“Am I In Your Book?”

I once heard a rumor that someone thought they were “in” one of my mystery novels and was really pissed off.  Well, it was a bizarre situation because this person wasn’t remotely in my book, not even near my book.

On the other hand, a fan once jokingly said, “You should put me in one of your mysteries” and I walked away smiling.  Because this fan–a lifetime academic–had apparently read them all without realizing I’d used a dramatic incident from the fan’s life as a plot point in one of the books.  So you could say that fan made a phantom guest appearance.  Sort of.  Or a contribution?

business-woman-thinkingThe thing is, nobody gets shoved into my books from real life.  Ever.  And each one of my characters is a composite of fact and fiction.  Sometimes more of one, sometimes more of another.

Take Juno Dromgoole in my Nick Hoffman mystery series.  She’s a luscious professor of Canadian Studies who’s beautiful, foul-mouthed, and intemperate.  By making her over-the-top, I was playing with the American image of Canadians as quiet and well-mannered.  How was she born? She was actually inspired by several different women I met at a mystery conference.  But the more I worked on her, the more she became sculpted by the storyline and interactions with other characters and the further away she grew from her “sources.”  I don’t even remember anymore who those women were exactly, but I did finally imagine her as having the glamor of Tina Turner at her best.

Tina-TurnerCuriously, I did once run into a woman who looked and dressed just as I envisioned Juno did, when I was staying in a German hotel on a book tour–and she was Italian.

The smallest thing can inspire me: a look, a gesture, an outfit, a snarky line, an accent–and suddenly a grain of sand is on its way to becoming a pearl.  So people do make their way into my fiction, but always through shards, fragments, bits and pieces.

Even if I had wanted to put that angry person mentioned above in my book, I wouldn’t really have been able to.  For me, people are just models, no even less: inspiration.  Fiction sculpts them into something completely different from what they were until they become unrecognizable. If it’s good, of course.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 others books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.

My First Hate Mail as an Author

I’ve warned creative writing students that they can’t expect that everyone will like their work.  Some people may actively hate it.  Who knows why?  That’s just a writer’s life.

I’ve never thought about hate email, though, until I recently posted a blog on The Huffington Post titled “Why Don’t Jewish Lives Matter?” It was about the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket massacres; I wondered whether the world would have been as outraged if the terrorists had only targeted the supermarket.

french-police-officers-investigate-the-hyper-casher-kosher-grocery-store-in-paris-on-january-9-2015By the time the blog had received close to 800 Likes, Facebook Shares, and shares on Twitter (it eventually more than doubled that), it also got plenty of vicious response, too.  No surprise, there.  People seem completely unashamed to parade their full range of prejudices on line, especially on places like The Huffington Post responses boards.

I was surprised, though, to get a long,vicious email in my Inbox from someone apparently enraged by the blog’s title.  This person’s screed was the same illogical slumgullion you see with all kinds of haters, while reading as if it were checking items off a list from Anti-Semitism for Dummies.  In other words, vile, but totally unoriginal and cookie-cutter.

Naturally it started off by saying that Israel was the problem because of its treatment of Palestinians.  This is classic post-war anti-Semitism because it blames all Jews everywhere for every action of every Israeli government.  Are Americans responsible for the drone strikes deaths in Yemen and Pakistan? The half million dead in Iraq since the U.S. invasion?

As you might might expect, the ribbon on the package was the equation of  Israelis with Nazis.  See?  All Jews = Israelis = Nazis.  That explains everything.  But the writer wasn’t done.  There was more venom to spew.  The other ridiculous charge was that Jews were misusing the Holocaust to their own ends and playing the victim.  Charming, no?  Finally it slid into some Old School Jew-hatred by labeling Jews as repulsive, arrogant, and unbearably cruel.

The email reeked of contempt, disgust, and brutality.  A psychologist might see a writer with tremendous shame issues coping with that shame by expressing grotesque superiority over others.  If you click the link to the original blog you’ll find comments just as vicious. These people clearly aren’t at all troubled by going public with their Jew-hatred, unlike the person who sent me the email.  Feel free to guess why my correspondent wanted to write privately.

