Guest Post: The One Thing You’re Missing When Evaluating Your Writing

One thing we writers must do is regularly seek feedback on our work. It’s the only way we can expect to improve.

The problem is, most of us go about it all wrong.

Let’s say Sandy creates a story and takes it to her writer’s group, submits it to a contest that offers critiques, or hires an editor. Her ultimate goal is to get feedback, but when she gets it, she focuses on only one part of it—the negative. Like most writers, she zeroes in on what she perceives to be her weaknesses, or on what she feels she did wrong.

Seemingly forgotten are all those comments describing what she did well.

This approach may make sense to you. After all, aren’t we supposed to work on our weak areas to improve as writers? Once we fix these, don’t we become publishable, potentially bestselling authors?

Logical, except it rarely works that way. Instead, what usually happens is you work for months or maybe years trying to fix what’s wrong, and odds are what you’ll have to show for it will be a slightly better story, but one that’s still not good enough to attract the eye of an agent or editor.

What happened? Your writing coach or group or editor or whoever it was said your dialogue was weak, and you needed to speed up the pacing. You worked on both and afterward “they” said it was better. So why didn’t you get the result you were hoping for?

Making a weakness less of a weakness is not enough to make you competitive in today’s market. Competition is too fierce.

Focusing mostly on your weaknesses results only in mediocrity. To succeed as a writer, you’ve got to find a way to be extraordinary.

Why Writers Must Identify and Focus on Their Strengths

Bestselling author Paul B. Brown wrote in Forbes, “You are far better off capitalizing on what you do best, instead of trying to offset your weakness. Making a weakness less of a weakness is simply not as good as being the best you possibly can be at something.”

I’m not saying you should ignore your weaknesses completely. When I first started writing novels, I hired an editor and got feedback that was really helpful. She pointed out my weaknesses, and I spent a good amount of time studying plot, story structure, conflict, and suspense.

It was time well spent as we all need to educate ourselves in the craft of writing. The problem was that I spent more time on those things than I did building my strengths, which slowed my progress considerably.

As long as you’re stuck in the “fixing your weaknesses” mindset, you’ll remain blind to the things you do really well—and that will keep you from reaching your highest potential.

Maybe you’re great at writing stories that make people think, or that keep them up at night. Maybe you’re an amazing world builder or mystery plot-weaver, or perhaps you have a special way of getting across a strong argument.

What are your strengths as a writer? You must discover the answer to that question, for only then can you start to build on those strengths and become the best writer you can be. For more information on how to use your strengths to build a noticeable author platform, check out Colleen’s new book, Writer Get Noticed! Get your free chapter here.

Colleen M. Story’s Writer Get Noticed! is a strengths-based guide to help writers break the spell of invisibility and discover unique author platforms that will draw readers their way. With over 20 years in the creative industry, Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness and Writer CEO. Her author website is colleenmstory.com and you can follow her on Twitter @colleen_m_story.

University Abuse Scandals Inspired My Latest Mystery

People often ask me at readings, “Where do you get your ideas?”  In another context, the writer Lawrence Kushner once wrote, “Entrances are everywhere and all the time.”  That’s how I feel about my books: a door can unexpectedly open whether I was looking for one or not.  I walk across the threshold and discover a new world.

After I returned in 2011 from another book tour in Germany, the chair of the English Department at Michigan State University asked if I’d consider teaching for them.  I was delighted because I come from a family of teachers and had taught at various schools for over a decade before he contacted me, including two years at MSU after I earned my PhD.  He was delighted to have me join the faculty because in his words, I had published more books than any single professor and more than the entire creative writing faculty put together.

Flash forward a few years.  One afternoon, my office mate looks shaken and she tells me a terrifying story of an ex-boyfriend breaking into her apartment and roughing up her current boyfriend.  The police get involved, there’s a restraining order, but she eventually comes to feel that the department and the university fail her.  Soon after, one of my students tells me about being stalked and I quickly realize she’s talking about the same man.  She ends up leaving MSU before she can finish her degree because she’s so traumatized by how dilatory and even hostile MSU officials seem to be in dealing with her case.

Then the giant Larry Nassar scandal breaks.

Real people, places, events have never gone directly into my fiction: they’re transformed in myriad ways.  The two women I knew were widely covered in the media and their stories raised questions about administrative arrogance, malfeasance, and lack of humanity.  Traits that administrators at universities across the country demonstrate all too often.  I hear these stories from friends who are teaching, and have heard them whenever I speak at a college or university.  Sooner or later somebody tells me about high-handed, grossly overpaid administrators.  It’s a national scandal.

