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.

10 Reasons Why Anyone Can Be a Writer

1–Because writing is just a craft like carpentry and if you can build a bookcase, you can write Infinite Jest, or at least Pride and Prejudice.

2–Because even your mother did NaNoWriMo. Twice.

3–Because there are apps for everything.

4–Because spell check does half the work and bestsellers can’t be all that hard anyway.

5–Because all you need is passion, patience, and a fondness for rejection–just like stalkers.

6–Because agents are a dying breed, traditional publishers are thieves, and Amazon is wide open.

7–Because there are more people willing to take your money in creative writing programs than there are people phishing for your social security number.

8–Because anyone can be a dancer, a musician, a painter, an actor, or a neurosurgeon–you just have to want it badly enough. Talent doesn’t matter.

9–Because every other writing blog filled with writing tips tells you so.

10–Because there are a million inspiring fake Mark Twain quotes on the Internet  that will give you the courage to try.

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

(this list originally appeared on The Huffington Post)

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.

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 work 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 if I’ve printed it off–or I just delete the file.  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.

Should Writers Follow Elmore Leonard’s “Rules”?

Every now and the I see people post and re-post Leonard’s well-known rules for writers. Some of them are common sense, like “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.”  Taken together, though, they seem to suggest that you should write in a very lean way.  Like Leonard himself.

elmore_leonardOne of the rules is “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”  He references Steinbeck and Hemingway, but does Leonard follow his own advice? Below 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.

labravaI see plenty of rich, evocative detail there, and it’s all 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 an evocative portrait of Nobles’s impact on people, the violent aura created by his mood and by his muscles.

Lean?  Not really.

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.  One question is, does it matter?  Another, the more important one is this: why should what works for Leonard–or what he implied worked for him–work for you?

I think in the end you can learn a lot more about writing from reading Leonard’s books than reading and slavishly following his Rules.  It’s also more fun.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books including Writer’s Block is Bunk.

Nazi Kommandant + His Jewish Prisoner = Romance?

There’s been a lot of controversy about Kate Breslin’s romance For Such a Time which brings together a blonde, blue-eyed Jewish woman and a Nazi concentration camp Kommandant. Seriously.

As the back cover describes him, he’s a man “of hidden depths and sympathies.”  Isn’t that special? This Jew-killer is ultimately redeemed and forgiven at the end, and the Jewish heroine converts.  It’s “inspirational.”

eDdtbDNhMTI=_o_inside-the-actors-studio-julia-louis-dreyfus-on-seinfeldThe hardcover’s book jacket describes the beauty as a “Jewess,” an outdated term many people find offensive.  There’s more.  For Such a Time earned a starred review from Library Journal and was nominated for two Romance Writers of America awards, prompting a protest letter to the RWA board from Jewish romance novelist Sarah Wendell.  Other romance novelists objected, too.

I hadn’t heard anything about Breslin’s novel or the controversy around it until Marion Stein sent me her thoughtful blog about it via Twitter, and I was curious to see what kind of book it was. Badly written was my first reaction. It’s quilted with clichés. A hand is squeezed gently, nostrils flare–you get the idea.

To me, that’s “automatic writing”: when an author just picks the most obvious words and images in the English language and doesn’t even bother coming up with anything that feels even vaguely original or interesting.  Writing that ordinary would usually be enough to turn me off.  But I wondered: did the book evoke the period authentically? Could I trust this author beyond the incongruity (or obscenity) of the basic situation to at least make the story real?  Would I read the book for that much, at least?

Well, no.

She goofed in her German early on.  I’ve studied German and traveled in Germany a lot, and when you ask someone if they understand, you don’t say Verstehen? If the relationship is formal, you say Verstehen Sie? (Do you understand?).  And if the relationship is informal, or you’re speaking to a child, an inferior, or a pet, it’s Verstehst du?  That’s pretty basic.  I’m assuming the author just googled the word “understand” and found verstehen without bothering to discover that it’s the infinitive. That also means her editor and copyeditor were sloppy, too.

Then there’s a major historical blunder when the heroine’s papers are supposedly stamped JUDE.  I’ve taught Holocaust literature more than once and immersed myself in histories and memoirs from the period for years. As far as I’ve been able to determine, and based on all my reading and research, ID papers of German and Austrian Jews were simply stamped J.

The author could have said that and explained it to the reader (“the dreaded J for Jew” or something like that).  Unless she didn’t know.  But getting back to Google, I found the ID papers below in seconds…..  And many more besides.  All stamped with a Gothic J.

Jude cardAs a reader and reviewer, when I see gross errors like that at the beginning of a book and it’s indifferently written to begin with, I’m not encouraged to go on. Not even out of morbid curiosity to see how the story plays out.  Maybe other readers don’t know or care about these errors.  But there are probably enough readers out there who do, and when it comes to writing historical fiction set in any period, sloppiness in small details in the opening of the book says a lot.  This is an author I can’t trust to get history right, whatever her story is.

The novel is supposedly a retelling of The Book of Esther.  Well, I’ve read and studied the Book of Esther, and been in synagogues when it’s read aloud at Purim, and this is no Book of Esther, as more than one commentator has explainedThe Book of Fester, maybe….

Uncle_Fester_-_Jackie_CooganLev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.

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.

Summertime, and the Blogging is Easy….

