Have You Been Dissed By A Writing Professor?

It happened to Harlan Ellison who was one of our most prolific and influential science fiction writers. He published 1700 short stories and over 50 books, writing scripts for Outer Limits and Star Trek among other shows. His work influenced James Cameron when he filmed Terminator, and that’s just a start when it comes to his cultural impact.

But when Ellison attended Ohio State University, a professor passed judgment and said he had no talent for writing. Irascible even as an undergraduate, Ellison punched his professor and was expelled.

I’m not defending Ellison’s response, but if you think a professor wouldn’t feel the need to be so harsh and unequivocal you’d be wrong.

I’ve known creative writing professors who treat students like dirt. One was notorious for humiliating students by telling them their work was “shit.” He could make students cry or tremble with fear. Another would only let favorite students read aloud, clearly sending the same ugly message to everyone else in her class. These professors are not anomalies: I know from sources across the country that dissing student writing is a commonplace in creative writing workshops at the undergraduate and graduate level. A good friend was told she would never publish because she apparently hadn’t “suffered enough.” Soon afterwards, she had a story accepted at a fine literary magazine.

I loved the community of writers in my MFA program, but got poleaxed by a professor. A story that I thought was a breakthrough was demolished by my workshop, and then the professor delivered the coup de grâce. He said it was nothing new and the kind of thing I could write in my sleep.  It was devastating.

A few weeks later it won first prize in the program’s writing contest which was judged by a famous editor. When I shared the brickbats from my workshop, she growled, “Don’t change a goddamned word!” I then sold it for a lot of money to Redbook, which at the time had 4.5 million readers, and the story launched my career as an author. My professor’s comment at the next workshop? “It’s still shit, but now it’s shit with a prize.”

Taking writing workshops to develop and hone your craft is a good idea, but not everyone commenting on your work comes from a pace of creative nurturing and encouragement–or even neutrality. Too many of them want to tear you down for whatever twisted reasons of their own. You don’t have to punch out your professor or anyone who disparages your work, but it’s wise to listen to all criticism with your shields up, as if you were in Star Trek. Remember what Kirk says to Sulu: “Steady as she goes.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the guide for writers, Writer’s Block is Bunk. You can take writing workshops with him online at writewithoutborders.com.“Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael was like seeing Blade Runner for the first time: simply incredible.”—Kyle Roberts, MSU

Watching TV With My Westies

We have two feisty and super-smart West Highland White Terriers who seem to love TV–each in different ways.  Television is as important to me as reading and because I write mysteries, I watch a lot of movies and crime series, domestic and foreign.  I’m always curious to see how other writers develop character, work twists into their plots, and create believable dialogue.

And I’ve been surprised that the dogs enjoy it, too, though obviously they have different interests.  Our six-year old, Rudi, is fascinated by a wide range of things, and after dinner, he sits in the kitchen waiting for us to say, “It’s time for TV.”  While we’re cleaning up, he trots into the living room and plants himself on a chair or ottoman opposite the 65-inch screen, waiting.

Rudi is happy watching nature specials and enjoys simple scenes like the wind sweeping across a planted field, rippling the wheat or corn.  He also sat there riveted by most of Babe.  At the end of that movie, he turned to us and moved his lips like the animals he’d been observing, and he does that every now and then when he’s excited about something.

He’s been no fan of the dragons in Game of Thrones or zombies in The Walking Dead.  He races to the set to bark at horses tearing across the screen as they do somewhat too often in Poldark, but he seems especially fascinated by extreme closeups of people expressing intense emotion.  At those moments, I watch his ears twitch and his head move from one speaker to another.  Sometimes his eyes go wide if characters are yelling or crying.  Both Westies are fascinated by fast-paced chases and fight scenes like the ones in the Jason Bourne movies.

Rudi’s half-brother Ravi, who’s just over two years old, is a typical little brother and often seems drawn to whatever Rudi is watching or barking at.  But emotion triggers something extra special in the little guy. We were all watching Daredevil last week and I reacted intensely to a car crash that left the driver trapped upside down near her dead passenger because I have some lingering PTSD from a car accident of my own.  I gasped during that scene in the show and Ravi raced onto the couch and started licking my face as if to reassure me.  It’s happened before, and sometimes he responds even when I’m silent but experiencing surprise or momentary distress at what’s on the screen.  He’s clearly been observing my face.

So TV nights at our home are layered: my spouse and I are watching the screen, but we’re also watching the Westies, who watch each other, the screen and us, too.

A veteran of university teaching, Lev Raphael now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.  He’s the author of the health club mystery Hot Rocks and 24 other books in many genres.

Don’t Believe in “Writer’s Block”!

