November 10, 2015
Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a fiction writer. I’ve always preferred making things up to dealing in realities. However, once I grew up I had bills to pay, so I needed to find practical uses for my writing skills in various workplaces. My efforts weren’t always welcome, especially when I was starting out. Back in the dark ages, most employers just wanted you to type, and not worry your “pretty little head” about what you were typing. I tried to dramatize that phenomenon in my 2003 novel, Secretarial Wars
Eventually, I wound up as a budget analyst for the Department of Labor. Federal agencies usually submit at least three versions of their annual budgets during the course of each fiscal year. These documents must present an effective mixture of numbers and narratives to justify the agency’s continuing existence as well as to request funding for new projects. Some budget analysts specialize in numbers-crunching, and some are better at explaining what the numbers mean. In my experience, the numbers specialists are more respected, but they can’t get along without the writers, even if they think they can.
I enjoyed budget-creating most when I was still young and idealistic. When I arrived at Labor in the early 1980s, I wholeheartedly believed in the department’s mission to uplift and protect the workers of America. Some administrations were resistant to those goals, but the challenge of finding ways to carry out the mission while enduring hostile cuts was satisfying in its own way. One of the highlights of my career took place at a hearing on Capitol Hill when an opening statement I had written was read, word-for-word, by the agency head. The supervisor I had then was proud of me and had my back. I only realized later what a rare gem he was.
There’s a reason why workplace comedies like “The Office” resonate. Supervisors and managers are an easy target for satire, since few can resist abusing what power they have. With a few well-publicized exceptions, most higher-ups in the Federal government never get disciplined because they generally refrain from blatantly illegal acts. But borderline unethical behavior, as well as plain bad judgment, are pretty rampant. I’ve seen managers form cliques with their favorite employees (who may nevertheless badmouth them behind their backs), take dubious junkets at taxpayer expense, and hire the people they want while skirting proper hiring procedures. Sometimes the office is junior high all over again, and other times it’s like society at large, where the one percent who already have everything get all the promotions and perks. Yet jobs that involve writing seem to be coveted. I was always fighting off newcomers and interns who were brought in to try their hand at doing my job, as a test of their basic analytical skills. Until late in my career, I was able to defend my turf.
One quirk of managers is that they tend to believe in their own perfection when it comes to writing, so editing them can be tricky. More than once, we budget drones would depart the office on a Friday, leaving behind what we thought was a completed budget ready for final approval, only to return on Monday to find that a manager had screwed around with it over the weekend and turned it in with serious omissions and errors that weren’t there before. A backup edit could have prevented that, but those are not always appreciated. One time I was able to delay, by about thirty minutes, sending through a piece that would have gone to Capitol Hill full of silly typos if I hadn’t caught them. My supervisor at that time was annoyed by the delay, and incredulous that there could have been any mistakes. I finally learned to edit on the sly if possible. I once rewrote a budget narrative that had come from one of our brilliant IT specialists in pure, incomprehensible geek-speak. With the help of Google, I was able to translate it into plain English. In order to get it through without a lot of review, I passed it off as the higher-up’s original work.
Later on, a newfangled electronic budgeting system was introduced, designed to make everything work faster and more efficiently. Like all new innovations, it did help in some ways when it was working properly (a fifty-fifty proposition), but at times it made matters worse, since some managers didn’t understand its limitations. They thought it gave them license to send in program narratives right on deadline, or make further changes at the last second, which could then be loaded into the system. They expected a fully realized budget to pop out just by clicking a button. But even the fanciest machines don’t necessarily understand formatting or recognize human errors. Naturally, we analysts were blamed for any mistakes we couldn’t catch on the fly.
