3 Things Nobody Tells You About The Writing Life

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

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

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

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

Lev Raphael offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com after over 15 years of university teaching.  He’s authored 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.

On Father’s Day I Remember My Father in the Kitchen

Father’s Day is about six months off from Hannukah, but it always makes me think of my father’s potato pancakes.

Made in a large, battered cast iron pan, these latkes were always perfect: crisp outside, juicy inside, delicious whether served with sour cream, sugar, apple sauce, or just plain.

I loved to watch my father cook, as patient as a scientist, as skilled as a musician playing a piece he’s performed more times than he can remember. Sometimes he even made what he called a potato babka: pouring the batter into a large loaf pan and baking it. The word itself still makes my mouth water decades later, though my own kitchen will never be filled with that aroma.

I’ve used all kinds of pans, potatoes and onions over the years, but have never been able to duplicate his latkes, not even with his advice. I’m not just being nostalgic and romanticizing the past. Back then, my mother said her latkes were never as good as his, and she had learned to cook in Belgium.

Did he consult a cookbook or was he remembering a recipe he had learned at home in eastern Czechoslovakia before the Holocaust? No, he just worked instinctively with the onions and potatoes, the flour, eggs, salt and pepper.

Years later, in a college course where we read Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, I learned a wonderful Italian word: sprezzatura. It was the art that concealed all art, the ability to do things flawlessly without betraying any effort. While my father was no Renaissance man — I don’t remember him ever cooking much of anything else — perhaps sprezzatura was a secret ingredient of those latkes.

And perhaps I tried too hard to match him, longed too deeply to recreate a moment in time that looked like magic and felt like a feast. These days, I don’t worry about equaling what he did, I just enjoy the memory of the love and dedication, the patience, and the sights and smells of my father loving his sons without words.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in many genres which you can find on Amazon, most recently State University of Murder and Let’s Get Criminal, newly released as an ebook.

How I Started Writing Mysteries With a Gay Sleuth

I never set out to write mysteries, gay or otherwise. When I launched my career as an author, it was with short stories which were ultimately collected in a book that won a Lambda Literary Award.

But one of them, “Remind Me to Smile,” featured a couple of academics faced with a bizarre situation: Stefan has gotten an ex-lover of his a job in the English department that is his and Nick’s home. Nick is outraged, and then depressed when Stefan invites the ex to dinner.

The good ended happily and the bad unhappily, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde. That was what this particular fiction meant, anyway.

My first editor at St. Martin’s Press, the legendary Michael Denneny, was very taken by the story, only he said the dinner guest should have been poisoned. And then a few years later, when I was wondering where I should take my career after a collection of short stories, a novel, and a study of Edith Wharton, Denneny said, “Nick and Stefan could be like Nick and Nora Charles.”

That’s when the Nick Hoffman series was born. He and Stefan teach at the same school, are happily married, but the unexpected keeps intruding into their lives thanks to the murderous academics they work with. I’ve been writing it over the years because I loved the characters, and because I loved the academic setting where, as Borges put it so well, you find bald men argue over a comb.

I was already a fan of mysteries before I started; I grew up in a household filled with Agatha Christie books, and I was reviewing mysteries and thrillers for the Detroit Free Press. That made me determined to avoid one thing: sleuths who don’t get changed by what happens to them. In far too much crime fiction, the protagonist discovers a body and then goes off for breakfast at Denny’s as if nothing’s happened.

Years ago, when I first met Walter Mosley, we talked about ways to keep a series from becoming routine for the author. He said his strategy was to take the series through historical changes, and see how they affected Easy Rawlins.

In the Nick Hoffman series, Nick ages and is definitely changed by the deaths he encounters. His relationship with Stefan develops, too. Depicting a loving gay couple over time, and under stress, has been one of the joys of this series.  The world has changed a lot, too, since the series began in the 90s, so it’s been fun to chart those changes in mysteries, which are good vehicles for social commentary.

Mystery writing has made me a better teacher, too, and I’ve been fortunate to teach mystery fiction in classes, workshops, and online.

Lev Raphael’s latest mystery is State University of Murder, a story of homophobia, sexual assault, gun violence and much more.  He teaches writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

When an Author’s Quirks Get in the Way: Chris Bohjalian and “The Flight Attendant”

Chris Bohjalian’s most recent novel of suspense tells a gripping story about an alcoholic flight attendant, Cassie Bowden, who wakes up in a luxury hotel bed in Dubai next to a murdered man she slept with the night before.  His throat’s been slashed and there’s lots of blood in the bed.  When she drinks too much, she has blackouts, and she’s wondering if she could have killed him, though she can’t imagine why.

