Writing Crime Fiction Changes Your POV Forever

I’ve been publishing mysteries since the 90s and whether I want to or not, I often figure out a twist in a thriller or mystery without even trying–especially if it’s a movie or show.  I just can’t stop that part of my mind from working even if I want to be an ordinary audience member.  And something about seeing it rather than reading it makes the upcoming twist much more obvious to my writer’s mind.

Recently fans of Scandal went berserk when a hero of the show, Jake Ballard, was stabbed and left for dead, and the preview for the next week showed his bloody body laid out on a table, with one of the show’s character’s, Quinn, yelling that he was dead.  Even though I was emotionally caught up in the surprise attack where Jake was viciously stabbed, as soon as it was over, I knew for sure that he wasn’t dead.  I blogged about it for The Huffington Post while the Twitterverse and Facebook erupted in disbelief and rage. The mystery writer in me knew that when writers want someone indisputably dead, that person’s throat is cut deeply to make sure they die ASAP or they’re stabbed in the head like a zombie ditto or in the heart.  Jake was stabbed in the torso; people survive worse injuries in real life and this, after all, was only TV.  The next week’s episode proved me right.

Scott-body-042115That same week in Vikings, the third season finale ended with great drama. Ragnar Lothbrok, the King whose army had unsuccessfully attacked Paris twice was apparently dying of battle wounds.  He’d also been mourning his dead friend Athelstan, a monk captured in an earlier raid on England.  In a deal to leave “Francia,” the Vikings received a huge amount of gold and silver, but Ragnar demanded to be baptized and then later get a Christian burial. The Emperor Charles agreed and we saw Ragnar’s beautiful coffin, reminiscent of a Viking ship, borne into the walled city’s cathedral.  Watching this impressive scene, I mused, “Wouldn’t it be something if he rose from the dead, popped out of the coffin and attacked the king?”  That’s exactly what happened. His funeral Mass was a terrific ruse for sacking the city.

RagnarI wasn’t trying to figure out either plot or second guess the writers, it’s just that the many pleasurable years of writing (and reading) crime fiction have shifted my perspective forever.  I don’t enjoy thrillers or mysteries or a show with a plot twist any less, but that inner watchful eye (much friendlier than the Eye of Sauron), just never seems to blink.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books–including The Nick Hoffman Mysteries–which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

 

Teaching is Not a Blood Sport

I do a lot of speaking at colleges and universities around the country and faculty tell me many behind-the-scenes stories.  Properly disguised, they make great material for my Nick Hoffman academic mystery series: tales of petty infighting, squabbling committees, ridiculous vendettas–all the simmering snarkiness that Borges called “bald men arguing over a comb.”

But I also hear stories from students that aren’t as amusing, stories about what it’s like for them to be in a classroom with a professor who sees teaching very differently than I do.  Teachers who aren’t at all bothered by shaming students in front of the rest of the class, as if they’re coaches whipping an under-performing player into shape.

Creative writing is one of my passions and I’ve heard of professors in these classes who stop students while they’re reading aloud and say, “That stinks!” or worse.  I’ve never done that.  I do stop students to ask them to slow down or read more distinctly, or to say something positive if I was blown away and couldn’t wait till they’re finished.  And sometimes I just start laughing if the work is really funny.  As for dissing a student’s work, seriously, who does that help?

I’ve heard of some professors who can be so intimidating that they make students shake with fear when they challenge what the students have to say.  I’ve also heard of professors in creative writing classes who don’t let everyone read their work aloud, but keep picking their favorites, creating resentment and embarrassment.  In my creative writing classes, everyone reads aloud or nobody does; the class should be a creative community, not a jungle.

I see it that way because I had an amazing creative writing teacher freshman year at Fordham University; she became my mentor and model.  She ran her workshops with good humor and warmth.  She spurred us all to write better by pinpointing what we did best and helping us improve whatever that was.  She never insulted us, humiliated us, made fun of us, or played favorites.  She encouraged us all with grace and good humor.  I’d even say she enjoyed us; she definitely enjoyed being in the classroom and made us feel that way, too.  Nobody ever dreaded being there.

