Writers Are Not Machines

Well, I’m not, anyway.

I do have writer friends who can produce a book (or more!) a year no matter what kind of crisis is hitting them at home.  Contracts pull them through.  That, and stubbornness.  I couldn’t work that way.

I was just at a party and someone asked me what I was working on.  I said, “Nothing. I published my 25th book last Fall.  I’m taking time off.”  He looked at me like I was a slacker or something.  But that’s not an unusual response.

I’ve been a member of the same health club for over two decades and lots of people there read my Nick Hoffman mysteries set in a college town not unlike East Lansing.  No matter when I publish a book in the series, someone will always ask, “So when’s the next one coming out?”

Sands of TimeIt could be the very same week there’s been an article in a local paper or a radio interview.  Really.  As if I’m churning them out with the help of a team of interns or androids.

And God forbid there’s no news within a year of another book due to appear.  Telling people that I just published a book in the past year doesn’t seem to penetrate.  I get blank stares. What’s wrong with me, am I lazy? seems to be the unspoken assumption.

man_in_hammock-e1437520839805Okay, publishing 25 books in different genres over the last 25 years isn’t shabby–but they haven’t come out on any sort of regular basis. Some years I haven’t published anything and one year I published three different books just because that’s how the publishers’ schedules worked out.

In case that sounds like I’m Type A, I should explain that my second novel took almost twenty years to finish.  Yes, twenty, working on and off because I kept re-conceiving it. 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-castleBut some books took me only six months to write from concept to completion for various reasons.  And another book was fairly easy to put together because it was a collection of already-published essays.  So it’s all highly unpredictable.

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. or the people who think that popping out another book can’t be that difficult since it’s not like I have a real job, anyway.

Maybe I should ask them, “So, when are you doing your next brain surgery?” or “When’s your next super-messy divorce case?’ or “When’s your next multi-million dollar real estate deal?”

Nah.  I’ll just blog about it, or write them into my next book.  Whenever.

writing is a businessLev Raphael’s latest book, the suspense novel Assault With a Deadly Lie, was a Midwest Book Award Finalist and deals with police militarization and out-of-control SWAT teams.  It came out at the time when the Ferguson story hit the news; he’d been working on it for about four-five years.  You can find his books on Amazon.

 

7 Reasons I’ll Skip “Go Set a Watchman”

1) As a longtime print, radio, and on-line reviewer, I’ve always recoiled at massive media hype. I prefer to champion small press books and books that fly under the radar–and they make me more curious. It annoys me to see a book blitzed so relentlessly, and when a PR stampede roars into life, I’m suspicious and get the hell out of the way.

stampede2) When it comes to my favorite Southern writers, over the years I’ve preferred reading Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Dorothy Allison, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Alice Walker, and Faulkner.  Yes, Lee won a Pulitzer–but even though her classic book is wildly popular, it’s not at the top of my personal list.

3) The circumstances around the “discovery” of the book get murkier all the time and it’s increasingly probable that Go Set a Watchman is really an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird and not actually a “new novel.”  Lee’s own previous comments about her working relationship with her editor make that pretty clear.

190px-Mockingbirdfirst4) It’s unlikely that aged, infirm Lee had anything to do with publishing the manuscript.  Her own sister was quoted by Lee’s biographer as saying, “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.”  Where’s the proof she would want us reading what she’d kept private for so long?

harper-lee_3374329b5) Reading about Go Set a Watchman and reading excerpts (including Chapter One in The Wall Street Journal) hasn’t made it seem appealing.  That includes Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker quoting a drab passage I’m supposed to find “lovely.”  None of the reviewers has convinced me it’s a better or more interesting book than To Kill a Mockingbird.

6) If Lee weren’t famous, the manuscript (however it had been discovered) wouldn’t have been anything more than an archival curiosity.  It’s something a scholar might have eventually published with “apparatus”: notes, timeline, an introduction, etc.  But the Rupert Murdoch Money Machine has helped turn it into a global event instead.

