found it takes at least two and generally three things to alter the course of a life: You slip around the truth once, and then again, and one more time, and there you are, feeling, for a moment, that it was sudden, your arrival at the bottom of the heap.” Jane Hamilton, A Map of the World

This novel-– which, like Bird in Hand, is about the accidental death of a child that sets in motion a series of events that changes the lives of the main characters-– had a huge impact on me. My own opening paragraph, I later realized, echoes the beginning of Hamilton’s powerful book.

2) “Those of us who claim exclusivity in love do so with a liar’s courage: there are a hundred opportunities, thousands over the years, for a sense of falsehood to seep in, for all that we imagine as inevitable to become arbitrary, for our history together to reveal itself only as a matter of chance and happenstance, nothing irrepeatable, or irreplaceable, the circumstantial mingling of just one of the so many million with just one more.”Alice McDermott, Charming Billy

Bird in Hand is about four people, two of whom betray their spouses. I was interested in writing about moral ambiguity, which McDermott so brilliantly parses in this novel. If you truly believe that your spouse is not your soulmate, and that your own happiness is vitally important, what do you do?

3) “Close to the body of things, there can be heard a stir that makes us and destroys us.”D. H. Lawrence, Study of Thomas Hardy

That people’s deepest feelings cannot be constrained by social norms or boundaries is an idea I wanted to explore in this book (and an idea that preoccupied Lawrence). Though two of my characters disrupt – and arguably destroy – other lives in their quest to be together, they are oblivious to all but their own happiness.

4) “It is a queer and fantastic world. Why can’t people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing.” Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

My four characters are constantly at odds. Their preoccupations, passions, and dreams are often in conflict. In developing this story, I wanted to give equal weight to each perspective. I was fascinated by the complexity of The Good Soldier, and at how skillfully Ford got to the core of his characters’ motivations.

5) In truth, I did not read Chekhov’s short story “The Lady with the Dog” until after Bird in Hand was published. But this quote (from the Norton edition) is uncanny in its precise application to my story – down to the reference to birds:

“It seemed to them that fate had intended them for one another, and they could not understand why she should have a husband, and he a wife. They were like two migrating birds, the male and the female, who had been caught and put in separate cages. They forgave one another all that they were ashamed of in the past and in the present, and felt that this love of theirs had changed them both.”

At the end of the story, as at the end of Bird in Hand, the characters are on a precipice. Chekhov writes:

“And it seemed to them that they were within an inch of arriving at a decision, and that then a new, beautiful life would begin. And they both realized that the end was still far, far away, and that the hardest, the most complicated part was only just beginning.”

***

This piece, in a slightly different form, originally appeared in Madame Mayo.

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philip seymour hoffman7To get a book underway, you have to fully commit to it.

This is less obvious than it may seem.  One of the hardest parts of starting a book is committing to an idea.  Because … what if the story isn’t big enough?  What if it isn’t compelling enough?  What if there isn’t enough of an arc; what if it’s the wrong perspective; what if there’s a better way to tell the story?  (Or should you be telling another story altogether?)

Committing to a story can feel almost as momentous as getting engaged.  The questions you ask yourself aren’t so different.  Willl I really be able to live with this person day after day, year after year?  I really like X about him, but I can’t stand Y.  Things I like about him in small doses might become intolerable over time. And how will he age?

In an interview in The New York Times Magazine, Philip Seymour Hoffman addressed this issue of committing to an idea.  He was talking about how he starts from scratch every time he becomes a new character, but it struck me that the creative process he describes is similar to a writer’s. “Creating anything is hard.  It’s a cliche thing to say, but every time you start a job, you just don’t know anything.  I mean, I can break something down, but ultimately I don’t know anything when I start work on a new movie.  You start stabbing out, and you make a mistake, and it’s not right, and then you try again and again.  The key is you have to commit.  And that’s hard because you have to find what it is you are committing to.”

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BIH inspiration“The newspaper clipping is in tatters.  Folded, yellowed, curling at the edges and mended in places with clear tape, it was tacked to the bulletin board in my office for eight years….”  So begins a guest post I wrote this week for In This Light, a blog about the influence of images on writers and writing.   Instinctively I knew that this image would help me access the core motivations of my characters in Bird in Hand, who act in comparably indiscreet and scandalous ways …

You can read the rest here.

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back to school nightWhen I’m working on a novel, everything is material …

It’s Back-to-School night, an annual ritual I must repeat three times this year in three different schools.  (Bad planning, those birth dates.) High school, middle school, elementary, it’s all the same: green-tinted fluorescents buzzing faintly overhead, the slight whiff of disinfectant, at least one nervous teacher with a fistful of bullet points, several dozing parents.