I recently was reading comments on a blog about hard it is to blog along with everything else in a life and I thought, “Huh.”  I publish books; and I teach and mentor university students; and I’m married; and I travel; and I do radio reviewing; and I’m learning Swedish; and I’m planning a brand-new study abroad program; and I do readings from my books and keynote conferences and offer workshops; and I’m taking voice lessons.  Basically a full life.

Blogging still seems infinitely easier to me than when I worked for a handful of newspapers and one magazine as a freelance reviewer. And it’s a hell of a lot more fun and infinitely less stressful.

happy at pcI generally had no choice in my review assignments, with at least one book per week to review and often more.  I was constantly under deadline–my calendar was color coded for each news outlet.  I had to do revisions quickly and efficiently.  And sometimes I had to “turn” a book in 24 hours.  That is, read and write a well-crafted, literate, punchy review of anywhere up to 1,000 words.  Pressure mounted if an author was on tour or I had to do an interview.

Vintage-Frustrated-WriterCompared to that, blogging is like making a cup of coffee on my Braun one-cup machine.  Or walking the dog.  It’s easy.  The pressure I feel around blogging isn’t to produce and fast, it’s the typical writer’s demands: to get things right, to shape my ideas well, to avoid typos.  And thanks to doing it all myself, if I catch an error or somebody else does, I can correct that ASAP.  Likewise, if an idea occurs to me for restructuring, or if I want to make even minor changes, Boom.

But best of all, I’m my own boss.  I make my own schedule.  I choose my own subjects and timetable.  And I like my working environment.  🙂

I once had a book editor at a newspaper who blithely said, “I’m not much of a book person.”  Don’t ask me how this individual landed the job. That editor didn’t want me to review books that were in any way under the radar, but mainly the books that everybody already knew were out there or about to be published.  In other words, the books you couldn’t avoid seeing or hearing about: the best sellers.  That worked my last nerve.  Did the world really need more coverage of Stephen King?

But even worse, this editor had the perverse habit of cutting out the positive lines from a review and making it sound overly negative, or axing the negative and making it sound overly positive.  Content meant nothing to her, neither did style–and I crafted my reviews carefully to be balanced, so I was irritated. Finally, I had to write “defensively.”  I had to figure out how to write reviews that were what I began to think of as “armored”–incapable of being cut by this nimrod.  It worked, but it was exhausting.

That was the worst part of freelancing–working for people who could be difficult.  When I’m even remotely difficult, you know what? I stop writing and–you guessed it–make a cup of coffee or take the dog for a walk.  Or both.

Westie-terrier-by-Jeffrey-Lev Raphael is the author of Rosedale in Love, a Gilded Age Romance, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.

Writing–I Can’t Quit You!

Do you remember the JetBlue flight attendant who freaked out a few years back? Somebody worked his last nerve, so he not only announced how fed up he was on the intercom, he grabbed a beer from the beverage cart and left via an emergency slide.  Cue the music from Rocky!

cutcaster-photo-100251510-Emergency-exit-door What a way to quit a job, but how do you make a grand exit if you’re a writer and you’re not somebody famous like Philip Roth?

I had early success. My first good short story won a prize with a famous editor as the judge.  Then it was published in Redbook, which had millions of readers.  The story garnered me lots of cash, fan mail, and queries from agents. It also turned my head, not that I needed much encouragement there. I grew up in glamorous New York and getting a story into a national magazine seemed a natural first step. What other possibilities were there?

NYCFive years of drought followed. Well, there was actually a vile crop: I reaped endless rejection letters. Nothing I wrote was accepted anywhere by anyone. I grew desperate to quit and contemplated various alternate careers.

This wasn’t the first desert I would have to cross in my 30 years as a published writer. I wanted to succeed, and I also wanted to quit. But writing wouldn’t let me. I was compelled to keep exploring my inner world and the world around me in short stories, which finally  started being published in the early 1980s.  The breakthrough didn’t just thrill me, it delighted all the friends who had been suffering along with me.

happy danceBut getting a book of stories published after that was unbelievably hard, especially when editors would say things like “I don’t like your metaphors and such.” My such? What the hell was that?  I confess I was tempted to write back and say, “My such is pretty damned good.”  Or “Such you!”

Facing another brick wall, I told my partner more than once, “I’m giving up writing as a career.” And I pictured gathering all my manuscripts together, building a bonfire and just getting rid of everything (including the discs).

bonfireIt wasn’t until I was reviewing for various magazines and newspapers like The Detroit Free Press and The Washington Post that I finally had an actual writing job, even if it was freelance. And even though I could quit whenever I wanted to, I enjoyed the deadline pressure, the challenges of reviewing across genres, and the interaction with editors and readers.

The guardian newsroom on a busy afternoonThe turnaround came in 1990 with my first book, but the ups and downs of publishing 25 books in many genres since have echoed the roller coaster of my early career. Things look great, then they look crappy, then I look for an exit. But there isn’t one. Because every time I’ve tried to or wanted to give up, fortune hands me a plum, or I get an idea for a new book and it won’t let me go.

The cold hard truth is what the late novelist Sheila Roberts one said to me, “I love the sheer sensual pleasure of putting one word next to another–there’s nothing else like it in the world.”  And she grinned.  Because she’s right.

Have you ever imagined giving up writing as a career and doing something completely different?

Lev Raphael’s 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery can be found on Amazon.