Thursday, September 12, 2019

REJECTION!

There is always the danger of a columnist going back to the well once too often. That’s particularly true of writers of a certain age, who can be forgetful. Fortunately, that doesn’t apply to me.

Fortunately, that doesn’t apply…ONLY KIDDING!

Anyway, I checked my old columns (thank the Lord the Independent keeps a wonderful archive) and feel secure that I can safely return to one of my favorite topics: Rejection!

So, for those who have felt the sting of having our novels lambasted by critics, this blog is for you. (Catchy! Probably make a good beer commercial.)

  • Jack London (you may have heard of him) accumulated 600 rejections before he sold his first story. THAT IS NOT A TYPO. I have to think that, were I in London’s snowshoes, I’d have been howling at the moon like White Fang.
  • After a mere 21 rejections, an obviously easily discouraged Richard Hornberger started using a pseudonym. As Richard Hooker, his debut novel, MASH, becomes a huge bestseller. Oh, yes, they made a pretty good movie out of it, and I think the TV series had a decent run.
  • I love this one: “He hasn’t got any future.” You would think this was written about someone on death row, not John le Carré just before the publication of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Le Carré has penned about a zillion bestsellers since.
  • Jack KerouacGeorge OrwellSylvia Plath, and Mario Puzo. You probably also heard of these losers. The Alfred A. Knopf publishing house turned all of them down at one time or another. 
  • A classic: “We suggest you get rid of all that Indian stuff.” That’s what a publisher told Tony Hillerman. I wonder how his bestselling Navajo Tribal Police mysteries would’ve looked if he’d followed that advice.
  • Alex Haley got 200 consecutive rejections, which is really impressive if you are not named Jack London. His novel, Roots, sold 8 million copies.
  • As readers of my blog know, I’m not a big fan of James Patterson, who now uses a stable of co-authors to write his novels (as he himself admits). But 220 million sales later, I wonder how the 31 publishers who first turned him down feel.
  • Finally, this probably says it all. There’s a famous business-management concept that holds that people tend to rise to their "level of incompetence." It was formulated by Laurence J. Peter, who thought his idea would make a pretty good book. Editors who validated his thesis at 30 publishers disagreed and turned him down. In 1969, The Peter Principle became a number-one bestseller.

Remember: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!

Saturday, June 8, 2019

INSPIRATION!


“Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” I think I got this quote from Oscar Wilde right. It should be every writer’s mantra — up to a point.

"Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." A quote usually attributed to Thomas Edison. I’d like to substitute the word “writing” for “genius” — up to a point.


I believe that writers should be themselves, have their own voice, and not mimic others. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be inspired by others, or even use some of the tricks of the trade that have worked in the past.


While I find some of my own writing devilishly difficult and demanding, I would guess that “inspiration” plays much more a role in my creative thought process than 1 percent.

I take my inspiration wherever I can get it. As I have alluded to in previous columns, I believe that while a good reader is not necessarily a good writer, most good writers are good readers. As a thriller writer, I read and constantly reread my favorite thriller authors. Some of my Ian Fleming and Robert B. Parker books have become so dog-eared that I’ve had to buy new editions.


But I don’t only read fiction. Currently, I am on a Winston Churchill kick, having just picked up Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts from the library. This 1,000-page biography, published in 2018, is less of a slog than I thought it would be. I only got it because I was interested in World War II history, a subject I touch on considerably in the book I am now writing.


Initially, I skipped to the period just before and during the war, because I find Churchill’s speeches so invigorating. (As did much of the Free World at the time: “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle” is a quote attributed to both Edward R. Murrow and John F. Kennedy.)


But, then, I decided to start the biography from the beginning. It turns out that Churchill was a great writer from early childhood who came up with certain rules he knew would make his listeners and readers pay attention. I long knew that he liked powerful words and alliteration, and have tried to emulate him. (See “devilishly difficult and demanding,” above!)


