How to Diss Other Authors Safely: A Quick & Dirty Guide

Watching other authors succeed in ways you can never dream of isn’t easy.  Life isn’t fair and that goes double or triple for the writing life.  There’ll be plenty of times in your career when you wish you could hire Olivia Pope and her Scandal team to just shutthemdown.

But speaking out about your feelings isn’t a good idea.  Not so long ago, Lynn Shepherd got  lambasted all over the Internet for having urged J.K. Rowling to stop writing.  In Shepherd’s view, Rowling is a literary Mount Etna whose magma is burying way too many other authors. Cap the volcano, whatever it takes!

Whether she was kidding or being serious, I think she chose the wrong way to express herself.  As an author of crime fiction she had obvious, wonderful tools she should have used, and it’s a path any author who wants to even the score can easily take.

Write about it, but disguise the people involved.  Channel the emotion and use it to fuel fiction of some kind where you can balance the scales in any way you want.  Take control of the situation by turning the “offending” author into a character over whom you have complete control.  Their fate is now completely in your hands.  Make it brutal, gory, grotesquely funny–whatever works, whatever gives you catharsis.

Turn the author’s latest book into a joke or a disaster.  Mock the title, the theme, the reviews, whatever gives you pleasure.  I’ve done that at least once and it didn’t matter that I’m sure the quite famous author never noticed. I had a ball because I thought he was so over-praised by the reviewers and I couldn’t stand his work.

When you channel your frustration this way, you’ll not only end up rising above the feelings weighing you down, you’ll also be extra productive.  Better still, if you do a good job of disguise, nobody but you, your agent, your editor or whoever else you let in on the secret will know.

Masking the situation as fiction, you have the chance of not seeming mean-spirited and be far less likely to incite other people’s fans to shout Bansai! and launch their planes at your fleet.

A veteran of university teaching, Lev Raphael now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.comHe’s the author of the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder and 25 other books in a wide range of genres.

 

Why I Write Academic Mysteries

 

I write a mystery series set in academia and now and then fans ask me, is it really that bad?  Are professors that selfish, backbiting, and ungenerous?  Well, obviously not all of them are, but academic culture from school to school has quirks and even  idiocies that make great material for satire.  Sometimes the behavior is egregious, sometimes it’s just ridiculous. Either way, it’s fodder for fiction.

Case in point.  At one private college where I read from one of my most successful books, I wasn’t brought in by English or Creative Writing faculty, but by another department that I won’t name.

I love readings.  I have a theater background, years of experience on radio, and I’ve done hundreds of readings on three continents. I’ve also taught workshops for writers on how to do readings, which require practice and art and thought.

Only four people turned up for this particular campus reading, and the disappointed coordinator told me that despite her efforts, whenever she brought in a speaker who writing students would naturally be interested in, English and Creative Writing professors consistently failed to do anything to promote the reading.  They didn’t encourage their students to show up.  They basically cold-shouldered the event.  Why?  Territoriality.  Apparently they feel they’re the only ones who should be inviting authors to campus.

It made me laugh, because it seemed so very typical of academic pettiness.  But it also made me sad because the writing students might have learned something and enjoyed themselves.

I never obsess about  numbers when I do a reading: 4 or 400,  the audience deserves my best, and that’s what I gave them at this college.  Too bad the small-minded English Department and its writing professors don’t do the same, don’t really care enough about their own students to point them towards opportunities right there on their own little campus.  It makes you wonder how else they may be giving students less than they deserve as they jealously defend what think is their turf and nobody else’s.

Lev Raphael’s latest academic mystery is State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com and his June workshop is “Mystery Writing 1.0”

Writing Is My Business, But So Is Business

My father had a small business which I thought imprisoned him, and as a kid I swore I would never “do retail.”

Boy, was I wrong.  As an author, I wound up owning my own small business and it’s as vulnerable to competition and the vagaries of the market place as any physical store.  Sometimes it’s just as exhausting.

From the beginning of my book publishing career in 1990, I was deeply involved in pushing my work, contacting venues for readings, investing in posters and postcards, writing my own press releases when I thought my publisher hadn’t done a good job, and constantly faxing or mailing strangers around the country about my latest book.

