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.

 

 

Was Gore Vidal a Bigot?

I grew up watching Gore Vidal on TV and enjoying his wit. He was a liberal version of William F. Buckley, Jr.: witty, insanely well-read, cosmopolitan, and delightfully snide. But like Buckley, he oozed privilege and contempt, and his act could wear thin.

Gore Vidal during a Los Angeles interview in 1974.

I think that’s why he’s never been a favorite author of mine. Though I’ve read a handful of his novels over the years and his memoir Palimpsest, none of his books made that great an impression on me. I do remember him wafting through Anais Nin’s Diaries where he seemed fascinating and somewhat creepy, a young man on the make.  Nin’s take on him was almost more interesting than Vidal himself.

A writer friend recently recommended that I read Jay Parini’s new Vidal biography just as I’d finished reading a review essay about it in the New Yorker.  That piece offered me an insight into Vidal I’d never expected.  In the late 70s, Vidal told the novelist Martin Amis that he’d been reading D. H. Lawrence and this is what he thought about Lawrence:

“Every page I think, Jesus, what a fag. Jesus, what a faggot this guy sounds.”

Where do you start to unpack lines like that?  Despite his attempts to blur the question, Vidal was gay, lived with a man and only had sex with men.  And here he was, using “faggot” as invective.  But putting that aside, what did he find in Lawrence’s work that evoked so much contempt?  Vidal comes across in that bizarre outburst as an anti-intellectual boob, a yahoo–or a bigot.

Unless he was simply jealous.  Because Lawrence reached artistic heights Vidal couldn’t even approach.  Lawrence is one of the 20th century’s greatest writers.  Can Vidal even compare?  Has he written anything as profound or beautiful as Women in Love?

D.H.-Lawrence-006I’ve been reading and re-reading Lawrence for years.  He can definitely be excessive and melodramatic, but his soaring prose always moves me, and so does his grasp of human psychology and his understanding of how passion can shipwreck us. Lawrence’s depth of feeling, his imagery, and his rhapsodic voice always blow me away when I return to his fiction.

I’ve never revisited any book of Vidal’s and I’ve never wanted to. The New Yorker piece quotes some of Vidal’s work but it left me as cold as the anecdotes of his studied hauteur. I’d happily read a new biography of Lawrence, though.  And it’s probably time for me to go back to Women in Love, which I’ve read a handful of times.  Or perhaps some of his wonderful short fiction.  Or his pungent, quirky Studies in American Literature.  Or The Fox.  So many terrific choices….

Lev Raphael is the author of The Vampyre of Gotham and 24 others books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.  You can follow him on Twitter at

Writing Past a Problem

Working on my most recently published book, I ran into a significant problem.  To move the novel forward, I needed my protagonist to have a confrontation with a minor character.  I knew what this woman’s role was in the book and how she drove the plot forward.

But the woman herself was a blank.  I had no idea what she looked like, what she sounded like, what kind of house she had.  None of that was real.  And so I did when I’ve learned to do after many years as an author: I let go.  Consciously, that is.

writer-thinkingI knew I would be musing about it freely and without stress if I focused my attention elsewhere.  Walking my dogs was one choice.  Working out at the gym was even better.  Freeing my mind and focusing on repetitive physical activity (treadmill, weights) has always helped me write.  Even if I’m not consciously writing, my subconscious is beavering away at the problem,  pondering the questions I’ve posed myself.

After a few weeks, the answers came to me when I did something a bit different: I worked out three days in a row instead of taking a day off between workouts.  Suddenly I could see this woman limping up to her front door past the impatiens.  I knew why she had planted them, and why she limped.

impatiensBetter still, I heard her speaking her first line to my protagonist, and once he answered, the scene took off.

But I didn’t head right to my PC or make any kind of notes.  I let the scene build.  Adding layers and complications.  Making connections with other parts of the book.  Many words, many realities.

After so many years of writing and publishing, I knew my own process well enough to know that I wasn’t ready.  I wanted to have a draft in my head since the scene  would anchor a whole chapter and push the book to its dark climax.

Writing isn’t just the physical act of clicking keys or wielding pen or pencil or even dictating.  It takes place invisibly–to everyone else but us authors.  That’s why it sometimes feels so magical.  And that’s why it’s often hard to answer the question “What are you working on?”  I often don’t want to say, and sometimes I’m not entirely sure.

It’s actually a lot easier when someone asks me “Are you writing a new book?” My reply is “Always.”

writer-ionescoLev Raphael is the author of Hot Rocks, a health club mystery, and 24 other books in many genres.  He teaches creative writing at Michigan State University.