Writers: Don’t Be Ruled By “Writer’s Block”

A few years ago I heard prize-winning Michigan author Loren D. Estleman dismiss writer’s block at a writers’ conference. The problem with even using the term, he said, is that it re-frames a basic reality of every writer’s life: getting stuck.

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

I’ve felt this way through my entire career as an author, through 25 books in many genres and hundreds of stories, essays, reviews and blogs. Like Estleman, I believe that all of us sometimes get stuck, no matter how experienced we are — and Estleman’s published more than twice as many books as I have. Stuck isn’t a bad thing. It just means you haven’t worked something out, you haven’t answered some question in the book, or maybe you’re headed in the wrong direction.

Whenever I’m 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.

If you’re stuck, don’t panic. Give the problem to your subconscious. You can work on something else, or not do any writing at all. Focus on something unconnected to writing: the gym, a movie, dinner out, drinks with friends, walking your dog, home repairs, a car trip, gardening, working on your tan, cooking, music, reading a new book by your favorite author — anything that can distract and absorb you completely and make you feel good.

Of course, sometimes being stuck can mean that 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, disguises what’s really the problem.

Unfortunately, there’s a small industry devoted to helping people overcome “writer’s block,” to keep them from turning into Barton Fink, stuck on that one sentence. And because the 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, of course they’re basket cases.

Let’s face it, since most people hate to write, especially in this age of tweets and texting, “writer’s block” really connects with non-writers. If someone asks how your writing is going, you risk sounding arrogant if you say, “Terrific! My new book is a blast!” 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. That’s no reason to let yourself be bullied by a misnomer.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

 

Are You Having Bad Sex–In Your Fiction?

I didn’t realize there was so much bad sex out there until I started book reviewing in the mid-1990s for the Detroit Free Press where my portfolio included literary, commercial and genre fiction.  Though there’s an annual prize given in England to bad sex writing—The Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award—I hadn’t previously paid much attention to the problem. But as the books arrived at my door by the boxload, I began to realize that a lot of writers, even good ones, were sexually inadequate. On the page, that is.

Time after time I’d find myself reading an involving story of one kind or another and suddenly there would be a sex scene that made me wince because it was clumsy, improbable, or even grotesque. I was surprised and disappointed that writers I admired and enjoyed seemed to fall apart when it came to writing sex scenes. Whether it was lack of practice in this particular aspect of their craft, or embarrassment, or even being too turned on to have enough objectivity, I couldn’t say.

But I did start to notice two major trends in bad sex writing and I still see these problems cropping up: problems with timing, and depersonalization.

Many authors don’t seem to understand that timing is just as important in fictional sex as in real sex. If a sex scene is introduced, where does it fit in the arc of the story? Does it move the plot along, or does it slow it down? Does it add depth to the characters and story or is it distracting? Not enough authors ask themselves when’s the best place for a sex scene or even if it’s organic to the work.

I goofed in an early version of my novel The German Money by putting a sex scene early in chapter one. I thought it illuminated the inner state of my narrator, but a writer friend thankfully pointed out that it would distract readers from the character’s dark musings about his very dysfunctional family. As soon as she said it, I knew she was right, so I moved the scene several chapters along and used it as a short flashback.  It worked.

A more serious problem than timing and appropriateness in sex scenes is that two people who’ve been fully individualized characters before the scene fade away and become little more than a jumble of primary or secondary sex characteristics. We end up reading about parts having sex, rather than people. Some writers seem so determined to be un-puritanical that they forget they’re writing about human beings who have feelings aside from lust or passion. Sex means something more than just itself, or at least it can be something more than just itself. And if it’s casual or “meaningless” sex, then that should be clear in the scene, however it’s narrated.

As my first editor at St. Martin’s Press said: “Sex reveals who people are in unique ways–it’s crucial for authors to get it right.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir.  This blog is adapted from his guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk.

