Writers Need to Respect the Audience

I just heard from a friend who attended a conference workshop where a professor droned on endlessly, repeating what was on his elaborate, dull PowerPoint. I’ve seen this happen in the academic world myself, and it shows a profound lack of respect for the audience. What could be more boring and alienating?

But that kind of approach isn’t limited to academics. I’ve attended too many author readings and presentations where the writers seem to have no sense of their audience. No sense that the event isn’t just about them, it’s about making a connection, about reaching and moving the people in whatever the venue, whether it’s a bookstore, a library, a theater, or a hall.

I’ve seen authors reading from their books in a low, dreary monotone, barely glancing up at the audience. I was at one event like that where a writer friend next to me fell quietly asleep and woke up full of questions because she’d missed some crucial passages.  She asked me as softly as possible: “What accident? Who was driving? Who was the girl in the ditch?” The answers didn’t really matter because the author kept on in his sleep-inducing mode.  That was one writer who not only had no audience awareness, he had never bothered learning something basic: how to project his voice.

I’ve also seen writers allotted fifteen minutes in a panel presentation go way over their time limit and be totally oblivious to the rising tension and anxiety of the other panelists.  These time hogs clearly hadn’t rehearsed at home what they were going to read and timed it.  And then gone one important step further: cut the piece by a few minutes so that just in case they slowed down during the actual event, they would stay within their scheduled time slot.  By going over, they were treating their fellow authors with unconscious disdain.

And I’ve seen writers make cringe-worthy comments that set the audience on edge.  “I wasn’t sure what I was going to read tonight.”  Really?  You’re the professional, you should be sure.  “This next part always makes me cry.”  If that’s true, then don’t read it, because if you don’t cry people will be wondering why not, and if you do cry it’ll interrupt the flow and likely be embarrassing.  And aren’t we the ones who are supposed to be moved, not you?  “The reviewers hated this, but I love it.”  Sorry, but a reading isn’t the time for unloading snark.

Author readings and talks are performances.  They demand planning and thoughtful consideration.  Anything else is cheating the audience, it’s taking listeners for granted, and not treating them with the respect they deserve.  Too bad not enough authors realize that.  Instead, they come to their events minimally prepared, as if all they have to do is show up, be themselves, and wait for the applause.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres included a guide to the writing life: Writer’s Block is Bunk.

Should I Be Writing Faster?

I’ve been a member of the same health club for a long time and lots of people there read my Nick Hoffman mysteries set in a college town that might remind them of the town we live in.  No matter when I publish a book in the series, somebody always asks, “So when’s the next one coming out?”

That could happen the same week there’s been a big article in a local paper or a couple of local radio interviews.

And if there’s no news soon about another book due to appear, telling people that I recently published a book doesn’t seem to count.  I get blank stares. The assumption seems to be that I’m lazy.  Writers apparently should be churning out more than one book a year.  Two or three, really.

man_in_hammock-e1437520839805My publishing schedule has never been regular over 25 years. Some years I haven’t published anything and one year I published three different books (in different genres) just because that’s how the publishers’ schedules worked out, not because I’d actually written three in one year.

My second novel took almost twenty years to finish.  Yes, twenty–while I was writing other books, of course.  That’s because I kept re-thinking and re-conceiving it, starting and stopping, and trying to figure out what exactly its shape should be. 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-castle(Heidelberg, a stop on two of my German book tours)

But some books took me only a year or even as little as six months to finish for various reasons.   So when people ask me “How long does it take you to write a book?” there’s no definite answer.

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.

The majority of folks seem to think that there’s a simple answer to questions about the writing life and that popping out another book can’t be  difficult, since it’s not as if writing is a real job, anyway, right? 🙂

If you’re a writer, what’s the question non-writers ask you most often?

writing is a businessLev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (A Guide to the Writing Life) and 24 other books you can find on Amazon.

When an Author Meets Fans

Though I’d been publishing stories all through the 1980s, it wasn’t until I was in my first anthology in 1988 that I started getting reviewed and meeting fans on a wider basis.

I was at an awards banquet in D.C. and the first person I ran into as I walked to the the banquet hall was one of my favorite authors, novelist Edmund White.  I told him how much I enjoyed his work and when he asked my name, he said, “Oh, I loved your story” and went on to talk about it in laudatory terms.  He dilated about career and getting started, warned me against dissing my peers in public, and when I said I was headed for Paris told me to look him up there.

edmund white youngI was just starting out, and soon I would be publishing books on a regular basis, getting reviews, doing radio, print and TV interviews and living the author’s vida loca.  I met fans all the time, often in large numbers.  It was always deeply humbling.

The coolest moments, though, would be the unexpected ones. no matter who the reader was.  Sometimes someone at an airport while I was on a book tour would come over to say they recognized me from a newspaper or magazine interview and tell me how much they liked a book or  a particular story.  Or I’d be having dinner or lunch by myself and a server would say, “Aren’t you–?” and thank me for whatever book meant something to them.

