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.

 

 

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.

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.

Author Blurbs Drive Authors Crazy

Before I got my first book published, a novelist I knew quipped, “The only thing worse than not being published is being published.”  I had no idea what he meant, but I soon figured it out.

Take blurbs. Begging for blurbs for your forthcoming book is a definite downside of being published. It’s humiliating to have grovel for them rather than have your publisher take care of it (when they remember!). You can feel like Dorothy menaced in Oz.

wicked witchFar too many authors think blurbs will magically rocket a book to success. That the right, brilliant blurb by some famous author will impress the publisher, readers, reviewers–and of course our friends, family, and fans.

But do blurbs really make a difference in terms of sales? It’s hard to say. How can you quantify a blurb’s impact?  As a reader, there are actually some authors whose names make me not want to read a book because they’re blurb whores and seem to love having their names on as many book jackets as possible.

What you can be sure of is that not getting a blurb you hope and pray for is a major buzz kill, and getting it is often like July 4th on steroids. The entire world is ablaze with joy. Someone famous, or at least someone you admire, has given you their blessing. They’ve blessed your book–won’t their fame be contagious?

happy dance

Is it any wonder blurbs make us writers sometimes get a little frantic? A writer friend told me a hilarious, sad story about a new author asking a national best-selling author for a blurb. I can’t name the celebrity writer, but she’s huge.

The newbie waited and waited. No response. So the anxious author tried again. This time she got a swift and stinging reply:

“My Dear: I understood your letter to be a request, not a demand.”

I sympathized with the celebrity author feeling put upon, but I felt sorry for the writer who was embarrassed, and wished The Famous One had simply said “no” the first time.

Stories like that have made me determined never to ignore a request from an author asking for a blurb. If I can’t do it for whatever reason, I always reply.  Will my blurb make a difference if I’m able to do it? I hope so, even for a little while, and that’s good enough.

Still, you never know how competent a publisher is.  Once a publisher of mine in New York never got advance copies of my book out in time for blurbs and had to rely on reviews for my previous book.  That wasn’t a disaster, but it was frustrating.  And I recently did a blurb that the author loved, but despite her insistence, it didn’t show up on the book.  The publisher, Crooked Lane, wasted my time and the author’s, which is just more proof–if anyone needed it–that publishing is a crazy business.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Guide is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from mystery to memoir which have been translated into a dozen languages.  He’s done many book tours across the US, Canada, and Europe.

Why Writers Believe in Ghosts

It’s because all of us writers are haunted.

Not by reviews that sting or that never even happened. Not by interviews that went sideways. Not by book tours that flopped or by books whose sales figures were disappointing.

No, many of the specters clustered around our desks, laptops, and tablets are the books we started and gave up on. They’re in our dreams, and their presence lingers no matter what we complete and publish.

Brown_ladyWe have unfinished chapters, abandoned proposals, piles of research we’ve boxed, notes we scribbled and filed and can barely decipher any more.  Even shelves’ worth of reference books we’re gathered together, read or skimmed or never got to.  There are also characters we fell in love with but we couldn’t get around to giving them life.

And then there the ghosts that are somewhat more insidious.  These are the ghosts inside the books we’ve written: the plot twists we changed and regretted after the book came out, the scenes we axed for one reason or another, the narrative threads we cut for expediency or coherence but later wished we hadn’t.  And sometimes a book is haunted by what you wanted it to be, and what you couldn’t accomplish for any number of reasons: a deadline, mischance, falling ill, or just not being ready.

confused lookI’ve got a full file drawer for just one novel alone that never grew past a first chapter I’m crazy about.  Every time I’ve gone back to it, I’ve thought the research involved would take too long, plus I’ve doubted the book’s marketability.  It’s a novel about a murdered American artist and I’ve got all sorts of juicy material about him and his family, including a rare book of poetry published by the killer.