Writers Need to Respect the Audience

I just heard from a friend who attended a conference workshop where a professor droned on endlessly, repeating what was on his elaborate, dull PowerPoint. I’ve seen this happen in the academic world myself, and it shows a profound lack of respect for the audience. What could be more boring and alienating?

But that kind of approach isn’t limited to academics. I’ve attended too many author readings and presentations where the writers seem to have no sense of their audience. No sense that the event isn’t just about them, it’s about making a connection, about reaching and moving the people in whatever the venue, whether it’s a bookstore, a library, a theater, or a hall.

I’ve seen authors reading from their books in a low, dreary monotone, barely glancing up at the audience. I was at one event like that where a writer friend next to me fell quietly asleep and woke up full of questions because she’d missed some crucial passages.  She asked me as softly as possible: “What accident? Who was driving? Who was the girl in the ditch?” The answers didn’t really matter because the author kept on in his sleep-inducing mode.  That was one writer who not only had no audience awareness, he had never bothered learning something basic: how to project his voice.

I’ve also seen writers allotted fifteen minutes in a panel presentation go way over their time limit and be totally oblivious to the rising tension and anxiety of the other panelists.  These time hogs clearly hadn’t rehearsed at home what they were going to read and timed it.  And then gone one important step further: cut the piece by a few minutes so that just in case they slowed down during the actual event, they would stay within their scheduled time slot.  By going over, they were treating their fellow authors with unconscious disdain.

And I’ve seen writers make cringe-worthy comments that set the audience on edge.  “I wasn’t sure what I was going to read tonight.”  Really?  You’re the professional, you should be sure.  “This next part always makes me cry.”  If that’s true, then don’t read it, because if you don’t cry people will be wondering why not, and if you do cry it’ll interrupt the flow and likely be embarrassing.  And aren’t we the ones who are supposed to be moved, not you?  “The reviewers hated this, but I love it.”  Sorry, but a reading isn’t the time for unloading snark.

Author readings and talks are performances.  They demand planning and thoughtful consideration.  Anything else is cheating the audience, it’s taking listeners for granted, and not treating them with the respect they deserve.  Too bad not enough authors realize that.  Instead, they come to their events minimally prepared, as if all they have to do is show up, be themselves, and wait for the applause.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres included a guide to the writing life: Writer’s Block is Bunk.

Writers: Don’t Let Yourselves Be Exploited

Recently, a Washington, DC hairdresser was asked to do hair for someone in the public eye who was going to attend the Inauguration.

This person tried to bargain down the hairdresser’s rate and then proposed something very different than payment: “exposure.” If she would do the job for free, she could be sure her business would get PR on social media.

The hairdresser declined–and rightly so.

As a writer, I hear stories like this all the time from other writers at all stages in their careers who are asked to work for free in one way or another with the promise of that elusive (and dubious) thing exposure.  It always strikes a sour note.

I understand why people want to get something for nothing.  And it’s also not hard to see why the fantasy of exposure is so tempting to newbie writers.  People don’t know who you are yet, and nowadays everyone thinks that we’re all just one click away from becoming viral.

But unless someone incredibly famous at the level of Oprah or Ellen with amazing media access makes you an offer, you might as well pass.

Even after having published two dozen books, I still get asked to write things for free with the promise that it’s somehow going to enhance my stature in the world and make me oh-so-much better known.  As if I’m a beggar and I’ve just been waiting for that specific handout.

The offer sometimes feels insulting, but I don’t care anymore.  I know how empty the promise is, and I decline.

And so should anyone who doesn’t want to waste their time.  Writers need to value what they do.  A young writer I know was all excited about the possibility of her first invitation to do a reading to a special interest group for her debut novel and I urged her to ask for a nominal speaker’s fee.  She asked why.  Wasn’t it enough that she was going to have an audience?

I told her that being paid something would mean that the group inviting her took her seriously, and that she did the same thing herself.  It would set a standard going forward.

Writers, artists, professional of all kinds aren’t charities.  What we all do is work and it deserves recognition and respect as work unless we’re donating it to raise money for a charity.  Selling ourselves short is never a winning proposition.

