A Remarkable Kindness Book Tour And Finishing that First Novel

In the Darien, CT Library, August 20, 2015

In the Darien, CT Library, August 20, 2015

We have lots of news to report as A REMARKABLE KINDNESS hit the stores and online booksellers on August 11. I am posting my blog tour below where bloggers write about the book and even offer recipes to go with it. So far the reviews have been fabulous! As I am learning, writing (and reading) is about making a connection, transcending our differences, and finding common ground. Here are a few excerpts:

“This book is so wonderfully character-driven and I was caught up in decisions and emotions and friendships and casual interactions with secondary characters. Long before the book ended, I was fully invested and wanted the very best for each woman/family. I recommend A Remarkable Kindness by Diana Bletter for readers that enjoy women’s fiction and readers that enjoy learning about cultures other than their own. This would make a great beach or pool read.” Into the Hall of Books

“Overall, A Remarkable Kindness was an interesting, enlightening glimpse into women’s lives in a very different, sometimes dangerous culture. ” Becca Rowan

“…The end brought closure and I was left with a smile and, admittedly, a few tears. A Remarkable Kindness will appeal to anyone who enjoys well-written women’s fiction, Jewish culture and tradition, and stories about friendship and life.” — Kahakai Kitchen

Tabbouleh salad with A REMARKABLE KINDNESS

Tabbouleh salad with A REMARKABLE KINDNESS

“The book will bring out a lot of emotions in you. I felt sorry for these women at times, but I also felt anger and admiration. The story and the women are very well written. I loved that they bonded over a circle of life ritual and I also loved learning  a bit about Israel…I’m not really a fan of this genre, but the synopsis grabbed my attention and I’m very glad I didn’t pass it up.” Vicki, I’d Rather Be At the Beach

More to follow in the next few days:

o   Monday, August 24thRaven Haired Girl

o   Tuesday, August 25thSvetlana’s Reads and Views

o   Wednesday, August 26thJulzReads

o   Thursday, August 27thBibliotica

For those of you who are writing, keep working…Show your work to people you trust and if they make suggestions about how to improve your text, take the suggestions. I know, I know…we want the first draft to be perfect. But it rarely is…

We have to go back and delete scenes, add some, put aside others for the next book. We have to put in a lot of time and patience and energy when we work. Remember what my husband Jonny says: Anyone can give up, but if you give up, you will never forgive yourself. Keep writing, if that is what you want to do. Keep doing whatever gives you joy. Enjoy the journey. Enjoy this moment. It is one page in the best chapter of your life.

For those of you near Connecticut, I will be at the WILTON LIBRARY on August 26, at 7 PM, and at R J JULIA BOOKSELLERS on August 27. Hope to see you there!

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Writers, Don’t Give Up. Come to Think of it, This Applies to Everyone.

ark-coverNo matter how long it takes, no matter how many computers you break, feel like you’re not going to make it, that you’re a fake, that your writing is a mistake, and you want to go jump in a lake, DO NOT GIVE UP.

My novel (for the three or four of you who haven’t heard) was published this week by HarperCollins. It’s called A REMARKABLE KINDNESS. I call it a remarkable miracle.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep hoping. Here’s my post on Amy Sue Nathan’s wonderful blog on writing, making up words, and the most important thing, living our best chapter.


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I was trying to capture the Mediterranean Sea today, which looked exactly like the cover of A REMARKABLE KINDNESS.

I was trying to capture the Mediterranean Sea today, which looked exactly like the cover of A REMARKABLE KINDNESS.

“Sometimes you don’t need to do anything really courageous to feel like a hero. Sometimes all you have to do is live your life and claim it. Then you can get to a certain moment when you can stand somewhere and think about where you’ve been and where you are now and the journey you’ve traveled to get there. Sometimes, that’s all you need to do.”

I wrote the above quote a few years ago and I want to share it now. Remember we are all heroes of our own lives. Sometimes the journey is frightening and dark but it’s our only life right now that we need to live, and we have to claim it.

Many times I wanted to quit writing. I felt discouraged and thought it was a hopeless endeavor. But my husband, Jonny, always told me: “Anyone can give up. Giving up is easy. But if you give up, you will never forgive yourself.”

And he was right. I didn’t give up. Now I get to celebrate and I hope the fact that I am publishing my first novel at age 58 will remind you: persevere, write, work, dance, try and try and try and just do NOT give up.

