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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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