Lev Raphael currently teaches creative writing at Michigan State University and has published books in a dozen different genres from memoir to mystery.

 

Quick! Stop That Runaway Character!

I’ve been doing readings from my award-winning fiction since the early 90s and one of the common questions I get afterwards is “Do your characters ever tell you what to do?” or “Do your characters ever get away from you?”

That question is a fascinating doorway into how people tend to perceive authors and the writing process–and how they want to.

writing-handsMy answer is plain: Never.  And here’s what I mean.  Everything that appears in my books, every aspect of plot, setting, dialogue, characterization, action is mine.  Hell, the punctuation is mine, or as much mine as anything can be in this life of transience.  I created it all, and even if I got advice from an editor or was inspired by other writers, the final form is mine.  The words are mine,  the rhythms are mine.  It’s all shaped by me as a writer, as an artist, consciously and unconsciously.

My characters are not independent of who I am.  They don’t speak to me: I speak through them.

tricking-the-readerSaying a character surprised me is dramatic, but it’s not accurate.  I surprised myself.  Something was churning away inside, some unexpected connection got made that changed what I was working on.  This happens constantly when we write: a mix of editing and revision and creation at the sentence level and the chapter level.

But many writers love to grin and say, “Yes” in answer to the question above, and then they tell dramatic stories that make audiences smile and even laugh.  It seems to confirm something to non-writers about what it’s like to write; it makes the whole experience more romantic and glamorous than it actually is.  And casts authors as at least mildly eccentric, and not entirely in control of themselves or their work when the truth is completely different.

Once I was nearing the end of a book and realized I had the wrong person committing murder.  It wasn’t the murderer speaking to me, or the victim piping up, or even the gun giving me advice. It was the mind of a writer spinning straw into gold. And after a long and fruitful career, I’m glad those moments keep coming.

Lev Raphael is the author of a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Writers: Don’t Diss Your Own Work

It’s pretty common to hear writers talk about their first drafts as “shit” or “shitty.”  Sadly, even some of my student writers do it.

They have a model in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.  If she puts it that way, she must be right, and she says all good writers write them.  Seriously?  How does she know this for a fact?

huh“Shitty” is an adjective I’ve never used to describe my first drafts.  It’s also a word I’ve never used in any creative writing class or workshop I’ve taught  And I discourage my student writers from using it because I think it can be damaging. It can undermine how you feel about your work.

You get writers used to applying a word like that to a first draft and it’s too easy for them to survey their work in dark times and think, “This is total shit.”   Writers have to deal with enough doubts about their abilities as it is.

None of the first drafts of my hundreds of stories, essays, reviews, or blogs were “shitty.”  Some were even pretty good. Surprisingly good. But I always knew they were just a starting point and that they would always need much more work.  That’s a given, it’s part of the process.

writer-ionescoFor me, any first draft is just opening a door.  I feel a sense of adventure and expectation because I never know where the piece will end up.  Sometimes it goes right into the waste paper basket if I’ve printed it off–or I just delete the file.  So what?

But slamming it as “shitty,” even if I’m frustrated or disappointed, is setting a road block in my own way.  The drafts may be a mess, sure. Sloppy, unfocused, rough, undisciplined, chaotic, jumbled, scattered, unpolished, inferior–any words like that will do.

The world is full of nasty critics–don’t be one of them when it comes to your own writing.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Guide to The Writing Life) and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

 

 

Being a Newbie Author Is Exhausting

It’s not easy for newbie writers.  Everywhere they turn, someone’s telling them how to be truly successful.  Go indie!  Publish traditionally!  Do both! The advocates of every path offer mind-blowing proof of their reasoning in blogs and books.  The barrage is as overwhelming as middle-of-the-night infomercials for exercise machines that will trim your belly fat in only ten-minute sessions, three times a week.

