What Do Writers Really Want?

The answer is simple: Everything.

Roxane Gay once pointed out in Salon that discussions about whether women writers don’t get enough press coverage miss the point.  Even successful authors are easily dissatisfied: “What most writers have in common is desire. We want and want and want and want.”

I learned this early in my publishing career when an author I was getting to know told me about another writer whose first novel had been reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. It was subsequently on the NYT best seller list, and sold about 500,000 copies. That’s the kind of exposure, notoriety, and sales record most writers would kill for.  My friend had lunch with this author who turned out to be miserable. Why? He hadn’t been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and couldn’t let go of the disappointment.

Unhappy-at-workI’ve met a millionaire author of thrillers whose books sell worldwide and have been made into movies–but that’s not enough. What’s missing? Respect from established literary critics. Another writer friend who’s spoken all across the country and has taught writing workshops in Europe is eaten up by not being invited to keynote an annual writer’s conference back home in a small college town.

No matter what level of achievement writers reach, many of us just can’t stop hoping for more. Sadly, we don’t wish we were writing better books, we wish we were better known, richer, more respected, had more exposure or just had something other writers had–whatever that is. And in the end, it wouldn’t be enough, because for many writers, there’s never enough.

frustratedwomanRoxane Gay’s essay was another voice in the controversy launched  when novelist Jennifer Weiner went public about about not being as admired as Jonathan Franzen, not getting his level of respect or review coverage. She’s a writer of popular fiction, she’s been a New York Times best seller, she’s made millions from her books and more than one was turned into a movie. It’s an enviable place to be, but she apparently envies literary novelist Jonathan Franzen, who’s been on the cover of TIME and endlessly praised by the literary establishment.

Whatever you think about her complaints or about her writing, I can’t imagine Weiner would be happy if she had everything she thinks she wants, because there would be something else beyond her reach. She’s a writer, after all.  For way too many of us, our favorite music is what the poet Linda Pastan calls “the song of the self.” It’s a one-voice melody that runs up and down the scale “like a mouse maddened/by its own elusive tail.”

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

Teaching is Not a Blood Sport

I do a lot of speaking at colleges and universities around the country and faculty tell me many behind-the-scenes stories.  Properly disguised, they make great material for my Nick Hoffman academic mystery series: tales of petty infighting, squabbling committees, ridiculous vendettas–all the simmering snarkiness that Borges called “bald men arguing over a comb.”

But I also hear stories from students that aren’t as amusing, stories about what it’s like for them to be in a classroom with a professor who sees teaching very differently than I do.  Teachers who aren’t at all bothered by shaming students in front of the rest of the class, as if they’re coaches whipping an under-performing player into shape.

teacher as coachCreative writing is one of my passions and I’ve heard of professors in these classes who stop students while they’re reading aloud and say, “That stinks!” or worse.  I’ve never done that.  I do stop students to ask them to slow down or read more distinctly, or to say something positive if I was blown away and couldn’t wait till they’re finished.  And sometimes I just start laughing if the work is really funny.  As for dissing a student’s work, seriously, who does that help?

I’ve heard of some professors who can be so intimidating that they make students shake with fear when they challenge what the students have to say.  I’ve also heard of professors in creative writing classes who don’t let everyone read their work aloud, but keep picking their favorites, creating resentment and embarrassment.  In my creative writing classes, everyone reads aloud or nobody does; the class should be a creative community, not a jungle.

I see it that way because I had an amazing creative writing teacher freshman year at Fordham University; she became my mentor and model.  She ran her workshops with good humor and warmth.  She spurred us all to write better by pinpointing what we did best and helping us improve whatever that was.  She never insulted us, humiliated us, made fun of us, or played favorites.  She encouraged us all with grace and good humor.  I’d even say she enjoyed us; she definitely enjoyed being in the classroom and made us feel that way, too.  Nobody ever dreaded being there.

Teaching isn’t combat or coaching, especially teaching creative writing.  We’re not in the classroom to humiliate and harden our students as if they’re going into the cutthroat world of business or getting ready for the next football game against a team with no losses.  Our role should be to help them grow as writers, identify what they do best and where they need to do more work. As reporter Charles Kuralt put it simply: “Good teachers know how to bring out the best in their students.”  Who needs shame to do that?