In spite of frustrations like these, I took pride in my job until I apparently got too old for meaningful work. Hitting a certain age is the kiss of death for many Feds. Age discrimination is rampant in the Federal government, regardless of the rules against it. I’ve heard many stories similar to mine, so I have to conclude that agencies routinely drive out good employees who might have had several more years of productivity left. I can understand, up to a point, the need to plan for the future by bringing in younger blood. But the discarding process can be unnecessarily humiliating, and uneconomical as well. Sometimes I felt like shouting out that graying hair isn’t necessarily a sign of senility. I still remembered how to do things I had done as a youngster, and I usually noticed what was going on under my nose. I also questioned the wisdom of bringing in younger people and overpaying them to do the same work we used to do at much lower grade levels. I saw the most experienced employees relegated to the kinds of routine housekeeping tasks that are unappreciated and unrecognized until they don’t get done.
Since I retired, about a year and a half ago, I’ve heard informally that it is indeed a problem getting enough of these new hot-shots to pay attention to certain thankless but necessary tasks. I expressed the opinion before I left that it might be advisable to familiarize more people with the grunt work. But now that I’m gone, that’s so not my problem. My job now is to polish the skills I once used to earn a living, and have fun doing it.
October 3, 2015
“In spring, everything was sunny.” That was how a recent Washington Post article began its postmortem of the Washington Nationals’ disappointing 2015 season. The article went on to describe “the rise and fall of a dream,” as if the failure of this team to achieve its goals was comparable to the collapse of a nation. Unbeknown to some analysts, many of us fans anticipated from the start that the 2015 season was a disaster waiting to happen. That’s because we understand how damaging super-high expectations can be—and that the baseball gods love to punish hubris.
These things are written in the clouds, after all. Certain deities have had it in for this team ever since it arrived from Montreal in 2005, denuded and abused from a period of neglectful MLB ownership. It was as if the newly constituted team had no right to exist, much less to develop into a contender. A series of near misses and agonizing playoff defeats in the ensuing years can only have one explanation: those pesky baseball gods haven’t let us off the hook yet.
Baseball pundits on the national level seemed to wish for this collapse. Apart from one quote from superstar Bryce Harper before the season began, taken wildly out of context, it was those pundits who kept anointing the Nationals prohibitive World Series favorites. It turns out that winning championships on paper is easy. Those “experts” now have the pleasure of crowing while the fans suffer. One writer I ordinarily respect, John Feinstein, the author of several entertaining baseball books, seems to utterly lose his rational mind when it comes to the Nats. He cited Bad Karma as a primary reason for the Nats’ struggles.
This Bad Karma, in his opinion, has lingered from the infamous Stephen Strasburg shutdown—three years ago! General Manager Mike Rizzo angered the gods with his arrogance in assuming it made sense to limit Strasburg’s innings in 2012, the year after his Tommy John surgery, because there would surely be other opportunities for him to pitch in the playoffs. How arrogant, fumed Feinstein, to assume such a thing. Never mind that Rizzo followed the medical protocol for such injuries, and that Strasburg did get another playoff opportunity, in 2014. Further, I wonder why the gods are so determined to punish this particular decision. Everyone wanted to see Strasburg pitch in the 2012 playoffs, but Rizzo took the decision upon himself, in the interests of the pitcher’s long-term health. It takes convoluted reasoning to portray that as anything but a selfless act, but it just goes to prove that the baseball gods can’t be reasoned with.
All season long, many fans have been wishing to see more passion and emotion from this team. A few days ago our wish was fulfilled, a little too emphatically. An altercation broke out in the dugout between Bryce Harper and newly acquired closer Jonathan Papelbon, whose bust-your-gut-every-minute lecture didn’t sit well with the young superstar. The fight only served to underscore the final unraveling of this season’s fortunes. As always, the baseball gods got the last laugh.
September 15, 2015
When I self-published my first novel, Secretarial Wars, in 2003, the industry was less advanced than it is now, and both readers and reviewers were hard to find. Only a few were willing to take on my fairly long and complicated tale, inspired by my own secretarial experiences, friendships, and romances when I was a twenty-something in Washington, DC. The story focuses on three women, aged 24 to 35, with 27-year-old Miriam as the viewpoint character. There are numerous secondary characters, especially gossipy office colleagues and troublesome boyfriends.
