Writers Don’t Need Your Ideas–They Need Time

I’ve lost track of how often people over the course of my career have told me at parties or on book tours great ideas they had for my next novel. I’m glad they’re enthusiastic, but my response is always, “Thanks.  You should write it.”

I don’t need ideas.  I have too many of them.  Right now, the books I’m working on include a WW II novel, a medieval novel, a novel set during the Russian Revolution, another set during the First Century in Judea, a new mystery, a new memoir, and a novel set in The Gilded Age.  Some are notes, some have been started, some have research files–and one is almost done.

What I really need is a clone who can finish all the books I wish I could finish the research for and write.  My time has become more limited ever since I started teaching creative writing and literature at Michigan State University.

I’ve generally taught only one course a semester, but I twice did MSU’s English Department a favor and filled in for someone who was promoted one Spring, so I taught two courses that semester.  I also taught a six-week summer course in London, filling in for a professor who had a family issue.  I love teaching.  It’s in my DNA since my mother and her father were teachers, but to do it well and to mentor students means my writing can’t be on the front burner the way it used to be.

So the very last thing I need is anyone “offering” me a book.

And what these helpful volunteers don’t realize is this: I don’t want other people to do my imagining for me–that’s one of the great joys of writing.  Getting suggestions, especially when they’re very detailed, is like being splashed with a bucket of cold water.

I’ve published 25 books, but I’m not a machine like some writers I know who can crank out one or more books every year, year after year.  I’m not a fast writer in general.  I need time to reflect, and that reflection is a solo job.

Among Lev Raphael’s many books is The Nick Hoffman mystery series, set in the wilds of academia.

Writing Past a Problem

Working on my most recently published book, I ran into a significant problem.  To move the novel forward, I needed my protagonist to have a confrontation with a minor character.  I knew what this woman’s role was in the book and how she drove the plot forward.

But the woman herself was a blank.  I had no idea what she looked like, what she sounded like, what kind of house she had.  None of that was real.  And so I did when I’ve learned to do after many years as an author: I let go.  Consciously, that is.

writer-thinkingI knew I would be musing about it freely and without stress if I focused my attention elsewhere.  Walking my dogs was one choice.  Working out at the gym was even better.  Freeing my mind and focusing on repetitive physical activity (treadmill, weights) has always helped me write.  Even if I’m not consciously writing, my subconscious is beavering away at the problem,  pondering the questions I’ve posed myself.

After a few weeks, the answers came to me when I did something a bit different: I worked out three days in a row instead of taking a day off between workouts.  Suddenly I could see this woman limping up to her front door past the impatiens.  I knew why she had planted them, and why she limped.

impatiensBetter still, I heard her speaking her first line to my protagonist, and once he answered, the scene took off.

But I didn’t head right to my PC or make any kind of notes.  I let the scene build.  Adding layers and complications.  Making connections with other parts of the book.  Many words, many realities.

After so many years of writing and publishing, I knew my own process well enough to know that I wasn’t ready.  I wanted to have a draft in my head since the scene  would anchor a whole chapter and push the book to its dark climax.

Writing isn’t just the physical act of clicking keys or wielding pen or pencil or even dictating.  It takes place invisibly–to everyone else but us authors.  That’s why it sometimes feels so magical.  And that’s why it’s often hard to answer the question “What are you working on?”  I often don’t want to say, and sometimes I’m not entirely sure.

It’s actually a lot easier when someone asks me “Are you writing a new book?” My reply is “Always.”

writer-ionescoLev Raphael is the author of Hot Rocks, a health club mystery, and 24 other books in many genres.  He teaches creative writing at Michigan State University.

Should I Be Writing Faster?

I’ve been a member of the same health club for a long time and lots of people there read my Nick Hoffman mysteries set in a college town that might remind them of the town we live in.  No matter when I publish a book in the series, somebody always asks, “So when’s the next one coming out?”

That could happen the same week there’s been a big article in a local paper or a couple of local radio interviews.

And if there’s no news soon about another book due to appear, telling people that I recently published a book doesn’t seem to count.  I get blank stares. The assumption seems to be that I’m lazy.  Writers apparently should be churning out more than one book a year.  Two or three, really.

man_in_hammock-e1437520839805My publishing schedule has never been regular over 25 years. Some years I haven’t published anything and one year I published three different books (in different genres) just because that’s how the publishers’ schedules worked out, not because I’d actually written three in one year.