In State University of Murder, professor Nick Hoffman has survived a mass shooting to find himself in a renamed department which has been moved to a different building in an attempt to tamp down the bad publicity generated by the shooting.  The brand-new new chairman, an import from France, is the height of grandiosity, not surprisingly with a first name like Napoléon.  Is he mercurial and contemptuous?  Does he alienate nearly everyone he comes into contact with? Does he evoke murderous rage?  Absolutely.

As the mystery builds, I pay quiet tribute along the way to the former assistant professor and the student who shared their stories with me.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery including the just released State University of Murder.  His next online creative writing workshop at writewithoutborders is Mystery Writing 1.0 and runs for the month of June. 

How My Mother Inspired My Mystery Series

I started a mystery series in the 1990s thanks to my absurdly well-read, multi-lingual mother. When I was publishing literary fiction in the 1980s, she had surprisingly urged me more than once to write for a wider audience. She was right, though it took me a while to see that. Once I did publish mysteries, my audience grew and so did my name recognition.

She had filled me with a love of all kinds of books as a child by reading to me, helping me learn to read myself, getting me a library card early, and taking me to our Beaux Arts library every week. She never forbade me borrowing any book no matter the subject or reading level, and she mocked the juvenile reading assignments we had at school. Sometimes she even mocked my teachers themselves. Born in St. Petersburg and raised in Poland, she spoke English better than a few of my native-born teachers and she was a scathing critic of their pretensions when she returned from parent-teacher conferences in elementary school, especially the one who tried speaking French to her because my parents had lived in Belgium for five years. When that teacher had asked her something in (awful) French, my nonplussed mother reported saying, “Excuse me? What language is that?” It was delicious to feel part of a conspiracy with my mother, and I think I was already learning something about appearance, reality, pomposity, and satire that would help me years later in my mysteries.

(my first library on West 145th Street in Manhattan)

This erudite and witty Holocaust survivor who loved Thomas Mann, Tolstoy, Aldous Huxley, Balzac, and Stefan Zweig also adored mysteries. Devoured them. She read mysteries with the devotion she gave to the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, which she said had helped her perfect her English once she got to the United States. I suspect it might also have helped her face the puzzle of her own life, her miraculous survival when so many dozens of her family members had perished or been murdered during the war.

On a typical day, the shelves in my parents’ bedroom where she kept her library books would have a wide range of mysteries, and thanks to her, I discovered Agatha Christie, John Creasey, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Daphne du Maurier, and Phoebe Atwood Taylor–a very eclectic bunch, no?

My mother was also a splendid, unpretentious cook. She had grown up somewhat privileged in northeastern Poland in a bourgeois-intellectual family with a maid, and had never prepared any food for herself, not even a cup of tea until after W.W. II—or so my father claimed. Whatever the truth of that, her cooking was deft and never called attention to itself. She casually cracked eggs with one hand, stirred bowls like a magician casting a spell with his wand. Her omelets were miraculously fluffy, her cakes and cookies the envy of my friends. Though she couldn’t sing or dance, she was at her most elegant when she cooked or baked, despite our small Washington Heights kitchen.

When I started my mystery series, I quietly dedicated it to her, though she would never be able to read any of it, because by that point she had drifted far out onto the sea of dementia. I made my narrator, the besieged professor Nick Hoffman, a foodie and a book lover. I also made him something of an outsider since he’s a New Yorker in Michigan. In another private nod to my mother, I gave Nick in-laws who were refugees from Belgium. Lines that my mother had said or might have said weave their way through the series in silent tribute.

Someone who idolized that paper, she would have been proud to see my series reviewed in the New York Times Book Review more than once. I hope she would have recognized herself in this line from one of those reviews: “Nick Hoffman mows down intellectual pretenders with his scathing wit….the idiocies of academe always bring out the caustic humor that is the best part of him.”

My mother was the child of revolution, born to a Menshevik father who had to flee St. Petersburg when the Bolsheviks seized power. Through my childhood and adolescence, I watched her endlessly discuss history, politics, and state power with neighbors and friends. Her perspective on international affairs was informed by her deep reading in current events and her encounters with Soviet and Nazi brutality, but that didn’t mean she had lost her sense of humor. She once quipped that Spiro Agnew’s droning speeches reminded her of “Stalin on a bad day.” And she noted that a week before Stalin died, she had toasted to his demise at a party of Holocaust survivors. “It worked! Maybe I should have tried that sooner?”

