Goodreads Goofs on Bogus Author Quotes

Back in 2017, I contacted Goodreads to let them know that this top-ranked quotation by George Eliot is bogus, and I sent proof:

It is never too late to be what you might have been.

Yes, you’ve seen it attributed to Eliot everywhere: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, t-shirts, kitchen magnets, mugs, bookmarks, tote bags, tattoos. But there’s no source.  None.

I read George Eliot in college religiously, and read about her as well because she was a major inspiration to me as a budding writer. So the first time I saw the quote it felt off to me — a bit too peppy, more like something from a Hallmark greeting card.

I poked around the Internet, and though it’s inescapable, there’s no attribution. Nobody who knew Eliot records it as a comment she made, it’s not something she wrote in her diary, and it doesn’t appear anywhere in her writing. That’s been proven by Eliot scholars, as reported in The New Yorker. It’s also been researched by a great web site, Quote Investigator, which shows a long history of misquotation.

Eventually, someone at Goodreads asked me to post on the “Librarians page” and said the team would investigate. I did, but what was there to investigate? That had already been done by scholars who I imagine have more expertise than the intrepid Sherlocks at Goodreads.

Well, the bogus quote is still there.  A Goodreads “expert” recently emailed me to say that Goodreads doesn’t take down quotes.  It’s now listed as “source-unknown” which is just plain wrong:  The source isn’t unknown, it’s nonexistent.  But the “quote” makes great click bait.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk! and 26 other books in many genres. He mentors, coaches, and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com

Image Credit: Pete Linforth from Pixabay

The Perfect August Read for Spy Novel Fans

 

In my many years as crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, one of the best mysteries I ever reviewed was Dan Fesperman’s Lie in the Dark, set in war-torn Bosnia. It was brilliantly plotted, beautifully written, and stunning in every possible way.

His latest book is just as thrilling.  Set in the chaos of a crumbling communist East Germany not long after the Berlin Wall has been breached in 1989, Winter Work tells twin stories of an American CIA agent and a former Stasi agent whose lives connect in surprising ways. 

Long before East Germany (the DDR) was falling apart, high-ranking Emil Grimm felt “irretrievably” convinced “that the state he served had become corrupted beyond salvation, and that he had become a willing party to its inevitable decline.”  Having relished his Stasi privileges and having used his own power for revenge, he was filled with remorse–and that’s not his only secret.  Grimm’s personal life involves a bizarre sort of ménage-à-trois which might condemn him in the eyes of even liberal-minded Westerners.

Grimm and a Stasi colleague have hatched a plan to escape from the ruins of their country which hasn’t even reached its 50th birthday, by attempting to trade information to the Americans.  But they’re not the only ones on the market as “CIA people were scurrying all over the Berlin area, seeking to make friends of their old enemies in hopes of prying lose their secrets.”

One of those CIA operatives is young Claire Saylor, tasked with contacting a Stasi agent whose name she doesn’t know and whose information is mysterious but presumably valuable.  Her on-site boss is critical, suspicious and withholding, and Saylor has to rely on a retired agent for backup on each rendezvous.  His spycraft augments hers and they forge a dynamic and entertaining  bond.  Unbeknownst to Saylor, however, the KGB has her and Grimm in its sites and a mission that looked relatively simple becomes hair-raising, dangerous, and bloody.

That’s because in the DDR, someone is always watching: “After more than forty years of training their citizens to keep their eyes one another, one could never take lightly the idea of having your movements go unnoticed in the German Democratic Republic.”

Inspired by real events and deeply researched, Winter Work has everything you expect in a top-notch mystery/thriller: characters to care about, a fascinating setting, and a plot that keeps you guessing and on edge.  Fesperman was a Berlin-based journalist and his knowledge of the city is crucial in making this book both intimate and electrifying.  There aren’t many crime novels I lose sleep over, but this was one of them and I didn’t mind because the rewards were so rich and satisfying.