Then came the Internet and everything shifted to email.  Add a web site that needs constant updating, Twitter and Facebook, keeping a presence on various listservs, blogging, blog tours, producing book trailers, updating ebooks in various ways, and the constant reaching out to strangers in the hope of enlarging my platform and increasing sales.  It never ends.

And neither does the advice offered by consultants.  I’m deluged by offers to help me increase my sales and drive more people to my web site.  They come on a daily basis and when they tout success stories, I sometimes feels as if I’m trapped on a low-performing TV show while everyone else on the schedule is getting great Nielson ratings.

Going independent for a few books after I published with big and small houses momentarily made me feel more in control, but that control morphed into an albatross.  Right now, my 25th book is being brought out by a superb university press and I’m relieved to not be in charge, just consulted.

Way too often, the burden of business has made writing itself harder to do, and sometimes it’s even felt pointless because it initiates a whole new business push.  So this isn’t a blog that promises you magic solutions to your publishing problems.  This blog say: If you’re going to be an author, prepare to work your butt off at things that might not come naturally to you and might never feel comfortable, whether you’re indie published or traditionally published.

One author friend who’s been a perpetual NYT best seller confided to me that despite all the success she’s had, “I still feel like a pickle salesman, down on the Lower East Side in 1900.”

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Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.

 

Digital Diet? Not For Me.

Years ago, I followed health guru Andrew Weill’s advice and took a “news fast.”  I stopped reading newspapers and news web sites for six weeks.  I found myself calmer during that period, and spending more time both working and enjoying myself.  I read more books, I wrote more, I relaxed more.

Lately I’ve seen talk about “digital diets” or fasts: taking time to unhook completely from our constant connectedness.  I get that.  I actually returned my Android phone six months after I bought it and went back to a pre-smart phone.  I had found myself more obsessed with email than usual, checking it at doctors’ offices, on line at the post office, even when I was in my car stopped at red lights or train crossings.  I decided I need more free time away from work, and the phone was just too tempting.

But going cold turkey, for even a week?  I just can’t.  It doesn’t make sense from a business standpoint. Like most authors, my professional life is digital.

If my publisher or my editor contacts me, it’s via email.  If an editor wants me to write a story or essay for a new anthology, that’s how I heard.  Ditto with other authors or anyone who’s found my email address via my web site and wants to write me fan mail or invite me to speak at a conference, a university, a library or any of the many other venues where I do talks and readings from my work.

I’ve done entire book tours here and abroad without ever needing the phone.  In fact, the only time I’m on the phone for business is firming up details that have already been set up via email, and that’s infrequently.  And when I am connecting via phone, I’m often simultaneously checking details on line, or even emailing something to whoever’s called me.

Now that I’m also a visiting assistant professor at Michigan State University, a digital fast makes even less sense. I need to stay in touch with my students and also with other faculty members. That’s become specially important as I continue to work on the planning for a study abroad program I’m co-leading in London this summer.  Emails to various people and institutions in London have been legion.

The place where I can cut back, though, is Facebook.  I think I can live without cute cat videos for a week.  Who knows, maybe even six weeks…..

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What The Hell Happened to “Sherlock”?

There’s a great conversation in Soapdish, which stars Sally Fields and Whoopi Goldberg, where Goldberg, the chief writer for a soap opera, is arguing about bringing back a character who died.  Her complaint?  “The guy was decapitated….He doesn’t have a head!  How am I supposed to write for a guy who doesn’t have a head?”  The producer promises to figure it out, suggesting that maybe his head was frozen and re-attached in “a two-day operation.”

That’s bizarre and funny, but appropriately so, since Soapdish is a wild comedy.   How the writers of Sherlock brought him back from the dead in Season Three was ridiculous, but the show isn’t meant to be a farce.  Unfortunately.  So we can expect the return of Moriarity (no, he didn’t really blow his brains out) to be just as cavalierly worked out.

What’s happened to this show?  It started out as fiendishly clever in the first season, everything you’d expect from a new take on Watson and Holmes, even playing with the homoerotic nature of their bromance–at least as seen by outsiders like their landlady.

But the special effects that were so diverting in that season have taken over the show and become a distraction.  There’s much less actual story than there used to, and I’ve been wondering why that could be so.

