LYNN SLAUGHTER – Dancer and YA Author

Lynn Slaughter is addicted to chocolate, the arts, and her husband’s cooking.

After a long career as a professional dancer and dance educator, Lynn earned her MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. She writes coming of age romantic mysteries and is the author of the newly released Leisha’s Song; While I Danced, an EPIC finalist; It Should Have Been You, a Silver Falchion finalist; and Deadly Setup (forthcoming from Fire and Ice, 2022). Lynn lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where she’s at work on her next novel and serves as the President of Derby Rotten Scoundrels, the Ohio River Valley chapter of Sisters in Crime.

Tell us about your recent release and your other books. Leisha’s Song centers around a young woman in a year when everything in her life changes. On scholarship at a prestigious New England boarding school, Leisha never intended to fall in love with classical singing or get involved with Cody Harrington—let alone risk her life trying to find her missing teacher.

Leisha’s Song follows two other YA novels, While I Danced and It Should Have Been You. In While I Danced, Cass, an aspiring ballet dancer, deals with family and romantic problems when she discovers a betrayal that leaves her questioning whether she even wants to continue dancing. In It Should Have Been You, seventeen-year-old Clara’s twin sister, a piano prodigy, is murdered. Rumors swirl that Clara was involved in her twin’s demise. And then she starts receiving threatening notes, the first of which says: “It should have been you… But soon.”

What brought you to writing? Initially, writing fiction started as a therapy project! Age and injury had led to my retirement from dance, and I was grieving the loss of my career and identity as a dancer. I’d always loved reading young adult fiction. Teenagers had been my favorite age group to work with, so I guess it’s not surprising that I was drawn to young adult fiction. When I wrote my first novel about an aspiring dancer, I think it was a way to honor my old life and invent a new dream. Interestingly, my subsequent novels have all involved characters passionate about the arts.

Tell us about your writing process. First, I get the wisp of an idea for a story. For example, in the case of Leisha’s Song, I overheard a conversation at New York’s Port Authority between a young woman and her grandmother. It became apparent that the grandmother was sending her granddaughter off to boarding school in New England, and the teen was reluctant to go. It got me thinking about what it would be like to be a whip-smart young woman of color at a private school populated by mostly wealthy white students. So, I had a vague idea about a character and a setting. Since I’m a romantic mystery writer, I thought about what the mystery would be. I came up with the disappearance of a teacher Leisha was close to and a romance between Leisha and a boy who appoints himself her investigative sidekick. After that, I did a lot of thinking and writing about Leisha and her missing teacher and the people in their lives, past and present. That gave me tons of ideas for plot complications, conflicts, and the identities of folks who might have had a reason to want Leisha’s teacher to disappear. The story grew from there.

What are you currently working on? I’m excited that my fourth YA novel, Deadly Setup, about a young woman who goes on trial for the murder of her heiress mother’s fiancée, is coming out in 2022, so I’ll be working on final edits for that.

Meantime, I’m working on two projects which are a bit out of my comfort zone in that they’re not for young adults. The first is the expansion of a short story I wrote for Malice Domestic’s anthology, Murder Most Theatrical. My story, “Missed Cue,” is now a novel in which the identity of the murderer of a renowned ballerina has actually changed. I’ve had fun developing the personal life of the female homicide detective in charge of the case.

I’m also working on a middle-grade novel about Varney, a young vampire who hates the taste of blood and is convinced he’s landed in the wrong body.

How long did it take you to write your first book? A long time. I worked on it on and off for about ten years. The subsequent novels didn’t take nearly that long!

Do you have any advice for new writers? Never give up. Do lots of reading and write regularly (I call that my “butt-in-chair” prescription!). Study the craft of writing. Join writer’s organizations, take courses, find a helpful critique group, and be open to feedback. If more than one person tells you something is a problem, paying attention is a good idea.

Keep in mind that while lots of writing involves revision, the first order of business is to get something written to work with. The best piece of advice I received in my MFA program was: “You can’t fix a blank page.”