My second novel took almost twenty years to finish.  Yes, twenty–while I was writing other books, of course.  That’s because I kept re-thinking and re-conceiving it, starting and stopping, and trying to figure out what exactly its shape should be. I’m glad I did, because The German Money got one of the best reviews of my life. The Washington Post compared me to Kafka, Philip Roth and John le Carré and I was sent on book tours in England and Germany to promote the editions published there.

heidelberg-castle(Heidelberg, a stop on two of my German book tours)

But some books took me only a year or even as little as six months to finish for various reasons.   So when people ask me “How long does it take you to write a book?” there’s no definite answer.

You can’t explain that to the cheerful guys who call you “Dude!” and ask about your next book while you’re on the way to the showers just wearing a towel and flipflops. Or people who decide to chat with you while you’re sweating on the treadmill.

The majority of folks seem to think that there’s a simple answer to questions about the writing life and that popping out another book can’t be  difficult, since it’s not as if writing is a real job, anyway, right? 🙂

If you’re a writer, what’s the question non-writers ask you most often?

writing is a businessLev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (A Guide to the Writing Life) and 24 other books you can find on Amazon.

Why Writers Believe in Ghosts

It’s because all of us writers are haunted.

Not by reviews that sting or that never even happened. Not by interviews that went sideways. Not by book tours that flopped or by books whose sales figures were disappointing.

No, many of the specters clustered around our desks, laptops, and tablets are the books we started and gave up on. They’re in our dreams, and their presence lingers no matter what we complete and publish.

Brown_ladyWe have unfinished chapters, abandoned proposals, piles of research we’ve boxed, notes we scribbled and filed and can barely decipher any more.  Even shelves’ worth of reference books we’re gathered together, read or skimmed or never got to.  There are also characters we fell in love with but we couldn’t get around to giving them life.

And then there the ghosts that are somewhat more insidious.  These are the ghosts inside the books we’ve written: the plot twists we changed and regretted after the book came out, the scenes we axed for one reason or another, the narrative threads we cut for expediency or coherence but later wished we hadn’t.  And sometimes a book is haunted by what you wanted it to be, and what you couldn’t accomplish for any number of reasons: a deadline, mischance, falling ill, or just not being ready.

confused lookI’ve got a full file drawer for just one novel alone that never grew past a first chapter I’m crazy about.  Every time I’ve gone back to it, I’ve thought the research involved would take too long, plus I’ve doubted the book’s marketability.  It’s a novel about a murdered American artist and I’ve got all sorts of juicy material about him and his family, including a rare book of poetry published by the killer.

For all the time I spent living and dreaming that book, it’s stuck in the land of What Might Have Been.  The further away from it I get, the less inviting the whole project becomes.

I’m not alone: I know we’re all ghost writers of one kind or another.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Vampyre of Gotham and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon.  You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/LevRaphael

Writing, Wandering, and Museums

I was recently in Philadelphia on a museum trip and I’m still musing as a writer about the experience.

One of my destinations was the Barnes Foundation on Benjamin Franklin Parkway near the Rodin Museum, which I’ve blogged about on The Huffington Post.  The Barnes is a work of art itself.  The approach and giant entry hall were so stately and cool in 90-degree heat that I felt like I’d taken a Valium, or a sea cruise, or a twenty-minute balloon ride high above the city. Choose your metaphor.

DSC01276

DSC01277

DSC01278The collection is unique for its stunning array of Renoirs, Cézannes, Matisses, and Manets–and how they’re displayed.  This is not like any museum you’ve ever been to.  Because each room replicates the original collection miles away to the millimeter, with paintings and furniture and objects arranged as ensembles.  Of course, the setting is modern all the same, so it’s not like The Frick in New York with its Gilded Age opulence intact in room after luscious room.

Frick2At the Barnes, the original mission was to teach underprivileged art students, not stupefy or dazzle visitors, and Barnes was constantly fussing with his collection as he acquired new pieces.

barnes-foundation-rm23w-600Subjects and objects complement and even interrogate each other in geometric arrangements (as you can see above), or even have amusing dialogues.  In one room, there’s a Rubens of an ecstatic King David playing the harp.  His eyes are rolling up in his head and he seems to be staring right at the fleshy buttocks of a Renoir nude hanging right above him.

rubensThe guided tour I took was informative, but as usual, I found myself drifting from the more famous paintings to unexpected canvases that captured me, like a gripping Modigliani that had a kind of proto-Jazz Age insouciance.  She seemed both tender and wild.  I wanted to know her story (or possibly write it?).

bf206The Barnes itself and moments like these in museums remind me so much of the writing life.