The short opening paragraph of Winter Work perfectly sets the book’s tone:

In winter, the forest bares its secrets.  Hill and vale are revealed through disrobing trees.  Mud and bone arise from dying weeds.  Woodpeckers, taking notice, pry deeper on leafless limbs and rotting logs.  Their drumbeat goes out like a warning.

Lev Raphael is the author of ten crime novels and seventeen other books in many genres.  A former guest author at Michigan State University, he currently mentors, coaches, and edits writers at https://www.writewithoutborders.com.

Sarah Perry’s Amazing 𝙈𝙚𝙡𝙢𝙤𝙩𝙝

In Sarah Perry’s second novel, Melmoth, Helen Franklin is a bland, depressed English translator in her 40s who lives and works in Prague but doesn’t think much of its fabled baroque beauty.  In fact, she has contempt for it. She lives a severely monastic life, denies herself pleasure so profoundly that she rents a room from a nosy, obnoxious elderly woman who mocks her and whom she herself finds gross and grotesque.

Despite her knowledge of German and Czech, which might expand her interests and social life, Franklin’s life in Prague is stupefyingly dull as she works on boring projects like translating technical manuals.  And then something dazzling changes everything.  It’s a manuscript containing a handful of bizarre and even horrific stories, given to her by one of her only Czech friends who seems shattered by having read it. 

Franklin reads the manuscript in pieces and begins to be drawn into its dark labyrinth.  Is she insane?  Is what she experiences really happening or has her undisclosed past finally caught up with her?  And what’s led her to live such a claustrophobic, self-denying life in a city that seems to offer joy, pleasure, and even simple amusement at every turn?

The stories are narratives of encounters with “Melmoth the Witness,” a woman invariably dressed in mourner’s black who wanders the Earth lonely, barefoot, stalking people who have either sunk into despair, done something terrible–or both.  Melmoth’s own crime that led to her being cursed was to deny what other women saw when the stone was rolled away from the tomb of Jesus.  Since that time, she’s been the ghostly, seductive epitome of suffering and pain, inexorably drawn to misery in many forms, leaving bloody footprints wherever she roams.

All the stories, ranging across countries and centuries, focus on human misery and criminality–but this isn’t a crime novel per se.  It’s a new take on the Gothic. You don’t have to know the classic novels by Ann Radcliffe, “Monk” Lewis or Charles Maturin (who’s name checked here) to appreciate the stunning achievement.  

But if you have, you’ll be even more gobsmacked by the dazzling and disturbing mix of the two original strands of Gothic.  There’s Terror Gothic: Is Franklin being followed?  Is someone about to do her harm?  What is the dark secret that torments her? 

And then there’s Horror Gothic in many forms, including a ghastly scene that feels like an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.  Melmoth herself is horrifying, given that everything about her seems both dead and alive at the same time.  She’s a ghost, a zombie, a vampire of sorts, a shape shifter.

Melmoth is a surprisingly short novel overflowing with color, texture, and stories, stories, stories.  The book’s narrator speaks to you directly in a voice that will not be denied, and don’t be surprised if Melmoth makes you wonder if someone is spying on you–with evil intent.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in many genres, has taught creative writing at Michigan State University, and currently edits and coaches writers at writewitoutborders.com.

 

A Mighty Masterpiece on the Move

If every picture tells a story, then a masterpiece, one by Leonardo Da Vinci, must be full of stories that make for an epic, and Eden Collinsworth serves them up in grand style in her thrilling new book What the Ermine Saw.

The painting is the seductive, engrossing, and enigmatic portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, a Renaissance Duke’s mistress, holding, of all things, an ermine. It’s the strangest lapdog you’ve ever seen and has sometimes actually been misidentified over the years as just that, a dog. An ugly dog, too. But there’s nothing ugly about the painter’s execution, his delicacy, his tones that seem as fresh and magical as when they were painted over 500 years ago.

What is she looking at?  And why is she holding an ermine?  The author deftly explores both mysteries.

The painting in modern times has traveled from its base in a Polish museum around the world on loan and been transported with almost unimaginable security given its worth and rarity, one of only fifteen of Leonard’s paintings to survive.  Reading about the security around its movements, you feel like you’re in the middle of an amazing heist movie–though luckily the painting survived intact wherever it went.

