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.

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.

The Poisonous World of American Universities

Essays, stories, and books of mine have been taught at colleges and universities around the country, so I’ve been invited to speak at many different institutions over the years, from Ivy League schools to community colleges.

They’ve all had something in common. Invariably, a faculty member will take me aside during my time there and tell me about somebody wildly eccentric or even out-of-control in their department. Or about a scandal, a schism, some long-simmering vendetta. And I think to myself, “You can’t make this stuff up…”

There was a professor who told me she had to quit serving on hiring committees because a senior professor announced that he didn’t like a candidate because “He smells.” Nobody else had noticed anything (not that it should have mattered) but they yielded to the professor’s seniority. Another related the story of a professor who unexpectedly and savagely attacked his own student at the student’s doctoral defense just to undermine a rival professor on the committee who liked his student. Crazy, right?

I’ve heard of people with barely any publications get tenure through favoritism and then when they achieved their ultimate goal of becoming administrators, they become petty, smiling dictators over faculty with far more experience and reputation. There’s constant infighting, piss-poor collegiality—but worst of all, the sad stories of contemptuous professors who treat their students like dirt. And lately, of course, stories of sexual harassment and abuse have darkened the picture.

I love teaching and come from a family of teachers. I left academia after over a decade of teaching because I wanted to write full-time, and my editor at St. Martin’s Press encouraged me to start a mystery series set in that environment. Outsiders slam academia for not being “the real world,” but I disagree 100%.

At times it’s far too real and so are many of its denizens: petty, vain, hypocritical, self-righteous, power-hungry, wildly egotistical, obsessed with stats (perceived or real).

I set my series at the fictional State University of Michigan in “Michiganapolis” somewhere in mid-Michigan. Outsiders can make great observers and sleuths, so my sleuth Nick Hoffman is primarily a composition teacher there. That’s made him low man on the totem pole in his Department of English, American Studies, and Rhetoric—especially since he enjoys teaching this basic course. He’s even more of an outsider because he’s published something useful, a bibliography of Edith Wharton, as opposed to a recondite work of criticism only a few dozen people might read or understand. On top of all that, he’s from the East Coast, he’s Jewish in a mostly Gentile department, and he’s out.

Seven years ago, I was recruited to teach creative writing at Michigan State University when the chair of the English Department realized I’d published more books than the entire creative writing faculty put together. I’ve had amazing students to work with, known a few friendly colleagues, and most importantly, I was able to pass on the terrific mentoring I got in college. But in my years at MSU I’ve heard more stories of mistreatment, poisonous arrogance, and basic cruelty on campus and from friends teaching across the country. It’s all material, of course–but it shouldn’t have to be.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.  He’s the author of 26 books in a wide range of genres including the just-published State University of Murder.

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.

How I Almost Quit My Writing Career–Before It Took Off

Special Archives at Michigan State University’s library purchased my literary papers almost ten years ago and updates The Lev Raphael Papers yearly.  Last week someone came by to pick up several boxes from 2018 of drafts, publications, correspondence, notes for workshops I did at conferences and anything else connected to my writing career.

I’m extremely fortunate to have sold my papers because I know writers who haven’t been able to donate their papers to a university they went to.  But after my very first publication years ago, I seriously thought about  abandoning my dreams of a writer’s life.

I grew up in Manhattan with New York ideas of success. I wanted to be a writer, so I imagined reviews in the New York Times, interviews on local news programs, my book in the windows of all the terrific bookstores on Fifth Avenue like Brentano’s and Rizzoli’s. And of course, it would be published by a prestigious publisher like Scribner’s or Knopf.

My first published story seemed to have opened the door to all that. It won a prize and was subsequently published in Redbook which at the time had 4.5 million readers. I made today’s equivalent of around $7,000, and just as exciting, I received fan mail and queries from agents.

Then five years of drought followed.  Not one story I submitted anywhere was accepted.  I was rarely encouraged to try again: the rejections were almost always form slips.  Even neighbors started to look at me with pity when I’d open up my mailbox in the lobby and I’d discover more than one stamped, self-addressed manilla envelope. Finding an agent didn’t change anything, even though she was famous and had celebrity clients.  My first novel didn’t get any better responses than my short stories.

I started thinking about a Plan B.  What would I do with my life if I wasn’t going to make it as a writer?  I explored two new paths. I interviewed at a rabbinical seminary because I had recently deepened my connection to Judaism.  And I considered a career as a therapist since I had been reading dozens of books of psychology, from Jung to Freud to Otto Rank and Karen Horney.