First, different books I read speak to each other, interact in surprising ways, spark projects I never expected to write.  Or stories, essays, even books I write end up going together in ways I could never have imagined: they start an unexpected internal dialogue, even ignite a controversy.  Which leads to more writing, more “arrangements” in my mind, in the body of my work.  Every story or book I’ve written has added to the whole in ways I couldn’t have imagined.  And like Barnes, I’m constantly re-arranging.

Then I have certain projects in mind, might even have launched them with some kind of fanfare, and yet–  Something draws me off to another subject, to another vision, to another dream, another journey.  My day at the Barnes was like that at every single turn.  No matter what I was directed to look at by my smart and friendly guide, I kept drifting to a different painting or room or reflection or vision. I was on my own private tour.  But then what can you expect?  As Robert Heinlein said, “There is no way a writer can be tamed and rendered civilized or even cured.”

I guess you could say that to write is to wander…..

Lev Raphael is the art-loving, travel-loving author of Book Lust: Essays For Book Lovers and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.

Getting Fantastic Fan Mail

I’ve been getting fan mail for many years now and from many places–but last week was the first time someone wrote me from Brazil.

Just seeing the word “Brazil” curiously shot me right back to 7th grade Social Studies class where I had a snooty teacher who liked taunting us students.

One day he was lamenting how little we knew about current events.  He said we probably didn’t know any world leaders outside of our own president and I raised my hand and said, “The President of Brazil is Costa e Silva.”  I had seen the name in the New York Times, which my parents read daily, and it somehow stuck in my head.  This only briefly deflected our teacher’s snide little speech, but I still remember his beady-eyed glare….

brazil flagBack then, even though I had my favorite authors like Dumas and Isaac Azimov, and I sometimes dreamed of being a writer myself, I never thought about fan mail.  When it started coming after I published my first short story in Redbook years later, I wrote back to everyone (of course now it’s email).  That’s because when I was only about twelve, I wrote to an author of a YA novel and he actually replied–from Paris.  I lost many things over the years through moves, but never lost that.

So here’s my surprising Brazilian fan email (with the town name and the writer’s omitted for privacy):

I am writing to you all the way from ——–  in the countryside of Pernambuco, a Northeastern state of Brazil. I teach American Literature at a federal university, and I would like you to know that your work is read by my students, and it is really inspiring to us all.

Because my students are usually at different levels of English language acquisition, I usually have them read and analyze short stories. The one we worked on this term was “Shouts of Joy,” from Secret Anniversaries of the Heart. We all loved it!

Congratulations on your great and inspiring work!

secret LRThe story they all enjoyed appeared in my first collection of short stories Dancing on Tisha B’Av which won a Lambda Literary Award.  It was later reprinted in the book mentioned and pictured above, which collects 25 years of my short fiction.  I originally published “Shouts of Joy”–an erotic Passover tale–in the mid-1980s.

Given all the time that’s passed, getting mail about that story is like finding a letter in a bottle washed onto a beach: mysterious and fascinating.  It’s almost as if it’s happened to someone else, as if I’m a character in a story, or I’m a reading a story about someone else getting this email.  In fact it is, since I’ve published so many stories since then, so many books, and become such a different writer.

What do I mean? Back when I conceived, wrote and published “Shouts of Joy,” I thought I’d only write short stories for the rest of my career.  I’d started my career by having won a big writing prize and publishing in Redbook–which had 4.5 million readers-before I left my MFA program, and there were many short stories writers I idolized.

But life had other, more interesting plans for me, and I’ve ended up writing in genres I never dreamed would call to me, including psychology and historical fiction.

Hearing now about the impact of this thirty-year-old story of mine makes me wonder who–if anyone–might be reading it thirty years from today, and where.  You know,  I think there might actually be a short story in that…..

author 6If you’re a writer, what’s some cool fan mail you’ve gotten, and if you’re a fan, what’s the most surprising response to your fan mail you’ve received?

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Guide to the Writing Life) and 24 other books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.

When Motives Miss by a Mile

I started reading crime fiction in high school: Agatha Christie, the Swedish writing team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, John Creasey, and the comic work of Phoebe Atwood Taylor.  I wasn’t great at solving puzzles, but I was always fascinated by what would actually drive someone to murder.

phoebe atwood taylor

That fascination took a different turn when I started reviewing crime fiction for The Detroit Free Press in the 1990s and continued to do so for about a decade.  Motive now wasn’t just something to study, it had to to be convincing, it had to fit perfectly into the entire clever construction of plot–or the carefully-built edifice buckled and sometimes even collapsed.  Reading crime novels where the motive for murder or mayhem was weak made me determined to ensure that my own mysteries never fell short that way.