For all the time I spent living and dreaming that book, it’s stuck in the land of What Might Have Been.  The further away from it I get, the less inviting the whole project becomes.

I’m not alone: I know we’re all ghost writers of one kind or another.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Vampyre of Gotham and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon.  You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/LevRaphael

Blogging Brings Out Bitchery

We all know how the Internet is a breeding ground for incivility and blatant hatred because you don’t have to face the person you’re insulting.

But there’s a lesser level of contempt that bloggers deal with when they cross an invisible line that brings out boors. These folks aren’t hateful, just sublimely convinced of their superiority.  They spring up whenever a blogger dares to even mildly criticize anything or anyone that’s popular.

Say, for instance, that you’re not crazy about Lemonade.  Blog about it and you can be damned sure that you’ll be accused by somebody of being jealous of Beyoncé’s success.

alx_beyonce-lemonade_originalNow, unless you’re a singer, a charge like that really makes no sense whatsoever.  But even if you were a singer, why would a critique necessarily mean that you’re jealous?  Can’t you have valid reasons for disliking one of her albums?  Or even her music in general?  Does that automatically make you a hater?

Boors have emerged whenever I’ve blogged something remotely critical about a book, movie, or TV show, targeting me because I’m an author.

I recently blogged that I thought Jon Snow’s resurrection on Game of Thrones was dull compared to other more dramatic moments in the first two episodes this season.  The inevitable response showed up from one reader: I’m jealous of George R.R. Martin and that person’s never heard of me.

That was truly devastating.

frank side eyeHere’s the thing.  Most authors aren’t on best seller lists and aren’t widely known.  Even writers like me who make a good living from their royalties, get sent on book tours at home and abroad, are paid well for speaking engagements, win awards, and have successful careers.

Why’s that?  Because the average reader in America reads or listens to only one book a month and there are 80,000 published every year.  Saying that you’ve never heard of an author is like a little kid whining “Nanny-nanny-poo-poo!”

hugh laurieSo if you’re a blogger worrying that your blogs don’t generate enough comments, there’s a major upside to that.  You’re not getting hateful remarks or mockery from people who think they’re smarter than you are–and feel the need to prove it with the weakest weapons they have.

BlogLev Raphael is the author of the novel The German Money–which a Washington Post rave review compared to Kafka, John le Carré and Philip Roth–as well as 24 other books in many genres.

Susan Cheever’s Louisa May Alcott Biography is a Hot Mess

When a friend told me she was reading Susan Cheever’s book American Bloomsbury about Emerson and his circle in Concord, I was intrigued, because I’d read Cheever’s memoir about her father years ago and had lost track of her career after that.

I went to Amazon, but was drawn to Cheever’s biography of Louisa May Alcott instead. I didn’t know much about Alcott and I’m a huge fan of biographies (I have hundreds in my study). The book grabbed me based on the sample: Alcott didn’t want to write Little Women–her editor pushed her to.

What a great hook.

Louisa_May_Alcott_headshot

When the book arrived, though, I gradually discovered it was awful. I hadn’t bothered reading the thoughtful critiques on Amazon–I learned its varied faults myself (reviews of American Bloomsbury are even more scathing, btw, and more numerous).

Cheever’s assessment of Alcott is marred by trivialities. You learn things like this: Alcott dropped a pie box in Boston. Not only that, it tipped “end over end.” Wow. Alcott was teased by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. about her height, and in Boston she had hyacinths in a window box. None of these details (and more just as inane) add to an understanding of Alcott’s life or writing.

Cheever’s prose can be gag-worthy: “Death is a mystery, but life is filled with light and clarity.” Sounds like a Hallmark Card. Then there are dubious assertions like “good writing is almost always subversive.” How? Why? Makes a good quote for Pinterest or Tumblr, I suppose.

