Guest Post: Writing is Cheaper than Therapy

I’m not one of those authors who grew up dreaming of becoming a novelist. The urge to write came upon me much later in life during a time of great personal stress. We all deal with stress in different ways. Some people run marathons, others run to therapy, and still others run to the mall for retail therapy. None of these were options for me at the time.

After years of a mandatory daily mile run around the high school track during gym class—a task which had to be accomplished in under ten minutes—I’ll only run to escape a killer hot on my heels. Otherwise, forget it! As for therapy, retail or otherwise, one of the factors causing me stress at the time was financial. We were eating macaroni and cheese casseroles most nights to stretch the food budget. No way could I afford a new pair of socks, let alone a shrink.

So I began to write, and before I knew it, I’d written a 50,000-word romance. Losing myself in my characters enabled me to escape my own problems, if only for a little while. I probably could have accomplished this by journaling, but as a teenager, I had discovered my mother was reading my diary. Once your deepest personal thoughts have been violated in this manner, you become reluctant to risk repeat exposure.

The crisis that had caused me to first start writing eventually passed, but I discovered writing fiction was so cathartic that I’ve never stopped. Ten years, many rewrites, and an additional 50,000 words later, my first foray into fiction became the second book I sold, and I’ve continued to write. Twenty-four years after typing that first sentence, I’ve now published sixteen adult novels, with a seventeenth in the works, and four novellas in mystery, romance, romantic suspense, and women’s fiction. Every book has a little of me in at least one of the characters but which characters and what traits remain my secret—with one exception.

In my Anastasia Pollack Crafting mystery series, Anastasia’s communist mother-in-law Lucille is patterned after my own communist mother-in-law. Anastasia’s reactions to her often mirror my own thoughts and actions from back when my mother-in-law was alive. Although I have to admit, Anastasia often handles these situations far better than I did at the time. In my defense, though, I’m only human. Anastasia is my better angel, personifying the woman I wish I were. That’s the beauty of fiction. We can recreate ourselves through our characters.

USA Today bestselling and award-winning author Lois Winston’s latest book is Drop Dead Ornaments. She also writes under the pen name Emma Carlyle.  Check out her websites at www.loiswinston.com and
www.anastasiapollack.blogspot.com.  You can connect with her on Twitter and sign up for her newsletter here.

When Should Authors Say “Yes” To A Gig?

It’s really hard to say “no” to a gig when you’re a writer, even when you’re not a newbie. There’s nothing more precious than your time at home writing, but there’s always the chance that saying “yes” might make you a valuable personal or professional connection. And then there’s the simple reality that doing anything out there in the world can ease the isolation that every writer feels. It’s a strange profession: the world is what we write about in one way or another, but we need to retreat from it to reflect and create.

I’ve done hundreds of talks and readings now on three different continents and I’ve had to learn the hard way how to figure out when I should say “yes” to a speaking invitation.  Here are my personal guidelines.

1—Are they paying enough for my time, whether it’s an evening reading and Q&A, or something more involved like a college visit with multiple events? Any time I spend away from writing is precious, even though I’m an extrovert and love sharing my work with new audiences.

2—Is this an audience I haven’t reached before? Can I do something new and different? Will I read from a different book or do a different kind of talk? Or can I put a new spin on something I’ve done before?

3—How much prep time will I need? I practice all my readings several times, and when I do a talk, I don’t read it, but work from talking points which I prepare very carefully. All that advance work is connected to #1 above.

4—Will it be fun or maybe even exciting? Is the group or the venue or the city enticing in some way? I like to go places I’ve never been to before, or if I have, return to cities I enjoy, like when I was an instant “yes” to keynoting an Edith Wharton conference in Florence.

5—Am I confident that whoever is inviting me will do adequate publicity? There’s never a guarantee about turnout, but it helps to know how much time and effort the host will put into publicizing the event.

6—Is there any chance that after I say yes I’ll regret it? That takes a lot of contemplation and weighing the factors above. It also involves gauging how far I am in any current project, and how disruptive the time away will be.

None of this is foolproof. I’ve had 75 people show up to an event that wasn’t publicized very much and fewer than a dozen come to one that was furiously advertised with emails, posters, and postcards. And events I was ambivalent about turned out to be wonderful experiences. The key for me when I get there is to give the audience 100% no matter its size. That takes more work if fewer people show up, but when you’re an author, everyone deserves to hear you at your best and best-prepared.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He’s escaped academia to teach creative writing online at http://writewithoutborders.com.

