After 26 Books, I’m Still Learning How To Write

I’m a highly visual person and I think I got my training early, growing up in New York, a paradise of museums.  From elementary school onward, my parents took me on repeated trips to the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan.

My very first exposure to genius was when the Met bought Rembrandt’s “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer” for an unheard-of sum.  I recall being very little and actually crawling through the crowds on my hands and knees so I that could get to the front.  The moody, evocative painting was breathtaking, an entrance to a brand new world.

But that’s what I felt in every museum, whether it was discovering Braque at MOMA, Kandinsky at the Guggenheim, or Monet at the Met.  I didn’t have words for my experience, but looking back, I know that time after time, I felt elevated, transported, and hungry.  I wanted to see more.

And I did, roaming gallery after gallery, and expanding my range to other museums like the Frick.  It was a world of magic, discovery, and promise.  I often felt like Henry James when he visited Rome the first time and wrote “I went reeling and moaning thro’ the streets, in a fever of enjoyment.”

I never imagined that I was going to be a painter, but from second grade on, I felt destined to turn the world into words the way these masters turned the world into experiences on canvas.  Each one was a doorway to wonderment and a world that was waiting for me in Europe.

Sculpture appealed to me, too, whether Greek and Roman glories at the Met or Brancusi’s stark, eloquent experiments in texture and form at MOMA and elsewhere.  Years later I would be moved to tears by a whole exhibition of Brancusi’s sculptures at the Tate Modern when I wandered through the near-empty galleries.  Like a character in Brideshead Revisited, I felt that I was “drowning in honey.”

When I started publishing fiction after years after creative writing classes and completing an MFA in Creative Writing, I was keen to paint with words, to describe what people and places looked like.  Sounds and aromas were secondary, not that it stopped me from writing many books and winning prizes, doing book tours here and abroad, finding my work being taught at universities, and even selling my literary papers and correspondence to a university library.

But in recent years, certain writers who appeal to more than the visual have captured me and taught me to be a better writer because they create an environment that’s also aural and olfactory.  Martin Cruz Smith does this in his crime novels set in Russia that expose corruption and bloated bureaucracy, the chaos observed by his cynical hero Akady Renko.  C.S. Harris also creates a mesmerizing landscape that is multi-dimensional in her Regency mystery series which often explores the wealth and privilege of the period’s upper crust.

In a league all its own is Janet Fitch’s best seller White Oleander about Astrid, a young girl coming of age despite the vengeful, seductive madness of her brilliant, demanding, poet mother.  Sent to jail for murder, her mother is the unhappy touchstone in Astrid’s life as she bounces from one foster home to another, learning harsh lessons about life, memory, and herself.  Her Norwegian name can either refer to strength or beauty, and both are qualities she discovers in herself through harrowing circumstances.

Fitch’s story-telling is powerful because it’s rooted in emotion and the senses, woven through with striking similes and metaphors:

By April, the desert had already sucked spring from the air like blotting paper.

I wanted to tell her not to entertain despair like this.  Despair wasn’t a guest, you didn’t play its favorite music,  find it a comfortable chair.  Despair was the enemy.

So much going on in Kandinsky, it was like the frames were having trouble keeping the pictures inside.

The pearls weren’t really white, there were a warm oyster beige, with little knots between them so if they broke, you only lost one.  I wished my life could be like that, knotted up so that even if something broke, the whole thing wouldn’t come apart.

Of course Astrid doesn’t get her wish as her life gets broken apart again and again, breaking the reader’s heart because she feels so deeply and is so alone.  That last quotation is a perfect example of Fitch’s gift for taking an object and making it become deeply personal, emblematic of a character’s turmoil.

I was so caught up in the beauty of the writing and the fierceness of the author’s vision, I didn’t want it to end, but I also knew that it would inspire me to make my own books live and breathe more fully than before.

Lev Raphael is the author of State University of Murder and two dozen other books in many genres. He offers creative writing workshops, editing, and mentoring online at writewithoutorders.com.

How Dumb Can a Thriller Character Be?

Picture yourself after being hit by a car.  You wake up in a hospital bruised and battered, with big gaps in your memory. Your foot is damaged and you can’t walk without assistance when you’re released because it’s painful and difficult.

So when the husband you don’t remember brings you home to the enormous house you don’t remember, and says that you can sleep in the guestroom on the first floor, you of course insist on sleeping in your bedroom up a double flight of stairs, right?  You obviously need the challenge, and you “don’t want to be any trouble.”