Colorful fireworks lighting the night sky7) HarperCollins publisher Jonathan Burnham said that “We [only] gave the book a very light copy edit.”  So Harper Lee is such a genius that she can go right into print without real editing?  That smacks of opportunism, sloppiness, or dishonesty.  I don’t want any part of a book published in such circumstances. I might, however, watch Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird again to see if it holds up or if–like the novel–it’s just something that meant a lot to me in my adolescence….

"To Kill a Mockingbird"Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.

 

The Editor Who Worked My Last Nerve

I’ve been fortunate in my career to have terrific editors for stories or essays appearing in magazines and anthologies.  The same goes for all my books, whether the presses were large or small. Well, almost all my books.

An editor at a good trade press once asked me out of the blue if I had a book for him–now isn’t that every writer’s dream? The dream became tarnished within a year. I was headed on a German book tour for another book while “his” book was in press and he told me the schedule had been advanced several months.  He insisted on sending me the e-galleys for correction while I was going to be in Germany. I told him I couldn’t go over them because I’d be on and off trains and rarely in one city more than one day. It wasn’t feasible: I wouldn’t have enough uninterrupted time to concentrate and do a good job. I thought I was being a responsible author, but he ignored my concerns.

db-overview-3This was my first book tour in Germany and it would turn out to be the worst flight I’d ever have going to Europe.  Trouble started with being in a seat that didn’t recline behind an over-sized passenger who reclined all the way. Then I was right across from a toilet so I was enveloped in that chemical smell for the whole flight.  A kid threw up in the aisle just a few feet away from me and soon after that, the plane turned back somewhere over the Atlantic because a man had a heart attack.

We landed in Newfoundland in complete darkness which was terrifying, and I knew for sure I would be late getting to Schiphol in Amsterdam. Very late.  And that’s a confusing, crowded airport anyway.

schiphol 2I was able to make some calls when we landed in Newfoundland, but I was totally stressed out and unable to sleep when we were back en route to Europe.  In Amsterdam, I had to run through that enormous crowded airport to make a connecting flight, and arrived in Berlin sleepless and exhausted.  There was just enough time for me to wash my face at my hotel, put on deodorant and change my shirt before being rushed to my reading (which I still managed to introduce in pretty good German).

berlin at nightBecause I used only a PC at home, I didn’t have a laptop in Germany and discovered to my horror that Internet cafés had German keyboards–well, of course, why shouldn’t they? But the layout and letters threw me and my emails looked like I was drunk.

Proof my book under those extra-trying circumstances? I explained to this insistent and clueless editor that even if I had time it couldn’t happen, so I asked him again to please wait till I got home in a few weeks–or proof the galleys himself. I’m not sure if he bothered, because at the next stage, back home, the book had a major goof which, he, I, and the copyeditor had all somehow missed.  This happens in publishing all the time as any author will tell you: mistakes slip through. But if I’d had the galleys and had time for them (say, with only half as many readings on my schedule), I would have caught the problem.

It was too expensive to reset the book at this late date–that’s what the publisher told me. So the book I was so proud of wasn’t published in as polished a form as it should have been, and the editor I was originally flattered to work with turned into an unsympathetic jerk.

An author friend told me when my career had just gotten started that the only thing worse than not being published was being published.  It opened you up to a range of shocks and disappointments you never knew existed. But I’m glad my career has proven his wisdom true only sometimes, and that this editor was a very rare exception for me.

Happy-Writer1Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres which you can find on Amazon, including Assault With a Deadly Lie, a suspense novel about militarized cops, which was a finalist for a Midwest Book Award.

Secret Shame & Public Joy: 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 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, it because 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 few books by then. On top of that, the stock market collapsed in New York, publishers were firing staff and in a state of panic, and nobody was buying big books–not even from her.

depressionI’ll never know if she would have sold the book in a better financial climate, but I do 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 just write another on command.  Besides, even if I could, I wondered if she would have as much success with a memoir 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, out 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.

