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:
March 2, 2015
Ever since my Washington Nationals suffered their second early playoff exit in three years, I’ve been in denial that it was really all their fault. Sure, I can point to instances of sheer ineptitude on the field and questionable managing decisions during these playoffs, but it still seems unfair, after twice posting stellar records over the 162-game long haul. So what’s the explanation? Is it a curse or a conspiracy?
Everybody knows the baseball gods punish hubris, and that’s how the most famous curses in baseball history have arisen. The Curse of the Bambino started in 1919, when a foolish Red Sox owner sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees to pay off his personal debts. Not until 2004 did the ghost of the Babe relent. The Chicago Cubs have been in a World Series drought since 1945, all because during the World Series that year the Wrigley Field authorities threw a tavern owner and his billy goat out of the stadium. Are the Nats fated to stumble in the same way every time they get within sight of their ultimate goal? What did they do to deserve this fate? True, they have the Curse of Peter Angelos hanging over them, as the dispute over MASN revenues continues. But I’m guessing Angelos has only business and legal clout, not mystical powers.
At first I resisted the idea that a conspiracy of umpires was to blame. After all, there are many close calls in every game, especially when it comes to balls and strikes, which are not subject to review and reversal. But the fact remains, this very phenomenon twice kept the Nats from advancing beyond the divisional series in the playoffs. Paranoid as it sounds, this theory has actually been advanced by expert commentators, especially those who are former pitchers. Some have suggested there really is a code among umpires that discourages allowing playoff games to end on a called third strike. In 2012, closer Drew Storen, handed a 7-5 lead against the St. Louis Cardinals in the ninth inning of game five, twice threw pitches that could have ended the game and the series in the Nats’ favor, had the umpire adhered to the same strike zone that he had established earlier in the game. The same thing happened to starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann in 2014, while trying to close out what would have been a complete-game victory in Game 2 of the divisional series.
I’m a purist when it comes to umpires. There should be no “special strike zones” for star pitchers, or floating strike zones for different situations. It’s unprofessional for an umpire to do anything less than his absolute best to maintain the same strike zone for every batter in every situation. So why does this playoff game code exist, if it really does? To me, it’s a sign of cowardice as well as incompetence. Are umpires afraid to make decisions that are truly decisive?
February 3, 2015
I recently retired after forty years of service in the Federal government and quasi-government. With extra hours to fill, I took the obvious step of signing on to Netflix and catching up on TV shows I’ve been missing. I overlooked a lot of them while I was working, since my default viewing choices at night always tended toward live sports.
Nothing entertains me more than shows that remind me of the world I recently left behind, especially if they make me glad I did. I revel in the commuting horrors and stressful situations, such as rivalries with colleagues, remote bosses, occasional shady practices, and last-minute, impossible assignments. Most of my fun times at work were had when I was young, fresh, and felt like a vital part of the team. Things got less fun and more stressful as I got older. I’ve heard from enough aging employees to recognize that age discrimination is rampant in the Federal government, and probably in the private sector too. Managers tend to treat gray hair as a sign of approaching senility. They compound the insult by counting on us not to even notice that we’re being minimized.
Not too surprisingly, one of my new favorite shows is “The Office.” It’s a hilarious spoof on business life, featuring a clueless, obnoxious boss leading mostly bored employees at a paper company that is rapidly being overtaken by a digital world. Another favorite of mine is “Mad Men,” which presents situations that are nearly the opposite. The work of an advertising agency on Madison Avenue is much more creative and stimulating, but also much more cutthroat.
Are these office dramas realistic? I’d say they are. There’s no lack of drama in the average office, although most of us find out about the juiciest events second-hand. That’s what rumor mills are for. I used to hear talk about an affair that went on for months on a desktop after hours, until it was abruptly discovered. I also heard about a drunken party offsite where an employee pulled off her boss’s toupee and tossed it in the punch … not the greatest career move ever, as it turned out. Those incidents may well have been exaggerated, but there was a well-documented situation in which an employee spat at his boss in an argument over taking too much leave. That one became enough of an issue to be investigated by the Washington Post, since it led to the “punishment” of being placed in a prolonged, money-wasting leave-with-pay status.
I was tickled by a recent Federal Radio interview with Martha Johnson, the head of the General Services Administration at the time of a Las Vegas conference that included expenditures for such necessities as a mind-reader and a commemorative coin. (Interestingly, since her removal from her position, Ms. Johnson says she’s taken to writing novels). Unnecessary travel is fairly rampant in the Federal government, but I suspect that this case hit the fan because the GSA is supposed to be the watchdog for other agencies. For many years my agency was involved in an annual conference held at various tourist-friendly spots all over the country. It centered on a topic that was really only relevant to one office, but that for some reason drew attendees from almost every office. This became a particular irritant for me when I got stuck with covering my own office during one particularly unnecessary and untimely junket to California. But at least my conscience is relatively clear; I can say I never wasted taxpayer money by basking on any beach. It feels good to be free to travel on my own dime.