Of course, these machines are modeled for by men and women with killer abs and minimal body fat.  You can’t look like that without a personal trainer, religious devotion to the proper diet, and even then, as the coach said in Chariots of Fire, “You can’t put in what God left out.”   You have to have the right DNA.

chariotsI’ve lost my patience with super-successful indie or traditionally-published authors telling the world: Publish the way I did because look how great things turned out for me.  Each side reports the benefits of what they’ve done with certainty and conviction, and of course they’re either best-selling authors on the newspaper lists or best-selling authors on Amazon.  Or both.

First-time authors sometimes do well with a New York press, and sometimes do well going indie.  It’s all a crapshoot.

roll-of-the-diceMost authors will never reach the heights of the “experts,” and not through any fault of their own.  It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how amazing your book is: luck and timing are key ingredients that can’t be corralled.  Books have their own karma.  The right book at the right time published in the right way, well, that’s golden.

But nobody can predict when it’s going to happen. Not publicists, editors, agents, or publishers. And the authors who share their glorious experiences need to realize that though they may want to inspire and enlighten wannabes, at some level, sometimes they just make the rest of the writing world–especially newbies–us drool or wish we’d listened to our parents and gone into something predictable like, oh I don’t know, politics?  🙂

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, published by many different publishers. His career has been a roller coaster.

Authors Can Be Sitting Ducks

Isn’t it amazing what people think they can say to authors at signings or readings?

They’ll criticize characters, plot, writing style, or the way a book ends–and rudely, too.  And then not even buy a book.  They’ll just unload on the author who’s a captive and has to be polite and just take it, no matter how unfair and uninformed the comments may be.

Mean NerdSometimes events can work your last nerve, but sometimes the situation’s just different enough where you don’t just take it.  That happened to me once at a university where things went awry from my getting off the plane.  The minion picking me up announced that she had no sense of direction, and got me lost 1) in the airport 2) in the parking structure and 3) in the city on the way to my hotel when we went drove in the wrong direction for at least ten minutes.

road-map-lost-imageWhen we finally got to it, the hotel room in a dinky “annex” was filthy with cobwebs and dust balls everywhere.  I called the host professor and asked to be moved somewhere else, but he insisted on seeing it for himself, assuming I was a diva, I guess.  He took one look and moved me to a Hilton Garden Inn.  But that was the end of his competence, because rather than do a short intro to my talk and reading, he read from my official, page-long author biography.  Slowly.

I timed him.  It took ten minutes.  And he stuttered.  Still, I made it through and was doing fine until the Q&A when someone raised my first novel Winter Eyes where a son of survivors is unsure of his sexuality and sleeps with a man and a woman at different times.  That gay reader accused me of “brutalizing” him with the open ending, and leaving him alone with his pain.

wintereyes-new

I wasn’t rude, but I said plainly that he had misread the book and the characters who believed at the end that labels didn’t matter at that moment in their lives.  And if he was in pain, it wasn’t the fault of my book, but his issues that he needed to deal with.

I’d never been that assertive in a Q&A, but it had to be said.

Would I have replied as I did if the afternoon and early evening had gone better?  Maybe not.  But I felt I had to stick up for myself as an author and stick up for my book.  And for authors everywhere….

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.  Follow him on Twitter at

Nightmare On Bookstore Street

I stopped doing bookstore “black hole” signings back in the 90s.  The kind where the store asks you to just sit at a table for a few hours with a pile of your books, a table sign, and a desperate smile.  Every now and then, over the sound of the register, someone announces your presence in the store over a loudspeaker, but it doesn’t matter: you really don’t exist and your career was a delusion.  You’re lost.

stock-footage-exhausted-businessman-crawling-in-the-desert-1

I saw an author doing one like that the other afternoon.  I’d stopped at a local bookstore that had turned into a mini-mall selling candles, author dolls, DVDs and CDs, Christmas ornaments–you name it.   Her book had a tropical isle on the cover in pinks and blues and a hot title: Death by Destination.  The author was dressed in matching colors, but she looked pale and miserable.  The store hadn’t done her any favors by putting her in an out-of-the-way section.

