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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Journalistic Method: A Technique for Authors (Part 1)

Without doubt, one of the best places to learn the craft of writing is in the professional newsroom.

The number of successful authors of fiction and non-fiction books, who began their careers as journalists, is remarkable. Here is a list of 10 (It could be 50 or 100):

·        Charles Dickens
·        Samuel Clements (Mark Twain)
·        Ken Follett
·        Thomas Thompson
·        Ernest Hemingway
·        Edna Buchanan
·        George Orwell
·        Graham Greene
·        PG Wodehouse
·        Tom Wolfe

Ernest Hemingway
Someone once asked Ernest Hemingway where he learned to write. His answer: working as a general assignment reporter for the Kansas City Star from 1917 to 1918.

"Everything I needed to know about writing I learned from the Kansas City Star style sheet," Hemingway once said.

The first paragraph of that style sheet reflects Hemingway's writing style. It begins: "Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative."

The advice may seem simplistic, but it is far from it. One of the first things I learned as a young journalist (coincidentally, at the Kansas City Star) was how to write succinctly and clearly and how to gather information accurately.

Hemingway did all of those things--and he did them well, both as a journalist and later as a Nobel Prize winning novelist.

Not far behind those skills is something called Journalistic Method. That is a fancy phrase for how a journalist works.

That is what I want to talk about today. In parts 2 and 3 of my blog on Journalistic Method I will get into some of the other skill sets such as the aforementioned ability to write succinctly and clearly, how to gather information accurately, and how to organize it and present it in a compelling way. Those who write novels can learn a lot from the skills required to produce excellent journalism.

Journalism is an empirical discipline. What do I mean by that?

It means, like science, it is a search for truth. It means you use trial and error, observation and analysis to find the truth.

The Dictionary defines empiricism it this way: Relying on or derived from observation or experiment: empirical results that supported the hypothesis. b. Verifiable or provable by means of observation or experiment: empirical laws. Guided by practical experience and not theory.

It’s also how journalists go about finding stories.

For the scientist, empiricism means arriving at a truth via observation and experimentation. For the journalist the empirical tools are: Observation and Interviewing.

The best writers, whether they are journalists, novelists or authors of non-fiction books, are the best observers.

Observation is the basis of everything.

Take this story from Asia about a Buddhist sage walking with two students through the forest. He stops suddenly and looks up at a tree.

"What do you observe in the tree?" He asks the first student. The first student’s eyes lock on the tree. Suddenly his face lights up.

“I see a bird in the tree, master” he says, sure his powers of observation in finding the small bird in the tree's thick green foliage will please his religious teacher.

“What do you see?” the aged priest asks the other student.

The second student pauses, his eyes fixed on the tree for several moments.

Finally, the second student speaks: “I see a bird with red, yellow and black feathers sitting on a dead limb. A green tree snake is crawling on a limb just behind the bird.”

That is observation. Observation is an active, not a passive process.


Legend has it that the ancient Druids forced candidates for the priesthood to study an oak tree and capture its every feature. Then the candidate would be questioned about the tree. If the candidate failed to describe the tree accurately, he would be nailed to it.

Druidic discipline is not practiced in newsrooms, but the precision of observation it was intended to encourage should be. Not every good reporter is a good writer, but every good writer is a good reporter. Reporting IS observation.

Of the qualities that distinguish good from bad writing, three depend directly on observation. They are clarity, precision, and appeal to the senses. The others—pacing and transition—lend grace and power to the expression of what you have observed.

Clarity, precision and appeal to the senses seldom are achieved just by looking or listening. You usually have to seek out information that is not readily apparent.

The reporter’s main research tool is interviewing. All reporters interview; but few interview as well as they might. Fewer still get beyond the interview to other sources of information and understanding.

Documents, the records of business, government and personal life, can be invaluable in answering questions and providing detail. Even the methods of social science offer help for the writer who would be a better observer.

A keen observer understands the importance of detail and texture, as well as the use of precise language. That means a dearth of adjectives and heavy on action verbs—fueled by detailed observation.

My advice: To write well, first see well.

Good observation depends on two things: concentration and analysis. As a writer you must be an observer by occupation. That means you’re always on the job. Everything you see, hear, smell, taste and touch is potentially material you can use in a story.

Flies take off backwards. So in order to swat one, you must strike slightly behind it. That’s a detail a writer should be able to pick up on. Other people see flies; a writer sees how they move.

