My Worst Review Taught Me a Valuable Lesson

Romance writer Rachel Van Dyken just did a helpful blog about how to handle your bad reviews. No matter who you are, you’ll get them.

That’s why a graduate creative writing program can actually be good preparation for your public life as an author where you’ll face reviewers who not only dismiss your work, but might even hate it.  The criticism you get in a writing program can toughen you up and get you ready.

It worked for me–even though it might have been devastating.

My first really fine short story was totally trashed by my MFA workshop. It drew on deeply personal material for me: this was the first story where I explored the emotional realities of being a son of Holocaust survivors.  I thought I’d made a breakthrough in terms of subject and style.

The workshop participants disagreed, with gusto.  One by one, they demolished the story, pulverized it, and blew the dust into the wind.  They didn’t like the prose, the characters, the structure, anything. There wasn’t much left by the time the professor pronounced his verdict. He dismissed it as just “something you could write in your sleep.”

I was shocked, but I didn’t believe they were right.  The critiques didn’t stop me from entering it in the program’s writing contest which was judged by the editor of the Best American Short Stories series.  She was the famous co-founder of Story magazine and had championed the work of Tennessee Williams, Richard Wright, and J.D. Salinger.

Three weeks later, she awarded it first prize, and when I told her what had gone on in my workshop, she growled, “Don’t change a goddamned word.”  A week later in the workshop, the professor said, “It’s still crap, but now it’s crap with a prize.”

That story was published a year later in Redbook, a magazine with a circulation of 4.5 million readers, and it launched my career.  I got queries from agents and fan mail.  So when bad reviews eventually came my way in newspapers or magazines, I remembered that workshop, the prize, and just kept writing.  Because I learned early on that as a writer, you can’t please everyone–and you won’t.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches at Michigan State University and you can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com.

 

 

Writers Are Always Writing, Even When They’re Not “Writing”

People at my health club often ask me “What are you working on?” or “Are you writing another book?” This happens even if I’ve just published a book. and it was covered in the local newspapers and on local radio.

When I say “I’m always working on something,” most people look bemused. It probably sounds too vague, or maybe they think it’s an excuse, a cover for the fact that I’m not actually writing anything at all.

But it’s the truth. I never stop writing. I don’t need a PC, tablet, legal pad, Post-it notes or anything physical to write. Once I have an idea, it settles into whatever part of my brain has become Lev Raphael, Inc. and has its own independent life.  Sometimes it has Casual Fridays or staycations, but that company is busy 24/7.

Watching a movie or TV show, I’m not a passive viewer. I rewrite dialogue in my head and sometimes say it out loud (only at home). When I caught an episode of The White Princess, I winced when two characters in Tudor England said to someone whose daughter had died, “I’m sorry for your loss.” That struck me as way too 2018, and Lev Raphael, Inc. was thinking of ways the show’s writers could have expressed the thought with a less 21st century feel: “Your loss grieves me” or maybe “I mourn for your loss.”

Dialogue that misses the mark makes me think harder about the dialogue in whatever book I’m working on.

Of course, I enjoy it more when the dialogue is memorable, and that’s one reason I’ve watched Scandal. It’s showcased characters each episode by giving them moments where they go off and repeat themselves in various ways with different emphases. Sometimes the feel is comic, sometimes it’s threatening or even grotesque, sometimes it’s all of that–and it’s always entertaining.

On Scandal the character playing Attorney General David Rosen once actually brought a human head in a box to his ex-girlfriend’s apartment, asking her to store it briefly in her freezer or fridge. She was incredulous and demanded to know why the powerful, shady character Rowan had given it to him. Hapless Rosen said it was because he needed a DNA sample to track down a deceased villain. While the box sat in his lap, he explained:

That man terrifies me, I was not about to argue. He gives me a head, I say thank you for the head. I take the head and I go, right?

I had DVR’d the episode, so I replayed this a few times. His lines made me take mental notes about a character in an extreme situation not responding with panic, but acting almost normally while reporting something completely bizarre. The contrast between the box and how he spoke about it was highly instructive: Lev Raphael, Inc. opened another file…..

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir, including, Writer’s Block is Bunk, a guide to the writing life.  You can study creative writing with him on line at www.writewithoutborders.com.

Letting Go And Moving On: A Writer’s Tale

I’m working on my 26th book and I know that finishing it will leave me sad because living in the world of writing is balm for my soul.  Life feels concentrated, focused, enriched when a book is my mental companion.  It’s part of the fabric of each day, whether I’m actually writing or not because it’s always on my mind, and I feel a sense of loss when it’s done.