Churchill was a great reader all of his life. He emulated writers in earlier centuries, particularly Shakespeare.


“Emulated” does not imply plagiarism, although in many of Churchill’s speeches, it was obvious that he reworked phrases others had used, or which were in common usage. In today’s Google-ized world, Churchill and many of his contemporaries probably would have been called out, and their political careers destroyed.


Think about it: We might all be speaking German if that had happened to Winston!


Of course, many of today’s political leaders are in no danger of being accused of plagiarism. Some don’t even use the English language properly. Or only use a fifth-grade vocabulary. It’s hard to accuse anyone of stealing from 10-year-olds unless you’re caught with their bikes.


In any event, in writing your books, be yourself, but don’t be afraid to inspire yourself with the styles and cadences of past masters.


Thursday, February 28, 2019

THICK SKINS

Is joining a critique group really a smart step?

Many writers of fiction, if they are honest with themselves, are pathologically insecure. They are doubters, second-guessers, Monday-morning quarterbacks, and pessimists. It doesn’t matter if they are successful or not. Their literary glass is always half empty.
To survive, novelists must develop a thick skin. They take criticism badly, mostly because they’re already their own worst critics. They often secretly believe some of the other critics are right.

I am not a big fan of writers’ groups. You know, where writers, usually in a similar genre — mystery, thriller, romance, erotica, etc. — get together and critique each other’s work, offering suggestions and, presumably, support. Perhaps that is because I had a particularly bad experience once. Invited to help form such a group, I found myself at the first meeting being lavishly praised by one participant and unmercifully shredded by another.

I might have weathered that, but both had read the same book at issue! One thought I had real talent. The other thought I had real nerve publishing such drivel. Neither offered suggestions, just gushes or scorn. I left, never to return.

On reflection, I believe that neither critique had merit, since neither person who read my book had written one of their own. They wanted to be novelists. I suspect that a writers’ group of published authors might be more valuable. At the very least, every member knows how other writers feel. So, they are likely to be a tad more circumspect in their comments, good or bad.

I also have a jaundiced view of scathing reviews on Amazon. My good reviews far outnumber the poor ones, so I take some comfort in that. But I used to agonize over the bad reviews. The only ones I take seriously now are those that deal with typos and grammar, which I try to fix in later editions when appropriate.

I say “when appropriate” because some of the grammatical phrases that are criticized are intended to be ungrammatical. A character who is an illiterate thug would not speak the King’s English, after all. Even some of my smarter protagonists often use contractions or slang. I ignore suggestions that I clean up such language.

Some Amazon reviewers complain about there being too much violence or sex in my books, despite covers and blurbs that foretell just those fun things. They also apparently don’t watch any television or go to the movies. There are other reviewers who think my plots are too fantastical and the events described couldn’t possibly happen in real life. 
Again, they apparently don’t watch TV or read the paper.

So, I have developed a thick skin. But I still am wracked by insecurity. For example, in my soon-to-be-released mystery, my characters are involved in the world of cryptocurrencies. Prior to two recent research trips to San Francisco, a crypto hub, I knew virtually nothing about bitcoins (a common terminology for any cryptocurrency, although Bitcoin is the name of the original, and most expensive, of the bunch).

I took many notes and have done more research since, but I’m certainly no expert. Since I explain cryptos in the book, I’ve had to turn some arcane terminology into words that humans like me can understand. I think I did a credible job, but I have doubts.

Which will never go away.   

Monday, September 17, 2018

STOUT READING!


I devour books, in all forms. Most of them in their print version, which may surprise some people who have labeled me an apologist for all things Amazon and Kindle-ish. But I am an unregenerate library rat.

The city where I live, Naples, FL, has the best library system I’ve ever seen. The Headquarters Library is housed in a building that resembles the Alamo (pre-Santa Anna), and there are more branches in town than Publix supermarkets, which as anyone in Florida knows, seems impossible.