130422172630-indie-bookstores-mysterious-galaxy-horizontal-large-galleryAfternoon signings are the pits and I wondered if anyone had bought her book or even talked to her. The few people seeing her skirted the table, eyes down, or worse, bumped into it and didn’t even apologize.  She tried engaging the scant passersby, but was shunned ever single time.

It was mortifying. I wanted to go over and invite her out for a drink and tell her how I’d given up on this kind of giant boondoggle, how over time I’d found a niche at non-traditional venues that were much more satisfying and that if I did sign at bookstores, it was only after a reading or talk.

barBut just when I thought I might actually wade through the forest of peppy greeting cards to help salvage her day, I saw her resolutely get up and stride over to someone idly leafing through a dictionary in the Languages section.

“Hi!,” she chirped. “I’m Ibis Goldenroad!  I write travel mysteries.  I see you’re looking at a French dictionary.  Are you traveling to France?”

I moved forward to overhear the reply.  The appalled elderly woman, wearing a chic black coat, said stiffly, “I’m having a dinner party and wanted to make sure I spelled things right.  For the menu at each place setting.”  With that coat and carefully styled white hair, and the frosty tone, she reminded me of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.

prada“Oh that’s so interesting!  You don’t like computers?”

“It’s not that, dear.  My Internet is down.”  The customer turned away.

The “dear” was a warning, but desperate Goldenrod didn’t listen and actually touched her shoulder.  The woman flinched.

“How fun!  Oh, I love to cook!  And so do my lead characters!  One is a master chef who works on a cruise line.  You’d love my mystery series.  Do you read mysteries?”

There was a reluctant nod.

“You do?  That’s wonderful! What kind?”

Without turning, the woman snapped, “The kind where annoying woman are killed.”

Lev Raphael’s 25 books range from memoir to mystery and beyond.  You can find them on Amazon.

Should Writers Follow Elmore Leonard’s “Rules”?

Every now and the I see people post and re-post Leonard’s well-known rules for writers. Some of them are common sense, like “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.”  Taken together, though, they seem to suggest that you should write in a very lean way.  Like Leonard himself.

elmore_leonardOne of the rules is “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”  He references Steinbeck and Hemingway, but does Leonard follow his own advice? Below are some passages about the thug Richard Nobles in the novel LaBrava  (aren’t those great character names?)

He was thick all over, heavily muscled, going at least six-three, two-thirty.  Blond hair with a greenish tint in the floodlight: the hair uncombed, clots of it lying straight back on his head without a part, like he’d been swimming earlier and had raked it back with his fingers.  The guy wasn’t young up close.  Mid-thirties.  But he was the kind of guy–LaBrava knew by sight, smell and instinct–who hung around bars and arm-wrestled.  Homegrown jock–pumped his muscles and tested his strength when he wasn’t picking his teeth.

An ugly drunk.  Look at the eyes.  Ugly–used to people backing down, buying him another drink to shut him up.  Look at the shoulders stretching satin, the arms on him–Jesus–hands that looked like they could pound fence posts. 

Nobles, with his size, his golden hair, his desire to break and injure, his air of muscular confidence, was fascinating to watch.  A swamp creature on the loose.

labravaI see plenty of rich, evocative detail there, and it’s all well-chosen.  We get bits and pieces of the physical that create Nobles as an individual who’s anything but noble.  We also see him as a type known to LaBrava who’s assessing him, and the images are powerful (swamp creature, pounding fence posts).  Better yet, we have an evocative portrait of Nobles’s impact on people, the violent aura created by his mood and by his muscles.

Lean?  Not really.

It’s easy to quote Leonard, but it’s far more interesting to read him and see how closely he sticks to his own rules.  One question is, does it matter?  Another, the more important one is this: why should what works for Leonard–or what he implied worked for him–work for you?

I think in the end you can learn a lot more about writing from reading Leonard’s books than reading and slavishly following his Rules.  It’s also more fun.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books including Writer’s Block is Bunk.