Into the Woods with Ruth Ware

As a crime fiction reviewer, I’ve often had to say, “Sorry, I haven’t read it” when people ask me about a new book.  The reasons can vary.  I might be swamped with review copies.  I might not have been in the mood for that particular book after sampling it.  Or I might be wary of the publicity blitz around the book since I’ve seen so many crime novels over-hyped by publishers and been disappointed when they turn out clichéd or badly written.

But then it’s a wonderful surprise to pick up a book with thousands of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and discover that it truly lives up to the promotional material.  This past week I finally caught up with Ruth Ware’s gripping debut In a Dark, Dark Wood.

After an enigmatic brief prologue, the book opens in a hospital with Leonora, a heroine who can’t remember how she got there but has hands sticky with blood.  Something horrible has clearly happened.  Is she a murderer?  She’s desperate to regain her memory and for much of the book that struggle is a dark, dark thread.

How did she end up in the hospital?  Well, because she should have said no to a bizarre invitation.  Leonora, a crime writer herself, has led a solitary life for a decade after university for undisclosed reasons but readers know they’ll find out and will surely hope there’s high drama involved.  The invitation breaks into her solitude: it’s for what the English call “a hen party” and Americans call a bachelorette party.  Weirdly, she hasn’t been invited to the wedding itself and it takes some coaxing from a friend of hers and the bride’s to say “yes.”

The party is hours from London, very remote, in a big, isolated, ugly ultra-modern house.  Though it’s not haunted, it has far too many large, un-curtained windows and is surrounded by bleak forest.  Everything about it is oppressive, creepy, and exposed.  Tensions soon rise among the motley group of partiers and what seems at first to be an Agatha Christie homage turns violent and bloody.

In the second half of the novel we learn what drove her and her bride-to-be friend apart and while some of the revelations aren’t as surprising as you might wish, they fall into place with a satisfying way.  Ware is deft at building tension, evocatively describing people and places, and the book is explosive in many ways.  It’s also intriguing to read about a crime novelist caught up in a series of mysteries, a woman who might be a murderer herself.  And a woman who by all rights should have been far more wary and suspicious from the start.  When you read a Christie novel, a great deal is revealed in dialogue and readers of this novel should pay close attention to what characters say if they want to figure out what’s really going on in this taut, enticing novel.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and other newspapers and public radio stations.  He’s the author of ten Nick Hoffman mysteries.

“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 Caine 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 former crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and author of ten Nick Hoffman mysteries and seventeen other books in many genres.  His work has appeared in fifteen languages.

 

My First Love Was a Library

I fell in love in second grade visiting our local library. On 145th Street in Manhattan, it was a gorgeous, imposing Gilded Age building by McKim, Mead and White, but I didn’t know its history until recently.

What I did know was that I felt excited, privileged and awed every time I passed through its portals, and believe me, it did not have doors, it had portals. The library was designed to look like an Italian palazzo. Nobody told me that, but I felt as far away as Venice every time I wandered along its endless shelves as the light streamed in through massive windows. I felt a similar sense of awe seeing Venice itself for the first time, decades later.

The library was a place of peace and complete freedom. No librarian ever told me a book was too adult for me, and neither did my parents. Which meant I could browse the shelves with no restrictions.

Each week I brought home a small pile of books I subsequently devoured, and I was especially fond of biographies and history, two genres that fascinate me even more now that I’m middle aged and have my own biography and see myself in history.

All those books nourished and inspired me. I wanted to write, too, and I wanted to have a book on those shelves some day. Here again, I was very lucky. Starting in grade school, my teachers and my parents encouraged my writing.

Yet with all that reading of library books, I still watched plenty of television. It was actually reading that interfered with my school work, not TV. Whatever I brought back from that amazing library was almost always more interesting than what we were reading in school, where I was often bored and too talkative. Nowadays, of course, they would probably give me Ritalin.

I got another gift from that library: being read to at story hour. It was the pleasures I derived from that and from having my mother read to me at home that partly fuel my own joy when I do a reading today, one of the best parts of being an author on the road.

Samuel Johnson wrote that “No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a public library.” I can’t agree, at least on a day when I’m feeling good about my career, because my own public library filled me with hope, knowledge, and dreams.

Lev Raphael is the author twenty-seven books and has spoken about his work in nine different countries at universities, libraries, churches and synagogues, and museums.  He’s published 100’s of essays, stories, book reviews and blogs, and the Michigan State University Library collects his literary papers for its Special Archives.

(this blog first appeared on The Huffington Post)

Should You Write Every Day?




Lots of authors worry about the number of words they write per day. Some even post the tally on social media 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 as an author, editor, and writing teacher, I think it can be oppressive.  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 online 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 urging writers who want to publish and stay published to write every day.  They 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?