My Worst Review Taught Me a Valuable Lesson

Romance writer Rachel Van Dyken just did a helpful blog about how to handle your bad reviews. No matter who you are, you’ll get them.

That’s why a graduate creative writing program can actually be good preparation for your public life as an author where you’ll face reviewers who not only dismiss your work, but might even hate it.  The criticism you get in a writing program can toughen you up and get you ready.

It worked for me–even though it might have been devastating.

My first really fine short story was totally trashed by my MFA workshop. It drew on deeply personal material for me: this was the first story where I explored the emotional realities of being a son of Holocaust survivors.  I thought I’d made a breakthrough in terms of subject and style.

The workshop participants disagreed, with gusto.  One by one, they demolished the story, pulverized it, and blew the dust into the wind.  They didn’t like the prose, the characters, the structure, anything. There wasn’t much left by the time the professor pronounced his verdict. He dismissed it as just “something you could write in your sleep.”

I was shocked, but I didn’t believe they were right.  The critiques didn’t stop me from entering it in the program’s writing contest which was judged by the editor of the Best American Short Stories series.  She was the famous co-founder of Story magazine and had championed the work of Tennessee Williams, Richard Wright, and J.D. Salinger.

Three weeks later, she awarded it first prize, and when I told her what had gone on in my workshop, she growled, “Don’t change a goddamned word.”  A week later in the workshop, the professor said, “It’s still crap, but now it’s crap with a prize.”

That story was published a year later in Redbook, a magazine with a circulation of 4.5 million readers, and it launched my career.  I got queries from agents and fan mail.  So when bad reviews eventually came my way in newspapers or magazines, I remembered that workshop, the prize, and just kept writing.  Because I learned early on that as a writer, you can’t please everyone–and you won’t.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches at Michigan State University and you can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com.

 

 

Writers Are Always Writing, Even When They’re Not “Writing”

People at my health club often ask me “What are you working on?” or “Are you writing another book?” This happens even if I’ve just published a book. and it was covered in the local newspapers and on local radio.

When I say “I’m always working on something,” most people look bemused. It probably sounds too vague, or maybe they think it’s an excuse, a cover for the fact that I’m not actually writing anything at all.

But it’s the truth. I never stop writing. I don’t need a PC, tablet, legal pad, Post-it notes or anything physical to write. Once I have an idea, it settles into whatever part of my brain has become Lev Raphael, Inc. and has its own independent life.  Sometimes it has Casual Fridays or staycations, but that company is busy 24/7.

Watching a movie or TV show, I’m not a passive viewer. I rewrite dialogue in my head and sometimes say it out loud (only at home). When I caught an episode of The White Princess, I winced when two characters in Tudor England said to someone whose daughter had died, “I’m sorry for your loss.” That struck me as way too 2018, and Lev Raphael, Inc. was thinking of ways the show’s writers could have expressed the thought with a less 21st century feel: “Your loss grieves me” or maybe “I mourn for your loss.”

Dialogue that misses the mark makes me think harder about the dialogue in whatever book I’m working on.

Of course, I enjoy it more when the dialogue is memorable, and that’s one reason I’ve watched Scandal. It’s showcased characters each episode by giving them moments where they go off and repeat themselves in various ways with different emphases. Sometimes the feel is comic, sometimes it’s threatening or even grotesque, sometimes it’s all of that–and it’s always entertaining.

On Scandal the character playing Attorney General David Rosen once actually brought a human head in a box to his ex-girlfriend’s apartment, asking her to store it briefly in her freezer or fridge. She was incredulous and demanded to know why the powerful, shady character Rowan had given it to him. Hapless Rosen said it was because he needed a DNA sample to track down a deceased villain. While the box sat in his lap, he explained:

That man terrifies me, I was not about to argue. He gives me a head, I say thank you for the head. I take the head and I go, right?

I had DVR’d the episode, so I replayed this a few times. His lines made me take mental notes about a character in an extreme situation not responding with panic, but acting almost normally while reporting something completely bizarre. The contrast between the box and how he spoke about it was highly instructive: Lev Raphael, Inc. opened another file…..

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir, including, Writer’s Block is Bunk, a guide to the writing life.  You can study creative writing with him on line at www.writewithoutborders.com.

“Do You Know Stephen King?”

It sounds like a specialized question, but it’s not. Apparently, if you know King, your reality as an author is verified, whether the person asking will ever bother to read a book of yours or not.