Yet despite the surface sameness, each endless evening is endless in its own way.  So I look around, and I pull out my writing pad.  I note a bead of sweat on the new vice-principal’s brow.  The inspirational bromides of the athletic director (and the whistle he wears around his neck, even in front of parents at 8 pm).  The Julia Child-like guffaw of a frizzy haired bio teacher.  (Did I just glimpse a flirtatious glance between the band leader and the pianist?  Maybe not. But his wife is watching him like a hawk.)

And then there are the parents. Tired and bedraggled, restless and impatient, alert and engaged. Some, like me, are taking notes. (Other writers? No, probably just better parents than I’ll ever be, legitimately interested in keeping A days and B days straight.)  Directly in front of me, a group of women wearing running shoes and windbreakers, all with similar gray-streaked layered haircuts, cluster together; across the room, a tall blonde MILF in a low-cut purple dress bites her frosted lower lip; half a dozen dads in suits surreptitiously check their I-Phones and Blackberries. Stay-at-home moms in tennis bracelets (and some in tennis whites) contrast with working moms in tailored dresses carrying stylish totes.  Latecomers of all stripes stand wearily against the back wall.

Time flies, and before I know it I’m back in the parking lot with a page full of characters and an idea for a scene.  See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?

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WOW awardWomen on Writing – or WOW! – is a buzzing hive of activity for, by, and about women writers and readers.  In a freewheeling interview with Margo Dill, a WOW columnist and contributing editor, I talk about why I keep a blog, why I write first drafts on a legal pad with an old-fashioned micro-point Uniball pen, why I get bored when authors simply read their work aloud, why I don’t feel guilty about not being a morning person, and what I know is true (to paraphrase Oprah, and why not?) about being a writer.  You can find the interview here.

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Lucy09Recently I did an interview with Marshal Zeringue, a screenwriter who somehow manages to find the time to maintain three healthy blogs: The Campaign for the American Reader (“An Independent Initiative to Encourage More Readers to Read More Books”), Coffee with a Canine, and The Page 69 Test, which astute readers of this blog will recognize from an earlier posting.  An excerpt of my recent conversation with Marshal – which includes earth-shattering revelations about how I write, where I work, my English Springer Spaniel, Lucy, and my favorite brand of coffee – is here, and if you can stand the cuteness, the entire interview is here.  Woof!

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… and why we shouldn’t all be writing novels:

Ebenbach.coverWe are frequently told, by the market and also by the novelists that the market promotes, to revere certain forms of writing over others. The publishing industry by necessity emphasizes profits, and novels sell better than collections of short stories, which means there’s pressure on fiction writers; often we start out writing short stories, on our own or in creative writing workshops, but we soon feel pressured to “graduate” to the novel. The short story is generally regarded as inferior, nothing more than a stepping stone. Yet there is no objectively best form of writing – only the form that suits us best.

It’s an old saw in creative-writing classrooms that content dictates form. This means that certain forms of writing are best suited for certain kinds of material, and not as well suited for others. In poetry, for example, a haiku, with its quiet imagery and its sudden leap, is ideal for describing a moment of insight, and lousy for epic storytelling. A Shakespearean sonnet, with its three quatrains and final couplet, is good for developing an idea in three stages and then summing it up, and not as good at conveying obsessively circular thinking. For that kind of thinking, you might need a sestina, a lengthy poem which repeats certain words over and over.

The same content-form truism holds for fiction. A novel is not just a long short story – it’s a whole other animal. Because of its great size, it’s well-suited to handle complicated plot and structure, and in fact you probably need that elaborate plot to keep a reader interested for all those pages. If what you want to do is shed light on a moment in time, you should probably write a short story, too short for a wildly complicated structure but plenty big enough to illuminate something powerfully. And so the short story is no stepping stone – not any more than a haiku is a warm-up for writing a sonnet. A short story is a vehicle for a certain kind of content, content that won’t be able to find a home anywhere if the only things we write and read are novels. Some authors – including Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, Alice Munro and Grace Paley – write for a lifetime without ever needing to “graduate” from short fiction. (And some novelists never feel the need to write a short story.)

This is easy to say, but hard to remember. Several years ago I worked on a manuscript about a new single mother struggling to adjust to parenthood. To make it a novel I intensified this mother’s feelings and embedded them in an elaborate plot, to the point where this woman was behaving in crazy and unrealistic ways. I hadn’t set out to study someone flirting with madness – I had set out to study a person struggling the way many new parents do. But because I felt it had to be a novel, I badly distorted my material.

As soon as I realized my mistake I returned to a more appropriate form; I am now writing short stories about the many diverse experiences of parenthood. Each one is a window on a feeling, a situation, a moment. In writing them as short stories, I am saying what I need to say, how I need to say it.

If we listen to the voices telling us that certain kinds of writing are preferable because they’re more marketable, we may find it impossible to say what we need to say. If we’re going to listen to any voices, I say let’s listen to our own – voices that tell us to find our form and, without apology, make ourselves at home there.