I never urge my creative writing workshop students to write every day; I’ve suggested 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 working on my 25th book, a suspense novel, I found the last chapter blossoming in my head one morning while I was 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 major fact-checking, too, because guns were involved and I had to consult experts as well as spend some time at a gun range. It took days before I even had a workable outline and then a rough draft of ten pages, yet there were times when I had written ten pages in a single day on the 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. I was done for the day!

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 taught creative writing at Michigan State University.  He’s the prize-winning author of 27 books in many genres and has also published hundreds of stories, essays, book reviews and blogs.  He edits and coaches writers at writewithoutborders.com.

Image by StockSnap at Pixabay

 

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

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)

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]

Why I’ve Never Gone On a Writers’ Retreat

Fans often ask me if I go to writers’ retreats. I never have and I’ve never really wanted to, because I live in one.

The mid-century house I bought over 30 years ago in a heavily-treed subdivision is extra quiet because it’s dead center, even though there are some major roads nearby. That means you can’t hear any road noise whatsoever whether you’re inside the house or sitting out on the patio or the deck. There’s also very little traffic through the subdivision itself, sometimes none at all. 

What you can hear is bird song of all kinds: chickadees, robins, finches mourning doves–and of course we see our share of hummingbirds because they like our Rose of Sharon trees. Oh, and I also hear people biking by, neighbors with strollers chatting on their phones, minor stuff like that that forms a pleasant soundscape.

Yes, there are lawnmowers in the Spring, leaf blowers in the Fall and snow blowers in the Winter. But as someone who grew up in New York, that seems close to silence. For a few years when I lived in Queens, I was directly under a flight path to LaGuardia Airport, and sandwiched between the roar of the Long Island Railroad and the craziness of Queens Boulevard. 

My street is lined with maples that form a canopy when they leaf out, and a sculpture garden when the leaves fall.  From my study window, whatever the season, I have a view of a tall, graceful Gingko tree. If you don’t know this tree, they have succulent green fan-shaped leaves that turn a Napoleonic yellow in the Fall and can drop all in one day like gentle snow.  It has special resonance for me because there was Gingko near my elementary school in Manhattan.


I can see the tree down at the base of the driveway while I write at my PC and while I make corrections on printed-off manuscripts sitting in my reading chair. It’s just one of the majestic trees around the house and it symbolizes home for me.   As does the enormous oak at the very back of our yard which a former neighbor told us was standing here in the 1920s when a 400-acre farm was subdivided into lots for houses.  I like to do handwritten notes on a printed-off text outside looking  at that tree for inspiration.

Growing up in New York, I had very little sense of the change of seasons, but here I can watch it change by the day–and sometimes change back,  because as people in many states say, “If you don’t like the weather here, wait an hour.”

The trees remind me that Michigan is where I became an author, not New York.
I experienced a five-year drought after publishing my first short story in a national magazine and it was only after moving to Michigan that the drought ended and my work started being accepted again.  I apparently needed a major change of scene to blossom. 

In Michigan I was fully free to become the writer I turned into, someone multiply anthologized, publishing across genres, taking the lessons my college writing mentor gave me into the classroom at Michigan State University and then beyond.  I now work with writers online at writewithoutborders.com, mentoring, offering individualized workshops, editing manuscripts of all kinds, and enjoying an even greater level of freedom than I had before.

I know that one of the appeals of a retreat is escape from where you are, but I don’t need that.  And people also go to commune with other writers, but I had that intense experience for two and a half years in my MFA program and I’ve hung out with writers at numerous conferences across the country.  I once interviewed Julian Barnes and asked who his writer friends were and he said, “They’re next door, in my library.  They’re my oldest friends.”

The books in the shelves around me in my study–biography, history, fiction– inspire me as much as the quiet of home.  This is where I’ve taken root. 

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in a dozen genres ranging from memoir to mystery.  His most recent book is Department of Death, which Publishers Weekly called “immensely enjoyable” in a starred review.

(Gingko image by Marzena P. from Pixabay)

(Oak image by Csaba Nagy from Pixabay)

Warning to Writers: Don’t Diss Your Peers

“Writers should not attack their peers.”

That’s what a famous author I deeply admired told me near the start of my career, and what he meant was personal attacks.  He’d made that mistake and it launched a feud that lasted years. 

I’ve been careful in my career not say much in public when fans ask me what I think about fellow authors if they’re not my favorite writers. If I do express an opinion, I keep the comments to something technical. So I might focus on their most recent book and say I wasn’t convinced by the point of view if that’s one of the problems I saw, of course.  I don’t make things up.