The real cover. I just love it!

The real cover. I just love it!

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If You Haven’t Heard: HarperCollins Release of A REMARKABLE KINDNESS on August 11, 2015

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For those of you who didn’t see my email, I’m delighted to announce that HarperCollins will publish my first novel, A REMARKABLE KINDNESS, on August 11. Perserverance pays off!
A REMARKABLE KINDNESS is the story of four American women who are members of a burial circle in a small beach village in Northern Israel. The women forge a friendship that sustains them as they come to terms with love and loss, and the outbreak of war. Their intimate bond is strengthened by their participation in a burial circle, a traditional ritual that closes the circle of life. As their lives are slowly transformed, each woman finds unexpected strength and resilience.
 Advance Praise Reviews:
A Remarkable Kindness is a story about the bonds of friendship and family; how they are made, broken, and come full circle. Diana Bletter writes with such lush and insightful prose that a foreign landscape and culture becomes warm and familiar; exploring the power of friendship, love, and ancient traditions, the novel makes you wonder just how far you would go (literally and figuratively) for the people you love.”
— Amy Sue Nathan,
author of The Good Neighbor and The Glass Wives

“Bletter brings this quartet of complex, gutsy, smart, passionate women to life with rare delicacy and depth.”
— Janice Steinberg, author of The Tin Horse

A REMARKABLE KINDNESS will be featured in HUDSON NEWS bookstores in airports around the USA and Canada during their fall promotion.
If you’re white-knuckling it until you can read the novel, it helps if you pre-order. Other readers as well as the media pay attention to pre-orders, so your pre-order does help A REMARKABLE KINDNESS reach a wider audience.
You can find the novel here:

I’ll be speaking at the following venues if you’re in the New York/Connecticut area in August:
Thursday, August 13 (Book Launch)
7 Library Avenue
Westhampton Beach, NY  11978
6:30 PM
Thursday, August 20
1441 Post Road
Darien, CT  06820
Wednesday, August 26
137 Old Ridgefield Road
Wilton, CT  06897
Thursday, August 27
768 Boston Post Road
Madison, CT  06443
Thursday, August 28
Temple Beth Tikvah
196 Durham Road
Madison, Connecticut 06443
7:15 pm (during services)

The book will also be sold in Steimatsky bookstores in Israel.
Thanks to all of you who believed that I could (eventually) make it happen.
 For review copies, questions, please contact:
 Joanne Minutillo / Associate Publicist / 212.207.7224 / joanne.minutillo@harpercollins.com

Thought of the day: We can do one positive thing for ourselves today to make this day part of our best chapter.

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How to Sell Your Novel. First Write An Exthrillerating One. Here are 8 Important Tips and Exercises.

Stephen-Kings-Reading-ListYay! It’s less than one month away: the HarperCollins release of my novel, A Remarkable Kindness. I sold my novel and I believe that if it can happen to me, it can happen to you. What follows are some tips on how to write a novel that sells.

1. Keep dialogue flowing. Dialogue in good books is never, “How are you?” “Fine thank you. How are you?” “What’s new?” Blah-blah-blah. Literary dialogue is never literal. People do not talk that way. There are often stops and starts and interruptions, like in real life. Natural dialogue: “It really depends on—” “—Forget Bill. He’s as useless as a flat Ping Pong ball.”

EXERCISE: Go to a coffee shop/restaurant/laundromat. Any public place. First, listen to a conversation happening behind you. Take notes: write down the dialogue and how it stops and starts. Then write down what you think the people talking look like. Turn around and see if you’re right.

2. Make up an original title. My professor, Edgar Rosenberg, at Cornell University always said that giving a story or a novel a title with a name can border on lazy. Unless, of course, it’s an original name. Of course, this rule is broken constantly: Romeo & Juliet, Eleanor & Park, Harry Potter, Olive Kitredge, etc. But unless you have characters’ names that say something, try to find another title.

EXERCISE: Pull out from your manuscript an idea or a phrase and see if you can make a title. I talk about how the title of my novel, A Remarkable Kindness, evolved from The Dead Can Never Thank You here.

