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)

When Did Writing Become a Damned War?

 

Lately I’ve been feeling like writing is a bloody battlefield — not for me, but for tens of thousands of writers across the Internet.

I’m talking about writers who seem frantic or depressed because they’re not writing fast enough every single day, as if they should be queen bees in a hive squeezing out their quota of eggs and the hive might collapse if they didn’t keep producing.

I read cries for help on social media from writers begging someone, anyone, to offer ways they can write more than 500 words a day, as if 500 words a day isn’t enough. And then I read jaunty, triumphant posts on those same platform from writers bragging about writing several thousand words a day.   

The writing world in America is infected with its own special virus. The sensible suggestion that beginning writers should try to write something daily to get themselves in the habit has seemingly become interpreted as a diktat for all writers all the time. What we write doesn’t matter, it’s how much we write every single day, as if our careers — no, our lives — depended on it. As if we’re the American war machine in 1943 determined to churn out more tanks, planes, and guns than Nazi Germany because the fate of the world is at stake.

I was mentored as a writer in a time when quality not quantity was the standard and I’m happy that’s the case, because yesterday I probably wrote fewer than a hundred words. But they were crucial words because they completely re-shaped the first chapter of the sequel I’m writing to my dark novella The Vampyre of Gotham set in 1910 Gilded Age New York.

I hadn’t written anything at all for a few days before that: I was just puzzling over what needed to be done before I was ready to return to my PC. If I don’t write anything more this week, that’s fine because what I did was exactly what was necessary for the new book to move forward. And I know, anyway, that I’m writing subconsciously now that I worked out the kink in my story line.  Writing happens to writers all the time, everywhere: we don’t need tablets, laptops, pens or pencils. 

And we don’t need to be driven by false quotas or to feel shame because somebody, somewhere is writing a short story every week (or maybe two!) and some weeks we can barely manage to piece together a decent metaphor.

There’s nothing wrong with having a daily goal if that works for you as a writer, but why should you feel crazed because you don’t reach that daily goal — what’s the sense in that? Why have we let the word count bully us and make us feel like miserable?

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery and his fiction and creative nonfiction has been taught on college campuses across the country.  With twenty years of teaching experience, he now offers mentoring, tailored workshops, and editing at writewithoutborders.com.

Photo credit:madamepsychosis

Viral Quotes That Mark Twain Never Said

The Internet is awash in bogus quotations and Mark Twain is a favorite “source.”

Here’s one that’s all over Facebook, and the first time I read it was early in the morning, spoiling an excellent cup of coffee: “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.”

My warning bells went off immediately because the whole thing sounded too contemporary, especially “putting us on.” Not that Twain couldn’t be scathing about politicians. In A Tramp Abroad he wrote, “An honest man in politics shines more there than he would elsewhere.”

While I haven’t read nearly as much Twain as Eliot, I know The Gilded Age well, having read James, Howells, Wharton, and other novelists of that period extensively. I also researched it for a few years to write my own Gilded Age novel, Rosedale in Love: The House of Mirth Revisited.

The quote doesn’t  show up anywhere as legitimately Twain’s, but it is definitely viral.

Then there’s this beauty:

2014-12-10-thesecretofgettingahead.jpg

Twain never said it, and it leads the list of the ten most famous bogus Twain quotes.

Why would anyone with half a brain or an ear for the English language think this could be by Mark Twain? It has no wit, no style, no soul. It’s all about mechanics and could have been written by a team putting together an instruction manual.

The Web is flooded with sites where Twain supposedly gives this banal advice, and because Twain supposedly said it, that means wow, it’s important, take note!

Twain is often picked as the avatar of what Oscar Wilde called “more than usually revolting sentimentality,” like this classic:

2015-07-23-1437675416-6376857-forgivenessmarktwainquote.jpg

Could anyone who’s read Twain or even read about Twain possibly think he’d say something this smarmy and illogical? And if so, how?

It’s as incongruously Twain’s as this other quotation that’s run amok across the Internet, spread by people eager to associate any thought at all with some distinguished American author, preferably dead:

2015-07-27-1437991767-1428287-MarkTwain.png

Yes, unbeknownst to most Twain scholars and fans, the great satirist really wanted to write greeting cards….

The maudlin violets quote has been been sadly mis-attributed to Twain for some decades with the help of the Dear Abby advice column. More recently, it got the imprimatur on NPR of self-improvement guru Dr. Wayne W. Dyer (W for Wikiquote?).

