Writing–I Can’t Quit You!

Do you remember the JetBlue flight attendant who freaked out a few years back? Somebody worked his last nerve, so he not only announced how fed up he was on the intercom, he grabbed a beer from the beverage cart and left via an emergency slide.  Cue the music from Rocky!

What a way to quit a job, but how do you make a grand exit if you’re a writer and you’re not somebody famous like Philip Roth?

I had early success. My first good short story won a prize with a famous editor as the judge.  Then it was published in Redbook, which had millions of readers.  The story garnered me lots of cash, fan mail, and queries from agents. It also turned my head, not that I needed much encouragement there. I grew up in glamorous New York and getting a story into a national magazine seemed a natural first step. What other possibilities were there?

Five years of drought followed. Well, there was actually a vile crop: I reaped endless rejection letters. Nothing I wrote was accepted anywhere by anyone. I grew desperate to quit and contemplated various alternate careers.

This wasn’t the first desert I would have to cross in my 30 years as a published writer. I wanted to succeed, and I also wanted to quit. But writing wouldn’t let me. I was compelled to keep exploring my inner world and the world around me in short stories, which finally  started being published in the early 1980s.  The breakthrough didn’t just thrill me, it delighted all the friends who had been suffering along with me.

happy danceBut getting a book of stories published after that was unbelievably hard, especially when editors would say things like “I don’t like your metaphors and such.” My such? What the hell was that?  I confess I was tempted to write back and say, “My such is pretty damned good.”  Or “Such you!”

Facing another brick wall, I told my partner more than once, “I’m giving up writing as a career.” And I pictured gathering all my manuscripts together, building a bonfire and just getting rid of everything (including the discs).

It wasn’t until I was reviewing for various magazines and newspapers like The Detroit Free Press and The Washington Post that I finally had an actual writing job, even if it was freelance. And even though I could quit whenever I wanted to, I enjoyed the deadline pressure, the challenges of reviewing across genres, and the interaction with editors and readers.

The turnaround came in 1990 with my first book, but the ups and downs of publishing 25 books in many genres since have echoed the roller coaster of my early career. Things look great, then they look crappy, then I look for an exit. But there isn’t one. Because every time I’ve tried to or wanted to give up, fortune hands me a plum, or I get an idea for a new book and it won’t let me go.

The cold hard truth is what the late novelist Sheila Roberts one said to me, “I love the sheer sensual pleasure of putting one word next to another–there’s nothing else like it in the world.”  And she grinned.  Because she’s right.

Have you ever imagined giving up writing as a career and doing something completely different?

Lev Raphael’s 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery can be found on Amazon.

 

 

Bizarre Things People Say To Authors

Nobody tells you that when you publish a book, it becomes a license for total strangers to say outrageous things to you that you could never imagine saying to anyone.

I’m not just talking about people who’ve actually bought your book. Even people who haven’t read your book feel encouraged to share, in the spirit of helpfulness.

At first, when you’re on tour, it’s surprising, then tiring — but eventually it’s funny, and sometimes it even gives you material for your next book. All the comments on this list have been offered to me or other writer friends in almost exactly these words:

“I liked your book, but I hated the ending.”

“Your characters shouldn’t be so nice.”

“Your characters should be more likeable.”

“You need more sex in your books.”

“There was too much sex in your book.”

“The book doesn’t make sense unless there’s a sequel.”

“You used too many words I had to look up.”

“Too bad you’re not better known.”

“It was fun but it’ll never sell.”

“My bookstore doesn’t carry any of your books.”

“I found some typos in your book — you should fix that.”

“I’d like you to write my book.”

“Ewww.  What’s up with that cover?”

“Can you tell your agent about me?”

“You have a way with words.”

“Your stories are too short.  Did they leave something out at the factory?”

“You need to put a nice lesbian in your next book.”

“I have a 2,000 page manuscript, I think you’d really enjoy editing it for me.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.

Authors: Don’t Let Reviewers Hold You Hostage

Unpublished authors imagine that once they are published, life will be glorious. That’s because they haven’t thought much about bad reviews. Every author gets them, and sometimes they’re agonizing.

As a published, working author, you learn to live with the reality of bad reviews in different ways. You can stop reading them. You can have someone you trust vet them for you and warn you so that nasty splinters of prose don’t lodge in your brain. You can leave town or stay off the grid when your book comes out.

Hell, you can be perverse and break open a bottle of champagne to celebrate a dreadful review. Why not? Or if you’re a mystery author, you can have fun with a bad review and kill the reviewer. Of course, you don’t have to go all the way to murder. Fictional defamation, degradation, and despoliation can be satisfying, too.  But getting captured by a review is not healthy.