3. Break up sentences. Yes. We learned in school that you need a noun + a verb to make a sentence. But, ahh, when you write, you can have super-long sentences as well as one or two word sentences. The first ungrammatical sentence in my novel occurs on the first page: “The odd, raw stillness.” And I have long run-on sentences as well to convey a different idea; it’s a way to get time to speed up and cram in a lot of information and leave the reader breathless and not able to take a pause—sort of like that.

EXERCISE: Write a 250-word flash fiction story mixing up lengths of sentences. Start in the middle of a conversation, and go on.

4. Start your novel at turning point. You need to try to squeeze in enough action by page 50 to keep the reader turning the pages. Also, if you’re looking for a literary agent, many ask to read the first 50 pages. Remember, we can live and write our best chapter!

EXERCISE: Write a story or chapter that begins with one character giving another a bombshell. Here’s an easy example: “I know I told you I’d marry you, but…”

When people tell me, “And to make a long story short…” I’m already thinking, “Yes, please make it short…” Nobody wants to hear or read a long story. Make it shorter.

EXERCISE: Take your story and then use the Stephen King rule: First Draft – Ten Percent= Second Draft. Cut, cut, cut. It isn’t a circumcision so you don’t have to be that careful. (More Stephen King tips here.)

5. Stick to conventions. A table has four legs. That’s standard. My suggestion is follow standard formats for novels and stories until you get the hang of telling a story.

EXERCISE: Write down a story you like to tell people from your childhood. Just write it as you’d say it.

6. Describe someone using two descriptions that are not usual. “He has blue eyes and curly, blond hair.” Ehhh. We can do better than that. “He has narrow eyes and soft, pudgy hands. Doesn’t that sound more interesting? To me, it does.

7. Finally, don’t keep your eyes on the prize. The prize is the actual writing. If we’re dreaming of writing because we think it will be fun to sign books, be on a talk show, or get invited to the Academy Awards, that’s not why we write. We write to tell a story. It’s hard work. It means sitting and doing the work. And then doing it again. And again. 

8. Don’t give up! Treat yourself as a professional. Treat your work with firm kindness. Listen to the voice that wants to write. Do not listen to the people who say you cannot do it. Listen to me. I say that you can do it if you keep writing.

Now for the good news…A REMARKABLE KINDNESS will be one of the featured books at Hudson News Book Stores, those fabulous stores at airports around the USA and Canada this fall.

Early wonderful reviews are coming in. See goodreads for some wonderful reader reviews. If you haven’t pre-ordered A Remarkable Kindness, you can do so here.

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Tool For Tuesday: How To Make Decisions

Maya Angelou on making decisions.

Maya Angelou on making decisions.

In 2010, I wrote a blog about making decisions when one of my daughters was trying to figure out what to do with her life. (We all seem to ponder that question rather frequently.) I suggested that act like a cave-woman. Gather information the way that cave-dwellers gathered berries. Be a forager. Research. Ask questions. Take notes like a reporter. Then wait.

But here is more to think about. When it comes to making decisions, are you a presto or a procrastinator? Do you make immediate, instant decisions, or are you afraid your decisions won’t be perfect so you procrastinate?

I confess I’m a presto decision-maker. I err on the side of making an instant decision and then rue about it. I know I need to s-l-o-o-o-w way down. I’ve learned it’s best not to make decisions in the midst of a crisis and to wait. (I’m never good with that.)

People who procrastinate about decisions often enter into paralysis. Not good, either. There are few decisions that are life-threatening. Sometimes, we’re so busy thinking, “Should I move to Alaska? Should I marry Oscar Shlumperdink? Should I have a child?” For those huge life-changing decisions, we always get our answers when the time is right. We don’t have to force the issue. We can just keep living as best as we can today and the answer comes to us really naturally. Intuitively.

It’s more important how we make a decision than what decision we make. Here are six things we can do before making decisions.

Check our motives. Are they for our highest good?

Ask questions.

Gather information.

Write down the pro’s and con’s.

Speak to a trusted friend.

Pray. Then sleep on it. If the answer did not come to you clearly, then you might want to wait a day or two. If you are still waffling, wavering and wondering, then act like the hero of your own life. Do something. Sometimes we need to act less like our usual selves to become more ourselves. Positive acts build self-esteem.

And then, make the decision and then let go of the outcome. We are only responsible for the effort. We can only do the best we can do at the time.