You’d think that someone looked up to for enlightenment by tens of millions of people might want to get his facts straight. All he’d have to do was consult Google to see the quote show up as problematic right away.

If you want to check a Twain quote yourself, it’s very easy.  One resource is Snopes, which has its own Twain page.   And there’s Barbara Schmidt’s web site TwainQuotes.com where you get the real man, not a fake reeking of  Victorian sentimentality or bogus can-d0 spirit.

Lev Raphael is the author of Rosedale in Love and 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

 

Literary Agents Haven’t Helped Me

Huffington Post once reported that a British literary agent got sentenced to prison for cheating gullible, fame-seeking clients out of their money. His clients thought movie deals were in the works with big Hollywood names — and who doesn’t want to be famous as well as rich?

I’ve never been cheated by an agent, but remember in Moonstruck how Vincent Gardenia warns Cher not to go through with a second marriage? He tells her, “Your mother and I were married fifty-two years and nobody died. You were married, what, two years, and somebody’s dead. Don’t get married again, Loretta. It don’t work out for you.”

Well, that’s been my story with literary agents. All of them.  It don’t work out for me.

One agent was funny and charming and we had great chats, but my career only moved a bit forward over several years because an editor I admired approached me to switch publishers.  So I brought her the deal.

Another agent made me feel like I was caught up in a bad romance, never responding to my queries or telling me who was seeing my book. It turned out that she was busy sleeping with her most famous client.  A third agent screwed up a book deal in major ways and a fourth offered me great advice for revising a book, but despite my doubts took it to New York in the middle of a stock market meltdown when panicky editors weren’t buying anything.  Even though I had asked her to wait.

A fifth agent kept sending a mystery of mine to editors who didn’t like the genre, and then she left the business. After we signed, another agent relocated to Japan and I wasn’t convinced a Skype relationship would work out despite her saying she would come to the U.S. once a year. Then there was the agent who turned weird on me and another client who was a friend, spreading rumors about the other writer for reasons that are mysterious at best.  That agent was fired by her agency.

I started my career at a time when the conventional wisdom was that you couldn’t even have a career without an agent. And without an agent, you weren’t really a serious writer. But experience has proven something different and the publishing world has completely changed since then. Most of my books have been un-agented and they’ve done as well as or better than the ones agents represented.  One of them has even sold about 300,000 copies and been translated into fifteen languages from Spanish to Thai.

When I told a novelist friend in New York about my bizarre agent history she assured me that my saga was pretty typical: “It’s just that most of us don’t want to talk about it because we’re too ashamed.”

Lev Raphael’s 26th book is about college professors behaving badly, very badly: State University of Murder.

(Image free courtesy of Pixabay)

Diversity Takes a Hit at MSU’s English Department

In 2011 I returned from a successful book tour in Germany where some of my audiences had been college students and I found myself missing the classroom intensely. Three days later, I received an email from the chairman of Michigan State University’s English Department asking if I’d consider teaching there.

Of course I said yes. When we met for coffee, I told him about the serendipity. He said that he’d reached out to me because I had published more books than the entire creative writing faculty put together and I had unique experience in publishing that the academic writers didn’t.

I remembered the department’s home in Morrill Hall fondly–it was where I did my PhD–a 19th century building that was down-at-heels but spacious and full of character.

(Lansing City Pulse photo)

I was only back there again for a semester before we moved to offices in another building on campus. These offices were cramped and utterly soulless. The conference room was brightened for me, however, by large framed posters of writers featured in the Library of America series. There are hundreds of books put out by this nonprofit organization whose aim is “to celebrate the words that have shaped America” and their publications cover several centuries of American writers of all kinds: poets, essayists, novelists, playwrights, historians.

The framed posters in that conference room happened to be of a diverse group of writers who had all inspired me in my career as an author and teacher: James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather, Richard Wright, William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Mark Twain.

(Los Angeles Times photo)

Baldwin, for example, changed my life when I discovered Another Country in high school because that bestselling novel spoke openly about sexuality and race in the 1960s the way that none of my assigned readings did, and in prose that was sometimes breathtaking. I’ve since read it novel many times, always finding new wisdom.

