The Madmen Legacy: Women and the Big Sexy Novel

February 3rd, 2016

Nostalgia works like Photoshop—it smoothes out all the rough edges and unwanted wrinkles. So as we look back at an era, even if it’s one we’ve lived through, we can’t help but see it through a kindly filter.

Take the Sixties. This was a time of overt gender discrimination, sexual harassment, racial tension, political corruption and, in addition to daily media reports of body counts in a remote Asian war, the very real fear of world-wide nuclear annihilation. But it was also the era of miniskirts, the Rolling Stones, LSD, Women’s Lib, contraception, celebrity models, the Boogaloo, the Jet Set, and the birth of the Big Sexy Novel.

It was the age of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, and it was captured not through social analysis, but through fiction. Novelists like Harold Robbins, Grace Metalious, and Jacqueline Susann picked up where writers like John O’Hara and Kathleen Winsor left off, to usher in the era of Big Sexy Novels—now somewhat pejoratively labeled “women’s fiction”—that were notable for their depiction of women as sexual beings rather than romantic paragons. For the first time in “legitimate” contemporary literature (i.e. excluding erotica), female fictional characters got down and funky, indulging in illicit affairs, exhibiting untrammeled ambition, and feeling guilty for things they’d done, enjoyed, and would probably do again.

Who could help but feel guiltily aroused when Jacqueline Susann’s innocent January in Once Is Not Enough submits to a drug-induced sexcapade while surrounded by onlookers exhorting her to ever more debauched (and public) acts? And who didn’t laugh out loud when Jackie Collins’s dead-eyed movie star in Hollywood Wives declared, by way of foreplay, “I want to be on top”?

Oh, we all pretended to be above such salacious foolishness, and denigrated the readers of such drivel: They only read these books for the sex, insisted the high-minded among us. Well, excuse me, but that just ain’t, and has never been, so. Adult bookstores, now gone the way of the dodo, were stocking dirty books long before the advent of the Big Sexy Novel. We didn’t read Jackie, Jacqueline, or Judith (Krantz) just for the juicy parts; but those parts made the novels more fun to read. Fiction became less about literature and more about amusement. At last, perhaps to the dismay of the erudite but to the delight of the average reader, we had hardcovers that were as addictive and easy to read as pulp paperbacks, only longer.

Here’s another criticism that was oft repeated: It’s not the sex I mind. I’m as open-minded as the next guy. What I object to is gratuitous sex. Oh, right. Gratuitous sex, which means what? Sex scenes that aren’t necessary to the plot? If so, doesn’t that mean that the only non-gratuitous sex would be in what used to be known as “left-hand books”, in which sex is the plot?

And finally: Aren’t there any stories about nice girls?

Yes, I suppose there were, but publishers weren’t producing them. This was the era of big author advances and million-copy print runs. Thanks to the Big Sexy Novel, which followed closely on the heels of the Big Historical Novel (tomes of between six hundred and a thousand pages of very loose history—seventeenth century London was probably the front runner here—and lots of improbable romance), publishers were, perhaps for the first time since the printing of the Gutenberg Bible, virtually guaranteed to make a buck, and a good one. In fact, I’d say the era of the Sixties and Seventies could well be called the Golden Age of Publishing, at least in the realm of popular fiction.

Alas, those days are no more. At present, both publishers and authors seem to be trying fervently to keep up with the demands of teenagers (aka Young Adults), who—talk about strange—have somehow taken the driver’s seat in the arena of contemporary fiction. Now here are your nice girls, folks. No orgies shall be countenanced for our new favorites—witches, vampires, kids with cancer, and brave teens who save the dystopian future while the adult characters look on in mute admiration.

Ah, springtime has come. We don’t want to read sexy novels anymore. At least we say we don’t. And the publishers listen, even though they’re going bankrupt.

But don’t we miss—just a little—those yummy, cynical, world-weary tales of girls gone bad—and loving it?

I do, for sure. That’s why I wrote MIREILLE. Why I’m proud to have produced a novel that even my friends will claim they’d never read. I did it for old times’ sake. For fun. For Jackie and Jacqueline and the rest of the grown-up girls’ club who celebrated a time before AIDS scared our pants back on, when sex was neither responsible nor mature, and reading about it was almost as much fun as doing it.