January 9, 2015
A free society thrives on controversy. Writers and artists must have the ability to express themselves without fear or restraint, regardless of whom they might offend. The public is equally entitled to take offense at what they see and read, and to say so forcefully. The ensuing debate, if respectfully conducted, is a healthy thing.
The more controversial the subject, however, the more difficult it seems to achieve a balanced debate. One of the riskier challenges a fiction writer faces is portraying villains as real people. I grappled with this in a small way in my 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball when I put bigoted opinions in the mouth of a character whom the heroine nevertheless found attractive enough to sleep with. The topic has come up in a much more threatening way in attempts by some school districts to censor the greatest of American classics, Huckleberry Finn, because much of its language reflects the racial prejudices of its time. This is a blatant example of people policing what they read, instead of attempting to understand it. They are not reading the book, but only reacting.
That said, there are some works of art that are so explosive that they put the most ardent anti-censorship advocate to the test. One example is The Death of Klinghoffer, an opera depicting the 1985 attack by the Palestine Liberation Front on the cruise ship Achille Lauro, and the brutal murder of a Jewish-American passenger. It has been controversial ever since it debuted in 1991, and efforts are continuing to this day to suppress it. At one point, revisions were made to the opera in an effort to stem some of the criticism. In the opinion of some critics, the revisions actually made matters worse by robbing the piece of important depth and context.
There is no easy way to portray both sides of an issue as intractable as the Israel-Palestinian divide. It would be easier, and even understandable, to regard the terrorists as sub-human. However, in that case, they might as well be portrayed as comic-strip villains, evil just because they are. My sympathies in this debate tend overwhelmingly toward Israel, and I abhor brutal attacks on unarmed civilians, no matter what the cause. But the terrorists are not raging in a vacuum. If they are to be portrayed in a work of art, they must be three-dimensional characters with an understandable mission. Free expression must be given the benefit of the doubt. Any attempt to limit it is troubling.
December 8, 2014
I’m trying to circulate three screenplays based on my novels, and Hollywood has yet to start knocking down my doors. So I thought I’d try posting one of them, Let’s Play Ball, on the Amazon Studios site. The response there hasn’t exactly been overwhelming either, but the site does give aspiring moviemakers the chance to have a little fun. By uploading your script and converting it to Rich Text Format (RTF), you have the capacity to turn the story into a series of storyboards via a new application called Amazon Storyteller.
This is an innovation that allows the aspiring filmmaker to choose from a stock supply of backgrounds, characters, and props to visualize scenes from a script. Each board has a caption which sets the scene and contains dialogue. You can also use backgrounds of your own, which I needed to do in order to get ballpark scenes into my story. The result is more like a graphic novel or a cartoon than a movie. Amazon is reportedly working to add to its stock of graphics–maybe robots and spaceships some day, they say.
The fun part is learning, mostly by trial and error, how to manipulate the scenes to make them halfway realistic. You can move around characters, scale them to size, change their clothes and facial expressions, give them props, whatever it takes to make them do whatever they’re supposed to be doing. But because of the limitations of this brand-new application, what you get sometimes resembles a frustration dream rather than a narrative. For example, I’ve been struggling to get a group of diners to sit at a table instead of standing around it, staring at a bottle of wine. I’d like my heroine to be able to hold a cell phone in her hand instead of making it levitate in front of her. There’s also the challenge of clothing the characters appropriately.
Who knows, maybe I’m conjuring up actual nightmares that ballplayers have about showing up on the diamond out of uniform, or missing the game because they got stuck in the bleachers. Certainly all of us office drones have had dreams about showing up at work wearing safari or beach clothing, or something even more revealing. During one intense scene between an employee and her boss, I experimented with various gestures, including one in which she appeared to give him the finger. She actually looked happy when he suspended her, so a facial expression adjustment was necessary. I’ve also accidentally created a floating microphone at a press conference, and floating sandwiches that literally flew off a shelf.
But perhaps the main thing for achieving realism in a movie: how do you force these stock characters to get intimate with each other? They don’t seem disposed to embrace or to sit down together, much less to lie down. So far, Amazon Storyteller doesn’t appear to lend itself to hot and heavy lovemaking.