Cheever claims that the Transcendentalists in Concord “essentially created American literature as we know it.” Seriously? The first two American authors to be international best sellers, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, got there before Emerson et al. and had a huge influence on major authors like like Poe, Melville, and Hawthorne. Perhaps to hedge her bets, Cheever loves mentioning Hawthorne as often as possible, but he was peripheral to the Concord crew and mocked them in his novel The Blithedale Romance.

hawthorne

Just as egregiously, Cheever totally misrepresents Alcott’s relationship with Henry James and basically gives Alcott credit for more books of his than you can imagine. Without her, we apparently wouldn’t have The Portrait of a Lady, Daisy Miller, The Bostonians or any of his books with a young woman character. They were also fast friends, Cheever says, despite every James biography I’ve read which barely mentions Alcott–and Cheever doesn’t offer any proof of this supposed relationship.

james 1890Sadly, Publishers Weekly gave the book an attention-getting starred review and called it “authoritative.” Somebody at PW didn’t do homework.

Why did I keep reading? Morbid curiosity. That’s right: I couldn’t believe how badly written, researched, and edited a book by a well-known author could be. In the end, it had a kind of freakish charm.

Lev Raphael books is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books of fiction and non-fiction.

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.

Why I Stopped Going To Bouchercon

As soon as I started publishing mysteries in the mid-nineties, publicists and my editors urged me to go to all the mystery conferences I could manage, especially Bouchercon.  That’s the biggest one of them all and attracts writers and fans from around the world.

I went, year after year, to half a dozen different conferences around the country–and even one at Oxford University.  What I discovered, among other things, was that many were a waste of time and Bouchercon was in some ways highly over-rated.

bouchercon

I enjoyed meeting fans there and running into authors I admired.  But I had more time with Walter Mosley, for example, when our paths crossed in Texas on separate book tours than was possible at Bouchercon.  I had dinner with him and a group, heard him do a killer reading, and then we got together for drinks later and talked for a few hours about the logistics of developing a series.  It felt like a mini-workshop/retreat.

walter-mosleyHe’s been gracious and charming wherever I’ve met him, but at Bouchercon, I got the sense with other famous authors that the motor was running and they were waiting for someone more important than me to come along while we chatted.  And there was always that sense of clamor wherever you went.

For fans, Bouchercon can be a dream, a feast: so many authors, so little time!  But for midlist authors who’ll admit it off the record (and many of them have to me), the conference is pretty much the same thing over and over.  I’ve listened to some authors tell the identical anecdotes on more than one panel and the panels themselves, well….  It’s great if you haven’t heard it all before, but not so great if you’re a veteran.

Glee-cory-monteith-finn-hudson-yawn-bored-gif

Authors supposedly get terrific exposure at Bouchercon.  I don’t believe that’s always true.  The famous writers are the ones who get exposure.  The rest of us can get eclipsed, exhausted, and wonder why we bothered.  I once chaired a standing room only star-studded panel with over 450 people there, and the recording was the best seller of the entire conference.  Did it budge my books sales at the conference book room or afterwards or even that following year?  Barely.

I had spent $750 for a full page program ad, plus another $1000 on the hotel, meals,  and air fare. For that money, I could have had a lovely weekend vacation with my spouse somewhere totally stress-free.  Or gone to more than one smaller mystery conference.

Jonah’s-Bynya-Road-Whale-Beach-SydneyThat doesn’t mean writers should avoid Bouchercon.  But if you’re a mystery author, and especially if you’re a newbie, think carefully about your goals, the reality of attaining them, and what your budget is.  Bouchercon can be enjoyable if you can do it inexpensively (like if it’s nearby)–and if you’re not averse to massive crowds. But it’s wise to consider smaller conferences like Magna cum Murder or Left Coast Crime where you might do better, spend less, and have more fun. The smaller conferences are more affordable, less crowded and overwhelming, your fans have more access to you, you can  network more readily with other authors including the stars–and the entire event is less frantic and stressful, especially if you’re a writer who’s introverted.  And so many of us are…..

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in genres from memoir to horror.

 

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.  🙂