Bitten By A Vampire (Novel)

I’m teaching creative writing at Michigan State University this semester and one of the books my students are reading and discussing is Charlie Huston’s noirish Already Dead, a dazzling PI novel with a twist.  The tough guy private investigator/enforcer Joe Pitt is actually a vampire and one of his jobs is keeping lower Manhattan free of zombies.

Huston’s  worked out a terrific alternative reality in which vampirism is caused by a mysterious “Vyrus,” and I’ve read the book four times, marveling at his inventiveness. Already Dead is the only vampire novel except for Dracula that I’ve re-read, and it inspired me to launch into a genre I’d always enjoyed but never tried to write in.

Every writer has false starts, byways, and what seems like dead ends.  Huston made me dig out some good, juicy material I’d filed away while doing research on the Gilded Age for a historical novel riffing off of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.

The material I’d set aside was mainly a bordello sex scene I really liked, but hadn’t figured out how or where to use. Bitten by Charlie Huston’s novel, I pulled up the folder on my PC, studied the scene and some notes, and realized that I had the makings of a short book: Rosedale the Vampyre.

 

It’s a dark story of powerlessness and grief that takes a very unexpected turn when its hero crosses over into a different reality and discovers life is entirely more satisfying for him as one of the Undead. Set in 1907 New York, the book is filled with period detail and sexual obsession. I’ve published books in almost a dozen different genres, but having created something that’s historical and supernatural, I feel as liberated and thrilled as my protagonist does when he first tastes blood.  And I understand from the inside, as a writer, the allure of this ultra-popular contemporary genre I’ve previously enjoyed only as a reader.

Now I’m hungry for more….

 

How Much is Enough?

Many authors worry about how many words they write every day.  Some even post the tally on Facebook as if they’re in some kind of competition.

And if they’re not writing at least 500 or 1200 or 2000 words or whatever quota they’ve set, they feel miserable.  Why aren’t they working harder?  Why are they stuck?  What’s wrong with them?

If that kind of system works for you, fine.  But I think too many writers start out assuming that if they’re not actually physically writing a set number of words every single day, they’re not just slacking, they’re falling behind and even betraying their talent.

Many well-known authors like Ann Lamott (in Bird by Bird) advise beginners to hold to a daily minimum, but some days it’s simply not possible.  Hell, for some writers it’s never possible.  Why should it be?

I’ve never advised my creative writing students to write every day; I advise them to try to find the system that works for them.

I’ve never worried myself about how much I write every day because I’m almost always writing in my head, and that’s as important as putting things down on a page.

But aside from that, every book has its own unique rhythm.  I’m currently finishing a suspense novel and I’ve spent weeks on one chapter.  Some would call it obsessing.  They’d be wrong.  What I’ve been doing is musing, rewriting, stepping back, carefully putting tiles into a mosaic as it were, making sure everything fits right before I go ahead, because this is a crucial chapter.  I’ve also been doing some fact-checking because guns are involved and I’ve had to consult experts. I barely have ten pages, yet there are times when I’ve written ten pages in a day on this same book.

The current chapter is the book’s most important one, where the protagonist and his pursuer face off, and it’s got to be right.  So when I re-work a few lines that had been giving me trouble and find that now, they finally work, that makes me very happy.

And if I don’t write a word, I know I will be, soon enough.

 

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?

Location, Location, Location

Writers and other publishing types love to give new writers advice about how to be successful.  I find these columns and blogs in my Facebook feed at least daily if not more often.

But there’s one subject they never mention: location.

Despite the Internet, despite Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Tumblr and all the rest of the ways to reach, create, and seduce fans, where you park your laptop can be as important as what you write and how you promote yourself.  Publishers are gaga about social media, but they’re always touting something new.  Before tweeting it was blog tours and before that book trailers.

Life as a writer can be very different in a city with lots of traditional media.  Even though they’re declining, newspapers can still give you inimitable coverage in reviews, features, and interviews.

Likewise, being able to appear on many radio stations still makes a difference in getting the word out locally to help build your audience before you break big.