“I think you’ve got to be truthful about the life you have. Otherwise, there’s no possibility of achieving the life you want.”
― James Baldwin, Another Country

The conference room itself was grim and shabby around the edges. But the posters reminded me of the joy of seeing the world through completely different eyes, the fascination of watching students discover new viewpoints and revel in or wrestle with them, and how powerful authors motivated me as an author myself to keep working at my craft.

Returning to the classroom was exhilarating, and I felt as inspired by those writers as by my college mentor whose own teaching was witty, compassionate, and incisive.

I’m not at MSU anymore (I teach online at writewithoutborders.com), but I was still surprised and disappointed when several friends in the department recently told me that the Library of America posters were coming down. None of them could offer a compelling explanation. Or explain why when the removal was first announced at a faculty meeting, some professors were enthusiastic and practically cheered, as I was told.

That’s a very disturbing response at a time when universities around the country are focused on diversity and inclusion. More than half the writers in the group are Black, gay, lesbian or both. Why would anyone be happy to see them disappear? And why would the department want to symbolically cut itself off from a rich, diverse American literary heritage? What kind of message does that send to students and the university as a whole? What kind of statement does it make about the department’s priorities? And really, what on earth does anyone have against James Baldwin, one of America’s greatest post-World War II writers?

The department’s web site states that should the Internet ever collapse in some kind of apocalypse, books would still survive and “continue to galvanize readers.” I guess their authors won’t matter, though.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.  This piece originally appeared in the Lansing City Pulse.

I Don’t Read English Novels–And Neither Should You!

Celebrity Irish writer Marian Keyes made headlines recently when she said she doesn’t read male writers because their lives aren’t as interesting as women’s lives–they were “limited.”  I totally get her frustration.

Because I don’t read English writers.  I mean I know that they write books, but if I can read books by American writers, why bother?  What could be more limited than an English novel?

I hear about all those English books when they get made into endless boring shows on PBS, but what’s the point?  English people’s lives are beyond limited.  Poldark?  Seriously?  I watched ten minutes and all they did was walk back and forth along cliffs with the wind blowing through their hair, though sometimes they rode back and forth along cliffs.  That says almost everything you need to know about England.  Oh yeah, there’s also Jane Austen.  Bonnets.

The English truly have such limited experience.  I mean, come on, they live on a crummy little island for God’s sake and nobody even gets voted off (well maybe immigrants down the road thanks to Boris Johnson)  And it’s not even their own island.  They have to share it with two other countries, Wales, whatever that is, and Scotland, which at least has whiskey.

You see all those goofy soldiers at Buckingham Palace marching back and forth like Poldark without cliffs and when’s the last time the English won a war on their own without American help?  That was against Napoleon, right?

Haven’t there been enough English novels been written already–can’t they just give it a rest? Don’t the English have better things?  Like figure out why they’re so brutal to people marrying into that hot mess royal family?  And why that whole Brexit thing was like they were the drunk-ass party guest who keeps saying he’s going but just won’t get the hell off your couch?

I admit I might read an occasional English novel if I’m crazy bored, but Americans, we really know how to live la vida loca.  I mean look at us now: D.C. drama 24/7, exciting tweets every few minutes.  We’re in the fast lane.  And driving on the right side of the road, too.

So English writers, just **** off, as Marian Keyes said about her male colleagues, without the asterisks, of course, bless her heart.

Writer’s View: Celebrity Irish Author Tells Her Male Peers To “**** Off”

That’s what The Daily Mail quotes superstar Irish novelist Marian Keyes as having recently said:

“I only read women. I know that men write books. But their lives are so limited. It’s such a small and narrow experience….Their literature just really can’t match anything written by a woman. I just think ‘**** off’.”

If you haven’t heard of her, she’s written thirteen novels, sold tens of millions of books, and seen her work translated into several dozen languages.

Her dismissal of male authors was seconded by journalist Suzanne Moore, who complained that woman authors aren’t taken seriously.  She also warned readers of The Guardian, where she made these comments, not to send her names of great male writers since she knew who they were because she’d had “an education.”

Those remarks made me think of my own education.

I was an English major in college.  Along with the usual male suspects we read Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe, the Brontes, Mary Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Mrs. Gaskell, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, Virginia Woolf, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In graduate school along with Conrad, James, Kingsley Amis, Graham Greene, Alan Sillitoe, Anthony Powell, and Phillip Roth, we read Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Bowen, Iris Murdoch, Gertrude Stein, Doris Lessing, Susan Hill, Margaret Drabble, Jean Rhys, Muriel Spark.