I’m just back from keynoting a writers’ conference in Michigan where one of the questions was “Do you ever get writer’s block?”

My answer was simple: No.  And here’s why.

I once heard prize-winning author Loren D. Estleman deplore the use of the term.  He said that it’s a grossly unhelpful way of describing something very basic and ordinary in the writer’s life: you’re stuck.

I totally agree. When you say that you have writer’s block, you turn a minor problem into something major like depression or even cancer. Suddenly you’re beset by a grave affliction and a normal, unremarkable part of the writing process potentially becomes  debilitating.

I’ve felt this way through many years as a published author; through twenty-five books in many genres; and hundreds of stories, essays, reviews and blogs. Like Estleman, I believe that we all get stuck sometimes in our work, no matter how experienced we are — and Estleman’s published sixty books. Stuck isn’t a bad thing. It just means that you haven’t worked something out, you haven’t answered some question in the book, or maybe you’re headed in the wrong direction.

When I get stuck, I do what Estleman suggested, and what I’ve advised my creative writing students over the years: I leave the writing alone and don’t obsess about it.

Are you stuck? Don’t panic. Give the problem to your subconscious to figure out. Work on something else or don’t do any writing at all. Focus outward: the gym, a movie, dinner with your spouse, drinks with some buddies, walking your dog, home repairs, a car trip, gardening, working on your tan, cooking, going out, reading a new book by your favorite author — anything that will absorb you completely and make you feel good.

Of course, sometimes being stuck is connected to secrecy and revelation. It can mean you’re afraid of what you want to write, afraid of revealing too much about yourself (or someone else), afraid of what people might think. That fear of exposure is shame, or the dread of shame. Calling it “writer’s block” confuses the issue and disguises what’s really the problem.

Unfortunately, there’s a gigantic industry devoted to helping people overcome “writer’s block,” to keep them from turning into Barton Fink, stuck on that one sentence. And because our culture loves stories about blocked writers like The Shining, there’s a perverse kind of glamor associated with this “condition.” It’s dramatic, it’s proof of how serious a professional you are. And hey, writers are crazy anyway, so of course they can’t do their jobs.

Let’s face it, since most people hate to write, especially in this age of texting, “writer’s block” connects with non-writers much better than when you say, “I’m working on my book, it’s going great and I’m having a blast.” You risk being seen as cocky or even arrogant. Saying that you have writer’s block brings you back to earth. It comforts people who don’t write, because it confirms their perception of writing as drudgery and even torment.

Don’t buy into the script.  Write your own.

Lev Raphel is the author of twenty-five books in many genres including the guide for writers Writer’s Block is Bunk. He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com where he also offers coaching and mentoring.

(this blog originally appeared on The Huffington Post)

Sometimes Planning a Trip is Almost as Good as Going

I’ve been lucky over the years to travel abroad extensively on book tours, but primarily for research or just for fun. I’ve been to France, Belgium, England, The Netherlands, Italy, and Germany many times.

My French and German are good, my Dutch passable, and I can manage “travel Italian” though I know my accent needs work.

Many of these trips fulfilled dreams. I’d always hoped to one day teach abroad and I wound up with a six-week gig in London where the museums blew my mind and I fell in love with the Pimlico neighborhood I was staying in. For years I’d fantasized about visiting Bruges in Belgium and my week there doing research forr a book was unbelievably fulfilling. The food, the historical sites, the museums and churches surpassed my expectations. Oh, and then there’s the beer. I tried local varieties but also beers I’d had at home in bottles, this time they were on tap and tasted so much better. In Bruges I felt like Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited: drowning in honey.

I’d spent some time studying Dutch before my trip and found it really made a difference doors when shopping or ordering food or chatting with the B&B owner.  I ahd somehow even picked up a word for “amazing” that the owner, from the French part of Belgium didn’t know: verbazingwekkend.  When I used it, she was delighted.

As backup, my French was very handy and I once even found myself asking directions in German from someone whose accent in Dutch made it very clear where he was from.

I’ve had that same feeling of bliss elsewhere. Like standing on a bridge in Paris at night my first evening there with my beloved spouse, gazing at the buildings glowing with light and watching bateaux mouches glide down the river.  Once, through some scheduling mix-ups on one German tour, I ended up with something rare: free time. It happened to be in Munich and I actually had two entire days there for tourism, slow, fantastic meals in a number of restaurants, and a whole afternoon at the Nymphenburg palace and grounds.

There was a time I thought I might be teaching in Sweden, so along with studying Swedish (which I loved), I spent months researching sites across the southern part of the country for myself and whoever my students would be.  I read deeply about Swedish history and customs, tried out my Swedish on a friend with Swedish family and even studied a Swedish art song in my voice lessons.

