After 26 Books, I’m Still Learning How To Write

I’m a highly visual person and I think I got my training early, growing up in New York, a paradise of museums.  From elementary school onward, my parents took me on repeated trips to the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan.

My very first exposure to genius was when the Met bought Rembrandt’s “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer” for an unheard-of sum.  I recall being very little and actually crawling through the crowds on my hands and knees so I that could get to the front.  The moody, evocative painting was breathtaking, an entrance to a brand new world.

But that’s what I felt in every museum, whether it was discovering Braque at MOMA, Kandinsky at the Guggenheim, or Monet at the Met.  I didn’t have words for my experience, but looking back, I know that time after time, I felt elevated, transported, and hungry.  I wanted to see more.

And I did, roaming gallery after gallery, and expanding my range to other museums like the Frick.  It was a world of magic, discovery, and promise.  I often felt like Henry James when he visited Rome the first time and wrote “I went reeling and moaning thro’ the streets, in a fever of enjoyment.”

I never imagined that I was going to be a painter, but from second grade on, I felt destined to turn the world into words the way these masters turned the world into experiences on canvas.  Each one was a doorway to wonderment and a world that was waiting for me in Europe.

Sculpture appealed to me, too, whether Greek and Roman glories at the Met or Brancusi’s stark, eloquent experiments in texture and form at MOMA and elsewhere.  Years later I would be moved to tears by a whole exhibition of Brancusi’s sculptures at the Tate Modern when I wandered through the near-empty galleries.  Like a character in Brideshead Revisited, I felt that I was “drowning in honey.”

When I started publishing fiction after years after creative writing classes and completing an MFA in Creative Writing, I was keen to paint with words, to describe what people and places looked like.  Sounds and aromas were secondary, not that it stopped me from writing many books and winning prizes, doing book tours here and abroad, finding my work being taught at universities, and even selling my literary papers and correspondence to a university library.

But in recent years, certain writers who appeal to more than the visual have captured me and taught me to be a better writer because they create an environment that’s also aural and olfactory.  Martin Cruz Smith does this in his crime novels set in Russia that expose corruption and bloated bureaucracy, the chaos observed by his cynical hero Akady Renko.  C.S. Harris also creates a mesmerizing landscape that is multi-dimensional in her Regency mystery series which often explores the wealth and privilege of the period’s upper crust.

In a league all its own is Janet Fitch’s best seller White Oleander about Astrid, a young girl coming of age despite the vengeful, seductive madness of her brilliant, demanding, poet mother.  Sent to jail for murder, her mother is the unhappy touchstone in Astrid’s life as she bounces from one foster home to another, learning harsh lessons about life, memory, and herself.  Her Norwegian name can either refer to strength or beauty, and both are qualities she discovers in herself through harrowing circumstances.

Fitch’s story-telling is powerful because it’s rooted in emotion and the senses, woven through with striking similes and metaphors:

By April, the desert had already sucked spring from the air like blotting paper.

I wanted to tell her not to entertain despair like this.  Despair wasn’t a guest, you didn’t play its favorite music,  find it a comfortable chair.  Despair was the enemy.

So much going on in Kandinsky, it was like the frames were having trouble keeping the pictures inside.

The pearls weren’t really white, there were a warm oyster beige, with little knots between them so if they broke, you only lost one.  I wished my life could be like that, knotted up so that even if something broke, the whole thing wouldn’t come apart.

Of course Astrid doesn’t get her wish as her life gets broken apart again and again, breaking the reader’s heart because she feels so deeply and is so alone.  That last quotation is a perfect example of Fitch’s gift for taking an object and making it become deeply personal, emblematic of a character’s turmoil.

I was so caught up in the beauty of the writing and the fierceness of the author’s vision, I didn’t want it to end, but I also knew that it would inspire me to make my own books live and breathe more fully than before.

Lev Raphael is the author of State University of Murder and two dozen other books in many genres. He offers creative writing workshops, editing, and mentoring online at writewithoutorders.com.

Re-reading My Favorite Authors Makes Me A Better Writer

When I’m on a book tour fans often ask me “What are you reading?”  I get the same question when I teach a creative writing workshop or master class like I just did at Oakland University, sponsored by Rochester Writers.  I’m often reading books that will inspire me to write and lately I’ve been-re-reading favorite authors like Martin Cruz Smith.  His novels set after the fall of the Soviet Union explore a country that’s just as cruel and dangerous, but one where oligarchs are becoming swollen with daring, arrogance, and billions in wealth.

In Three Stations there’s a gigantic contrast between diamond-studded luxury goods and homeless kids stealing whatever they can to survive in the heart of Moscow. Arkady Renko is a disgraced police investigator with a clear eye for what’s happening around him and a dedication to justice. Though he’s the son of a famous general and communist, he is truly an outsider because he won’t follow orders. I’m really glad I missed this one somehow as I worked through the series, because I found it really inspiring.