Lynn loves hearing from readers and invites you to visit her website, which also houses her blog: https://lynnslaughter.com/

Leisha’s Song is available at:

IndieBound

Barnes and Noble

Amazon

3 Comments

  1. Michael A. Black

    Dancing and vampires! Just be careful if Count Dracula walks up and asks you to dance a waltz. Your books sound like they’re very entertaining. Good luck with your writing.

    Reply

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BRIAN YOUNG – Navajo Author of The Healer of the Water Monster

Brian Young is a graduate of Yale University and Columbia University. He is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. He enjoys reading, watching movies, playing video games (when he has time), and keeping physically active.

What brought you to writing? When I first wrote The Healer of the Water Monster, I lived in Albuquerque and worked as a meat cutter, and contributed to the native film community as a screenwriter and director. I first envisioned Healer as a movie, possibly a trilogy of feature films. But when I sat down to write it, I knew that a film interpretation wasn’t feasible. The scope and size of Healer’s story was growing in ways that would require an extensive budget to successfully depict. At that time, no one was willing to financially produce native stories because of the prejudiced idea that “Native stories don’t sell.” So, I made the decision to write Healer first as a book because those limitations that filmmaking imposed don’t exist with prose writing. It also helps that I love writing.

How long did it take you to write your first book? Such a long time! Six or seven years? The first draft took me like two months because I was really motivated and in love with the story. I already had daydreamed about the plot points and character growth paths. I did revisions to it for three years. But I was using techniques from screenwriting. I’d have huge paragraphs at the beginning of chapters and scenes going into great detail of the land and environment, then like five pages of nothing but dialogue. I had to grow as a storyteller, definitely as a prose writer. That’s why I decided that getting an MFA was going to help me get Healer published. I was super fortunate but also did a tremendous amount of work to get into Columbia’s MFA for Creative Writing. Through that program, I learned the tools, techniques, and unique abilities that prose writing has.

How long to get it published? I hear this process can take a long time. But for me, it was very short. To complete my MFA program, I did a ground-up revision of Healer for my thesis. I took a third year to rewrite every single sentence of my manuscript. Columbia University’s School of the Arts hosts an agent mixer for third-year writing students and alumni. It was there that I met my agent. I pitched Healer to him, and he wanted to read my manuscript. I wasn’t fully finished with my revision, and he agreed to wait.

A month later, I had finished the revision and sent it to him. When he offered me his representation, I cried. I literally spent ten minutes in my room praying and saying thank you to the Navajo Holy Beings. After accepting his offer through an email, he wanted to go right into sending it out to publishers and editors. After another revision I felt was needed, my agent and I sent Healer out to publishing houses and editors. The rejections came first, as they usually do. But then, we got some interest. My agent set up some meetings, and I had the massive fortune to meet with Rosemary Brosnan, who was gearing up to launch Heartdrum, a native-focused imprint of HarperCollins. I had some immediate gut vibes that told me Rosemary was the one who was going to help bring Nathan’s story across the finish line. After we met, Rosemary offered a pre-empt and my agent worked his magic. By the end, I had a signed two-book deal! It was finalized the day I picked up my mom and sister from LaGuardia for my graduation from Columbia. I had experienced so many setbacks and heartbreaks before. But all that hardship was worth it when I showed my mom my contract. All in all, it took four months, getting an agent then a book deal. After that, Rosemary and I did another revision (I’ve lost count of how many revisions I did), and that is the version that went to print.

We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave, or do they run the show? In my opinion, if your protagonist isn’t making decisions that shape the environment, world, people around them, then why are they the protagonist? Nathan, the protagonist of The Healer of the Water Monster, definitely runs the show. Both he and I agreed that his actions would have consequences for the worlds around him. There are very precious few stories that depict native children as heroes whose actions shape the world around them. So, throughout all the revisions and from the very start, both Nathan and I wanted him to be as active as he could possibly be. I speak of him as an actual person because I spent seven years with him! Actually more, because he is in my next book!