No two people, no two situations, no two oak trees are identical. Your job is to sort out the important differences. You must get in the habit of concentrating on what is going on around you. It is hard work. How do you do it?  
  • Look for the significant detail. 
  •  Look for the revealing anecdote.
  •  Look with your mind, as well as your eyes, open.
  •   Prepare before you start to look.

Henry James once said: “Be one on whom nothing is lost.”


Listen to people talk. Listen to what they say and how they say it. Most of us don’t listen. Most of us are busy thinking about what WE want to say while someone else is talking. As a result, we misunderstand, misinterpret and worse, misquote.

Note things that others take for granted. For example, the excessive neatness of a bureaucrat’s desk may reveal not efficiency, but the fact that he or she has nothing to do! A pretentious private library may contain books with uncut pages!

So what’s the difference between a novelist and a reporter?  Besides the fact that one writes fiction and the other doesn't (or shouldn't), their goals are similar: to create compelling stories that people will want to read, learn from or be entertained by.

You must describe! You cannot rely on imagination to give you the crusty feel of crisp frozen ground underfoot or the razor-drag of chill air across your face. You must see these things; know them, before you can communicate them.

Writers are verbal creatures. But they must observe vividly. Good writers write after the fact, not from inspiration. They write what they have seen—and what they have seen well!




Thursday, July 24, 2014

So You Want to Travel Back in Time?


When I taught a class in foreign correspondence at the University of Illinois I was always saddened at how little knowledge of history my students had.

I didn't blame my students so much as I blamed their K-12 schools for sending them into the world with little if any appreciation for the past and how it shaped today's world.

I was amazed at how many students simply assumed that the world they lived in today was always this way. Most thought the modern conveniences we take for granted today were always there--just made from different materials or designed differently.

When I revealed to students how different life was in 1905 (less than 110 years ago) most were stunned.

Lunchtime on a Kansas Farm 1905

I pointed out that in 1905 average life expectancy in the U.S. was 47 years; that only 14 percent of the homes in the U.S. had a bathtub; that only 8 percent of the homes had a telephone; that 95 percent of all births took place at home; that 20 percent of adults couldn't read or write; that only 6 percent of all Americans  graduated from high school; that marijuana, heroin, and morphine were all available over the counter at the local corner drugstores; and that there were only 230 reported murders in the entire U.S. you could hear a pin drop.

Those facts alone spurred some students to learn more about life in the past.

For me, an author of historical novels, visiting the past is not an option. It is a requirement. How can you write a novel set in the 19th or 18th Centuries without understanding what life was like for the characters you create? The answer: you can't.

One semester, as I was teaching my class, I came across some fascinating facts about life in England during the 16th Century. I am sure it mirrored life in 1500's France, Germany, Italy and other European countries.

I don't know who the author is, or when it was written, or even how accurate it is, but when I shared it with my students eyes widened and jaws dropped. Here it is, and to the person who wrote this, my everlasting thanks.

THE 1500's IN ENGLAND

The next time you are washing your hands and complain because the water temperature isn't just how you like it, think about how things used to be...

Here are some facts about the 1500's, otherwise known as the middle ages:

Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and still smelled pretty good by June. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. 

The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the sons and men, then the women and finally the children -- last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it--hence the saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water."

Houses had thatched roofs -- thick straw, piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the dogs, cats and other small animals (mice rats, and bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof--hence the saying, "It's raining cats and dogs."
English Town 1500's

There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could really mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That's how canopy beds came into existence.

The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, hence the saying, "dirt poor." The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they kept adding more thresh until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entryway--hence, a "thresh-hold."

People cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire.  Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes the stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while--hence the rhyme, "peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old."

Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man "could bring home the bacon." They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and "chew the fat."

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with a high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning and death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

Most people did not have pewter plates, but had trenchers, a piece of Wood with the middle scooped out like a bowl. Often trenchers were made from stale paysan bread, which was so old and hard that they could use them for quite some time. Trenchers were never washed and a lot of times worms and mold got into the wood and old bread. After eating off wormy moldy trenchers, one would get "trench mouth."

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or "upper crust."

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock them out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat  and drink and wait and see if they would wake up-hence the custom of holding a "wake."
Market Day English Town 1500's

England is old and small and they started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a "bone-house" and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, one out of every 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive.