My Time in the Big House

June 8th, 2015

I suppose it was religion that prompted me to propose a writing course for the inmates at the county jail. Not that I was religious: I was what I considered a mythologically free Yankee forced by the exigencies of fate, or karma, or a complete lack of cogent thought to live in rural southern Tennessee.

I’d moved there for the most embarrassing of reasons. After my divorce from my writing partner, with whom I’d collaborated on a number of popular and moneymaking airport reads, I was without a husband, home, or career. Even worse, my son—our only child—was going away to college at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN. My solution to this existential dilemma was to move with him in order to share his undergraduate experience and provide him with the social life—meaning talking to me—for which I felt he would surely be yearning.

I was warned. As I sold and packed up the house in Pennsylvania that I’d just bought, my friends tried to tell me that 18-year-old males didn’t usually want their moms to go to college with them, but I waved them away. “It’s not like that,” I explained breezily. “He’ll be in a dorm. I’ll just be nearby. For brunch and things.”

Brunch never happened. With the exception of having to pick him up outside the dean’s office after a brief suspension for participating in a melée during a drunken fraternity party, I was not included in my son’s inner circle. Nor did his new girlfriend welcome me with open arms. I was lost.

Since I had stopped writing, having decided that micro-managing my son’s life took precedence over any literary ambitions I might entertain, I had nothing to occupy my time in this alien part of the country where the principal pastime seemed to be attending church.

There are all sorts of Christian churches in the Deep South. In addition to the standard ones I was familiar with, there were what I called “showtime” churches, with smiling musicians accompanying ceiling projections of Jesus flying through the cosmos, His arms outstretched like Superman’s; the hellfire-and-brimstone churches that guaranteed that the only people with any hope of entering heaven were the 72 members of its congregation; churches whose cornerstone was an abiding hatred of homosexuals; and churches that, for reasons that elude me even now, encourage its faithful to get bitten by poisonous snakes during the 11 AM service. I know these things because that was how I planned to make friends and build a new life for myself—by going to church. However, being unaccustomed to churchly life, I determined that I should try out a number of churches. I threw myself wholeheartedly into the social circles of several, including one that was on a rotation to hold a service at the Sequatchie County Jail.

There, amid the testimonials and Amens, the rousing hymns and arm waving, my writerly self at last began to wake up. Who are these women? I asked myself. They all looked pretty homogenous—white, for the most part, and mainly young, with longish hair devoid of product, no makeup, and wearing the kind of overshirt/pajama uniform worn by surgical nurses. But I knew they had all done fairly extraordinary things to end up behind bars, and became seized with the desire to know them.So I spoke with the man in charge of inmate activities—the chaplain, as it turned out, which may have explained the plethora of visiting churches. In fact, aside from GED classes provided by the state and weekly AA meetings, church gatherings seemed to be the only approved program on the roster. (Apparently, once there had been a diet group for women whose primary rule was that whenever a member of the group felt like noshing on a Ho Ho, she had to confer with another member and together they would pray for weight loss, but it had been disbanded before I arrived.) Although I was experienced—I’d taught a college class in Advanced Novel Writing a couple of years before—I didn’t hold out much hope that my proposal to start a creative writing group would be approved. To my surprise, though, it was.

Attendance at my class was spectacular, undoubtedly because of the mind-numbing sameness of jail life. Prison, it was explained to me, is more fun because there’s more to do, but given a choice, an inmate will probably choose jail because it’s closer to home, even though amusements were limited to stealing one another’s pillows and attending church.My first assignments were short and uncontroversial: Describe the color red. Which musical instrument would you be? What is your favorite memory? I asked them to read their essays out loud, and stipulated that they were required to applaud at the end of each reading. I’d expected some objection to the applause decree, but my students accepted it without question, often blushing with pride when the applause was for them.

Their writing was always surprising. A 30-year-old Mensa member who was serving time for driving the getaway car in an armed robbery wrote a pastoral essay about the mollifying effects of smoking crack outdoors. Another wrote about cooking meth with her mom. Some of the stories were heartbreaking, such as one woman’s oddly cheerful account describing how she was prostituted by her parents; some were simply horrifying. Most were badly spelled, incorrectly punctuated, and lacking in structural variety, which made me realize how unimportant these conventions are. Writing is about telling the truth. Period. Without that, nothing else matters.