Waiting for boardingIt’s continued to happen closer to home, too.  The other day I was checking out at a grocery store and a woman walked by said “You probably don’t remember me–”  But I did because she’d gone to a recent writing conference I keynoted.  She’d bought a copy of my first book of stories, which came out in 1990.  “I didn’t know if I would connect to them or not, but I did.  To all of them!”  She said she could never imagine readers connecting to her work like that.

I laughed:  “Every writer worries about it.  You just have to keep writing and find the heart of your work.”

I was tired that morning, but I left the store feeling great.  Yes, I’ve gotten standing ovations from crowds of 500, and awards, and sold my literary papers to a university library, and gone on book tours in Europe, and been reviewed in the New York Times more than once–but this brief conversation reminded me why I started to write so many years ago.  To touch readers, one by one by one.

o-READING-BOOK-HAPPY-facebookLev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery and you can find them at Amazon.

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.

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.

Michigan Book Awards Discriminate Against LGBT Books

Every year since 2004 the Library of Michigan has publicized as many as 20 Notable Michigan books “reflective of Michigan’s diverse ethnic, historical, literary, and cultural experience.”

notable bookBut that diversity seems to have a huge gap. No book with major LGBT content has ever been among the books annually celebrated and publicized statewide. That fact was confirmed to me by one of the judges, who had no explanation.

The 2016 Library of Michigan press vaunts the 2015 awards this way:

“The MNB selections clearly demonstrate the vast amount of talent found in writers focusing on Michigan and the Great Lakes region,” State Librarian Randy Riley said. “The list continues to offer something for everyone – fiction, short story collections, history, children’s books, politics, poetry and memoirs.”

great lakes regionThe awards program actually stretches all the way back to 1991 under different names. It sponsors statewide author tours for the winning authors, so it’s a big deal. The Detroit Free Press describes what it mean to be a winner:

While no cash award comes with making the list, there is a real economic reward for writers and publishers in terms of increased sales. Emily Nowak, marketing and sales manager at Wayne State University Press, said appearing on the list can lift sales by several hundred copies. For regional titles with small press runs of between 1,000 and 3,000 copies, that’s a significant boost and could push a title into a second printing. Many Michigan libraries often buy multiple copies of books that appear on the list.

And then of course there’s the free publicity, which has no valuation, and the invitations to speak that an award generates, and the prestige.

But evidently since 1991 there hasn’t been a single book with major LGBT content published by a Michigan press or written by a Michigan author living here or elsewhere worthy of recognition.

Think about it: No notable LGBT books by talented queer Michigan authors in almost twenty-five years the judges of this program thought deserved being honored. Not one. The Library of Michigan’s web site claims that the awards “help build a culture of reading here in Michigan.” Perhaps so, but the culture being built is limited in its diversity.

Before the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, Rolling Stone rated Michigan as one of the five worst states in the country for gay rights because of hate crimes, but there are other forms of oppression, including forced invisibility.

Isn’t it well past time that the sponsors and judges of the Michigan Notable Books stepped into the 21st century, out of the darkness and into the light?  What are they afraid of?

sunrise

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

Authors Can Be Sitting Ducks

Isn’t it amazing what people think they can say to authors at signings or readings?

They’ll criticize characters, plot, writing style, or the way a book ends–and rudely, too.  And then not even buy a book.  They’ll just unload on the author who’s a captive and has to be polite and just take it, no matter how unfair and uninformed the comments may be.

Mean NerdSometimes events can work your last nerve, but sometimes the situation’s just different enough where you don’t just take it.  That happened to me once at a university where things went awry from my getting off the plane.  The minion picking me up announced that she had no sense of direction, and got me lost 1) in the airport 2) in the parking structure and 3) in the city on the way to my hotel when we went drove in the wrong direction for at least ten minutes.

road-map-lost-imageWhen we finally got to it, the hotel room in a dinky “annex” was filthy with cobwebs and dust balls everywhere.  I called the host professor and asked to be moved somewhere else, but he insisted on seeing it for himself, assuming I was a diva, I guess.  He took one look and moved me to a Hilton Garden Inn.  But that was the end of his competence, because rather than do a short intro to my talk and reading, he read from my official, page-long author biography.  Slowly.

I timed him.  It took ten minutes.  And he stuttered.  Still, I made it through and was doing fine until the Q&A when someone raised my first novel Winter Eyes where a son of survivors is unsure of his sexuality and sleeps with a man and a woman at different times.  That gay reader accused me of “brutalizing” him with the open ending, and leaving him alone with his pain.

wintereyes-new

I wasn’t rude, but I said plainly that he had misread the book and the characters who believed at the end that labels didn’t matter at that moment in their lives.  And if he was in pain, it wasn’t the fault of my book, but his issues that he needed to deal with.

I’d never been that assertive in a Q&A, but it had to be said.

Would I have replied as I did if the afternoon and early evening had gone better?  Maybe not.  But I felt I had to stick up for myself as an author and stick up for my book.  And for authors everywhere….

