My Book Orgy

For as long as I can remember, I was a monogamous reader. I’d start a book and read it straight through no matter how much time that took. Even if I didn’t like it, I had to finish it.

College and graduate school didn’t change my book monogamy. Even when my reading load was very heavy, I never read a book on the down low. That seemed shifty and wrong. Once during my MFA program I had to read Bleak House, The Wings of the Dove and two novels by Iris Murdoch all in one week, but I didn’t cheat. I slogged along serially, losing sleep but determined to be faithful. My roommate later claimed I was prone to hysterical laughter that week, but monogamy can make anyone desperate, right?

desperate

Years later, when I was reviewing for a handful of magazines and newspapers and two public radio stations, I still didn’t cheat. My motto: One man, one book.

Now I’m a hopeless book slut. I can’t seem to keep my hands off all the books piled in my study, by my bed, in the den, and sent to me by publishers. I’ll try to stay focused but then a new book shows up in the mail, somewhere on line and I go all Iggy Pop: “You look so good to me….”

2015-03-06-1425654025-1513773-multiplebooks140277145889_xlarge.jpegThis has nothing to do with competition from downloading music, Facebook or Twitter, texting, or binge-watching the latest Netflix original show like the hilarious Lovesick. It’s the books that compete with each other. Some months I’m reading as many as five to six books at a time. That means bookmarks, Post-it notes, a pen or pencil, a napkin, a comb, my phone, a restaurant receipt or whatever else is handy will be poking out from books all around the house.  Keeping my place(s).

That also means some weeks I shun all book reviews, especially the New York Times Book Review. I don’t want to hear about another new book in any genre, don’t want to risk being tempted.

So what’s in my book harem right now? Biographies of President Buchanan and Thomas Beckett.  Rebecca Mead’s memoir about reading Middlemarch.  A short novel by Anthony Trollope.  Nathaniel Philbrick’s history of Bunker Hill.  Susan Jacoby’s The Age of Unreason. Poldark by Winston Graham.  And a book about contemporary populism worldwide, just to stay connected to current events.

And I’m about to order a biography of the art collector Peggy Guggenheim because I just saw a documentary about her and I still remember visiting her famous museum in Venice….I just couldn’t resist her life, her loves, her art.

peggy_guggenheim_1Lev Raphael is the author of Book Lust! and twenty-four other books in many genres.

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.

 

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

People Will Say Anything to Writers

Did you get fired from your real job?

What do you write? (long pause) Oh.

Aren’t there enough books out there already?

asterisk blog photo Do you know Stephen King?

I’m into gaming.

You should write a book about my life, it’s a bestseller for sure.

123rf frustration laptop over head123rf frustration laptop over headsquintMy sister reads a lot. Have you written anything she would know?

I liked your book except for the characters.

I’m gonna write someday, when I get some spare time.

jokeyYou should write a screenplay! That’s where all the money really is.

Your book was…interesting.

I thought books were dead.

If you’re a writer, what kinds of off-the wall comments and questions have you heard?

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in genres from memoir to historical fiction which you can find on Amazon.

“Am I In Your Book?”

I once heard a rumor that someone thought they were “in” one of my mystery novels and was really pissed off.  Well, it was a bizarre situation because this person wasn’t remotely in my book, not even near my book.

On the other hand, a fan once jokingly said, “You should put me in one of your mysteries” and I walked away smiling.  Because this fan–a lifetime academic–had apparently read them all without realizing I’d used a dramatic incident from the fan’s life as a plot point in one of the books.  So you could say that fan made a phantom guest appearance.  Sort of.  Or a contribution?

business-woman-thinkingThe thing is, nobody gets shoved into my books from real life.  Ever.  And each one of my characters is a composite of fact and fiction.  Sometimes more of one, sometimes more of another.

Take Juno Dromgoole in my Nick Hoffman mystery series.  She’s a luscious professor of Canadian Studies who’s beautiful, foul-mouthed, and intemperate.  By making her over-the-top, I was playing with the American image of Canadians as quiet and well-mannered.  How was she born? She was actually inspired by several different women I met at a mystery conference.  But the more I worked on her, the more she became sculpted by the storyline and interactions with other characters and the further away she grew from her “sources.”  I don’t even remember anymore who those women were exactly, but I did finally imagine her as having the glamor of Tina Turner at her best.

Tina-TurnerCuriously, I did once run into a woman who looked and dressed just as I envisioned Juno did, when I was staying in a German hotel on a book tour–and she was Italian.

The smallest thing can inspire me: a look, a gesture, an outfit, a snarky line, an accent–and suddenly a grain of sand is on its way to becoming a pearl.  So people do make their way into my fiction, but always through shards, fragments, bits and pieces.

Even if I had wanted to put that angry person mentioned above in my book, I wouldn’t really have been able to.  For me, people are just models, no even less: inspiration.  Fiction sculpts them into something completely different from what they were until they become unrecognizable. If it’s good, of course.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 others books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.

The Day I Defended Fifty Shades of Grey (!)

Fifty-Shades-of-GreyYes, I know the book is awful in every possible way. I’ve blogged about it several times on The Huffington Post and just recently, in a sex writing workshop, I used one of its sex scenes as an example of very bad writing. Here’s some of the excerpt  I chose:

His hands run down my body and over my breasts as he reaches the dip at the base of my neck with his lips. He swirls the tip of his nose around it then begins a very leisurely cruise with his mouth, heading south, following the path of his hands, down the sternum to my breasts. Each one is kissed and nipped gently and my nipples tenderly sucked. Holy crap. My hips start swaying and moving of their own accord, grinding to the rhythm of his mouth on me….Reaching my navel, he dips his tongue inside, and then gently grazes my belly with his teeth. My body bows off the bed…..His nose glides along the line between my belly and my pubic hair, biting me gently, teasing me with his tongue. Sitting up suddenly, he kneels at my feet, grasping both my ankles and spreading my legs wide.