I remember a Salon piece of close to 3,000 words (seriously!) by a novelist who complained that Janet Maslin killed his novel in the New York Times. Killed? No critic has that power. But Maslin did trash his book. It happens. She also made a gross mistake about his book in her review. That happens, too. One reviewer claimed that my second novel focused on a theme that it didn’t remotely touch, which meant she was probably confusing it with another book of mine.  Reviewers get sloppy all the time.  Sleepy too, I bet….

The Salon piece was disturbing and at times painful — but not just because of Maslin’s error. It opened with the author describing how he moaned on his couch, face down, while his wife read and paraphrased the bad review, and her having to admit that Maslin dissed the book as “soggy.”

The author teaches creative writing and had published three previous books, so you’d think he would try to set a better example for his students. Instead, while he admitted he was lucky to have been in the Times at all, he focused on his misery and even shared that he’d previously thought of Maslin as a ghost friend because she gave his first book a great review. That was super creepy.

I’ve published twenty-five books and I read as few of my reviews as possible. Why? Because I’ve learned more about my work from other authors through their books, conversations, or lectures than I have from reviews. I don’t look to reviews for education, validation or approbation. I hope they’ll help with publicity, but I’ve seen people get raves in the New York Times without any impact on sales.

More importantly, we authors shouldn’t let our self-esteem be held hostage by the Janet Maslins of journalism, and we should try not to over-estimate their importance or expect them to stroke our egos. Bad reviews? Ignore them along with the good ones, and keep writing.

How do you deal with bad reviews?  Have you ever felt trapped like the writer who wrote the Salon piece?

Lev Raphael is the author of the mystery Hot Rocks and 24 other books in genres from memoir to biography.

People Will Say Anything to Writers

Did you get fired from your real job?

What do you write? (long pause) Oh.

Aren’t there enough books out there already?

 Do you know Stephen King?

I’m into gaming.

You should write a book about my life, it’s a bestseller for sure.

 

My sister reads a lot. Have you written anything she would know?

I liked your book except for the characters.

I’m gonna write someday, when I get some spare time.

jokeyYou should write a screenplay! That’s where all the money really is.

Your book was…interesting.

I thought books were dead.

If you’re a writer, what kinds of off-the wall comments and questions have you heard?

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in genres from memoir to historical fiction which you can find on Amazon.

Anne Lamott Is Dead Wrong About First Drafts–And That’s Not All

I know, I know: a lot of people swear by her.  And a lot of writers find her inspiring.

People especially like to quote the writing guru on the subject of first drafts.  She’s apparently very reassuring for anyone who fantasizes that established authors get it right the first time–though are there really folks naive enough to believe that?  They can’t have thought too seriously or deeply about writing.  But then there are also people who tell me that they’ll write a book if they ever get “some free time”–as if that’s all it took.

Lamott’s unsurprising points about revision are valid: you have to keep revising, and revision is the heart of good writing for most writers. Where I think she goes seriously wrong in Bird by Bird is when she uses the word “shitty” to describe first drafts.  And she says that all good writers write them.  Really?  How does she know this for a fact?  Where’s her proof?

“Shitty” is an adjective I’ve never used to describe a first draft of my own.  And it’s a word I’ve never used in any creative writing class, workshop, or master class I’ve taught anywhere.  I think it’s more than just pejorative, it’s gross and inappropriate.  Messy is fine. Disordered, unfocused, rough, undisciplined, chaotic, jumbled, scattered, unfinished, inferior–any words like that will do.

But shitty?  That vulgarity degrades your own work, and it’s a slippery slope–even though Lamott is ostensibly trying to make people relax.  You get writers used to applying a word like shitty to a first draft and it’s too easy for them to survey their other work in dark times and think, “This is shit.”  It can plant the wrong kind of seed in people who already have to deal with doubts about their abilities.

She’s unfortunately spawned hundreds, maybe thousands of writers who throw the words “shitty” and “shit” around in connection with their work without thinking through its implications.

I once had a graduate writing professor call a story I’d worked very hard on “shit.”  Luckily I’d won that MFA program’s literary prize for the story so I was partly armored against his slam, but I was still offended.  I feel the same way when I’ve heard reports from my own students who report what other professors have said about their work.

In that same Bird by Bird essay, Lamott also talks about how much writers suffer, and how writing is never rapturous.  Well maybe some writers do suffer the torments of hell, and maybe for some writers their work is like a series of root canals without anesthesia, but never rapturous?  Her writer friends must be really miserable.  Most of the writers I’ve met enjoy writing.  Yes, it’s true!  They’re not martyrs–they love what they do.