That’s the case even though you don’t know your way around, you don’t have crutches (standard issue in a situation like this), but you did get a measly little cane which barely supports you when you try to walk and which you keep dropping.

You haven’t made any attempt to contact your friends at work or any other friends while you’ve been in the hospital, and even though you can’t seem to get internet service at home, you don’t really question your husband about these missing colleagues and friends.  You just let it slide.

Trying to jog your memory, you study a photo album where you notice that the hair on the back of your husband’s head in a mirror is a different color than the rest of his hair. Of course you’re only mildly puzzled since you’ve never heard of Photoshop.

When you finally discover that your husband isn’t who he claims to be, you crisscross the extravagant kitchen multiple times in your attempts to escape (and make a phone call) and while doing so, you avoid picking up anything that could be a weapon. You just hobble back and forth and don’t bother grabbing a knife, a weighty meat tenderizer, a pot or a pan.

Why? Because you’re an idiot. Because you’re a heroine in a film that gives “femjep” a bad name.

You’re not the only idiot on screen. The detective who figures out that there’s something fishy about your husband comes to your house alone. No call for backup. An ex-cop I interviewed for my latest mystery recently told me that this is one of the most frustrating things he sees on TV and in films: cops going cowboy. “It doesn’t happen,” he said.

But it has to happen in films written by people who think the audience is too dumb to know better.

Secret Obsession is only about ninety minutes long, but it’s a black hole of stupidity. There’s a pretty house to ogle and the leads have nice hair, but that’s about the best it can offer.  Don’t waste your time, unless you enjoy yelling at characters who just can’t seem to do anything right.

Lev Raphael is the author of State University of Murder and two dozen other books in many genres. He offers creative writing workshops, editing, and mentoring online at writewithoutorders.com.

When Friendship Goes Terribly Wrong

Has a new friend ever seemed a bit too friendly, too helpful, too willing to please? This friends gets close to you very fast, sharing intimate life details while doing everything possible to basically seduce you.  It happens at time when you’re desperate to break out of your isolation and depression. You share confidences really quickly and this friend becomes a lifeline.

Until the friend shows flashes of something troubling and things start to go wrong….

That’s the premise of Andrew Kaufman’s terrifying thriller What She Doesn’t Know which manages to turn this situation into electrifying high drama while keeping it very intimate.

Riley Harper is a pariah in her small town but doesn’t have the money or energy to escape.  Falsely accused of killing her teenage daughter, she’s spent time in a mental institution and even her sister Erin isn’t sure about what happened.  It doesn’t help that Riley flies off the handle way too easily and is intensely paranoid.  This state of mind has roots in a very troubled childhood and it’s no surprise when she starts stanning a beautiful, wealthy neighbor.  Riley is obsessed by this woman’s lifestyle and actually breaks the law to wallow in her obsession.

But she has a roller coaster of shocks ahead of her.  Her new friend Samantha Light, living off inherited wealth, may be beautiful, generous, and affectionate–but she has darkness in her past as well and the two women bond around shared misery.

On the surface it starts out feeling like Christmas.  Samantha treats her to a shopping spree, lets Riley drive her luxury car, and gives Riley the kind of affection and support she desperately needs from her sister but isn’t getting.  Life couldn’t have taken a better turn for someone who is barely scraping by and can’t be sure that she knows what’s happening in her own crappy apartment.  Is she forgetting where she put things–like a big kitchen knife?  Is she being stalked, perhaps by a detective who was determined to convict her of her daughter’s murder?

And then Samantha reveals another side to her personality that throws Riley off kilter.  Is Riley over-reacting?  Is she too sensitive?  Or is she in deep trouble?

The prose is lean, the story moves like a high speed train, and the emotions are utterly believable.  Riley is the kind of character you keep yelling at: “Don’t do it!”  But of course she does, and it makes sense at every turn because the author understands the depths of despair and the craving for a lifeline. Kaufman’s constructed a tale with some wild twists and Riley’s plunge into a new kind of darkness is likely to keep you reading through the night.  And make you wonder about a new friend’s possible hidden motives.   Riley’s paranoia is almost contagious, and that’s a fabulous achievement.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk! and two dozen other books in many genres. He offers creative writing workshops, editing and mentoring online at writewithoutorders.com.

