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)

Publishing Is A Wild Roller Coaster Ride!

It started out as a fantasy.

An editor at an esteemed publishing house contacted me and asked if I had a book for him. He admired my previous work and wanted me on their list.  I was flattered and thrilled.  The timing was perfect because I did have a book, so I was soon signing a contract that gave me an advance big enough to pay for my upcoming wedding.

And then things went south.  The editing process was fine until the day before I left for a book tour in Germany and the editor told me the book was being moved up a season because the publisher loved it.  Ordinarily that would have been great news, since in-house excitement is crucial to launching a book.  But he asked me to correct the edited manuscript and get it back to him (via email) in the next two weeks.

I explained that I was leaving for a tightly-scheduled book tour, doing daily events and would be in transit when I wasn’t speaking and reading. Moreover, tours were exhausting and I didn’t feel I’d have the focus required for reviewing the book. I also worked on a PC and didn’t have a laptop, which would mean going to internet cafes.

He insisted.  I thought, okay, I have to try.  But when I got to Germany I discovered that even if I tried to squeeze in some time at an internet cafe every day, there was no way I could work on German keyboards because they were laid out differently and very confusing.  My emails home were garbled and I didn’t want to risk any errors creeping into the book.

I explained all that and he said fine, he would get it taken care of.

To my dismay, when I got the book back in page proofs, there was one passage that was repeated.  I deleted the repetition while making other minor corrections. But when I got back home after the tour, the publisher himself called to tell me that it would be too expensive to re-do the book since it had gone too far in the publishing process.  He refused to fix the problem.

While I loved the book’s cover, I was mortified that it was being published with a glaring flaw.  And then a reviewer blamed me for letting the book appear with a repetition.

I felt burned, but luckily fans enjoyed the book despite the screw-up.  That’s what publishing is like, filled with ups and downs, and nothing is predictable. As novelist and memoirist Deborah Levy says, “The writing life is mostly about stamina.”

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

Authors Need to Respect their Fans

A writer I know recently asked on Facebook if people wrote fan mail to authors, and also asked authors if they responded.

When I was twelve, I read a kids’ book set in Paris. I don’t remember the title or the author, but I loved it so much I sent fan mail to the author via his publisher. He wrote back.  I was astonished.  I already knew I wanted to be an author and his gracious letter made me decide I would always respond to fan mail.

If I ever got any.

Well, the fan mail started with my very first publication, a prize-winning short story in Redbook, and it’s kept coming every year for one book or another. Of course, now it’s via email, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

Back before email was a thing, one of my first editors was surprised that I replied to my fans. “Why would you waste the time?”

I treasure my fan mail and the correspondence I’ve had with authors.  If someone’s been moved by what I’ve written, writing back isn’t just polite, it’s fun.

All my fan mail before email is archived by Special Collections of Michigan State University’s Library, which bought my literary papers.  Someday, perhaps, a researcher will find the correspondence useful for its insights into my career.

When I sold my papers, old friends reminded me of many things. One who used to type my early stories back in the 1980s because I was such a slow typist, told me that we had discussed the possibility of some university buying my archives one day. I don’t remember that, but I have no reason to doubt her. Another friend reminded me of a long period in my career where nothing I wrote could get published, and that in more than one fit of despair I threatened to take everything I’d written and destroy it in a bonfire—as if that could somehow purge my failures. “Aren’t you glad you didn’t?” she asked wryly. “Special Collections wouldn’t have The Lev Raphael Papers, just the Lev Raphael File Cabinet.”

My eldest made the best comment. When I told him about the papers deal I said, “This makes me part of history.” He corrected me: “You’re already a part of history. Now you’ll have an index.”

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

 

“Less” is a Brilliant Satire of the Writing Life

Author tours sound glamorous to people who don’t do them. The truth is more complicated, even if you’re happy with your editor and publisher, love the cover art of your new book, and you’re in such good health that nasty recycled air can’t undermine it after all those hours trapped on planes.

You’re always onstage, always being observed by everyone you meet. You never know if your bags will get lost, your flight delayed—or if enough people will turn out for your event to make you feel it was worth the time and trouble. If you’re on a panel, will you be bored, or worse, be seated next to another author who despises you? If you’re interviewed, is the journalist prepared or just filling an assignment, does she admire your book or have an agenda?  One interview started off by cheerfully saying, “My! You’ve written a of books, haven’t you?”  I could tell this was someone working off my author bio and nothing more.

And then there are the people of all kinds—readers, hosts, other writers—who say stupefying things to you without hesitation. It can be a kind of hell.

Andrew Sean Greer’s gives readers The Mother of All Author Tours in his new novel Less, a book of sly wit and comedic gusto. His victim, Arthur Less, has actually constructed his own around-the-world author tour made up of wildly disparate events—all of this to escape an ex-lover’s wedding. Less is a novelist who’s “too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered.” Facing fifty has doubled his sense of failure and doom.

