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.

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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 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.

hawthorneJust 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 was lazy (or dim) and didn’t do their homework.

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

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.

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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.

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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.  🙂

 

Nazi Kommandant + His Jewish Prisoner = Romance?

There’s been a lot of controversy about Kate Breslin’s romance For Such a Time which brings together a blonde, blue-eyed Jewish woman and a Nazi concentration camp Kommandant. Seriously.

As the back cover describes him, he’s a man “of hidden depths and sympathies.”  Isn’t that special? This Jew-killer is ultimately redeemed and forgiven at the end, and the Jewish heroine converts.  It’s “inspirational.”

eDdtbDNhMTI=_o_inside-the-actors-studio-julia-louis-dreyfus-on-seinfeldThe hardcover’s book jacket describes the beauty as a “Jewess,” an outdated term many people find offensive.  There’s more.  For Such a Time earned a starred review from Library Journal and was nominated for two Romance Writers of America awards, prompting a protest letter to the RWA board from Jewish romance novelist Sarah Wendell.  Other romance novelists objected, too.

I hadn’t heard anything about Breslin’s novel or the controversy around it until Marion Stein sent me her thoughtful blog about it via Twitter, and I was curious to see what kind of book it was. Badly written was my first reaction. It’s quilted with clichés. A hand is squeezed gently, nostrils flare–you get the idea.

To me, that’s “automatic writing”: when an author just picks the most obvious words and images in the English language and doesn’t even bother coming up with anything that feels even vaguely original or interesting.  Writing that ordinary would usually be enough to turn me off.  But I wondered: did the book evoke the period authentically? Could I trust this author beyond the incongruity (or obscenity) of the basic situation to at least make the story real?  Would I read the book for that much, at least?

Well, no.

She goofed in her German early on.  I’ve studied German and traveled in Germany a lot, and when you ask someone if they understand, you don’t say Verstehen? If the relationship is formal, you say Verstehen Sie? (Do you understand?).  And if the relationship is informal, or you’re speaking to a child, an inferior, or a pet, it’s Verstehst du?  That’s pretty basic.  I’m assuming the author just googled the word “understand” and found verstehen without bothering to discover that it’s the infinitive. That also means her editor and copyeditor were sloppy, too.

Then there’s a major historical blunder when the heroine’s papers are supposedly stamped JUDE.  I’ve taught Holocaust literature more than once and immersed myself in histories and memoirs from the period for years. As far as I’ve been able to determine, and based on all my reading and research, ID papers of German and Austrian Jews were simply stamped J.

The author could have said that and explained it to the reader (“the dreaded J for Jew” or something like that).  Unless she didn’t know.  But getting back to Google, I found the ID papers below in seconds…..  And many more besides.  All stamped with a Gothic J.

Jude cardAs a reader and reviewer, when I see gross errors like that at the beginning of a book and it’s indifferently written to begin with, I’m not encouraged to go on. Not even out of morbid curiosity to see how the story plays out.  Maybe other readers don’t know or care about these errors.  But there are probably enough readers out there who do, and when it comes to writing historical fiction set in any period, sloppiness in small details in the opening of the book says a lot.  This is an author I can’t trust to get history right, whatever her story is.

The novel is supposedly a retelling of The Book of Esther.  Well, I’ve read and studied the Book of Esther, and been in synagogues when it’s read aloud at Purim, and this is no Book of Esther, as more than one commentator has explainedThe Book of Fester, maybe….

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

Writing, Wandering, and Museums

I was recently in Philadelphia on a museum trip and I’m still musing as a writer about the experience.

One of my destinations was the Barnes Foundation on Benjamin Franklin Parkway near the Rodin Museum, which I’ve blogged about on The Huffington Post.  The Barnes is a work of art itself.  The approach and giant entry hall were so stately and cool in 90-degree heat that I felt like I’d taken a Valium, or a sea cruise, or a twenty-minute balloon ride high above the city. Choose your metaphor.

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DSC01278The collection is unique for its stunning array of Renoirs, Cézannes, Matisses, and Manets–and how they’re displayed.  This is not like any museum you’ve ever been to.  Because each room replicates the original collection miles away to the millimeter, with paintings and furniture and objects arranged as ensembles.  Of course, the setting is modern all the same, so it’s not like The Frick in New York with its Gilded Age opulence intact in room after luscious room.

Frick2At the Barnes, the original mission was to teach underprivileged art students, not stupefy or dazzle visitors, and Barnes was constantly fussing with his collection as he acquired new pieces.

barnes-foundation-rm23w-600Subjects and objects complement and even interrogate each other in geometric arrangements (as you can see above), or even have amusing dialogues.  In one room, there’s a Rubens of an ecstatic King David playing the harp.  His eyes are rolling up in his head and he seems to be staring right at the fleshy buttocks of a Renoir nude hanging right above him.

rubensThe guided tour I took was informative, but as usual, I found myself drifting from the more famous paintings to unexpected canvases that captured me, like a gripping Modigliani that had a kind of proto-Jazz Age insouciance.  She seemed both tender and wild.  I wanted to know her story (or possibly write it?).

bf206The Barnes itself and moments like these in museums remind me so much of the writing life.

First, different books I read speak to each other, interact in surprising ways, spark projects I never expected to write.  Or stories, essays, even books I write end up going together in ways I could never have imagined: they start an unexpected internal dialogue, even ignite a controversy.  Which leads to more writing, more “arrangements” in my mind, in the body of my work.  Every story or book I’ve written has added to the whole in ways I couldn’t have imagined.  And like Barnes, I’m constantly re-arranging.

