"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Sunday, November 4, 2012

From a Writer's Notebook: Justin Cronin on Writing

As many of you know, I was in Austin last weekend for the Texas Book Festival. I'll be giving you a full recap soon, but for now I wanted to tell you about one of the best events that we went to: A Talk with Justin Cronin.

For those of you who haven't heard of Justin, here's a quick bio (from Goodreads): Justin Cronin is an American novelist. Awards he's won for his fiction include the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Stephen Crane Prize, and the Whiting Writer's Award.
Born and raised in New England, Cronin is a graduate of Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He currently lives with his wife and children in Houston, Texas where he is Professor of English at Rice University.

His newest and most popular books are The Passage and The Twelve, which most of the audience members had already read.

Me reading while waiting for Justin to arrive
We arrived outside of the House Chamber forty-five minutes before the start of the session and the line was already out the door, down the hall, and snaking around the balcony of the rotunda. My dad and I chatted with a nice elderly lady about books, e-readers, and the digital age, before heading in to find our seats. I was a little worried all the good ones would be taken, but thankfully we were still able to find some near the front.

After another long wait made less boring by the one book I let myself buy at the $5 dollar book tent (more on that later), Justin Cronin and the moderator, Owen Egerton, finally took the stage. Hearing Justin Cronin speak is like listening to a really inspiring teacher. From the moment he began talking I could tell that was passionate about writing, generous with knowledge, and all around an extremely intelligent person. His words were captivating. From the excerpt that he read from his new novel, The Twelve, to his jokes about being a literary nerd, I couldn't help but notice his talent for roping the audience in with a good story.

Left to Right: Justin Cronin, Owen Egerton 
One of the best things about Justin's talk (aside from the surprisingly firm: "Sit down!" he gave to a questioner from the audience who accidentally let slip a spoiler), was his abundant advice about writing. His eloquently stated tips were sprinkled throughout the session, and I found myself compulsively taking notes. Here are just the ones I managed to jot down:

  • In response to a question about his own literary influences, he said, "Don't pretend for a second that you are inventing the novel." He mentioned the importance of reading and also talked about the literary references in both The Passage and The Twelve.
  • Developing a story is like playing jazz riffs. The music may veer off and become almost unrecognizable, but there is always some hint of the central melody that leads the listener through the song.  In the same way, novels can be large and all encompassing, but they should have a main story arc that is always present.
  • On creating characters: "Know the one thing they are not telling anyone else."
  • When asked wether or not he keeps the market in mind while writing, he said that the most important thing is to be as interesting as possible. You can only write so many autobiographical stories before readers start to get bored.
  • On titles: "If you don't know your title, you don't know your book." He also mentioned that he likes titles that have multiple meanings in the context of the story.
  • Finally, the most profound piece of advice (for me) was his words on failure: "Most writing is failure, so by all means, be willing to write an interesting failure."

Overall the Texas Books Festival was a great experience, and Justin Cronin was the highlight of my weekend. I hope to do a more expansive recap soon, but until then, happy writing!

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