Why I Quit Newspaper Reviewing and Became a Happier Writer

Ten years ago I stopped reviewing for the handful of newspapers and magazines I’d spent a decade freelancing for.  But I kept reviewing on several radio stations because I felt freer there and had more fun; eventually I also moved on line to Bibliobuffet.com and The Huffington Post.

I didn’t quit print reviewing because the deadlines wore me down.  I loved the discipline of writing well under pressure, seeing my work in print so quickly, and knowing people read it.

And I didn’t quit because I had a vision of the decline of print journalism.

My main reason for quitting was bad policy.

On radio, nobody hassled me about whether a book had come out that week, that month, or the month before–but print reviewing was very different.  One newspaper editor in particular was obsessed with “timeliness.”  Here’s what she meant:  I couldn’t, for example, review a book in December if its official publication date was in November. Why? Because by then it was old.

This struck me as ridiculous. Reviewing books isn’t like covering fast-breaking news stories. Why would readers think the way my editor(s) did? Especially when I was reviewing fiction? Why would readers care about publication dates?

Let’s be clear. Not every newspaper or magazine operates in this way, but those that do are extremely rigid in their boundaries, and that’s sad.   Books get lost; staffers at publishing houses fall ill and fall behind; sometimes they forget to send all the review copies out.  Books can reach the reviewers late for any number for reasons, but if that happens at one of these outlets, the author and the publisher are completely out of luck.

Reviews are a crucial part of a book’s success, even bad reviews, because they alert people to the book’s existence, and not everyone believes bad reviews anyway.  I’ve bought books precisely because a certain reviewer didn’t like them and I knew our tastes were very different.

I don’t miss living with that kind of rigidity at all.  And I feel sorry for all those authors whose books don’t get in under the wire to at least be considered for review.  The strict policy about publication dates is old-fashioned, idiotically restrictive, and doesn’t serve the interests of the reading public well at all.

I’m glad I don’t have to work with editors who are so inflexible and that I can share my excitement about a book whenever I discover it, because that’s the best part of being a writer-reviewer. The second best part is finding a book to review that also makes me a better writer and when that happens, it’s magical.

Lev Raphael’s books have been translated into fifteen languages, most recently Czech and Romanian.  His 25th book is a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence, and militarized police: Assault with a Deadly Lie.

 

Who’s to Blame for Your Crappy Career?

Writers like Malcolm Gladwell have popularized the notion that all you need to become a genius or even an expert at just about anything is hard work. Do I hear RuPaul?

And it’s never to soon to start kicking butt, either.  Psychologist Ellen Winner says it’s now widely believed that “with sufficient energy and dedication on the parents’ part, it is possible that it may not be all that difficult to produce a child prodigy.”

Whoa. Think about it: truly dedicated parents can get their kids to write symphonies like Mozart, paint canvasses like Picasso, carve sculptures like Rodin, design buildings like Frank Lloyd Wright, create fashion to match Ralph Lauren.  The list is endless because they can get their kids to do anything. It’s all about work, and wanting it enough. Boom.

I come from a family of mathematically gifted people. My mother’s father was a statistician; my mother tutored her peers in mathematics; my older brother aced every math class he ever took from day one.  Math was like a religion in our house. But from kindergarten on, I had trouble with the simplest computations–and I still do.

Let me be absolutely clear: I was desperate to be good at math, and equally desperate to please my mother (and my teachers), but I kept disappointing everyone. I was a good little student in most everything else, and it was a torment to me that no matter what I did, no matter how anyone tried to help me, I just could not succeed. Neither could my teachers or my tutors. And no matter how many hours my frustrated mother spent trying to get me to understand what was elementary to her,  I just did not get it. 

All that hard work only led to embarrassment and shame, and that’s what this perverse new cultural naivete has the potential to induce, despite its smiley-face propaganda: feelings of inadequacy for everyone who doesn’t make it to the top. Because the answer isn’t bad luck, or not enough talent. Nope, it’s because nobody tried hard enough!  Not you, and definitely not your loser parents.

Andre Dubus is widely quoted as having said “Talent is cheap. What matters is discipline.” And now we know it started before we got the career bug in our heads.  We know exactly who to blame when we don’t make it as writers (or anything else): Mom and Dad.  If only they’d believed in us more; worked us harder; pushed us to the max we would all be best sellers (or celebrities).  Then we wouldn’t have to spend so much time and money in therapy complaining about how we never grabbed the brass ring.

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How to Diss Other Authors Safely: A Quick & Dirty Guide

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Watching other authors succeed in ways you can never dream of isn’t easy.  Life isn’t fair and that goes double or triple for the writing life.  There’ll be plenty of times in your career when you wish you could hire Olivia Pope and her Scandal team to just shutthemdown.

But speaking out about your feelings isn’t a good idea.  Not so long ago, Lynn Shepherd got  lambasted all over the Internet for having urged J.K. Rowling to stop writing.  In Shepherd’s view, Rowling is a literary Mount Etna whose magma is burying way too many other authors. Cap the volcano, whatever it takes!

Whether she was kidding or being serious, I think she chose the wrong way to express herself.  As an author of crime fiction she had obvious, wonderful tools she should have used, and it’s a path any author who wants to even the score can easily take.

Write about it, but disguise the people involved.  Channel the emotion and use it to fuel fiction of some kind where you can balance the scales in any way you want.  Take control of the situation by turning the “offending” author into a character over whom you have complete control.  Their fate is now completely in your hands.  Make it brutal, gory, grotesquely funny–whatever works, whatever gives you catharsis.