His ports of call? Mexico, Italy, Germany, India, France, Morocco, Japan—all of which he observes and appreciates with the eye of a poet. And why not? He spent years in love with an older, Pulitzer-winning poet—a certified genius who was as hard to live with as a tiger.  That demanding, driven poet unintentionally deprived him of a separate identity. Less is still better known for his ex-lover than for his own work—and he’s not remotely Kardashian enough to make a career out of that.

Wherever he goes, Less faces “writerly humiliations planned by the universe to suck at the bones of minor artists like him.” He’s publicly pronounced to be mediocre, he’s informed that his work isn’t gay enough, he’s mocked in Germany where he confidently speaks enough German to confound and annoy people around him because of his awful blunders.  Yet this holy fool is sexually charismatic in his own way, apparently able to stun men with just a touch…though he’s not a great lover.

I laughed all the way through the book, recognizing publishing types like the withholding literary agent, and I rooted for Less to become more. More forceful, more insightful, and more in control of his own life. I won’t reveal whether he does any of that, the ending, or how ingenious Greer’s narrative is, but I have to praise his gift for striking, off-kilter images like these:

The view out his window was of a circular brick plaza, rather like a pepperoni pizza, which the whistling wind endlessly seasoned with dry leaves.

In the suburbs of Delaware, spring meant not young love and damp flowers but an ugly divorce from winter and a second marriage to buxom summer.

Less was so deeply satisfying I put everything aside to read it straight through.  Colorful, hilarious, incisive, and surprisingly moving, it deserves to be read alongside satirical classics about the writing life like Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale and Updike’s Bech at Bay.

Lev Raphael is the author of Rosedale in Love, A Novel of the Gilded Age, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

 

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.

Should I Be Writing Faster?

I’ve been a member of the same health club for a long time and lots of people there read my Nick Hoffman mysteries set in a college town that might remind them of the town we live in.  No matter when I publish a book in the series, somebody always asks, “So when’s the next one coming out?”

That could happen the same week there’s been a big article in a local paper or a couple of local radio interviews.

And if there’s no news soon about another book due to appear, telling people that I recently published a book doesn’t seem to count.  I get blank stares. The assumption seems to be that I’m lazy.  Writers apparently should be churning out more than one book a year.  Two or three, really.

My publishing schedule has never been regular over 25 years. Some years I haven’t published anything and one year I published three different books (in different genres) just because that’s how the publishers’ schedules worked out, not because I’d actually written three in one year.

My second novel took almost twenty years to finish.  Yes, twenty–while I was writing other books, of course.  That’s because I kept re-thinking and re-conceiving it, starting and stopping, and trying to figure out what exactly its shape should be. 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 a year or even as little as six months to finish for various reasons.   So when people ask me “How long does it take you to write a book?” there’s no definite answer.

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.

The majority of folks seem to think that there’s a simple answer to questions about the writing life and that popping out another book can’t be  difficult, since it’s not as if writing is a real job, anyway, right? 🙂

If you’re a writer, what’s the question non-writers ask you most often?

writing is a businessLev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (A Guide to the Writing Life) and 24 other books you can find on Amazon.

When an Author Meets Fans

Though I’d been publishing stories all through the 1980s, it wasn’t until I was in my first anthology in 1988 that I started getting reviewed and meeting fans on a wider basis.

I was at an awards banquet in D.C. and the first person I ran into as I walked to the the banquet hall was one of my favorite authors, novelist Edmund White.  I told him how much I enjoyed his work and when he asked my name, he said, “Oh, I loved your story” and went on to talk about it in laudatory terms.  He dilated about career and getting started, warned me against dissing my peers in public, and when I said I was headed for Paris told me to look him up there.

edmund white youngI was just starting out, and soon I would be publishing books on a regular basis, getting reviews, doing radio, print and TV interviews and living the author’s vida loca.  I met fans all the time, often in large numbers.  It was always deeply humbling.

The coolest moments, though, would be the unexpected ones. no matter who the reader was.  Sometimes someone at an airport while I was on a book tour would come over to say they recognized me from a newspaper or magazine interview and tell me how much they liked a book or  a particular story.  Or I’d be having dinner or lunch by myself and a server would say, “Aren’t you–?” and thank me for whatever book meant something to them.

It’s continued to happen closer to home, too.  The other day I was checking out at a grocery store and a woman walked by said “You probably don’t remember me–”  But I did because she’d gone to a recent writing conference I keynoted.  She’d bought a copy of my first book of stories, which came out in 1990.  “I didn’t know if I would connect to them or not, but I did.  To all of them!”  She said she could never imagine readers connecting to her work like that.

I laughed:  “Every writer worries about it.  You just have to keep writing and find the heart of your work.”