Tool For Tuesday: Make a decision and then trust that the universe will support your dreams. Expect a miracle.

Here is a great blog post on decisions and making the right choice.

And, as always, this is from Malcolm Gladwell.gladwell quote


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How to Write a Novel Synopsis. Seven Tips, Do’s and Don’ts. Bonus! Synopsis Samples.

My college roommate and dear friend, Mary Eldred, made sure I sat down and wrote when I was supposed to write. Do you have a friend or writing buddy you can call on?

My college roommate and dear friend, Mary Eldred, made sure I sat down and wrote when I was supposed to write. Do you have a friend or writing buddy you can call on?

How do you write a synopsis for a novel? This is almost (almost) harder than writing your novel. But there’s a form to follow and that makes it easy.

OK, so you wrote a novel. Bravo! You have (I’m hoping) already sent it to people you trust to read the book and comment on it. You have sent it to an editor, who sees things in your manuscript that you simply can’t see. (Editors are like flashlights, shining light into the dusty darkness under the bed.) I’ve posted about how to write query letters to literary agents here. You’ve managed to find a few agents who are keen to see part (or all) of your novel. They might ask for a synopsis. What the…? You might be thinking. Why can’t agents just read the whole darn thing?

Because (hate to break the news to ya) agents just are not that interested in us. They don’t have that much time. More importantly, a synopsis helps a reader see if writers know what the book is about. It has to tell the book’s story. A synopsis is a spoiler alert. That means, you have to tell the agent what happens in your book. (Do not worry. Agents do not steal good ideas and then write the book. If they could do that, they would be writers as well as agents.) It doesn’t matter what genre you write in, the synopsis is all the same.

Here are seven key points to remember:

1. Always keep the synopsis in present tense. (That holds true even if your novel is in past or future tense.)

2. Write short snappy sentences.

3. Introduce the characters one by one. Make each character’s name in ALL CAPS. Say what happens to them.

4. Make it single-spaced, no more than two pages.

5. Have simple paragraphs, not more than a few sentences in each one.

6. You can add bits of conversation if it’s short and meaningful, as well as quoting actual words from the book.

7. Have a good ending about what the book’s message is.

Some of you might be thinking, why should I bother at all with this synopsis? Well, it’s true. It is like writing a school paper. It’s not as much fun as writing a book. But if you’re struggling with the plot of your book, a synopsis can help you figure out what happens. Also, writing is PRACTICE. It is vital to write, no matter what. Stir things up. Write the synopsis as a writing exercise. We have to do it. Write it as if you’re simply telling the story.

Here are four samples of synopses (doesn’t that word in plural sound like a sinus condition?) My suggestion is to take your own novel and try to fit it into one of these forms. Let us know how it goes.

This is the partial synopsis of A Remarkable Kindness which I sent to my agent, Steven Chudney, who then pitched and sold it to HarperCollins, to be published in August 2015. (Thank you again, Steven!)

A Remarkable Kindness opens during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, when former Mossad agent, AVIVA SERENO, drives to the cemetery in Peleg, her tranquil beach village in northern Israel, which is now under rocket fire. Aviva is a member of a traditional hevra kadisha, or burial circle. Burial circle members dress the dead in shrouds and prepare them for their final journey following ancient, sacred tradition. Now, Aviva faces the heartbreaking task of … 

LAUREN UHLMANN, a maternity nurse, is another member of the burial circle. She grew up spoiled and wealthy in a Boston suburb. In 2000, hoping to have one last fling with “an exotic someone before dedicating her life to sailing with Republicans,” Lauren has an affair with an Israeli doctor, David Uziel, which leads to…

EMILY FREULICH, Lauren’s best friend, moves from Boston to Peleg in 2002 after her husband left her for another woman. Emily is an independent, quirky artist, the daughter of an amusing Charleston matron and a Czech refugee. Soon after moving to the village, Emily…

A young, idealistic young woman, RACHEL SCHOENBERGER, arrives from Wyoming to volunteer in the village in 2004. ..Wise, frank and funny, Rachel encounters a variety of personalities and experiences as she volunteers in the village’s hotel, in the avocado groves, and helps a Holocaust survivor who runs the local dog kennel…

We will stop here. Oh, there is so much more to my novel. I’m not going to share more because I don’t want to divulge too much. But the end of the synopsis is: that one of these four women “comes to realize that she must accept life on life’s terms, embrace her situation, and do whatever it takes to have a meaningful life…”

 Here is part of my synopsis for my unpublished children’s book, Sam Winger’s Flight to Freedom.