As a thriller and mystery writer myself, I’m always looking for inspiration, so I recently grabbed some Nero Wolfe mysteries. Addictive? Think Hershey’s Kisses or N.C.I.S.

I don’t know why I picked up Might As Well Be Dead, my first Wolfe. I didn’t even know much about the author, Rex Stout, who sounds like a star of silent Westerns, but is in reality one of the finest mystery writers this, or any country, has ever produced. After finishing Might, I rushed out to get the first two Nero Wolfes, Fer-De-Lance and The League of Frightened Men, published in 1934 and 1935, respectively. Both are superb and created a huge splash back then.

Nero Wolfe as a character is, well, a character. He is a huge man, fond of orchids, beer and gourmet food. He regularly humiliates cops and prosecutors, solving crimes that always stump them. He rarely leaves his New York brownstone, delegating the necessary footwork to a band of retainers led by Archie Goodwin, a tough, street-wise private eye with a nose for trouble, an eye for the ladies and a penchant for milk and cookies.

Goodwin, who freely trades insults with his boss, but considers him a deductive genius, narrates the novels, and is often astonished by Wolfe’s ability to solve a case by collating a series of apparently random clues brought to him by his employees. (Example: A woman’s brother is missing; she asks Wolfe for help. A prominent man dies of an apparent heart attack on a posh golf course. The brother also turns up dead, miles away. From a newspaper ad that no one else noticed, Wolfe deduces that both men were murdered by the same man. He’s right. Of course. And you won’t believe what one of the murder weapons was. The cops didn’t, and eat crow after Wolfe forces them to dig up one of the bodies!)

Despite references to the Lindbergh Kidnapping, Lynn Fontaine, roadsters, newspapers (remember them?) and the like, the early Nero Wolfes are eminently modern in approach and style. The prose is remarkable and literate, the banter between characters priceless, the plots fascinating and full of surprises.      

Rex Stout’s own life reads like fiction. He was a Navy yeoman on Teddy Roosevelt’s Presidential yacht as a young man before deciding on a writing career! While he is best known for his Nero Wolfes (33 novels and 39 novellas between 1934 and 1975), he also wrote a gazillion other things (poems, magazine pieces, other novels and the like) and was an intellectual leader in the battle against Hitler, becoming a radio celebrity.

I would urge everyone to Google his accomplishments and awards, especially if they, like me, sometimes need their egos deflated. How I ignored Stout for so long is a source of supreme embarrassment. This is an author that Boucheron, the world’s largest mystery convention, anointed as the best mystery writer of the 20th Century.

Monday, September 10, 2018

YOU CAN LOOK (OR MAKE) IT UP!




It is a given among many thriller writers like myself that research is a royal pain in the asterisk. I mean, nothing can ruin a good story like facts can! After all, fiction writers are in the business of making stuff up, right?

Now, take “virons”. These nasty bits are a combination of viruses and prions. They are so small it takes millions of them to get through the eye of a needle, after the camel. They kill camels, humans, fish, asparagus – anything you can think of.

And they don’t exist.

I made them up, and they wreaked appropriate biological havoc in my thriller, “The Viron Conspiracy”. I’m pretty sure there are people out there who now believe in virons. I’m also pretty sure that someday some scientist with too much time on his or her hands will produce a real viron, which will wipe out the human race and root vegetables before the scientist can even collect a Nobel Prize.

(Just for the record, and to prove that I do look stuff up: a prion is, according to the online Encyclopædia Britannica, “a small proteinaceous infectious disease-causing agent that is believed to be the smallest infectious particle.” Among other things, prions can cause Gertsmann-Straeussler-Scheinker disease, which is as bad as it sounds.)

Writers do need to get some facts right, if only to provide a dash of verisimilitude to their books. I mean, readers get downright nasty if you put the Pacific Ocean in Kansas (unless you are writing a global-warming thriller, that is).  

And, occasionally, research can be enlightening.