What should she do now?

Cassie has a history of bad choices and some of what she does immediately and in the days after her horrific discovery is truly off the wall–when it’s not just plain dumb.  The lawyer who eventually tries to help her has no problem calling her crazy.

So who killed Cassie’s sexy, wealthy hook-up?  And was he really a hedge fund manager?  Cassie doesn’t know, but before long she starts suspecting that she’s being followed.  In classic thriller style, her troubles escalate as the story unfolds, and often because of her own mistakes.  Cassie is almost a total screw-up, but it’s hard not to sympathize with her, given the alcoholism in her family.  And given that she’s painfully aware of how stuck she is in very bad patterns:

She wanted to be different from what she was–to be anything but what she was.  But every day that grew less and less likely.  Life, it seemed to her…was nothing but a narrowing of opportunities.  It was a funnel.

The details of her work life in the air and on the ground are fascinating, ditto how she interacts with her fellow flight attendants, and Bohjalian is at his best describing Cassie’s shame about her alcoholic blackouts.

But the writing is a bit odd at times. Streets and aisles are described as “thin” rather than “narrow” for no apparent reason. The author has a fondness for unusual words like “gamically,” “cycloid,” “niveous,” “ineludibly,” “noctivagant,” and “fioritura” which stop you right in your tracks.  The last one is a doozy.  It refers to vocal ornamentation in opera and seems totally out of place in describing a lawyer’s complaint to her client.

At a point when Cassie is longing for a drink, it’s not enough for Bohjalian to call it her ambrosia.  No, he has to pile on synonyms “amrita” and “essentia.”  Seriously?

You get the feeling with all these splashy word choices that Bohjalian is showing off, but why would a best-selling author bother?  Does he somehow feel that he has to jazz up his thriller with fancy-shmancy diction to prove that he’s more than just a genre writer?

Bohjalian also spends way too much time on Cassie’s amygdala, her “lizard” brain, and mistakenly thinks it’s a seat of reflection.  It isn’t.

Almost as annoying as his vocabulary or his weak grasp of neuroscience is the fact that his American characters sound British when they use “rather” as in statements like “I rather doubt that–” Even the narrative employs “rather” as a modifier way too often.  This is apparently a tic of his that nobody’s bothered to point out to him. Likewise, Bohjalian uses formal phrasing in a story that’s anything but formal, so time and again there are constructions like this one: “She hadn’t a choice.” Given the book that he’s written, “She didn’t have a choice” seems more direct and natural.

Despite the distracting quirks, I stuck with this thriller because the protagonist is a fascinating hot mess and Bohjalian is a solid story teller when he gets out of his own way.  The novel has some fine twists and a satisfying and surprisingly heartwarming ending.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in many genres including the newly-released mystery State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com where he also offers editing services.

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 Finding Your Memoir and runs for the month of August. 

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.

The Age of Light is a Powerful, Hypnotic Debut Novel

In my years reviewing books on line, on air, and in print, one of the greatest joys has always been discovering a book by an author I was unfamiliar with, or better still, a debut novel that knocked me out.  The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer is my fiction find of the Spring, a masterful tale of art, ambition, genius, professional jealousy, love and betrayal set mainly in Paris between the two world wars.

The story is told from the perspective of view of Lee Miller, a beautiful young American fashion model-turned-photographer.  She falls in with older surrealist photographer Man Ray, already famous when she meets him in her early 20s. Though he’s American-born, he seems completely at home in the hard-drinking, hard-partying multi-national Parisian milieu of artists pushing boundaries, a milieu which is gossip-ridden and decadent around the edges.

At first she’s just his studio assistant, then she models for him, they move in together and collaborate, and in the end he unexpectedly takes public credit for remarkable, innovative work that’s actually hers.  It’s a stunning reversal because we’ve come to see the world as she sees it and we believe in the power of her art independent of her mentor’s.  Perhaps the most compelling moments are watching Miller frame her subjects, observing her discover Paris as teeming with subjects to be photographed.