How it got to Poland is somewhat mysterious as there’s a gap of almost 250 years in its history, but what’s more mysterious than that is its having survived wars, revolutions and every kind of disaster you can imagine–with only some minor damage to an upper corner.

Along the way and crossing one border after another in Europe, we get stories of love, lust, greed, cruelty, family feuds–plus Nazi madness and obsession.  There are capsule portraits of individuals you’re unlikely to have heard about, some of them heroines like Rosa Valland at the Louvre, who kept track of the vast stores of art the Nazis looted from Jews in France.  Her secret records aided restitution to the original owners and museums after WWII.

The book is a fast, stunning read as we whirl from one century and country to the next, from palaces to hovels, and all the while the small painting shines at the center, a jewel of jewels, a magnet for the very best of humanity and also the very worst.

Collinsworth has written a book that will delight art and history buffs and yes, even fans of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.  Because hovering over everything is the spirit of one of the world’s greatest artistic geniuses, a man whose legacy has affected and inspired countless millions.  To turn these pages is to feel connected to his genius, however tangentially, to be graced and possibly even changed.

Lev Raphael has been an art lover since he was very young and has visited dozens of art museums across the U.S., Canada, and Europe.  The author of 27 books, he taught creative writing at Michigan State University and currently coaches, mentors, and edits writers in all genres at writewithoutborders.com.

“The Paris Showroom” Was Badly Edited

This historical novel builds on fascinating, horrible facts. While plundering the belongings of deported or imprisoned Jews, rich and poor, the Nazis in Occupied Paris “processed” their goods in three locales, including the Lévitan department store

Anything valuable that officers, their wives or mistresses might want was displayed and the rest sent off to Germany, no matter how prosaic an item it was.  Damaged goods were repaired for the greater glory of the Reich and personal effects like letters and photos were burned.

The 800 prisoners forced to do this labor lived in appalling conditions and the author makes their plight very vivid, but that’s one of the book’s few strengths.

I really wanted to love The Paris Showroom because I’ve read hundreds of books over the years, fiction and nonfiction, about WWII, including books about France during the Occupation. 

But I couldn’t. The dialogue too often seems American and contemporary, with characters saying things like “Whatever” and “True that” and “Beats the heck out of me.”

Then there’s an apartment house concierge who sounds like a 2022 guru or life coach and far too wise.  Worse than that, one of the two main heroines seems unbelievably naive and uninformed: though she’s twenty-one, in 1944 she still doesn’t understand how or why the war started (!) or what the Occupation really means. Her questions can be unbelievably dim and it’s hard to root for someone so out of touch with reality.

Blackwell also gets some things wrong like the French name for The Phony War, that period from September 1939 and April 1940 when there was virtually no fighting on the Western Front.  How could she have missed something so basic?

Another error that’s hard to comprehend from a seasoned author: She says the Jews wore “golden stars.” Not remotely: it was a Yellow Star. I suspect professional historians might find even more problems than I did. 

Though she peppers the book with bits of French for atmosphere, Blackwell for some reason uses the English “huh?” rather than the French “hein?” which you’d get from context. And rather than use “bibelot” she employs the very popular American word from Yiddish “tchotchke”– but doesn’t quite get its meaning right either.  The book is filled with choices like this which you would expect a careful editor or copy editor would have caught.

While there’s a touching family reunion in The Paris Showroom, that and almost everything else in the book is often overshadowed by minute details about fan making.  Don’t ask.

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press and author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His work has been translated into 15 languages and he coaches, mentors, and edits writers at https://www.writewithoutborders.com.

Shit People Say to Writers

Nobody tells you that when you publish a book, it becomes a license for total strangers to say outrageous things to you that yourself 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, based on what they’ve gleaned from friends, reviews, the Internet, or ESP.

At first, when you’re on tour, it’s surprising, then tiring — but eventually it’s funny, and sometimes even offers you material for your next book.

All the comments on this list have been offered to me or author friends of mine.

–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’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.

–What’s up with that cover?

