An Author’s Characters On the Loose?

I’ve been doing readings from my 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.

My 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, 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.

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 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 Writer’s Block is Bunk (Guide to the Writing Life) and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

The Lure of “Exposure” For Writers

There’s been lots of buzz lately on-line about how often even established authors get requests to submit their writing for free, or even speak somewhere for free.

The lure is “exposure.”

These pieces make me wince with recognition.  I’ve been publishing fiction and nonfiction about children of Holocaust survivors for over thirty years and I’ve keynoted three international Holocaust conferences.  I was traveling to Florida for a conference not so long ago, and months in advance contacted a local Holocaust Museum to let them know I’d be in town.  I asked if they’d like me to speak there about my work’ given its recognition in the U.S. and abroad.

They did.  But they had no interest in paying me even a token speaking fee for my time.  Why?  Because they insisted speaking there would get me good “exposure.”

I explained that I wasn’t a newbie, that speaking was work, that I planned all my talks and readings extensively.  After all, I was a writer and this was my business, not a hobby.  They didn’t bother replying.

I guess they thought I was nervy to ask to be compensated for my time.  I’m happy to report, though, that this happens to me rarely.  Now and then a new magazine might ask me to submit a story and say they’d be happy to “consider” it.  I thank them for their interest, and say I don’t write “on spec.”

If an editor knows my work well enough to ask me for a piece, I’m delighted to edit it as much as necessary to make it meet her or his requirements.  For one recent anthology, I did almost ten drafts of a story because I knew the editor, Derek Rubin was on target with his suggestions and I wanted to work with him to shape the story into something successful and polished.  He was going to take the story once it was “done” and I loved working with such a gifted editor.

promisedBut I don’t have the time anymore to supply people with material they can reject–that’s exposure I don’t need.

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

(updated 7/25/2015)

The Writer’s Ultimate Guide to Social Media

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At every writers’ conference I’ve been speaking at lately, the hottest topic has been social media.  Wannabe and established writers flock to these sessions like deathly Coronado seeking those seen golden cities.

They seem convinced that with the right information, they can use these new tools to promote themselves into writing stardom.  And fast, too.

Any why shouldn’t they be? Session after session, book after book, writing blog after writing blog all seem to promise that it you figure out the way to use Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram and Facebook and algorithms and SEO, you’ll hit the jackpot.  Your books will be in the Top 100, you’ll have tens of thousands of followers and customers if not more–hell, you might even develop your own lifestyle brand.  Just read X’s blog or book and see how she did it……

But it’s not possible for everyone to score big, is it?  And just like all the other other promotional fads of recent years like blog tours and Skyping to book groups, for example, this heavy focus on social media for authors can just as likely waste their time and divert them from their writing.

Americans love quick fixes and snake oil, always have.  It’s not surprising, then, that so many writers are following what’s going to be a false lead for most of them.  What a temptation to imagine yourself just one hashtag away from fortune and fame…

Writing is intensely competitive, like it or not. It’s hard to have a writing career of any kind and not compare yourself to other writers; that’s endemic in the business.  You’ll always find  someone selling more books, appearing at more venues, winning more prizes, making more money than you are, getting better reviews.

But things have only gotten worse now that publishing is easier and more and more people just like you, it seems, are getting rich because they have the secret.

According to the New York Times, “A small but growing body of evidence suggests that excessive social media use can lead to an unhealthy fixation on how one is perceived and an obsessive competitiveness.”

We writers have enough ways to make ourselves miserable without even getting out of bed–hell, some of us probably can do that in our sleep. Who needs more help?

Lev Raphael’s most recent book is a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence, and police militarization: Assault With a Deadly Lie.

Promoting Your Book Untraditionally

Writing is an art.  Writing is a business.  Sometimes the business takes too much time from writing, but sometimes careful promotion pays off.

My most successful book marketing of all my twenty-four books came with the 19th, the memoir/travelogue My Germany.  It explores the role Germany played in my life as a Jewish writer with Holocaust survivor parents.

It was published by my first choice, The University of Wisconsin Press, which does gorgeous trade books and superb marketing.

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But I planned my own campaign, too.  I looked for all the German Studies and Jewish Studies programs in the country, studied each one, and wrote individual, personalized emails to various professors in both fields.  It took time and consideration, but it wasn’t back-breaking work by any means.

The response was terrific and I’ve ended up touring on and off for four and a half years at colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada. I’ve also done readings and spoken at German cultural institutions, museums, synagogues and churches, and even The Library of Congress. Thanks to my publisher, the Jewish Book Council picked up the book and I appeared at a string of Jewish Book Fairs, too, but my own efforts ended up garnering me two expenses-paid tours all across Germany.

I already had a platform as one of the earliest Jewish-American authors of what’s called The Second Generation, so that helped enormously.  I wasn’t an unknown.  But a platform isn’t a guarantee, just a starting place.  I did my research and it paid off beyond what I expected.  And so I tell budding authors, “Is there a non-traditional way you can promote your work, aside from trying to do signings or reading in bookstores?  Who is your audience?  Try to find them, and then maybe they’ll find you.”

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.