In the college class I taught, the students complained constantly, either about the outrageous length (five pages) of my assignments, or the grades I gave them for what any serious writer would consider minimal effort. But here in jail, no one shirked the assignments, ever. Pens weren’t allowed (they can be made into weapons), so my students wrote in pencil, dozens of pages every week, laying out their stories as if the horrors they’d experienced—motel rooms filled with guns, overdosing on drugs, standing by in handcuffs while their children were taken from them by force—were, in some unforgiving, terrifying universe, commonplace occurrences.

In time, we moved onto autobiographies, along with brief lessons on things like unreliable narrators in fiction, and the hallmarks of existentialist thought. I never had to lecture on the importance of writing with integrity, though, or of making real connections with their emotions. Every sentence these women wrote came from the deepest core of their souls.
Before I left to move back north (with my son’s blessing and an audible sigh of relief) I gave each of my students a journal as a parting gift. They were disappointed that I didn’t have certificates for them, evidence of accomplishment, with their names written in Black Forest Bold. I wish I’d thought of it.

At our last class, they applauded me. I think that may have been the closest I ever came to understanding religion. I can still hear it.

Don’t Think!

January 18th, 2015

Recently I wrote an “author’s tip” for The Knight Agency (my agency for YA books, also known as TKA) newsletter. It was a truncated version of what follows:

If I could pass on one piece of advice to aspiring writers, it would be this: Don’t Think! More accurately: Don’t Think While You’re Writing Your First Draft. That means don’t plot, characterize, research, or explore the major themes of your novel while you’re laying down the ideas that propelled you to write in the first place. During that initial outpouring of story, thinking–which includes planning, studying, or otherwise intellectualizing your project–is the enemy. Thinking will have you rewriting the first sentence a hundred times. It will curdle your initial brilliant idea and turn it into a stagnant cliche. It will convince you that your novel is stupid and not worth finishing.

I know. I’ve been there. As an inveterate thinker–that is, someone who solves problems by thinking them through (rather than, say, grasping their emotional import or taking immediate action), my usual desire, when planning a book, is to pin down every plot point, every relationship, every minute bit of research, before I even begin.

To some degree, this is okay. If you’re writing about Tokyo in 1912, as I currently am, you need to know what clothes people were wearing, what the general political climate was, what sort of transportation was used (Here’s a surprise: In 1912, Tokyo was criss-crossed by canals, and the major mode of transport was by boat), and so on, meaning that a certain amount of research is called for. Likewise, although some writers will disagree with me on this point, I believe it is necessary to know in advance of writing anything as long and complex as a novel what the story line will be.

But that is where the thinking should end. After abandoning a half-dozen novels before page 100 because I couldn’t justify their imperfection, I’ve learned that passion, not intellect, is the raw material of art. The first draft of a novel ought to be an exhilarating, thrill-a-minute ride in which your creativity soars, untrammeled, to new heights. Let yourself be inspired by your own words. Fall into your story with the passion of a lover. If you get stuck, draw a line or a series of asterisks, and move on to the next place where you can fly again. Remember, you can correct every mistake. You can rewrite every awkward sentence once you’re finished with the first draft. But you cannot infuse a creative spark into a safe, academic screed. And without that spark, the work will be meaningless, to both the author and the reader.

So to any fledgling writers who may be reading this, I say go! Don’t be sensible. Don’t imagine your success or your humiliation. Don’t analyze. Don’t compare.

Don’t think.

Just leap onto the page, and let it take you on the ride of your life. Believe me, it’s more fun that way.


December 16th, 2014

Just got word that a story of mine was rejected. I’ll get over it; I always do. Rejection is part of a writer’s universe. Still, sometimes the Screaming Meemies jump out of their subconscious closet and shout in my ear: “What makes you think you’re any good? Do you have anything to say, really? Or have you wasted your life telling stories that no one wants to hear?”

Ah, well. Nothing to be done, I suppose, except to stuff the Meemies back into the closet and get to work. My book isn’t going to write itself, after all.

And maybe I’ll eat a pint of ice cream. Right out of the container, with a plastic spoon.

The Hometown That Never Was: World Building

April 30th, 2014

There is a town somewhere along the coast of Massachusetts that was founded by witches in 1658. Today its population includes the largest percentage of people with extrasensory abilities in the United States.

That place is my imagination.

But I’ve named that segment of my imagination Whitfield, and I’ve based three novels and two novellas there which, on paper at least, makes the place real. It isn’t, of course; the “real” Whitfield exists only in my mind. But its reflection—all those pages filled with words—enable Whitfield to be seen and explored by anyone who cares to read the books.

