Quick! Stop That Runaway Character!

I’ve been doing readings from my award-winning fiction since the early 90s and one of the common questions I get afterwards is “Do your characters ever tell you what to do?” or “Do your characters ever get away from you?”

That question is a fascinating doorway into how people tend to perceive authors and the writing process–and how they want to.

writing-handsMy answer is plain: Never.  And here’s what I mean.  Everything that appears in my books, every aspect of plot, setting, dialogue, characterization, action is mine.  Hell, the punctuation is mine, or as much mine as anything can be in this life of transience.  I created it all, and even if I got advice from an editor or was inspired by other writers, the final form is mine.  The words are mine,  the rhythms are mine.  It’s all shaped by me as a writer, as an artist, consciously and unconsciously.

My characters are not independent of who I am.  They don’t speak to me: I speak through them.

tricking-the-readerSaying a character surprised me is dramatic, but it’s not accurate.  I surprised myself.  Something was churning away inside, some unexpected connection got made that changed what I was working on.  This happens constantly when we write: a mix of editing and revision and creation at the sentence level and the chapter level.

But many writers love to grin and say, “Yes” in answer to the question above, and then they tell dramatic stories that make audiences smile and even laugh.  It seems to confirm something to non-writers about what it’s like to write; it makes the whole experience more romantic and glamorous than it actually is.  And casts authors as at least mildly eccentric, and not entirely in control of themselves or their work when the truth is completely different.

Once I was nearing the end of a book and realized I had the wrong person committing murder.  It wasn’t the murderer speaking to me, or the victim piping up, or even the gun giving me advice. It was the mind of a writer spinning straw into gold. And after a long and fruitful career, I’m glad those moments keep coming.

Lev Raphael is the author of a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

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 Crime Fiction Changes Your POV Forever

I’ve been publishing mysteries since the 90s and whether I want to or not, I often figure out a twist in a thriller or mystery without even trying–especially if it’s a movie or show.  I just can’t stop that part of my mind from working even if I want to be an ordinary audience member.  And something about seeing it rather than reading it makes the upcoming twist much more obvious to my writer’s mind.

Recently fans of Scandal went berserk when a hero of the show, Jake Ballard, was stabbed and left for dead, and the preview for the next week showed his bloody body laid out on a table, with one of the show’s character’s, Quinn, yelling that he was dead.  Even though I was emotionally caught up in the surprise attack where Jake was viciously stabbed, as soon as it was over, I knew for sure that he wasn’t dead.  I blogged about it for The Huffington Post while the Twitterverse and Facebook erupted in disbelief and rage. The mystery writer in me knew that when writers want someone indisputably dead, that person’s throat is cut deeply to make sure they die ASAP or they’re stabbed in the head like a zombie ditto or in the heart.  Jake was stabbed in the torso; people survive worse injuries in real life and this, after all, was only TV.  The next week’s episode proved me right.

Scott-body-042115That same week in Vikings, the third season finale ended with great drama. Ragnar Lothbrok, the King whose army had unsuccessfully attacked Paris twice was apparently dying of battle wounds.  He’d also been mourning his dead friend Athelstan, a monk captured in an earlier raid on England.  In a deal to leave “Francia,” the Vikings received a huge amount of gold and silver, but Ragnar demanded to be baptized and then later get a Christian burial. The Emperor Charles agreed and we saw Ragnar’s beautiful coffin, reminiscent of a Viking ship, borne into the walled city’s cathedral.  Watching this impressive scene, I mused, “Wouldn’t it be something if he rose from the dead, popped out of the coffin and attacked the king?”  That’s exactly what happened. His funeral Mass was a terrific ruse for sacking the city.

RagnarI wasn’t trying to figure out either plot or second guess the writers, it’s just that the many pleasurable years of writing (and reading) crime fiction have shifted my perspective forever.  I don’t enjoy thrillers or mysteries or a show with a plot twist any less, but that inner watchful eye (much friendlier than the Eye of Sauron), just never seems to blink.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books–including The Nick Hoffman Mysteries–which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

 

What Do Writers Really Want?