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.  Follow him on Twitter at

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.

What Authors Never Say At Book Signings

airplane_0Being an author on a book tour can be a wonderful experience, until things go wrong: missed flights, poor turnouts, noisy and uncomfortable hotels, cab drivers taking you to the wrong book store in the wrong part of town, hotel WiFi crapping out–and a host of other problems that can work your last nerve.

So sometimes your charm can wear very thin, and you start to feel that the same kinds of remarks or questions you’ve heard before feel like swings people are taking at a piñata.

800px-pinata_in_san_diegoThe stress can leave you most vulnerable when you’re marooned at a table waiting for people to come over and get a book to be signed.  This isn’t after a reading, but when all the bookstore wants you to do is just sit and sign.  You end up feeling like you’re not much more than somebody’s desperate grandmother at a weekend yard sale trying to unload worthless junk rather than an artist selling a book you’ve slaved over.

LandscapeHere are some moments many authors have experienced, and what some of them might have been thinking in their weary, frazzled, tortured little hearts.

Scene: Customer rifles through a book for five or more minutes while the author sits at the bookstore table grinning stupidly and helpfully, imagining alternative realities that would have kept her home: a stalled car or a civil insurrection or just a plain old flu.

sick in bedCustomer puts book down and mutters, “I’ll get it on Amazon.”  Customer trundles off.

Author would love to say: “I won’t sign it on friggin’ Amazon!”

Or Customer asks, “Will I like it?”

Author would love to say, “You will adore it.  It’s gonna improve your sex life, give you a green thumb, help you lose weight (and seriously, honey, it’s time because have you seen yourself from behind?), get your kids into their first choice colleges, and make your dog stop peeing on the couch.”

guilty dogCustomer says out of the blue, after inspecting as if it might have bed bugs, “I don’t read much.”

Author would love to say, “I could tell from the vacant look in your eyes.”

Customer sighs after putting the book back upside down and face down, “I have so many books at home that I have to read first.”

Author would love to say, “This is way better than the trash you’re used to.”

Customer bustles up to you and scolds you at length for some plot point in your last book and says you better not have repeated the same mistake in the new one.

Author would love to say, “I’m so grateful!  That was amazing advice! Nobody’s ever pointed that out to me before!  I’m dedicating my next book to you!  Here, take a free book!  No, take two!”

Friend_hugLev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in many genres.

Authors: Don’t Sabotage Your Book Readings

Readings make a lot of writers nervous.  After all, we spend most of our time alone, well, alone with the voices in our head, anyway.

writing handsSo you can understand that for some of us, when we get invited to speak about our work and read from it at a book store or library or college, we goof.  We don’t choose the right excerpt, we don’t take the time to plan our remarks, we don’t practice our reading.

But the most egregious thing I’ve seen authors do is sabotage their own readings without any idea they’re doing it.  What do I mean?

Some authors will feel their best chance of establishing a bond with their audience is to start with something like, “On the way over here, I was going over about what I planned to say” or “When I was invited here today, I was wondering what you might want to hear” or even “I haven’t tried it before, but I’m pretty sure this part of the book might work.”

boratTaking people “behind the scenes” in those ways can come across as way too informal.  It’s also inappropriate. The audience doesn’t need to hear about how you put your talk and reading together or hear you share your doubts.  This isn’t a workshop about doing an event–this is the event itself.  There’s really no need to start with any kind of “process preamble.”

Then there are the authors trying way too hard to be funny. Of course, jokes or cute anecdotes are fine, but keep them short–if you go that route at all. Your work is what you’re there to represent, not your dazzling comedic personality.  Because remember at the end of the day, you’re still a writer, not Chris Rock or a talk show host whose meanderings are part of the act.  Nobody invited you for your shtik.

ellenSome authors nervously mark time.  Sharing a stage with other authors they’ll mistakenly  comment, “Well, it’s been a long night, and–”  Yes it has, but keep that to yourself and pretend everyone just got there. Or, “As the middle author of five tonight, I think I should be the one to boost your energy in case it’s flagging…”  No you shouldn’t.  What if people weren’t tired until you said it?  And if they were, your bringing it up isn’t likely to make them feel better.  Or, “I’m going to keep this short.”  Whoa!  That’ll make the audience start looking at watches rather than you.

Don’t ever take your audience behind the scenes. You need to play your part in a solo or group event without calling attention to the performance in any way–and that’s exactly what it is, a performance in front of an audience.  What you need to exemplify is the Italian sprezzatura: the art that conceals all art.  Do you want to come across as polished, or do you want to possibly come across as uncertain and even bumbling?

WizOfOzGetting things right takes a lot of time and effort.  It also takes thinking through every aspect of the event, from the nature of your audience to your goals to your own role as, like it or not, the star–or at least co-star.  The audience deserves it, whether you’re speaking to 5 or 500.

Lev Raphael has done hundreds of invited talks and readings on three different continents–and in more than one language.  He’s the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery and you can find them on Amazon.