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 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 or gets deleted.  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.

How to Write a “Big Book”

Lots of writers dream of writing a “big book.”

It’s a book that gets advertised and reviewed everywhere.

A book that people are reading on trains, planes, subway, and listening to in their cars on cross country trips or morning commutes.

reading-on-planeA book that everyone sees at airport book racks. A book that makes all the best seller lists and prompts speculation about who’s going to star in the movie.

A book that becomes part of the cultural conversation, even briefly. A book that gets the author onto countess chat and interview shows across the country.

WHOOPI GOLDBERG, NICOLLE WALLACE, ROSIE PEREZ, ROSIE O'DONNELLA book that seems to be everywhere you look and that all your friends are talking about.  A book that book groups can’t wait to dive into.

What special talent does it take? What magic do you need?

Well, it’s crucial that the book is physically big.

500-600 pages is big book big. It tells readers that they’re buying something the publisher has invested lots of time and money in. Think The Historian, Mystic River, The Secret History, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

I know of a writer who was doing well with a series and was told very frankly by an editor that to break out, to have a big book, that writer had to write books that were much longer. This is a true story. And kind of sad, because I thought that writer’s series was terrific.

Then I read the author’s breakout book which, you guessed it, became a big book with a star-studded movie and all the trimmings.

It felt overwritten and padded, easily 100 pages too long, if not more.

But the strategy worked. This author is now wealthy and famous, though not a better writer.  Just a bigger one.

Does size matter? Yes, if you want to make it big in traditional publishing.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including The Edith Wharton Murders, his first book to be reviewed in The New York Times.  It’s well under 500 pages.  🙂

 

Writing–I Can’t Quit You!

Do you remember the JetBlue flight attendant who freaked out a few years back? Somebody worked his last nerve, so he not only announced how fed up he was on the intercom, he grabbed a beer from the beverage cart and left via an emergency slide.  Cue the music from Rocky!

cutcaster-photo-100251510-Emergency-exit-door What a way to quit a job, but how do you make a grand exit if you’re a writer and you’re not somebody famous like Philip Roth?

I had early success. My first good short story won a prize with a famous editor as the judge.  Then it was published in Redbook, which had millions of readers.  The story garnered me lots of cash, fan mail, and queries from agents. It also turned my head, not that I needed much encouragement there. I grew up in glamorous New York and getting a story into a national magazine seemed a natural first step. What other possibilities were there?

NYCFive years of drought followed. Well, there was actually a vile crop: I reaped endless rejection letters. Nothing I wrote was accepted anywhere by anyone. I grew desperate to quit and contemplated various alternate careers.

This wasn’t the first desert I would have to cross in my 30 years as a published writer. I wanted to succeed, and I also wanted to quit. But writing wouldn’t let me. I was compelled to keep exploring my inner world and the world around me in short stories, which finally  started being published in the early 1980s.  The breakthrough didn’t just thrill me, it delighted all the friends who had been suffering along with me.

happy danceBut getting a book of stories published after that was unbelievably hard, especially when editors would say things like “I don’t like your metaphors and such.” My such? What the hell was that?  I confess I was tempted to write back and say, “My such is pretty damned good.”  Or “Such you!”

Facing another brick wall, I told my partner more than once, “I’m giving up writing as a career.” And I pictured gathering all my manuscripts together, building a bonfire and just getting rid of everything (including the discs).

bonfireIt wasn’t until I was reviewing for various magazines and newspapers like The Detroit Free Press and The Washington Post that I finally had an actual writing job, even if it was freelance. And even though I could quit whenever I wanted to, I enjoyed the deadline pressure, the challenges of reviewing across genres, and the interaction with editors and readers.

The guardian newsroom on a busy afternoonThe turnaround came in 1990 with my first book, but the ups and downs of publishing 25 books in many genres since have echoed the roller coaster of my early career. Things look great, then they look crappy, then I look for an exit. But there isn’t one. Because every time I’ve tried to or wanted to give up, fortune hands me a plum, or I get an idea for a new book and it won’t let me go.

The cold hard truth is what the late novelist Sheila Roberts one said to me, “I love the sheer sensual pleasure of putting one word next to another–there’s nothing else like it in the world.”  And she grinned.  Because she’s right.

Have you ever imagined giving up writing as a career and doing something completely different?

Lev Raphael’s 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery can be found on Amazon.

 

 

Authors: Don’t Sabotage Your Book Readings

Readings make a lot of writers nervous.  After all, we spend most of our time alone, well, alone with the voices in our head, anyway.

writing handsSo you can understand that for some of us, when we get invited to speak about our work and read from it at a book store or library or college, we goof.  We don’t choose the right excerpt, we don’t take the time to plan our remarks, we don’t practice our reading.

But the most egregious thing I’ve seen authors do is sabotage their own readings without any idea they’re doing it.  What do I mean?

Some authors will feel their best chance of establishing a bond with their audience is to start with something like, “On the way over here, I was going over about what I planned to say” or “When I was invited here today, I was wondering what you might want to hear” or even “I haven’t tried it before, but I’m pretty sure this part of the book might work.”

boratTaking people “behind the scenes” in those ways can come across as way too informal.  It’s also inappropriate. The audience doesn’t need to hear about how you put your talk and reading together or hear you share your doubts.  This isn’t a workshop about doing an event–this is the event itself.  There’s really no need to start with any kind of “process preamble.”

Then there are the authors trying way too hard to be funny. Of course, jokes or cute anecdotes are fine, but keep them short–if you go that route at all. Your work is what you’re there to represent, not your dazzling comedic personality.  Because remember at the end of the day, you’re still a writer, not Chris Rock or a talk show host whose meanderings are part of the act.  Nobody invited you for your shtik.

ellenSome authors nervously mark time.  Sharing a stage with other authors they’ll mistakenly  comment, “Well, it’s been a long night, and–”  Yes it has, but keep that to yourself and pretend everyone just got there. Or, “As the middle author of five tonight, I think I should be the one to boost your energy in case it’s flagging…”  No you shouldn’t.  What if people weren’t tired until you said it?  And if they were, your bringing it up isn’t likely to make them feel better.  Or, “I’m going to keep this short.”  Whoa!  That’ll make the audience start looking at watches rather than you.

Don’t ever take your audience behind the scenes. You need to play your part in a solo or group event without calling attention to the performance in any way–and that’s exactly what it is, a performance in front of an audience.  What you need to exemplify is the Italian sprezzatura: the art that conceals all art.  Do you want to come across as polished, or do you want to possibly come across as uncertain and even bumbling?

WizOfOzGetting things right takes a lot of time and effort.  It also takes thinking through every aspect of the event, from the nature of your audience to your goals to your own role as, like it or not, the star–or at least co-star.  The audience deserves it, whether you’re speaking to 5 or 500.

Lev Raphael has done hundreds of invited talks and readings on three different continents–and in more than one language.  He’s the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery and you can find them on Amazon.