Somebody came up with the idea of tying a string around the wrist of the corpse. They then ran the string through the coffin up through the ground and tied it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the "graveyard shift") to listen for the bell. Thus, someone freshly buried could be "saved by the bell."

As I mentioned earlier, I have no idea how accurate any of this is, but it seems to make sense to me. (Though I always thought "saved by the bell" was a boxing term in which a fighter who had been knocked to the canvas was not counted "out" if the bell ending the round sounded first).

But what do I know. I still believe in King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, Queen Guinevere and the quest for the Holy Grail--not to mention fire breathing dragons.

A confession:  I only believe in fire breathing dragons after too much Kaw River Coffin Varnish, otherwise known as grandpappy's corn squeezin.











Friday, July 18, 2014

WRITING THE MEMOIR (Part 2)

In my last post I talked broadly about what a memoir is and what it isn't. Now I want to focus on the fundamentals of writing that you need to master in order to produce a compelling memoir.
Some people think writing is nothing more than stringing together a collection of words that sound good in a sentence. That's like a novice painter slapping a lot of different colors on a canvas because they look good together.
In both cases the creation lacks focus and doesn't tell a story.
The writer and the artist both need to understand and use the fundamentals of their disciplines in order to create something that stirs our emotions and satisfies us in some personal way.
People who write memoirs without understanding the most basic tenets of the writer's craft are like the untrained and nascent artist who wants to paint like Monet or Degas without basic conceptual knowledge of composition, accent, and perspective; or how to properly employ the color wheel, the palette, and brushes.
There are really only a couple of ways to learn those fundamentals. (1) Take some classes where your work receives evaluation and assessment from a credible, experienced professional; or (2) spend several months reading books and articles on writing and then practice, practice, practice by writing, writing, writing.
As Ernest Hemingway once said: “It's none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.” 
The first thing you will learn when you sit down in front of your computer (or before that blank sheet of paper, if you decide to compose in long hand) is that writing is an intensely solitary activity. My advice is to seek support from other writers as you work on your memoir. Few people can appreciate the struggles a writer faces like another writer can.
I already mentioned that you should consider taking a writing course at a university, community college, or community center. Classes like these provide structure and often require you to produce a set number of pages on deadline. This kind of rigid structure is very helpful for some writers. It teaches writing discipline. The critical thing is this: the grades you receive (if grades are given) are less important than the skills you must master and the feedback you will receive.
You might also join a book club. Seek out a club that specializes in memoirs and biographies, etc.  Listen to what other readers admire in the books you are reading as well as what they don’t like. This information can prove invaluable to you when writing your own memoir.
Join an online writers group. They are easy to find and most cost nothing to join. Some are more serious than others, but in most cases members are eager to share information about such things as the writing process, research, submitting a manuscript for publication, sending work to literary agents, etc. 
Make a point of attending book festivals and local readings at libraries and book stores. You should join in the world of books and writing at the grassroots level. Talk to other authors and listen to their experiences, not only in writing but in marketing their books. You will develop new friendships, learn new lessons, and come to see and appreciate books in a new light.
Now, let's look a few fundamentals of memoir writing.
Perhaps the first thing you need to ask yourself is: Why are you writing a memoir?  Is it to leave a legacy for your family or for others? Is it to share what you have learned in your life; your wisdom? How will others feel after reading your memoir? Will they be happy or touched? Will what you write make a difference in their lives? And how will you feel after you finish your memoir? Will you be fulfilled, pleased or will you feel there are still some things left unsaid?
Don't be too hard on yourself. But at the same time, be truthful. Writing a memoir is as much about telling the truth about your life, as it is recording important events. You are not going to remember some things you wish you could and you will remember some things you wish you could forget.  That's life! It is filled with success and anguish. It is those experiences--both good and bad-- that make a good memoir.
Memory is volatile. You may remember peculiar details, such as the smell of one of your grandmother's favorite dishes, but forget your grandmother's first name. Not to worry. The answers may come in dreams, chance conversations, photos or letters.  
There will be times when you won't know what to write. Don't let that stop you. Write down anything that is in your head. You may feel what you are writing sounds stupid. That's OK, write it down anyway. It doesn't matter. The key is to keep writing...typing the words in your computer or keeping the pen moving over the paper. Eventually, the words will begin start to flow.
Isaac Asimov may have said it best:  "Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers."
Think about writing a little each day. Don't worry if the task seems daunting or that you don't seem to be producing very much. Think about it. It took you years to live your life and deal with the experiences you have had. You can't write it all down in a few short days or weeks. Take it one day at a time. In a few weeks or months you will have produced dozens of pages. 