I was fortunate enough to attract a thoughtful, if rather brutal review from a reader based in England. She did say, encouragingly, that she “enjoyed the banter between the three friends and wanted to know what would happen to them.” But that was somewhat negated by “lack of pace and over-complexity of plot.” In short, I was accused of writing a saga when the chicklit-style story didn’t support it.
The three friends, I must admit, are rather bumbling, as the reviewer said. She complained of too many details about “American football matches” that the girls take in, mostly for the purpose of trying to meet players after the games. Nobody can say the women aren’t ambitious in their own ways, yet the reviewer accused them of lacking “gumption.” Miriam, for example, wants to write an exposé that would blow her own government agency out of the water, yet fails for months to uncover the corruption simmering at her workplace. Perhaps overly cautious, she can’t afford to lose her job for the sake of investigative journalism.
The reviewer complains that “there are far too many characters for a story that is neither a saga nor a blockbuster.” But how, exactly, does a story qualify as a saga? Does it have to be multi-generational, like The Forsyte Saga, or about a family caught up in historic conflicts, like War And Peace? Can’t my story be a mini-saga, since the girls do manage to shake up their own little corners of the nation’s capital?
Maybe the places where they hang out are just too seedy. At their favorite night club, which one of the girls co-manages, they get to hobnob with a second-tier elite, including a faded football star and an underground newspaper editor. The climactic scene of the story features a fundraiser held at the club for a long-shot Mayoral candidate. Things get out of hand, and the girls end up spending the night in jail. Through all their tribulations, they don’t really resolve anything, except to grow up a bit. So how often do we start out writing stories that feel like epics/sagas/blockbusters at first, only to fall a little short?
August 12, 2015
Like most amateur writers, I wrote a couple of novels that were disastrous, meandering failures before I managed to produce one that at least had an identifiable beginning and end, and something of a coherent narrative. I thought these early attempts were great, at least while I was writing them. I didn’t yet have honest critics to tell me otherwise. Only when I started listening to those tough-but-fair opinions did I start to improve.
I see now that these early monstrosities broke every literary rule in the book. Not that I’m a stickler for rules, especially now that I’ve self-published four novels that probably continue to break a lot of them. Traditional publishers are always trying to convince us outsiders that there are all kinds of rules that we’re constantly violating, and that’s why they dismiss us out of hand. Only they can let us in on the secrets that make their authors successful–and only if they choose to. The only problem with that theory is that I often catch my favorite traditional authors breaking those so-called rules with impunity. They’d laugh at the notion that they should follow any vision other than their own.
Nevertheless, I realize there are common-sense tricks that you can ignore if you like, but at the risk of putting your readers to sleep. One of these is knowing when to “show” and when to “tell.” I once tried to write a novel called Sycophants, about a record and film production company based in New York. Besides not knowing much about the subject matter, I seemed to have a real flair for showing when I should have been telling, and vice versa. For example, there’s a scene in which a dynamic African American preacher bowls over a roomful of mostly white football wives, who never saw his like before. How does the reader know he bowled them over? Because I said so! I thought the reader should take my word for it.
Even worse than this is the wooden dialogue, which sounds about as realistic as a blowhard Senator filibustering by reading the Congressional Record aloud. That sin is compounded when the conversation is supposed to be intimate. For example, here’s the female CEO of the production company taking a telephone call from a boyfriend working on the other coast: “Hello, dearest! Just the man in whose ear I’ve been desiring to whisper all day … if you hadn’t called soon, dearest, I was about to fly off into God knows what stratosphere. You know how essential it is for me to touch base with you at least once a day, to maintain what little ballast I have in my hectic life.”
How do you deal with a pile of unusable crap from your past? Do you write it off, or do you return to it years later and try to salvage what you can? I’m now trying to eke out some story lines from the mess that was Sycophants. It still stings that I went so far off track in the first place. But I suspect there are no short cuts you can take when you don’t know what you’re doing; you just have to do it, and take your lumps.