The trip fell through for complicated reasons, but I’d been so immersed in what might be happening, watched so many videos, it felt as if I’d actually been there.  For a whole year and a half, I was dedicated to the idea of being in Sweden for a month and a half, and when it didn’t happen, I somehow wasn’t as disappointed as I expected to be.  The same thing has happened with trips to Nice and other cities where I had tremendous fun just planning: studying everything from train schedules to walking tour maps and restaurant menus.  When I plan a trip, I buy books, watch travel videos, study the destination in depth and the immersion is all-consuming.

It’s said that the journey not the arrival matters, but sometimes, for me, the journey doesn’t get father than my iPad–and that’s fine.

How about you?  Have you ever felt like this about a trip that didn’t happen?

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.  He is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association.

 

Rachel Caine’s “Stillhouse Lake” is a Perfect Thriller!

I’ve been reviewing mysteries and thrillers since the 90s and it’s been a very long time since I got goosebumps reading a crime novel.  And even longer since I felt torn between rushing ahead to find out what was going to happen next and slowing down to savor and marvel at what an amazing book I was reading.

Rachel Caine’s Stillhouse Lake is that book.  It’s beautifully crafted, scary and terrific in every single way: plot, characterization, style, and pacing. Hell, even the cover is creepily perfect.

Caine’s hypnotic narrator is Gwen Proctor, a woman on the run ever since her husband’s horrific secret life was exposed and led him to prison. She’s trying to protect herself and her kids from the sociopaths on the Internet who blame her for her husband’s crimes and make obscene, horrific threats. As happens way too often now, hatred’s gone viral and she’s the target of a vicious, disgusting cyber mob.

Despite the despair she sometimes feels, she’s strong, resourceful, and a very good shot. She’s turned herself into a fierce and indefatigable woman who might remind you of Sarah Connor in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Gwen needs to be quick-thinking and strong because she’s pursued by psycho cyber terrorists. She and her kids keep having to abandon one town after another, one identity after another, until perhaps, just perhaps they’ve found a new home with people they can trust and maybe even admire.

Well, you know how long that’s going to last….

Caine avoids a trap many thriller writers fall into: her action scenes are as clear as possible without an excess word, and you always know exactly what’s happening.  Equally important, she’s also a deft psychologist, capturing every single nuance of Gwen’s struggle in lean, evocative prose. Gwen’s love for her children is so intense the book practically blazes with that love.  Her torment is just as intense.  How could she have been so naive as to marry a man who was a heinous criminal–and not figured him out?  The shame, the guilt, it’s all there, dramatized and heightened as one great plot twist follows another.

I actually read the prologue and first chapter twice because I was so blown away by the power and intensity of what Kaine was doing, and by the plight of a deeply sympathetic narrator whose life may never be restored to any semblance of normality.

I’ll say it again: this is a perfect thriller.  So prepare for plenty of OMG moments, and for losing lots of sleep.

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie and 24 other books in many genres.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

 

Watching “The First” As A Writer

At one writing workshop I recently taught, one of the students said she never watched television. I told that my experience was very different. I watch TV series and movies on Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix–but not just for entertainment or escape.

I watch them as a writer. I pay attention to how scenes are constructed, to dialogue that feels natural and moving, to how conflicts are sparked and develop, to character creation through habits, quirks, gestures, evasions, and everything else that makes them real.

None of that detracts from the sheer pleasure of being lost in someone else’s world–it adds to it.

Sometimes I fall in love if a show or movie seems to be doing something I haven’t seen before, or gives old ideas a new spin.

Recently I was blown away by The First, a new Hulu show in eight binge-worthy episodes that features Sean Penn, Natasha McElhone, Oded Fehr and a very strong supporting cast.  Created by Beau Willimon, it’s set in the near future where almost everything seems voice operated and cell phones don’t exist: your phone is a small device set in your ear and responds to voice commands.  People also share things like virtual reality concerts by linking special lightweight eyeglasses.

In Louisiana, a private company and NASA have teamed together to send a manned mission to Mars.  The whole first season explores the monumental problems involved, but more than that, it dives deep into what it’s like to be an astronaut in such a program–or married to one.  The impact of potential loss and distance from your loved ones is a major theme.

Fear and sacrifice are also themes, but the show creates an almost dreamy sense of wonder about space travel and expanding human knowledge that’s emphasized by a subtle and moving sound track.  Best of all, people’s conflicts aren’t neatly resolved–they’re left open and it feels so much less mechanical than most series because of that.