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon.

 

 

#Empire Is Coming Back For Season Two!

For awhile it looked like the hot new show Empire wasn’t going to be renewed by Fox, but The Washington Post reported May 10th that it will. I couldn’t be happier.  I was late to become an Empire fanboy, but I’m not sorry about it, because that meant I got to binge-watch the show one weekend.  Empire grabbed me with its seductive opening scene; it was love at first sight.  I was hooked, but something else happened: I unexpectedly started to feel like the show was about me.

I’m not crazy.  Let me explain.

At one point in Episode Four, entertainment mogul Lucious Lyon orders his sullen youngest son Hakeem to get into the studio and write some hip-hop songs.  Now.

empire familyThat’s when I realized the show wasn’t just about music, and an entertainment empire and business maneuvering, and seething family dynamics, and regret, and homophobia, and second marriages, and sibling rivalry, and secrets and lies, and facing terminal illness.  It was also about the writing life.  My writing life.

On the surface, I couldn’t be more different from the Lyon brothers.  I’m the son of Holocaust survivors, I didn’t grow up with one parent in prison, I don’t sing, I’m not bipolar, and I’m not in a mixed marriage.  But adding their experiences together, like the Lyon brother I’ve felt the intense pressure to produce, produce, produce.  Like them, I’ve been on stage, and I’ve also felt stage fright and felt upstaged.

Like those guys, I’ve felt pushed to do things for publicity I didn’t ever want to do, and badly tempted to do things I thought might get me more publicity.  Like them, I’ve felt the lure of fame and stardom–and sometimes waved it all away as BS.  Like them, I’ve wanted to be true to myself and felt stymied trying to get there and stay there.  Like them, I’ve had a difficult, dramatic mother who believed fiercely in me.  And like them, I’ve had a demanding father who could be totally unreasonable and even violent.

And though I can’t write music, I’ve always had a soundtrack in my head from the first day I heard record albums on my parents’ hi-fi….

hifiThanks to Empire, right now that sound track includes the amazing “What is Love?” sung by Veronika Bozeman.  That’s the song that opens Episode One of Empire and it’s unforgettable.

The show isn’t just absorbing drama with comic highlights, like all the times Lucious’s ex-wife Cookie keeps dissing his lover Anika as “Boo Boo Kitty” or “fake-ass Halle Berry” and practically steals a scene with just a glare.  Hell, I think she can steal a scene she’s not in–all anybody has to do is say her name.  Watch the show yourself, and try it.

empire-cookie-gif

Empire is a well-written, dramatic, sexy, and sometimes hilarious show that also hooks me as a writer whenever it explores the troubles of the creative life, both internal and external.  It hits those notes deep and true every single time.  That show gives me fever.

So now’s the time to catch up on Season One and see if the show gets you hot, too.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

The Secret to Beating the 2015 Goodreads Challenge

Are you tempted by the Goodreads Challenge?  Shamed by your friends bragging about all the books they’ve read?  Or say they’ve read?  Worried that your dog or cat may be injured when your TBR piles topple over?

Well, there’s a secret to winning the Goodreads Challenge that I can share with you: Don’t take it.

The whole idea is totally flawed. Why should you set yourself up for failure like so many people do? They think the Challenge will make them better readers, people, parents, citizens, whatever — and they end up feeling miserable when they don’t reach their goal.

Optimized-wses024116Book reading should be pleasurable, not a chore, not rock climbing or an algebra test or a weekend with your in-laws.  Why should it matter how many books you read?  Why should you or anyone else care?  Isn’t the enjoyment you get from a particular book more important?  The places it takes you, the excitement or reveries it stirs, the things it makes you want to share and talk about with friends?

But if you do feel compelled to take the Challenge out of envy or morbid curiosity or boredom or whatever, here’s how to beat it: Get sick or have surgery.