It started as an ordinary morning in Pete’s Pet Shop in Brooklyn Heights, New York, in the spring of 2012. That is, until suddenly, SAM WINGER, a big-beaked, klutzy Quaker Parakeet who’s scared of heights, catches sight of a free-spirited parakeet on the other side of the window. More than anything else, Sam wants to escape the cage where she lives with her loving parents, her three brothers and twin sister. She longs to fly. 

Yet the pet shop owner, grumpy PETE TEMBEL, dreams of selling her and the other animals in his shop. Pete was a childhood friend of JORDAN EHRENFELD, a soldier who was killed in Iraq. Jordan’s widow, CHERYL, is a brave New York City firefighter. CALEB, Cheryl’s son, an athletic thirteen-year-old along with his sister, JADE, a pudgy, thoughtful nine-year-old girl who has a special relationship with Sam. 

The parakeets all talk to one another and to the other animals. And that night, Sam’s parents, MELODY and MORTIMER WINGER, reveal the secret history of Quaker Parakeets in New York, based on a true story…

Here’s a sample of a novel I will never write, which we will call Magic Floss. I just made it up to give you another sample synopsis. 

PRISCILLA LOOBERT owns a company in Des Moines that sells magic dental floss. She has four overbearing sisters who ridicule her regularly, and she leads a lonely, depressed life punctuated by attempts to take yoga classes and become a vegan when she is not eating Java Chip Ice Cream. One day, Priscilla witnesses a man talking to a parking meter, picks up a pair of abandoned gold pumps in the street, and encounters LARRY RAZONAWITZ, a sweet, somewhat mysterious man who hears Priscilla’s oldest sister yelling at her but cannot help her.

In desperation, Priscilla calls a suicide hotline, and the operator finds out she’s a lonely woman with a few extra dollars to spare. The operator, DEAN KLUMPLIE, sends four henchmen from Toledo to Des Moines, where they threaten and extort Priscilla, forcing her to take out money from a cash machine. This complicates her budding relationship with Larry, who’s not as sweet as he seems.

After Priscilla leaves for Hawaii on a business trip, Larry decides to follow her. Upon meeting her, Larry explains that he is in Hawaii on a business trip by coincidence, but he soon admits that he came to pursue a romantic relationship. He kisses her and the pair retreat to a water bed in a hotel room.

After returning home, Priscilla finds Dean and three henchmen who ram their car into hers, mildly injuring her. Normally not confrontational, an outraged Larry attacks Dean and his men on the street, and fights them off despite being outnumbered. He tells them, “I might look like a dork, but I’m Bruce Jenner before he became Caitlin.”

Larry asks forgiveness from Priscilla that night. She forgives him, and they embrace; lastly, Priscilla says, “Life is full of magic if we remember to floss each night.” 

Remember, dear folks, if we want to be writers, we can’t sit around with our friends talking about how we want to be writers and how hard it is, how publishers are not buying books, how people aren’t reading, blah-blah-blah. We gotta go to that blank page and write. Now get to work. Write your mandatory pages today (I recommend at least five pages every day to maintain your speed). And write that synopsis if you want to sell your book. By the way, even if you plan on self-publishing, you still need a synopsis which you can use for your back over flap. See more information here on self-publishing and my Self-Publisher’s Do’s and Don’ts.

Oh, I am just dying to share some advance praise for A REMARKABLE KINDNESS here:

A REMARKABLE KINDNESS, is a story about the bonds of friendship and family; how they are made, broken, and come full circle. Diana Bletter writes with such lush and insightful prose that a foreign landscape and culture becomes warm and familiar. A REMARKABLE KINDNESS explores the power of friendship, love, and ancient traditions, and Bletter’s characters makes you wonder just how far you would go (literally and figuratively) for the people you love.Amy Sue Nathan, author of The Good Neighbor and The Glass Wives 

Bletter brings this quartet of complex, gutsy, smart, passionate women to life with rare delicacy and depth. She also offers a refreshingly nuanced, unsentimental view of Americans who have chosen to make their homes in Israel, going beyond the romance to the women’s very real ambivalence and homesickness, as well as the peril of living in a country too often under fire. Loss and endings are part of this novel’s rich fabric. Gracefully written scenes, as the women prepare a body for burial, make me wish we could all depart from life with such respect and tenderness. Janice Steinberg, author of The Tin Horse

You can already pre-order the book here. And if you prefer, from Barnes & Noble.  Or bookdepository. Please do pre-order. It helps boost sales!

