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.

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 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.  That helped take my career to the next level. 

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.

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

 

 

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.

Word Snobs Need To Chill Out

Call it the Buzz Feed Effect.  Lists are everywhere on the Web: best books of September, worst movies of the summer, you name it.  Then there are lists that rank the Star Wars movies from best to worst, or the other way around, not that it matters.

But all this does keep newspaper columnists like Kathleen Parker at the Washington Post busy when they’ve run out of ideas.

She recently did a hot mess column about words she thinks are over-used and need to be retired, written in response to reports that the CDC is asking staff not to use terms like “science-based” in budget requests so as to avoid pissing off Republicans.

Words come in and out of fashion. Parker doesn’t like “optics,” but is there a better way to explain the Washington obsession with how things look while ignoring what they mean? Its use may fade, or not. Likewise with “drill down” and “re-purpose.” Nobody can predict their future.

 

Read books written ten, twenty, thirty years ago—or a hundred. The English language evolves whether we like it or not. Some words die out because they’re just momentarily hip, some stick with us because they’re useful. Dictionary writer Samuel Johnson hated the word “mob” but he was wrong. It filled a linguistic, cultural need.

Parker crosses a line from personal dislikes to factual incorrectness. She claims that you can’t use “decimate” when you mean “devastate.”

We’re a very long way from the Roman Empire where decimate specifically meant to kill one out of every ten. And it meant that in Latin, of course. Like other Latin words (actor, century, missile) it’s changed its meaning over the centuries. People need to catch up and chill out.

Who uses the word “decimate” that way now in English, or moans about its supposed misuse except for word snobs? It’s a perfectly good synonym for devastate, destroy, annihilate, crush, etc.

If you want to complain about something important, something that affects the nation in major ways, how about exposing the steep learning curve when you buy an Instant Pot?

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

Writers Are Not Robots

Well, I’m not, anyway.

I do have writer friends who can produce a book (or more) a year no matter what kind of crisis is hitting them at home. Contracts pull them through. That, and stubbornness. I couldn’t work with so much pressure; I’d feel like I was on an assembly line….

I was recently at a party and someone asked me what I was working on. I said, “Nothing. I published my 25th book last Fall. I’m taking time off.” He looked at me like I was a slacker or something. But that’s not an unusual response.

I’ve been a member of the same health club for over two decades and lots of people there read my Nick Hoffman mysteries set in a college town not unlike East Lansing. No matter when I publish a book in the series, someone will always ask, “So when’s the next one coming out?”

It could be the very same week there’s been an article in a local paper or a radio interview. Really. As if I’m churning them out on an assembly line with the help of a team of research assistants.

And if I don’t have news about another book in press, I often get blank stares. What’s wrong with me, am I lazy? seems to be the unspoken assumption.

Okay, publishing 25 books in different genres over the last 25 years isn’t shabby — but they haven’t come out on any sort of regular basis. Some years I haven’t published anything and one year I published three different books just because that’s how the publishers’ schedules worked out.

In case that sounds like I’m Type A, I should explain that my second novel took almost twenty years to finish. Yes, twenty, working on and off because I kept re-conceiving it. I’m glad I did, because The German Money got one of the best reviews of my life. The Washington Post compared me to Kafka, Philip Roth and John le Carré — and I was sent on book tours in England and Germany to promote the editions published there.

But some books took me only six months to write from concept to completion for various reasons. And another book was fairly easy to put together because it was a collection of already-published essays and didn’t need extensive editing. So it’s all highly unpredictable.

You can’t explain that to the cheerful guys who call you “Dude!” and ask about your next book while you’re on the way to the showers just wearing a towel and flipflops. Or people who decide to chat with you while you’re sweating on the treadmill. Or the people who think that popping out another book can’t be that difficult since it’s not like I have a real job, anyway.

Maybe I should ask them, “So, when are you doing your next brain surgery?” or “When’s your next super-messy divorce case?’ or “When’s your next multi-million dollar real estate deal?”

Nah. I’ll just blog about it, or write them into my next book. Whenever.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

When You’re An Author, Fans Can Keep You Going

There are a lot of things nobody prepares for you when you start a career as an author.  Going on my first book tour years ago, my publisher and editor didn’t ask if I knew how to do a reading.  Luckily I had some acting experience and my spouse was on sabbatical, so after every reading I got “director’s notes.”  What worked, what didn’t work, where did I need to slow down, how did I need to engage my audience better–and much more.

It was invaluable, like taking a one-person seminar, and it made each successive reading more successful.

That tour was when I first discovered how amazing it is to encounter fans.  People who haven’t just read your work, but have absorbed it and want to thank you.  One person told me she actually had read my book half a dozen times and kept it by her bedside.

I was blown away.  Writing is so solitary, and discovering the impact your work might have shifts you out into the world so differently than when you sit there reading a review.

The other day I was at the gym chatting with a trainer.  She’s used to seeing me wear blue but I was once again all in black and she asked what was up. I joked about going to Paris and wanting to fit in.  A woman nearby asked when I was going and we go into a talk about travel and learning language.  She was studying Italian for a big trip to several cities.

I told her about my last trip to Florence and that I’d done fine ordering meals, asking directions, and buying things, but that was about it.  She asked how many languages I spoke.  French and German were my mains, with side dishes of Swedish and Dutch.  Then I had to explain how I’d gotten involved in studying the latter two and we traded more travel notes.

I asked her name and introduced myself and she said, “Oh, I know who you are, I see you here a lot but haven’t wanted to bother a celebrity.  I’m a big fan of your mysteries.”

It made my day, made my workout.  And reminded me once again how lucky I am to have people reading and enjoying my work.

Lev Raphael is the best-selling author of a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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