The Secret World of Author Blurbs

Before I got my first book published, a novelist I knew quipped, “The only thing worse than not being published is being published.” I had no idea what he meant, but I soon figured it out.

Take blurbs. Begging for blurbs for your forthcoming book is a definite downside of being published. It’s humiliating to have grovel to for them rather than have your publisher take care of it (when they remember!). You can feel like Dorothy in Oz.

Far too many authors think blurbs will magically rocket a book to success. That the right, brilliant blurb by some famous author will impress the publisher, readers, reviewers–and of course our friends, family, and fans.

But do blurbs really make a difference in terms of sales? It’s hard to say. How can you quantify a blurb’s impact? As a reader, there are actually some authors whose names make me not want to read a book because they’re what’s known in publishing as “blurb whores” and love having their names on as many book jackets as possible.

What you can be sure of is that not getting a blurb you hope and pray for is a major buzz kill, and getting it is often like July 4th on steroids. The entire world is ablaze with joy. Someone famous, or at least someone you admire, has given you their blessing. They like your book, they really like it–won’t their fame be contagious?

Is it any wonder blurbs can make us writers frazzled? A writer friend told me a hilarious, sad story about a new author asking a national best-selling author for a blurb. I can’t name the celebrity writer, but she’s huge. The newbie waited and waited. No response. So the anxious author tried again. This time she got a swift and stinging reply:

“My Dear: I understood your letter to be a request, not a demand.”

I sympathized with the celebrity author feeling put upon, but I felt sorry for the writer who was embarrassed, and wished The Famous One had simply said “no” the first time.

Stories like that have made me determined never to ignore a request from an author or publisher asking for a blurb. If I can’t do it for whatever reason, I always let them know ASAP.

Still, you never know how competent a publisher is. Once a publisher of mine in New York never got advance copies of my book out in time for blurbs and had to rely on reviews for my previous book. That wasn’t a disaster, but it was very frustrating. And I recently did a blurb that the author loved, but despite her insistence, it didn’t show up on the book. The publisher wasted my time and the author’s, which is just more proof–if anyone needed it–that publishing is a crazy business.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Guide is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from mystery to memoir which have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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.

Are You Having Bad Sex–In Your Fiction?

I didn’t realize there was so much bad sex out there until I started book reviewing in the mid-1990s for the Detroit Free Press where my portfolio included literary, commercial and genre fiction.  Though there’s an annual prize given in England to bad sex writing—The Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award—I hadn’t previously paid much attention to the problem. But as the books arrived at my door by the boxload, I began to realize that a lot of writers, even good ones, were sexually inadequate. On the page, that is.

Time after time I’d find myself reading an involving story of one kind or another and suddenly there would be a sex scene that made me wince because it was clumsy, improbable, or even grotesque. I was surprised and disappointed that writers I admired and enjoyed seemed to fall apart when it came to writing sex scenes. Whether it was lack of practice in this particular aspect of their craft, or embarrassment, or even being too turned on to have enough objectivity, I couldn’t say.

But I did start to notice two major trends in bad sex writing and I still see these problems cropping up: problems with timing, and depersonalization.

Many authors don’t seem to understand that timing is just as important in fictional sex as in real sex. If a sex scene is introduced, where does it fit in the arc of the story? Does it move the plot along, or does it slow it down? Does it add depth to the characters and story or is it distracting? Not enough authors ask themselves when’s the best place for a sex scene or even if it’s organic to the work.

I goofed in an early version of my novel The German Money by putting a sex scene early in chapter one. I thought it illuminated the inner state of my narrator, but a writer friend thankfully pointed out that it would distract readers from the character’s dark musings about his very dysfunctional family. As soon as she said it, I knew she was right, so I moved the scene several chapters along and used it as a short flashback.  It worked.

A more serious problem than timing and appropriateness in sex scenes is that two people who’ve been fully individualized characters before the scene fade away and become little more than a jumble of primary or secondary sex characteristics. We end up reading about parts having sex, rather than people. Some writers seem so determined to be un-puritanical that they forget they’re writing about human beings who have feelings aside from lust or passion. Sex means something more than just itself, or at least it can be something more than just itself. And if it’s casual or “meaningless” sex, then that should be clear in the scene, however it’s narrated.