In writing a memoir remember that emotional truth is often more important than factual truth. What do I mean by that? What years did Uncle Bill serve in the Army? What was the unforgettable neighbor's name who lived across the street? These are all significant details that you will want to know when writing your memoir. But don't worry if you can't recall them.
More important is how proud you were when your Uncle Bill was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor or how relieved you were when your car wouldn't start and that neighbor drove you and your pregnant wife to the hospital during a raging snow storm and got you there five minutes before your daughter was born.  
 Facts fill in the story's canvas. But it's the emotive truths that hold the story's heart.
Don’t tell your story sequentially. That’s too obvious. Most good books don’t start at the beginning. Instead they captivate you with instant conflict and intrigue. A good beginning provides readers with just enough deception to hook them without revealing the ending. Then it returns to the chronological beginning and fills in the backdrop.
When you're writing make sure you use all five of your senses. You want your readers to inhabit vivid new worlds that you have created for them. However, too many novice writers produce first drafts   that are lackluster, mind-numbing and uninspiring.
Write colorfully, intensely and with texture if you want to transport readers to the world you are creating. How do you do that? By creating detail; by using all of your senses (sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste) to fully re-create a moment in time. It's easy to learn how to do this. The next time you’re waiting in a line at a restaurant, the post office or the dentist's office, become aware of the diverse sights, sounds, smells, and textures around you.

That's what good writers do. They observe, they listen, they feel, and they incorporate those sensations in their stories.
As Stephen King says: “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”   
Ultimately, your work must withstand the judgment of the reading public. That can be a harsh, frightening and disquieting experience for some.
"A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down," Edna St. Vincent Millay once wrote.
The fact is, some people will like what you write; others will not.
I am reminded of the English professor who once wrote to a student:  "I am returning this otherwise good typing paper to you because someone has printed gibberish all over it and put your name at the top."
 Of course, as Sinclair Lewis said:  "It is impossible to discourage the real writers — they don't give a damn what you say, they're going to write."
That may be the most appropriate attitude for any writer to cultivate.  
 





Monday, July 14, 2014

Writing the Memoir (Part 1)

Many of us at one time or another have been tempted to write our "memoirs." Perhaps it was a family member or a friend who said: "You need to write your memoirs--you have led an interesting life."

Perhaps you have lived a fascinating life. Perhaps not.

But a lot of people "feel" they have lived a life worth writing about. The challenge is to share that life via compelling storytelling.

Wrapping your life up inside a book that is easy and fun to read sounds easy. It is not. To do it well you need to know how to employ the basic fundamentals of the writer's craft. And you can't do that unless you know what those fundamentals are. (I will get to those fundamentals in Part 2 of my Writing the Memoir post. Stay tuned!)

For now, I want to focus on identifying just what a memoir is and what it is not. In this post I will explain what essentials a memoir should contain; what literary devices you should employ and how you should employ them; and why it is important to build tension with strong, emotive scenes and vivid imagery.

There are three critical things you should remember when writing a memoir:

1. Memoirs ARE NOT autobiographies.

2.     Memoirs tell readers who we are, how we became who we are, who we once were, and what beliefs and traditions fashioned us.

3.     Memoirs use the techniques of fiction to create a compelling narrative. They utilize all of our senses to create texture (sight, sound, smell, taste, feel). They employ pacing, tension, point of view, scenic composition, and vivid imagery.

When I say memoirs are not autobiographies, the two genres do share some similarities. They are mutually founded on truth and both require plenty of research, which can range from face-to-face or telephone interviews, to journeys to hometowns and other places we once lived, to digging through old diaries, scrapbooks, letters, and photo albums.

So what are the fundamental differences?

An autobiography focuses on the overall path of a person's life. It almost always starts at the beginning and advances linearly to the end. An autobiography feels more like an historical document with lots of facts and specific dates. It strives for factual, historical truths and it typically is written by a well-known person.

A memoir focuses on a significant facet, idea, incident, or choice we made in our lives. It can begin anywhere and can nimbly shift in time and place. A memoir feels more confidential without the concentrated fact-checking. It strives for emotional honesty and it can be written by anyone with a good story to tell.

Beginners in this genre often confuse memoirs with diaries. Memoirs are NOT diaries writ large. A diary is something we write to ourselves. It contains lots of personal sentiments and opinions that we don't necessarily want others to know. Few of us would want our deeply personal diaries published for the world to see.