David Harris Ebenbach’s first book of short stories, Between Camelots, won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the GLCA New Writer’s Award.  His short fiction has been published in the Antioch Review, the Greensboro Review, and Crazyhorse, his poetry in Artful Dodge, Mudfish, and the Journal of the American Medical Association, and he wrote a chapter, “Plot: A Question of Focus,” for Gotham Writers Workshops’ book Writing FictionRecently awarded a MacDowell Colony fellowship, Ebenbach teaches Creative Writing at Earlham College.  Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.

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Lars Tunbjork image“The blankness of a new page never fails to intrigue and terrify me.  Sometimes, in fact, I think my habit of writing on long yellow sheets comes from an atavistic fear of the writer’s stereotypic “blank white page.”  At least when I begin writing, my page isn’t utterly blank; at least it has a wash of color on it, even if the absence of words must finally be faced on a yellow sheet as truly as on a blank white one.  Well, we all have our own ways of whistling in the dark.”

Memoirist Patricia Hampl, in an essay called “Memory and Imagination.”

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How a conversation with a successful magazine writer forced her to clarify her ideas about what and why she writes:

Aimee LiuYears ago I had coffee in NYC with a very talented writer who has traveled around the world writing articles for such publications as Esquire, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair.  He talked like a machine gun, shooting out thoughts faster than I could process them.  At one point in the conversation I tried to explain why I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea of writing articles, and essays in particular.   “I don’t ever quite believe people will want to read what I have to say.”

He shot back, “Boy, are you in the wrong business!” and moved on to the hundredth new topic of the morning.

I didn’t have a chance to qualify, to say that that’s why I feel it necessary to fictionalize, to heighten the impact and interest of whatever it is that I do choose to write about.  But it didn’t matter.  I believe my reticence, in the long run, helps my writing, just as for him, with his abundant hubris, it would be death.  Our voices are entirely different, just as we are as people.  We each will have our different readers, and lives. Our own levels of that curious commodity, “success.”

I do not think people will be interested in most of the things I have to say, but this is not because my life and mind are boring.  I do not read the newspaper from cover to cover, and I especially don’t read most daily columns.  Men talking about the observations they’ve made about their wives on the way to the dry cleaners, or women talking about how much they can learn about their husbands from their socks, or young women extolling on the trials and tribulations of pregnancy as if no woman in history has ever been pregnant before.  Yes, these epiphanies are what keep us all alive and what make us all human, but once we have experienced them, do we really need to read them pouring from somebody else’s pen?

What I want to write is what I actually want to read.   And what I want to read is something other than my own life – something taken from my own life, perhaps, but expanded, twisted, turned into something larger and fascinating, filled with questions I can’t yet answer and maybe won’t be able to answer even after the writing is finished, though I’ll be closer.

The articles that arise out of this larger process are the ones that interest me, including several written lately by my magazine-writer friend as he embarks on his first book.  Recently he told me, “I think I finally write like a grown up,” and I know what he means.  It’s not just a matter of style, of honing a particular grammar or facility with big words – better yet, of rejecting all big words.  It’s a reflection of a grown-up way of inspecting the world.

Stories are not just what happen to us.  Most really good stories belong to other people, and in order to write them honestly, we must grow up enough to step into those other people’s lives.  We must wonder and fantasize and search for insight not as we have done all our lives, but as other people – real or imagined – must have done.  We must become them.  My friend might not realize that he’s slipping out of himself as he writes in this mode, but for me the whole point of the exercise is to escape myself.

Then again, maybe it comes down to the same thing.  He’s more demonstrative, more energetic, more fanatical.  And yes, I’ll say it, more exhaustingly fun.  But for both of us — for any writer worth his or her salt — the daily grind requires us to discover what we have to say that other people will indeed want to read.

Aimee Liu is author of the novels Flash House, Cloud Mountain, and Face.  Her nonfiction includes Gaining: The Truth about Life After Eating Disorders, and a memoir, Solitaire.  She earned her MFA from Bennington College and now teaches in Goddard College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program.  This piece is adapted from a longer essay on her blog: http://www.aimeeliu.net/blog.htm.

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A candid exchange between novelists Andrew Davidson (The Gargoyle) and Karen Essex (Stealing Athena) in which they compare their writing processes,  talk about what it means to be a career novelist, how having a “readership” can change the way you work, and share other writers’ weird process stories.

stealing athenaAD: How are you so unbelievably prolific?  [Karen’s new novel is due in November.] Stealing Athena was only two years after the book that came before it, is that correct?  Seriously I am in awe. How did you get another book out of your body so quickly?

KE: I’m not sure how to answer that question, because people always ask me what my process is, and I always say my method is the obsessive-compulsive method of writing. Which is that once I get going on something, I almost don’t let it go. In a weird way. Someone once asked me if I took weekends off, and I just laughed, and I said, “I take my work with me to the bathroom.”  And I wasn’t kidding.