As my first editor at St. Martin’s Press said: “Sex reveals who people are in unique ways–it’s crucial for authors to get it right.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir.  This blog is adapted from his guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk.

“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.

Wonderful Writers I Have Known

Nobody tells you that one of the best things that can happen when you become an author is that you get to hang out with other authors. At panels, conferences,  book signings, and just casually when you run into them on your travels. It may not be the Fellowship of The Ring, but there’s a connection.

When I’d only been publishing for a few years I was lucky enough to be on the Jewish Book Fair circuit at the same time as Walter Mosley.  We were both appearing in Houston and when I told the fair’s director how much I admired him, she graciously asked if I’d like to stay an extra day and meet him (!).  I not only joined a group for dinner, I heard him give a splendid reading.  Later Mosley and I had drinks and talked about the dynamics of building a series.

I’ve had dinner with the witty and urbane Edmund White in Paris after meeting him at an awards ceremony in D.C.  He gave me an insider’s advice about what to see in and near Paris that first-time tourists usually miss, and thanks to him I spent a glorious day at the amazing chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte. As he had predicted, it was almost empty of tourists.

At a summer Oxford University conference, thriller writer Val McDermid rescued me from the humiliating spectacle of passing out in an overcrowded, boiling hot lecture room which had just one measly fan off in a corner.  She deftly got me to the river where we sat cooling off for a few wonderful hours chatting about our careers, life, and love as we watched little boats pass by.

I can’t count how many authors have been gracious enough to write blurbs for my many books, and one who was too busy to read that particular book actually invited me to teach at the summer workshop she ran instead.  Author after author has been unfailingly kind to me in one way or another.

There’ve been some very colorful exceptions.  My favorite was the New York Times best seller who I had been exchanging some notes with because we admired each other’s work. That author invited me and my spouse over for drinks the next time we were in New York.The visit was going to be one fun piece of a blowout birthday weekend that included dinner at the Russian Tea Room.  When we got to New York and I called from the luxury hotel we’d splurged on, the writer insisted I had the date wrong. That wasn’t possible, since, well, I did know my own birthday and had said I was coming in for it. This literary star was super frosty on the phone and even sent a postcard later telling us about the wonderful menu we had missed at his home (it actually didn’t sound that great).

But a childhood TV hero of mine was staying at the hotel, and when I saw him in the lobby, I got to tell him how much I loved his show; I spent time that weekend with my best friend from college; the hotel’s Sunday brunch was stupendous; and I had terrific seats to see B.D. Wong and John Lithgow in M. Butterfly.

The generous and friendly ones have vastly outnumbered the others, and of course the exceptions have given me great material….

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery, including a guide to the writer’s life: Writer’s Block is Bunk.

 

Feeling at Home, Abroad

As a writer, I’ve always had a particular kind of wanderlust: I’m not into doing anything extreme or uncomfortable.  I like going someplace where the challenges are along the lines of learning a new language, or deepening the command of one I already know.  Someplace where I’ll be drawn into deep contemplation of a landscape, a street, even a marvelous meal.  I have hungry eyes.

I’ve never felt the need to rack up “points” by seeing a lot, though. I want to savor a place I visit.  When I was in London a few years ago, I went to my favorite museum The Wallace Collection twice, timing my second visit when there would be as few other visitors as possible so that I could spend as much time as possible contemplating paintings I wanted to see again and truly appreciate.  And a perfect day in Florence for me was visiting a church and enjoying its art, savoring a long lunch, then taking in another church followed by a long dinner–with both meals at the Piazza Santo Spirito, and the churches nearby.

If I’m abroad and I find a restaurant or café I enjoy after having tried a few others, I keep going back.  I don’t need to continue trying others, looking for some Holy Grail of Dining.  In the new city the familiar setting, staff, and menu appeal to me and I’d rather try as many different dishes on that menu as I can.