I was tired that morning, but I left the store feeling great.  Yes, I’ve gotten standing ovations from crowds of 500, and awards, and sold my literary papers to a university library, and gone on book tours in Europe, and been reviewed in the New York Times more than once–but this brief conversation reminded me why I started to write so many years ago.  To touch readers, one by one by one.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery and you can find them at Amazon.

Authors Can Be Sitting Ducks

Isn’t it amazing what people think they can say to authors at signings or readings?

They’ll criticize characters, plot, writing style, or the way a book ends–and rudely, too.  And then not even buy a book.  They’ll just unload on the author who’s a captive and has to be polite and just take it, no matter how unfair and uninformed the comments may be.

Sometimes events can work your last nerve, but sometimes the situation’s just different enough where you don’t just take it.  That happened to me once at a university where things went awry from my getting off the plane.  The minion picking me up announced that she had no sense of direction, and got me lost 1) in the airport 2) in the parking structure and 3) in the city on the way to my hotel when we went drove in the wrong direction for at least ten minutes.

When we finally got to it, the hotel room in a dinky “annex” was filthy with cobwebs and dust balls everywhere.  I called the host professor and asked to be moved somewhere else, but he insisted on seeing it for himself, assuming I was a diva, I guess.  He took one look and moved me to a Hilton Garden Inn.  But that was the end of his competence, because rather than do a short intro to my talk and reading, he read from my official, page-long author biography.  Slowly.

I timed him.  It took ten minutes.  And he stuttered.  Still, I made it through and was doing fine until the Q&A when someone raised my first novel Winter Eyes where a son of survivors is unsure of his sexuality and sleeps with a man and a woman at different times.  That gay reader accused me of “brutalizing” him with the open ending, and leaving him alone with his pain.

wintereyes-new

I wasn’t rude, but I said plainly that he had misread the book and the characters who believed at the end that labels didn’t matter at that moment in their lives.  And if he was in pain, it wasn’t the fault of my book, but his issues that he needed to deal with.

I’d never been that assertive in a Q&A, but it had to be said.

Would I have replied as I did if the afternoon and early evening had gone better?  Maybe not.  But I felt I had to stick up for myself as an author and stick up for my book.  And for authors everywhere….

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.  Follow him on Twitter at

Nightmare On Bookstore Street

I stopped doing bookstore “black hole” signings back in the 90s.  The kind where the store asks you to just sit at a table for a few hours with a pile of your books, a table sign, and a desperate smile.  Every now and then, over the sound of the register, someone announces your presence in the store over a loudspeaker, but it doesn’t matter: you really don’t exist and your career was a delusion.  You’re lost.

I saw an author doing one like that the other afternoon.  I’d stopped at a local bookstore that had turned into a mini-mall selling candles, author dolls, DVDs and CDs, Christmas ornaments–you name it.   Her book had a tropical isle on the cover in pinks and blues and a hot title: Death by Destination.  The author was dressed in matching colors, but she looked pale and miserable.  The store hadn’t done her any favors by putting her in an out-of-the-way section.

Afternoon signings are the pits and I wondered if anyone had bought her book or even talked to her. The few people seeing her skirted the table, eyes down, or worse, bumped into it and didn’t even apologize.  She tried engaging the scant passersby, but was shunned ever single time.

It was mortifying. I wanted to go over and invite her out for a drink and tell her how I’d given up on this kind of giant boondoggle, how over time I’d found a niche at non-traditional venues that were much more satisfying and that if I did sign at bookstores, it was only after a reading or talk.

But just when I thought I might actually wade through the forest of peppy greeting cards to help salvage her day, I saw her resolutely get up and stride over to someone idly leafing through a dictionary in the Languages section.

“Hi!,” she chirped. “I’m Ibis Goldenroad!  I write travel mysteries.  I see you’re looking at a French dictionary.  Are you traveling to France?”

I moved forward to overhear the reply.  The appalled elderly woman, wearing a chic black coat, said stiffly, “I’m having a dinner party and wanted to make sure I spelled things right.  For the menu at each place setting.”  With that coat and carefully styled white hair, and the frosty tone, she reminded me of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.

prada“Oh that’s so interesting!  You don’t like computers?”

“It’s not that, dear.  My Internet is down.”  The customer turned away.

The “dear” was a warning, but desperate Goldenrod didn’t listen and actually touched her shoulder.  The woman flinched.

“How fun!  Oh, I love to cook!  And so do my lead characters!  One is a master chef who works on a cruise line.  You’d love my mystery series.  Do you read mysteries?”

There was a reluctant nod.

“You do?  That’s wonderful! What kind?”

Without turning, the woman snapped, “The kind where annoying woman are killed.”

Lev Raphael’s 25 books range from memoir to mystery and beyond.  You can find them on Amazon.