Even after a reading at a reception or a restaurant when things are more relaxed, I’m cautious, because whatever you say may travel much further than you expect and end up making you look bad. And what you say can end up on Twitter in seconds.  That’s what my mentor was trying to explain to me well before social media created firestorms.  He regretted disparaging another author personally because it made him look bad and they became enemies.

I saw something similar happen in my own career, though without the feud. A celebrated American author I’d never met and who had never insulted me in the U.S. apparently decided to mock me personally in an interview in a foreign magazine when he was on tour in Europe. He didn’t know the freelancer he was talking to was an acquaintance of mine who reported the incident in detail, with some scathing comments about the author who should have known better.

Feuds come and go in American fiction, and some of them raise questions of literary taste, commercial vs. literary fiction, sexism among reviewers, but what about rudeness and bad taste?  Jonathan Franzen has been a lightning rod because critics have praised him so highly.  Is that his fault? Best-selling author Jodi Picoult has dismissed him as nothing but a “literary darling,” ditto Jennifer Weiner who’s done so while publicly reveled in her wealth and mocking those at The New York Times who’ve ignored her as balding (a “hairist” remark if ever there was one). Whatever the legitimacy of their complaints, should authors be engaging in this kind of snark?   I guess the mockery had an impact because Weiner eventually became a contributing opinion writer at the Times….

But authors let loose on reviewers too.  Franzen himself has outdone them when he attacked Michiko Kakutani a few years ago after she panned his last book, calling her “the stupidest person in New York.” And Alice Hoffman attacked the Boston Globe reviewer who gave her novel a mixed review, actually asking her followers on Twitter to call this reviewer and express their outrage. None of this makes authors look good, no matter who the target is.

A writer friend of mine was once banging out a rebuke to a reviewer when his wife came up behind him and read what was on his Mac screen. “Do you want to be respected for your work,” she asked, “or have people think you’re an asshole?”

It’s a question every author should consider when getting ready to light into a peer.  It’s one thing to talk about the work, another to diss the writer.

Lev Raphael’s 27th book is the mystery Department of Death which Publishers Weekly called “immensely enjoyable” in a starred review.

(free image from Pixabay)

Writers: Have You Ever Had Your Work Stolen?

The New York Times recently did a story looking at possible plagiarism in A. J. Flynn’s best-selling novel The Woman in the Window because it seemed very similar in ssignificant ways to Saving April by Sarah A. Denzil.

This is murky territory, because as someone who’s reviewed crime fiction since the 90s, I find thrillers often work with similar ideas and even plot twists. Is it theft? Or is it the fact that the genre has certain tropes that appeal to readers and smart authors stick to the tried and true?

I have been definitely plagiarized in my own career. Years ago I was the first person studying Edith Wharton to notice that the feeling of shame cropped up all through her fiction. Searching the literature about her, I found that nobody had examined this theme or even remarked on it.  I started publishing articles about shame and her fiction, working with Silvan Tomkins’ Affect Theory.

In addition to unveiling this neglected them, I also discussed works of Wharton’s that had never been written about in any academic article.  I shared copies with one Wharton scholar whose next book lifted my ideas without any footnote. When I contacted her about it, she said brightly, “Well maybe we were working on similar tracks at the same time.”

When I reminded her of the articles I had sent her, she was silent. I asked if she could have her publisher add an erratum slip, which academic publishers do when there’s an error in the text. This small printed slip of paper tucked into a book is an inexpensive way to make a correction or note something was left out. Sounding agitated, she said, “But that would look like plagiarism.”

That was very revealing.

Then there was a less obvious borrowing when a well-known author in The New Yorker lifted something I wrote about Edith Wharton and William Dean Howells in an online magazine. He and I had previously appeared in the same issue of that magazine, so I assumed he had read my article as I had read his there.  I wasn’t being paranoid to think he was lifting what I wrote because a professor at Michigan State University noted the similarity and said, “He owed you a reference.”

More recently, after a terrific week in Ghent, Flanders, and because I’d published travel blogs and a travel memoir, I pitched a “36 Hours in Ghent” article to the New York Times Travel section.  They hadn’t done one before and I was planning a return trip. There was no reply, but this week, sure enough, a “36 Hours in Ghent” article showed up in the Travel section. Was the author working on the same idea seven months ago when I made my pitch? Maybe.  Maybe not. It definitely felt creepy,.  You’d think if the Times had already assigned a piece like that–or was planning to–they would have rejected my query with an explanation.

That’s unfortunately the life of a working writer.  And while I haven’t had direct theft of actual lines, these experiences have been bad enough.

If you’re a writer, have you ever had your work stolen?  Add your comment below.

Lev Raphael 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.