I’ve been asked about King many times times by cab drivers when I’m doing book tours across the country and they find out why I’m in town. It’s almost always the first question.

So, here are some sample answers to help out all you road-weary, flummoxed authors in those moments when your mind might go blank and you’re wishing you had stayed home or taken your parents’ advice and gone into your cousin’s wallpaper business. Feel free to suggest your own.

— “We went to college together. Dude could par-tay!” Make up the wild story of your choice at this point. You’re a writer. Be grotesque. Embellish.

— “That SOB? Never wanted to. He used to date my cousin and he was into really kinky sex that left her with a limp and allergies. It’s really sad.” Sink into your seat and mutter darkly.

— “Yes, but he trashed my house once after a séance and we haven’t talked since, though our lawyers are working it out. At least he says those are his lawyers. Sometime you can see right through them…. It’s kinda creepy.”

— “Stephen who? Is he some kind of writer or something? Like, wha has he written I might have heard of?” Look truly puzzled.

— “Are you kidding? I’m the one who gives him his book titles and plot twists. He gets writer’s block all the time and calls me drunk at three in the morning. Shit, I shouldn’t have said anything. Please don’t tell anyone!”

— “No. Have you?” Glare.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Clashing with Copyeditors

Years ago a novelist friend told me that the only thing worse than not being published was being published.

I liked his phrase so much that I later made it the epigram of my second mystery, The Edith Wharton Murders. But at the time, I had no idea what he could mean. Once you got published, what could you have to worry about? Wouldn’t life be perfect?

That was before I had my first collision with a copy editor.

In my debut fiction collection, there were a number of stories about Holocaust survivors, and I was careful about having their dialogue reflect that English wasn’t their native language. Like many immigrants, they “translated” from the language they knew best, giving their English a Yiddish-inflected twist.

The copy editor didn’t get it and relentlessly standardized every line of their dialogue in one story after another. An author friend I shared this with said that a writer friend was once so enraged by his copy editor’s rampant lack of imagination that he just wrote across Page One of his manuscript, “Stet the whole goddamned thing.” I could never do that, because copy editors do catch real problems, but I’ve come to understand the sentiment.

On a recent book, I found the publisher’s copy editor aggressively changing everything—my style, my syntax, my vocabulary—to some imagined idea of good prose. The effect was to make it sound as if it had been written by a computer program slavishly conforming to grammar and style rules without any room for originality.

This person even had the nerve to commend a word I used as “a good word”–as if I were in elementary school. That was before telling me I wasn’t using it strictly correctly. But after having published nineteen books, hundreds of reviews, essays, and articles, I had my own ideas about what was correct for my book, and I said so.

The project wasn’t spoiled, but I had to put far more work into restoring my prose, excavating the dull ruin it had been turned into. I was pissed off to have encountered such tone-deaf copy editing.

And yes, I mean pissed off–not annoyed, irritated, steamed, put out, or vexed.

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

Don’t Diss Rihanna When You Blog

The Internet is a breeding ground for hatred: look at what’s been happening to Leslie Jones.

But bloggers don’t usually deal with anything that severe.  What they do face is the lackwits. These people can be, but mostly they’re just critical and convinced of their wisdom when what they write to you proves the opposite. They hit the keys whenever a blogger dares to criticize anything or anyone they admire–and they have standard, boring lines of attack.

Say, for instance, that you’re not crazy about Rihanna or you do like her music but don’t think she was ready for a Video Vanguard Award.  You  don’t think her vids are classics and you don’t think she’s in a class with Madonna, Kanye, Brittany, and Beyoncé.  Expect to get accused of being jealous of RiRi’s success.

rihannaNow, unless you’re a pop singer, a charge like that doesn’t really make any sense.  But even if you were a singer, why would any kind of critique necessarily mean you’re jealous?  Can’t you have valid reasons for not admiring her body of work or thinking that maybe it’s too soon for her–at 28–to get the award?  Does that automatically make you a hater?

Lackwits have emailed me when I’ve blogged something remotely negative about a book, movie, or TV show, targeting me because I’m an author.

Back at the beginning of the latest season of Game of Thrones, I blogged that I thought Jon Snow’s resurrection was dull compared to other, more dramatic moments in other episodes. The inevitable response showed up: I was jealous of George R.R. Martin.  Oh, and guess what?  They had never heard of me.

A truly devastating comment.

frank side eyeAnd I just blogged about Michael Connelly’s New York Times review of Caleb Carr’s Surrender, New York, saying that the novel sounded unappealing as Connelly described it.  Of course someone felt she had to charge me with “sour grapes.”  Seriously?  I don’t write like either one of them, never have, never will, never wanted to, and never expected their kind of career.  .

Here’s the thing: Most authors aren’t on best seller lists and aren’t widely known. That’s the case even for writers like me who make a good living from their royalties, get sent on book tours at home and abroad, are paid very well for speaking engagements, win awards, and have successful careers.

Why’s that?  Because the average reader in America only reads or listens to one book a month and there are 80,000 published every year.  When people say that they’ve never heard of an author or charge an author with sour grapes because that person doesn’t like a book, all they do is waste an email and make themselves sound like a doofus.  Of course, they supply bloggers with material, and novelists, too….

hugh laurie

Lev Raphael is the author of the novel The German Money–which a Washington Post rave review compared to Kafka, John le Carré and Philip Roth–as well as 24 other books in many genres.

Writers: Don’t Call Your First Drafts “Garbage” Or “Shitty”

I know, I know: Anne Lamott says they’re “shitty” in Bird by Bird so she must be right. A lot of people swear by her.  And she says that all good writers write shitty first drafts.  Really?  How does she know this for a fact?

squintBut there’s a bigger issue here: the word itself. “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 or workshop 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–any words like that will do.

But shitty?  That vulgarity undermines your own work, and it’s a slippery slope–even though Lamott’s apparently trying to make people relax and feel confident.  You get writers used to applying a word like that to a first draft and it’s too easy for them to survey other work of theirs in dark times and think, “This is shit.”  It can plant the wrong kind of seed.  Writers have to deal with enough doubts about their abilities and cope with jealousy of other writers as it is.  We can brood endlessly about the wrong word spoken at the wrong time….

puzzled-lookI once had a graduate writing professor call a story I’d worked very hard on “shit.”  Luckily I’d won the MFA program’s literary prize for that story so I was partly armored against his invective, but I still found his language deplorable.  I feel the same way when I hear stories from my own students who report how other professors have insulted their work, using words like “crap” and “shit.”

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 that they would need more work, sometimes much more work.  That was a given, part of the process.

For me, any draft is just opening a door, but with a sense of adventure and expectation because I never know where the piece will end up.  So labeling it or dismissing it in any way, even if I’m dissatisfied or disappointed, is setting a road block in my own way.

I’m not saying that drafts make me want to put on a big hat and sing like Pharell, but every draft has possibility, and that makes me hopeful.

author 6Lev 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 now teaches creative writing on line at writewithoutborders.com and there are still some openings in his June workshop.

 

 

How to Diss Other Authors Safely: A Quick & Dirty Guide

Watching other authors succeed in ways you can never dream of isn’t easy.  Life isn’t fair and that goes double or triple for the writing life.  There’ll be plenty of times in your career when you wish you could hire Olivia Pope and her Scandal team to just shutthemdown.

But speaking out about your feelings isn’t a good idea.  Not so long ago, Lynn Shepherd got  lambasted all over the Internet for having urged J.K. Rowling to stop writing.  In Shepherd’s view, Rowling is a literary Mount Etna whose magma is burying way too many other authors. Cap the volcano, whatever it takes!

Whether she was kidding or being serious, I think she chose the wrong way to express herself.  As an author of crime fiction she had obvious, wonderful tools she should have used, and it’s a path any author who wants to even the score can easily take.

Write about it, but disguise the people involved.  Channel the emotion and use it to fuel fiction of some kind where you can balance the scales in any way you want.  Take control of the situation by turning the “offending” author into a character over whom you have complete control.  Their fate is now completely in your hands.  Make it brutal, gory, grotesquely funny–whatever works, whatever gives you catharsis.

Turn the author’s latest book into a joke or a disaster.  Mock the title, the theme, the reviews, whatever gives you pleasure.  I’ve done that at least once and it didn’t matter that I’m sure the quite famous author never noticed. I had a ball because I thought he was so over-praised by the reviewers and I couldn’t stand his work.

When you channel your frustration this way, you’ll not only end up rising above the feelings weighing you down, you’ll also be extra productive.  Better still, if you do a good job of disguise, nobody but you, your agent, your editor or whoever else you let in on the secret will know.

Masking the situation as fiction, you have the chance of not seeming mean-spirited and be far less likely to incite other people’s fans to shout Bansai! and launch their planes at your fleet.

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.