Do you outline, or are you a pantser? On that spectrum, I am more of an outliner. I love seeing the story in its entirety. It’s actually my favorite part of the writing process. I love looking at the macro-level of the story and tinkering with plot points and action beats. When writing a new story, I’ll often do a 27 chapter outline and write a paragraph describing what happens in each chapter and break it down further into scene outlines for each chapter.

That being said, my initial 27 chapter outline usually becomes useless because at the halfway point in the actual writing of the story is when I’ll diverge from the outline. Or I’ll discover some story bits or character emotions that I overlooked when writing the whole story. It’s also here in the middle of the story that the characters start to do their own actions and say their own words. When I’m in the zone, I don’t know what the characters are going to do. It’s like I’m reading a new book that is being written right in front of my eyes.

So, I like to start with having an outline down but will concede to the characters when they start to fully come into their own.

Do you have any advice for new writers? My biggest advice is “Write what you love.” I can’t stress enough that this is a long journey that you are on. From inception to publication, it took me seven years to turn The Healer of the Water Monsterinto a book. You, new writers, are going to be with the story that you are writing for a very long time. If I didn’t love the story or characters, I’m not sure if I would have been as committed to its publication, nor am I sure if I would have been able to devote seven years of my life to Healer. If you love your story, the sacrifices and effort needed to publish a book will be worth it.

People can buy The Healer of the Water Monster on Amazon, but I recommend Red Planet Comics and Books (native owned and operated in Albuquerque, NM)
https://redplanetbooksncomics.com/products/healer-of-the-water-monster?_pos=1&_sid=a217895af&_ss=r

To reach me, here is my author website: https://brianlyoung.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BYoungWrites
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/byoungwrites/

5 Comments

  1. Thonie Hevron

    What an interesting story about Brian Young’s journey to bring Healer to fruition. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    Reply
  2. Glenda Carroll

    Congratulations on the publication of The Healer. You are to a great start in your writing career.

    Reply
  3. Michael A. Black

    The story of your novel’s evolution reads like an adventure story itself. Congratulations on realizing your dream and completing your MFA. Best of luck to you with your future writing.

    Reply
  4. Madeline Gornell

    Great meeting you, Brian. Sounds like you’ve gotten a great start to wonderful writing career. Much success!

    Reply
  5. Alec Peche

    Congrats on getting a book deal. You mention that you love outlining and start with a detailed 27 chapter outline. As a pantser, that sounds like my version of a monster. I’m curious as to whether there were any pantsers in your MFA class?

    Reply

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V. Z. Byram – Latvian-American Writer – MFA in Creative Writing – Goddard College

KIRKUS REVIEW: An authentic and tense portrait of everyday people dealing with war.

V. Z. Byram was born in a displaced persons camp in post World War II Germany of Latvian parents. They immigrated to the USA when she was three. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, has won numerous writing awards, and taught literature and writing as an adjunct professor. She is a past president of the Philadelphia Writers Conference and currently sits on the board of Gulf Coast Writers Association in Fort Myers, Florida.

WRITER’S DIGEST JUDGE’S COMMENTARY: This was a powerful and beautifully written epic novel with historical significance. After reading to the end, I had to sit for a little while to digest it all, wiping away the tears. This novel is a moving tale of struggle and loss in a terrifying and often seemingly hopeless situation. I love the heroine, Mija, who is a testimony to the strength and power of women. She inspires us all with her determination to help others as well as her own family, risking her own safety in the process. As a parent, I can’t imagine what it’s like to try and protect your children in a war-torn, occupied country with such callous, ruthless enemies, first the Russians then German forces. The author succeeded in pulling us completely into the story, as I was worried about the kids throughout. I also loved the horse, Big Z, who became a character in his own right. Some of the scenes are superbly written, for example when Laima gives birth – I was transported to that room in 1940s Latvia. The pacing was fast and tense and kept me turning the pages. I also loved the setting, it was very interesting to learn about Latvia – it encouraged me to do further research. I like the cover and the author has written one of the best one-liners I’ve read in a while: “with her husband’s name on a hit list, the fight got personal.”