Spending a week in Ghent recently, it didn’t take long sampling eateries around the train station of Gent-Sint-Pieters to decide that Café Parti was where I could happily have lunch and dinner as often as possible.  The vibe was hip and neighborly. The staff was friendly and I used as much of my newly-acquired Dutch as possible, though my French is so much better.  I got good recommendations for specials, and I chatted just a bit about what I was doing there, where I was going (Antwerp for the Rubens Museum), and when I got back, the differences between Antwerp and Ghent.  It made me feel as If wasn’t just skimming across the surface of the culture.

In the same way, I took more cabs than trams in Ghent because I’ve often found that I learn a lot from cab drivers in foreign cities.  My father was a cab driver years ago in New York and that’s always a point of connection; I sit in the front passenger seat to make conversation easier.  When my Dutch failed me, I asked if I could switch to French, which was usually fine, but there was always English as a fallback.  I learned that in Ghent, tourists came predominantly from Germany, The Netherlands, France–and China.  And, unexpectedly, that the park near my hotel wasn’t especially safe at night.  I got a colorful and detailed warning despite not needing one, but hey, he was being friendly, and Ghent prides itself on being “The City of Trust and Love.”  Of course, for me as a writer, there’s a story in that conversation….

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir/travelogue My Germany and 24 other books in many genres.

Falling in Love With Ghent

The psychologist Otto Rank wrote that artists are perpetually in conflict with life.  They need seclusion to produce their work, but they also need to go out into the world for stimulation to create their art.

Whatever takes me away from home, I’m always receptive to possible locations for stories, essays, and books–and I return with lots of notes and photographs.  I was recently in Ghent, Belgium on a travel grant, liaising with officials from Ghent University to explore the possibility of a study abroad program with Michigan State University.  The city is widely called “a hidden gem.” It’s all that, and more.  Day after day I felt bombarded with impressions and ideas I knew would fuel my writing down the road.  I fell in love with a city I’d known almost nothing about, and fell hard.  Here’s why.

First there are the people. As my favorite author Henry James would have put it, “the note” of the city is friendliness. I got that vibe everywhere, whether in sandwich or coffee shops, stores, restaurants, and even from strangers who helped me when I got slightly lost. Some of them walked a short distance with me to make sure I was headed in the right direction.

As a writer, I seek comfort and quiet when I travel and the Carlton Hotel Gent was the epitome of those things. Family owned, boutique-style, it was smoothly run, ultra-quiet, close to the train station, served delicious breakfasts, and the owners were perfect guides to the city and its restaurants. The hip Café Parti was nearby and if could’ve eaten every lunch and dinner there, I would have. It served Belgian specialties that I’d sampled before in Brussels and Bruges, but they were exceptional, especially the stoofvlees, a beef stew made with dark beer, and the onglet, hanger steak better than any I’d had in the U.S.

I liked the modern lines of the hotel and the Café Parti (above) because Ghent has so much history in its architecture, from the Renaissance buildings along the canals, to the Romanesque St. Bavo Cathedral and the medieval Gravensteen fortress at the city center. Dipping in and out of these different periods was intensely enjoyable. And so was sampling my favorite Belgian chocolate, Neuhaus, and a Ghent specialty, neuzekes, candies filled with raspberry syrup that look like little pointed hats and are partly made with gum Arabic. They’re sensational.

Bikes are king in Ghent, or so they say, and it apparently has the largest bike-friendly zone in Europe. Ghent was the first city to designate a street as a “cycle street”—meaning that cars have to stay behind bikes. They’re everywhere, weaving through traffic and around the trams which snake along the sinuous streets which seem unlike any other street plan I’m familiar with from my previous years of visiting Western. There was something very calming about riding a tram or just watching one.

For a city which is the third largest port in Belgium, and has 250,000 residents, Ghent never felt overwhelming. It welcomed and fascinated me, and unlike the more famous Bruges half an hour away (which has twice as many tourists), it didn’t feel like a museum despite the amazing architecture from so many different periods.

Before I got there, I had plans to set a novel elsewhere in Flanders, but after this past week, the novel-in-progress has moved to Ghent.  Frankly, I wish I could, too.  For awhile, anyway….

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir/travelogue My Germany and 24 other books in many genres. He speaks French, German, and some Dutch.

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.