Take gun silencers, also known as suppressors, which professional assassins use in many thrillers. But sometimes the good guys need them. I used to agonize over how one of my heroes could obtain one. Not to worry. A quick Internet search revealed that  the following states allow private ownership of suppressors: AL, AR, AK, AZ, CO, CT, FL, GA, ID, IN, KS, KY, LA, ME, MD, MI, MN, MO, MS, MT, ND, NE, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, OK, OR, PA, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VA, VT, WA, WI, WV, and WY. And, as the Internet search revealed, “buying a suppressor is a simple process which generally requires less paperwork than buying a new refrigerator.” (Using refrigerators as a murder weapon is problematic.)

In my home state of Florida, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission repealed a six-decade-old law that prohibited the use of pistol and rifle suppressors in hunting for deer, gray squirrels, rabbits, wild turkeys, quail, and crows. Now, I’m not an anti-gun or anti-hunting fanatic. I believe honest citizens should be allowed to have guns for self-protection or to take game. I once shot a deer, as a rite of passage, and basically ate everything but the hooves and antlers.

But silencers for squirrels? Are people afraid that a wounded rodent will track down the source of the shots and attack! Isn’t hunting supposed to give animals a chance? A gunshot that misses presumably alerts an animal to the realization that it is probably a good time to beat feet. Can you imagine a hunter who uses a silencer to pick off a flock of turkeys, one by one. Do the other birds see a fowl fall over and think: “Gee, Fred must have had a heart attack; we told him to lay off the stuffing.”

Now, if it’s easy to shoot squirrels with silenced guns, it’s pretty darn easy to shoot people with them. Gee, you could probably go classroom to classroom before anyone noticed.

Maybe that’s why I limit my research. It’s too damn scary.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

IT TAKES ALL KINDS


I’ve been thinking about authors and the diversity question.

Just how should they “integrate” minority characters into their novels?

I am primarily talking about modern novels. Period novels and non-fiction books are less problematical. The author of a history or novel about the Civil War that features only white people would have a lot of splainin’ to do, Lucy. And the Boxer Rebellion without Asians is a rocky proposition. Sorry, I couldn’t resist it!

I write mysteries and thrillers set in current times. My main protagonists are white, heterosexual (aggressively so!), handsome and tough men of the world. I naturally modeled them after myself.  (OK, everyone who knows me can now stop laughing.) Of course, if anyone wants to make a movie out of one of my books, with Denzel Washington or Idris Elba in the lead, I’ll rewrite every line. I like all colors, but green is my favorite. 

There is at least one strong woman in all my novels, who often plays a role almost as crucial as my main character. She is always beautiful and accomplished, and usually just as tough, or tougher, than my heroes. Most of the women are white, but I am introducing other races into the mix. And some of the women are more sexually “diverse” than my guys, usually because I need some spice to further a plot. Or maybe I’m just fantasizing. Hey, it’s fiction. It’s my book. So, sue me!

But what about secondary characters and villains?

First, the secondary characters. My heroes are basically private eyes or government agents, who naturally deal with other detectives, agents and a wide assortment of private citizens. I make it a point to include as many races into the mix as I can. But not as sidekicks! Tonto need not apply.

Readers of this column know that I am a big fan of Robert B. Parker and his Spenser novels. And I give Parker credit for creating the unique character of Hawk, the black leg breaker who morphs into Spenser’s best friend, ally and, in many cases, conscience. But Parker often spends a lot of time talking (through Hawk) about the black experience. He tries to make Hawk more than a sidekick, but I am not sure he entirely succeeds. The same holds true for Parker’s gay characters. 

In my books, the blacks and other minorities are just THERE, and are competent or incompetent, smart or stupid, good-looking or ugly, etc. I don’t make a big deal about it. To treat them otherwise is condescending.  That’s not to say that I don’t ascribe prejudices to other characters.  The real world is full of jerks. And we, as authors, write about the real world.