What brought you to writing? In July 1990, I stepped off a plane in Riga, Latvia for my first visit to my home country. Latvia had been under communism since the end of WWII. My first impression was that I walked into a time warp. Almost everything was just as it was at the end of World War II. The rubble was still there. Nothing had been rebuilt. The same trolleys and trains ran. Store shelves were bare. The few restaurants in existence did not have a menu. You either ate the meal they offered that day, or you didn’t eat there. I stayed with relatives and learned what my life would have been like if I had grown up there. I am very grateful that I grew up in the USA.

I had no idea I would go on to write a novel about Latvia during World War II. I was a computer programmer then. But between the stories I heard growing up in the USA and what I saw in 1990, an idea was born that wouldn’t go away and led to my writing Song of Latvia. I also went back to school for my MFA in Creative Writing and am now a full-time writer.

In 1991, Latvia regained its freedom. I go back to visit every couple of years. Every time I go, Latvia looks more and more like any other European country. Everything has been rebuilt. Before WWII, British writer Graham Greene dubbed Riga the “Paris of the North”. Travel writers are calling it that again and with good reason.

Do you write in more than one genre? Yes. I started writing historical fiction, which culminated in my debut novel. I also write poetry because sometimes I get an idea or thought that can only be expressed in a poem. I never thought about Memoir but like my novel, Memoir came to me. My younger daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a fierce three-year battle, she passed away in July 2019. About six months later, I was so filled with grief that I thought I would explode. In an effort to lessen the pain, I started writing. First came a prose poem about her death. Then I started writing stories about her life, about when she first told me, about my experiences helping to care for my grandchildren who had asked me questions like, “Is my mom going to die?” Then I started writing about my own life as an exiled Latvian. A new idea was born. My daughter Tara loved Latvia as much as I did. We took a number of trips there together. Our last trip was the summer of 2018, a family trip with Tara, my husband (her Dad), her husband and their two teenaged children. I am now writing a Memoir which holds the intertwined stories of Tara’s battle with cancer and my own life as an exiled Latvian.

Do you base any of your characters on real people? The main characters in Song of Latvia are based on the personalities of people in my family and many of the things that happen to them happened in real life. However, I didn’t want to tell the story of one family. I wanted to tell the story of the whole country, so all of the minor characters are based on research I did about what happened to other people. Although many events are based on things that really happened, the writing is my own version of events and my book is truly a novel.

Do you outline or are you a pantser? I am both. I start with a rough outline that changes as I write. I know the beginning and the end. I have some vague ideas about what will happen in the middle. However, in the writing, my characters lead me in directions I don’t expect. For instance, I didn’t expect that my two main characters in Song of Latvia, Aleks and Mija, would wind up having their own chapters. I started with Mija as the main protagonist. And then one day I wrote a chapter in Aleks’ point of view. He refused to have just one chapter. I went back and gave him a voice in all the appropriate places.

What kind of research do you do? For Song of Latvia, much of my research involved traveling to Latvia and visiting the places I wrote about, interviewing relatives and other people, and visiting archives in Riga to look up records. I also did historical war research online and read period books written by Latvians and others. I did the research as needed, relative to where I was in the writing. When I got to the end of the novel and realized Mija would have to go to a particular town, I took a trip to Latvia just to visit that town for a few days. I walked the streets and talked to various people who lived there.

Looking in the future, what’s in store for you? After I completed Song of Latvia, I started writing a post WWII spy thriller based on the personality of my father, titled The Reluctant Spy. It starts in Germany (where I was born), moves to Brazil, and finishes in the USA. I am still working on it while I also work on the Memoir. I’m not sure which one will be finished first, but I know they will both come in their own time.

Order book: https://www.amazon.com/V.-Z.-Byram/e/B081LFL3NC

How do readers contact you? https://vzbyram.com

 

 

17 Comments

  1. Irene Gendron

    I loved Song of Latvia from the beautiful cover to the last page. It was so well written it swept me along through the trials and heartbreaks faced. Looking forward to Vee’s next book.

    Reply
  2. Vee

    Thanks, Bob.