9 Writer Types to Avoid

Writing is lonely and sometimes it seems that the only people who truly understand what that feels like are other writers, but the bond can be deceptive.  Just because someone else writes doesn’t mean that they’re truly simpatico.  Be careful who you choose to bring into your writing world and make a friend.  You might end up regretting that choice.

–Avoid writers who are obsessed with the ups and downs of the publishing world. Knowing what the trends are is important, but it shouldn’t keep you from writing what you want to write, or distract you from your own work.

–If you notice that a writer consistently belittles their own success, stay away.  There’s nothing wrong with healthy enjoyment of doing well.  But some writers are never happy, and that undertow of negativity might eventually affect you.

–Be wary of writers who dismiss or even ignore how you feel about career setbacks or disappointments.  If they can’t empathize with you when you’re down, is that really a person you want to know long-term?

–Not everyone feels the need to write every day, and writer friends who obsess about their daily progress via word counts or page counts can become annoying, even if you’re not feeling stuck.

–Publishing is uncertain, but avoid writers who are paranoid about things that will never happen to them, like being dropped by their publishers when they’re successful.  You’ve got your own real worries to deal with.

–Sometimes other writers will let their contempt show about the genre you write in, if it’s not one that they truly admire.  Don’t hang around anyone who actually looks down at your work while pretending to be a buddy.

–If you’ve got a writer friend who keeps sending you their great reviews, interviews, etc., ask yourself why?  Does he or she feel the need to impress you?   What for?  Isn’t it enough to just share the news itself?

–Beware of writers who tell you what you need or what your work is missing.  One friend reported to me that another author told her she didn’t have “enough angst” to be a writer.  Blanket assessments like that are pointless, dumb, and insulting.

–We’re all busy (if things are going well), but writers who keep complaining that they’re over-committed yet won’t stop doing events like readings, signings, or conference panels that they claim frustrate them obviously have a deep need to complain.

In the end, being connected to other writers is important, but it’s just as important to have friends who aren’t writers. That’ll help you remember that the world is a place where not everyone is working with words 24/7.  It’ll keep you sane.  Well, saner….

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk! and two dozen other books in many genres. He offers creative writing workshops, editing and mentoring online at writewithoutorders.com.

 

 

Fine Summer Dining in Chicago’s Loop

On my first trip to France, I spent a week in the Loire Valley based at a chateau hotel whose restaurant had a Michelin star. Everything was impeccable and the first night, when the owner asked how I liked my meal, I surprised myself by responding “J’ai tombé en extase” (I’m in ecstasy). It’s a line I must have read in one of my many French classes over the years and suddenly remembered.

Well, I felt like that this past weekend dining out on Catalan tapas at Mercat a la Planxa on South Michigan Avenue, a few blocks down from the Art Institute, on the second floor of the Blackstone Hotel. The setting couldn’t be more different: it’s a large, high-ceilinged crescent-shaped room with mosaic tiles on the wall above the kitchen which match the room’s decor of browns and orange.  You step down into the dining area and feel that you’re both cozy and on stage. The food was appropriately theatrical in presentation and dramatic in taste.

I sampled figs wrapped in bacon; cannelloni filled with short ribs, foie gras, and truffle béchamel; potatoes with salsa and chili oil; and several more. All of them were mouth-wateringly delicious, and my server wisely suggested I go with an Albariño, a sturdy, dry white wine I’d had once before at a local tasting dinner in Michigan. My dessert was an outrageous crème brullée topped with a scoop of pistachio ice cream and there were Marcona almonds in the mix. It was chewy, sweet, and salty.

I was on a mini-vacation after having written three chapters of a new mystery faster than I expected, and this felt like a fitting reward for hard work, and inspiration to keep going.

There was more fine dining ahead. The next afternoon I had lunch with old friends at Terzo Piano at the top of the new wing of the Art Institute. It’s a cool, clean space of white and grey which in a way matches the elaborate stonework of the Gilded Age buildings you can see on Michigan Avenue. It’s like an aerie.

The menu was small and select and while waiting for my friends I feasted on goat cheese fritters which were so good I made sure to save some for them–though the temptation not to was strong. When my friends arrived, two of us ordered crispy eggplant with a cashew dressing. It was very subtle, the presentation and service lovely, eye-catching.   I had just seen the Institute’s sublime Manet exhibition of late portraits and still lifes and felt that I had entered a painting myself, perhaps a David Hockney.

The restaurants were unique in style and cuisine, and each offered a celebration of fine food beautifully and lovingly prepared.

Lev Raphael loves to travel and he’s the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.