And in the last part of the excellent news, A REMARKABLE KINDNESS will be one of the books featured in the fall promotion at HUDSON NEWS BOOKSTORES, in more than 500 airports around the USA and Canada. Before you board your flight, you can get the book and start turning the pages.

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Tool for Tuesday: Don’t Give Up Your Resentment. (That is, if you don’t want to get better.)

Catherine Ponder: On Giving up our resentment.

Catherine Ponder: On Giving up our resentment.

That’s right. Don’t give up your resentments if you want to continue drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick.

Don’t give up your anger if that’s how you want to fuel yourself. If you get an adrenaline rush just thinking bout who wronged you, then don’t give up resentments.

The other day, I talked to my friend Lily who finally, finally gave up her elephant-like resentment about her ex-husband who cheated on her when they were married. For years, she dragged around this resentment. When people suggested to her, “Pray for his happiness, health and prosperity. Pray even through gritted teeth for him,” she shook her head, stamped her feet, and said, “No way am I going to pray for him. He’s the cause of my misery. He did something so wrong to me and I will never forgive him.”

So Lily let her resentment fester inside her. She started getting stomach pains. (See my blog post about how some physical pains are connected to our spiritual and emotional states.) She had a repetitive resentment (from the French, re-sentir, to feel something again and again) toward him that was filling her mind and heart and soul and preventing her from feeling any joy. She was making herself sick with it.

“Can you pray just for the willingness to possibly pray for your husband down the road?” a friend asked Lily.

“Maybe not today, but okay, maybe some day, I’ll be able to pray for him,” Lily said, her armor of self-righteousness beginning to crack just a wee bit. Because she was tired of hurting. Because she wanted to move on with her life.

Why is that even important? It does not mean that what he did was not wrong. It just means that she was willing to let go of the past hurt and stay present in the present.

So each morning she prayed for the willingness. Just to get her mind opened enough to be willing to even consider praying for him. And slowly, she was able to start praying for him. She really prayed for his happiness, health and prosperity. She prayed to be freed of her resentment. And the resentment stopped being corrosive inside her.

But it takes more than just telling ourselves to stop feeling angry at someone or something. We can transform the negative into the positive—that’s the only way to go about getting rid of those feelings that eat away at us. We need to take our mental energy and use it, harness it, make it work for us.

It does not matter if other people recognize or acknowledge that they did something wrong. The point is that we stop living in the past.

Tool For Tuesday: Don’t give up your resentment if you want to stay stuck in the past. But chances are, we are better off if we stay present in the present.

Here are some more powerful affirmations from Catherine Ponder.

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What Really Counts on Memorial Day

Memorial-Day-Graphics-Images-533x400I am writing this post in honor of all loved ones who are defending America.  I am filled with admiration for their sacrifice. In Israel, there is a military draft for young men (three years) and young women (two years). Each Israeli Memorial Day in May, there is a nation-wide siren that goes off and people in the entire country stop whatever they’re doing and stand silently to reflect and pay homage to the military services. It’s like a gigantic game of “Freeze!” No matter where you are, you stop. Even the train stops on the track. It’s a very sad day in Israel.

It’s so important for people to take a moment and pause, wherever they are, to think about people who serve in the American military.

My husband, Jonny, served in the Israeli Military for many years as a combat soldier and then in reserve duty and our children — we have six children — served. I strongly believe that citizens can give back to their country in some form of national service as a sign of respect and gratitude.

And anyone who has family in the military knows that nobody wants to send their sons to war. So we will pray for peace and hope that next Memorial Day, there will be no more grieving families. I salute and send my respect to all military families today.

Speaking of peace, here’s an interview I did with Laura E. Vasilion on “Peace Under the Olive Tree,” in her post, Talking to the World. (Thank you to Tom S for making the connection.)

