An Image is Worth a Thousand Words or . . . a Novel?

The Birth of The Mona Lisa Sisters

Ten years ago, I was managing Safety and Security for Palm, Inc. A few months later, Hewlett-Packard acquired Palm in what is often referred to as a disastrous acquisition. Not long after, H-P began the layoffs. I got a weekly list of those to be laid off the following week. When the notice came for my team, I gave them the week off to start on a job hunt. A few weeks later, I learned I would be terminated the following Monday. I cleaned out my office but hung around in case there were any problems.

Then began my introduction to how rampant age-discrimination had become. After three months, it was so obvious; I started a spreadsheet. I recorded 140 applications after that. Often, I could swear the hiring company had used my resume as the requirement for the position. My mistake was being honest. I included that I was a Vietnam War Veteran. Any H/R person in the world would spot that and know I was at least sixty years old. I got one interview. I walked in, business suit, tie, and white hair. The two people I talked with were wide-eyed twenty-somethings. They were polite in their T-Shirts, torn pants, and sandals . . .for about five minutes. Then, “Thank you for coming in, George. Have a good day.”

Early 2012, I saw that the local senior center was offering a writing class. I figured it might help with a new resume—wrong. It was a fiction writing class. I was learning creative writing, and I loved it. After a month or so, the instructor passed out random pictures to each student. The assignment: “Study the image, take fifteen minutes, and describe the scene.”

I took one look at my picture, two girls looking up at the Mona Lisa, and ignored the assignment. In those fifteen minutes, I knew I would write a novel. I had notes on paper, the story in my mind, and the title. And it all came together to form the genesis for The Mona Lisa Sisters.

That began an eight-year journey.

I enrolled at Las Positas College and took writing classes. Unlike my earlier college years, it was no longer drudgery. I earned straight As. The assignments lead to multiple revisions of my novel.

In a class taught by Karin Spirn, I read about a fantastic instructor at UC Berkeley who did not have a doctorate. Instead, he held an MFA. In another class, I was introduced to the work of Native American poet Joy Harjo. She was recently appointed to a third term as the U.S. Poet Laureate. I began following her on social media. I saw that Harjo was a guest lecturer at the Institute of American Indian Arts, MFA Program. An enrolled descendant of the Karuk Tribe of California, I called IAIA and applied. Five days later, I received an acceptance notice for the Low-Residency MFA Program. IAIA, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

For the next two years, my manuscript was my thesis paper, The Mona Lisa Sisters. I rewrote, revised, and learned. My mentors were terrific and have, over time, become much more to me. One area that I got dinged on was when I brought my characters to the dinner table. The settings often lacked enough detail to draw the reader into the scene. Ismet “Izzy” Prcic, roared “People don’t go to dinner and leave. They eat. What the “F” are they eating—saying?”

Mona Lisa is set in the early 1890s. So, I had much research to do before bringing food to the table. I did it—overdid it—added several thousand words.  Izzy, “I don’t need to know every single effen thing they ate and how it was prepared.” I subtracted words to please him.

Each addition or subtraction required rewrites.

The program required a great deal more than working on my manuscript. I attended lectures, readings, workshops, and read and wrote critical reviews of over forty books. Two authors I had held extreme distaste for became favorites—Albert Camus and Joyce Carol Oates. Most of those forty books are full of underlining, highlighting, and writing in the margins. My mentors and I collaborated on the selection of books. Native Americans wrote at least half our choices. I was introduced to the work of such great authors as,

  • Debra Magpie Earling (Bitterroot Salish) – Perma Red
  • Louise Erdrich (Chippewa) – The Round House
  • David Treuer (Ojibwe) – Little
  • Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo) – Ceremony

I met many who shared their world and writing. I met Joy Harjo and chatted over cafeteria dinner. Tommy Orange, There There, was a contemporary, as was Angela Trudell Vasquez. Angie is the Poet Laureate of Madison, Wisconsin.

When I faced the challenge of my thesis/manuscript, one of the questions came from another, fantastic teacher and author, Pam Houston. Her first question had to do with the scenes set in . . .  the dining room. I shouldn’t have, but I laughed. I know Izzy put her up to it.

This year, I finished the twenty-third revision of The Mona Lisa Sisters. Agent queries had been returned with polite rejections.  I sat back, told the manuscript, “I’m starting to hate you. I’m finished.”

I reached out to Paula Chinick of Russian Hill Press and told her I was done and wanted her to publish the bloody thing. She agreed. I figured my work was done—wrong.

The cover design took months. Getting back-cover reviews became urgent. I was stuck until I recalled a talk where a young author mentioned he sent out requests to known authors and asked them to read and write reviews. “What have I got to lose?” I asked myself and sent out four requests. Three agreed to write reviews. I even had one person, out of the blue, offer to write one.

I used two. Ramona Ausubel wrote one. I love her novel No One is Here Except All of Us. The other, by playwright, editor, and UCLA instructor Victoria Zackheim. I also used a Kirkus review.

Violet (Vi) Moore came on board as the editor. She forced me to pick up the manuscript and read it line by line and make corrections before she would touch it. I’m glad she did. Over two months, we made more corrections and changes than I will ever admit.

Then the galleys came, and Paula made me do it all over again. The editor is usually done by then–nope. Vi called and ordered me to reread it. I know we missed at least one typo. One of my readers sent me a note informing me of my oversight.

Paula, Vi, and the cover design team were all very reasonable in the charges to bring the project to fruition.

Amazon released The Mona Lisa Sisters on August 14, 2020. A little over eight years after the instructor handed me a picture of two young girls looking at the Mona Lisa.