Then I have certain projects in mind, might even have launched them with some kind of fanfare, and yet–  Something draws me off to another subject, to another vision, to another dream, another journey.  My day at the Barnes was like that at every single turn.  No matter what I was directed to look at by my smart and friendly guide, I kept drifting to a different painting or room or reflection or vision. I was on my own private tour.  But then what can you expect?  As Robert Heinlein said, “There is no way a writer can be tamed and rendered civilized or even cured.”

I guess you could say that to write is to wander…..

Lev Raphael is the art-loving, travel-loving author of Book Lust: Essays For Book Lovers and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.

Writing–I Can’t Quit You!

Do you remember the JetBlue flight attendant who freaked out a few years back? Somebody worked his last nerve, so he not only announced how fed up he was on the intercom, he grabbed a beer from the beverage cart and left via an emergency slide.  Cue the music from Rocky!

cutcaster-photo-100251510-Emergency-exit-door What a way to quit a job, but how do you make a grand exit if you’re a writer and you’re not somebody famous like Philip Roth?

I had early success. My first good short story won a prize with a famous editor as the judge.  Then it was published in Redbook, which had millions of readers.  The story garnered me lots of cash, fan mail, and queries from agents. It also turned my head, not that I needed much encouragement there. I grew up in glamorous New York and getting a story into a national magazine seemed a natural first step. What other possibilities were there?

NYCFive years of drought followed. Well, there was actually a vile crop: I reaped endless rejection letters. Nothing I wrote was accepted anywhere by anyone. I grew desperate to quit and contemplated various alternate careers.

This wasn’t the first desert I would have to cross in my 30 years as a published writer. I wanted to succeed, and I also wanted to quit. But writing wouldn’t let me. I was compelled to keep exploring my inner world and the world around me in short stories, which finally  started being published in the early 1980s.  The breakthrough didn’t just thrill me, it delighted all the friends who had been suffering along with me.

happy danceBut getting a book of stories published after that was unbelievably hard, especially when editors would say things like “I don’t like your metaphors and such.” My such? What the hell was that?  I confess I was tempted to write back and say, “My such is pretty damned good.”  Or “Such you!”

Facing another brick wall, I told my partner more than once, “I’m giving up writing as a career.” And I pictured gathering all my manuscripts together, building a bonfire and just getting rid of everything (including the discs).

bonfireIt wasn’t until I was reviewing for various magazines and newspapers like The Detroit Free Press and The Washington Post that I finally had an actual writing job, even if it was freelance. And even though I could quit whenever I wanted to, I enjoyed the deadline pressure, the challenges of reviewing across genres, and the interaction with editors and readers.

The guardian newsroom on a busy afternoonThe turnaround came in 1990 with my first book, but the ups and downs of publishing 25 books in many genres since have echoed the roller coaster of my early career. Things look great, then they look crappy, then I look for an exit. But there isn’t one. Because every time I’ve tried to or wanted to give up, fortune hands me a plum, or I get an idea for a new book and it won’t let me go.

The cold hard truth is what the late novelist Sheila Roberts one said to me, “I love the sheer sensual pleasure of putting one word next to another–there’s nothing else like it in the world.”  And she grinned.  Because she’s right.

Have you ever imagined giving up writing as a career and doing something completely different?

Lev Raphael’s 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery can be found on Amazon.

 

 

Writers Are Not Machines

Well, I’m not, anyway.

I do have writer friends who can produce a book (or more!) a year no matter what kind of crisis is hitting them at home.  Contracts pull them through.  That, and stubbornness.  I couldn’t work that way.

I was just at a party and someone asked me what I was working on.  I said, “Nothing. I published my 25th book last Fall.  I’m taking time off.”  He looked at me like I was a slacker or something.  But that’s not an unusual response.

I’ve been a member of the same health club for over two decades and lots of people there read my Nick Hoffman mysteries set in a college town not unlike East Lansing.  No matter when I publish a book in the series, someone will always ask, “So when’s the next one coming out?”

Sands of TimeIt could be the very same week there’s been an article in a local paper or a radio interview.  Really.  As if I’m churning them out with the help of a team of interns or androids.

And God forbid there’s no news within a year of another book due to appear.  Telling people that I just published a book in the past year doesn’t seem to penetrate.  I get blank stares. What’s wrong with me, am I lazy? seems to be the unspoken assumption.

man_in_hammock-e1437520839805Okay, publishing 25 books in different genres over the last 25 years isn’t shabby–but they haven’t come out on any sort of regular basis. Some years I haven’t published anything and one year I published three different books just because that’s how the publishers’ schedules worked out.

In case that sounds like I’m Type A, I should explain that my second novel took almost twenty years to finish.  Yes, twenty, working on and off because I kept re-conceiving it. I’m glad I did, because The German Money got one of the best reviews of my life. The Washington Post compared me to Kafka, Philip Roth and John le Carré and I was sent on book tours in England and Germany to promote the editions published there.

heidelberg-castleBut some books took me only six months to write from concept to completion for various reasons.  And another book was fairly easy to put together because it was a collection of already-published essays.  So it’s all highly unpredictable.

You can’t explain that to the cheerful guys who call you “Dude!” and ask about your next book while you’re on the way to the showers just wearing a towel and flipflops. Or people who decide to chat with you while you’re sweating on the treadmill. or the people who think that popping out another book can’t be that difficult since it’s not like I have a real job, anyway.

Maybe I should ask them, “So, when are you doing your next brain surgery?” or “When’s your next super-messy divorce case?’ or “When’s your next multi-million dollar real estate deal?”

Nah.  I’ll just blog about it, or write them into my next book.  Whenever.

writing is a businessLev Raphael’s latest book, the suspense novel Assault With a Deadly Lie, was a Midwest Book Award Finalist and deals with police militarization and out-of-control SWAT teams.  It came out at the time when the Ferguson story hit the news; he’d been working on it for about four-five years.  You can find his books on Amazon.