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Author Michelle Brafman: On Her First Novel, Washing the Dead, and the Tahara Ritual

Michelle Brafman, author of Washing the Dead

Michelle Brafman, author of Washing the Dead

I’m delighted to welcome Michelle Brafman, who’s just published her first novel, Washing the Dead (Prospect Park Books). Talk about serendipity. I am not the only one writing about a hevra kadisha (a burial circle) right now. In Washing the Dead, the narrator, Barbara Blumfield, describes how participating in the tahara ritual for the dead sparks her journey toward healing her complicated relationships with her mother and daughter, as well as herself. It’s the spirit of the time—the zeitgeist—that women are suddenly becoming more and more fascinated with this ancient, mostly unknown ritual.

Diana Bletter: You just published your first novel, Washing the Dead. Congratulations! Can you talk about the process—from your first draft to finding a literary agent and a publisher?

Michelle Brafman: Thank you! My road to publication was rather long and winding. It began eight years ago, after I graduated from the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program. I sent some short stories to an agent who had just sold a friend’s book. The agent told me that short story collections don’t sell and asked me if I had a novel for him. Of course I said yes, but I really only had a short story entitled “Washing the Dead” that I’d published in Gargoyle and only an inkling of how it might expand. I got down to work and knocked out a draft, although it took me years and dozens of revisions to figure out the heart of this book. I worked with more than one agent and finally found a wonderful person for the project, who in turn found the best home for the book.

Diana Bletter: Can you talk about your own trajectory becoming a writer and how you got the idea for Washing the Dead?

Michelle Brafman: I didn’t start writing fiction until I was in my thirties but I’ve always been a collector of stories. Before I began writing, I was a documentary filmmaker and was so taken with the tales that surfaced after the cameras stopped rolling that I had to write them down. I wrote some bad short fiction, but I took classes and improved and then applied to graduate school and started honing my skills. I’m still as committed to learning and growing as a writer.

I got the idea for Washing the Dead from a friend who told me about the tahara ritual. Although I have a decent Jewish education, I was unaware of this ritual, and I became enamored of the beauty and compassion attached to this rite as well as the sensory details of the actual washing and shrouding. Once I discovered the tahara, I knew what I wanted to do with the characters who had been rattling around in my head. I wrote the short story, and the rest is history.

Diana Bletter: Some writers say they write fast and then fill in the details after the first draft. What’s your writing routine? Do you find your characters doing things that surprise you?

Michelle Brafman: I write a rough draft pretty quickly, but it takes time to get to know my characters and in turn flesh out the central conflict of the book. The plot typically remains pretty much the same throughout the drafting process, but I reframe the scenes depending on what I’ve discovered about my characters. In Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, she describes how a character emerges like an image in a Polaroid photo. I like that. I also think of my characters as people I’ve gotten to know over a period of time, yet who can surprise me by how they roll in various situations.

Diana Bletter: Do you have any suggestions for new writers? Are there any writing exercises you find helpful?

Michelle Brafman: I tell my students the following: Read as much as humanly possible and well beyond your comfort zone. Keep a notebook on your person at all times because you never know when a story will “happen to you.” Seek out mentors who will help you learn the craft and hone your voice, but take your writing as far as you can on your own before you ask for help. Then become a mentor to someone else. Keep your heart and mind wide open. Work really hard, and luck will find you.

I use many different writing prompts with my students, depending on the skill we are working on. My general advice would be to write every single day, even if only for ten minutes or so. Simply making marks keeps the creative pump primed.

Diana Bletter: What are you working on now?

Michelle Brafman: I’m working on a second novel. The setting and structure are entirely different, although once again I’m writing about family secrets and water.

Diana Bletter: Finally, my blog is called thebestchapter, and I write about trying to make the most of each day. What are the things you do on a daily basis to make each day a part of your best chapter?

Michelle Brafman: Thanks for the reminder! I try to take a few moments every day to share at least one laugh with my husband and enjoy the heck out of my kids. My daughter is about to enter high school, my son will become a bar mitzvah next summer, and the time is speeding by too fast. We have our little family rituals and jokes that I treasure, but sometimes I simply listen to them sing or joke with each other in the next room. I also try to connect my friends, via a phone call, a text, or if I’m lucky, a quick cup of coffee or a walk along the Potomac River.

Thank you, Michelle Brafman.

You can find Washing the Dead wherever you buy books. (And I hope you’re still buying books.)

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