AD: The interesting thing is that I write, I think, by that obsessive-compulsive method a bit as well, but what it ends up doing for me is dragging me off down alleyways that are incredibly fascinating, and I write twenty or thirty pages about, but I discover that it ends up being one paragraph in the finished work.

The GargoyleKE: Right. Well, The Gargoyle was your first novel. Correct?

AD: That’s right. Yes.

KE: And you wrote it without a deadline.

AD: Without any deadline whatsoever.

KE: Right. So I had the same experience. My first novel was Kleopatra, it took me about  seven years from the time I thought about it and began to research it to the day I sold it, to what was then Warner Books.  I did a lot of research that took me down fascinating alleyways, which had nothing to do, in the end, with the finished book. But I’m here to inform you that now that you’re a big success…

AD: Yeahhh….

KE: … you’re going to have to learn to write faster. And you will. My experience has been that you now have a readership, and your readership is waiting for you.

AD: My feeling in my case is that, umm, I mean I’m certain that I could put something out in two years, but I don’t know if my readership would be happy with it, because I know I wouldn’t be.

KE: I think this is one of the issues that we novelists deal with.  This is what separates what I would call, for lack of a better word, a “career novelist,” you know, from someone who has a story or two in them. I think that it takes a brain-shift, almost, to transform oneself into a person who can write to satisfy a readership. And I don’t mean that that’s the primary goal, that we should be feeding product to our readers, but I look at people who are writing thick, idea-driven books like Philip Roth, and John Updike, and the late Iris Murdoch – these are all incredibly prolific people. So at some point I think they made that shift. And I think that you’re at the beginning now, so I bet you that if we had this conversation in five years into the future, you wouldn’t be so concerned about it.

AD: Well, you know, I think it’s interesting. Because I don’t think it’s necessarily – I completely understand what you’re saying, first of all – but I don’t necessarily know that it’s exactly what you’re talking about, as much as it’s just the different ways that people create. For example, I mean, in music, you’ve got, say, Leonard Cohen versus Bob Dylan. And at some point Bob Dylan was putting out an album every fifteen minutes, and Leonard Cohen puts one out every four years if we’re lucky.  And that’s just how they approach it. And recently, I’ve been going through the work of John Fowles. And I’m absolutely loving his writing, and the books are so different, and he, I think, produced only seven novels in his life. Well, I mean clearly here’s a “career novelist” who is just not somebody who writes in quite that quick way. And it’s not better or worse, obviously.  The one thing I’ve discovered in this last year and a half, where I’ve actually been meeting professional writers, because I didn’t know anybody before that, is just that everybody works in ways that absolutely surprise me. When I talk to other writers and they say, “Well, this is my method, this is my process,” sometimes it’s all I can do to keep from blurting out: “REALLY? That works for you?”

KE: I think my favorite weird process story is that of Graham Greene, who got up early every morning, put on a beautiful suit, wrote exactly five hundred words, would stop mid-sentence, once he had reached his five hundred words, was often done by breakfast time, and then would go sort of be a social butterfly, go and hang out with his wealthy friends on yachts in the Mediterranean.

AD: Which is not a bad process at all.

KE: No. Why can’t I learn that one?

AD: Yeah.

KE: I don’t really see it forthcoming, but that’s the process I would most like to learn.

You can read the rest of this conversation – in which they discuss the sometimes numinous, sometimes laborious procedures by which they create stories and bring their characters to life – and/or listen to the podcast, here.

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prizeWords of wisdom from renowned book editor and literary agent Betsy Lerner:

“For most writers, writing is a love-hate affair. But for the ambivalent writer who cannot attempt, sustain, or complete a piece of writing, the ambivalence usually shifts back and forth from the writing to the self. The inner monologue drums: I am great. I am shit. I am great. I am shit. But the writer with publication credits, good reviews, and literary prizes is not immune to this mantra either; in fact, the only real difference that I have been able to quantify between those who ultimately make their way as writers and those who quit is that the former were able to contain their ambivalence long enough to commit to a single idea and see it through.”

Betsy Lerner is the author of The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers and Food and LoathingAfter working as a book editor for 15 years, she became an agent and is a partner with Dunow, Carlson and Lerner Literary Agency.  This quote is from from The Forest for the Trees. (Thanks to novelist Alexandra Enders for suggesting it.)