    Reply
  3. Conrad Person

    Great insight into the historical novel writing process. I can see how having friends and relatives who lived through those catastrophic times would enrich the story far beyond the documentary record.

    Reply
    • Vee

      Thanks for your comments, Conrad.
      Vee

      Reply
  4. Cass V Collins

    Congratulations on the review. I look forward to reading more of your writing.

    Reply
    • Vee

      Thank you, Cass!

      Reply
  5. David Milley

    This interview’s a pleasure to read. Good insights into your writing process!

    Reply
    • Vee

      Thank you David.
      Vee

      Reply
  6. Neva Hodges

    I’m so happy for you for the good reviews you’ve received! They’re well deserved.

    Reply
    • Vee

      Thanks for your comments, Neva.
      Vee

      Reply
  7. Thonie Hevron

    Great interview, VeeZee. So wonderful to hear your story although I’m so sorry the loss of your daughter is part of it. Seems a long time ago we met at the 2011 SF Writers Conference. Glad to see your success, friend!

    Reply
    • Vee

      Hi Thonie,
      Wow, that conference was 10 years ago. I remember it well and the nice dinner we had. Thanks so much for your support!
      Vee

      Reply
  8. Michael A. Black

    You are an inspiration to us all. The account of your life moved me to tears. Too often we forget the human suffering that is attached to war and its aftermath. Best of luck to you with your writing.

    Reply
    • Vee

      Thanks very much, Michael.
      Vee

      Reply
  9. Violet Moore

    Great Writer’s Digest commentary for your intriguing historical fiction book.

    Reply
    • Vee

      Thank you, Vi.
      Vee

      Reply
  10. Bob

    Great review for a fantastic writer!

    Reply

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Angela (Angie) C. Trudell Vasquez Poet Laureate of Madison, Wisconsin – Performer – Activist

I am a poet.

I began seriously writing when I was seven years old. I remember making my first few lines in the diary. I convinced my paternal grandmother to buy it when we went uptown one day. This was during summer break when we, my sister and I, would stay with her for our annual visit. Beans and tortillas were all we ate, running in and out of the kitchen all day long and back outside, gulping a spoonful each time we passed the stove.
Wanting to write was a conscious choice for me at a young age. The book, Frederick the Mouse by Leo Leonni, was my early inspiration. I learned the power of words to make one whole, feel well-fed, and warm through that acclaimed children’s book. Frederick being a mouse poet, helped his family get through the coldest part of winter with his poems when their stores ran out.

Today I am the City of Madison Poet Laureate and the first Latina in this role. I served one-year as of January 2021. I have published three of my own collections of poetry and have a new one coming out soon. I have edited and co-edited books, journals, and zines, including the Spring 2019 edition of the Yellow Medicine Review. I went back in 2015, in my late forties, to get my MFA in poetry from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I graduated in May 2017.

I also serve as the vice-chair on the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission and help pick the state’s poet laureate biennially. I consider myself a literary ambassador in my role as poet laureate. Balancing my volunteerism, writing, appearances, and readings with my full-time job takes some organizing. It helps to have a partner who is an artist as well. We recently made Sundays full art days in our house.

Do you write in more than one genre? I do write in other genres, earning two Pushcart nominations, one for an essay and another for a poem. I write short stories, sci-fi and am working on a memoir right now. I took a class with IAIA alum David Tromblay in Fall 2019 and got a good start on my memoir. Poems are my favorite, though.

