Your First Drafts Are Not “Shitty”

I know, I know: Anne Lamott says they are in Bird by Bird so she must be right. A lot of people swear by her.  And she says that all good writers write them.  Really?  How does she know this for a fact?

squint“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 undermines your own work, and it’s a slippery slope–even though Lamott’s trying to make people relax and feel confident.  You get writers used to applying a word like that 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.  Writers have to deal with enough doubts about their abilities and cope with jealousy of other writers as it is.  We can brood endlessly about the wrong word spoken at the wrong time….

puzzled-lookI once had a graduate writing professor call a story I’d worked very hard on “shit.”  Luckily I’d won the MFA program’s literary prize for that story so I was partly armored against his invective, but I still found his language deplorable.  I feel the same way when I hear stories from my own students who report how other professors have insulted their work, using words like “crap” and “shit.”

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 that they would need more work, sometimes much more work.  That was a given, part of the process.

For me, any draft is just opening a door, but with a sense of adventure and expectation because I never know where the piece will end up.  So labeling it or dismissing it in any way, even if I’m dissatisfied or disappointed, is setting a road block in my own way.

I’m not saying that drafts make me want to put on a big hat and sing like Pharell, but every draft has possibility, and that makes me hopeful.

author 6Lev 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.

 

 

Getting Fantastic Fan Mail

I’ve been getting fan mail for many years now and from many places–but last week was the first time someone wrote me from Brazil.

Just seeing the word “Brazil” curiously shot me right back to 7th grade Social Studies class where I had a snooty teacher who liked taunting us students.

One day he was lamenting how little we knew about current events.  He said we probably didn’t know any world leaders outside of our own president and I raised my hand and said, “The President of Brazil is Costa e Silva.”  I had seen the name in the New York Times, which my parents read daily, and it somehow stuck in my head.  This only briefly deflected our teacher’s snide little speech, but I still remember his beady-eyed glare….

brazil flagBack then, even though I had my favorite authors like Dumas and Isaac Azimov, and I sometimes dreamed of being a writer myself, I never thought about fan mail.  When it started coming after I published my first short story in Redbook years later, I wrote back to everyone (of course now it’s email).  That’s because when I was only about twelve, I wrote to an author of a YA novel and he actually replied–from Paris.  I lost many things over the years through moves, but never lost that.

So here’s my surprising Brazilian fan email (with the town name and the writer’s omitted for privacy):

I am writing to you all the way from ——–  in the countryside of Pernambuco, a Northeastern state of Brazil. I teach American Literature at a federal university, and I would like you to know that your work is read by my students, and it is really inspiring to us all.

Because my students are usually at different levels of English language acquisition, I usually have them read and analyze short stories. The one we worked on this term was “Shouts of Joy,” from Secret Anniversaries of the Heart. We all loved it!

Congratulations on your great and inspiring work!

secret LRThe story they all enjoyed appeared in my first collection of short stories Dancing on Tisha B’Av which won a Lambda Literary Award.  It was later reprinted in the book mentioned and pictured above, which collects 25 years of my short fiction.  I originally published “Shouts of Joy”–an erotic Passover tale–in the mid-1980s.

Given all the time that’s passed, getting mail about that story is like finding a letter in a bottle washed onto a beach: mysterious and fascinating.  It’s almost as if it’s happened to someone else, as if I’m a character in a story, or I’m a reading a story about someone else getting this email.  In fact it is, since I’ve published so many stories since then, so many books, and become such a different writer.

What do I mean? Back when I conceived, wrote and published “Shouts of Joy,” I thought I’d only write short stories for the rest of my career.  I’d started my career by having won a big writing prize and publishing in Redbook–which had 4.5 million readers-before I left my MFA program, and there were many short stories writers I idolized.

But life had other, more interesting plans for me, and I’ve ended up writing in genres I never dreamed would call to me, including psychology and historical fiction.

Hearing now about the impact of this thirty-year-old story of mine makes me wonder who–if anyone–might be reading it thirty years from today, and where.  You know,  I think there might actually be a short story in that…..

author 6If you’re a writer, what’s some cool fan mail you’ve gotten, and if you’re a fan, what’s the most surprising response to your fan mail you’ve received?

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Guide to the Writing Life) and 24 other books in many genres 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.

Has a Teacher Changed Your Life?

This is Teacher Appreciation Week and I’m giving a shout-out to the writing professor who changed my life.  Her advice and guidance in college echo in my mind decades later now that I’ve been teaching at Michigan State University as a guest for several years.

I had dreamed of being a writer since I was in second grade, but it wasn’t until I took my first class with Kristin Lauer at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus that I fell in love with writing itself.

quote-Edna-Ferber-life-cant-defeat-a-writer-who-is-14548

She was my first and best creative writing teacher and was endlessly inventive in her choice of assignments. But more than that, she was a model for how I would teach when I entered academia myself right after graduate school to teach for a few years before I quit to write full time. She didn’t believe in pointing out everything that was wrong with your work, in bullying you like a coach, in making you tough because “the world is tough.” Her approach was to use humor and encouragement. She tried to work from the inside out of your story or sketch, to see it the way you did, making you feel like she was communing with you, not knocking you down.  And her overall goal was to create a community of learning, not set students against each other as rivals.