July 2, 2015
Several months ago, The Washington Post carried a heartbreaking story by Cynthia McCabe about a struggling writer, Dennis Williams (alternate name: Katry Rain) who became despondent and suicidal when he concluded that his writing life, and consequently his entire life, were finished. Williams published one book with a small press, had one play produced, and self-published several “philosophical” works and novels based on that philosophy. He was also a teacher of English in Japan, apparently popular with his students, and had garnered some press attention many years earlier with a stunt to protest the Nixon administration.
But the writing success that he longed for wasn’t forthcoming. In a heartbreaking “give-up” gesture, he dumped a load of his unsold books on the doorstep of a used bookstore under cover of darkness one night. Eventually, he planned his death and announced it in advance, e-mailing several prominent journalists, all strangers to him, one day in advance. Was this a ploy to get the attention he’d never had? If so, it was somewhat successful, but he didn’t stick around to enjoy it. He threw himself off a building, exactly as he said he would. He wasn’t interested in being talked out of it (although at least one of the journalists sincerely tried to). Nor was he forcing anybody to read his work. He was just “done.”
Can struggling writers learn anything from this sad story? I don’t believe “struggling” has to mean “despondent.” Most of us learn to embrace the struggle. If our wildest dreams are punctured, we settle for more modest success. Williams seemed to have failed even with his forays into social media, which in my opinion should be nothing but fun. He had very few “likes” on his pages, much less “friends.” I suspect he was desperately seeking the approval of followers instead of trying to get to know them.
As for his novels, Cynthia McCabe tried to read them sympathetically, only to pronounce them didactic and boring. He must have cared more about lecturing readers about the “truth” than entertaining them. A writer has to decide which is more important. If we’re not mesmerizing as many readers as we would like, can’t we at least entertain ourselves? And why should we ever consider ourselves through with writing as long as we’re alive and there are still stories to tell? My advice, if you ever feel devoid of ideas, is to check out the daily newspaper. It’s depressing as hell most of the time, but it’s a panorama of life, full of all the agony and ecstasy you’ll ever need for inspiration.
June 3, 2015
I was amused to find a review on Goodreads of my 2014 novel, Handmaidens of Rock, that complained good-naturedly about my tendency to create bitchy, insecure, backbiting heroines. Do I dislike my own sex that much? The three in my latest story, Candy, Hope, and Theda, start out as high-school girls who attach themselves to an up-and-coming rock and roll band, but aspire to be much more than “groupies.” Sometimes, if they’re in a generous mood, they encourage each other’s aspirations–Candy as a journalist, Hope as a fashion designer, Theda as an actress and budding politician. Just as often, they accuse each other of unrealistic ambitions (who does she think she is?). In their downer moods, they acknowledge how limiting the groupie label can be. The only recognized purpose of such women is to love their respective musicians.
I get some of my inspiration for female bitchiness from real life, sort of. I’m a devoted fan of the Bravo network’s various “real housewife” franchises, including Orange County, Beverly Hills, Atlanta, New York, New Jersey, and Miami. The “real housewives,” needless to say, specialize in catfights. They’re women who have acquired status in their communities, occasionally through their own efforts but more often because their husbands (or in some cases, their sugar daddies) have subsidized their glitzy lifestyles. Many have begun to struggle with changing economic conditions, but all still feel entitled to spend money that they don’t necessarily have. In fact, Teresa Giudice of New Jersey spent so much money she didn’t have, or that her husband gained through various scams, that she’s now in prison. Another attractive profligate is self-described businesswoman and movie producer Sonja Morgan of New York. Sonja has been successfully sued for $7 million by a film company that had contracted with her to raise money for a John Travolta picture that never got made. This result was not unlike many of Sonja’s other business ventures, for which she nevertheless keeps hiring a slew of young, naïve interns.
The housewives’ encounters with each other are supposedly unscripted, but the women usually manage to give the cameras what they’re looking for, such as the overturned table at a dinner party (Teresa again, blaming her Italian temper). The season-ending reunions, which are presumably less scripted than the “unscripted” episodes, are even more entertaining. They take place in ritzy locales, but the seating arrangements often have to be shifted according to which catfight is currently hot. A recent Atlanta reunion led to an actual fight featuring hair-pulling and rolling on the carpet, followed by a real lawsuit.