I met and have become friends with so many fine people as the result of my diving into the world of fiction writing. I have been and will forever be blessed for having started the journey when I couldn’t find a job.

19 Comments

  1. Shelley Lee Riley - Author

    There are times when I wonder if I should know more, and then I ask myself…do I need to know it all? In this case, more was definitely better. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  2. John G.Bluck

    As I read his blog, vivid images popped into my mind of novelist George Cramer and his team at Palm when they suddenly lost their jobs. This began his journey to write a book. In a few short pages of his blog he clearly paints word pictures that showed me his decade-long effort to write “The Mona Lisa Sisters” . . . and how he first decided to write, how he chose to learn, and how he worked through multiple edits in his process to create his novel.

    The story of how he accomplished the feat of writing an excellent piece of literature is inspiring and is a must read for any aspiring author. Maybe Cramer will write a memoir as well. He has the talent to do it.

    Reply
  3. Marilyn J. Dykstra

    Thank you, George! You have walked a long path to write a novel. Glad you arrived and finished one!

    Reply
  4. Violet Moore

    Fred Barnard, an advertising executive during the early 1900s, is credited with this saying from a magazine ad he wrote to attract new customers, but the origin is centuries older. Perhaps backstory, your journey to publication, will birth a new phrase, “One picture is worth a novel.”

    Reply
  5. Dennis Koller

    George — the blog shows what a great writer you’ve become. I’m off to get my copy of The Mona Lisa Sisters.

    Reply
  6. Kat Wilder

    I love this backstory of YOU, George! Thank you!

    Reply
  7. Connie Hanstedt

    Such dedication to your craft and then publication. Congratulations!

    Reply
  8. Jim Hasse

    It is interesting to know the backstory and how seeming disappointments can lead to great success in the long run. The front cover is beautiful and eye-catching, and the reviews tipped the scales in your favor. The Mona Lisa Sisters is the best book I read in 2020. Your persistence paid off for you and readers like me. Congratulations, George.

    Reply
  9. Jordan Bernal

    And we are blessed to have you as a writer—fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, you do each genre proud.

    Reply
  10. Carole Price

    Impressive!! You persevered and now here you are, a published author.

    Reply
  11. Deven Greene

    Thanks for giving us a ringside seat to your foray into becoming an author. If everyone knew how difficult it was, few would ever dip their toe in. As it is, most people become slowly acclimated to the onerous situation, like the frog in a pot of water being slowly heated.

    I found your description of age discrimination illuminating. Of course I’ve read about it, but haven’t been faced with it myself (that I know of). Ever think about writing an article (or perhaps a book) on that?

    Reply
  12. Michael A. Black

    Great recounting of your journey to publication, George. It’s inspiring, and having read The Mona Lisa Sisters, I’m glad you persevered.

    Reply
  13. John Gulick

    Maybe the acquisition of Palm will turn out to be a fortuitous event!!

    Reply
  14. Mark Clifford

    Thanks for sharing your journey, George. It is as inspiring as it is a validation of the writing process. So many people minimize an author’s efforts to take their work to publication. Ninety percent of America’s claim to have a story in them. One percent bring their dream to fruition. Writing is daunting, riddled with reasons to quit. You did it!

    Reply
  15. Marilyn Meredith

    What a fantastic journey and you definitely were rewarded at the end.

    Reply
  16. Patricia Schudy

    Congratulations–On publishing and persevering!

    Reply
  17. Julie Royce

    I loved this blog. Sometimes backstory is as interesting as the main plot. I am glad you attended that class at the senior center, and that it opened new windows of opportunity. Keep writing.

    Reply
  18. Julie Royce

    I loved this blog. Sometimes backstory is as interesting as the main book (Although the book was great). I’m glad you attended that class at the senior center, and I’m glad it opened new windows of opportunity. Keep writing.

    Reply
  19. Margaret Mizushima

    It’s amazing what it takes to bring an idea to print, isn’t it? I loved reading about your journey to publishing, George, and am looking forward to reading The Mona Lisa Sisters!

    Reply

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Private Investigations – A Glimpse into the Hearts of Your Favorite Authors

Private Investigations was not what I expected and found it to be a pleasant surprise. 41dKe9cUVJLBesides, the pleasure readers will find, PI is a primer for writers and aspiring authors. The stories are essays about the struggles writers often experience.

Rachel Howzell Hall’s “I Don’t Know This Word” uses words to build a compelling story about an exceptionally strong and resilient woman. Her battles with cancer struck home with me. I lost two children, ages three and forty, to cancer. Shortly after the loss of my daughter, I began my battles with cancer. A two-time survivor, I empathized with Hall’s struggles, although mine were nowhere near as horrifying. She is an inspiration who brought tears to my eyes.

Jacqueline Winspear’s “Writing About War,” pulled at my heart in many ways. My taciturn Grandfather fought in France in World War I. Not once did he ever mention a word about the experience. The only one to remark was my Grandmother, who once said, “He was gassed, you know, mustard gas.” She would say no more.

My father was in France during World War II. He only twice mentioned his time in combat. “The only time I fired my gun was when I pointed it in the direction of the Germans and pulled the trigger. I don’t know if I ever hit anything.” The other was riding in the back of a 2 ½ ton truck when a German fighter began strafing them. The driver pulled into some trees. My Dad said he didn’t remember anything from then until the end of the war. He wasn’t wounded.

Both men suffered what we now know to be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Robert Dugoni’s “Nuns, Magic, and Stephen King,” was as good as King’s On Writing.
Twenty engrossing essays leading me to appreciate not only the ones familiar with but others I’ve never read but will.

In Private Investigations, Zackheim has once again succeeded in assembling an outstanding array of stories.

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