It is that construction of words that can achieve the impossible. A town peopled by witches exists because we writers make that possible. How? Through history, characters, and a special vocabulary, we can amass enough details to explore a colony on Saturn, reincarnate King Arthur, make animals speak . . . With these three tools, we can bring the ideas in our imaginations to life.

Very few stories take place in a vacuum. If you set your action in Anywhere, USA thinking that the location has no bearing on your story, you’ll end up with something like a painting of figures against a bare canvas. The background—even if that’s all your location is—tells its own story. In Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, for example, Macon, Georgia, with its oppressive heat and the longstanding narrow-minded attitude of its citizens, creates the powder keg that explodes in the book’s climax. A novel’s setting becomes even more important in cases in which the entire world must be restructured to fit the realities of the story.

World building is most often used in Science Fiction or futuristic novels in which dwellings, transportation, clothing, and even language depart from current reality, but it is also necessary, if less graphic, in fiction about seemingly ordinary places that nevertheless possess extraordinary characteristics. To create a town populated by witches, I had to create its origins.

My premise is that Whitfield, Mass., was founded by 27 families from the British Isles who traveled together to the New World to escape persecution. In this universe, the 27 families have remained in Whitfield, allowing other, non-magical people (cowen, in my lexicon) to move into the town’s periphery, but never selling their homes in what I call “Old Town” to anyone except other descendants of those founding families, and never revealing their particular talents to outsiders.
The witches in Whitfield live by the ancient Witches’ Rede, which is: To know, to act, to dare, to keep silent. By filling my town with secretive, close-mouthed personalities, I maintain its singularity.

Naturally, when a writer creates a place so different from reality, the characters will exhibit their own eccentricities, even if they behave quite normally most of the time. In Whitfield, the residents seem quite ordinary at first glance. It is only as the stories progress that we learn that my main character, Katy Ainsworth, is a telekinetic, or that her 86-year-old great-grandmother is a healer whose touch dispels sickness and injury, her Aunt Agnes is a professor at Stanford University in California and commutes to work by teleporting; that the assistant headmistress at her school is a djinn who can plant thoughts into the minds of others, and her boyfriend’s eleven-year-old brother can raise the dead.

Finally, I invented a “character” I call the Darkness to add an ongoing touch of menace to each of the Whitfield stories. The Darkness is what keeps Whitfield from being a Utopia. It is the fly in the ointment, the elephant in the room, the evil entity that lurks forever just out of earshot, but is always present.

In every imaginary world that deviates significantly from reality, there will be a specific vocabulary for the characters and situations in that world. In the Harry Potter books, muggles was the author’s made-up word for non-magical people. I chose to use a real term, cowen, used from time immemorial by avowed Wiccans to indicate “other”.

As with foreign words, the unique vocabulary of your world must be explained within the context of your narrative. For example, the word “witch”: In other works of fiction, it has come to mean anything from an evil woman who curses using Latinate phrases to a supernatural being who flies through the air on a broom. In my purview, though, I mean something quite different. “Witch,” in Whitfield, is a word used by the extraordinary residents themselves only to distinguish themselves from cowen, and carries no haunted-house overtones. So Katy’s ability to move objects with her mind, which would be regarded as freakish anywhere else, is nothing remarkable in Whitfield.

With the otherworldly aspects of the town established, I’m free, then, to take Katy on adventures that I hope are accepted as utterly believable. So far, she’s come to Whitfield, discovered her roots there, fallen in love with the handsome and loyal—although often clueless—Peter Shaw, encountered the Darkness several times, opened a portal to another plane of existence, and, in the third novel to be released later this year, goes to Paris, where she gets to know a whole different variety of witch from the homey residents of Whitfield.

In the novella Wishes, she comes upon a snarky fairy who grants every wish Katy makes, with disastrous consequences, all of it totally in keeping with the funny/creepy vibe I’ve tried to infuse in all the works in this series by making Whitfield as believable as everybody’s own hometown.

Is Reading still Relevant?