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… or What I Learned About Writing from Eating Candy

Breaking the bank - 12-22-08A long time ago, before I wrote my first novel, I despaired of ever having the time to undertake such a large and arduous project.  I had two small children and my days (nights too, come to think of it) seemed hopelessly fractured; my time, or what there was of it, felt like it had been broken into the small, useless increments: fifteen minutes here, twenty there.  An hour that was all my own was a rare and prized occurrence.  How I was to cobble together a writing life from all these pieces was inconceivable to me.  I could not work in shards, I thought.  I needed some great and unbroken expanse of time, time like a freshly opened bar of chocolate:  smooth, rich, and mine, mine, mine.  But it was not to be, not then, and maybe not ever.  If I wanted to write, I was going to have to readjust my thinking and my expectations.  Instead of that glorious, unblemished chocolate bar, I had a bag of M & Ms:  discrete nuggets of time that I would have to learn to use.

And I did. While my kids were at school or sports or play dates, I worked on a novel. I did plenty of other things too:  wrote for magazines and the occasional newspaper, did freelance editing, worked on a children’s book.

But my mantra was two pages a day, five days a week. Two pages a day was manageable and doable; two pages was bite sized, like a Raisinette.  And even though it didn’t seem like much, two pages would begin to add up:  to ten pages a week, forty pages a month.  Eventually a novel, which was published in 2002.

My children are older now; one is off to college this fall and the other will be a freshman in high school. Yet the chunks of time are still M & M-sized: small and finite.  It doesn’t matter.  Two pages a day is all I need.

Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of the novels The Four Temperaments and In Dahlia’s Wake; her third novel, Breaking the Bank, is coming out today from Pocket Books.  Yona has written 18 books for children, the most recent of which are also being published this month: The Doll Shop Downstairs (Viking) and Louisa: The Life of Louisa May Alcott (Henry Holt).  [Ed. note: I think that’s called a hat trick!]  Visit her at http://www.yonazeldismcdonough.com.

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I wrote this piece several weeks ago for SheWrites, a social networking site for women writers, and it was picked up a few days later by More.com.  I’m reprinting it here because I’ve gotten more feedback on it than on any other essay I’ve written.  People called it “brutally honest” and “courageously candid”; one writer said she could never imagine being so self-revealing.  Another wrote that she burst into tears reading it because my experience was so close to her own.  Perhaps because I’ve come through this to some kind of other side, I didn’t worry that I was being too candid — I just wanted to write frankly about my experience.   But it’s hard for writers to speak honestly about the difficult times, I think, particularly when they’re ongoing.

Stacked BooksI suddenly look rather prolific. In the past two years I have published two novels – my new one, Bird in Hand, comes out this week – and co-edited an essay collection, and I’m under contract for another novel. “I don’t know how you do it!” a friend exclaimed the other day. “You make it look so easy.”

I agree that it looks easy now – three books in two years is pretty good. But it took a long eight years to get to this point, during which time my confidence was so shaken that I questioned everything about myself as a writer. More than once, I wondered if I would ever publish again.

Here’s what happened: In the mid-nineties, after making a small but audible splash in the big pond with my first novel, Sweet Water, my second novel floated quietly on the surface. In truth, Desire Lines did nearly as well as the first, but the publisher’s expectations – and advance – had been much higher. Nobody would quite say it, but I sensed it: the book was a disappointment. I felt like a failure.

(A friend who got a large advance for a book that sold modestly described walking down the hall with the publisher himself and running into a famous, perennially bestselling author. “X, this is Y,” the publisher said dryly. “He’s the one who subsidized your book.”)

When Desire Lines came out I was working on a new novel. But my sense of having let people (including myself) down, combined with moving to the suburbs and raising three young children, played havoc with my self-confidence. On top of that, I was writing about the death of a child who was exactly the age of one of my own, and the subsequent dissolution of a marriage. This difficult, painful material, while not specifically autobiographical, cannibalized my own experience in myriad ways and often felt overwhelming.

In the middle of all of this, I took on what turned out to be a disastrous ghostwriting project to help pay for that house in the suburbs. Without an adequate contract (or, it must be said, a clear sense of boundaries), the whole thing eventually imploded. I took a full-time teaching job and other works-for-hire to make up the lost income when my kids were 6, 4 and not quite a year old, and at some point, without even quite understanding what was happening, I became completely demoralized. I sunk into what I now recognize as a mild depression.

With the help of a therapist and support from my husband, I eventually rallied. My children grew, my teaching job got easier, I acclimated to life in the suburbs. And after four agonizing years, I turned in an unwieldy manuscript. My editor at the time took forever to read it; I didn’t hear anything until one day her assistant called to say that the novel was “in the pipeline,” scheduled to be published in the spring. I was flabbergasted – I knew it wasn’t anywhere near ready. I went to lunch with my editor and she asked what I was working on now, and out of nowhere I summoned a new idea, fully formed, like a movie pitch, about a single woman who meets a guy online and moves to Maine.

“I love it,” she said. “Why don’t you write it quickly, and we’ll publish this book first? The economy is rough – people want to buy books that make them feel good. And the other one is dark and complicated. This book sounds like fun.”