Paris is cinematic and mouth-watering in Scharer’s descriptions like this one in which the city seems “built on the concept of form over function, where rows of jewel-toned petits fours gleam in a patisserie’s window, too flawless to eat.” Scharer is also deft at capturing various kinds of obsession, of moments where art, love, and lust fuse:

Always, always he is photographing her.  His camera is a third person in the bedroom, and she flirts for it and for him as he takes her picture.  They print the images together, standing hip to hip in the developing room, her body blooming on the paper while they watch.  This way they get to have the moments twice, the images calling up the feelings from the day before until sometimes they stop what they are doing and make love again, quickly, her hands gripping the sink, the picture forgotten and gone black in the developing tray.

The elegant prose and striking insights made me read The Age of Light  slowly because I kept stopping to reflect on lines and scenes.  Beginning writers could learn a lot from the author about creating setting, mood, character–and how to write a sex scene that doesn’t reduce its participants to an assemblage of body parts.

Scharer’s dialogue rings true and so do her period details and details about photography which I never saw in this light even though I once dated a photographer.  Entering a darkroom with Lee is as much an adventure as when she steps into a secret room filled with opium smokers.  Maybe more so.

The Age of Light is a novel to relish and return to, a book that could easily make you see your own world with new eyes.  It’s perfect for armchair travelers and anyone looking for a book that can transport you to another time and place, immerse you in a whole new reality.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books including the just-released State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

 

The Pulitzer Prize Was Once Yanked From The Real Winner

Two of my favorite authors were involved in a scandalous incident that made Pulitzer Prize history. Edith Wharton’s loving but barbed evocation of Old New York, The Age of Innocence, won the Pulitzer in 1921. Very popular and critically acclaimed, it explored the world of her parents which she re-created brilliantly. Yet her book wasn’t the judges’ first choice.

Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, a gigantic bigger best-seller, was originally picked by the three-judge panel. That novel swept the nation because it dared to make fun of small-town life, which at the time was as sacred as our flag.

Columbia University’s advisory board had the power back then to over-rule the decision, and it did, because Main Street was deemed “unwholesome.” Scandal broke out when the angry judges went public.

Wharton was embarrassed, but Lewis was gracious about his loss and they developed a friendship of sorts.  He admired her work and she thought he was one of the few American authors with “guts.”

Lewis eventually got to have a perfect vindictive triumph. A few years later he rejected a Pulitzer for another book.  A few years after that, he was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Both events garnered him enormous publicity.

Main Street and The Age of Innocence deserved awards and are eminently readable classics of the early 20th century. But I’ve wasted too much time over the years with books pushed at me by people with the sole recommendation being their prize status.

I don’t care. Is the story-telling hypnotic? Is the voice compelling? Is the prose striking? Are the characters memorable? Is this a book I’ll lose sleep over? And is it something I’ll feel I haven’t read before?

Any of those will hook me. But I know from people who have served as judges for various contests and awards that prizes can be given to books for reasons that have nothing to do with their quality. The publishing world isn’t any less venal now than it was in the 1920s.

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.

Marie Kondo Joy Isn’t Just For Humans!

My six-year-old Westie loves watching television, even if there aren’t any dogs, horses, or other animals to bark at or observe. When we’re done with our dinner, he’ll sit close by and wait for his cue. When I say “We’re going to watch television,” he troops off to the living room, picks a chair, sits or lies down facing the large screen and waits for us to start the evening’s entertainment.

He’s a big fan of action scenes and chases, but more than that he enjoys dramatic close-ups when couples are arguing or just having an intense interaction.  I’ve watched his ears flick back and forth, his eyes widen as he surveys what’s happening.  Sometimes he rears back when he’s startled.

He was especially fond of Babe, which had lots to keep him focused, and sat through a whole hour of it, then wandered off, perhaps over-stimulated.  After the movie, though, he came back, stared at us and moved his lips just as the animals in the film seemed to do.  Maybe he was asking if there was a sequel.

So given his responsiveness, I thought I’d have him watch some of Marie Kondo’s show, and while he’s not very good at folding, he did seem fascinated.  That’s when I thought it might be time to organize his toy basket because some of the stuffed animals looked pretty disreputable after a few years of chewing, tugging, and chomping.

He clearly rejected several of them by turning his head away.  Between us we managed to reduce his toys by 1/3 and the ones that stayed clearly give him joy-joy feelings as they say in Demolition Man.  He’ll play tug of war with them, throw them around as if subduing a rabbit or some other yard demon, and basically have a great time.

I wonder if he’ll be willing to consult with me when I de-clutter my library.

A veteran of university teaching, Lev Raphael now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.comHe’s the author of the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder and 25 other books in a wide range of genres.