Harlan Ellison Got Dissed By His Writing Professor In College

Harlan Ellison, who just died at 84, was one of our most prolific and influential science fiction writers. He published 1700 short stories and over 50 books, writing scripts for Outer Limits and Star Trek among other shows.  His work influenced James Cameron when he filmed Terminator, and that’s just a start when it comes to his cultural impact.

But when Ellison attended Ohio State University, a professor passed judgment and said he had no talent for writing. Irascible even as an undergraduate, Ellison punched his professor and was expelled.

You’d think a professor wouldn’t feel the need to be so harsh and unequivocal–but you’d be wrong.

I’ve known creative writing professors who treat students like dirt. One was notorious for humiliating students by telling them their work was shit. He could make students cry or tremble with fear.  Another would only let favorite students read aloud, clearly sending the same ugly message to everyone else in her class. These professors are not anomalies: I know from sources across the country that dissing student writing is a commonplace in creative writing workshops at the undergraduate and graduate level.  A good friend was told she would never publish because she apparently hadn’t suffered enough.  Soon afterwards, she had a story accepted at a fine literary magazine.

I faced deeply disparaging criticism in my MFA program. A story that I thought was a breakthrough was demolished by my workshop, and the professor delivered the coup de grâce. He said it was nothing new and the kind of thing I could write in my sleep.  I felt bludgeoned.

But a few weeks later it won first prize in the program’s writing contest which was judged by a famous editor. When I shared the brickbats from my workshop, she growled, “Don’t change a goddamned word!”  I then sold it for a lot of money to Redbook, which at the time had 4.5 million readers, and the story launched my career as an author.  My professor’s comment at the next workshop?  “It’s still shit, but now it’s shit with a prize.”

Taking writing workshops to develop and hone your craft is a good idea, but not everyone commenting on your work comes from a pace of creative nurturing and encouragement–or even neutrality.  Too many of them want to tear you down for whatever twisted reasons of their own. You don’t have to punch out your professor or anyone who disparages your work, but it’s wise to listen to all criticism with your shields up, as if you were in Star Trek.  Remember what Kirk says to Sulu: “Steady as she goes.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the guide for writers, Writer’s Block is Bunk.  You can take writing workshops with him online at writewithoutborders.com.“Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael was like seeing Blade Runner for the first time: simply incredible.”—Kyle Roberts, MSU Class of 2016

Publishing Can Sometimes Work Your Last Nerve

Back when I was trying to get my first book published, a novelist friend warned me: “The only thing worse than not being published is being published.”

He wasn’t joking, and it sounded like something wise and mysterious Yoda might say if he taught a writing workshop. I wasn’t sure what it meant. But I soon discovered.

Bringing a book out is filled with hazards and opens you up to a whole new set of disappointments and frustrations.  You might hate the book cover the publisher comes up with.  There’s the possibility of bad reviews.  Really bad reviews.  The kind that lodge like a splinter in your brain.

You could be plagued by miserable turnout at readings and signings.  Someone else could publish a similar book that gets way more press attention than yours.  And of course, there’s the quicksand of weak sales.

But before the book even gets published, you enter the strange world of production.  When the book comes back to you from a copy editor, it’s been transformed into something very different, almost alien.  Your labor of love is now just a product.  As you work through the corrections and suggestions page by page, the book feels very much less than the sum of its parts.

Your baby is reduced to markups relating to spacing and capitalization, and what can seem like an endless series of queries.  Sometimes the copy editor isn’t tuned in to your material.  In one book I mentioned the Temple in Jerusalem.  The query was: “What’s the name of that temple?”

I resisted the temptation to get snarky, but when I had one copy editor completely rewrite the style of my first person memoir, I said No way.

Of course, a good copy editor will catch repetition, a mistaken quote, imprecise or awkward phrasing, and other problems that would embarrass you when the book came out.  But whether you agree or disagree with suggested changes, seeing it marked up with countless notes, you can feel like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians.  And you can’t tell anymore if the book is what you wanted it to be or not.

Next you get the page proofs, by which point the book you thought you loved can feel like an albatross and you just want to be rid of it.  Especially if you’ve moved on to writing or researching something else.

Obviously, it’s better to have these problems than not have them, but if you haven’t been published yet, be prepared!

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing online at www.writewithoutborders.com.

Teaching Creative Writing Shouldn’t Be An Xtreme Sport

I do a lot of speaking at colleges and universities around the country and faculty members invariably tell me  behind-the-scenes stories.  The tales of petty infighting, squabbling committees, and ridiculous vendettas make great raw material for my Nick Hoffman academic mystery series.

But I’ve also heard stories from students that aren’t funny, stories about what it’s like for them to be in a classroom with a professor who sees teaching very differently than I do. These teachers seem to enjoy badgering and browbeating students as if they’re coaches whipping an under-performing player into shape.

Creative 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 “That’s crap.  Stop reading.”  This behavior is abusive and inexcusable.

I’ve heard of some creative writing professors who are so intimidating that they make students shake with fear. Others I’ve been told about play favorites and don’t let everyone read work aloud. In my creative writing classes, everyone reads aloud or nobody does; the class should be a community, not a cage match.  Why do any professors believe they have a right to make their students suffer?

I teach the way I was taught by an amazing creative writing teacher at Fordham University who became my mentor and model. She ran her writing 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.

Teaching isn’t combat, 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–without tearing them down. 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 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches at Michigan State University and on line at http://www.writewithoutborders.com.