A memoir, on the other hand, puts some of those emotions and beliefs out there for the world to see. You’re writing a memoir to share your story, which means you obviously want people to read it. And to get people to read your memoir you will need to create vivid scenes with strong imagery. Strong scenes leave readers with lasting impressions.

You also want to create a sympathetic main character: namely you! In one sense, writers are performers. They must never ask for the reader’s compassion or attention. They must earn it. I call this my E.F. Hutton theory of writing. If you are someone readers can identify with and empathize with, they will want to continue reading.

In using the devices of fiction you want your readers to be emotionally involved. Emotionally involved readers will keep reading. Look for ways to create and intensify the emotive bearing of your story. Every well told story has tension.  It employs plot, character, dialogue, and even symbolism. It attempts to provide a moving picture in prose of something real.

You also want to write a story that builds increasingly toward some kind of resolution or climax. Stories that do that are sharply-focused. How do you build toward a powerful climax? You need to ratchet up the conflict and demonstrate how the risks and hazards you encountered raised the stakes.

You want readers to recognize what might have been lost had you not overcome those risks and hazards. Or, if you were not able to overcome those challenges, you want readers to know why and what happened to you.

Finally, you want to craft a rewarding ending. A satisfying ending provides a sense of closure for the reader. The ending should wrap up the challenges, tensions and hazards you created in your central story so the reader is not left hanging and wondering "what next?"

With that, I will leave you with two very pertinent quotes about writing memoirs.

The first is from David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of modern Israel:

"Anyone who believes you can't change history has never tried to write his memoirs."

The second is from Oscar Wilde:

"I dislike modern memoirs. They are generally written by people who have either entirely lost their memories, or have never done anything worth remembering."   

(Next: Writing the Memoir (Part 2)






Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Dealing with Rejection Letters from Agents & Publishers

If there is one thing most authors have in common, besides the shear agony that sometimes accompanies the writing process, it is the dreaded Rejection Letter from an agent or publisher.

I don't know who got this one from Harlequin, but it had to be devastating to the person receiving it.

I have received a few rejection letters--though none like the one from Harlequin. 

Most authors--even wildly successful authors--have also received their share of rejection missives. 

Don't believe me?

Just take a look at this list of rejection letters that were sent by publishers and agents to world-renowned, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning authors. It is simply part of the creative process and you need to keep moving ahead--just as these authors did.

  • The American public is not interested in China,” a publisher wrote Pearl S. Buck. Her book The Good Earth becomes the best-selling US novel two years running in 1931/32, and wins The Pulitzer Prize in the process.
  • Alex Haley writes for eight years and receives 200 consecutive rejections from publishers and agents. His novel Roots becomes a publishing sensation, selling 1.5 million copies in its first seven months of release, and going on to sell 8 million.  
  • “He hasn’t got a future as a writer,” a publisher opines. Yet, publication of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold leads to its author, John le CarrĂ©, having one of the most distinguished careers in literary history.
  • “Hopelessly bogged down and unreadable,” a publisher tells Ursula K. Le Guin in a 1968 rejection letter. She was not deterred and her book The Left Hand of Darkness goes on to become just the first of her many best-sellers, and is now regularly voted as the second best fantasy novel of all time, next to The Lord of the Rings.
  • The Christopher Little Literary Agency receives 12 publishing rejections in a row for their new client, until the eight-year-old daughter of a Bloomsbury editor demands to read the rest of the book. The editor agrees to publish but advises the writer to get a day job since she has little chance of making money in children’s books. Yet Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling spawns a series where the last four novels consecutively set records as the fastest-selling books in history, on both sides of the Atlantic, with combined sales of 450 million.
  • “It is so badly written," a publisher tells this author. Dan Brown is not discouraged, however, and tries Doubleday where his book makes an impression. The Da Vinci Code  eventually sells 80 million copies.
  • Too different from other juvenile (books) on the market to warrant its selling,” says a rejection letter sent to Dr Seuss. His books have racked up $300 million in sales and he is now the 9th best-selling fiction author of all time.
See what I mean?

Editors, agents, first readers who dig through the publisher's slush pile--all are quite capable of making bone-headed decisions about other people's work. And they do it all the time.

So if you have a stack of rejection letters sitting on your desk or stuffed into a file cabinet, don't despair. You are not alone.