And because I watch a lot of crime drama on TV and crime movies, I’m often thrown when a motive just doesn’t seem believable.  Case in point.  In a recent episode of Forever, whose sleuth is a medical examiner, a ballerina’s foot was found at a theater.  She was initially presumed dead until it was forensically determined that the foot had been surgically removed so as not to kill her.  Weird, right?  The suspects narrowed down quickly to her ex-surgeon brother and all the evidence was discovered in his home.

But why?  Jealousy?  That didn’t add up.  They’d escaped Cuba together so she could have a great career and she on the point of stardom, about to be dubbed a prima ballerina (the show actually got this wrong, mistaking a prima ballerina assoluta for a prima ballerina)

prima ballerinaThere’s a good chance in crime fiction that the “least likely” suspect is the one who did it, and when she was was found alive, I couldn’t imagine why she would have had her brother do it.  But she did, and here’s the bogus motive the writers came up with: 1) she had a degenerative bone disease and 2) she had only a year to dance and so 3) she wanted to go out in glory and be remembered forever that way.

I’ve known dancers and I thought this was ludicrous.  What dancer would consent to having her foot cut off even if she wouldn’t be able to dance again?  What person would consent to such horrible mutilation and be left crippled for the rest of her life?  Nothing about the character made her seem unhinged enough to do something so radical.

Sometimes crime writers of all kinds try so hard to be original or surprising that they end up just coming off as ridiculous.  This was one of those times.  She was still able to dance and she could have danced with the title and then retired for whatever reason and remained legendary.  Now she’s a legend in a freakish way (and is missing a foot!).  Why would any dancer want to be remembered like that?

Lev Raphael’s 25th book is the Michigan bestseller Assault With a Deadly Lie.  You can read about his other mysteries at his web site.

The Writer’s Life Can Be Crazy

Writers don’t tend to talk openly about their disappointments. It’s too revealing and often too painful. But we’ve all had them in one form or another, whether it’s a prize we didn’t get or a book that bombed.

My biggest one in a decades-long career came by way of an agent. This wasn’t your ordinary agent.  Oh, no.  She was one of the biggest in the country, with clients on the best seller list and a history of major deals.

When she read my book, she gave me the kind of feedback for making changes you’d expect from the best, smartest, most tuned-in editor. And her emails were as upbeat as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Working with her her was like jamming with a fellow jazz musician–we were so much in sync. But there were some false notes. She wanted the book to open in a way I thought was deadly dull, and she wanted to change the title to something awful.

I won about the title, but caved on the opening. Maybe she saw something I didn’t? Then she she arranged meetings in New York with almost two dozen bigwigs in publishing–people at the very top of their houses or imprints, people I’d read about but never dreamed would be looking at a book of mine.

Her talk was as bold and inspiring as her editorial advice. There was going to be an auction, and she thought $100,000 was a good floor. This was dizzying to someone who’d never gotten more than a $15,000 advance on a book.

Then the bomb dropped. She launched her campaign to sell my book just before Thanksgiving, even though I’d expressed some anxiety about that,  I’d always thought the period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s was when publishing slowed way, way down. At least in my experience, and I had published quite a few books by then. On top of that, the stock market had collapsed in New York, publishers were firing staff and in a state of panic.

depressionI’ll never know if she would have sold the book in a better financial climate, but I do that when she failed, know she dropped me in a New York minute, wouldn’t consider revisions and acted as if as if I had somehow disappointed her.  Her advice at that point was brief: “Why don’t you write a memoir? Those are flying out the door!”  And then she handed me off to her assistant.

I was crushed. That’s not hyperbole.  Six years later, the wound of being revved up by her and then dropped still stings.

I told her I’d already written a memoir that was being published (and had sold before I signed with her) and couldn’t write another on command.  Besides, even if I could, I wondered if she would have as much success with a memoir of mine as she had with my novel.

Ironically, that memoir hadn’t earned me much of an advance, but when it was published soon after this debacle, it scored me dozens of very well-paid speaking gigs in the U.S., Canada, and Germany.  I made many new friends, And then I sold my current and future literary papers to Michigan State University’s Special Archives for a satisfying sum at a time when authors I know were having trouble giving their papers away.