I didn’t get very far with either possibility before the rains came.  I story I’d written in a fever overnight was accepted for publication.  And then another.  And another after that.  I was finally finding an audience.  Despite my despair, I hadn’t stopped writing and hadn’t stopped reading books that inspired me.  I believed that as the son of Holocaust survivors, I had stories to tell, stories people would want to read.

Back then, I had no idea that I’d go on to publish twenty-five books; do major book tours in Germany; present my work in Canada, Israel, France, Scotland, England, and all across the U.S.; have scholars publish articles about me; wind up with my own radio show where I interviewed authors; write in so many different genres; and see one of my books sell over 300,000 copies.

I was just trying to get short stories published, and because I didn’t give up, whole new worlds opened up to me.  Tobias Wolff’s words are something all writers and would-be writers need to remember: “We are made to persist.  That’s how we find out who we are.”

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com

Writers Are Not Robots

Well, I’m not, anyway.

I do have writer friends who can produce a book (or more) a year no matter what kind of crisis is hitting them at home. Contracts pull them through. That, and stubbornness. I couldn’t work with so much pressure; I’d feel like I was on an assembly line….

I was recently at a party and someone asked me what I was working on. I said, “Nothing. I published my 25th book last Fall. I’m taking time off.” He looked at me like I was a slacker or something. But that’s not an unusual response.

I’ve been a member of the same health club for over two decades and lots of people there read my Nick Hoffman mysteries set in a college town not unlike East Lansing. No matter when I publish a book in the series, someone will always ask, “So when’s the next one coming out?”

It could be the very same week there’s been an article in a local paper or a radio interview. Really. As if I’m churning them out on an assembly line with the help of a team of research assistants.

And if I don’t have news about another book in press, I often get blank stares. What’s wrong with me, am I lazy? seems to be the unspoken assumption.

Okay, publishing 25 books in different genres over the last 25 years isn’t shabby — but they haven’t come out on any sort of regular basis. Some years I haven’t published anything and one year I published three different books just because that’s how the publishers’ schedules worked out.

In case that sounds like I’m Type A, I should explain that my second novel took almost twenty years to finish. Yes, twenty, working on and off because I kept re-conceiving it. I’m glad I did, because The German Money got one of the best reviews of my life. The Washington Post compared me to Kafka, Philip Roth and John le Carré — and I was sent on book tours in England and Germany to promote the editions published there.

But some books took me only six months to write from concept to completion for various reasons. And another book was fairly easy to put together because it was a collection of already-published essays and didn’t need extensive editing. So it’s all highly unpredictable.

You can’t explain that to the cheerful guys who call you “Dude!” and ask about your next book while you’re on the way to the showers just wearing a towel and flipflops. Or people who decide to chat with you while you’re sweating on the treadmill. Or the people who think that popping out another book can’t be that difficult since it’s not like I have a real job, anyway.

Maybe I should ask them, “So, when are you doing your next brain surgery?” or “When’s your next super-messy divorce case?’ or “When’s your next multi-million dollar real estate deal?”

Nah. I’ll just blog about it, or write them into my next book. Whenever.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

Publishing Is A Wild Roller Coaster Ride!

It started out as a fantasy.

An editor at an esteemed publishing house contacted me and asked if I had a book for him. He admired my previous work and wanted me on their list.  I was flattered and thrilled.  The timing was perfect because I did have a book, so I was soon signing a contract that gave me an advance big enough to pay for my upcoming wedding.

And then things went south.  The editing process was fine until the day before I left for a book tour in Germany and the editor told me the book was being moved up a season because the publisher loved it.  Ordinarily that would have been great news, since in-house excitement is crucial to launching a book.  But he asked me to correct the edited manuscript and get it back to him (via email) in the next two weeks.

I explained that I was leaving for a tightly-scheduled book tour, doing daily events and would be in transit when I wasn’t speaking and reading. Moreover, tours were exhausting and I didn’t feel I’d have the focus required for reviewing the book. I also worked on a PC and didn’t have a laptop, which would mean going to internet cafes.

He insisted.  I thought, okay, I have to try.  But when I got to Germany I discovered that even if I tried to squeeze in some time at an internet cafe every day, there was no way I could work on German keyboards because they were laid out differently and very confusing.  My emails home were garbled and I didn’t want to risk any errors creeping into the book.

I explained all that and he said fine, he would get it taken care of.