But more importantly than all of that, on my own I’ve read dozens of women writers including Agatha Christie, Ann Tyler, Elizabeth Taylor, Rebecca West,  Anais Nin, Elizabeth Gaskell, Daphne du Maurier Olivia Manning, Ruth Rendell, Francine Prose, Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Braddon, Val McDermid, Stella Gibbons, Alison Lurie, Anzia Yezierska, Penelope Fitzgerald, Laurie R. King, C.S. Harris, Lori Rader-Day, Janet Fitch, Mona Simpson.

Those are the names of women authors that come most quickly to  mind.  I could add many more if I took the time to scan my library shelves.  Should I have to?  Gender has never mattered to me.  I’ve always looked for fine writing and compelling stories.  I often went on to read more by each author, sometimes hunting down everything in print if a first book hypnotized me.

Education isn’t a passive thing.  It’s not just waiting for books to be assigned to you, it’s seeking out books that you think might change the way you see the world or at the very least, open the doors to a new one.

Marian Keyes  admits that she reads an occasional book by a man, but she seems strangely limited herself to dismiss an entire gender’s writing so readily.  Since she’s famous already, I’m sure what she’s said will gain her even more fans, because inflammatory remarks like hers are crowd pleasers and bound to go viral.

There may well be caps, t-shirts, and all sorts of swag. She might even get her own talk show.  With no male guests if they’re authors, of course.  Because what could they possibly have to say when their lives are so impoverished of experience?

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.

4 Things Writers Should Know Before Doing Readings From Their Work

I’ve done hundreds of invited talks and readings on three different continents and I love being out there with my writing—it’s a dream come true. But even though I’m an extrovert, I found doing readings more challenging than I expected when I started out touring twenty-five books ago.

I had the benefit of some acting experience in college, so I was very comfortable with my spouse coming along to give me director’s notes on my first book tour. I learned a lot from every single reading: what worked, what didn’t, and how I needed to up my game. I began to look forward to every reading with excitement. Do I get nervous even now? Absolutely, but in a good way.

I’ve taught workshops about how to do author readings because I believe that there are skills you can learn if you’re dedicated enough. And whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, here are four things authors should know and consider before they meet their public in a bookstore or any other venue.

1. The word “reading” sounds a little flat because it actually involves a whole lot more than the text at hand. It’s a performance. You’re performing your own work, acting it out, giving it texture and color that might not even be there on the page, but that audiences crave. I’ve seen people actually fall asleep at some readings because the authors read as if they were sitting at their desk, in a monotone, with no shading, no nuance, no drama.

2. You need to prepare for this performance as if you’re going on stage, which in effect you are. You don’t have to memorize your text, but you need to have practiced reading it enough times so that you’re familiar with it and can look up at the audience as often as possible. Making eye contact is important in a reading, and this is a chance to connect with your audience in a very deep way. It’s not just your words that count, it’s the power you imbue them with.

3. Picking the right thing to read can be tricky. Whether you’re reading for ten minutes or half an hour, what you present needs to have a clear beginning, middle, and end. You want to satisfy your audience’s need for structure in the entertainment. Don’t choose anything you feel iffy about, or that you don’t have emotional control over. Crying or even choking up in a reading can be very embarrassing for people who are listening.

4. Trying to win the audience’s favor right off by apologizing isn’t a good idea. Telling them that this is your first time, or that you’re not entirely sure this story or novel chapter really works undercuts your authority as a performer. Likewise, announcing that you decided on what to read “on the way over here” is disrespectful to the audience: they deserve an author who’s prepared. And be careful about making jokes to warm up your listeners—they might fall flat.

It doesn’t matter how big your audience is. Every audience deserves the best you’ve got, and you can learn how to give that to them, no matter how shy you might be, or how anxious, or how reluctant.  Readings are a unique way to reach your audience–and they can make you a better writer, too.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery and mentors creative writers online at writewithoutborders.com.

Writer’s Memoir: My Journey from Crime Fiction Lover to Crime Fiction Author

Growing up in New York, I read and revered The New York Times, which was one of a handful of papers in our house, but held the place of highest esteem.  And I remember classroom instruction in elementary school about how to fold it on the train or bus since it wasn’t a tabloid and the pages were so large.

I dreamed of being reviewed there at whatever point I became a published author.  But I never expected that it would be my mystery series that would open that door, and literally jumped for joy when it happened.