The answer is simple: Everything.

Roxane Gay once pointed out in Salon that discussions about whether women writers don’t get enough press coverage miss the point.  Even successful authors are easily dissatisfied: “What most writers have in common is desire. We want and want and want and want.”

I learned this early in my publishing career when an author I was getting to know told me about another writer whose first novel had been reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. It was subsequently on the NYT best seller list, and sold about 500,000 copies. That’s the kind of exposure, notoriety, and sales record most writers would kill for.  My friend had lunch with this author who turned out to be miserable. Why? He hadn’t been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and couldn’t let go of the disappointment.

Unhappy-at-workI’ve met a millionaire author of thrillers whose books sell worldwide and have been made into movies–but that’s not enough. What’s missing? Respect from established literary critics. Another writer friend who’s spoken all across the country and has taught writing workshops in Europe is eaten up by not being invited to keynote an annual writer’s conference back home in a small college town.

No matter what level of achievement writers reach, many of us just can’t stop hoping for more. Sadly, we don’t wish we were writing better books, we wish we were better known, richer, more respected, had more exposure or just had something other writers had–whatever that is. And in the end, it wouldn’t be enough, because for many writers, there’s never enough.

frustratedwomanRoxane Gay’s essay was another voice in the controversy launched  when novelist Jennifer Weiner went public about about not being as admired as Jonathan Franzen, not getting his level of respect or review coverage. She’s a writer of popular fiction, she’s been a New York Times best seller, she’s made millions from her books and more than one was turned into a movie. It’s an enviable place to be, but she apparently envies literary novelist Jonathan Franzen, who’s been on the cover of TIME and endlessly praised by the literary establishment.

Whatever you think about her complaints or about her writing, I can’t imagine Weiner would be happy if she had everything she thinks she wants, because there would be something else beyond her reach. She’s a writer, after all.  For way too many of us, our favorite music is what the poet Linda Pastan calls “the song of the self.” It’s a one-voice melody that runs up and down the scale “like a mouse maddened/by its own elusive tail.”

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.

 

Following Elmore Leonard’s Rules?

Since his recent death, people have been posting and re-posting Leonard’s well-known rules for writers, which added together seem to suggest that you should write in a very lean way.  Kind of like Leonard himself.

One of the rules is “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”  But does Leonard follow his own advice? Here are some passages about the thug Richard Nobles in the novel LaBrava  (aren’t those great character names?)

He was thick all over, heavily muscled, going at least six-three, two-thirty.  Blond hair with a greenish tint in the floodlight: the hair uncombed, clots of it lying straight back on his head without a part, like he’d been swimming earlier and had raked it back with his fingers.  The guy wasn’t young up close.  Mid-thirties.  But he was the kind of guy–LaBrava knew by sight, smell and instinct–who hung around bars and arm-wrestled.  Homegrown jock–pumped his muscles and tested his strength when he wasn’t picking his teeth 

An ugly drunk.  Look at the eyes.  Ugly–used to people backing down, buying him another drink to shut him up.  Look at the shoulders stretching satin, the arms on him–Jesus–hands that looked like they could pound fence posts. 

Nobles, with his size, his golden hair, his desire to break and injure, his air of muscular confidence, was fascinating to watch.  A swamp creature on the loose.

I see plenty of rich, evocative detail there, and it’s all superbly well-chosen.  We get bits and pieces of the physical that create Nobles as an individual who’s anything but noble.  We also see him as a type known to LaBrava who’s assessing him, and the images are powerful (swamp creature, pounding fence posts).  Better yet, we have a tremendously evocative portrait of Nobles’s impact on people, the dangerously violent aura created by his mood and by his muscles.

It’s easy to quote Leonard, but it’s far more interesting to read him and see how closely he sticks to his own rules.  And then the question is, does it matter?