Tell us about your writing process: Everything for me starts in longhand. I edit on my computer. When I get stuck, I move it back to the page and write it out in longhand to figure out what went wrong in the editing process. I write in my body: hand to wrist to arm to core to heart to brain and back. I write fast on the page and have long practiced automatic writing. My pen always ahead of my brain, my conscious self. I am often surprised by what comes out on the page. The pen admits what I have been avoiding. That’s when writing gets exciting when you are a conduit of sorts and along for the ride. Sometimes lines come to me at night when I am dreaming. I do edit my poems voraciously and enjoy the rigorous process. I think this is where the real writing is now, in the editing. I find inspiration easy, but then I need to work with what I have created and sculpt it on the page until I am satisfied with form, white space, and sound. Poems take you where they want to go and are not done until you have read them in public. I read my poems aloud as I edit, but they sound different in my study than they do at a venue with actual people present. I do not consider a poem done until it has been shared orally with others. When I was a younger poet, I tried out poems at open mics to test them. Now I can record them and listen back, but it is still worthwhile to share them with others for final edits, in my opinion. Poems sound different when you read them to a live audience that one word makes a difference.I also think it is important to read other poets’ work, old and new. I like the idea of poets in conversation with each other across time and space and genre. Some of my poems are in direct response to another poet’s poem I heard them perform or something I read in print or online. I learned in graduate school that I love theory and continue to study. Listening to poets and writers read their work is a real pleasure for me. How you hear the words in your head versus when it is a public performance is enlightening. I listen to poetry readings, lectures, or conversations with writers when I cook these days or travel to visit my family in Chicago or Milwaukee.

What are you currently working on? I just received my contract from Finishing Line Press for my newest collection, My People Redux. This is the 2nd half of my master’s thesis. In Light, Always Light, also published by FLP in May 2019, was the first half. I graduated in May 2017 and spent a long year re-working my poems. In Light, Always Light, accepted in August 2018, was a finalist for their New Women’s Voices Award.

Concurrently, I am working on another collection of poetry that focuses on the history of us humans. This involves research. I am enjoying the process and taking my time. Some of these poems are published, and some are still being edited. I need to continue to push them out into the world. I was also working on my memoir in fits and starts.

In my role as the poet laureate for the City of Madison, I will be judging the annual Bus Line Poetry contest soon. I have many upcoming scheduled readings for a book I just published under my small press Art Night Books in November 2019 called, Through This Door – Wisconsin in Poems. This is a collaboration with the most recent state poet laureate, Margaret Rozga. The book took us over a year to put out and is the second time we have published a collection together. I served as co-editor for this collection in addition to being the publisher, and we have had a good response. Twice we have been on the radio, NPR stations, and I have logged many hours at the post office mailing books out across the state and country. We had to go back to the printer three times now.

I consider myself a literary ambassador as a poet laureate and this has opened up many doors for me. I want to continue to do that for other writers. We need community and support. I would not be where I am today without the networks I found all along the way. Nor, without people sharing opportunities with me and freely offering up what they know, and being generous. I believe in the power of art to heal, connect and create community. It is a record of our lives and our history. I am so happy to be on this journey at this moment in time.

Here are comments about my work by two poets I admire:

The poems of In Light, Always Light afford space for the lyric to clarify and delineate the self “… through the ravine to the seam / the V peak of the hills / where dappled light spills / between rocks and discarded beer cans.” Here Angela Vasquez presents poems that struggle to contend with family history, a history of diaspora and relation, of assertion and insistence that the reader and the poet must bring to bear the imperative of “yes, yes fight back.” The poems travel, as we do, to observe the poet in the eternal dimension where one must write, and read — “Let me sit in sadness for a spell. / I need to write this out.”

–Joan Naviyuk Kane, 2018 Guggenheim Fellow

The poems in Angie Trudell Vasquez’s In Light, Always Light honor the illuminating power of poetry, but they also speak eloquently of racial injustice and the dark “inherited grief” that is its offspring. These are poems of history, endurance, and remembrance. They vividly story the strength and survival of migrant ancestors “who built railroads / with broken backs” or shared “mole recipes on parchment.” In those relatives “passed. . .to vases of bone and ash,” Vasquez recognizes the fleeting quality of human reality. Like our forebears, we are mere “half blinks of history,” “we are magic dying.” But in this volume, Vasquez offers her ancestors colorful and enduring literary lives. “Poets,” she writes, “resist the death of a people” and “beyond death, art speaks.”

Kimberly Blaeser, author of Apprenticed to Justice, Wisconsin Poet Laureate 2015-2016

If people want to connect with me, the best way is email: angiectvasquez@gmail.com
My website is www.angietrudellvasquez.com, and my small press website is http://www.artnightbooks.com

 

 

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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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