Tony Morrison & The Author’s Dilemma

I never met Morrison but she helped me cope with one of the most vexing aspects of being a writer.

It happened in Chicago.  I was on a short Midwestern book tour with another author.  Over a steak dinner one night, we shared our admiration of authors including Morrison.

Like many of her fans, I read The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and essays of hers in a state of wonderment and delight. Writers like Morrison, Ann Tyler, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan are so polished, so deep, so memorable that reading them, I feel like Viola in Twelfth Night: “O brave new world to have such people in it.”

Done with talking about her work, my travel buddy told me a story he had first hand that has stuck with me for twenty years.

A young writer contacted Morrison to ask for a blurb for her forthcoming novel.  Now, whether you do an MFA or follow a different route to becoming a published author, nobody warns you how demeaning it can be to beg authors you know–or would like to know–to endorse your book.

It’s not enough to have fought your way through to find an agent or a publisher, now it seems like you’re starting all over again, a supplicant in a universe of wealth.

Some authors never bother to reply.   Others wait till it’s too late to fill their spot to let you know they’re busy and can’t do it.  I’ve even had one well-known author change his mind at the last minute, without offering a reason.  Another said she never blurbed books, which made my editor at the time laugh because this author had skyrocketed to fame thanks to a blurb she got for her first book from someone as famous as she was now.

Then there are the writers who say they’ll blurb the book but don’t have time to read it, and tell you or your editor to write whatever.  And you’re stuck wondering if it’s ethical to have their name on your book when the quote is in effect bogus.  Does it taint the book’s karma, or your own?

So the young author waited and waited for Morrison to reply.  Then the author wrote a second request which was on the desperate side.  This time, she got a speedy reply: “My dear: I understood your letter to be a request, not a demand.  Sincerely, Tony Morrison.”

My first response after laughter was pity for the newbie author. But then my focus turned to Morrison herself.  She probably was the recipient of hundreds of blurb requests–and that was before she won the Nobel Prize.  I felt sorry for her and admired the elegance of her note.

Would Morrison’s blurb have made a difference?  There’s no way of knowing.  Best-selling authors have blurbed my books and it’s been lovely to have their imprimatur, so to speak, but the excitement fades too quickly because there’s always another book in the pipeline and a different sent of authors to hit up for blurbs.

When Morrison died, that story about her note was the first thing I thought of.  It had turned the obnoxious task of getting blurbs into a mild comedy of errors, and we authors need to laugh more about the vagaries of our business.  As an author friend once warned me, “The only thing worse than not being published is being published.”

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com and is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Has an Editor Changed Your Life?

Let's Get Criminal (A Nick Hoffman / Academic Mystery Book 1) by [Raphael, Lev]

I left teaching at Michigan State University years ago because I didn’t think I’d be able to finish a book with only having summers off for extended writing time.  It was a gamble, and a serious loss of income my spouse said we could manage–for awhile.  Two years passed and I was more and more disheartened, especially when I got rejections for my book of short stories like the one that said “I don’t much like your metaphors and such.”

I was so down that I even talked about giving up writing as a career and maybe studying to be a therapist, since I was married to one and had such a deep background in reading psychology, going back to college.  And then one night a call came from Michael Denneny, the celebrated editor at St. Martin’s Press, and he said, “I want to publish your book.”  I was ecstatic.  When I hung up and shared the news, my witty spouse quipped, “Did you tell him you’d given up writing as a career?”

The book got dozens of reviews and launched my career.  Denneny was an amazing, hands-on editor who spent seven months doing deep dives on each story in the book.  Many of them were abut the Second Generation, children of Holocaust survivors, and back in the 197s and 1980s I was a pioneer in tackling this subject.  It was understandably dark material and one night at dinner in New York, Denneny suggested that I branch out and write something comic, since he thought I had a good sense of humor.  That suggestion was tossing a stone into a pond and watching the ripples.

I immediately thought of the story in my first collection told in the voice of an English professor who discovers that his partner has helped a former lover get a job at their university.  Not only that, his partner invites the guy for dinner.  It seemed like a good foundation for a mystery: What if the dinner guest dies?

Crime fiction was a genre I loved, and I had started reading mysteries in junior high school. My local library was well stocked and I worked my way through every Agatha Christie book on its shelves and branched out in many directions, like the comic New England mysteries of Phoebe Atwood Taylor and the spy novels of John Creasey.