The show has moved me to tears many times for many reasons, and inspires me to make my own work as powerful in my own way.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of twenty-five books in many genres.  A veteran of university teaching, he now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

Authors: Do You Want To Conquer Kindle?

Bad prose is apparently essential.

I recently got an email about L.J. Ross, the “Queen of Kindle,” an English author I’d never heard of, who’s apparently sold millions of books. So I went to Amazon to check out the first book in her series.  As a newspaper and radio reviewer for many years, I was struck by what the review quotes said, and what they didn’t say:

“LJ Ross is the queen of Kindle” – Sunday Telegraph

“Holy Island is a blockbuster” – Daily Express

“A literary phenomenon” – Evening Chronicle

There was nothing about the books as books–these papers all tout her success, not her writing. It made me wonder if Ross might be a phenomenon like the author of Fifty Shades of Grey. That is, a huge bestseller despite ridiculous characters and laughable prose.

I downloaded a sample of Ross’s Holy Island, her debut novel which is set on Lindisfarne Island off Northumbria.  But I couldn’t make it past the first few pages for a number of reasons.  The clichés of “huddled together for warmth” and “crashing waves” put me off.  The larger cliché is a tired crime fiction trope: the trapped woman.

Lucy wakes up shivering near a famous ruined priory, and “her skin is exposed and helpless.”  Helpless?  A person can be helpless, but her skin itself?  And why not tell us how exposed she is, why make us guess?  Then we learn that she thinks her eyes are open but she’s not sure because it’s so dark.  It’s hard to believe anyone would not know whether their eyes were open or closed–but it turns out the darkness isn’t that deep anyway because she can see an outline of the priory and the sky is only “ink-blue” and “littered with stars.”

A bit further on Lucy tries to “feel her way to the edge.”  What edge?  We never learn.

She calls for help and hears someone approaching: “The footsteps maintained their unhurried gait and followed their inevitable path.”  People maintain a gait, not their footsteps.  But the author separates other things as well when she writes “Her mind struggled to process the words, to believe her ears.”  Is her mind some separate thing unconnected to her?  Wouldn’t just saying “She” be simpler and more accurate?

I read across genres and love good story-telling, but I can’t waste my time on writers whose writing is below par.  Especially writers who have people dying awful deaths suddenly thinking of something pleasant just before they die—in this case it’s “home.”  That’s another tired fiction moment.

Even the Amazon description of the book is poorly written, because it claims that the island of Lindisfarne is  “cut off from the English mainland by a tidal causeway.”  Causeways connect islands, but perhaps whoever wrote that was in the spell of her prose.  Bad writing can sometimes be hypnotic.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

 

Is Writing Every Day A Must?

Lots of authors worry about the number of words they write per day. Some even post the tally on Facebook as if they’re in some kind of competition.

And if they’re not writing at least 500 or 1200 or 2000 words or whatever quota they’ve set, they feel miserable. Why aren’t they working harder? Why are they stuck? What’s wrong with them? How come everyone else is racking up the pages?

If that kind of system works for you, fine. But I think too many writers believe that if they’re not actually physically writing a set number of words every single day, they’re not just slacking, they’re falling behind and even betraying their talent. Especially when they read on line about other people’s booming word counts.

How do they get caught in that kind of dead-end thinking? It’s thanks to the endless blogs and books that urge writers to write every day and make that sound not just doable, but the norm. Some days, though, it’s simply not possible. Hell, for some writers it’s never possible. And why should it be?

And if you can’t eke out your daily quota, the advice sometimes goes that you should at least re-type what you wrote the previous day. Well, even if I weren’t a slow typist, that’s never had any appeal for me, either, or made much sense. I’d rather switch careers then do something so mind-numbing.

I don’t urge my creative writing workshop students to write every day; I suggest they try to find the system that works for them. I’ve also never worried myself about how much I write every day because I’m almost always writing in my head, and that’s as important as putting things down on a page.

But aside from that, every book, every project has its own unique rhythm. While recently working on a suspense novel, my 25th book, I found the last chapter blossoming in my head one morning while on the treadmill at the gym. Though I sketched its scenes out when I got home, I spent weeks actually writing it.

Some people would call that obsessing. They’d be wrong. What I did was musing, rewriting, stepping back, carefully putting tiles into a mosaic, as it were, making sure everything fit right before I went ahead, because this was a crucial chapter. I was also doing some crucial fact-checking, because guns are involved and I had to consult experts as well as spend some time at a gun range. It took days before I even had an outline and then a rough draft of ten pages, yet there were times when I had written ten pages in a single day on this same book.