Now, villainy. I have featured Asian, black, Hispanic and many other non-white villains – a veritable United Nations of killers, both male and female. If you put them in a room, they would look like the cast from Star Trek. I don’t try to whitewash their evil (perhaps I could have found a better word than whitewash, but I’m trying for some irony, here), or explain it away as a result of a disadvantaged youth or any such claptrap. That, too, would be condescending. They are just THERE.

In novels, writers should not discriminate.

Bad people are as good as anyone else. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

WE MAY ALL BE OUT!


In these contentious times, a free and vibrant press is more crucial than ever.

Many mid-sized newspapers still depend on print advertising for the bulk of their revenues and have not succeeded in monetizing their online presence (if they have one). This does not bode well for them. As more and more people gravitate to the Internet for their news, the necessity for ink-based reportage will diminish, to the point that fewer big-city papers will survive. In New York City, for example, the tabloid Daily News has just slashed its staff by 50%!

I suspect that The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, our two “national” papers, may make the cut, and, perhaps, the Washington Post (beltway politicos like to see their pictures). And, of course, the weeklies that serve small-town America (many of which are free) will hopefully endure. But everything in between may go the way of the Triceratops.

On a personal level, I find this all very sad. In the early 1960’s, my family moved to Staten Island. I spent my freshman year at the local Wagner College, where I was on the baseball team. One day I was returning home when a neighbor sitting on a porch yelled over to me. Staten Island back then was more like Iowa than a New York City borough.

“Nice game against Manhattan,” he said.

I was stunned and wondered how the man knew I went two-for-four at Manhattan College the previous day. I hadn’t even told my mother. So, I asked him.

“It’s in the Advance today,” he explained.

“What’s the Advance?”

He showed me. In the sports section of the Staten Island Advance was a small story about my heroics on the ballfield. The story was slightly off. It credited “Larry De Maria” with two singles (or “bingles”, in local sportese) when one of my hits was actually a double (someone more fleet of foot probably would have legged out a triple). But I didn’t care. I was in the paper!

I was astounded to learn that just about everyone not in Pampers on Staten Island read the Advance, which had a circulation of 70,000 in a borough of 200,000 people!     

I kept that baseball clipping in my wallet until it fell apart. I eventually replaced it with clips about my two sons’ athletic prowess. (By the way, those two hits were the only ones I ever got. I don’t even remember why the coach put me in that game. I think the team was ravaged by the bubonic plague, and he was shorthanded. Ahem, be that as it may, I did bat .500 in my college career.)  

A few years later I wound up working at the Advance, which kick-started my journalistic career. I had much bigger stories when I eventually wrote for The New York Times, but I never felt more like a journalist than when I covered various “beats” on Staten Island (mostly politics and crime, which meant I was often writing about the same people).

Today, the circulation of the Advance is reportedly below 40,000, in a borough of 500,000 people! A paper that was once a must-read is being crushed by the Internet. (Sad to say, my Pampers analogy may not hold water (!) any more, since Staten Island now has many nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, where many of the paper’s loyal readers now reside.)

Was the Advance perfect? No. (Remember that double I never got credit for? I do.) Did I agree with its political bent? Rarely. Did I clash with my editors when I worked there? All the time, especially when they were right. I was a young know-it-all pain in the asterisk.

But the Advance in its heyday was the quintessential home-town newspaper. It covered ball games (down to Little League and bar teams); marriages, deaths, promotions, accidents, crime, elections, Rotary and other civic meetings, church groups, you name it. Staten Island communities were towns with names (Tottenville, New Dorp, West Brighton, Rosebank, Midland Beach, Port Richmond, St. George, and a dozen more). The Advance covered them all. It made Staten Island, Staten Island.

There once were hundreds, maybe thousands, of such papers in this country. And they have died or are dying.

In the near future I seriously doubt some kid will walk home and have a neighbor yell out, “nice game”, unless his Mom put it on Facebook.










REJECTION!

There is always the danger of a columnist going back to the well once too often. That’s particularly true of writers of a certain age, who ...