–Can you tell your agent about me?

–You have a way with words.

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

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 book in genres from memoir to mystery, has taught creative writing at Michigan State University and Regents College in London.  If you need writing coaching or editing, you can contact him at https://www.writewithoutborders.com

(free image from Pixabay)

Writers! You Can Reject Your Rejections

You can say “No” to rejections.  But I don’t mean arguing with the editor or readers who’ve declined your work and given some specifics.

Because you don’t want to be like my writer friend who was once furiously typing an argumentative reply after a rejection.  His wife saw what he was doing on his laptop and quietly asked, “Do you want to be known as a good essayist or as a jerk?”  He wisely deleted the document.

What I do mean is not taking the rejection to heart–though that can difficult–and assuming that the comments you get were on-target and you should immediately start revisions.  It’s worth considering the feedback, sometimes just briefly, and then asking yourself:

–Do these suggestions or questions spark anything?

–Do they make you want to write a revision ASAP?

–Do they confirm any doubts about the piece you had?

As an editor myself, I know tastes vary widely.  That friend above once said to me “Finding the right editor is as difficult as finding a partner.”  Then he added, “No, it’s harder.”  He wasn’t kidding.

I’ve had dozens of terrific magazine and newspaper editors, two dozen more when I contributed pieces to anthologies, and editors working with me on 27 books published since 1990. 

If I feel an inner thrill reading a comment, have an Ah-hah! moment, or just confirmation of some question I had about the story or essay myself, that’s when I go to work because I love revisions with good but not overbearing  guidance.

But if the comment seems contradictory or just leaves me feeling “Huh?” then I trust that intuition and don’t bother tinkering with the piece.  I wait.  I’ve had more than one piece in recent months snapped up by editors who loved them, and in each case easily half a dozen editors had passed on the same story or essay. 

Of course, if everyone rejecting your work makes almost identical comments, then maybe there’s something there for you to consider.  And maybe not.  Maybe your work doesn’t resonate with them.  Move on.  That’s especially important if the rejections don’t tell you anything at all and you feel stymied and depressed.  My mantra then is a line from Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” 

I make sure that I have “back-up submissions” ready whenever I start sending out something new.  Each time I get a rejection, I send the piece out somewhere else within an hour if possible, so that I’m not chewing over the sting of rejection or second-guessing myself. 

Sometimes readers or editors (or both) will want you to overhaul your story or essay completely and write it the way they would have done, though they don’t actually say that.  I remember one short story of mine getting a two-page letter explaining how I needed to be writing like Balzac–and why.  It made me laugh because though I’d read many novels of his, I had no interest in painting a broad social canvas in that story.  It was more intimate.

The story was later accepted elsewhere, anthologized too, and singled out by reviewers. 

I hadn’t changed a word except for the last line, which a very smart editor knew had to be stronger.  He was right and I was grateful.

We hear a lot about overnight successes for writers, but that’s rare.  Most of us have to keep writing and perfecting our craft, keep submitting, and work to keep hope alive.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He mentors, coaches, and edits writers in the U.S. and abroad at writewithoutborders.comYou can contact him via that website for a free consultation.

Photo: Free image from Pixabay by Sammy-Sander

 

 

Jason Bourne in 1815 Paris

You can judge a book by its cover when it’s a C.S. Harris Regency mystery.  The gorgeous covers are elegant, mysterious, evocative and haunting. And that’s the kind of historical mystery Harris writes, fielding a hero I dubbed the “Regency Jason Bourne” a few years ago.

He’s Sebastian St. Cyr, a Byronic English nobleman with some dark family secrets, a brilliant wife, and a powerful Machiavellian father-in-law with whom he’s often been at loggerheads.  A distant cousin of George III who wields tremendous power, this father-in-law is a “ruthless, eerily omniscient man with an enviable network of spies, informants and assassins.” 

But St. Cyr is more than a match for him or any opponent: He’s strong, clever, a gifted sleuth, blessed with supernaturally acute hearing and eyesight, and dangerous when threatened or crossed. 