Sadly, none of my college classes focused on genre literature, but the flip side is that as an English major, I was introduced to one amazing author after another, from D.H. Lawrence to Virginia Woolf. I read them all voraciously, inspired more than ever to make my life as an author.

For inspiration as I planned my mystery, I returned to crime novels I’d read before and read many dozens of new ones by authors from Robert Barnard to Sue Grafton.  Let’s Get Criminal was born, but Denneny didn’t connect with it.  I was disappointed, but as a writer friend once said, finding the right editor for your book can be as difficult as finding the right partner or spouse.

Winter Eyes (coming out novel) by [Raphael, Lev]

Soon after St. Martin’s press published my coming out novel Winter Eyes, I was approached by an agent who’d read about that books and I signed with her.  She saw Let’s Get Criminal as a Jewish Object of My Affections.  I was dubious, but then again, what did I know?  The rejections mounted and there was a trend: most of the editors said that they didn’t like mysteries.  Before I could ask why she was picking the wrong editors, she left the business.

But the editor who took over at St. Martin’s Press from Denneny, Keith Kahla, loved the book when I tried him myself, and he wanted the next one in the series, too, when I told him what I was planning. The Edith Wharton Murders was #2 and it put the series on the map thanks to a rave review in the New York Times Book Review where Marilyn Stasio said, “The Borgias would be at home at the State University of Michigan, that snake pit of academic politics.”  Kahla was justifiably pleased, and he was every bit as good an editor as his predecessor.

I read widely then and always had, so it was no surprise that I moved into other genres while keeping the series going and reviewed books for a number of publications including the Detroit Free Press where I had a monthly crime fiction column.

Let’s Get Criminal went out of print, was re-published by Lethe Press and went out of print a second time.  Now it’s available as an ebook from ReQueered Books.  I’m delighted that a new generation of readers can see where the Nick Hoffman series started.  And in case you were wondering about the title, it’s a comic nod to the Olivia Newton-John song “Let’s Get Physical” which plays a role in the book.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com and his latest mystery is State University of Murder.

Be Prepared: Finishing Your Book Can Bum You Out

I’m currently a few chapters away from a solid draft of my 26th book, and even though I’m excited that it’s been going so well, I’m sad to be seeing the end.

I’ve published books in a wide range of genres–including memoir, historical fiction, erotic vampire tale, and literary novels–but no matter what I’ve written, the experience is always the same: immersive.

I may be worried about something in my own life, about a friend’s health, or about the state of our nation’s politics, but when I’m writing a book, I feel protected and cocooned.

It’s not that I don’t register what’s going on around me; I experience it all inside a kind of bubble.  The book-in-progress is always on my mind, whether I’m at the gym, grocery shopping, taking a shower, or walking the dogs.  I may not be consciously working out the next scene or chapter, but the book is as real and present as soft music coming from another room.

A book of any kind is an adventure, a promise, a series of doors that open and some that close.  It changes as it grows and I change with it.  The end point likely won’t be what I thought it would be, though sometimes the last line is waiting for me like a charming host ready to pour me a great glass of wine.

Ironically, with the end in sight, everything is clearer and I usually write faster, but I feel a countervailing pressure to slow down, to enjoy these last moments with the companion of many months–or even years.

Don’t get me wrong. I love what happens when it’s done: editing and revising, the chance to revisit a manuscript and see it with fresh eyes after a break.  And working with a good editor is one of the joys of publishing. But that’s not the same as creating something new.  When I’m done, the sense of wonder and discovery that Mandy Patimkin sings about in Sunday in the Park with George has vanished.  “Look, I made a hat…” he sings.  “Where there never was a hat.”

When the book is done and revised however many times it needs, the technical, business side is ahead.  It becomes a product in the marketplace. And though I love doing readings from my work and have a great time on book tours thanks to being an extrovert with some acting experience, I’m already thinking about the next book, the next adventure….

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

What Should Writers Do With Bad Reviews?

A friend publishing her first book just got a negative review on Amazon, but it’s the only really bad one among about two dozen positive reviews.  And lots of those were raves.

I told her it was a mistake to read bad reviews.  Ever.

sad woman with laptopYears ago, way before Amazon, when I heard Philip Roth give a talk, he was asked about his reviews during Q&A.  If you don’t know know his work and his history, he’s been attacked for all sorts of things–including anti-Semitism!–as far back as his short story collection Goodbye Columbus.