February 28th, 2014

Q: What do you call a writer who doesn’t read?

a) A busy person
b) Someone whose thoughts are more important than others’
c) An individual who already knows everything there is to know
d) A failure

The answer, IMHO, is d), a failure. I’d like to believe that most writers know this, just as I want to think that most writers are aware that understanding the difference between your and you’re–or there, their, and they’re–is a prerequisite for a successful writing career. Still, in this era of self-publishing, in which anyone can call him/herself a writer, there is an awful lot of horrible stuff out there, written by people who don’t read and can’t spell, and seem to feel that media manipulation can take the place of artistry.

I recently read an article by a self-proclaimed “social media guru” (Yes, guru was the word used) who admonished writers to learn the intricacies of all social media “as if your life depended on it . . . because it does. (Emphasis mine)

Excuse me, but my life doesn’t depend on how frequently I tweet. Nor does–dare I say it?–my career as a writer. As I see it, Twitter and other social media only work as marketing tools if a) you’re already a celebrity with a wide following, or b) if you’re growing a fan base by developing relationships with people in your stream, who will eventually buy your books because they’re interested in you.

This last is indeed a viable reason to participate in these platforms. The downside is that they take time. One tweet a day–or three or four–exhorting strangers to buy your book isn’t going to do anything for you. Another article I recently read was by a woman who claimed that sales of her (debut) novel had skyrocketed through her involvement with Twitter. She went on to explain that, after tweeting an average of 45 times a day for two years, she had developed a number of cyber-relationships with like-minded individuals who, because of their tweeting acquaintance, wanted to further explore her ideas by reading her book.

For the first time, I began to understand the value of Twitter. But after reading the article, my question was–and still is–that if you tweet 45 times a day, when do you have time to read books? Or write them, for that matter? What if you work at a full-time job in addition to your writing schedule? Can you hope to write whole novels while actively pursuing a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Yolo, Goodreads, and Snapchat? And if so, when do you read? At the bottom of all this is a deeper question: Under these circumstances, is reading even an option anymore?

By reading, I’m not talking about squibs forwarded from friends into your email inbox, or the sort of blogs I’ve been referring to in this essay. I mean reading books, written by people who know (or knew) something about life, who may actually know (or have known) more than we ourselves do.

Traditionally, reading the work of others has been how writers learned to write. This makes sense. The shoulders of, say, Simone de Beauvoir or Aldous Huxley or Ezra Pound–important writers whose work has nevertheless not been made into movies–are there for us to climb onto. Even popular novelists whose books have been translated into films will tell you that watching the plots of their stories played out in a visual medium is not the same as reading their words.

What I’m saying is that writing without reading is like having to invent the wheel every time one sits down to work. Each wheel will be basically round, true, but it will never evolve from being a wheel to being a car or a clock or a ball bearing, because those things have come about by people who studied the wheels of others and so were able to surpass them.

Is reading necessary? That used to be a ridiculous question, since writers who didn’t read were always quantifiable failures–meaning they didn’t get published because they weren’t good enough–but that point is no longer moot. Please don’t get the impression that I’m demeaning all self-published work, because I’m not. I believe that, with the reactionary practices of America’s Bix Six publishers, the work of many fine writers wouldn’t otherwise get an opportunity to be in print. But even the most fervent advocate of self-publishing would have to admit that a lot of terrible so-called writers have cluttered up the market with execrable, unedited first drafts that are misspelled, cliche-riddled, and grammatically atrocious. Writing is not just another way to make money, or a cheap route to transient fame. It is, aside from all the marketing hoopla, an art form, and those of us who pursue this profession must strive to be artists, not hacks who equate producing books with squeezing link sausages out of a grinder.

I read, and I advocate reading, because I don’t want my voice to be the loudest sound in my head. There are other voices that I need to hear, and they are all speaking from books.

Is There Such a Thing as a “Writer’s Personality”?

October 2nd, 2013


While speaking to some high school students a few months ago, someone asked me if there were certain qualities that characterized a writer. It was such an intriguing question that I had to give it some thought. Is writing an intellectual skill that is learned, like a knowledge of geography, or are some people simply disposed, by virtue of their inborn character, to become writers?

I’ve always believed that writers were made, not born. We are forged in the fires of early life and teaching. Many of us began to write as a way to escape whatever trouble the “real” world inflicted on us. Personally, I’ve always felt safer in the universes I create than in the one I am forced to live in.

But is the writer’s need to write even more basic than a pervasive dissatisfaction with life as we know it? Are some of us, in fact, born to write?