You do not have to suffer to be a writer.  It is not a requirement.  It is not a badge of honor.  It is not a proof that you’re a professional.  And you definitely do not have to disparage your own work.

None of my 26 books has tormented me when I wrote them, and none of the first drafts of my hundreds of stories, essays, reviews, or blogs were “shitty.”  Hell, some of the first drafts were pretty good. Surprisingly good. But I always knew they were just a starting point and I knew they would need more work.  For me, any draft is just opening a door, that’s all.  I don’t need to label it or dismiss it in any way, even if I’m dissatisfied or disappointed.  I just keep working.

Of course its work, but it’s also fun.  Promoting the idea that writers have to suffer plays to a stereotype that’s potentially damaging to beginners, though it may satisfy people who don’t write and don’t understand the process or the life.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Advice for Writers) and 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.  He teaches individualized workshops and edits manuscripts in all genres at writewithoutborders.com

 

 

The Day I Defended Fifty Shades of Grey (!)

Fifty-Shades-of-GreyYes, I know the book is awful in every possible way. I’ve blogged about it several times on The Huffington Post and just recently, in a sex writing workshop, I used one of its sex scenes as an example of very bad writing. Here’s some of the excerpt  I chose:

His hands run down my body and over my breasts as he reaches the dip at the base of my neck with his lips. He swirls the tip of his nose around it then begins a very leisurely cruise with his mouth, heading south, following the path of his hands, down the sternum to my breasts. Each one is kissed and nipped gently and my nipples tenderly sucked. Holy crap. My hips start swaying and moving of their own accord, grinding to the rhythm of his mouth on me….Reaching my navel, he dips his tongue inside, and then gently grazes my belly with his teeth. My body bows off the bed…..His nose glides along the line between my belly and my pubic hair, biting me gently, teasing me with his tongue. Sitting up suddenly, he kneels at my feet, grasping both my ankles and spreading my legs wide.

Holy shit. He grabs my left foot, bends my knee, and brings my foot to his mouth. Watching and assessing every reaction, he tenderly kisses each of my toes, then bites each one of them softly on the pads. When he reaches my little toe, he bites harder, and I convulse, whimpering. He glides his tongue up my instep–and I can no longer watch him. It’s too erotic. I’m going to combust.

When they read this scene, the students quickly identified all the things that were wrong with it in a spirited and hilarious discussion. Short list: the sex is all exterior and clinical; the “geography” is weird; the voice shifts in peculiar ways; the writing is anything but erotic; and you should never have to tell readers a sex scene is sexy.

asterisk blog photoTo prepare for the workshop, I’d gone over Fifty Shades of Grey carefully a month before which is why when I saw the excerpt below all over Facebook recently, I had to cry Foul!  I knew it was fake. And I was also pretty sure I had previously used the same freaky and funny lines quoted when handing out a list of winners or runners-up in the Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest to a fiction writing class. Or I’d at least considered using them.

bogus quoteAs bad a writer as James is, this isn’t her special kind of bad. This is different. It’s just a shade more grotesque. And while Christian Grey is lots of things, none of them interesting, he doesn’t mewl. Maybe the book would have been better if he had.

So there I was on Facebook, letting people know the quote was bogus, after defending such greats as Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain from misquotation.  I asked people not to re-post it.  Why? Because E.L. James deserves full recognition for her own brand of lousy writing and nobody else’s, thanks to her trademark lines like “My subconscious has reared her somnambulant head.” and “I slice another piece of venison, holding it against my mouth.”

A classic is a classic, after all.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

#Empire Is Coming Back For Season Two!

For awhile it looked like the hot new show Empire wasn’t going to be renewed by Fox, but The Washington Post reported May 10th that it will. I couldn’t be happier.  I was late to become an Empire fanboy, but I’m not sorry about it, because that meant I got to binge-watch the show one weekend.  Empire grabbed me with its seductive opening scene; it was love at first sight.  I was hooked, but something else happened: I unexpectedly started to feel like the show was about me.

I’m not crazy.  Let me explain.

At one point in Episode Four, entertainment mogul Lucious Lyon orders his sullen youngest son Hakeem to get into the studio and write some hip-hop songs.  Now.

empire familyThat’s when I realized the show wasn’t just about music, and an entertainment empire and business maneuvering, and seething family dynamics, and regret, and homophobia, and second marriages, and sibling rivalry, and secrets and lies, and facing terminal illness.  It was also about the writing life.  My writing life.

On the surface, I couldn’t be more different from the Lyon brothers.  I’m the son of Holocaust survivors, I didn’t grow up with one parent in prison, I don’t sing, I’m not bipolar, and I’m not in a mixed marriage.  But adding their experiences together, like the Lyon brother I’ve felt the intense pressure to produce, produce, produce.  Like them, I’ve been on stage, and I’ve also felt stage fright and felt upstaged.