What you should do, instead of becoming despondent and inconsolable, is read those rejection letters carefully and look for the constructive criticism in them.

In most cases you will find some--though as one publisher told an author many years ago: "This manuscript should be buried under a pile of rocks and forgotten for the next thousand years."  (That book went to become a bestseller and was even made into a movie. It's name: Lolita.)

Phrases like that can be a bit disheartening--even to the most thick-skinned scribbler.  So far I have not received anything quite so venomous...though I have had my go-rounds with a few agents and editors who couldn't see the value of what I was working on.

Now that I am writing fiction rather than nonfiction, I am finding that I no longer really care what an agent or publisher may think of my work. I find that especially satisfying when I am able to see that customers on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Goodreads like my book and are giving it mostly 5-stars with a handful of 4-star ratings.

That tells me that I must be doing something right.

The key is believing in yourself and the story you are telling. You will NEVER please everybody. There will always be those who don't understand or simply don't like your book or books. That's life.

But it is critical that you DO NOT stop believing in what you are writing. Does that mean you should ignore valid and constructive criticism?

No, it does not. If somebody has taken the time to tell you what is wrong with your book or why he or she didn't like it, you should also take the time to consider that criticism and learn from it.

It doesn't mean you should simply give up, stop writing and walk away from your computer. Writing is a skill that cannot be taught--at least not in the same way one learns calculus or biology. 

It must be learned. And we learn to recognize good writing by reading. 

Then we learn how to write by by writing, writing, writing--even if the writing we do is terrible, with way too many adjectives in place of strong action verbs or way too many compound-complex sentences that give readers migraines as they slog through page-long paragraphs.

Reading should be fun--not a chore. And only you, the writer, can dictate that.

So if a rejection letter says your prose is ponderous and pretentious, or your story is tedious and byzantine you might want to take a hard, critical look at what you have written.

And after doing that if you still disagree with the author of that rejection letter, then by all means, plow ahead. You may be right and that agent or editor may be wide of the mark.

Time and book sales will tell.




Wednesday, July 2, 2014

How to Deal with a Negative Book Review


There is an old adage that says "any publicity is good publicity--even if it is bad." Why? Because the objective is to get people talking about you and your book.

If you are like me, I don't believe a lot of the negative reviews I see on sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, etc.  In fact, I will often comb  through all of a book's reviews to see if others are saying the same negative things about a book. If they are not, I will normally rely more on the positive reviews than the bad ones.

Sometimes I will buy a book with bad reviews just to see if it's as bad as the reviewers say it is. Often, it isn't.

I spent most of my life as journalist. I KNOW what it is like to have one's work criticized mercilessly by nasty editors. The key is to look at negative comments of your work for "constructive" criticism and then be open-minded enough to use that criticism to improve your writing, your pacing, your plot, your characterization, etc.

Of course, there are those trolls who simply live to "trash" other people's work. Those reviews are easy to spot. They will write that the book is "dumb" or "boring" or "trashy" without backing up their opinions with anything constructive. Writers need to let those criticisms go and not obsess about them.
Check out Amazon's reviews. You will see books like War and Peace and Gone With the Wind getting one and two star reviews or ratings.

Indeed, you will find best sellers with lots of of bad reviews. For example, the last book in the popular Hunger Games Trilogy has racked up something like 500 one-star reviews on Amazon. And John Locke has a 3-star average on his popular Saving Rachel (a Donovan Creed Crime Novel) and almost as many 1-star reviews as 5-star reviews. Despite that fact, his books are selling tens of thousands world-wide

The point is: You Can't Please Everybody, nor should you try. You need to write what you are passionate about, tell a good story and leave the naysayers behind and eating your dust.

Having said all of that, it is a blow to the ego to see a bad review of one's work pop up on Amazon and elsewhere. It's like a punch in the gut. It makes you angry. You want to find out where the author of that bad review lives and set their house on fire or beat them senseless with a baseball bat.

Don't. Instead, focus on the GOOD reviews your book as received. And have a sense of humor about it all.

All authors get bad reviews (more on that later). Don’t take it personally. The criticism is about your ideas and the way you presented them, not about you as a person. Most sophisticated readers can distinguish a rant from a genuine review.

Sometimes if a book gets a bad review, other readers who disagree will challenge that reviewer's conclusion. That can set off a useful discussion of the book and actually cause readers to buy the book just to see who is right.