But finishing is also joyful. And that’s not because I enter the familiar process of watching the book move out into the world through various stages of publication–and then look forward to all the possible speaking engagements.

The joy is partly something more mundane: cleaning up and letting go.

While working on a book, I generate endless drafts of chapters, sections of chapters, and several of the entire book itself no matter what the genre. With some books, especially one of my Nick Hoffman mysteries, I might have to go through ten drafts of a really difficult or challenging chapter before I get it right.

I print everything off because I learned a long time ago that it’s too easy for me to miss errors, gaps, typos, and continuity issues reading the book on any kind of screen.  I need to have the text in my hand to see it clearly.

For almost ten years now, all that paper has been indexed and stored–but not by me. Special Archives at Michigan State University’s library purchased my literary papers and whenever I finish a book, I box up everything connected to it and someone from the library comes to take it away to add to The Lev Raphael Papers.  My work has joined the papers of other well-known writers associated with MSU like Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, Carolyn Forché, and Richard Ford.

If any researcher now or in the future wants to follow the progress of a book or story of mine, it’ll all be available, from Post-it Notes to scribbled-on rough drafts to the final product final drafts.  The blind alleys and abandoned parts are all there, and so is all the research material I’ve gathered, since I don’t need to consult it any more.

When I’m done with a book, I’m always surprised at how much “stuff” there is associated with it.  But seeing the collected work of a year or more carted off doesn’t leave me with the writer’s version of Empty Nest Syndrome.  That’s because there’s always another book waiting in line to be written, another world for me to enter and explore.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery including a book of advice for writers: Writer’s Block is Bunk.

Clashing with Copyeditors

Years ago a novelist friend told me that the only thing worse than not being published was being published.

I liked his phrase so much that I later made it the epigram of my second mystery, The Edith Wharton Murders. But at the time, I had no idea what he could mean. Once you got published, what could you have to worry about? Wouldn’t life be perfect?

That was before I had my first collision with a copy editor.

In my debut fiction collection, there were a number of stories about Holocaust survivors, and I was careful about having their dialogue reflect that English wasn’t their native language. Like many immigrants, they “translated” from the language they knew best, giving their English a Yiddish-inflected twist.

The copy editor didn’t get it and relentlessly standardized every line of their dialogue in one story after another. An author friend I shared this with said that a writer friend was once so enraged by his copy editor’s rampant lack of imagination that he just wrote across Page One of his manuscript, “Stet the whole goddamned thing.” I could never do that, because copy editors do catch real problems, but I’ve come to understand the sentiment.

On a recent book, I found the publisher’s copy editor aggressively changing everything—my style, my syntax, my vocabulary—to some imagined idea of good prose. The effect was to make it sound as if it had been written by a computer program slavishly conforming to grammar and style rules without any room for originality.

This person even had the nerve to commend a word I used as “a good word”–as if I were in elementary school. That was before telling me I wasn’t using it strictly correctly. But after having published nineteen books, hundreds of reviews, essays, and articles, I had my own ideas about what was correct for my book, and I said so.

The project wasn’t spoiled, but I had to put far more work into restoring my prose, excavating the dull ruin it had been turned into. I was pissed off to have encountered such tone-deaf copy editing.

And yes, I mean pissed off–not annoyed, irritated, steamed, put out, or vexed.

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

Writers: Don’t Be Ruled By “Writer’s Block”

A few years ago I heard prize-winning Michigan author Loren D. Estleman dismiss writer’s block at a writers’ conference. The problem with even using the term, he said, is that it re-frames a basic reality of every writer’s life: getting stuck.

I totally agree. When you say that you have writer’s block, you turn a minor problem into something major like depression. Suddenly you’re beset by a grave affliction and a normal, unremarkable part of the writing process can become debilitating.

I’ve felt this way through my entire career as an author, through 25 books in many genres and hundreds of stories, essays, reviews and blogs. Like Estleman, I believe that all of us sometimes get stuck, no matter how experienced we are — and Estleman’s published more than twice as many books as I have. Stuck isn’t a bad thing. It just means you haven’t worked something out, you haven’t answered some question in the book, or maybe you’re headed in the wrong direction.

Whenever I’m stuck, I do what Estleman suggested, and what I’ve advised my creative writing students over the years: I leave the writing alone and don’t obsess about it.

If you’re stuck, don’t panic. Give the problem to your subconscious. You can work on something else, or not do any writing at all. Focus on something unconnected to writing: the gym, a movie, dinner out, drinks with friends, walking your dog, home repairs, a car trip, gardening, working on your tan, cooking, music, reading a new book by your favorite author — anything that can distract and absorb you completely and make you feel good.