I took every class she taught and read two authors in her American Novel survey course who’ve stayed with me for thirty years, Henry James and Edith Wharton.  Dr. Lauer is one reason why years later my second mystery The Edith Wharton Murders has two (fictional) Wharton societies at war with each other. In a tribute to her, I made my sleuth the author of a Wharton bibliography, just as she was. I also based one of the continuing characters in the series on her because she loved mysteries so much and I wanted to feel her presence in the books as I wrote them.

She said to me more than once in college–privately–that I’d publish and win prizes some day if only I wrote something emotionally real. That was my El Dorado, the mystical goal that I reached with my first publication. It was a story drawing on my own life as the son of Holocaust survivors, a story I needed to tell but was afraid to.

I had already graduated and was in an MFA program, but she midwifed the story because she knew I was so anxious about broaching the subject matter. She made me read a bit to her on the phone and she’d comment and then urge me to keep writing and keep calling her. That story won a writing contest judged by Martha Foley, editor of The Best American Short Stories, and was published in Redbook, which then had an audience of 4.5 million readers. It wouldn’t exist without Professor Lauer’s dedication, commitment, and mentoring.

And I wouldn’t have had the career I’ve had or be the author I am today whose literary papers have been purchased by the Michigan State University Libraries. When MSU’s English department invited me to start teaching for them a few years ago as a guest, I realized that Dr. Lauer’s imprint was still so strong on me that I was teaching the way she did, interacting with students the way she would–filtered through my own personality, of course. And I remembered that after a terrific class one day I asked her how I could thank her. She smiled and said “Just pass it on.”

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

 

 

 

The Writer’s Life Can Be Crazy

Writers don’t tend to talk openly about their disappointments. It’s too revealing and often too painful. But we’ve all had them in one form or another, whether it’s a prize we didn’t get or a book that bombed.

My biggest one in a decades-long career came by way of an agent. This wasn’t your ordinary agent.  Oh, no.  She was one of the biggest in the country, with clients on the best seller list and a history of major deals.

When she read my book, she gave me the kind of feedback for making changes you’d expect from the best, smartest, most tuned-in editor. And her emails were as upbeat as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Working with her her was like jamming with a fellow jazz musician–we were so much in sync. But there were some false notes. She wanted the book to open in a way I thought was deadly dull, and she wanted to change the title to something awful.

I won about the title, but caved on the opening. Maybe she saw something I didn’t? Then she she arranged meetings in New York with almost two dozen bigwigs in publishing–people at the very top of their houses or imprints, people I’d read about but never dreamed would be looking at a book of mine.

Her talk was as bold and inspiring as her editorial advice. There was going to be an auction, and she thought $100,000 was a good floor. This was dizzying to someone who’d never gotten more than a $15,000 advance on a book.

Then the bomb dropped. She launched her campaign to sell my book just before Thanksgiving, even though I’d expressed some anxiety about that,  I’d always thought the period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s was when publishing slowed way, way down. At least in my experience, and I had published quite a few books by then. On top of that, the stock market had collapsed in New York, publishers were firing staff and in a state of panic.

depressionI’ll never know if she would have sold the book in a better financial climate, but I do that when she failed, know she dropped me in a New York minute, wouldn’t consider revisions and acted as if as if I had somehow disappointed her.  Her advice at that point was brief: “Why don’t you write a memoir? Those are flying out the door!”  And then she handed me off to her assistant.

I was crushed. That’s not hyperbole.  Six years later, the wound of being revved up by her and then dropped still stings.

I told her I’d already written a memoir that was being published (and had sold before I signed with her) and couldn’t write another on command.  Besides, even if I could, I wondered if she would have as much success with a memoir of mine as she had with my novel.

Ironically, that memoir hadn’t earned me much of an advance, but when it was published soon after this debacle, it scored me dozens of very well-paid speaking gigs in the U.S., Canada, and Germany.  I made many new friends, And then I sold my current and future literary papers to Michigan State University’s Special Archives for a satisfying sum at a time when authors I know were having trouble giving their papers away.

A very dark time turned deeply fulfilling, almost magical. As we say in New York, “Who knew?”  When I related this crazy sequence of events to a friend, he said, “Writers can be as normal as anyone else, but their lives are manic depressive.”  And he couldn’t be more right.  We go from high to low, sometimes within the same day, our careers as crazy as the stock market, trying to hold onto what really matters: the work we’ve devoted our lives to.

inexpressible_joy

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His work is taught in colleges and universities across the U.S. and has been translated into 15 languages.  You can read more about his books at his web site.