Don't forget, you didn't write your book to generate reviews. You wrote it to appeal to readers. You had a story to tell, a point to get across, a desire to inform and even educate readers. Reviews--good or bad-- are simply marketing tools.

True, good reviews may feed your ego, cause intellectual indigestion and lead you to believe you are the next Hemmingway, J. K. Rowling or Ursula K. Le Guin. My advice: deflate you ego and remain planted on terra firma.

If the reviews you are reading seem to be an excessive distraction and are causing you to alter the way you write or the way you present a story, you may want to stop reading reviews all together--even the good ones.

You need to believe in yourself, not in what some snarky reviewer says. Look for the constructive criticism and avoid the malicious rants.

Work to get more reviews. Good reviews often will invalidate bad ones and on sites like Amazon, will shove the negative reviews down the page.

Finally, take what the late Elmore Leonard said about writing to heart: "If it sounds like writing....rewrite it. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative."

(Next Time: Dealing with Rejection Letters from Publishers)




Thursday, June 26, 2014

"Hate Speech" and Literature

Let me say right off: I do not believe in the idea of hate speech. One person's "hate speech" is another person's "free speech."

In that regard, the American Civil Liberties Union and I are in 100 per cent agreement. More on the ACLU later.

In a previous post I talked about Political Correctness in Historical Fiction novels. I argued that there can be no PC in an historical novel because if there is, the novel will be devoid of reality. PC is a 20th and 21st Century phenomenon. It didn't exist in the 19th Century or any other prior century. So to purge a book set in the 18th or 19th Century of offensive expressions used in 18th or 19th Century America is to be dishonest.

A direct offshoot of PC is the concept of "Hate Speech."  Just as with PC there are unofficial Hate Speech police out there who like nothing more than to be the final arbiters of what can and cannot be said publicly in America.

Of course, that is in complete opposition to an individual's First Amendment right to speak freely and openly about any and all topics--be it race, gender, homosexuality, abortion, gay marriage, radical Islam, traditional marriage, war or peace.

You may even criticize the President of the United States--though, today, if you do, you are likely going to be accused of being a racist. That is when you will experience the PC Thought Police and their close relatives, the Hate Speech Gestapo, at their narrow-minded worst.

If you were to go back in time to 19th Century America or Europe you might be appalled at the terms used openly and without remorse to describe blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, the Irish, Italians, Catholics, Jews, Asians, etc.

That was life back then. Was it right to use those terms? Of course, today we would say "No." But using racial, ethnic and religious slurs in the past was simply the way things were.
So if you are writing an historical novel about that period do you eliminate dozens of objectionable terms and phrases to satisfy today's PC Thought Police and the Hate Speech Gestapo?

The answer: an emphatic NO!

If you do clean up a novel about slavery and use words like "African-American" instead of the range of hurtful expressions commonly used in the 19th Century, your book not only will lack integrity, it will be a ridiculous fabrication.

Now back to the ACLU.

Rather than paraphrasing the ACLU's position on Hate Speech I will let that organization itself explain why it says there is no such thing as Hate Speech in a nation where speech is protected by the First Amendment of our Constitution.

The Q & A that follows is taken directly from the ACLU's own website.

Q: I just can't understand why the ACLU defends free speech for racists, sexists, homophobes and other bigots. Why tolerate the promotion of intolerance? 

A: Free speech rights are indivisible. Restricting the speech of one group or individual jeopardizes everyone's rights because the same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you. Conversely, laws that defend free speech for bigots can be used to defend the rights of civil rights workers, anti-war protesters, lesbian and gay activists and others fighting for justice. For example, in the 1949 case of Terminiello v. Chicago, the ACLU successfully defended an ex-Catholic priest who had delivered a racist and anti-semitic speech. The precedent set in that case became the basis for the ACLU's successful defense of civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s and '70s. 

The indivisibility principle was also illustrated in the case of Neo-Nazis whose right to march in Skokie, Illinois in 1979 was successfully defended by the ACLU. At the time, then ACLU Executive Director Aryeh Neier, whose relatives died in Hitler's concentration camps during World War II, commented: "Keeping a few Nazis off the streets of Skokie will serve Jews poorly if it means that the freedoms to speak, publish or assemble any place in the United States are thereby weakened." 

Q: I have the impression that the ACLU spends more time and money defending the rights of bigots than supporting the victims of bigotry!!?? 