My conclusion—which, I hasten to add, is entirely subjective and unscientific—is yes. Yes, there are some characteristics that, while not necessary to the craft of writing itself, may make the writing life more appealing to some than to others.

If I’m right, it may explain to some degree why so many people with considerable writing talent never produce a book, while others with less brilliance go on to become professional—and successful—novelists.

And so, ridiculous as my theory may be, I present here, for entertainment purposes only, five characteristics that I believe most writers possess:

1. An affinity for solitude. If the only professional writers you’re familiar with are TV characters like Richard Castle and Jessica Fletcher, you may think a novelist’s life is a glamorous round of book signings, lecture tours, and launch parties. But the truth is, even if you’re a huge success and actually do these things, most of the time you’re alone. Writing is solitary. The only relationship you’ve got going while you’re working is between you and your thoughts. So if you’re one of those people who need warm bodies around you to feel comfortable, this line of work isn’t for you.

2. A (slightly) selfish character. This is related to point #1. However fond you may be of your spouse, children, parents, and friends, your work will require you to spend considerable amounts of time without their company. This may be okay with you, but informing these people that, while you love them, you need for them to butt out of your life for long stretches of time often leads to accusations of neglect and selfishness…which, alas, are often true. We know that what we do isn’t really selfish—it’s more like serving a demanding taskmaster—but the non-writers of our acquaintance, especially those close to us, are unlikely to understand this.

3. A love of reading. Writing without reading is like talking without listening. You can’t learn much just by rehashing what’s already in your head. You have to fill it with new information, and reading is the best way to do this. A bit of advice: Don’t worry about what you read; just read what you like. A big part of being a good writer is knowing who you are. If you read nothing but sci-fi, don’t write romance novels.

4. A willingness to accept criticism (and failure). Your friends may allow you to bask in their endless praise but, believe me, once you take your work into the publishing world, the applause stops. An editor will never tell you that your work is so flawless that you’d better start writing your Nobel prize acceptance speech. Your agent—should you be lucky enough to get one—will send your manuscript out to dozens of publishing houses, most (if not all) of which will invariably reject it with little explanation. An acceptance in this milieu is cause for jubilation, not a common occurrence. When an editor does buy your book, you’ll probably have to rewrite it a number of times according to her suggestions, which you may or may not agree with. There’s some leeway here, but if you flatly refuse to change anything you’ve written, chances are pretty good that you’ll be looking for another publishing home before long. There is no room for arrogance here. When your book is sold, it is no longer your exclusive property. But take heart: Following direction will make you a more skillful writer, and after all the frustrating rewrites, your book will show it.

5. A passion for writing that surmounts all obstacles. It’s not easy to be an artist. The standards of success are different from those of the business world. Yes, some writers do achieve fame and fortune, but for most of us the principal reward comes from being able to spend our working lives doing what we love. Still, there are some drawbacks that people in other professions don’t encounter. Throughout your teenage years, people who care about you admonish you to “be realistic” or “get a real job”. As you reach full adulthood, you usually do get a real job out of financial necessity, followed by the further challenges of marriage and a family. And then, as you approach what would in other fields be called retirement, you may feel qualms about how much you’ve really done with your life. Where’s the big house and fancy car you might have if you’d become, say, a stockbroker instead of a writer? How many relationships did you sacrifice in order to pursue your dream? Why, after a lifetime of excellent work, do you still have to seek the approval of editors who are half your age and bloggers who can’t spell above a third grade level? Was it worth it?

Is it?

If your answer to that, after reading what I’ve written, is yes, then the decision to become a writer has already been made, whether or not you fit the criteria I’ve posited. And to you I say, Go forth, you brave and stalwart soul! Regard yourself as a writer and an artist without shame or explanation. Ignore the criticism and scorn of others. Accept that you will always be a student, even when you have become a master. Chronicle your time. Translate your life into words. Follow your bliss.

Be free.

Does a Writer Need to be Selfish?

August 11th, 2013

James Joyce forced his wife and children to live in abject penury for 17 years while he wrote Finnegans Wake--a novel that, when finally published, was almost universally reviled for its abstruse weirdness, and made almost no money for its author. Alice Walker’s daughter claims that her mother ignored her only child during her formative years while the author remained holed up writing in a cabin a hundred miles from the family home. At the time of Dylan Thomas’ death (from alcohol poisoning in a New York bar), he was having an affair with his touring agent’s assistant, having left his wife and children home in Wales.