When I had a root canal last Fall and spent 72 hours in bed afterwards I read three books that weekend and loved each one: The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, Under the Channel by Gilles Pétel, and Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub. A literary novel, a mystery, and history. I also started a fourth book, Elmore Leonard’s Be Cool. That’s way above my weekend average.

And when I had reconstructive hand surgery more recently I read two books in the Game of Thrones series: A Clash of Kings (which I had already begun) and A Storm of Swords.  I clocked 2000 new pages. True, the Percocet I took for pain did make me hallucinate a bit, but I relished the books just the same.

So think how much reading you could accomplish with a really bad case of the flu or a nose job that you have to hide from your friends. The possibilities are endless.

Happy reading!

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

5 Things Nobody Tells You About a Writing Career

When I published my first short story in Redbook after winning a prize, I thought my career was set.  I was my MFA program’s star; I’d made a lot of money (for a graduate student) from the prize and the magazine; I was getting fan mail and queries from agents.  But even though I’d spent over two years in the program, nobody told me what my career could be like.  When I got my degree I had no idea what the writing life was like and learned five key things the hard way.

road1-You need to accept from the start that you have very little control.  You can polish your work as much as you can, read widely and educate yourself as an author; attend seminars; find a terrific mentor; network like crazy; get a top agent and even land a book contract with a great publisher–but what happens to your book once it’s born may seem completely random at times.  Other books just like it will swamp yours.  Books that are far worse will get great reviews or better sales.  Your book may simply be ignored by reviewers of all kinds for reasons you will never know.  So you have to focus on what you can control: being the best writer you can be; enjoying what you do while you do it, plan it, revise it, and research it.  And then, try to let go and move on to another project.

2-Writing is a business.  It always was and always will be.  Expect pressure from all sides on you to sell, sell, sell. When I started out, bookmarks and other petty swag were in.  Then I was urged not just to attend conferences but to advertize in conference programs.  Later came building my web site, book trailers, establishing a Facebook and Goodreads presence, blogging, tweeting, blog tours.  There’s always something new which is the magic answer to making you successful.  But the competition gets fiercer all the time and you can find that promotion is a rat hole.  It’s important to establish parameters for yourself since you can’t do everything and be everywhere.  Never let promotion become more important than writing itself, and just because something works for someone else is no guarantee it’ll work for you.

social_media_strategy1113-The writing life will be lonelier than you can imagine despite all the writers you might meet and hang out with, and they’re not always the easiest people to be around.  Let’s face it, are you?  Ask your significant other.  As paradoxical as it might seem, don’t let writing take over your life.  If you haven’t already, start building a life for yourself that has other compelling interests.  Travel.  Learn to play an instrument.  Study a foreign language.  Garden.  Train for a Triathalon.  Get a dog.  It doesn’t matter what you do as long as writing isn’t the be-all and end-all of your existence, because otherwise those days (or weeks or months or even years) when things go south you’ll feel empy.  And make sure you have plenty of friends who aren’t writers so that you’re not constantly talking shop.  Normal people can be interesting, too.

4-Exercise is crucial for people like us who spend so much time sitting hunched over a laptop.  It’s important to break away on a regular basis and walk, swim, jog, lift weights, do Zumba, take Pilates, spin, do yoga, anything that gets you out of your head and into your body.  There’s nothing like physical activity to give your mind a rest–it’s almost as good as napping!–and surprisingly, you’ll often find that when you might feel stuck, instead of obsessing about it or heading for the fridge, the best thing to do is get out and get physical.  Let your subconscious take care of the writing problem and solve it for you while you’re taking care of your body.  You’ll also be breaking the isolation of the writer’s life and may even get some good story ideas along the way.

Watching-TV-while-on-a-Treadmill-25-Be prepared for surprises in your career because they will come.  Good surprises.  Your career will take you places you would never imagine because your imagination is boundless if you have the courage to let it be.  I started out as a short story writer and novelist but one day suddenly had an idea for a psychological study of Edith Wharton, one of my favorite writers. After that came a mystery series which got me my first New York Times Book Review review. And gradually over the years I’ve published in wildly different genres, books I never would have guessed I’d write, including a vampire novella, a memoir about what Germany has meant to me as the son of Holocaust survivors, a historical novel set in The Gilded Age, a children’s book and many more.  Don’t rule anything out, and don’t be a genre snob. One of my favorite authors, Henry James, gave this advice to a young writer: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”  It may sound a bit formal in 2015, but it’s advice that I’ve never forgotten.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

 

 

 

Fifteen Howlers From Fifty Shades of Grey

I recently re-read Mark Twain’s epic smackdown of James Fenimore Cooper’s dreary 1841 novel The Deerslayer which Twain ends with this barrage:

…it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are — oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.