Remember the scene in The Bourne Identity where Bourne is sleeping on a park bench in Switzerland and suddenly disarms and knocks out two policeman who want to see his papers?  That’s the kind of surprisingly quick, efficient act St. Cyr can perform as easily as tying his cravat.  He may look like a toff but he’s a bruiser when he needs to be.

Our hero is now in Paris searching for the mother who abandoned the family years ago, and that search of course leads to what seems like endless darkness before there’s light.  His journey starts with a shocking and heartbreaking discovery in the first few pages.   Harris is deft at writing opening chapters that grab you without feeling gimmicky and the opening chapter of When Blood Lies may be the strongest and most startling she’s ever written. 

It’s 1815 and France is “a witches’ brew of rumors and swirling threats of conspiracy” after over two decades of “death and heartache, terror and disaster, resentment and fury” due to revolution, war, and roiling regime change.

St. Cyr soon learns that his mother has been deeply enmeshed in France’s current turmoil in ways he cannot guess.  His investigation will require speaking to  a wide cross section of Parisian humanity including royalty, an executioner, the police, an inn keeper and many more.  This diversity is part of what makes the series so fascinating; Harris’s canvas is always large and colorful.

Looming over every interaction and conversation, it seems, is the shadow of Napoleon, seemingly trapped on Elba.  Ditto the echoing cries of mobs lusting for bloody spectacle when thousands of men, women, and children were guillotined during The Terror.

I can’t think of many crime writers who can so perfectly create a scene by appealing to all your senses the way Harris does.  Her fiendish plots, her deeply drawn characters and their tangled relationships are just plain thrilling.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in many genres and was the crime fiction review for the Detroit Free Press for a decade.  He mentors, coaches, and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com

Every Writer Needs an Editor (Guest Blog by Meredith Phillips)

Guest blog by Meredith Phillips

Everyone needs an editor–even editors. Why? Primarily because an editor brings objectivity to your writing. When you proofread your own writing, you sometimes see what you expect to see, what you meant to write, on the page or screen before you. The editor brings an outsider’s view and is much more likely to pick up typos or mistakes. And truth be told, auto-correct or spell-check will not pick up homonyms.

Furthermore, because of editors’ training and wide reading background, they can spot an infelicity, misstatement, or erroneous fact—not to mention a plot hole. The editor’s job is to make the writer look good by preventing the reader’s confusion, making things as clear as possible. If you’re not “traditionally published,” which would presumably include professional editing, you should hire an editor at your own expense. You’ll find it is well worth the money.

When it comes to traditional or legacy publishing, after acquisition or commissioning a book, ideally several levels of editing take place. Those can range from development and/or substance editing to line and/or copy editing to proofreading. My own experience is mainly in fiction editing, the majority being crime fiction, but I’ve worked on all kinds of nonfiction as well, from cookbooks to handbooks to how-to guides. Over forty years I’ve edited hundreds of books and I still love it. I’d rather spend my time with red pen in hand, or these days with Word Review on the screen, than doing most other things. This has served me well during the pandemic.

***
How does anyone become an editor? I doubt that any children say they want to be editors when they grow up. And I suspect that most editors originally began as writers, as did I. After first writing magazine pieces, a guidebook, and then a mystery, I decided that I’d rather tell other people how to write than do it myself. And I’ve done so ever since (although a certain amount of writing of catalog copy, blurbs, press releases, etc. is inevitable in the job). As well as learning by doing, I read books and articles on editing and joined professional organizations.



I spent the first ten years alone at Perseverance Press, editing and publishing new mystery writers who usually had other kinds of writing backgrounds. After ten of these books, some award-nominated, I went “on hiatus” and concentrated on freelance editing for mystery writers with NYC publishers. I was lucky enough to again be working with professional writers and didn’t have to deal with newbie writing problems.

But freelance editors are definitely at the bottom of the publishers’ totem poles, and liable to be blamed for all snafus. Then came the opportunity to partner with an old friend who wanted a mystery line in his small independent publishing company. And from 1999 to 2021, John Daniel & Co. / Perseverance Press published more than eighty traditional mysteries by established writers. This idyllic arrangement came to an end with John’s death, so I’m a freelancer again. And I was lucky enough to be available when Crippen & Landru needed an editor last year for their respected collections of Golden Age short fiction.