These writers, all of them recognized as true artists of high stature, were heavily criticized by their friends and families for putting their work ahead of their personal obligations. While few would argue that ignoring one’s spouse or neglecting one’s children constitutes admirable behavior, were/are these writers inherently lacking in what might be considered common decency, or is “selfishness” a necessary characteristic of successful writers?

I don’t know the answer. I cringe when I hear about a popular YA author who admitted to missing twelve of her children’s birthdays because of her constant touring, but I also remember telling my son that he would have to find a ride to the nightly rehearsals for his high school musical because I was working under a deadline. We want to be good people, but sometimes it seems as if we’re at the mercy of some demanding and implacable despot that makes normal human interaction nearly impossible.

And it’s not just deadlines or the demands of agents, editors, and publicists that we must accommodate. The very nature of our work necessitates a certain degree of constancy. It takes time–although less time with each book–to achieve that state of Flow (see previous entries) in which our ideas come to us in a rapid and orderly fashion, making the act of writing effortless and pleasurable. Before then, writing a novel, which involves a number of different interweaving ideas, is like starting a locomotive. There’s a lot of huffing and puffing and spinning of wheels with little result until the engine gets hot and the big machine starts rolling. If we only write once in a while (or if we’re repeatedly interrupted), then our writing is like a train that never leaves the station.

I’ve met literally hundreds of people who claim to be/want to be/might have been/ writers, but don’t write. And whether it’s true or not, they all say that the reason they don’t write is because they don’t have the time. I, for one, believe them. Time is our currency, and there’s only so much of it in every life. The TV ads and magazine articles that insist we can have it all are wrong. You can’t work 60 hours a week, raise four happy kids, have a terrific relationship with your significant other, maintain your standing as a championship skier, and write a novel at the same time. In fact, most of us can’t manage any more than two of the above activities simultaneously, and few even manage that well.

There’s the rub. How much of your time are you willing to give your (writing) work? How long does it take to get the wheels of your train moving? When should you stop after Flow finally does kick in? How much of your writing time can you sacrifice to promote the books you’ve already written? How supportive of your work are the people around you? How far do you push them before they feel resentful and betrayed by your selfish devotion to what they might consider your addiction to self-aggrandizement?

These are not easy questions to answer. The fact is, we can’t just be writers. We’re human beings, with human needs–for connection, affection, sexuality, propagation–as well as artists who understand exactly how demanding our art is.

Must we be selfish?
Yes, I believe so. To a degree.

Must we choose between writing and “real” life?
All the time.

How do we find the right balance?
I don’t know. Do we ever? Or is it always a struggle between Big I–the Master of the Universe who creates worlds with words–and Little I, father, mother, wife, husband, daughter, son, friend, employee?

Even the questions seem selfish.

The Tao of Ghostwriting

May 29th, 2013

The following originally appeared as a guest blog on Adventures in YA Publishing on May 22, 2013.

In these days of reality TV competitions, we hear the word attitude repeated endlessly. Attitude, loosely translated as “forcing everyone to recognize how special you are,” is apparently prized by TV judges, but personally I’m not a fan. At least not as far as writing is concerned.

Why? Because nobody ever got to be a great writer by posing as one.

I started my writing career as a ghostwriter. Although it’s a little ego-bruising to write someone else’s book, ghostwriting is actually a pretty good way to learn how to write salable commercial fiction.

For one thing, you usually have to write outside your intellectual comfort zone. The books I cut my teeth on were in a men’s action/adventure series. Action was a genre I’d never read, let alone written, but under the direction of the series’ authors (I figured that, having written 43 of these books before I came along, these two guys must have known what they were doing), I found my way. I once wrote a battle scene in which my protagonist was pitted against several adversaries. This series (it’s still in existence) isn’t particularly realistic, as the hero is almost superhuman, so I had him zipping around gleefully dispatching his opponents as if they were Barbie dolls in camo.

In rejecting the scene, one of my bosses gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received. He told me that death is never casual. Even in a comedic series, you have to take some things seriously. In other words, however fanciful the story may be, you have to tell the truth about everything that really matters. And when someone dies, it matters.

Telling the truth is a basic tenet of good writing in any genre. Even though I’m writing a paranormal YA series these days (Legacy, Poison, Seduction), in which all manner of strange and magical things occur—my main character is a telekinetic who lives in a town in which nearly everyone possesses some sort of extraordinary ability—I always remember the advice of that early mentor. Death is not casual. Nor is love, friendship, trust, betrayal, guilt, shame, forgiveness, redemption, sacrifice, pain, or honor.