My Worst Review Taught Me a Valuable Lesson

Romance writer Rachel Van Dyken just did a helpful blog about how to handle your bad reviews. No matter who you are, you’ll get them.

That’s why a graduate creative writing program can actually be good preparation for your public life as an author where you’ll face reviewers who not only dismiss your work, but might even hate it.  The criticism you get in a writing program can toughen you up and get you ready.

It worked for me–even though it might have been devastating.

My first really fine short story was totally trashed by my MFA workshop. It drew on deeply personal material for me: this was the first story where I explored the emotional realities of being a son of Holocaust survivors.  I thought I’d made a breakthrough in terms of subject and style.

The workshop participants disagreed, with gusto.  One by one, they demolished the story, pulverized it, and blew the dust into the wind.  They didn’t like the prose, the characters, the structure, anything. There wasn’t much left by the time the professor pronounced his verdict. He dismissed it as just “something you could write in your sleep.”

I was shocked, but I didn’t believe they were right.  The critiques didn’t stop me from entering it in the program’s writing contest which was judged by the editor of the Best American Short Stories series.  She was the famous co-founder of Story magazine and had championed the work of Tennessee Williams, Richard Wright, and J.D. Salinger.

Three weeks later, she awarded it first prize, and when I told her what had gone on in my workshop, she growled, “Don’t change a goddamned word.”  A week later in the workshop, the professor said, “It’s still crap, but now it’s crap with a prize.”

That story was published a year later in Redbook, a magazine with a circulation of 4.5 million readers, and it launched my career.  I got queries from agents and fan mail.  So when bad reviews eventually came my way in newspapers or magazines, I remembered that workshop, the prize, and just kept writing.  Because I learned early on that as a writer, you can’t please everyone–and you won’t.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches at Michigan State University and you can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com.

 

 

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.

 

Should You Worry About the Size of Your Publisher?

Because I grew up in the heart of the publishing world, New York, I thought nothing could be better than having a book published by a big trade house. Or at least a prestige publisher like Scribner’s or Knopf.

I got my wish some time ago.  But my experience with that publisher was bitter.  Yes, it was the heftiest advance I had ever received from a publisher, though nothing extravagant. And they took me, my agent, and my co-author out to lunch and talked big.  But that’s all it was. Talk.

The editing wasn’t better than editing at any other publishing house I’d had before or have had since. The big difference came in how I was treated.  They ignored my input on the ugly cover by saying they’d spent a lot of money on it and they knew what they were doing.  The implication was that I didn’t, even though I had published a handful of books already and had two more in press.  On top of that, I was a book reviewer and saw hundreds of books every year and knew the difference between a great book cover and a dud.

This publisher promised me a book tour and then reneged for no clear reason, trying to convince me that they were 100% behind the book, and that sending out postcards would be very effective.  Again, I wasn’t a newbie in publishing, and I could tell I was being played.  The ugliest little betrayal was when I gave them a very idiosyncratic choice of someone famous to do a blurb.  They loved my suggestion so much that they had this celebrity blurb somebody else’s book.

All this came back to me when an author friend of mine recently won an award and was celebrated by the publisher.  I noted that celebration meant being taken out to lunch (not dinner, of course) and despite the fulsome praise from the publisher and editor, none of it meant more money in the next book contract or any advertising.

When I’ve published with smaller houses, the relationship has always been closer and more productive.  One publisher sent me six possible cover designs and I actually had several long conversations with the art director (an author friend was stupefied when I shared that experience).  Two independent publishers sent me on tour.  All of them worked hard to publicize my books and all of them welcomed my experience and insight. I wasn’t just someone on their list, I was a partner in this venture; I felt valued and respected for what I had written and for what I had learned as an author and a reviewer.

So even though I grew up in New York City with New York ideas of success, I thankfully got over it.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writers Block is Bunk and two dozen 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.

What Should You Do When You Get a Bad Review?

Don’t tweet that the reviewer is an absolute moron who deserves exile to Chechnya or at least a lifetime of bad sex and lukewarm meals. It’ll only make you seem nutty, and most people won’t know about the review until you tell them anyway.

Don’t make snarky, veiled remarks about this reviewer when you’re interviewed, because sulking and bitterness will just end up making you come off as a crank who should get a life or see a shrink.

Don’t take to substance abuse, stalking, or looking up all the other reviews this nimrod has done to see if yours is the worst, or otherwise push the dagger in any further.

Don’t write the reviewer directly or write the publication the review appeared in to complain. You’ll only come off as an asshole and invite a public reply which always leaves the reviewer with the last word.

So what should you do?

Accept it.  Bad reviews are as much a hazard of publishing as losing an editor, hating your latest book cover, suffering low attendance at a book reading, and people endlessly asking you if you know Stephen King.

Spend some time re-reading your good reviews if you can’t let go of that bad one, and remind yourself that not everyone is as blind, lacking in taste, or mentally deficient as that reviewer is.

Go out and party–or better yet, sit down and write something terrific because you know that one thing is for certain, as the Latin saying has it: ars longa, vita brevis.  That means “Reviewers suck and most of them are losers.  Sad.”

Most importantly, have someone you trust examine the review dispassionately just in case the reviewer might have possibly stumbled on something remotely helpful. Then have that person write it down, put it in a bottle, seal the bottle carefully and throw it into the nearest body of water.

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books including 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.