A: Not so. Only a handful of the several thousand cases litigated by the national ACLU and its affiliates every year involves offensive speech. Most of the litigation, advocacy and public education work we do preserves or advances the constitutional rights of ordinary people. But it's important to understand that the fraction of our work that does involve people who've engaged in bigoted and hurtful speech is very important: 

Defending First Amendment rights for the enemies of civil liberties and civil rights means defending it for you and me. 

Q: Aren't some kinds of communication not protected under the First Amendment, like "fighting words?" 

A: The U.S. Supreme Court did rule in 1942, in a case called Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, that intimidating speech directed at a specific individual in a face-to-face confrontation amounts to "fighting words," and that the person engaging in such speech can be punished if "by their very utterance [the words] inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace." Say, a white student stops a black student on campus and utters a racial slur. In that one-on-one confrontation, which could easily come to blows, the offending student could be disciplined under the "fighting words" doctrine for racial harassment. 

Over the past 50 years, however, the Court hasn't found the "fighting words" doctrine applicable in any of the hate speech cases that have come before it, since the incidents involved didn't meet the narrow criteria stated above. Ignoring that history, the folks who advocate campus speech codes try to stretch the doctrine's application to fit words or symbols that cause discomfort, offense or emotional pain. 
Q: What about nonverbal symbols, like swastikas and burning crosses -- are they constitutionally protected? 

A: Symbols of hate are constitutionally protected if they're worn or displayed before a general audience in a public place -- say, in a march or at a rally in a public park. But the First Amendment doesn't protect the use of nonverbal symbols to encroach upon, or desecrate, private property, such as burning a cross on someone's lawn or spray-painting a swastika on the wall of a synagogue or dorm. 

Q: Aren't speech codes on college campuses an effective way to combat bias against people of color, women and gays? 

A: Historically, defamation laws or codes have proven ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst. For one thing, depending on how they're interpreted and enforced, they can actually work against the interests of the people they were ostensibly created to protect. Why? Because the ultimate power to decide what speech is offensive and to whom rests with the authorities -- the government or a college administration -- not with those who are the alleged victims of hate speech. 

In Great Britain, for example, a Racial Relations Act was adopted in 1965 to outlaw racist defamation. But throughout its existence, the Act has largely been used to persecute activists of color, trade unionists and anti-nuclear protesters, while the racists -- often white members of Parliament -- have gone unpunished

Similarly, under a speech code in effect at the University of Michigan for 18 months, white students in 20 cases charged black students with offensive speech. One of the cases resulted in the punishment of a black student for using the term "white trash" in conversation with a white student. The code was struck down as unconstitutional in 1989 and, to date, the ACLU has brought successful legal challenges against speech codes at the Universities of Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin. 
These examples demonstrate that speech codes don't really serve the interests of persecuted groups. The First Amendment does. As one African American educator observed: "I have always felt as a minority person that we have to protect the rights of all because if we infringe on the rights of any persons, we'll be next." 

Q: But don't speech codes send a strong message to campus bigots, telling them their views are unacceptable? 

A: Bigoted speech is symptomatic of a huge problem in our country; it is not the problem itself. Everybody, when they come to college, brings with them the values, biases and assumptions they learned while growing up in society, so it's unrealistic to think that punishing speech is going to rid campuses of the attitudes that gave rise to the speech in the first place. Banning bigoted speech won't end bigotry, even if it might chill some of the crudest expressions. The mindset that produced the speech lives on and may even reassert itself in more virulent forms. 

Speech codes, by simply deterring students from saying out loud what they will continue to think in private, merely drive biases underground where they can't be addressed. In 1990, when Brown University expelled a student for shouting racist epithets one night on the campus, the institution accomplished nothing in the way of exposing the bankruptcy of racist ideas. 

As a former Dean at the University of Illinois I was often amazed at the number of people who disagreed with the ACLU's position on Hate Speech.

Their remedy in dealing with so-called Hate Speech was to advocate some form of punishment for the offender--firing a non-tenured instructor, expelling a student, censoring a tenured-professor or administrator.

About the only thing missing, I used to think, where the ducking stools once used in Salem, Mass, or the public humiliation of the pillory and stocks on the university quadrangle.

In any case, literature and other forms of creative endeavor, should never be restricted by those who believe THEY are the final arbiters of what can and cannot be said, written or shown.

If that ever happens, then our Constitution's will begin with the 2d Amendment--because the First Amendment will be but a distant memory.