A very dark time turned deeply fulfilling, almost magical. As we say in New York, “Who knew?”  When I related this crazy sequence of events to a friend, he said, “Writers can be as normal as anyone else, but their lives are manic depressive.”  And he couldn’t be more right.  We go from high to low, sometimes within the same day, our careers as crazy as the stock market, trying to hold onto what really matters: the work we’ve devoted our lives to.

inexpressible_joy

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His work is taught in colleges and universities across the U.S. and has been translated into 15 languages.  You can read more about his books at his web site.

Why Are So Many Reviewers Careless and Clueless?

I confess. Even though I’m an author, I did go over to The Dark Side years ago and I’ve done hundreds of book reviews for newspapers, magazines, radio shows, and on line.

I’ve always tried to be fair and to avoid spoilers; I’ve always been scrupulous about getting my facts straight. But over the years I’ve had to put up with many reviewers who’ve been careless and just plain wrong when reviewing a book of mine, and it’s irritating. I’m not talking about reviewers who don’t like a book for one reason or another, but reviewers who just plain goof. Here are just a few examples.

A Booklist reviewer said that my novel The German Money dealt with a theme it didn’t remotely touch. I was lucky enough to know one of the Booklist editors and complained. He agreed, he apologized, and he changed the review on line, but the print review couldn’t be altered. I’m convinced the reviewer only skimmed my book and was thinking of another title of mine.

Then there was the Publishers Weekly reviewer who never even bothered to count how many mysteries there were in my Nick Hoffman series and published a review in which the number was off. That’s just plain sloppy and it’s happened more than once with other reviewers. Of course I wondered how carefully those reviewers even read the books if they got something so basic wrong.

A Michigan newspaper reviewer once criticized my narrator for misusing the word “access” when he supposedly should have used “excess.” Well, my narrator Nick Hoffman was an English professor and knew what he was saying.  He used “access” correctly in the sentence the reviewer didn’t understand; he was talking about an outburst of feeling. A quick check of a dictionary–physical or on line–would have helped the reviewer avoid making a mistake in print. It would also have expanded her vocabulary.

The latest example of a clodpole mishandling one of my books is the online reviewer who couldn’t even read the cover of my 25th book correctly. It’s clearly subtitled a novel of suspense, but this nimrod criticized it for violating the rules of a mystery. The only response to someone who doesn’t fully appreciate the difference between the structure of a mystery and the structure of a suspense novel is a head smack.

Head-smack

Oh, and a blog.  🙂

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense about militarized police, stalking and gun violence, and 24 other books in a wide range of genres which you can explore at his web site: http://www.levraphael.com.

The Dirty Secret of Publishing

I taught at a Michigan State University study abroad program in London this summer and had some superb guest speakers. Val McDermid wowed my writing students for her candor, especially when she told them about the lucky breaks she’d had in her career. “There are writers who are as good as I am,” she said, “they just haven’t been as lucky.” She made it very clear that even though talent and hard work were essential, so was luck.

http://vccoordinator.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/luck-clover.jpg

I thought about that when reading Robert McCrum’s entertaining biography of P.G. Wodehouse.  The comic writer was immensely talented, but just as lucky whether in London or New York. In each city, his timing was right because editors were hungry for the kinds of stories he could write.  And in New York, the gifted and speedy poet had no trouble composing witty lyrics in a city where musical comedy had become wildly popular.  He also met the right collaborators at the right time, all of which made him Fortune’s darling, not her fool.

I’ve had my share of luck. There was the editor who took over from another and wanted to launch my mystery series when his predecessor was highly dubious about it. And the university library archivist who actively pursued buying my literary papers and made a very lucrative deal with me, a deal I likely wouldn’t have gotten if I’d lived in another city.  But I’ve also had really bad luck. Like the overconfident, high-powered California agent who took a novel of mine to New York and not only shot her wad by hitting more than two dozen publishers all at once in the hopes of an auction, but she did it just as the stock market collapsed.

The Germans have a separate word for bad luck, Pech. It deserves its own term because it’s as formidable and potent a force in a writer’s career as the good kind. People in the publishing industry don’t like to talk about luck, and writers sure don’t. There’s a widespread fantasy, especially among newbies, that if you write a good book it will find an audience. Or that there’s some magical form of promotion that will make you a best seller. Currently, social media is supposedly the answer to the eternal question of what will make a book a hit, and there are hundreds of people willing to sell you a book (or their consulting services) that they promise will reveal the secret to success.

The real answer is that nobody really knows, and that nobody can predict whether a book will be lucky. It’s hard to admit that a book’s fate is so completely out of anyone’s control. But it’s the truth.

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie and 24 other books in a wide range of genres.