So I did it. I wrote The Way Life Should Be in a fever of relief after the torment of the other novel. This new book was a lighthearted, humorous, first-person, present-tense story with recipes, and looked nothing like my life. It was a joy to write.

Within several years, this new book was published – and I was back on track. (The editor was right; people were eager for a light, funny read.) When I turned back to the old manuscript, I had regained my confidence. I had a new perspective and a new editor who proposed radical structural changes that helped transform the manuscript. And after all that time, I had distance enough to see it clearly. I finally knew exactly what I needed to do.
`
In my eight-year publishing drought, when I feared I might never finish another book and it seemed as if other authors were whizzing merrily by, writing one novel after another, I felt as if I’d blown my chances, fallen out of the race. But what I’ve come to realize – and what may be heartening to others who, like me, take a while to get their act together or go through ebbs and flows – is that when you do eventually publish, the intervening years disappear. The current book is the only thing that counts, and it doesn’t matter how long it took you to get there.

So yes, now it all looks easy. But I need to acknowledge just how hard it was, and how long it took, if only to remind myself how important it is not to get caught up in other people’s judgments and my own unrealistic expectations. Ten years after I wrote the first word of Bird in Hand, it is finally being published. During the fallow years, I gained insights into marriage and family life and the complicated choices people make that I didn’t have access to when I was younger. I developed the confidence to write from the perspective of mature characters, including men (which I’d never done before). And I think that, perhaps as a result of the many drafts and revisions, Bird in Hand is the best thing I’ve written. It’s certainly my proudest accomplishment — probably even more so because it’s not an overnight success.

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brideislandWhat do you say when someone asks, “And what do you do?”

When someone asks what I do, I say I’m a writer, or sometimes a novelist, but I never say I’m an author. Most writers I know are the same way. It sounds humbler, I suppose, more like what we do instead of what we are. And yet perhaps there’s more to it. To be an author, after all, means to have authority. Doesn’t it?

Years ago, I sat next to a well-respected literary publicist at dinner. When I introduced myself as a “beginning writer,” she gave me a piece of advice: “Act like you’re already the successful writer you intend to become.”  Her words were revolutionary to me—how could I do that, when it was all in my own head?  Then, in 2007, my first novel came out and suddenly I had not only a book but also a new persona as published author.  The hard physical evidence of a book conveys authority unlike anything else, makes it easier to speak to a group of students about writing or answer questions from the audience at a reading—or even tell the person next to you at dinner that you’re a writer.  But as I work on a new novel I’ve come to realize that the struggle for authority is not only a question of publication, but is in fact present every time we sit down to write.  Each act of writing is an act of self assertion.

There’s a famous story of Toni Morrison telling an audience of writers, “If any of you feel you need permission to write, I’m giving it to you.” The problem is this permission, this authorization, isn’t something you receive once; it must be claimed over and over. Writing is such a strange thing to do, sitting alone in a room, making stuff up. There are no guarantees, of any kind. And no matter what you’ve already accomplished, with each new project you must start afresh. We need authority when we begin to write, but we also need it to continue to write when we get stuck or lose our way or our confidence.

Recently I found a group of my old stories.  Well, the beginnings of them. Each story ended abruptly about a page and a half in. I was surprised, not because they were well written (though they were fine) or because they were compelling (though I did want to know what came next), but because each had a distinct tone of authority. These stories had the right to be told. But they were truncated, I knew, because of my lack of confidence, my insecurity about my status as an author. I didn’t feel authorized to tell them. As a young and inexperienced writer, I sometimes confused the act of writing—the hard, uncertain work of inventing—with the ease of reading. I thought stories should just come.  Now I know better, and I know the process better.

The motto for my MFA program was, “I will try.” My friend and I cracked up when we discovered the words written in gold on the back of a Windsor chair in the lounge one night. How unassuming, how un-ambitious, how, well, pathetic, we thought. And yet. It’s not a bad motto for a writer. Authority isn’t always about force or might or conviction. It’s also about faith, in the process and in oneself. It’s about doing what feels uncomfortable, acting as if you’re confident when you’re not, continuing the scene or story or novel even when you’d rather read someone else’s beautiful, seamless, apparently effortless (and already published) book.

Alexandra Enders worked as a magazine editor and writer before getting an MFA in Writing from Vermont College.  She has published stories in iBOMB, Hunger Mountain, and Critical Quarterly, and is the author of the novel Bride IslandShe lives with her husband, daughter, and dachshund in New York.  Visit her at her website www.alexandraenders.com.

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radio microphoneHow can I be a guest on my own blog, you ask?  Over the past few weeks, with the publication of Bird in Hand, I’ve been busy guest blogging for other sites and doing Q&A’s, radio interviews, and podcasts.  (And more are coming up.)  Now and then, if a particular posting or discussion strikes me as pertinent to issues here, I’ll post it as well. Hence my own guest blog.