Teaching isn’t combat or coaching, especially teaching creative writing.  We’re not in the classroom to humiliate and harden our students as if they’re going into the cutthroat world of business or getting ready for the next football game against a team with no losses.  Our role should be to help them grow as writers, identify what they do best and where they need to do more work. As reporter Charles Kuralt put it simply: “Good teachers know how to bring out the best in their students.”  Who needs shame to do that?

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon.

 

 

5 Things Nobody Tells You About a Writing Career

When I published my first short story in Redbook after winning a prize, I thought my career was set.  I was my MFA program’s star; I’d made a lot of money (for a graduate student) from the prize and the magazine; I was getting fan mail and queries from agents.  But even though I’d spent over two years in the program, nobody told me what my career could be like.  When I got my degree I had no idea what the writing life was like and learned five key things the hard way.

1-You need to accept from the start that you have very little control.  You can polish your work as much as you can, read widely and educate yourself as an author; attend seminars; find a terrific mentor; network like crazy; get a top agent and even land a book contract with a great publisher–but what happens to your book once it’s born may seem completely random at times.  Other books just like it will swamp yours.  Books that are far worse will get great reviews or better sales.  Your book may simply be ignored by reviewers of all kinds for reasons you will never know.  So you have to focus on what you can control: being the best writer you can be; enjoying what you do while you do it, plan it, revise it, and research it.  And then, try to let go and move on to another project.

2-Writing is a business.  It always was and always will be.  Expect pressure from all sides on you to sell, sell, sell. When I started out, bookmarks and other petty swag were in.  Then I was urged not just to attend conferences but to advertize in conference programs.  Later came building my web site, book trailers, establishing a Facebook and Goodreads presence, blogging, tweeting, blog tours.  There’s always something new which is the magic answer to making you successful.  But the competition gets fiercer all the time and you can find that promotion is a rat hole.  It’s important to establish parameters for yourself since you can’t do everything and be everywhere.  Never let promotion become more important than writing itself, and just because something works for someone else is no guarantee it’ll work for you.

3-The writing life will be lonelier than you can imagine despite all the writers you might meet and hang out with, and they’re not always the easiest people to be around.  Let’s face it, are you?  Ask your significant other.  As paradoxical as it might seem, don’t let writing take over your life.  If you haven’t already, start building a life for yourself that has other compelling interests.  Travel.  Learn to play an instrument.  Study a foreign language.  Garden.  Train for a Triathalon.  Get a dog.  It doesn’t matter what you do as long as writing isn’t the be-all and end-all of your existence, because otherwise those days (or weeks or months or even years) when things go south you’ll feel empy.  And make sure you have plenty of friends who aren’t writers so that you’re not constantly talking shop.  Normal people can be interesting, too.

4-Exercise is crucial for people like us who spend so much time sitting hunched over a laptop.  It’s important to break away on a regular basis and walk, swim, jog, lift weights, do Zumba, take Pilates, spin, do yoga, anything that gets you out of your head and into your body.  There’s nothing like physical activity to give your mind a rest–it’s almost as good as napping!–and surprisingly, you’ll often find that when you might feel stuck, instead of obsessing about it or heading for the fridge, the best thing to do is get out and get physical.  Let your subconscious take care of the writing problem and solve it for you while you’re taking care of your body.  You’ll also be breaking the isolation of the writer’s life and may even get some good story ideas along the way.

5-Be prepared for surprises in your career because they will come.  Good surprises.  Your career will take you places you would never imagine because your imagination is boundless if you have the courage to let it be.  I started out as a short story writer and novelist but one day suddenly had an idea for a psychological study of Edith Wharton, one of my favorite writers. After that came a mystery series which got me my first New York Times Book Review review. And over the years I’ve published in wildly different genres, books I never would have guessed I’d write, including a vampire novella, a memoir about what Germany has meant to me as the son of Holocaust survivors, a historical novel set in The Gilded Age, a children’s book and many more.  Don’t rule anything out, and don’t be a genre snob. One of my favorite authors, Henry James, gave this advice to a young writer: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”  It may sound a bit formal in 2015, but it’s advice that I’ve never forgotten.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

 

 

 

The Writer’s Life Can Be Crazy

Writers don’t tend to talk openly about their disappointments. It’s too revealing and often too painful. But we’ve all had them in one form or another, whether it’s a prize we didn’t get or a book that bombed.