She loathed Nixon and the Vietnam War and had made plans to get me to Canada should I be drafted. I know she would be appalled by the growth of our national security apparatus and the way it’s trickled down to local police departments who have become obscenely militarized. I wrote Assault with a Deadly Lie, due in October, with that massive cultural shift and my mother very much in mind. It’s the darkest book in the series. Nick Hoffman’s academic world is invaded by stalking, harassment, police brutality, and much more. In a way, this book is not just a continuation of the series, it’s a continuation of the conversation I’ve been having with my mother ever since she stopped talking to anyone back in the early 1990s, ever since that voluble, highly intellectual woman disappeared into silence. She may have been dead now since 1999, but in my mysteries, this one especially, she’s profoundly, beautifully alive.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.  His next online creative writing workshop is Mystery Writing 1.0 and runs for the month of June.  This blog originally appeared on the Mysteristas site.

Research is One of the Best Parts of Writing!

There are a lot of things I didn’t learn about writing as a career in my MFA program.  One of them is how enjoyable and even exciting researching a book can be.  And I don’t just mean tracking things down online or spending time in an archive.  I mean talking to experts.

Working on book after book, I’ve found how helpful experts can be, and how much they enjoy opening up about their fields of expertise.  One of the first was a county Medical Examiner I interviewed because my firts mystery had a body found in a river.  We talked about decomposition and a lot of other aspects of the situation, and went very deep (pun intended in our hour-long chat.

I’ve spoken with lawyers, cops, private investigators and have never found anyone unwilling to talk about what they do and love.  I tell them who I am and why I’ve contacted them and ask if they have time.  The majority of interviews get done in person, but once or twice I’ve had to work on the phone if the expert was an inconvenient distance away.

These interviews don’t just help ground my books in reality, whatever the genre, they also take me out of my own world into worlds I don’t know and find fascinating.

In my current novel-in-progress, music plays a role and so I’ve interviewed a cello played I know and a friend who’s played the piano for years, and a professor of piano at Michigan State University.  I have eight years of piano behind me, but don’t know much about repertoire and the kinds of issues professionals deal with and the talks have been fascinating.  I’ve also interviewed a fire chief and the head of an advertising agency.  Each one has been unfailingly generous with their time and of course will be acknowledged when the book comes out.

It may not take a village to write a book, but it definitely takes human resources who live in very different worlds than I do, and enjoy sharing their wisdom and experience.  Talking to them doesn’t just augment the reality of whatever book I’m working on, it almost always opens up new possibilities.  Better still, it breaks the isolation of writing a book, and that makes me very grateful.

Even if you’re shy, contacting the expert you want is easy via phone or email.  What’s most important is thinking out your questions in advance and being prepared for the book to go in a different direction or take on aspects you hand’t imagined, based on what you learn.  As Henry James advised a young writer: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com and is the author of 26 books in many genres including the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder.

Marie Kondo Doesn’t Understand Book Lovers!

Marie Kondo is all the rage when it comes to de-cluttering, but her advice to cull your books by only keeping the ones that “bring you joy” reveals that she doesn’t understand all the different meanings that books can have for their owners.

I’ve kept books that I read years ago in college not just because I might re-read them, but because they remind me of classes, teachers, and even fellow students.  They’re part of my history.  Some of them helped inspire me to become a writer.

Other books relate to my professional life. I have a whole book case of review copies of books I reviewed for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, and other newspapers as well as on various public radio shows. I might re-read some. I might not. What matters is that those seven packed shelves, carefully alphabetized, are a window opening to my life as a reviewer.  They remind me of the editors I worked with, the deadlines I met, and the way I learned to write and revise with tight deadlines.

Then there are the books in my den which track my reading interests over the years: The Tudors, Shakespeare, Ancient Rome, The Middle East. Few of them spark joy, but they leave me with a sense of contentment and there’s always a chance I might re-read one or more. They’re certainly useful resources if I need them for some project.  They, too, are part of my history.  Likewise, as a writer of memoir, I’m not planning on emptying my revolving bookcase of memoirs because I may want to consult them at some point, and many of them inspired me in my own memoir writing.  There presence is encouraging, supportive, invaluable.