Of course, sometimes being stuck can mean that you’re afraid of what you want to write, afraid of revealing too much about yourself (or someone else), afraid of what people might think. That fear of exposure is shame, or the dread of shame. Calling it writer’s block confuses the issue, disguises what’s really the problem.

Unfortunately, there’s a small industry devoted to helping people overcome “writer’s block,” to keep them from turning into Barton Fink, stuck on that one sentence. And because the culture loves stories about blocked writers like The Shining, there’s a perverse kind of glamor associated with this “condition.” It’s dramatic, it’s proof of how serious a professional you are. And hey, writers are crazy anyway, so of course they can’t do their jobs, of course they’re basket cases.

Let’s face it, since most people hate to write, especially in this age of tweets and texting, “writer’s block” really connects with non-writers. If someone asks how your writing is going, you risk sounding arrogant if you say, “Terrific! My new book is a blast!” Saying that you have writer’s block brings you back to earth. It comforts people who don’t write, because it confirms their perception of writing as drudgery and even torment. That’s no reason to let yourself be bullied by a misnomer.

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

 

Should You Worry About the Size of Your Publisher?

Because I grew up in the heart of the publishing world, New York, I thought nothing could be better than having a book published by a big trade house. Or at least a prestige publisher like Scribner’s or Knopf.

I got my wish some time ago.  But my experience with that publisher was bitter.  Yes, it was the heftiest advance I had ever received from a publisher, though nothing extravagant. And they took me, my agent, and my co-author out to lunch and talked big.  But that’s all it was. Talk.

The editing wasn’t better than editing at any other publishing house I’d had before or have had since. The big difference came in how I was treated.  They ignored my input on the ugly cover by saying they’d spent a lot of money on it and they knew what they were doing.  The implication was that I didn’t, even though I had published a handful of books already and had two more in press.  On top of that, I was a book reviewer and saw hundreds of books every year and knew the difference between a great book cover and a dud.

This publisher promised me a book tour and then reneged for no clear reason, trying to convince me that they were 100% behind the book, and that sending out postcards would be very effective.  Again, I wasn’t a newbie in publishing, and I could tell I was being played.  The ugliest little betrayal was when I gave them a very idiosyncratic choice of someone famous to do a blurb.  They loved my suggestion so much that they had this celebrity blurb somebody else’s book.

All this came back to me when an author friend of mine recently won an award and was celebrated by the publisher.  I noted that celebration meant being taken out to lunch (not dinner, of course) and despite the fulsome praise from the publisher and editor, none of it meant more money in the next book contract or any advertising.

When I’ve published with smaller houses, the relationship has always been closer and more productive.  One publisher sent me six possible cover designs and I actually had several long conversations with the art director (an author friend was stupefied when I shared that experience).  Two independent publishers sent me on tour.  All of them worked hard to publicize my books and all of them welcomed my experience and insight. I wasn’t just someone on their list, I was a partner in this venture; I felt valued and respected for what I had written and for what I had learned as an author and a reviewer.

So even though I grew up in New York City with New York ideas of success, I thankfully got over it.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writers Block is Bunk and two dozen other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

“Less” is a Brilliant Satire of the Writing Life

Author tours sound glamorous to people who don’t do them. The truth is more complicated, even if you’re happy with your editor and publisher, love the cover art of your new book, and you’re in such good health that nasty recycled air can’t undermine it after all those hours trapped on planes.

You’re always onstage, always being observed by everyone you meet. You never know if your bags will get lost, your flight delayed—or if enough people will turn out for your event to make you feel it was worth the time and trouble. If you’re on a panel, will you be bored, or worse, be seated next to another author who despises you? If you’re interviewed, is the journalist prepared or just filling an assignment, does she admire your book or have an agenda?  One interview started off by cheerfully saying, “My! You’ve written a of books, haven’t you?”  I could tell this was someone working off my author bio and nothing more.

And then there are the people of all kinds—readers, hosts, other writers—who say stupefying things to you without hesitation. It can be a kind of hell.

Andrew Sean Greer’s gives readers The Mother of All Author Tours in his new novel Less, a book of sly wit and comedic gusto. His victim, Arthur Less, has actually constructed his own around-the-world author tour made up of wildly disparate events—all of this to escape an ex-lover’s wedding. Less is a novelist who’s “too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered.” Facing fifty has doubled his sense of failure and doom.

His ports of call? Mexico, Italy, Germany, India, France, Morocco, Japan—all of which he observes and appreciates with the eye of a poet. And why not? He spent years in love with an older, Pulitzer-winning poet—a certified genius who was as hard to live with as a tiger.  That demanding, driven poet unintentionally deprived him of a separate identity. Less is still better known for his ex-lover than for his own work—and he’s not remotely Kardashian enough to make a career out of that.