I started writing this blog on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and was moved to finish it because of the shootings in Copenhagen.  King said that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  I’ve revered MLK since 4th grade, but I don’t think there’s enough light in the universe to bring these haters out of their own darkness?  It makes them feel too good.

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Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books, most recently Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense.  You can read about his other books at the Lev Raphael Amazon page.

 

 

The Writer’s Life Can Be Crazy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 Should Reading Be a Contest?

I recently saw a blog urging writers to plow through 100 books a year to make themselves better writers. 100 seems to be some kind of current yardstick, though I don’t know why.

multiple-books-140277145889_xlargeI think that’s another sad example of how numbers-crazy we’ve become as writers. Reading widely is good advice for writers of all kinds.  But why should the amount of books you read in a year actually matter as opposed to what you read and what you learn from those books. Isn’t how they they inspire you what really counts?

Take a unique book like Rebecca West’s astonishing Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. It’s a record of the author’s travels through the Balkans before World War II. The book is part travelogue, part history, part cultural portrait, and reads throughout with the color and drama of a novel. It’s 1200 pages long and might take you weeks or more to read, but you can learn a lot from every aspect of it, including West’s gorgeous prose style.

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I read it one summer while touring Italy and France and felt as if I I’d died and gone to literary heaven. I didn’t finish it on my month-long trip because I was also enjoying sightseeing (big surprise!) and because the book was so luscious it was like a ballotin of Neuhaus chocolates. Something to be savored, not devoured. I read many passages more than once, sometimes read them aloud just to enjoy their sound in the Tuscan or Parisian air. That summer, I read almost nothing else.

What if you wanted to spend a whole year just reading and re-reading all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books so as to immerse yourself in his style and vision? What would be wrong with that? Wouldn’t you learn an enormous amount as a writer?  Maybe more than if you just randomly picked 100 books?  I wager the blog author might call you lazy, though, because she recommends a blitzkrieg. Seriously. Reading as battle, bombing, conquest, and devastation. What kind of attitude is that?

Everything’s become a frantic contest now, which makes us all potential losers. A writing career is hard enough as it it, and we’re already under assault by the word count fanatics–as I recently blogged at The Huffington Post.

When does it stop?  When the hell does it stop?

Optimized-wses024116 Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence, and militarized police–along 24 other books in many genres which you can find at Amazon.

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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Larger Classes Can Cheat Students

As the author of twenty-five books in many genres, I do a lot of touring and public speaking.  That includes speaking at universities where faculty clue me into their struggles in and out of the classroom.  One of the things that gripes professors at state schools is when they hear administrators publicly congratulating themselves on doing “more with less” in the face of budget cuts.

It sounds lovely and even heroic, doesn’t it?  But it never seems to apply to the administrators themselves.  What exactly are they sacrificing? They don’t take pay cuts and work harder, or work longer hours.  Their salaries keep going up, as national surveys show.

One thing it does mean is that their underlings–professors and adjuncts–teach ever larger classes.  The pressure on class size across the country is insidious and undermines educational excellence, but nobody in charge seems to care or understand its impact.

A year and a half ago, I had a class of amazing fiction writers who were funny, smart, wildly diverse, and hard-working–but there were twenty-nine of them.  That’s right, twenty-nine.  In a creative writing class.

There was no way I could give individual students the attention they needed.  I did the very best I could, though, and got a hearty round of applause the last day.  I applauded them back because I was so proud of their work ethic and their talent.

But I think that like many students around the country, they deserved a much smaller class.  Creative writing is intimate, intense, and has the potential to change people’s lives.  I saw that more recently in another creative writing class that was equally talented, but had only eighteen students.

These students got to know each other’s work and each other in a much deeper way.  They quickly formed a private Facebook group; chipped in for a coffee machine and coffee to use at breaks; and they were were concerned when someone was absent. They shared class jokes; they shared moments of deep emotion; their writing changed; they changed.

Thanks not just to their personalities and interests, but to the class size, they became a devoted community of learners and teachers.  Isn’t that we hope for?