To my dismay, when I got the book back in page proofs, there was one passage that was repeated.  I deleted the repetition while making other minor corrections. But when I got back home after the tour, the publisher himself called to tell me that it would be too expensive to re-do the book since it had gone too far in the publishing process.  He refused to fix the problem.

While I loved the book’s cover, I was mortified that it was being published with a glaring flaw.  And then a reviewer blamed me for letting the book appear with a repetition.

I felt burned, but luckily fans enjoyed the book despite the screw-up.  That’s what publishing is like, filled with ups and downs, and nothing is predictable. As novelist and memoirist Deborah Levy says, “The writing life is mostly about stamina.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the guide for writers, Writer’s Block is Bunk.  You can take creative writing workshops with him online at writewithoutborders.com.“Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael was like seeing Blade Runner for the first time: simply incredible.”
—Kyle Roberts, MSU Class of 2016

Publishing Can Sometimes Work Your Last Nerve

Back when I was trying to get my first book published, a novelist friend warned me: “The only thing worse than not being published is being published.”

He wasn’t joking, and it sounded like something wise and mysterious Yoda might say if he taught a writing workshop. I wasn’t sure what it meant. But I soon discovered.

Bringing a book out is filled with hazards and opens you up to a whole new set of disappointments and frustrations.  You might hate the book cover the publisher comes up with.  There’s the possibility of bad reviews.  Really bad reviews.  The kind that lodge like a splinter in your brain.

You could be plagued by miserable turnout at readings and signings.  Someone else could publish a similar book that gets way more press attention than yours.  And of course, there’s the quicksand of weak sales.

But before the book even gets published, you enter the strange world of production.  When the book comes back to you from a copy editor, it’s been transformed into something very different, almost alien.  Your labor of love is now just a product.  As you work through the corrections and suggestions page by page, the book feels very much less than the sum of its parts.

Your baby is reduced to markups relating to spacing and capitalization, and what can seem like an endless series of queries.  Sometimes the copy editor isn’t tuned in to your material.  In one book I mentioned the Temple in Jerusalem.  The query was: “What’s the name of that temple?”

I resisted the temptation to get snarky, but when I had one copy editor completely rewrite the style of my first person memoir, I said No way.

Of course, a good copy editor will catch repetition, a mistaken quote, imprecise or awkward phrasing, and other problems that would embarrass you when the book came out.  But whether you agree or disagree with suggested changes, seeing it marked up with countless notes, you can feel like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians.  And you can’t tell anymore if the book is what you wanted it to be or not.

Next you get the page proofs, by which point the book you thought you loved can feel like an albatross and you just want to be rid of it.  Especially if you’ve moved on to writing or researching something else.

Obviously, it’s better to have these problems than not have them, but if you haven’t been published yet, be prepared!

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing online at www.writewithoutborders.com.

Why Authors Believe in Ghosts

It’s because all of us writers are haunted.

Not just by reviews that sting or that never even happened. Not by interviews that went sideways. Not just by book tours that flopped or by books whose sales figures were disappointing.

No, many of the specters hovering around our desks, laptops, and tablets are the books we started and gave up on. They’re in our dreams, and their presence lingers no matter what we complete and publish.

We have unfinished chapters, abandoned proposals, piles of research we’ve boxed, notes we scribbled and filed and can barely decipher any more. Even shelves’ worth of reference books we’re gathered together, read or skimmed or never got to. There are also characters we fell in love with but we couldn’t get around to giving them life.

And then there the ghosts that are more insidious. These are the ghosts inside the books we’ve written: the plot twists we changed and regretted after the book came out, the scenes we axed for one reason or another, the narrative threads we cut for expediency or coherence but later wished we hadn’t. And sometimes a book is haunted by what you wanted it to be, and what you couldn’t accomplish for any number of reasons: a deadline, mischance, falling ill, or just not being ready.

One of my ghosts resides in a file cabinet drawer crammed with material for a novel that never grew past a first chapter I’m crazy about. But every time I’ve gone back to it, I’ve thought the research involved would take too long, plus I’ve doubted the book’s marketability. It’s a novel about a murdered American artist and I’ve got all sorts of juicy research about him and his family, including a rare book of poetry published by the killer.

For all the time I spent living and dreaming that book, it’s stuck in the land of What Might Have Been. The further away I get from it, the less inviting the whole project becomes.  And I’m not alone: I know we’re all ghost writers of one kind or another.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of The Vampyre of Gotham and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery. You can study creative writing with him on line at writewithoutborders.com