I remember being struck by his response.  He said that he had never really learned anything about his work from a reviewer.  I’m sure some people in the audience thought he was arrogant to say that, and Roth had the air of a dyspeptic hawk, so that might have added to the impression.

philip_rothBut my friend’s distress about her negative Amazon review made me reflect about my own review history.  It includes raves from The New York Times Book Review–as well as some really nasty attacks that I wish I’d never read.

Over several decades of hundreds of reviews in print and on line, by professionals and amateurs, I don’t recall learning much, either, about my work from what they wrote.  People have liked or disliked my books for various reasons in various ways.  I’ve been thrilled by raves, enjoyed the pats on the back, and been disappointed by pans: “Don’t they get what I was trying to do?”

But have reviews made me write differently, tackle different subjects, change anything major or even minor?

Not really.  The many fine editors I’ve worked with have been the ones who’ve had a lasting impact on me; they’ve challenged me and helped me deepen my work.

As for Amazon reviews–like those on Goodreads–they can often be mindless and cruel, sometimes little more than cyber farts.

Reviews can reflect different tastes or simply contrariness, as when people feel the need to trash great authors like Jane Austen or George Eliot.  A full 10% of the 644 people reviewing Middlemarch on Amazon gave it only one or two stars.  Obviously not fans of Victorian fiction or her brand of it, anyway.  Perhaps they might have liked it better with zombies.

middlemarchOne of my favorite staycations was taking a week off from everything to re-read Middlemarch a few years ago and I was even more blown away than the first time I read it in college.  I’m in awe of that novel, the world it creates, the depth of her psychology, and the author’s all-encompassing love for every one of her characters, even the deeply flawed ones.

You can’t and won’t please everyone as an author.  But you can please yourself by avoiding the bad reviews.  They’re not likely to make a difference in your work because they seldom offer constructive criticism–but they can make you waste time.  You can obsess about them and even make the mistake of replying, something authors should avoid because it makes them look cranky and vulnerable.

To truly grow as a writer you need to find writing mentors or colleagues who can really help you, and you need to keep reading widely, deeply, passionately.  Bad reviews should never be on your list.

o-READING-BOOK-HAPPY-facebookLev Raphael is the author of The Vampyre of Gotham and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon.  You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/LevRaphael

 

 

Shakespeare & A Writer’s Revenge

I’ve been publishing for a long time and I’ve dealt with all kinds of editors.  Some are laid back.  Some are very hands-on.  Some are hard to pin down.  Some are extremely helpful and supportive.  And a few–very few–are difficult or even opaque.  They tell you one thing but mean something completely different that you couldn’t have guessed at.

huhHere’s what happened a few years ago with one of those.

I pitched an idea to a magazine about the farkakteh theory that Shakespeare was a Jewish woman (yes!), which is just another bit of nutty Shakespeare Denialism that’s been a flourishing industry for way too long.  James Shapiro wrote an entertaining book about it: Contested Will.

The editor really liked my approach–at least I thought so.

Then he sent back my blog and basically told me that it had to be completely rewritten.  But that wasn’t all: he thought it should be re-shaped to say what he wanted, which was bizarre, since in our previous emails, he’d never told me any of his opinions.  If he had, I would have gone elsewhere.

Was I annoyed?  Of course.  I’d been publishing dozens of articles, essays, short stories, and books for years and dealing with editors who were much more professional than that.  Except for one, “and thereby hangs a tale….”

I sent the piece to The Huffington Post.  They took it right away, beginning my long relationship with that site, and you can read it here.  I waited till the blog was posted and wrote back to the first editor that I was sorry he didn’t like my approach, but someone else did.

I included the link.

Sometimes revenge isn’t just sweet, it’s swift.  This time it was so swift that it wasn’t even worth saving the editor for a character to put into my Nick Hoffman mystery series–appropriately disguised, of course.  I just brushed it off.

dirt off my shoulderLev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.  Follow him on Twitter at

How to Write a “Big Book”

Lots of writers dream of writing a “big book.”

It’s a book that gets advertised and reviewed everywhere.

A book that people are reading on trains, planes, subway, and listening to in their cars on cross country trips or morning commutes.

reading-on-planeA book that everyone sees at airport book racks. A book that makes all the best seller lists and prompts speculation about who’s going to star in the movie.

