Research is One of the Best Parts of Writing!

There are a lot of things I didn’t learn about writing as a career in my MFA program.  One of them is how enjoyable and even exciting researching a book can be.  And I don’t just mean tracking things down online or spending time in an archive.  I mean talking to experts.

Working on book after book, I’ve found how helpful experts can be, and how much they enjoy opening up about their fields of expertise.  One of the first was a county Medical Examiner I interviewed because my firts mystery had a body found in a river.  We talked about decomposition and a lot of other aspects of the situation, and went very deep (pun intended in our hour-long chat.

I’ve spoken with lawyers, cops, private investigators and have never found anyone unwilling to talk about what they do and love.  I tell them who I am and why I’ve contacted them and ask if they have time.  The majority of interviews get done in person, but once or twice I’ve had to work on the phone if the expert was an inconvenient distance away.

These interviews don’t just help ground my books in reality, whatever the genre, they also take me out of my own world into worlds I don’t know and find fascinating.

In my current novel-in-progress, music plays a role and so I’ve interviewed a cello played I know and a friend who’s played the piano for years, and a professor of piano at Michigan State University.  I have eight years of piano behind me, but don’t know much about repertoire and the kinds of issues professionals deal with and the talks have been fascinating.  I’ve also interviewed a fire chief and the head of an advertising agency.  Each one has been unfailingly generous with their time and of course will be acknowledged when the book comes out.

It may not take a village to write a book, but it definitely takes human resources who live in very different worlds than I do, and enjoy sharing their wisdom and experience.  Talking to them doesn’t just augment the reality of whatever book I’m working on, it almost always opens up new possibilities.  Better still, it breaks the isolation of writing a book, and that makes me very grateful.

Even if you’re shy, contacting the expert you want is easy via phone or email.  What’s most important is thinking out your questions in advance and being prepared for the book to go in a different direction or take on aspects you hand’t imagined, based on what you learn.  As Henry James advised a young writer: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com and is the author of 26 books in many genres including the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder.

Success For Writers Is Soooooo Unpredictable

Poor newbie writers. Everywhere they turn, someone’s telling them how to be successful. Go indie! Publish traditionally! The advocates of each path offer mind-numbing statistics to prove their points. It’s as frantic as those middle-of-the-night infomercials for exercise machines that will trim belly fat in only ten minute sessions, three times a week.

Of course, these machines are modeled for you by men and women with killer abs and minimal body fat. You and I will never look like that unless we give everything up and hire live-in trainers. And even then, as the coach said in Chariots of Fire, “You can’t put in what God left out.”

I’ve lost my patience with super-successful indie or traditionally-published authors telling the world to publish and promote your books the way they did because look how great things turned out for them. Each side reports the benefits of what they’ve done with certainty and conviction, and of course they’re either best-selling authors on the newspaper lists or best-selling authors on Amazon. Or both.

First-time authors sometimes publish big with a New York press, and sometimes they make it big going indie (and possibly go bigger switching to legacy publishing). It’s all a crap shoot.

Most authors will never reach the heights of these newly-minted experts, and not through any fault of their own. It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how good your book is, luck and timing are key ingredients that can’t be corralled. Books have their own karma. The right book at the right time published in the right way booms. We have no control over how our books succeed or fail, but we can control how good they are before they reach readers.

But nobody can predict it’s going to happen. And the authors who share their glorious experiences need to realize that though they may want to inspire and enlighten wannabes, at some level, they just make the rest of us drool or wish we’d listened to our parents and gone into something less unpredictable like Accounting.

The author of 25 books in many genres, Lev Raphael has taken his twenty years of university teaching online to offer unique, one-month creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

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)

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.

Harlan Ellison Got Dissed By His Writing Professor In College

Harlan Ellison, who just died at 84, 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.

You’d think a professor wouldn’t feel the need to be so harsh and unequivocal–but 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 faced deeply disparaging criticism in my MFA program. A story that I thought was a breakthrough was demolished by my workshop, and the professor delivered the coup de grâce. He said it was nothing new and the kind of thing I could write in my sleep.  I felt bludgeoned.

But 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 Class of 2016

“So…How Autobiographical Is Your Fiction?”

That’s the most common question people have asked me at the hundreds of readings, talks, and signings I’ve done over the years.  It especially comes up if I’ve read a story or part of book that’s been written in the first person.

Sometimes I’ll joke and throw out a figure like “Seventeen percent” or say “The adjectives–that’s where you’ll find the real me.” People laugh, and then I have to add “Everything.”  I’m serious when I say that.

Everything I write is autobiographical, no matter the genre, because I wrote it. Each book and short story derives from my experience in one way or another.

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That’s what I explain to my creative writing students, too, when they quote the dictum “Write what you know” and feel intimidated by it.

What we writers know isn’t just direct personal experience.    It includes all the stories of family and friends we’ve heard and anything we’ve ever experienced secondhand. It includes everything we’ve ever read in whatever form.  It includes world events and local events even if we only watched reports about them on TV or the Web.  And it includes every dream, everything we’ve ever imagined or hoped for.  The nightmares count, too.

Sometimes beginning writers tell me they don’t feel they have anything worth writing about because nothing’s ever happened to them, nothing “dramatic.”  I encourage them to step back and realize that their experience is already vast, if they’re open enough to see it, explore it, and mine it.  As Walt Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Lev Raphael has taught creative writing at Michigan State University and you can study with him online at writewithoutborders.com.  He’s the author of 25 books in many genres including Writer’s Block is Bunk.