And for authors who struggle with writing good sex scenes, he dispatches one in a brilliant paragraph that could be a model for anyone. It inspired me in my stand-alone currently about 200 pages along which will be my 28th book.

I’m also re-reading luminous, thrilling mystery novels by C.S. Harris set in Regency England, starting with Why Kings Confess, one of my favorites in the series.  These books feature nobleman Sebastian St. Cyr who has access to all levels of society and is indefatigable in solving any crime that he comes across and intrigues him.  He’s a dashing figure with almost magically keen eyesight and hearing, and a man not remotely averse to challenging the rich and powerful.  Harris is brilliant at evoking the period through appealing to sight, sound, and smells–you can almost taste the acrid fog that’s so much a part of the era when coal was burned indiscriminately.  Who even thought of climate disruption back then?

The two authors are very different in setting, tone, and prose style.  Harris is more sensual, Cruz is more spare.  Cruz’s books ooze cynicism about old and new Russia’s corruption and greed, while Harris fields a sleuth who serves justice and believes it exists.  Both authors evoke their time and place with dazzling detail and tell fast-paced, gripping stories.

I learned years ago in my writing career that what could stimulate and inspire my work was a creative clash of voices and styles.  Reading these two different authors again right now has made me very productive: I wrote two chapters of my next mystery in under a week.  This method of reading different writers in succession might not work for everyone, and that’s something I tell all my writing students and workshop participants: find what works for you.  But whether you’re a writer or not, C.S. Harris and Martin Cruz Smith are authors you should add to your TBR pile.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in many genres which you can find on Amazon, most recently State University of Murder and Let’s Get Criminal, newly released as an ebook.  He teaches online writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

“Do You Plot Your Mysteries?”

Noted journalist Andrea King Collier recently interviewed me ahead of A Rally of Writers where I’ll do a workshop on “Finding Your Sleuth.”

AKC: How much time do you spend on research? What’s the first thing you do when you start? How do you know when it’s time to just stop?

LR: I’m currently writing two novels and my research has involved interviewing experts in fields like medicine, law, advertising, and academic administration for insight into their jobs and more specifically, to answer “What if–?” questions. I don’t stop to do that, I like to keep writing while I wait to fill in the blanks, so I could be doing research even near the end of a book.  I often don’t know what I don’t know when I start a book, so that’s exciting.

AKC: You write mysteries among other genres. How do you hone in on what the next story might be?

LR: The stories usually come to me. And some days I feel like an airport dealing with planes that have been diverted because of bad weather: there are too many ideas buzzing around in my head. State University of Murder was partly inspired by the sexual assault crisis at MSU and the way other campuses have also been dealing with this issue. But I didn’t want to fictionalize any specific story in the news. Instead, I wove that theme into a book whose larger target is malfeasance and arrogance at the level of administrators.

AKC: Do you plot your mysteries or are they organic?

LR: It’s both. With a mystery I generally know three key things when I start: who’s been killed, how they died, and who the killer was. So I plot ahead, but not as far as I did when I started the series and needed more scaffolding. Each book now is organic because I keep asking myself “What happens next?” And I may decide to change the means, the motive, and even the murderer. It all depends on how the book evolves.

AKC: How do you silence your inner critic?

LR: I’m lucky.  That’s never been a problem for me because I had such an amazing creative writing mentor in college whose voice is still with me when I write and when I teach. Of course I have my doubts about every book I write or I’d be a jerk, but they don’t discourage me. The doubts push me to work harder, think smarter. If I get stuck, I don’t despair.  I know that it’s usually because there’s a question in the book that I haven’t answered well enough for myself to move forward.

AKC: Who do you love to read?

Dozens of writers old and new. When it comes to mysteries, I especially enjoy Martin Cruz Smith, Sue Grafton, C.S. Harris–all very different, and reading voices that collide inspires me. Right now I’m re-reading some books by D.H. Lawrence because his insight into his characters is wild. I’m a big fan of other modern authors like Virginia Woolf, Isherwood, and Evelyn Waugh. I also read a lot of novels in translation, with Zola and Balzac my favorites in that category.

AKC: Tell us about your online coaching classes

LR: I have almost twenty years of university teaching behind me and I’ve taken that experience online where I can mentor writers working on individual projects in any genre, and people signing up for a specific workshop, like my next one about mystery writing, which runs for the month of June. In each workshop and each interaction with a writer, I’m passing on the guidance and encouragement I got in college, and I add my own experience as a teacher, reviewer, and author.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  Lev teaches creative writing workshops and offers editing and mentoring at writewithoutborders.com.  In June he’ll be teaching Mystery Writing 1.0.