My biggest one in a decades-long career came by way of an agent. This wasn’t your ordinary agent.  Oh, no.  She was one of the biggest in the country, with clients on the best seller list and a history of major deals.

When she read my book, she gave me the kind of feedback for making changes you’d expect from the best, smartest, most tuned-in editor. And her emails were as upbeat as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Working with her her was like jamming with a fellow jazz musician–we were so much in sync. But there were some false notes. She wanted the book to open in a way I thought was deadly dull, and she wanted to change the title to something awful.

I won about the title, but caved on the opening. Maybe she saw something I didn’t? Then she she arranged meetings in New York with almost two dozen bigwigs in publishing–people at the very top of their houses or imprints, people I’d read about but never dreamed would be looking at a book of mine.

Her talk was as bold and inspiring as her editorial advice. There was going to be an auction, and she thought $100,000 was a good floor. This was dizzying to someone who’d never gotten more than a $15,000 advance on a book.

Then the bomb dropped. She launched her campaign to sell my book just before Thanksgiving, even though I’d expressed some anxiety about that,  I’d always thought the period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s was when publishing slowed way, way down. At least in my experience, and I had published quite a few books by then. On top of that, the stock market had collapsed in New York, publishers were firing staff and in a state of panic.

I’ll never know if she would have sold the book in a better financial climate, but I do that when she failed, know she dropped me in a New York minute, wouldn’t consider revisions and acted as if as if I had somehow disappointed her.  Her advice at that point was brief: “Why don’t you write a memoir? Those are flying out the door!”  And then she handed me off to her assistant.

I was crushed. That’s not hyperbole.  Six years later, the wound of being revved up by her and then dropped still stings.

I told her I’d already written a memoir that was being published (and had sold before I signed with her) and couldn’t write another on command.  Besides, even if I could, I wondered if she would have as much success with a memoir of mine as she had with my novel.

Ironically, that memoir hadn’t earned me much of an advance, but when it was published soon after this debacle, it scored me dozens of very well-paid speaking gigs in the U.S., Canada, and Germany.  I made many new friends, And then I sold my current and future literary papers to Michigan State University’s Special Archives for a satisfying sum at a time when authors I know were having trouble giving their papers away.

A very dark time turned deeply fulfilling, almost magical. As we say in New York, “Who knew?”  When I related this crazy sequence of events to a friend, he said, “Writers can be as normal as anyone else, but their lives are manic depressive.”  And he couldn’t be more right.  We go from high to low, sometimes within the same day, our careers as crazy as the stock market, trying to hold onto what really matters: the work we’ve devoted our lives to.

 

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His work is taught in colleges and universities across the U.S. and has been translated into 15 languages.  You can read more about his books at his web site.

Why Should Reading Be a Contest?

I recently saw a blog urging writers to plow through 100 books a year to make themselves better writers. 100 seems to be some kind of current yardstick, though I don’t know why.

I think that’s another sad example of how numbers-crazy we’ve become as writers. Reading widely is good advice for writers of all kinds.  But why should the amount of books you read in a year actually matter as opposed to what you read and what you learn from those books. Isn’t how they they inspire you what really counts?

Take a unique book like Rebecca West’s astonishing Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. It’s a record of the author’s travels through the Balkans before World War II. The book is part travelogue, part history, part cultural portrait, and reads throughout with the color and drama of a novel. It’s 1200 pages long and might take you weeks or more to read, but you can learn a lot from every aspect of it, including West’s gorgeous prose style.

 

I read it one summer while touring Italy and France and felt as if I I’d died and gone to literary heaven. I didn’t finish it on my month-long trip because I was also enjoying sightseeing (big surprise!) and because the book was so luscious it was like a ballotin of Neuhaus chocolates. Something to be savored, not devoured. I read many passages more than once, sometimes read them aloud just to enjoy their sound in the Tuscan or Parisian air. That summer, I read almost nothing else.

What if you wanted to spend a whole year just reading and re-reading all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books so as to immerse yourself in his style and vision? What would be wrong with that? Wouldn’t you learn an enormous amount as a writer?  Maybe more than if you just randomly picked 100 books?  I wager the blog author might call you lazy, though, because she recommends a blitzkrieg. Seriously. Reading as battle, bombing, conquest, and devastation. What kind of attitude is that?