Like those guys, I’ve felt pushed to do things for publicity I didn’t ever want to do, and badly tempted to do things I thought might get me more publicity.  Like them, I’ve felt the lure of fame and stardom–and sometimes waved it all away as BS.  Like them, I’ve wanted to be true to myself and felt stymied trying to get there and stay there.  Like them, I’ve had a difficult, dramatic mother who believed fiercely in me.  And like them, I’ve had a demanding father who could be totally unreasonable and even violent.

And though I can’t write music, I’ve always had a soundtrack in my head from the first day I heard record albums on my parents’ hi-fi….

hifiThanks to Empire, right now that sound track includes the amazing “What is Love?” sung by Veronika Bozeman.  That’s the song that opens Episode One of Empire and it’s unforgettable.

The show isn’t just absorbing drama with comic highlights, like all the times Lucious’s ex-wife Cookie keeps dissing his lover Anika as “Boo Boo Kitty” or “fake-ass Halle Berry” and practically steals a scene with just a glare.  Hell, I think she can steal a scene she’s not in–all anybody has to do is say her name.  Watch the show yourself, and try it.

empire-cookie-gif

Empire is a well-written, dramatic, sexy, and sometimes hilarious show that also hooks me as a writer whenever it explores the troubles of the creative life, both internal and external.  It hits those notes deep and true every single time.  That show gives me fever.

So now’s the time to catch up on Season One and see if the show gets you hot, too.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

5 Things Nobody Tells You About a Writing Career

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 five 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 advertize 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 empy.  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.

4-Exercise is crucial for people like us who spend so much time sitting hunched over a laptop.  It’s important to break away on a regular basis and walk, swim, jog, lift weights, do Zumba, take Pilates, spin, do yoga, anything that gets you out of your head and into your body.  There’s nothing like physical activity to give your mind a rest–it’s almost as good as napping!–and surprisingly, you’ll often find that when you might feel stuck, instead of obsessing about it or heading for the fridge, the best thing to do is get out and get physical.  Let your subconscious take care of the writing problem and solve it for you while you’re taking care of your body.  You’ll also be breaking the isolation of the writer’s life and may even get some good story ideas along the way.

5-Be prepared for surprises in your career because they will come.  Good surprises.  Your career will take you places you would never imagine because your imagination is boundless if you have the courage to let it be.  I started out as a short story writer and novelist but one day suddenly had an idea for a psychological study of Edith Wharton, one of my favorite writers. After that came a mystery series which got me my first New York Times Book Review review. And over the years I’ve published in wildly different genres, books I never would have guessed I’d write, including a vampire novella, a memoir about what Germany has meant to me as the son of Holocaust survivors, a historical novel set in The Gilded Age, a children’s book and many more.  Don’t rule anything out, and don’t be a genre snob. One of my favorite authors, Henry James, gave this advice to a young writer: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”  It may sound a bit formal in 2015, but it’s advice that I’ve never forgotten.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

 

 

 

An Author’s Characters On the Loose?

I’ve been doing readings from my fiction since the early 90s and one of the common questions I get afterwards is “Do your characters ever tell you what to do?” or “Do your characters ever get away from you?”

That question is a fascinating doorway into how people tend to perceive authors and the writing process–and how they want to.

My answer is plain: Never.  And here’s what I mean.  Everything that appears in my books, every aspect of plot, setting, dialogue, characterization, action is mine.  Hell, the punctuation is mine, or as much mine as anything can be in this life of transience.  I created it all, and even if I got advice from an editor or was inspired by other writers, the final form is mine.  The words are mine,  the rhythms are mine.  It’s all shaped by me as a writer, as an artist, consciously and unconsciously.

My characters are not independent of who I am.  They don’t speak to me: I speak through them.

tricking-the-readerSaying a character surprised me is dramatic, but it’s not accurate.  I surprised myself.  Something was churning away inside, some unexpected connection got made that changed what I was working on.  This happens constantly when we write: a mix of editing and revision and creation at the sentence level and the chapter level.

But many writers love to grin and say, “Yes” in answer to the question above, tell dramatic stories that make audiences smile and even laugh.  It seems to confirm something to non-writers about what it’s like to write; it makes the whole experience more romantic and glamorous than it actually is.

Once I was nearing the end of a book and realized I had the wrong person committing murder.  It wasn’t the murderer speaking to me, or the victim piping up, or even the gun giving advice.

It was the mind of a writer spinning straw into gold. And after a long and fruitful career, I’m glad those moments keep coming.

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

Success As A Writer 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 creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com