And if you’re in a media nexus like New York, you’re more able to make face-to-face connections with other writers, with reviewers, with editors and agents at parties, book signings and readings.  These are precious contacts that writers living in East Podunk just can’t make happen for themselves.  Random contacts at summer writing workshops and yearly conferences aren’t the same thing.

Being in a big city also means lots of colleges and universities.  They offer the opportunity of speaking gigs and something else: invitations to teach at writing workshops.  That world is pretty much a series of closed circles.  A writer I know who runs one in the New York area confided that she only invited her friends in the New York area.  Other writers who make various circuits say they see the same people over and over.  If someone breaks in, she’s usually a star, not a newbie.

Of course, being born into a family of writers trumps everything: That’s the ultimate good location.

Success As A Writer Is Soooooo Unpredictable

Poor newbie writers.  Everywhere they turn, someone’s telling them how to be successful.  Go indie!  Publish traditionally!  The advocates of each path offer mind-numbing statistics to prove their points.  It’s as frantic as those middle-of-the-night infomercials for exercise machines that will trim belly fat in only ten minute sessions, three times a week.

Of course, these machines are modeled for you by men and women with killer abs and minimal body fat.  You and I will never look like that unless we give everything up and hire live-in trainers.  And even then, as the coach said in Chariots of Fire, “You can’t put in what God left out.”

I’ve lost my patience with super-successful indie or traditionally-published authors telling the world to publish and promote your books the way they did because look how great things turned out for them.  Each side reports the benefits of what they’ve done with certainty and conviction, and of course they’re either best-selling authors on the newspaper lists or best-selling authors on Amazon.  Or both.

First-time authors sometimes publish big with a New York press, and sometimes they make it big going indie (and possibly go bigger switching to legacy publishing).  It’s all a crap shoot.

Most authors will never reach the heights of these newly-minted experts, and not through any fault of their own.  It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how good your book is, luck and timing are key ingredients that can’t be corralled.  Books have their own karma.  The right book at the right time published in the right way booms. We have no control over how our books succeed or fail, but we can control how good they are before they reach readers.

But nobody can predict it’s going to happen.  And the authors who share their glorious experiences need to realize that though they may want to inspire and enlighten wannabes, at some level, they just make the rest of us drool or wish we’d listened to our parents and gone into something less unpredictable like Accounting.

The author of 25 books in many genres, Lev Raphael has taken his twenty years of university teaching online to offer unique creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com

Thinking about Writing

For the last few weeks, I’ve been writing.

But I haven’t gone near my PC or Tablet, and haven’t put a word to paper. It’s all been in my head.

Here’s what I started with: a problem.  To move my 25th book 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.

Yet she herself was 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 mused about it.  Walking, showering, and especially working out at the gym.  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, or answering the questions I’ve posed myself.

And after a few weeks, the answers came to me when I did something a bit different, worked out three days in a row.  Suddenly I could see this woman limping up her driveway lined with impatiens.  I knew why she had planted them, and why she limped.  Better still, I heard her speaking her first line to my protagonist, and once he answered, the scene took off.

But it’s still in my head.  Building.  Blossoming.  Adding layers and complications.  Making connections with other parts of the book.  Many words, many realities.

I still haven’t written much of anything down, because after so many years of writing, I know my own process well enough to know I’m not ready.  I want to feel full of the scene that will 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.  That’s why sometimes it feels so magical.  And that’s why it’s often hard to answer the well-meant question “What are you working on?”  I often don’t want to say, and sometimes I’m not even sure.

It’s a lot easier when someone asks me “Are you writing a new book?” My reply is “Always.”

Ionesco said that “A writer never has a vacation. For a writer life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.”  To me, thinking about writing is writing.

An Author Chooses His Favorite “Child”

Fans often ask me at readings which of my two dozen books is my favorite.

The answer doesn’t pop up immediately, because I’ve published in so many genres: memoir, mystery, literary novel, short story collections, psychology, biography/literary criticism, historical fiction, Jane Austen mash-up, vampire, writer’s guide, essay collections.