Everything’s become a frantic contest now, which makes us all potential losers. A writing career is hard enough as it it, and we’re already under assault by the word count fanatics–as I recently blogged at The Huffington Post.

When does it stop?  When the hell does it stop?

 Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence, and militarized police–along 24 other books in many genres which you can find at Amazon.

Who’s to Blame for Your Crappy Career?

Writers like Malcolm Gladwell have popularized the notion that all you need to become a genius or even an expert at just about anything is hard work. Do I hear RuPaul?

And it’s never to soon to start kicking butt, either.  Psychologist Ellen Winner says it’s now widely believed that “with sufficient energy and dedication on the parents’ part, it is possible that it may not be all that difficult to produce a child prodigy.”

Whoa. Think about it: truly dedicated parents can get their kids to write symphonies like Mozart, paint canvasses like Picasso, carve sculptures like Rodin, design buildings like Frank Lloyd Wright, create fashion to match Ralph Lauren.  The list is endless because they can get their kids to do anything. It’s all about work, and wanting it enough. Boom.

I come from a family of mathematically gifted people. My mother’s father was a statistician; my mother tutored her peers in mathematics; my older brother aced every math class he ever took from day one.  Math was like a religion in our house. But from kindergarten on, I had trouble with the simplest computations–and I still do.

Let me be absolutely clear: I was desperate to be good at math, and equally desperate to please my mother (and my teachers), but I kept disappointing everyone. I was a good little student in most everything else, and it was a torment to me that no matter what I did, no matter how anyone tried to help me, I just could not succeed. Neither could my teachers or my tutors. And no matter how many hours my frustrated mother spent trying to get me to understand what was elementary to her,  I just did not get it. 

All that hard work only led to embarrassment and shame, and that’s what this perverse new cultural naivete has the potential to induce, despite its smiley-face propaganda: feelings of inadequacy for everyone who doesn’t make it to the top. Because the answer isn’t bad luck, or not enough talent. Nope, it’s because nobody tried hard enough!  Not you, and definitely not your loser parents.

Andre Dubus is widely quoted as having said “Talent is cheap. What matters is discipline.” And now we know it started before we got the career bug in our heads.  We know exactly who to blame when we don’t make it as writers (or anything else): Mom and Dad.  If only they’d believed in us more; worked us harder; pushed us to the max we would all be best sellers (or celebrities).  Then we wouldn’t have to spend so much time and money in therapy complaining about how we never grabbed the brass ring.

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Larger Classes Can Cheat Students

As the author of twenty-five books in many genres, I do a lot of touring and public speaking.  That includes speaking at universities where faculty clue me into their struggles in and out of the classroom.  One of the things that gripes professors at state schools is when they hear administrators publicly congratulating themselves on doing “more with less” in the face of budget cuts.

It sounds lovely and even heroic, doesn’t it?  But it never seems to apply to the administrators themselves.  What exactly are they sacrificing? They don’t take pay cuts and work harder, or work longer hours.  Their salaries keep going up, as national surveys show.

One thing it does mean is that their underlings–professors and adjuncts–teach ever larger classes.  The pressure on class size across the country is insidious and undermines educational excellence, but nobody in charge seems to care or understand its impact.

A year and a half ago, I had a class of amazing fiction writers who were funny, smart, wildly diverse, and hard-working–but there were twenty-nine of them.  That’s right, twenty-nine.  In a creative writing class.

There was no way I could give individual students the attention they needed.  I did the very best I could, though, and got a hearty round of applause the last day.  I applauded them back because I was so proud of their work ethic and their talent.

But I think that like many students around the country, they deserved a much smaller class.  Creative writing is intimate, intense, and has the potential to change people’s lives.  I saw that more recently in another creative writing class that was equally talented, but had only eighteen students.

These students got to know each other’s work and each other in a much deeper way.  They quickly formed a private Facebook group; chipped in for a coffee machine and coffee to use at breaks; and they were were concerned when someone was absent. They shared class jokes; they shared moments of deep emotion; their writing changed; they changed.

Thanks not just to their personalities and interests, but to the class size, they became a devoted community of learners and teachers.  Isn’t that we hope for?

 

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”

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.