Turn the author’s latest book into a joke or a disaster.  Mock the title, the theme, the reviews, whatever gives you pleasure.  I’ve done that at least once and it didn’t matter that I’m sure the quite famous author never noticed–I had a ball because I thought he was so over-praised by the reviewers and I couldn’t stand his work.

When you channel your frustration this way, you’ll not only end up rising above the feelings weighing you down, you’ll also be extra productive.  Better still, if you do a good job of disguise, nobody but you, your agent and editor or whoever else you let in on the secret will know.

Masking the situation as fiction, you have the chance of not seeming mean-spirited and be far less likely to incite other people’s fans to shout Bansai! and launch their planes at your fleet.

The Internet Isn’t Elysium

I recently blogged about how where you live might affect your writing career, pointing out that access to various traditional media and publishing contacts is more likely in big cities.

I wasn’t remotely suggesting that people move from where they were, or discouraging anyone from writing in the first place if they didn’t live near a major media hub.  I was simply pointing out the possible downside of not living where you might have the kind of access to connections and exposure you don’t find in smaller towns and cities.

I’m keenly aware of that having grown up in New York and living in a Michigan town with only one newspaper that doesn’t do a lot of Arts coverage.

Many readers agreed with me when I cross-posted on The Huffington Post (and hundreds posted the column to Facebook), but some argued that the Internet has changed everything.  According to them, writers can go anywhere and be anywhere now.

That sounds true, but is it? There are more book stores in big cities where you can meet book sellers, and indie book stores are making a significant comeback.  There are also more radio and TV stations where you can do live interviews, more newspapers and magazines.  Those contacts can be made long distance and possibly even nurtured that way, but they’re not typically as intense as when they’re face-to-face.

Likewise, meeting writers, agents, and editors in person, sometimes casually, can’t be replaced by texting or Skyping or chatting on someone’s blog.  Obviously, you can do some of those things mentioned above by attending workshops and conferences, but you might have a head start if you’re already living where there’s a large concentration of media.

The flip side of course is competition for attention.  But that’s just as big a problem on line, maybe bigger, especially now that so many people are going indie and offering their books for $.99 or free.  No wonder ebook sales are flattening out.

Is the Internet the answer to a writer’s problems?  Sometimes, and sometimes it’s the source of brand new ones.

The Writer’s Ultimate Guide to Social Media

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At every writers’ conference I’ve been speaking at lately, the hottest topic has been social media.  Wannabe and established writers flock to these sessions like deathly Coronado seeking those seen golden cities.

They seem convinced that with the right information, they can use these new tools to promote themselves into writing stardom.  And fast, too.

Any why shouldn’t they be? Session after session, book after book, writing blog after writing blog all seem to promise that it you figure out the way to use Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram and Facebook and algorithms and SEO, you’ll hit the jackpot.  Your books will be in the Top 100, you’ll have tens of thousands of followers and customers if not more–hell, you might even develop your own lifestyle brand.  Just read X’s blog or book and see how she did it……

But it’s not possible for everyone to score big, is it?  And just like all the other other promotional fads of recent years like blog tours and Skyping to book groups, for example, this heavy focus on social media for authors can just as likely waste their time and divert them from their writing.

Americans love quick fixes and snake oil, always have.  It’s not surprising, then, that so many writers are following what’s going to be a false lead for most of them.  What a temptation to imagine yourself just one hashtag away from fortune and fame…

Writing is intensely competitive, like it or not. It’s hard to have a writing career of any kind and not compare yourself to other writers; that’s endemic in the business.  You’ll always find  someone selling more books, appearing at more venues, winning more prizes, making more money than you are, getting better reviews.

But things have only gotten worse now that publishing is easier and more and more people just like you, it seems, are getting rich because they have the secret.

According to the New York Times, “A small but growing body of evidence suggests that excessive social media use can lead to an unhealthy fixation on how one is perceived and an obsessive competitiveness.”

We writers have enough ways to make ourselves miserable without even getting out of bed–hell, some of us probably can do that in our sleep. Who needs more help?

Lev Raphael’s most recent book is a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence, and police militarization: Assault With a Deadly Lie.

Instagram Authors?

The New York Times recently reported that fashion designers like Jason Wu and Diane von Furstenberg are turning to Instagram for inspiration and to take the pulse of their fans.  They monitor where and how fans are wearing their designs and also poll fans for opinions and suggestions for their work.

The iPhone app is apparently “generating 25 times the level of engagement of other social media platforms.”  So when will publishers start pushing their authors to switch to this hot new social medium that’s outpacing Facebook and Twitter?

Think of the possibilities!  Authors could find out where and when fans are reading their books.  They could post and enhance photos of themselves on tour and at work. They could post images of how they imagine their characters, seek advice about book covers, and generally engage with their fans 25 times more than they do already on any other social medium and have their photos instantly posted to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Posterous and Tumblr.

Every aspect of their lives, from morning to night, could be photographed and commented on.  Best of all, the Instagram community doesn’t seem to generate the kind of snark other platforms do.

And if they plunged into the new, new thing, they could also catch up with the shifting social media landscape, discovering why Instagram is so hot, why Facebook acquired it for one billion dollars, and why it has this stellar track record, as Kelly Lux reports on her blog:

  • Launched on October 6, 2010
  • #1 in the App Store within 24 hours of launch
  • iPhone App of the Week
  • Holds the record as quickest to reach 1 million downloads, occurring on December 21, 2010
  • Launched 7 new languages
  • An Instagram photo made the cover of the Wall Street Journal
  • Surpassed 25 million users in early March, 2012

The possibilities for authors and their fans are endless, and publishers will no doubt be relentless in chasing after the next Holy Grail of PR.

If they’re not doing so already.