Writers: Don’t Be Ruled By “Writer’s Block”

A few years ago I heard prize-winning Michigan author Loren D. Estleman dismiss writer’s block at a writers’ conference. The problem with even using the term, he said, is that it re-frames a basic reality of every writer’s life: getting stuck.

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

I’ve felt this way through my entire career as an author, through 25 books in many genres and hundreds of stories, essays, reviews and blogs. Like Estleman, I believe that all of us sometimes get stuck, no matter how experienced we are — and Estleman’s published more than twice as many books as I have. Stuck isn’t a bad thing. It just means you haven’t worked something out, you haven’t answered some question in the book, or maybe you’re headed in the wrong direction.

Whenever I’m 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.

If you’re stuck, don’t panic. Give the problem to your subconscious. You can work on something else, or not do any writing at all. Focus on something unconnected to writing: the gym, a movie, dinner out, drinks with friends, walking your dog, home repairs, a car trip, gardening, working on your tan, cooking, music, reading a new book by your favorite author — anything that can distract and absorb you completely and make you feel good.

Of course, sometimes being stuck can mean that 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, disguises what’s really the problem.

Unfortunately, there’s a small industry devoted to helping people overcome “writer’s block,” to keep them from turning into Barton Fink, stuck on that one sentence. And because the 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, of course they’re basket cases.

Let’s face it, since most people hate to write, especially in this age of tweets and texting, “writer’s block” really connects with non-writers. If someone asks how your writing is going, you risk sounding arrogant if you say, “Terrific! My new book is a blast!” 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. That’s no reason to let yourself be bullied by a misnomer.

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

 

Are You Having Bad Sex–In Your Fiction?

I didn’t realize there was so much bad sex out there until I started book reviewing in the mid-1990s for the Detroit Free Press where my portfolio included literary, commercial and genre fiction.  Though there’s an annual prize given in England to bad sex writing—The Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award—I hadn’t previously paid much attention to the problem. But as the books arrived at my door by the boxload, I began to realize that a lot of writers, even good ones, were sexually inadequate. On the page, that is.

Time after time I’d find myself reading an involving story of one kind or another and suddenly there would be a sex scene that made me wince because it was clumsy, improbable, or even grotesque. I was surprised and disappointed that writers I admired and enjoyed seemed to fall apart when it came to writing sex scenes. Whether it was lack of practice in this particular aspect of their craft, or embarrassment, or even being too turned on to have enough objectivity, I couldn’t say.

But I did start to notice two major trends in bad sex writing and I still see these problems cropping up: problems with timing, and depersonalization.

Many authors don’t seem to understand that timing is just as important in fictional sex as in real sex. If a sex scene is introduced, where does it fit in the arc of the story? Does it move the plot along, or does it slow it down? Does it add depth to the characters and story or is it distracting? Not enough authors ask themselves when’s the best place for a sex scene or even if it’s organic to the work.

I goofed in an early version of my novel The German Money by putting a sex scene early in chapter one. I thought it illuminated the inner state of my narrator, but a writer friend thankfully pointed out that it would distract readers from the character’s dark musings about his very dysfunctional family. As soon as she said it, I knew she was right, so I moved the scene several chapters along and used it as a short flashback.  It worked.

A more serious problem than timing and appropriateness in sex scenes is that two people who’ve been fully individualized characters before the scene fade away and become little more than a jumble of primary or secondary sex characteristics. We end up reading about parts having sex, rather than people. Some writers seem so determined to be un-puritanical that they forget they’re writing about human beings who have feelings aside from lust or passion. Sex means something more than just itself, or at least it can be something more than just itself. And if it’s casual or “meaningless” sex, then that should be clear in the scene, however it’s narrated.

As my first editor at St. Martin’s Press said: “Sex reveals who people are in unique ways–it’s crucial for authors to get it right.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir.  This blog is adapted from his guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk.

Writers Don’t Need Your Ideas–They Need Time

I’ve lost track of how often people over the course of my career have told me at parties or on book tours great ideas they had for my next novel. I’m glad they’re enthusiastic, but my response is always, “Thanks.  You should write it.”

I don’t need ideas.  I have too many of them.  Right now, the books I’m working on include a WW II novel, a medieval novel, a novel set during the Russian Revolution, another set during the First Century in Judea, a new mystery, a new memoir, and a novel set in The Gilded Age.  Some are notes, some have been started, some have research files–and one is almost done.

What I really need is a clone who can finish all the books I wish I could finish the research for and write.  My time has become more limited ever since I started teaching creative writing and literature at Michigan State University.

I’ve generally taught only one course a semester, but I twice did MSU’s English Department a favor and filled in for someone who was promoted one Spring, so I taught two courses that semester.  I also taught a six-week summer course in London, filling in for a professor who had a family issue.  I love teaching.  It’s in my DNA since my mother and her father were teachers, but to do it well and to mentor students means my writing can’t be on the front burner the way it used to be.

So the very last thing I need is anyone “offering” me a book.

And what these helpful volunteers don’t realize is this: I don’t want other people to do my imagining for me–that’s one of the great joys of writing.  Getting suggestions, especially when they’re very detailed, is like being splashed with a bucket of cold water.

I’ve published 25 books, but I’m not a machine like some writers I know who can crank out one or more books every year, year after year.  I’m not a fast writer in general.  I need time to reflect, and that reflection is a solo job.

Among Lev Raphael’s many books is The Nick Hoffman mystery series, set in the wilds of academia.