In everything that matters, respect must be paid to the truth, and nothing but the truth will do. I call this concept “lying naked on the table” because that’s really what writing is—laying bare your own thinly disguised fears and weaknesses, and then offering them up for the world to see. In Radiohead’s “Creep,” the narrator is an outsider who echoes what he believes is the sneering opinion of the world when he calls himself a “creep” and a “weirdo.” I’m just guessing here, but I think that maybe someone in the band knew first hand what it felt like to be treated disrespectfully by the In Crowd. They’re telling the truth, and we know it.

Another thing I learned through ghostwriting is how to please. Yes, I know we’re serious writers and don’t need anyone’s approval, but the truth is, having to write something acceptable to an author who has hired you is good practice for working with an editor whose criticisms will undoubtedly be harsher than the author’s and whose suggestions will be infinitely more demanding.

I just finished a massive rewrite of a book that I believed was terrific, since it had been bought by a major publisher. But when I got the editor’s notes, I was devastated. She wanted to change everything, from the characters’ relationships to the identity of the villain!

For a week or two, I reread those (copious) notes, feeling ill-used and defensive. Attitude with a scarlet A. Then I had an epiphany. Well, two. One was that, okay, I didn’t want to give back the money. But the big lightbulb moment was when I realized that my editor hadn’t taken the time to write all those notes just to hurt my feelings. Like me, her goal had been to produce the best book possible. That had been the whole point of her criticism: to help me.

So once again I made myself put my ego aside and accept the help that was offered from someone I knew I had every reason to trust.

The result was a better book than I had even imagined—structurally tighter, emotionally deeper, and thematically more resonant than my previous best effort. My editor, for all her picky notes, was on my side after all.

Perhaps at this point you’re making a list of people you can strongarm into reading your manuscript in a quest for “honest feedback”. Don’t. The feedback you get from friends will never be honest. They’ll only stroke your ego—something we can all do very well on our own, thank you. Besides, you don’t have to solicit honest feedback. It’ll come to you in the form of rejection letters, dismissals, faint praise, silence, and, if you’re lucky, a hard slap to the Attitude.

So let me ask one question: Which end of a knife is more useful, the handle or the blade?

Lie naked on the table, and let them cut. Criticism is surgery, and humility is the anesthetic that allows you to tolerate it. In the end, the process will make you a stronger, more flexible, and truly creative writer. It will replace attitude with genuine confidence, and empty arrogance with artistry.

Pride and Publication

February 28th, 2013

I’ve just received “notes” from my editor. These “notes”–a euphemism if ever there was one–begin with exuberant praise for the book I’ve written. Apparently it’s a marvelous novel, original, salable, and charming. This flattery achieves its desired effect. I am beaming and bursting with pride for what has been established by an editor of a venerable and world-renowned publishing house as a thoroughly delightful piece of writing.

Then come the “notes”. These are, actually, commands. Six single-spaced pages in agate type suggesting–that is, suggesting very strongly–that I modify the characters, alter their relationships, change the story, eliminate key scenes, shift the point of view, select a different theme, and write a new ending. Voila, that’s all! Oh, and have it back in 8 weeks, okay?

Hey, I’m not complaining. After all, I’m being pubished. After 30 books, that’s still a miracle, given the degree of competition (Is there anyone in America these days who isn’t writing a novel?). But I am trying to make a point, and that point is that we can’t escape criticism, even from people who love our work.

Nor should we want to. Criticism illuminates the areas where our stories are weak. If it’s intelligent criticism, it points us in a direction we can take to make our work better. Even if the criticism is rude, crude, and meant to hurt us personally, there will be at least a grain of truth in it.

That’s really the only difference between self-published authors and paid novelists: One can get away with a “good enough” first draft and, for his money, then gets to strut around with his pride intact. The other (of which I am one, so I’ll use the feminine gender here) subjects herself to seemingly endless rewrites, trusting the people who chose to publish her, putting her pride in check for the purpose of producing the best book possible.

And that, I believe, is why we get published in the first place.

As to the personal wounds inflicted: eh. We all know the world is full of a-holes. Let that go. Take only what is said about your work seriously, because that’s the only thing you really need to pay attention to.