A book that becomes part of the cultural conversation, even briefly. A book that gets the author onto countess chat and interview shows across the country.

WHOOPI GOLDBERG, NICOLLE WALLACE, ROSIE PEREZ, ROSIE O'DONNELLA book that seems to be everywhere you look and that all your friends are talking about.  A book that book groups can’t wait to dive into.

What special talent does it take? What magic do you need?

Well, it’s crucial that the book is physically big.

500-600 pages is big book big. It tells readers that they’re buying something the publisher has invested lots of time and money in. Think The Historian, Mystic River, The Secret History, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

I know of a writer who was doing well with a series and was told very frankly by an editor that to break out, to have a big book, that writer had to write books that were much longer. This is a true story. And kind of sad, because I thought that writer’s series was terrific.

Then I read the author’s breakout book which, you guessed it, became a big book with a star-studded movie and all the trimmings.

It felt overwritten and padded, easily 100 pages too long, if not more.

But the strategy worked. This author is now wealthy and famous, though not a better writer.  Just a bigger one.

Does size matter? Yes, if you want to make it big in traditional publishing.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including The Edith Wharton Murders, his first book to be reviewed in The New York Times.  It’s well under 500 pages.  🙂

 

The Editor Who Worked My Last Nerve

I’ve been fortunate in my career to have terrific editors for stories or essays appearing in magazines and anthologies.  The same goes for all my books, whether the presses were large or small. Well, almost all my books.

An editor at a good trade press once asked me out of the blue if I had a book for him–now isn’t that every writer’s dream? The dream became tarnished within a year. I was headed on a German book tour for another book while “his” book was in press and he told me the schedule had been advanced several months.  He insisted on sending me the e-galleys for correction while I was going to be in Germany. I told him I couldn’t go over them because I’d be on and off trains and rarely in one city more than one day. It wasn’t feasible: I wouldn’t have enough uninterrupted time to concentrate and do a good job. I thought I was being a responsible author, but he ignored my concerns.

db-overview-3This was my first book tour in Germany and it would turn out to be the worst flight I’d ever have going to Europe.  Trouble started with being in a seat that didn’t recline behind an over-sized passenger who reclined all the way. Then I was right across from a toilet so I was enveloped in that chemical smell for the whole flight.  A kid threw up in the aisle just a few feet away from me and soon after that, the plane turned back somewhere over the Atlantic because a man had a heart attack.

We landed in Newfoundland in complete darkness which was terrifying, and I knew for sure I would be late getting to Schiphol in Amsterdam. Very late.  And that’s a confusing, crowded airport anyway.

schiphol 2I was able to make some calls when we landed in Newfoundland, but I was totally stressed out and unable to sleep when we were back en route to Europe.  In Amsterdam, I had to run through that enormous crowded airport to make a connecting flight, and arrived in Berlin sleepless and exhausted.  There was just enough time for me to wash my face at my hotel, put on deodorant and change my shirt before being rushed to my reading (which I still managed to introduce in pretty good German).

berlin at nightBecause I used only a PC at home, I didn’t have a laptop in Germany and discovered to my horror that Internet cafés had German keyboards–well, of course, why shouldn’t they? But the layout and letters threw me and my emails looked like I was drunk.

Proof my book under those extra-trying circumstances? I explained to this insistent and clueless editor that even if I had time it couldn’t happen, so I asked him again to please wait till I got home in a few weeks–or proof the galleys himself. I’m not sure if he bothered, because at the next stage, back home, the book had a major goof which, he, I, and the copyeditor had all somehow missed.  This happens in publishing all the time as any author will tell you: mistakes slip through. But if I’d had the galleys and had time for them (say, with only half as many readings on my schedule), I would have caught the problem.

It was too expensive to reset the book at this late date–that’s what the publisher told me. So the book I was so proud of wasn’t published in as polished a form as it should have been, and the editor I was originally flattered to work with turned into an unsympathetic jerk.

An author friend told me when my career had just gotten started that the only thing worse than not being published was being published.  It opened you up to a range of shocks and disappointments you never knew existed. But I’m glad my career has proven his wisdom true only sometimes, and that this editor was a very rare exception for me.

Happy-Writer1Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres which you can find on Amazon, including Assault With a Deadly Lie, a suspense novel about militarized cops, which was a finalist for a Midwest Book Award.