I love them all, or I wouldn’t have written them, but my 19th book My Germany has a special place in my writer’s heart. It’s more deeply personal than my other books, and it’s also the one I struggled with most.

[cover]

I’m the son of Holocaust survivors, and the book is a combination of history, family history, travelogue, mystery, and coming out story as I explore the role that Germany–real and imagined–played in my family while I was growing up and in my own life as an adult and an author.

It wasn’t an easy story–or set of stories–to tell. It took me more than five years to figure out the book’s structure of the book, and to let go of trying to force it into a specific mold. I finally realized that I could blend genres, and that set me free to follow the advice Sir Phillip Sydney’s muse gave to him: “Look in your heart, and write.”

My Germany is also the book that garnered me the most speaking gigs of any book in my career, including two tours in Germany where I spoke in over a dozen different cities, and sometimes even read from it in German.  It was a book I didn’t guess I would even want to write, and then a book that surprised me in many ways.

P.S. 4/22/15: Five years after it was published, it’s still getting me invited to give talks and readings…..

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery and you can find them on Amazon.

Instagram Authors?

The New York Times recently reported that fashion designers like Jason Wu and Diane von Furstenberg are turning to Instagram for inspiration and to take the pulse of their fans.  They monitor where and how fans are wearing their designs and also poll fans for opinions and suggestions for their work.

The iPhone app is apparently “generating 25 times the level of engagement of other social media platforms.”  So when will publishers start pushing their authors to switch to this hot new social medium that’s outpacing Facebook and Twitter?

Think of the possibilities!  Authors could find out where and when fans are reading their books.  They could post and enhance photos of themselves on tour and at work. They could post images of how they imagine their characters, seek advice about book covers, and generally engage with their fans 25 times more than they do already on any other social medium and have their photos instantly posted to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Posterous and Tumblr.

Every aspect of their lives, from morning to night, could be photographed and commented on.  Best of all, the Instagram community doesn’t seem to generate the kind of snark other platforms do.

And if they plunged into the new, new thing, they could also catch up with the shifting social media landscape, discovering why Instagram is so hot, why Facebook acquired it for one billion dollars, and why it has this stellar track record, as Kelly Lux reports on her blog:

  • Launched on October 6, 2010
  • #1 in the App Store within 24 hours of launch
  • iPhone App of the Week
  • Holds the record as quickest to reach 1 million downloads, occurring on December 21, 2010
  • Launched 7 new languages
  • An Instagram photo made the cover of the Wall Street Journal
  • Surpassed 25 million users in early March, 2012

The possibilities for authors and their fans are endless, and publishers will no doubt be relentless in chasing after the next Holy Grail of PR.

If they’re not doing so already.

The Novel Vanishes

Years ago my dark family novel The German Money was optioned for film.  After my initial excitement, I read successive drafts of the screenplay with a sense of loss.  My novel was disappearing page by page.

In the end, the production deal fell apart and I was relieved: If the screenplay had been made, it would not have been my book that I was watching.

I thought of that reading the reviews of the new PBS film The Lady Vanishes.  Many compared it invidiously to the 1938 movie of the same name by Alfred Hitchcock based on The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White.

Though widely admired, his film completely subverted the book’s tone and undercut its raw emotional power.  I find it painful to watch, almost amateurishly silly, one of Hitchcock’s weakest films.

However, the novel haunts me.  Iris Carr is a spoiled socialite, alone in the world though she’s surrounded by so-called friends and suitors.  She seems shallow, but she’s aware that the life she’s living is empty and that she’s been far too lucky in life.  All that changes when she gets terribly lost on her Balkan vacation and realizes how isolated she is, and how vulnerable.

Those feelings intensify on her train ride across the Balkans to Trieste when her English seat mate disappears, Iris claims a conspiracy, and passengers call her everything from a mere nuisance to hysterical.

The new movie is splendid and frightening, and very true to the novel. But I doubt the critics who disliked it bothered to read the novel or they wouldn’t be calling this new version a “remake” of Hitchcock’s film when it’s not.  Watching The Lady Vanishes, I wished the writer adapting The German Money book had been even half as interested in capturing the essence of my book.