Holy shit. He grabs my left foot, bends my knee, and brings my foot to his mouth. Watching and assessing every reaction, he tenderly kisses each of my toes, then bites each one of them softly on the pads. When he reaches my little toe, he bites harder, and I convulse, whimpering. He glides his tongue up my instep–and I can no longer watch him. It’s too erotic. I’m going to combust.

When they read this scene, the students quickly identified all the things that were wrong with it in a spirited and hilarious discussion. Short list: the sex is all exterior and clinical; the “geography” is weird; the voice shifts in peculiar ways; the writing is anything but erotic; and you should never have to tell readers a sex scene is sexy.

asterisk blog photoTo prepare for the workshop, I’d gone over Fifty Shades of Grey carefully a month before which is why when I saw the excerpt below all over Facebook recently, I had to cry Foul!  I knew it was fake. And I was also pretty sure I had previously used the same freaky and funny lines quoted when handing out a list of winners or runners-up in the Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest to a fiction writing class. Or I’d at least considered using them.

bogus quoteAs bad a writer as James is, this isn’t her special kind of bad. This is different. It’s just a shade more grotesque. And while Christian Grey is lots of things, none of them interesting, he doesn’t mewl. Maybe the book would have been better if he had.

So there I was on Facebook, letting people know the quote was bogus, after defending such greats as Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain from misquotation.  I asked people not to re-post it.  Why? Because E.L. James deserves full recognition for her own brand of lousy writing and nobody else’s, thanks to her trademark lines like “My subconscious has reared her somnambulant head.” and “I slice another piece of venison, holding it against my mouth.”

A classic is a classic, after all.

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

5 Things Nobody Tells You About a Writing Career

When I published my first short story in Redbook after winning a prize, I thought my career was set.  I was my MFA program’s star; I’d made a lot of money (for a graduate student) from the prize and the magazine; I was getting fan mail and queries from agents.  But even though I’d spent over two years in the program, nobody told me what my career could be like.  When I got my degree I had no idea what the writing life was like and learned five key things the hard way.

road1-You need to accept from the start that you have very little control.  You can polish your work as much as you can, read widely and educate yourself as an author; attend seminars; find a terrific mentor; network like crazy; get a top agent and even land a book contract with a great publisher–but what happens to your book once it’s born may seem completely random at times.  Other books just like it will swamp yours.  Books that are far worse will get great reviews or better sales.  Your book may simply be ignored by reviewers of all kinds for reasons you will never know.  So you have to focus on what you can control: being the best writer you can be; enjoying what you do while you do it, plan it, revise it, and research it.  And then, try to let go and move on to another project.

2-Writing is a business.  It always was and always will be.  Expect pressure from all sides on you to sell, sell, sell. When I started out, bookmarks and other petty swag were in.  Then I was urged not just to attend conferences but to advertize in conference programs.  Later came building my web site, book trailers, establishing a Facebook and Goodreads presence, blogging, tweeting, blog tours.  There’s always something new which is the magic answer to making you successful.  But the competition gets fiercer all the time and you can find that promotion is a rat hole.  It’s important to establish parameters for yourself since you can’t do everything and be everywhere.  Never let promotion become more important than writing itself, and just because something works for someone else is no guarantee it’ll work for you.

social_media_strategy1113-The writing life will be lonelier than you can imagine despite all the writers you might meet and hang out with, and they’re not always the easiest people to be around.  Let’s face it, are you?  Ask your significant other.  As paradoxical as it might seem, don’t let writing take over your life.  If you haven’t already, start building a life for yourself that has other compelling interests.  Travel.  Learn to play an instrument.  Study a foreign language.  Garden.  Train for a Triathalon.  Get a dog.  It doesn’t matter what you do as long as writing isn’t the be-all and end-all of your existence, because otherwise those days (or weeks or months or even years) when things go south you’ll feel empy.  And make sure you have plenty of friends who aren’t writers so that you’re not constantly talking shop.  Normal people can be interesting, too.

4-Exercise is crucial for people like us who spend so much time sitting hunched over a laptop.  It’s important to break away on a regular basis and walk, swim, jog, lift weights, do Zumba, take Pilates, spin, do yoga, anything that gets you out of your head and into your body.  There’s nothing like physical activity to give your mind a rest–it’s almost as good as napping!–and surprisingly, you’ll often find that when you might feel stuck, instead of obsessing about it or heading for the fridge, the best thing to do is get out and get physical.  Let your subconscious take care of the writing problem and solve it for you while you’re taking care of your body.  You’ll also be breaking the isolation of the writer’s life and may even get some good story ideas along the way.

Watching-TV-while-on-a-Treadmill-25-Be prepared for surprises in your career because they will come.  Good surprises.  Your career will take you places you would never imagine because your imagination is boundless if you have the courage to let it be.  I started out as a short story writer and novelist but one day suddenly had an idea for a psychological study of Edith Wharton, one of my favorite writers. After that came a mystery series which got me my first New York Times Book Review review. And gradually over the years I’ve published in wildly different genres, books I never would have guessed I’d write, including a vampire novella, a memoir about what Germany has meant to me as the son of Holocaust survivors, a historical novel set in The Gilded Age, a children’s book and many more.  Don’t rule anything out, and don’t be a genre snob. One of my favorite authors, Henry James, gave this advice to a young writer: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”  It may sound a bit formal in 2015, but it’s advice that I’ve never forgotten.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.