Let’s Get Criminal, the first Nick Hoffman mystery, is now back in print after a long hiatus and available on Amazon.

I had never set out to write mysteries, even though I loved crime fiction and started reading in it junior high school. When I launched my career as an author, it was with short stories which were ultimately collected in a book that won a Lambda Literary Award.

But one of them, “Remind Me to Smile,” featured a couple of academics faced with a bizarre situation: Stefan has gotten an ex-lover of his a job in the English department that is his and Nick’s home. Nick is outraged, and then depressed when Stefan invites the ex to dinner.

My first editor at St. Martin’s Press, the legendary Michael Denneny, was very taken by the story, only he said the dinner guest should have been poisoned. And then a few years later, when I was wondering where I should take my career after a collection of short stories, a novel, and a study of Edith Wharton, Denneny said, “Nick and Stefan could be like Nick and Nora Charles.”

That’s when the Nick Hoffman series was born. Nick and Stefan teach at the same school, are happy together, but the unexpected keeps intruding into their lives thanks to the murderous academics they work with. I’ve been writing it over the years because I loved the characters, and because I relished the academic setting where you find bald men argue over a comb, as Borges put it so well.

At the time of my conversation with Denneny, I was reviewing mysteries and thrillers for The Detroit Free Press. That made me determined to avoid one thing: sleuths who don’t get changed by what happens to them. In far too much crime fiction, the protagonist discovers a body and then goes off for breakfast at Denny’s as if nothing’s happened.

When I first met Walter Mosley, we talked about ways to keep a series from becoming routine for the author. He said his strategy was to take the series through historical changes, and see how they affected Easy Rawlins.

In the Nick Hoffman series, Nick ages and is definitely changed by the deaths he encounters. His relationship with Stefan develops, too. Depicting a loving gay couple over time, and under stress, has been one of the joys of this series.  The world has changed a lot, too, since the series began in the 90s, so it’s been fun to chart those changes in mysteries, which are good vehicles for social commentary.

Mystery writing has made me a better teacher and I’ve been fortunate to teach mystery fiction in classes, workshops, and online.  The series has had more impact than I would have guessed, putting me on the map in ways I never expected.  But that’s how a writing career goes: the unexpected is always your companion.

Lev Raphael’s is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to crime fiction.  The latest review of his new mystery State University of Murder is at the Lansing State Journal. You can study creative writing with Lev one-on-one at writewithoutborders.com

 

Why I’m Teaching Creative Writing Online

I come from a family of teachers. My mother’s father taught economics in Poland. My mother taught language and literature in Belgium. And in New York, my brother taught special education.

I picked my undergraduate college, the Lincoln Center branch of Fordham University, specifically because of one creative writing teacher I’d heard about as inspirational. It was a great choice. I ended up taking all her classes and didn’t just learn the subject matter, but also how to teach, how to orchestrate a class, and how to have fun doing it.

In senior year, she took me on as an unofficial apprentice because I told her my twin goals in life were to write and to teach. I watched what she did in classrooms as an observer, and she even showed me how she graded papers. When I started teaching, her model was always in my head. She was in my head.

Recently I’ve been teaching at Michigan State University. Like many colleges and universities, the powers-that-be have no idea what a good learning environment is for teaching literature or creative writing. They especially overcrowd the creative writing workshops, which means students can’t get the attention they need in class or out of it. That’s grossly unfair to the students, many of whom work more than one job to help pay their tuition.

Typically I’ve had twenty-five students in writing workshops, though once it was thirty. Yes, thirty. These class sizes not only made it harder for me to give students all the attention and feedback they need, the overcrowding made it harder for students to get to know each other and feel comfortable sharing their work. But administrators don’t seem to care.

Luckily I’ve also been able to teach independent study students and supervise their senior theses, where individual attention is the critical foundation.  When you sign up for one of my workshops, you’re really doing an independent study.

I’m applying what I’ve learned in many years of classroom teaching in a very focused way. I get to coach and mentor writers at all stages and offer the kind of individualized attention that learning to write requires. No matter where you are in your development as a writer, sharing your work with someone requires trust and an atmosphere of safety. That’s what I saw my college mentor create over and over. Teaching online, I can truly share what I learned from her, and carry on a family tradition in an exciting new way.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of twenty-five books in a dozen different genres, including a guide to the Writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk. You can find his creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.