Maybe You’re Right and the Reviewers are Wrong?

As an author who’s done hundreds of readings and signings around the country (and abroad) I’m often asked about books on the best seller list and books in the news.  I learned a long time ago to be very careful how I answered those questions.  At the beginning of my career, a well-known author had warned me to watch what I said.  He’d made an unfortunate remark about one of his peers when he was starting out, and it had hurt him.

So I often turn the question around and ask what my audience member thinks.  Usually the response is: “I didn’t like it.” That’s why they asked the question in the first place.  They wanted the opportunity to express it publicly, and with an author present; somehow that makes it all more official or permissible–or both.

Everything is Illuminated is one novel I remember many people at various venues saying they found frantic and phony one year when I was out on tour; The Lovely Bones was another book people complained about a different time I was touring.  I didn’t like either one for various reasons, but all I said in either case was that the writing didn’t draw me in. That’s the territory I stake out: technique.

Disliking popular and acclaimed books has been on my mind lately, given the rapturous reviews for the movie of Gone Girl, which have pretty much followed the whole reviewing world’s take on the book. Seriously, is there a newspaper in the country that isn’t crazy in love with Gillian Flynn’s novel?

Friends whose opinion I respect have urged me to read it, and I tried more than once.  Really.  I never got very far.  I found the writing off-putting.  I tried her other books to be fair, and they didn’t work for me either stylistically.

But this isn’t the first time a universally acclaimed book hasn’t passed my smell test.  I reviewed for the Detroit Free Press and other outlets for over a decade and I often found myself at odds with the reviewing consensus.

So If it helps any of you out there who didn’t like Gone Girl, or found it boring, you’re not alone.  Take a closer look at the Gone Girl Amazon page.  The last time I checked, for the 14,000+ readers there who gave it four or five stars, 7,000 gave it only one, two, or three.  You’re not alone, and it’s okay.

sleepingstudenty_Large

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie and 24 other books in genres from memoir to Jane Austen mash-up.  You can read about them here.

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.

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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.

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.

Digital Diet? Not For Me.

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Years ago, I followed health guru Andrew Weill’s advice and took a “news fast.”  I stopped reading newspapers and news web sites for six weeks.  I found myself calmer during that period, and spending more time both working and enjoying myself.  I read more books, I wrote more, I relaxed more.

Lately I’ve seen talk about “digital diets” or fasts: taking time to unhook completely from our constant connectedness.  I get that.  I actually returned my Android phone six months after I bought it and went back to a pre-smart phone.  I had found myself more obsessed with email than usual, checking it at doctors’ offices, on line at the post office, even when I was in my car stopped at red lights or train crossings.  I decided I need more free time away from work, and the phone was just too tempting.

But going cold turkey, for even a week?  I just can’t.  It doesn’t make sense from a business standpoint. Like most authors, my professional life is digital.

E-mail Symbol Laptops Shows Mailing On Web Stock Image

If my publisher or my editor contacts me, it’s via email.  If an editor wants me to write a story or essay for a new anthology, that’s how I heard.  Ditto with other authors or anyone who’s found my email address via my web site and wants to write me fan mail or invite me to speak at a conference, a university, a library or any of the many other venues where I do talks and readings from my work.

I’ve done entire book tours here and abroad without ever needing the phone.  In fact, the only time I’m on the phone for business is firming up details that have already been set up via email, and that’s infrequently.  And when I am connecting via phone, I’m often simultaneously checking details on line, or even emailing something to whoever’s called me.

Now that I’m also a visiting assistant professor at Michigan State University, a digital fast makes even less sense. I need to stay in touch with my students and also with other faculty members. That’s become specially important as I continue to work on the planning for a study abroad program I’m co-leading in London this summer.  Emails to various people and institutions in London have been legion.

The place where I can cut back, though, is Facebook.  I think I can live without cute cat videos for a week.  Who knows, maybe even six weeks…..

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net