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.

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

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.

How Reading Henry James Changed My Life

I had an amazing senior year of college reading (and reveling in) George Eliot, Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Lawrence Durrell, Fitzgerald, and Henry James.

While all of them inspired me to be a better writer of fiction–my goal in life–it was James who was the catalyst for perhaps the deepest change.

I was reading The Portrait of a Lady–which many consider The Great American Novel–at 3 AM when I came to the famous Chapter 42.

lady(Nicole Kidman in Jane Campion’s 1996 film of Portrait)

That’s where the American heiress, Isabel Archer, has started to understand that there’s something wrong with her marriage and her life. She’s hoped for intellectual and emotional freedom, but life with her dilettante husband Osmond has turned out to be very different. Her Roman palace is a prison.

….she had seen where she really was. She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation.

It may sound like a cliché, but I was thunderstruck. That was my house. My emotional house. Because I had never really talked about or written abut my parents’ experiences in the Holocaust, what that legacy meant to me. In the years to come, this subject matter would become central to the fiction and nonfiction I published and was known for.  My first prize-winning story, published in Redbook, would be about a son of survivors and it launched my career.

Within days of reading Chapter 42, there was a clear difference in my work that my creative writing professor noticed. James had opened me up to myself in a way that no other author ever had. I was never the same man or writer again.

Of course, it wasn’t just the story that swept me away: the sumptuous prose, James’s sly humor, and his sharp depiction of the conflict of Americans and Europeans in that era transfixed me.

I’ve read Portrait many times since, always in new editions because I mark up my copies with comments, stars, and underlining.  It keeps meaning different things to me, but I always remember that sense of discovery and liberation, and always be grateful.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books of fiction and nonfiction in a wide range of genres.

 

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.

Authors: Don’t Let Reviewers Hold You Hostage

Unpublished authors imagine that once they are published, life will be glorious. That’s because they haven’t thought much about bad reviews. Every author gets them, and sometimes they’re agonizing.

123rf frustration laptop over head123rf frustration laptop over headAs a published, working author, you learn to live with the reality of bad reviews in different ways. You can stop reading them. You can have someone you trust vet them for you and warn you so that nasty splinters of prose don’t lodge in your brain. You can leave town or stay off the grid when your book comes out.

Hell, you can be perverse and break open a bottle of champagne to celebrate a dreadful review. Why not? Or if you’re a mystery author, you can have fun with a bad review and kill the reviewer. Of course, you don’t have to go all the way to murder. Fictional defamation, degradation, and despoliation can be satisfying, too.  But getting captured by a review is not healthy.

I remember a Salon piece of close to 3,000 words (seriously!) by a novelist who complained that Janet Maslin killed his novel in the New York Times. Killed? No critic has that power. But Maslin did trash his book. It happens. She also made a gross mistake about his book in her review. That happens, too. One reviewer claimed that my second novel focused on a theme that it didn’t remotely touch, which meant she was probably confusing it with another book of mine.  Reviewers get sloppy all the time.  Sleepy too, I bet….

sleepingstudenty_LargeThe Salon piece was disturbing and at times painful — but not just because of Maslin’s error. It opened with the author describing how he moaned on his couch, face down, while his wife read and paraphrased the bad review, and her having to admit that Maslin dissed the book as “soggy.”

The author teaches creative writing and had published three previous books, so you’d think he would try to set a better example for his students. Instead, while he admitted he was lucky to have been in the Times at all, he focused on his misery and even shared that he’d previously thought of Maslin as a ghost friend because she gave his first book a great review. That was super creepy.

I’ve published twenty-five books and I read as few of my reviews as possible. Why? Because I’ve learned more about my work from other authors through their books, conversations, or lectures than I have from reviews. I don’t look to reviews for education, validation or approbation. I hope they’ll help with publicity, but I’ve seen people get raves in the New York Times without any impact on sales.

More importantly, we authors shouldn’t let our self-esteem be held hostage by the Janet Maslins of journalism, and we should try not to over-estimate their importance or expect them to stroke our egos. Bad reviews? Ignore them along with the good ones, and keep writing.

How do you deal with bad reviews?  Have you ever felt trapped like the writer who wrote the Salon piece?

Lev Raphael is the author of the mystery Hot Rocks and 24 other books in genres from memoir to biography.

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.

Why I Strongly Disagree With Anne Lamott

I know, I know: a lot of people swear by her.  And a lot of writers find her inspiring.

People especially like to quote the writing guru on the subject of first drafts.  She’s apparently very reassuring for anyone who fantasizes that established authors get it right the first time–though are there really folks naive enough to believe that?  They can’t have thought too seriously or deeply about writing.  But then there are also people who tell me that they’ll write a book if they ever get “some free time”–as if that’s all it took.

Lamott’s unsurprising points about revision are certainly valid: you have to keep revising, and revision is the heart of good writing for most writers. Where I think she goes seriously wrong in Bird by Bird is when she uses the word “shitty” to describe first drafts.  And she says that all good writers write them.  Really?  How does she know this for a fact?

puzzled-look“Shitty” is an adjective I’ve never used to describe a first draft of my own and it’s a word I’ve never used in any creative writing class or workshop I’ve taught anywhere.  I think it’s more than just pejorative, it’s gross and inappropriate.  Messy is fine. Disordered, unfocused, rough, undisciplined, chaotic, jumbled, scattered, unfinished, inferior–any words like that will do.

But shitty?  That vulgarity degrades your own work, and it’s a slippery slope–even though Lamott is ostensibly trying to make people relax and feel confident.  You get writers used to applying a word like shitty to a first draft and it’s too easy for them to survey other work of theirs in dark times and think, “This is shit.”  It can plant the wrong kind of seed in people who already have to deal with doubts about their abilities and cope with their jealousy of other writers.

Of course, if she says it, she must be right, and she’s spawned hundreds, maybe thousands of writers who throw the words “shitty” and “shit” around in connection with their work without thinking through its implications.

I once had a graduate writing professor call a story I’d worked very hard on “shit.”  Luckily I’d won that MFA program’s literary prize for the story so I was partly armored against his slam, but I was still offended.  I feel the same way when I hear reports from my own students who report what other professors have said to them about their work.

In that same Bird by Bird essay, Lamott also talks about how much writers suffer, and how writing is never rapturous.  Well maybe some writers do suffer the torments of hell, and maybe for some writers their work is like a series of root canals without anesthesia, but never rapturous?  Her writer friends must be really miserable.  Many of the writers I’ve met actually enjoy writing.  Yes, it’s true!  They’re not martyrs–they love what they do.

You do not have to suffer to be a writer.  It is not a requirement.  It is not a badge of honor.  It is not a proof that you’re a professional.  And you definitely do not have to disparage your own work.

None of my 25 books has tormented me when I wrote them, and none of the first drafts of my hundreds of stories, essays, reviews, or blogs were “shitty.”  Hell, some of the first drafts were pretty good. Surprisingly good. But I always knew they were just a starting point and I knew they would need more work.  For me, any draft is just opening a door, that’s all.  I don’t need to label it or dismiss it in any way, even if I’m dissatisfied or disappointed.  I just keep working.

author 6Publishing is where I’ve encountered misery, true misery, because I had so little control once the work left my desk.  And that includes even publishing in magazines and newspapers where editors could sometimes make changes I objected to, changes that distorted what I’d written.

But writing itself? Yes, I do find that intensely pleasurable; I always have and likely always will.  Writing is a high for me, one of life’s great joys.  Some of the happiest times of my life have been writing a book or a story.  And that was even before I started earning money as a author.  How cool is that?

arms wideLev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Advice for Writers) and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.