The several thousand books in my study are more varied and go deeper: biographies; Judaica; drama; poetry; American fiction, British Fiction, French, German, and Russian fiction; books about France and the French language; Psychology; The Gilded Age.  And then there are twelves shelves of books by and about Henry James and Edith Wharton, two of my favorite authors.

I also have multiple copies of a number of novels because I wrote notes in my books and when I want to re-read one that’s heavily annotated, I start over.  Likewise, there are books that contain notes I made about a book or story I was working on while reading them.  Get rid of them?  That’s almost as silly as her advice to tear out the pages that give you joy and pitch the rest.

That’s not de-cluttering, that’s vandalism.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His forthcoming academic mystery is State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

My Life With Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is often on my mind, and not just this week, which saw her 156th birthday.

I fell in love with Edith Wharton’s novels and short stories in college, given that I grew up in Gilded Age New York. The building on upper Broadway I was raised in was one of two massive apartment blocks built circa 1900 by Harry Mulliken with gorgeous tapestry brickwork and stone detailing, like Mulliken’s more elaborate Lucerne Hotel on 79th and Amsterdam.

The public library I visited every week was a Venetian palazzo designed by McKim, Mead, and White. It was a temple of books, a sanctuary, and a doorway to another more elegant world. Perhaps most enthralling for me as a young boy was our family’s regular bus route downtown: along Riverside Drive past one Gilded Age mansion, brownstone and apartment building after another.

The past was all around me as it might not be in other parts of New York City, and so discovering Wharton in college was like claiming part of my own history. I bought every single book of hers then available in Scribner paperbacks and read them many times, awed by her wit, her powers of description, and her sharp eye for hypocrisy and foolishness. In the summer of 1975 I read R.W. B. Lewis’s riveting Pulitzer-winning Wharton biography that launched the revival of her work, and through reading about Wharton’s life I felt even more inspired to pursue my own career as a writer.

That career of publishing in many genres has led me back to Wharton three times. In the early 90s I published a study of the emotion of shame in her writing and her life, something that had never been discussed before. A few years after Edith Wharton’s Prisoners of Shame, I invented two fictional Wharton societies and pitted them against each other in an academic mystery, The Edith Wharton Murders.

More recently, I re-entered her world in a whole new way.  Undoing Wharton’s anti-Semitic stereotyping, I’ve re-imagined The House of Mirth from the point of view of Lily Bart’s suitor Simon Rosedale, giving him a home, a family, a history, and a tormented heart. In writing Rosedale in Love, I haven’t tried to imitate Wharton’s style, but I have written the book in a period voice, after immersing myself in writings of all kinds from the early 1900s.

I don’t know how she would have felt about my novel, but for me, it’s been one of the most exhilarating adventures of my writing career.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  After close to twenty years of teaching at the university level, he now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

7 Friends Every Writer Needs

Writing is a lonely profession and the people who best understand that loneliness, whether they’re introverted or extroverted, can make for terrific friends on your journey.  They deal with the same or similar issues as you do and you speak the same language.  Experiences that might seem outlandish to “outsiders” are part of an insider’s writing life. But what kinds of writers make for good professional friends no matter what stage your career is in?

–Look for writers who don’t focus on the ups and downs of the publishing world the way some people obsess about the stock market.  Writers who care more about their craft no matter what’s trendy can make solid friends.

–Writers who enjoy their success without bragging about it are good people to be around.  They value what they achieve and can model it for you. There’s nothing wrong with healthy enjoyment of doing well.

–Every career has its setbacks and disappointments.  Writers who can empathize with yours, perhaps share their own trials, and maybe even help you strategize what to do next are invaluable.  We can all use support when we’re down.

–We live in a numbers-crazy society and when a writer friend is more excited about what she’s writing than how many words or pages she’s churned out, the focus is where it can be most helpful and even inspiring.

–Mixing with writers who work in different genres can be invigorating and refreshing, even if you’re not reading each other’s work.  There are many things you share, but the differences in how and what you produce can be instructive when you talk shop.

–Experienced writers who manage to balance the business side of writing along with the craft itself can be great guides.  Likewise writers who know when to say no to a gig and why.  Saying no is a challenge even for best-selling authors.

Being connected to other writers is important because it helps you feel part of a community, gives you support and guidance, and even acts as a source of fun.  Writing is a crazy business—who better to enjoy it with than folks who understand that reality and enjoy it?

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of 25 books in a dozen different genres.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

 

Success For Writers 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, one-month creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

Don’t Believe in “Writer’s Block”!