***
Does editing mysteries differ from mainstream fiction editing? Not a lot. The plot structure is usually tighter in mystery/suspense, and attention must be paid to suspects’ activities and alibis. In the end, order should be restored and readers should feel that they had a chance of figuring out the puzzle. The background environment, geographical setting, and/or the historical period in a mystery are often rendered in detail, as they may contain clues. The conscientious editor should do some research (via Google and Wikipedia these days instead of a trip to the library) to be conversant with the milieu depicted by the author. I’ve bought a lot of books on editing but have found only a few of real use: Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, which I’d recommend to all writers.

Do mistakes still happen? Of course! In my early days I let an author get away with putting the protagonist in “a room with no doors or windows.” And much more recently, a main character kissed a man who wasn’t her fiancé, whom she didn’t like, and who wasn’t even in the same place as her. This goof sneaked by the author, me as the editor and two proofreaders. But of course it was pointed out in an Amazon review!

That takes me back to the first line, above….

[Free Images from Pixabay]

Patrica Cornwell’s “Autopsy” is a Dud

I was surprised to receive a review copy of Patricia Cornwell’s 25th Kay Scarpetta book, and I can’t imagine this book getting published by a newbie.  It’s a meandering, slow-mo crime novel that’s badly written and badly edited.

The book is filled with odd usages like “right much” for “very” or “a lot,” and dialogue between family members and spouses that sounds overly formal, almost British. Even tough characters keep saying things like “I’ve not” rather than the more common “I haven’t.”

Whole passages in this book read like a murky first draft, and there are many lines like this one where the writing is seriously off:

My next stop is the kitchen table, what’s actually a butcher block that no doubt belongs to the house.

Just as damaging is the way Cornwell interweaves present tense and past tense–too often I had to go back and figure out what was happening when.  Cornwell’s use of present tense is painful anyway, as when Scarpetta gets dressed and each item of clothing is mentioned in a separate line while she’s on the phone with someone.  Pages like that feel like filler.

Scarpetta is meant to be a uniquely talented, supremely experienced medical examiner but she often seems like an amateur and a jerk.  She’s annoyingly obsessed with minutiae outside her field, griping about a murder victim who didn’t water her plants or recycle, for instance, or use the right storage container in her fridge. 

And for someone scared half to death at one point, the shout of “Goodness!” makes her sound like Miss Marple, not a strong woman at the top of her profession. 

Her overall character seems oddly realized. She lets colleagues, family and even her new secretary bully her, which comes across as annoying and unbelievable.  And for someone who rhapsodizes at length about fine French wines, she thinks pedestrian appetizers are somehow special.  Calling ordinary cheeses “antipasto” doesn’t make them exotic.  If she’s been to France and adores French wine, how comes she’s clueless about its many fabled cheeses?

Her husband drives a Tesla SUV which costs over $100,000 and it gets lavish attention in the book, but they can’t afford an actual wine fridge and she has to jerry-rig something in the basement?  Is that–and plebeian cheese–supposed to appeal to readers who can’t afford expensive wines?  Then why show off the fancy SUV?  These things don’t add up and they exemplify the problem of disconnection that runs through the whole book. 

Time and again, there are places where there’s a kind of logical hiccup, some missing connection.  Like a scene where Kay and her husband are alone in the Oval Office with the president and vice-president, but suddenly he’s talking to “those assembled behind closed doors.” Huh?  And while some characters aren’t described at all, others are described well after they appear on the scene. 

As for the denouement–it fells like a cheat, but saying why would be a spoiler.

Autopsy is often so disjointed you wonder if it was written by a committee. In the end, the uneven mix of forensic thriller with industrial espionage, outer space drama,  office politics, biomedical engineering and AI makes the book seem overstuffed yet weirdly underfed.  

Former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in many genres.  He mentors, coaches and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com, with clients across the U.S., in Europe and Asia.