Wherever he goes, Less faces “writerly humiliations planned by the universe to suck at the bones of minor artists like him.” He’s publicly pronounced to be mediocre, he’s informed that his work isn’t gay enough, he’s mocked in Germany where he confidently speaks enough German to confound and annoy people around him because of his awful blunders.  Yet this holy fool is sexually charismatic in his own way, apparently able to stun men with just a touch…though he’s not a great lover.

I laughed all the way through the book, recognizing publishing types like the withholding literary agent, and I rooted for Less to become more. More forceful, more insightful, and more in control of his own life. I won’t reveal whether he does any of that, the ending, or how ingenious Greer’s narrative is, but I have to praise his gift for striking, off-kilter images like these:

The view out his window was of a circular brick plaza, rather like a pepperoni pizza, which the whistling wind endlessly seasoned with dry leaves.

In the suburbs of Delaware, spring meant not young love and damp flowers but an ugly divorce from winter and a second marriage to buxom summer.

Less was so deeply satisfying I put everything aside to read it straight through.  Colorful, hilarious, incisive, and surprisingly moving, it deserves to be read alongside satirical classics about the writing life like Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale and Updike’s Bech at Bay.

Lev Raphael is the author of Rosedale in Love, A Novel of the Gilded Age, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

 

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.

Writers Don’t Need Your Ideas–They Need Time

I’ve lost track of how often people over the course of my career have told me at parties or on book tours great ideas they had for my next novel. I’m glad they’re enthusiastic, but my response is always, “Thanks.  You should write it.”

I don’t need ideas.  I have too many of them.  Right now, the books I’m working on include a WW II novel, a medieval novel, a novel set during the Russian Revolution, another set during the First Century in Judea, a new mystery, a new memoir, and a novel set in The Gilded Age.  Some are notes, some have been started, some have research files–and one is almost done.

What I really need is a clone who can finish all the books I wish I could finish the research for and write.  My time has become more limited ever since I started teaching creative writing and literature at Michigan State University.

I’ve generally taught only one course a semester, but I twice did MSU’s English Department a favor and filled in for someone who was promoted one Spring, so I taught two courses that semester.  I also taught a six-week summer course in London, filling in for a professor who had a family issue.  I love teaching.  It’s in my DNA since my mother and her father were teachers, but to do it well and to mentor students means my writing can’t be on the front burner the way it used to be.

So the very last thing I need is anyone “offering” me a book.

And what these helpful volunteers don’t realize is this: I don’t want other people to do my imagining for me–that’s one of the great joys of writing.  Getting suggestions, especially when they’re very detailed, is like being splashed with a bucket of cold water.

I’ve published 25 books, but I’m not a machine like some writers I know who can crank out one or more books every year, year after year.  I’m not a fast writer in general.  I need time to reflect, and that reflection is a solo job.

Among Lev Raphael’s many books is The Nick Hoffman mystery series, set in the wilds of academia.

What Should You Do When You Get a Bad Review?

Don’t tweet that the reviewer is an absolute moron who deserves exile to Chechnya or at least a lifetime of bad sex and lukewarm meals. It’ll only make you seem nutty, and most people won’t know about the review until you tell them anyway.

Don’t make snarky, veiled remarks about this reviewer when you’re interviewed, because sulking and bitterness will just end up making you come off as a crank who should get a life or see a shrink.

Don’t take to substance abuse, stalking, or looking up all the other reviews this nimrod has done to see if yours is the worst, or otherwise push the dagger in any further.

Don’t write the reviewer directly or write the publication the review appeared in to complain. You’ll only come off as an asshole and invite a public reply which always leaves the reviewer with the last word.

So what should you do?

Accept it.  Bad reviews are as much a hazard of publishing as losing an editor, hating your latest book cover, suffering low attendance at a book reading, and people endlessly asking you if you know Stephen King.

Spend some time re-reading your good reviews if you can’t let go of that bad one, and remind yourself that not everyone is as blind, lacking in taste, or mentally deficient as that reviewer is.

Go out and party–or better yet, sit down and write something terrific because you know that one thing is for certain, as the Latin saying has it: ars longa, vita brevis.  That means “Reviewers suck and most of them are losers.  Sad.”

Most importantly, have someone you trust examine the review dispassionately just in case the reviewer might have possibly stumbled on something remotely helpful. Then have that person write it down, put it in a bottle, seal the bottle carefully and throw it into the nearest body of water.

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books including a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk.