When A Character Seems TSTL

TSTL is a term used in the mystery reading/writing community for Too Stupid To Live. These are the characters in books and on big or small screens who seem to be smart but then make ridiculous mistakes that totally undermine their credibility. It’s the person who’s fully aware that a serial killer is on the loose who walks into their house and doesn’t turn on any lights. Readers or viewers howl in disbelief, press the pause button, or toss the book across the room.

I was recently watching an excellent British crime series that features some very strong woman detectives, and was very disappointed with a sudden plot twist.

The capable, resourceful, dedicated, and fiercely intelligent woman detective got a call and rushed off to meet someone, refusing to take anyone with her.  She also didn’t say where she was going or why.  The source she was meeting was closely connected to more than one murder and was possibly going to supply crucial information the detective’s whole team had been unable to get.

So what happens?  We see her in conversation at a restaurant but don’t see who it is (though we can guess), and she excuses herself to make a call to her chief to let him know she’s on to “something big.”  Okay, informing her superior is believable, and so is wanting some prvacy, but she doesn’t just step outside of the restaurant.

She crosses the street.

And walks down a dark alley.

With her back turned to passersby and traffic.

So of course she’s attacked before revealing what she knows.  The ambulance can’t get there quickly enough.  She dies.

This was infuriating.  There was no reason at all for her to behave the way she did, from start to finish, and it contradicted her character arc over four+ seasons.  Yes, she was impulsive, but never stupid.

Another term in the mystery world that applies here is “femjep.”  That’s when writers of whatever kind put a woman in ridiculous jeopardy.  It serves the plot, but it’s both retrograde and foolish.  Here, it was especially infuriating because you felt the writers wanted an unhappy ending to the season, and so they wrenched the character way out of whack.

Lev Raphael loves crime fiction and is the author of the acclaimed Nick Hoffman mysteries.  He teaches online creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

University Teaching Is Not A Demolition Derby

I do a lot of speaking at colleges and universities around the country, and faculty tell me many behind-the-scenes stories. Properly disguised, these stories 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. Some teachers 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.  I heard from a former student today about how her new creative writing teacher tears down everything she writes and it’s profoundly undermining her confidence.

Creative writing is one of my passions, and I’ve heard of other 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 offer something positive if I was blown away and couldn’t wait till they’re finished. And sometimes I just start laughing if the piece is well-done humor. As for dissing a student’s work, 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 during my freshman year at Fordham University; she became my mentor and role 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 by identifying 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 in many genres which you can find on Amazon.

The White Devil is an Amazing Gothic Thriller

It’s rare that I re-read crime fiction, but working on a new mystery of my own, I’ve been picking some of my favorite books to revisit for inspiration. The White Devil was at the top of my list, and here’s what I wrote about it for The Huffington Post back in 2011:

I’ve been reviewing crime fiction for well over a decade on-air, in print, and on-line, and always look for something original. I found it in Justin Evans’s amazing thriller The White Devil, my favorite crime book of the year.

Ask yourself what’s worse: thinking you saw a ghost or having it confirmed that you did actually see one?  Andrew Taylor faces that creepy dilemma and a lot more in a book that ingeniously mixes literary detective work, a horror story, young love, academic satire, and cultural conflict between Americans and Brits. If that sounds like a lot, well, Evans is terrific enough to keep all the balls in the air at the same time. The White Devil is truly one of the most compelling thrillers I’ve read in the last few years.

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The title is an obvious clue you’re signing up for a dark thrill ride since it’s the name of a play by John Webster, one of those grim Jacobean authors given to writing about ghosts, conspiracies, and revenge.

Sinister revenge is at the heart of the book, but Taylor doesn’t want anything dark at all when he comes to the elite English school Harrow. He’s screwed up big time at his previous prep school and this is his last chance, made possible only because his father gave Harrow a lot of money. Taylor desperately needs a fresh start and good grades, but he bears an unfortunate resemblance to Lord Byron, who also attended Harrow two hundred years ago. And Byron left some bitterness behind, bitterness that reaches out from another dimension and snares Taylor.

The writing in this novel is quietly beautiful and so balanced, so appropriate to the material that despite the propulsive story, I stopped now and then to read passages aloud to my spouse or just to myself. I wanted to savor and share the excellence of a superb storyteller. When it was over, I felt lucky to have spent a weekend with this gifted writer’s second book, even though I lost some sleep because the book was so fine it was hard to let it go.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books including the Nick Hoffman mysteries set in the wild world of academia.

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The Shocking Truth About Universities

When I was in graduate school, my wonderful dissertation advisor told me that he was determined to do a good, humane job getting me through without delays.  Why? Because his own advisor had been a hyper-critical nightmare.  My advisor kept his word: thanks to him, I finished writing my dissertation and defended it successfully in under a year.

campus-photoHorror stories about abusive dissertation advisors and feuding dissertation committees are common in graduate schools across the country–you don’t have to look hard to find them.  Even casual cruelty makes the life of graduate students miserable.  Because I write an academic mysteries series, people share these stories with me from around the country.

Just recently I heard of a PhD candidate whose rigid advisor refused to let the student show ongoing work to anyone else on the dissertation committee.  That left this student feeling isolated and extremely anxious.  Talking about  mistreatment to other graduate students in the program felt impossible–that’s how strong the professor’s grip was.

sad-writer-2Then there are the adjuncts or “contingent faculty”: overworked, underpaid, uninsured, and treated at some schools almost like pariahs.  Sometimes they don’t even have office space, or too many of them share a tiny office.  Tenure-track faculty belittle them unconsciously or even openly, no matter what they might have accomplished in their field.  Department chairs treats them like cannon fodder.

I know of one university where an adjunct who had the same degrees and had published far more than tenure-track peers was shut out of teaching upper level courses because of faculty jealousy.  Qualifications and experience didn’t matter–it was all about people protecting their tiny fiefdoms.

medieval-knightAnd students probably suffer more than anyone.  Stories reach me about how they’re bullied and put down publicly by their tenured professors.  I’ve been told about students reduced to trembling and even tears in the classroom.  Sometimes the mistreatment is more subtle: a professor will only call on favorite students, or might ignore something one student says but praise another student for making the identical observation.  Do students complain?  Rarely, because they’re afraid to, despite flashy news stories about campus protests.

None of this brutality is like the sexual violence on campus we read about, or the bigotry targeting various minorities–but it’s part of the atmosphere all the same. No matter how scenic the campus, colleges and universities can be surprisingly toxic for more people than outsiders imagine.  So when people at my book readings ask me, “Aren’t you exaggerating?  Are colleges really that bad?”  I don’t hesitate saying “No.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books including Little Miss Evil and seven other Nick Hoffman mysteries set in the dangerous world of academia.

Why I Love Writing Mysteries

I grew up in a household where my parents read a handful of different newspapers in more than one language.  My mother read Georgette Heyer and Agatha Christie as well as Thomas Mann and Margaret Mitchell. Not at the same time, mind you, but the model of reading she set for me was broad and enlightening.

That meant I was never told what not to read, and I carried that freedom with me through my school years, reading whatever interested me for whatever reason, delving into science fiction, the history of France, dolphin studies, biographies of the Founding Fathers, you name it. If it grabbed me, I grabbed it off the library shelf and carried it home, curious and expectant.

I was often inattentive in class because I was thinking about my library books, wishing I could be home reading them. Each one seemed to open to a world that was larger, more fascinating, and more liberating than my cramped classroom. Nowadays, I would probably be diagnosed as needing of Ritalin, but what I wanted was escape.

Thinking man silhouette and red sunset on a ferryBut not just from class. My parents were Holocaust survivors and this dark tragedy too often set the tone for our household: angry, depressed. Reading offered relief and distance, especially the alternate worlds of science fiction and history. Mysteries promised something better once I discovered them: the assurance that things made sense, that evildoers were punished, and order could be restored. It’s the balance Oscar Wilde mocks in The Importance of Being Earnest: “The good end happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”

I’ve published 25 books in many genres and almost a third of those have been mysteries in the Nick Hoffman series, satires set in the world of academe. My mother developed dementia before she could see me become successful and before she could read even one mystery of mine.  But writing and publishing each of them, I’ve thought of her. I’ve thought of a woman of wide tastes and deep education, a woman who spoke half a dozen languages, who had a rough smokey laugh–and how mysteries made her happy. Remembering all that makes me happy.

Lev Raphael’s Nick Hoffman mysteries are available from Amazon.

“Am I In Your Book?”

I once heard a rumor that someone thought they were “in” one of my mystery novels and was really pissed off.  Well, it was a bizarre situation because this person wasn’t remotely in my book, not even near my book.

On the other hand, a fan once jokingly said, “You should put me in one of your mysteries” and I walked away smiling.  Because this fan–a lifetime academic–had apparently read them all without realizing I’d used a dramatic incident from the fan’s life as a plot point in one of the books.  So you could say that fan made a phantom guest appearance.  Sort of.  Or a contribution?

The thing is, nobody gets shoved into my books from real life.  Ever.  And each one of my characters is a composite of fact and fiction.  Sometimes more of one, sometimes more of another.

Take Juno Dromgoole in my Nick Hoffman mystery series.  She’s a luscious professor of Canadian Studies who’s beautiful, foul-mouthed, and intemperate.  By making her over-the-top, I was playing with the American image of Canadians as quiet and well-mannered.  How was she born? She was actually inspired by several different women I met at a mystery conference.  But the more I worked on her, the more she became sculpted by the storyline and interactions with other characters and the further away she grew from her “sources.”  I don’t even remember anymore who those women were exactly, but I did finally imagine her as having the glamor of Tina Turner at her best.

Tina-TurnerCuriously, I did once run into a woman who looked and dressed just as I envisioned Juno did, when I was staying in a German hotel on a book tour–and she was Italian.

The smallest thing can inspire me: a look, a gesture, an outfit, a snarky line, an accent–and suddenly a grain of sand is on its way to becoming a pearl.  So people do make their way into my fiction, but always through shards, fragments, bits and pieces.

Even if I had wanted to put that angry person mentioned above in my book, I wouldn’t really have been able to.  For me, people are just models and sometimes inspiration.  Fiction sculpts them into something completely different from what they were until they become unrecognizable. If it’s good, of course.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 others books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.