I’m just back from keynoting a writers’ conference in Michigan where one of the questions was “Do you ever get writer’s block?”

My answer was simple: No.  And here’s why.

I once heard prize-winning author Loren D. Estleman deplore the use of the term.  He said that it’s a grossly unhelpful way of describing something very basic and ordinary in the writer’s life: you’re stuck.

I totally agree. When you say that you have writer’s block, you turn a minor problem into something major like depression or even cancer. Suddenly you’re beset by a grave affliction and a normal, unremarkable part of the writing process potentially becomes  debilitating.

I’ve felt this way through many years as a published author; through twenty-five books in many genres; and hundreds of stories, essays, reviews and blogs. Like Estleman, I believe that we all get stuck sometimes in our work, no matter how experienced we are — and Estleman’s published sixty books. Stuck isn’t a bad thing. It just means that you haven’t worked something out, you haven’t answered some question in the book, or maybe you’re headed in the wrong direction.

When I get stuck, I do what Estleman suggested, and what I’ve advised my creative writing students over the years: I leave the writing alone and don’t obsess about it.

Are you stuck? Don’t panic. Give the problem to your subconscious to figure out. Work on something else or don’t do any writing at all. Focus outward: the gym, a movie, dinner with your spouse, drinks with some buddies, walking your dog, home repairs, a car trip, gardening, working on your tan, cooking, going out, reading a new book by your favorite author — anything that will absorb you completely and make you feel good.

Of course, sometimes being stuck is connected to secrecy and revelation. It can mean you’re afraid of what you want to write, afraid of revealing too much about yourself (or someone else), afraid of what people might think. That fear of exposure is shame, or the dread of shame. Calling it “writer’s block” confuses the issue and disguises what’s really the problem.

Unfortunately, there’s a gigantic industry devoted to helping people overcome “writer’s block,” to keep them from turning into Barton Fink, stuck on that one sentence. And because our culture loves stories about blocked writers like The Shining, there’s a perverse kind of glamor associated with this “condition.” It’s dramatic, it’s proof of how serious a professional you are. And hey, writers are crazy anyway, so of course they can’t do their jobs.

Let’s face it, since most people hate to write, especially in this age of texting, “writer’s block” connects with non-writers much better than when you say, “I’m working on my book, it’s going great and I’m having a blast.” You risk being seen as cocky or even arrogant. Saying that you have writer’s block brings you back to earth. It comforts people who don’t write, because it confirms their perception of writing as drudgery and even torment.

Don’t buy into the script.  Write your own.

Lev Raphel is the author of twenty-five books in many genres including the guide for writers Writer’s Block is Bunk. He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com where he also offers coaching and mentoring.

(this blog originally appeared on The Huffington Post)

Watching “The First” As A Writer

At one writing workshop I recently taught, one of the students said she never watched television. I told that my experience was very different. I watch TV series and movies on Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix–but not just for entertainment or escape.

I watch them as a writer. I pay attention to how scenes are constructed, to dialogue that feels natural and moving, to how conflicts are sparked and develop, to character creation through habits, quirks, gestures, evasions, and everything else that makes them real.

None of that detracts from the sheer pleasure of being lost in someone else’s world–it adds to it.

Sometimes I fall in love if a show or movie seems to be doing something I haven’t seen before, or gives old ideas a new spin.

Recently I was blown away by The First, a new Hulu show in eight binge-worthy episodes that features Sean Penn, Natasha McElhone, Oded Fehr and a very strong supporting cast.  Created by Beau Willimon, it’s set in the near future where almost everything seems voice operated and cell phones don’t exist: your phone is a small device set in your ear and responds to voice commands.  People also share things like virtual reality concerts by linking special lightweight eyeglasses.

In Louisiana, a private company and NASA have teamed together to send a manned mission to Mars.  The whole first season explores the monumental problems involved, but more than that, it dives deep into what it’s like to be an astronaut in such a program–or married to one.  The impact of potential loss and distance from your loved ones is a major theme.

Fear and sacrifice are also themes, but the show creates an almost dreamy sense of wonder about space travel and expanding human knowledge that’s emphasized by a subtle and moving sound track.  Best of all, people’s conflicts aren’t neatly resolved–they’re left open and it feels so much less mechanical than most series because of that.

The show has moved me to tears many times for many reasons, and inspires me to make my own work as powerful in my own way.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of twenty-five books in many genres.  A veteran of university teaching, he now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.