My handmaidens don’t get physical to that extent, unless absolutely necessary to prevent interlopers from taking their places. They do undermine each other with digs and innuendos (e. g. Hope, the beautiful man magnet, is deemed “shallow,” while Candy’s efforts to be a reporter are ridiculed–she’s too busy describing events, her girlfriends say, to live them). The housewives also have difficulty celebrating each other’s triumphs. Take the way LuAnn de Lesseps of New York (otherwise known as the Countess, even though she’s long divorced from the Count) reacted to her friend Bethenny Frankel’s ecstatic news that she had been chosen for a magazine cover photo. (“Of course, you realize they’ll have to touch it up.”) Years later, Bethenny has yet to get over that insult.
When love relationships inevitably go south for both handmaidens and housewives, they need sympathy, but they usually get schadenfreude. My handmaidens, finding that rock musicians make lousy life partners, wish each other well in finding more compatible mates, but are not above saying “I told you so.” As for the housewives, at least two of them (Ramona in New York and Vicki in Orange County) seemed to have torpedoed their “perfect” marriages by renewing their vows on camera. They were tempting fate, some of their girlfriends say. Bethenny certainly wowed the New York fashion world with her unique wedding dress fitted to accommodate an advanced pregnancy, but as fate would have it, that didn’t lead to a marriage that lasted until the baby was out of diapers.
Sometimes the housewives do bond in adversity. Likewise, in the face of the band’s implosion, the “handmaidens of rock” finally achieve a semblance of sisterhood. Perhaps the lesson in all this is that a woman must fight to be respected for her own gifts, especially when she’s competing with equally ambitious women in a male-dominated culture.
May 1, 2015
As the self-publishing industry grows ever more competitive and crowded, it’s getting increasingly difficult for authors to receive the attention and validation they need in order to struggle on. This seems to be increasingly true even if you’re willing to swallow your pride a little and try to buy some love. The practice of paying for reviews has always been controversial. Some authors insist it’s a form of bribery, and declare they’ll never do it. While I admire their integrity, I wonder what you’re supposed to do if you can’t get more than a handful of reviews the “right” way. Several sites that reviewed my previous books for free have not responded to my latest requests. They’re more inundated than ever before, they say. Even giving away loads of e-book versions of Handmaidens of Rock hasn’t generated much attention.
Nor does paying for praise guarantee positive publicity as readily as it once did. It seems that with so many authors clamoring to be noticed, some paid review sites have new license to be almost as mean and dismissive as everyone else. That’s not always true, by any means. Many paid sites find a way to combine encouragement with constructive criticism, to avoid inflated or false praise, and to provide some exposure. But there are others that use their new-found power somewhat arrogantly.
I won’t call out anyone by name. But I was somewhat mortified that I paid to have my book listed on a site which presents a monthly list of reviewed titles, on which some were labeled “recommended” and the rest, including mine, were not. For my money, they might as well have tagged it “not recommended.” This was accompanied by a polite review that seemed to have been written with gritted teeth, and made a show of discussing what I “attempted” to do in the book, insinuating that I didn’t quite do it. I laughed when I received an offer to keep this listing up for another month if I paid again. Maybe I should’ve paid to have it taken down.
Then there are the paid contests that send out alerts to all their entrants the day before announcing the winners, with a big “good luck.” It almost looks like a taunt. They send you the list of winners, expecting everyone, even the losers, to celebrate the wonderfulness of indie books! All I can say is, are you kidding? I sincerely wish my fellow authors all the good fortune in the world, but I’m not a saint. I don’t have the time or energy to peruse, much less celebrate, a list of winners that doesn’t include my book.
I know the main objective is to get our stories right in our own eyes, and to get them read, whether the reviewers are sympathetic or not. So I’m posing the question: how do other authors feel about paid reviews these days? Has their degree of respectability changed over the years?