Fifty Shades of Grey came right to mind. The book is a marvel–but not the way I imagine the author intended. It reads like a first draft teenage fever dream. It would make a superb primer for creative writing students in how not to create character, how not to set scenes, how not to do sex writing, and how not to write prose. Yes, it’s a best seller. So what? Brilliant marketing and karma did that, not quality.

Like The Deerslayer, it’s often very funny, unintentionally so. Here are fifteen terrific examples, though going to fifty wouldn’t be difficult.

1–My subconscious has found her Nikes, and she’s on the starting blocks.

2–His lips quirk up.

sheldon-2.jpg3–A frisson of trepidation mixed with tantalizing exhilaration sweeps through my body, making me wetter.

4–Each one is kissed and nipped gently and my nipples tenderly sucked. Holy crap. [the author’s italicized words, not mine]

5–My inner goddess glares at me, tapping her small foot impatiently.

inner goddess

6–He looks so…hot.

7–I can feel myself quicken.

8–I slice another piece of venison, holding it against my mouth.

9–And I come, my orgasm ripping through me, a turbulent, passionate apogee that devours me whole.

Crocodile-and-Snake10–I rub my wrists reflectively–two strips of plastic will do that to a girl.

11–I know that lurking, not very far under my rather numb exterior, is a well of tears.

overflowing12–He kisses me passionately, forcing my lips apart with his tongue, taking no prisoners.

cows-french-kissing

13–My subconscious is staring at me in awe.

staring14–He lays still, letting me acclimatize to the intrusive, overwhelming feeling of him inside of me.

15–I glower inwardly, walking away.

I have to sign off now because my subconscious just found its missing car keys.  But what are your favorite howlers from Fifty Shades of Grey?

Lev Raphael is the author of the comic Nick Hoffman mystery series and many other books which you can find at Amazon.

Blogging: Down and Dirty

If you haven’t ever blogged before, you might not be sure what the response might be.  Usually, you just wait and wonder….

am i 4But when there is a response, and even if you haven’t written about anything controversial, be prepared for carping, quibbling, and inanity.  Because the Internet has made snark as popular as The Walking Dead, and you might sometimes feel like you’re being pursued by brain eaters.

When you blog, there are certain things that will happen for sure:

Someone will pounce on any typo or spelling error and TYPE THE CORRECTION LIKE THIS SO YOU CANT MISS IT.

Someone will ignore what you wrote and talk about their own boring or weird obsession.

Someone will channel a seventh grade teacher and hector you about a grammar myth like split infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions.

Someone will tell you that you meant “nauseated” not “nauseous”–and be dead wrong.

Someone will not remotely address anything you’ve said, but just attack you personally.

Someone will accuse you of not having read the book or watched the show/movie you’re writing about if you happen to spell any character’s name incorrectly.

Someone will completely miss the point if you write satire and excoriate you.

man-with-irritated-face-huhSomeone will accuse you of relying on spell-checking alone and not having bothered to really edit.

Someone will call you a hater if you dare to criticize a favorite book, movie, TV show, celebrity–or anything at all.

Someone will twist one of your points and respond with a rant that’s two or three times longer than your entire blog.

Someone will accuse you of lacking a sense of humor, or conversely attack you for not taking things seriously enough.

Someone will sneeringly call you a hack, even if you’ve never written anything before and they don’t know what the word means.

arrogant_faceThe problem is, those people are often the only ones who take the time to comment. What is everybody else doing?

Blogging, of course.

So what about you?  What kinds of comments did you get on your blogs?  Do the types listed above ring true?  Can you add others?

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery. You can find on Amazon here.