This is the first.  (And after this I’ll dispense with the silliness of calling it a guest blog!)

When the poet and novelist Lori A. May interviewed me for her blog – Musings, Reviews, News – she pushed me to talk about the themes of Bird in Hand, why I think achieving balance is an impossible goal, the fluky way I got started as a writer, and my advice to new writers.  Below are edited excerpts from that interview.  (You can read the original, longer version here.)

Bird in Hand is about a car crash that changes the lives of four people.  But what’s it really about?

That’s a good (and hard!) question.  At one point in the book a character wonders, “Who breaks the thread, the one who pulls or the one who hangs on?” I wanted to write about love and loss and betrayal and renewal. I wanted to write about characters who don’t know quite what they want, or how to get it, and are pushed into decisions by circumstances beyond their control.  One of my epigraphs is a quote from The Age of Grief, by Jane Smiley: “Confusion is perfect sight and perfect mystery at the same time.”  This holds true for all of my characters in different ways.

Why do you write both novels and non-fiction?
Writing novels is my passion, but writing is, by definition, a solitary pursuit.  Another side of me wants to be out in the world, interacting with people and exchanging ideas. All of my nonfiction books have been, in a sense, collaborations — I wrote a book about feminist mothers and daughters with my mother; I’ve edited or co-edited four essay collections. I realized the other day that my own blog on writing fulfills this social/intellectual need. I can share my thoughts about writing with other people, and work with guest bloggers on their own ideas. I love doing it.

You are Writer-in-Residence at Fordham, have three kids, and write novels.  How do you balance it all?
I rarely feel that I achieve balance.  What I’ve learned over the years is that sometimes things will be out of balance, and that’s okay. Sometimes I don’t have time to work on my fiction (like now, while I’m in London teaching and working on nonfiction articles and interviews). And sometimes I’m focused on my family and just want to be in the moment with them. I’m not sure whether it’s my nature or whether I’ve learned to do this because I have a complicated life, but I’m pretty good at hunkering down and working on my novel when I need to. When I’m consumed with writing, other parts of my life suffer — laundry piles up, for example, and we do a lot of takeout. My family is pretty understanding; they know it’s all part of the process, and will be over before long. They all have their own passions as well.

Tell us a bit about your journey as an author.
In my senior year of college a visiting novelist took my short stories to her literary agency, and a young agent (Beth Vesel, who is still my agent) called me up and said she wanted to represent me. This gave me confidence at an early age — the idea someone believed in me and cared about my work. Though I know this is pretty unusual, and I was lucky, I always tell my students that what’s most important is that they find someone — a mentor if possible, a friend, even a parent — who believes in their work and encourages them to move forward. After college I went to graduate school in literature and didn’t write a creative word, but this agent called every few months, just checking in: “Are you thinking about your novel yet? How are you going to carve out time to make that happen?” She encouraged me to apply for MFA fellowships so that I’d have two free years to write. And that’s what I did — I went to the University of Virginia, did an MFA in Fiction Writing, and wrote my first novel.

What have been some of the challenges in your writing career?
The biggest challenge for me came after I’d written my second novel and was working on a third. A lot of things changed at once — I moved from New York to the suburbs; I had three children in fairly quick succession; I started a full-time teaching job. As a result, I lost the thread of the novel I was working on and couldn’t figure out how to find it. Eventually I abandoned that novel and wrote another very quickly, The Way Life Should Be, which was lighthearted and funny and had recipes. Writing it was a pleasure! After that, I had the clarity to return to the novel that became Bird in Hand. Though it was a long and difficult process, I learned a lot about myself and my writing in those years. And I think that ultimately Bird in Hand is much stronger for it.

What’s up next for you? What can readers look forward to?
I’m working on a new novel that traces the journey of Vivian Daly, a now-90-year-old woman, from a small village in Ireland to the Lower East Side to the Midwest to the coast of Maine. In 1929, after a fire in a New Y tenement destroys her family, nine-year-old Vivian is sent on an orphan train to Minnesota. Stripped of her identity, she has to learn how to survive on her own. She never tells anyone the whole story of what happened to her — until a 17-year-old troubled girl comes into her life when she is an old woman. As Vivian begins to face the truth about what happened long ago, the past becomes more and more present for her.  This novel (working title: Orphan Train), should be out in 2011.

What advice do you have for writers starting out?
Well, as I said before, find someone who encourages your writing. Avoid people who are “toxic,” to use an old self-help phrase — people who are competitive with you or otherwise sabotage your writing. Set clear goals for yourself (“I will write a draft of a novel in one year,” “I will write one short story a month”) with daily goals as well. When I’m writing a novel I set myself the task of four pages a day. Sometimes I write more, sometimes less, but that’s always the goal.