April 2, 2015
For an introvert like me, public speaking is torture. I hated giving oral presentations at school and work, and usually bombed unless I kept carefully prepared notes close at hand. But nowadays, publicity opportunities for self-published authors are expanding. To take full advantage of these, there are times when a shy author must try to overcome his or her reticence and learn to speak in front of more than one person without babbling.
I recently got a chance to give a couple of radio interviews as part of a publicity campaign for my novel, Handmaidens of Rock. There are music stations here and there that will give a few minutes of exposure to an author whose subject is rock and roll. Being a mediocre speaker, I filled in a questionnaire ahead of time with basic talking points. You’d think I’d know by now what my own book is about, but it’s surprisingly difficult to sum up in a few words. It’s easier to describe what inspired the book, since I can point to numerous things. For me, playing classic rock radio during the writing process was as important as keeping ink in the printer. Certain songs formed the soundtrack of my growing-up scenes, including falling in love and many less pleasant struggles. Some songs still manage to deliver sheer joy. How can you hear Rare Earth’s “I Just Want To Celebrate,” and not remember how good it was back then just to be alive?
I was pegged as a “rock wife expert” by an innovative publicist. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, although I did spend some of my youthful years hanging around local bands that were talented but volatile. That instability extended to the musicians’ love relationships. There were many sad stories primed to turn into sad songs, only to be lost because the bands didn’t stay together long enough to make themselves heard beyond the local clubs. I comforted one close friend who suffered through a marriage with a rock musician that was fruitful in terms of children, but sadly enough, ended up producing one more broken home.
We baby boomers are reaping some rewards for our long-standing loyalty to the music of our generation. Many of the truly famous classic rock groups somehow survived their growing pains and emerged as mature acts, revitalized with sidemen who in some cases appear to be a whole generation younger. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Heart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Doobie Brothers, Chicago, the Four Seasons, Rod Stewart, and two versions of the Beach Boys in Atlantic City, a favorite stop on their circuit. Frankie Valli, who goes back the farthest of anyone I’ve seen, was almost 78 when I caught his new act. He had surrounded himself with “Four Seasons” who could not only harmonize like the old group, but could dance like the kids they were. This second act for classic rock still has the power to inspire. I sang along to “Rag Doll” and “Dawn,” and relived the many ups and downs of 1964.
March 11, 2015
Several weeks ago, I blogged about my adventures and mishaps in trying to convert a script based on my novel Let’s Play Ball into a storyboard at Amazon Studios. My efforts to give my graphic characters realistic wardrobes, props, and settings, and make them behave in ways that fit the story, were challenging and often hilarious. The result was a complete story in 100 panels which actually turned out more streamlined and action-oriented than the book. Still, it takes imagination to envision it as an actual movie.
While I was working on this storyboard, I was invited to try an updated application, Amazon Storyteller 2.0 Beta, designed to “help visualize your story in a more compelling way.” I gave this a try for my second project, based on my novel Secretarial Wars. This application has several new features, designed to make the storyboard more closely resemble a movie. The most obvious of these for the viewer is that the panels move automatically without the need to advance them manually. Sometimes, in fact, the panels zip by so fast that the dialogue is hard to read. However, the viewer can pause them if necessary.
Better yet, there is also an option to do away with typed dialogue altogether by downloading actual voices reading the script. I didn’t use this device, since I figured it would require real actors and distinct voices to make it work. I don’t have a stable of dramatists on hand, and I’m not enough of one myself to play all the roles! Other available special features include downloaded music and sound effects from the application’s libraries, and the option to download your own. I used the app’s libraries, adding ringing phones for office scenes, honking horns for street scenes, rock music and crashing dishes for nightclub scenes, and a police siren for an arrest scene. The music, especially, adds ambience, although it tends to sound choppy if the same piece extends over more than one panel.
Does the new and improved storyteller get me any nearer to putting an actual movie online? A little, maybe. It certainly adds to the fun. For comparison purposes, the links are below.
Let’s Play Ball: