What’s Better Than Re-reading a Book You Love?

My answer: Teaching it!

I had been a fan of historical fiction for a long time and when I discovered Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, I was in heaven.  The return of The Last Kingdom to Netflix reminds me how wonderful it was to assign that book for a class reading popular fiction in a wide variety of genres.

The hero is Uhtred, a dispossessed young noble from northern England in the 9th century, during the reign of King Alfred. Uhtred is descended from kings but his rightful claim to an impregnable fortress where he grew up has been usurped by his uncle, and Uhtred is burning with the desire for revenge.  It’s what obsesses him through the entire series.

Alfred was known for his piety, his strategy, his culture, and his determination to drive the Danes from his realm of Wessex in southern England and the other kingdoms England was then divided into. Glamorous, hot-tempered, man-of-action Uhtred has a complex relationship with this intellectual, pious king whom he ends up being bound to in life-changing ways.  Breaking an oath of allegiance in this period was more than dishonorable–it could brand you for life as untrustworthy and shameful.

“The world began in chaos and it will end in chaos.  The gods brought the world into existence, and they will end it when they fight among themselves, but in between the chaos of the world’s birth and the chaos of the world’s death is order, and order is made by oaths, and oaths bind us like the buckles of a harness.”

Uhtred has grown up with a split identity: raised English, he was captured by Danes as a child and identifies as a Dane, which makes for tremendous conflict, both internal and external. He’s a part of both cultures, both peoples, and lives out his cultural conflict almost daily with most of the people he meets.

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Teaching the first book in the series, I had students talking about expectations and conventions in historical fiction, which many of them hadn’t read before.  We moved on to discussions of Cornwell’s use of sense detail, his honest depiction of violence, the role of women in both Saxon and Danish societies as he portrayed it, the impact of the story being told by a first person narrator.   Many of them were put off at first by the alien cultures but soon found themselves compelled by the story telling.  I fell in love with the book all over again during the two weeks we spent discussing it with my students.  It felt new, fresh, and exciting.

TV reviewers are telling readers that this show is a good stand-in for The Game of Thrones.  Maybe.  The books couldn’t be more different.  Martin is a genius at world building on an epic scale, but Cornwell’s books are tighter, move faster, and with rare exceptions stick with the same point of view so that you’re immersed in just one character.

The Last Kingdom is a brilliant mix of deep psychology and high adventure.  It’s hooked me all over again and I’ve started re-reading book two in the series….

Question: what book have you been re-reading lately?

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres and teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com

 

 

 

Have You Been Dissed By A Writing Professor?

It happened to Harlan Ellison who was one of our most prolific and influential science fiction writers. He published 1700 short stories and over 50 books, writing scripts for Outer Limits and Star Trek among other shows. His work influenced James Cameron when he filmed Terminator, and that’s just a start when it comes to his cultural impact.

But when Ellison attended Ohio State University, a professor passed judgment and said he had no talent for writing. Irascible even as an undergraduate, Ellison punched his professor and was expelled.

I’m not defending Ellison’s response, but if you think a professor wouldn’t feel the need to be so harsh and unequivocal you’d be wrong.

I’ve known creative writing professors who treat students like dirt. One was notorious for humiliating students by telling them their work was “shit.” He could make students cry or tremble with fear. Another would only let favorite students read aloud, clearly sending the same ugly message to everyone else in her class. These professors are not anomalies: I know from sources across the country that dissing student writing is a commonplace in creative writing workshops at the undergraduate and graduate level. A good friend was told she would never publish because she apparently hadn’t “suffered enough.” Soon afterwards, she had a story accepted at a fine literary magazine.

I loved the community of writers in my MFA program, but got poleaxed by a professor. A story that I thought was a breakthrough was demolished by my workshop, and then the professor delivered the coup de grâce. He said it was nothing new and the kind of thing I could write in my sleep.  It was devastating.

A few weeks later it won first prize in the program’s writing contest which was judged by a famous editor. When I shared the brickbats from my workshop, she growled, “Don’t change a goddamned word!” I then sold it for a lot of money to Redbook, which at the time had 4.5 million readers, and the story launched my career as an author. My professor’s comment at the next workshop? “It’s still shit, but now it’s shit with a prize.”

Taking writing workshops to develop and hone your craft is a good idea, but not everyone commenting on your work comes from a pace of creative nurturing and encouragement–or even neutrality. Too many of them want to tear you down for whatever twisted reasons of their own. You don’t have to punch out your professor or anyone who disparages your work, but it’s wise to listen to all criticism with your shields up, as if you were in Star Trek. Remember what Kirk says to Sulu: “Steady as she goes.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the guide for writers, Writer’s Block is Bunk. You can take 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

Don’t Believe in “Writer’s Block”!

I’m just back from keynoting a writers’ conference in Michigan where one of the questions was “Do you ever get writer’s block?”

My answer was simple: No.  And here’s why.

I once heard prize-winning author Loren D. Estleman deplore the use of the term.  He said that it’s a grossly unhelpful way of describing something very basic and ordinary in the writer’s life: you’re stuck.

I totally agree. When you say that you have writer’s block, you turn a minor problem into something major like depression or even cancer. Suddenly you’re beset by a grave affliction and a normal, unremarkable part of the writing process potentially becomes  debilitating.

I’ve felt this way through many years as a published author; through twenty-five books in many genres; and hundreds of stories, essays, reviews and blogs. Like Estleman, I believe that we all get stuck sometimes in our work, no matter how experienced we are — and Estleman’s published sixty books. Stuck isn’t a bad thing. It just means that you haven’t worked something out, you haven’t answered some question in the book, or maybe you’re headed in the wrong direction.

When I get stuck, I do what Estleman suggested, and what I’ve advised my creative writing students over the years: I leave the writing alone and don’t obsess about it.

Are you stuck? Don’t panic. Give the problem to your subconscious to figure out. Work on something else or don’t do any writing at all. Focus outward: the gym, a movie, dinner with your spouse, drinks with some buddies, walking your dog, home repairs, a car trip, gardening, working on your tan, cooking, going out, reading a new book by your favorite author — anything that will absorb you completely and make you feel good.

Of course, sometimes being stuck is connected to secrecy and revelation. It can mean you’re afraid of what you want to write, afraid of revealing too much about yourself (or someone else), afraid of what people might think. That fear of exposure is shame, or the dread of shame. Calling it “writer’s block” confuses the issue and disguises what’s really the problem.

Unfortunately, there’s a gigantic industry devoted to helping people overcome “writer’s block,” to keep them from turning into Barton Fink, stuck on that one sentence. And because our culture loves stories about blocked writers like The Shining, there’s a perverse kind of glamor associated with this “condition.” It’s dramatic, it’s proof of how serious a professional you are. And hey, writers are crazy anyway, so of course they can’t do their jobs.

Let’s face it, since most people hate to write, especially in this age of texting, “writer’s block” connects with non-writers much better than when you say, “I’m working on my book, it’s going great and I’m having a blast.” You risk being seen as cocky or even arrogant. Saying that you have writer’s block brings you back to earth. It comforts people who don’t write, because it confirms their perception of writing as drudgery and even torment.

Don’t buy into the script.  Write your own.

Lev Raphel is the author of twenty-five books in many genres including the guide for writers Writer’s Block is Bunk. He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com where he also offers coaching and mentoring.

(this blog originally appeared on The Huffington Post)

Rachel Caine’s “Stillhouse Lake” is a Perfect Thriller!

I’ve been reviewing mysteries and thrillers since the 90s and it’s been a very long time since I got goosebumps reading a crime novel.  And even longer since I felt torn between rushing ahead to find out what was going to happen next and slowing down to savor and marvel at what an amazing book I was reading.

Rachel Caine’s Stillhouse Lake is that book.  It’s beautifully crafted, scary and terrific in every single way: plot, characterization, style, and pacing. Hell, even the cover is creepily perfect.

Caine’s hypnotic narrator is Gwen Proctor, a woman on the run ever since her husband’s horrific secret life was exposed and led him to prison. She’s trying to protect herself and her kids from the sociopaths on the Internet who blame her for her husband’s crimes and make obscene, horrific threats. As happens way too often now, hatred’s gone viral and she’s the target of a vicious, disgusting cyber mob.

Despite the despair she sometimes feels, she’s strong, resourceful, and a very good shot. She’s turned herself into a fierce and indefatigable woman who might remind you of Sarah Connor in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Gwen needs to be quick-thinking and strong because she’s pursued by psycho cyber terrorists. She and her kids keep having to abandon one town after another, one identity after another, until perhaps, just perhaps they’ve found a new home with people they can trust and maybe even admire.

Well, you know how long that’s going to last….

Caine avoids a trap many thriller writers fall into: her action scenes are as clear as possible without an excess word, and you always know exactly what’s happening.  Equally important, she’s also a deft psychologist, capturing every single nuance of Gwen’s struggle in lean, evocative prose. Gwen’s love for her children is so intense the book practically blazes with that love.  Her torment is just as intense.  How could she have been so naive as to marry a man who was a heinous criminal–and not figured him out?  The shame, the guilt, it’s all there, dramatized and heightened as one great plot twist follows another.

I actually read the prologue and first chapter twice because I was so blown away by the power and intensity of what Kaine was doing, and by the plight of a deeply sympathetic narrator whose life may never be restored to any semblance of normality.

I’ll say it again: this is a perfect thriller.  So prepare for plenty of OMG moments, and for losing lots of sleep.

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie and 24 other books in many genres.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

 

Watching “The First” As A Writer

At one writing workshop I recently taught, one of the students said she never watched television. I told that my experience was very different. I watch TV series and movies on Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix–but not just for entertainment or escape.

I watch them as a writer. I pay attention to how scenes are constructed, to dialogue that feels natural and moving, to how conflicts are sparked and develop, to character creation through habits, quirks, gestures, evasions, and everything else that makes them real.

None of that detracts from the sheer pleasure of being lost in someone else’s world–it adds to it.

Sometimes I fall in love if a show or movie seems to be doing something I haven’t seen before, or gives old ideas a new spin.

Recently I was blown away by The First, a new Hulu show in eight binge-worthy episodes that features Sean Penn, Natasha McElhone, Oded Fehr and a very strong supporting cast.  Created by Beau Willimon, it’s set in the near future where almost everything seems voice operated and cell phones don’t exist: your phone is a small device set in your ear and responds to voice commands.  People also share things like virtual reality concerts by linking special lightweight eyeglasses.

In Louisiana, a private company and NASA have teamed together to send a manned mission to Mars.  The whole first season explores the monumental problems involved, but more than that, it dives deep into what it’s like to be an astronaut in such a program–or married to one.  The impact of potential loss and distance from your loved ones is a major theme.

Fear and sacrifice are also themes, but the show creates an almost dreamy sense of wonder about space travel and expanding human knowledge that’s emphasized by a subtle and moving sound track.  Best of all, people’s conflicts aren’t neatly resolved–they’re left open and it feels so much less mechanical than most series because of that.

The show has moved me to tears many times for many reasons, and inspires me to make my own work as powerful in my own way.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of twenty-five books in many genres.  A veteran of university teaching, he now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

Authors: Do You Want To Conquer Kindle?

Bad prose is apparently essential.

I recently got an email about L.J. Ross, the “Queen of Kindle,” an English author I’d never heard of, who’s apparently sold millions of books. So I went to Amazon to check out the first book in her series.  As a newspaper and radio reviewer for many years, I was struck by what the review quotes said, and what they didn’t say:

“LJ Ross is the queen of Kindle” – Sunday Telegraph

“Holy Island is a blockbuster” – Daily Express

“A literary phenomenon” – Evening Chronicle

There was nothing about the books as books–these papers all tout her success, not her writing. It made me wonder if Ross might be a phenomenon like the author of Fifty Shades of Grey. That is, a huge bestseller despite ridiculous characters and laughable prose.

I downloaded a sample of Ross’s Holy Island, her debut novel which is set on Lindisfarne Island off Northumbria.  But I couldn’t make it past the first few pages for a number of reasons.  The clichés of “huddled together for warmth” and “crashing waves” put me off.  The larger cliché is a tired crime fiction trope: the trapped woman.

Lucy wakes up shivering near a famous ruined priory, and “her skin is exposed and helpless.”  Helpless?  A person can be helpless, but her skin itself?  And why not tell us how exposed she is, why make us guess?  Then we learn that she thinks her eyes are open but she’s not sure because it’s so dark.  It’s hard to believe anyone would not know whether their eyes were open or closed–but it turns out the darkness isn’t that deep anyway because she can see an outline of the priory and the sky is only “ink-blue” and “littered with stars.”

A bit further on Lucy tries to “feel her way to the edge.”  What edge?  We never learn.

She calls for help and hears someone approaching: “The footsteps maintained their unhurried gait and followed their inevitable path.”  People maintain a gait, not their footsteps.  But the author separates other things as well when she writes “Her mind struggled to process the words, to believe her ears.”  Is her mind some separate thing unconnected to her?  Wouldn’t just saying “She” be simpler and more accurate?

I read across genres and love good story-telling, but I can’t waste my time on writers whose writing is below par.  Especially writers who have people dying awful deaths suddenly thinking of something pleasant just before they die—in this case it’s “home.”  That’s another tired fiction moment.

Even the Amazon description of the book is poorly written, because it claims that the island of Lindisfarne is  “cut off from the English mainland by a tidal causeway.”  Causeways connect islands, but perhaps whoever wrote that was in the spell of her prose.  Bad writing can sometimes be hypnotic.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

 

Is Writing Every Day A Must?

Lots of authors worry about the number of words they write per day. Some even post the tally on Facebook as if they’re in some kind of competition.

And if they’re not writing at least 500 or 1200 or 2000 words or whatever quota they’ve set, they feel miserable. Why aren’t they working harder? Why are they stuck? What’s wrong with them? How come everyone else is racking up the pages?

If that kind of system works for you, fine. But I think too many writers believe that if they’re not actually physically writing a set number of words every single day, they’re not just slacking, they’re falling behind and even betraying their talent. Especially when they read on line about other people’s booming word counts.

How do they get caught in that kind of dead-end thinking? It’s thanks to the endless blogs and books that urge writers to write every day and make that sound not just doable, but the norm. Some days, though, it’s simply not possible. Hell, for some writers it’s never possible. And why should it be?

And if you can’t eke out your daily quota, the advice sometimes goes that you should at least re-type what you wrote the previous day. Well, even if I weren’t a slow typist, that’s never had any appeal for me, either, or made much sense. I’d rather switch careers then do something so mind-numbing.

I don’t urge my creative writing workshop students to write every day; I suggest they try to find the system that works for them. I’ve also never worried myself about how much I write every day because I’m almost always writing in my head, and that’s as important as putting things down on a page.

But aside from that, every book, every project has its own unique rhythm. While recently working on a suspense novel, my 25th book, I found the last chapter blossoming in my head one morning while on the treadmill at the gym. Though I sketched its scenes out when I got home, I spent weeks actually writing it.

Some people would call that obsessing. They’d be wrong. What I did was musing, rewriting, stepping back, carefully putting tiles into a mosaic, as it were, making sure everything fit right before I went ahead, because this was a crucial chapter. I was also doing some crucial fact-checking, because guns are involved and I had to consult experts as well as spend some time at a gun range. It took days before I even had an outline and then a rough draft of ten pages, yet there were times when I had written ten pages in a single day on this same book.

The chapter was the book’s most important one, where the protagonist and his pursuer face off, and it had to be as close to perfect as I could make it. So when I re-worked a few lines that had been giving me trouble and found that they finally flowed, it made me very happy.

And if I didn’t write a word on any given day or days, I knew I would be, soon enough. Because the book was always writing itself in my head, whether I met some magical daily quota or not. I don’t count how many words or pages I write a day, I focus on whether what I’ve written is good, or even if it has potential with revisions. That’s enough for me.

Lev Raphael has been teaching creative writing at Michigan State University, and you can study with him online at writewithoutborders.com.

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

This blog is dedicated to my creative writing students.

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 school 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

Are You Tired of “Femjep”?

Characters in thrillers–especially the women–seem to live in a parallel universe. A universe where they’ve never read a thriller or seen one on TV or in a movie theater. Because otherwise they wouldn’t behave like idiots….

Take Jennifer Lopez in the recent erotic thriller The Boy Next Door. She plays a high school teacher of classics–that’s right, and in a school offering a year-long course in Homer (the poet, not the Simpson). It’s one helluva well-paid job because she drives what looks like a Cadillac SUV.

Of course, who cares about reality since you’re either ogling Lopez looking gorgeous in every scene or drooling over ripped Ryan Guzman, the sociopath who moves in next door.  He befriends her nebbishy son, displays his body for Lopez at night in a well-lit bedroom across the way, seduces her, and then stalks her in escalating scenes of nightmarish threat and violence.

It all ends with bizarre family togetherness, but before that, Lopez goes dumb in major ways aside from having humped a high school sociopath. Her bestie phones Lopez to come over right away because she’s in trouble. When Lopez pulls up and the house is totally dark, is she cautious? Nope. Does she call first? No again. She rushes inside. When the lights don’t work, does she back out and dial 911? Well, you guessed it. She proceeds alone and unarmed into the large dark house, calling out her friend’s name.

And in her final confrontation with the psycho hunk, when she gets a chance to take him down, she clunks him on the head just once. When he’s knocked out, she doesn’t finish the job or even kick him a few times to further incapacitate him, despite knowing how dangerous and twisted he is. He’s tied up her husband and son, threatened to kill them both, killed her best friend, and was going to turn the barn they’re all in into a giant funeral pyre. So of course she turns her back on him.

And of course that one blow doesn’t do the trick. He predictably rises up and attacks her again, like one of those monsters in a horror or sci-fi movie that just won’t die. More mayhem ensues…and Lopez shrieks enough to win a Yoko Ono Award.

You’d think that after Scream had eviscerated this kind of plotting years ago, writers would be embarrassed to have their characters behave like dummies, but Hollywood keeps churning out femjep films. Sadly, this one was co-produced by Lopez herself.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 other books in many genres, including the novel of suspense Assault With a Deadly Lie.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

Why I Stopped Reading Karin Slaughter’s New Thriller

I’ve been reading and reviewing crime fiction for years but haven’t opened a Slaughter book in awhile.  I remember the last one I read had too much “femjep”–a term mystery writers and readers use the author putting a woman in ridiculously threatening situations.

Still, I was drawn into her new book Pieces of Her because the opening scene was reminiscent of one in Joseph Finder’s terrific High Crimes (though not as well done). Andy is a self-pitying young woman who’s failed to make it in New York after five years and she’s gone home to Atlanta.  She’s having a mall meal with her tough-but-loving mother when crazy violence erupts, her mother acts way out of character, and the daughter has to flee.

The shocking disruption intrigued me despite very confusing choreography, but the daughter’s reactions were annoyingly slow.  She’s the kind of character in a movie you keep yelling at: “Don’t open that door!” or “Turn on the lights!” or “Run outside, not upstairs!”  And in fact, her mother plays just that role, because Andy is too feckless to get her ass in gear despite her mother’s urgent commands.

But the whole I-just-saw-my-mother-do-crazy-shit motif really hooked me, even though the writing in the book can feel surprisingly amateurish. Here are some gems:

Her brain felt like it was being squished onto the point of a juice grinder.

The last few days had been like tiptoeing around the sharp end of a needle.

Andy’s head was reeling as she tried to process it in her mind’s eye.

Suddenly all of Andy’s nerves went collectively insane.

The editor in me started noting problems that went beyond Slaughter’s prose, mistakes that the author shouldn’t have made, mistakes a copy editor should have caught.  Both could have found the answers on Google, used wisely.

Churchill experts, for instance, will tell you that Churchill never said “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  George Santayana, however, did say “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  And Samuel Beckett is not best known as the author of “Irish avant-garde poetry” but as a playwright (Waiting for Godot) and a novelist.

Goofs like those in any kind of fiction throw me out of the story as much as iffy phrasing.  I start wondering how careful the author was in gathering her facts, and what other mistakes might lie ahead.  Here, the hot mess of errors and odd images almost kept me reading out of morbid curiosity–but the story got so convoluted and  repetitious that I finally gave up midway.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His latest book is the suspense novel Assault With a Deadly Lie.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.