Then I saw the writers on PBS jauntily, even defiantly saying that Sherlock was not going to be about him “solving a crime ever week.”  What’s the point, then?  Why try breathing new life into a character with many lives in books and in film and then totally subverting what he is and does?  Holmes is a brilliant detective.  With a level of insight that’s almost superhuman, he observes, deduces, and detects, either in the field or just sitting in his armchair.  But the writers are apparently bored by all that, and prefer playing with toys instead.  Their attitude shows contempt for the genre they’re in.

Elementary with Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu fields an even bolder take on Holmes, not just making him a recovering addict but turning Watson into a woman and his “sober companion” when the show debuted.  There’s no flashy camera work or FX to the show, but plenty of substance, and crimes are solved, not ignored.  It’s the real deal.  A smart, engaging, contemporary update of Holmes, it never loses sight of who Sherlock is and why he’s held our imagination for over a century.

 

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Author

 

I’ve done hundreds of talks and readings from my books across the U.S. and in Canada, and in Great Britain, Germany, Austria, France, and Israel.

When I’m picked up on tour at a train station or airport, one of the most frequent questions is a rhetorical one: “This must be pretty exciting, right?”

It is.  I’m an extrovert.  I love meeting new people and speaking to new groups.  I prepare extensively for every gig I do: finding out as much as I can about the audience and venue in advance, then writing talking points, studying and rehearsing those, and practicing my reading to get it right.

It helps that I did so much theater in college, and that I’ve taught for many years as well and feel comfortable as a performer of my own work–and my own life.  And yet there’s always a trace of sadness, too, that’s unrelated to being away from home.

I was recently in Marquette, Michigan, a picturesque town of about nine thousand, and my days there typify being a tourist author. I did five different talks starting with a keynote at the beautiful interfaith Holocaust memorial ceremony.  My time there was more intense than a typical tourist’s would be.

I got to see the area from the local standpoint because I met so many natives and so many people who’d moved there either from elsewhere in the Midwest and around the country.  I saw the beautiful tiny synagogue in tiny Ishpeming, which has remarkable stained glass windows and feels like a spiritual jewel  box.  Members told me about the area’s Jewish migration patterns and gave me an in-depth look at local sites and drives.  The beautiful downtown with its late 19th century stone buildings and churches was especially impressive.

And I had what I always have, whatever the city or country: intense talks with people I’ll probably never see again.  I was lucky to be there three nights, because it’s rare to spend more than one or two days on tour as an author.

The whole experience is intense, and wonderful, and fulfilling–and then it’s over way too soon. That dynamic repeats itself over and over and over.   That’s one thing I never expected when I launched my career as writer many years ago: the miles it would put on me, the smiles, too, but also the sadness of random, lovely contacts that fade away–until the next tour.

The Internet Isn’t Elysium

I recently blogged about how where you live might affect your writing career, pointing out that access to various traditional media and publishing contacts is more likely in big cities.

I wasn’t remotely suggesting that people move from where they were, or discouraging anyone from writing in the first place if they didn’t live near a major media hub.  I was simply pointing out the possible downside of not living where you might have the kind of access to connections and exposure you don’t find in smaller towns and cities.

I’m keenly aware of that having grown up in New York and living in a Michigan town with only one newspaper that doesn’t do a lot of Arts coverage.

Many readers agreed with me when I cross-posted on The Huffington Post (and hundreds posted the column to Facebook), but some argued that the Internet has changed everything.  According to them, writers can go anywhere and be anywhere now.

That sounds true, but is it? There are more book stores in big cities where you can meet book sellers, and indie book stores are making a significant comeback.  There are also more radio and TV stations where you can do live interviews, more newspapers and magazines.  Those contacts can be made long distance and possibly even nurtured that way, but they’re not typically as intense as when they’re face-to-face.

Likewise, meeting writers, agents, and editors in person, sometimes casually, can’t be replaced by texting or Skyping or chatting on someone’s blog.  Obviously, you can do some of those things mentioned above by attending workshops and conferences, but you might have a head start if you’re already living where there’s a large concentration of media.

The flip side of course is competition for attention.  But that’s just as big a problem on line, maybe bigger, especially now that so many people are going indie and offering their books for $.99 or free.  No wonder ebook sales are flattening out.

Is the Internet the answer to a writer’s problems?  Sometimes, and sometimes it’s the source of brand new ones.

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.