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antigoneWriting and blogging and talking in interviews about my new novel this week, I keep encountering the same question:  What inspired it?   There are many answers to this, of course, and I’ve talked in different places about various sources for the story.  But the deepest reasons are hard to articulate.  So I decided to write about them here.

At first it looked like every mother’s worst nightmare:  Several weeks ago a 36-year-old mother of two, driving her own kids and three nieces home from a camping trip in her Ford Windstar minivan, went the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway and crashed head-on into an SUV carrying three men.  Everyone died except the woman’s five-year-old boy.  At the funeral, mourners wept when the woman’s brother, the father of her nieces, sobbed, “Love your children. Cherish your children. Kiss your children.”

It appeared to be a tragic accident.  This woman entered the highway from an exit ramp, and, apparently disoriented, drove 1.7 miles before the crash.  She’d called her brother from a rest stop an hour before, the papers said, complaining of fatigue and sounding confused.  A police officer speculated that maybe she thought she was in the slow lane on the correct side of the road; others suggested that perhaps she was on prescription drugs that impaired her judgment.  Or maybe she was exhausted from being on a camping trip with all of those children, or distracted by their bickering or crying.

But as it turns out, the woman was drunk.  Not just drunk — she was blind drunk, with twice the legal limit in her bloodstream and fresh alcohol in her stomach.  A bottle of vodka was found in the car and she tested positive for marijuana.

How could this happen?  Specifically, how could this woman ingest alcohol and drugs, knowing that she was responsible for the lives of five children — not to mention any strangers who got in her path?  Why didn’t she pull over?  Her recklessness suggests that she may have been suicidal.  But it’s one thing to take your own life, and quite another to put others at such appalling risk.

And there are other questions:  What did she actually say to her brother at the rest stop?  Did he, or her husband, know she’d been drinking or smoking pot?  Had there been an argument?  Did she have a drinking problem; had she ever done anything like this before?

These questions, prurient as they may be, matter to us because we want to make sense of the unthinkable. And I think they’re particularly resonant for mothers.  This woman’s behavior at the furthest edges of comprehension.  And yet every mother I know has feared her own capacity – through accident or neglect or worse – for doing harm to her child.

When my first child was born I joined a group of new mothers, and we joked with the blackest of humor about exactly these fears.  One woman said that late at night, lying in bed, waking nightmares would come unbidden about the things that she might do wrong: what if, what if, what if. Another read shaken-baby stories obsessively, worried about her own impatience and anger at her colicky child.  Yet another admitted that post-partum depression had once rendered her apathetic and unresponsive, more concerned with her own needs than those of her (neglected) child.  I admitted that I was terrified of getting in a car crash that was my own fault and being responsible for maiming, or killing, my child or – god forbid – someone else’s.

This quiet terror propelled me into writing my new novel, Bird in Hand. I began to tell the story of a woman, a mother, who has several drinks and gets into an accident in which a child dies.  As I started writing, though, I found that it was like staring directly into the sun; I had to squint and turn away. I put the manuscript in a drawer and only came back to it after several years, when my children were older and my own fears had subsided.  And I changed the focus of the novel: the accident became a catalyst for the larger story rather than the story itself.

Writing this book was a way of exploring my deepest fears around this subject.  I wanted to follow my character through her grief and guilt to some place on the other side. In Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone says, “Now the finish comes, and we know only in all that we have seen and done bewildering mystery.” I wasn’t looking for answers, only for a way to comprehend the mystery.

Like Greek tragedy, the terrible accident last week goes straight to the darkest places within us.  It makes manifest our deepest fears, vividly revealing what the unimaginable looks like.  What if, what if, what if.

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The poet and novelist Lori A. May interviewed me for her blog — Musings, Reviews, News — this week.  In the interview Lori pushed me to reveal what Bird in Hand is really about, why I’m not a hermit, why I think achieving balance is an impossible goal, and the fluky way I got started as a writer.  You can read all about it here.

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shewritesiconAs someone who loves to read other people’s personal essays but has a hard time being so candid herself, I am kind of proud of myself for writing an honest piece for SHE WRITES, a new social networking site for writers, on the long journey to publication for Bird in Hand.   SHE WRITES is a place where, as founding editor Kamy Wicoff explains, “women writers working in every genre — in every part of the world and of all ages and backgrounds — can come together in a space of mutual support.”


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For years I’ve been a fan from afar of the novelist and book reviewer Caroline Leavitt.  So it was an honor when she requested a review copy of Bird in Hand from my publisher, read it immediately, and asked me to do a pre-publication interview.  She posted the interview today on her blog, CarolineLeavittville.

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BIHcover.US-1August 11th is the official release date of my new novel, Bird in Hand.  Over the several weeks I’ll be telling the inside story of how and when and why I wrote this book, and how it ended up getting published.  I’ll also post links to other blogs and websites with my guest posts and interviews.  I hope that learning about my process will inspire you with your own work!

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