The chapter was the book’s most important one, where the protagonist and his pursuer face off, and it had to be as close to perfect as I could make it. So when I re-worked a few lines that had been giving me trouble and found that they finally flowed, it made me very happy.

And if I didn’t write a word on any given day or days, I knew I would be, soon enough. Because the book was always writing itself in my head, whether I met some magical daily quota or not. I don’t count how many words or pages I write a day, I focus on whether what I’ve written is good, or even if it has potential with revisions. That’s enough for me.

Lev Raphael has been teaching creative writing at Michigan State University, and you can study with him online at writewithoutborders.com.

Teaching Creative Writing Should Be Creative, Not Destructive

I’ve done a lot of speaking at colleges and universities around the country and faculty tell me many behind-the-scenes stories. Properly disguised, they make great material for my Nick Hoffman academic mystery series: tales of petty infighting, squabbling committees, ridiculous vendettas–all the simmering snarkiness that Borges called “bald men arguing over a comb.”

But I also hear stories from students that aren’t remotely amusing, stories about what it’s like for them to be in a classroom with a professor who sees teaching very differently than I do. Teachers who seem to enjoy shaming students in front of the rest of the class, as if they’re coaches whipping an under-performing player into shape.

Creative writing is one of my passions and I’ve heard of professors in these classes who stop students while they’re reading aloud and say, “That stinks!” or worse. I’ve never done that. I have stopped stopped students to ask them to slow down or read more distinctly, or to say something positive if I was blown away and couldn’t wait till they’re finished. And sometimes I just start laughing if the work is really funny. As for dissing a student’s work, seriously, who does that help?

I’ve heard of some professors who can be so intimidating that they make students shake with fear when they challenge what the students have to say. I’ve also heard of professors in creative writing classes who don’t let everyone read their work aloud, but keep picking their favorites, creating resentment and embarrassment. In my creative writing classes, everyone has read aloud because the class should be a creative community, not a jungle.

I see it that way because I had an amazing creative writing teacher freshman year at Fordham University; she became my mentor and model. She ran her workshops with good humor and warmth. She spurred us all to write better by pinpointing what we did best and helping us improve whatever that was. She never insulted us, humiliated us, made fun of us, or played favorites. She encouraged us all with grace and good humor. I’d even say she enjoyed us; she definitely enjoyed being in the classroom and made us feel that way, too. Nobody ever dreaded being there.

Teaching isn’t combat or coaching, especially teaching creative writing. We’re not in the classroom to humiliate and harden our students as if they’re going into the cutthroat world of business or getting ready for the next football game against a team with no losses. Our role should be to help them grow as writers, identify what they do best and where they need to do more work.

That’s what I do with my online creative writing workshops, too. As reporter Charles Kuralt put it simply: “Good teachers know how to bring out the best in their students.” Who needs shame to do that?

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon. His creative writing workshop site is writewithoutborders.com.

When A Character Seems TSTL

TSTL is a term used in the mystery reading/writing community for Too Stupid To Live. These are the characters in books and on big or small screens who seem to be smart but then make ridiculous mistakes that totally undermine their credibility. It’s the person who’s fully aware that a serial killer is on the loose who walks into their house and doesn’t turn on any lights. Readers or viewers howl in disbelief, press the pause button, or toss the book across the room.

I was recently watching an excellent British crime series that features some very strong woman detectives, and was very disappointed with a sudden plot twist.

The capable, resourceful, dedicated, and fiercely intelligent woman detective got a call and rushed off to meet someone, refusing to take anyone with her.  She also didn’t say where she was going or why.  The source she was meeting was closely connected to more than one murder and was possibly going to supply crucial information the detective’s whole team had been unable to get.

So what happens?  We see her in conversation at a restaurant but don’t see who it is (though we can guess), and she excuses herself to make a call to her chief to let him know she’s on to “something big.”  Okay, informing her superior is believable, and so is wanting some prvacy, but she doesn’t just step outside of the restaurant.

She crosses the street.

And walks down a dark alley.

With her back turned to passersby and traffic.

So of course she’s attacked before revealing what she knows.  The ambulance can’t get there quickly enough.  She dies.

This was infuriating.  There was no reason at all for her to behave the way she did, from start to finish, and it contradicted her character arc over four+ seasons.  Yes, she was impulsive, but never stupid.

Another term in the mystery world that applies here is “femjep.”  That’s when writers of whatever kind put a woman in ridiculous jeopardy.  It serves the plot, but it’s both retrograde and foolish.  Here, it was especially infuriating because you felt the writers wanted an unhappy ending to the season, and so they wrenched the character way out of whack.

Lev Raphael loves crime fiction and is the author of the acclaimed Nick Hoffman mysteries.  He teaches online creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.