Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Donald Sterling, Vladimir Putin, Federal Judges & Federal Inmates

From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

What do Donald Sterling and Vladimir Putin have in common?

Well, first both are megalomaniacs...to say nothing of being international sex symbols.
Sterling, at rest, watches his Los Angeles Clippers play.

Putin displays his qualifications to rule Russia, or perhaps appear in Playgirl magazine.  (Actually, I have no idea if there is still a Playgirl.  Somebody call Burt Reynolds).

Both Sterling and Putin are filthy rich.  Sterling has $1.9 billion in net worth.  U.S. intelligence agencies estimate Putin's hidden wealth in various Russian energy companies, among others, to be between $40 and $70 billion.  (How do you say "corruption" in Russian?)

Finally, both men must be curbed: Sterling for his blatant racism, Putin for his dangerous expansionism.

Sanctioning Donald Sterling and Vladimir Putin

Apparently, the NBA Constitution does not directly allow the league to force Sterling to divest himself of the Los Angeles Clippers. Impose sanctions so severe that Sterling is forced to sell.  Start with the forfeiture of all television revenue, a ban on signing all free agents, and a loss of all draft choices until ownership changes.  Then encourage a minority group, perhaps led by Magic Johnson, to purchase the franchise.

Sure, there will be litigation. So what!  The NBA can afford the legal fees.  Do something big, NBA Commissioner Silver.

Now, onto Putin. USA sanctions against rogue nation Russia should be so punishing as to force Putin to remove his hotels from Boardwalk, i.e., Crimea, and go home to play.  While it will require EU help, we could crush the Russian economy.  Yesterday, the USA announced additional sanctions involving some companies and persons close to Putin.

Go farther!  Or further, as the case  may be.  Take Russian banks out of the international loop.  Destroy the Russian stock market.  Isolate Putin. Make the Russian people, currently all atwitter about his strength, realize he's a pariah.

Federal Judges Ignore Conflict of Interest Laws

In law school ethics, you learn that a judge cannot sit on a case involving a company in which he or she owns stock.  But Judge James Hill, of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals (that's one step below the Supreme Court) ruled in favor of Johnson & Johnson, despite having a six-figure stake in the company.

In all, a new report reveals that more than a dozen federal appeals court judges violated conflict-on-interest laws over the past three years!  For shame!

Bravo to Obama on Sentence Reductions

In his first term, President Obama only commuted the sentence of ONE federal inmate.  Now, the government is poised to release hundreds, or even thousands of non-violent drug offenders (and others) who received excessive punishments under idiotic sentencing guidelines, some of which have been repealed.

Here are some details, from the blog of Florida Super Lawyer Marcia Silvers:  
There is no automatic right to early release.  However, under new Justice Department guidelines announced earlier this week, commutation of sentence will be favored for federal inmates who:
  • are serving a sentence that, if imposed today, would be substantially shorter;
  • have a non-violent history with no significant ties to organized crime, gangs or cartels;
  • have served at least 10 years;
  • have no significant prior convictions;
  • and have demonstrated good conduct.
A petition for clemency will not necessarily be denied if the inmate fails to meet all the criteria. For example, someone who has served less than 10 years might still have an excellent chance if he or she fulfills the other criteria.  
Contrast this with earlier times. Remember those eight inmates whose sentences President Obama commuted last December.  In his previous five years in office, he had commuted only one other sentence. Overall, since becoming President, he has granted only nine out of 10,490 commutation of sentence petitions.  That is about to change in a big way.
The complete blog post can be found here: "Commutation of Sentence: The Window Opens,"  Full disclosure under federal conflict-of-interest laws.  Marcia Silvers is my wife.

Paul Levine


Monday, April 28, 2014

The End...or is it The Beginning?

Patty here

 I just finished my latest novel and was feeling a bit proud of myself until I realized I wasn’t really finished. There was more to do before I gave it to real people to read. The first thing that needed attention was the timeline. While I’m writing I try to keep track of dates and times. I learned this from the editor who shepherded all my Tucker books through the perilous waters. After sending her my second book, she said, in effect, that she had no doubt Tucker could save the world but probably not in one day. Of course, she was right. I’d larded in so much action it was not possible or believable that anybody could run that fast in a twenty four hour period, except maybe a gerbil spinning on its wheel.

My books have all been set in Los Angeles. It takes time to navigate traffic in this city. I have to take that into account. With this current novel, I kept track of days, hours and sometimes minutes in the first half of the book. Then I switched several scenes around and what had once been day was now night. After that I gave up keeping track and accepted that I would have to fix it later. If you have an easy way to do this, please let me know. Here are some timeline aids I’ve used:
  1. Excel spreadsheet. Across the top I put the dates. Along the side I put the times. Then I read through the manuscript. As a scene happens, I insert the time in the appropriate column. In the date column, I make a note about what happened in that scene. I keep doing this until I reach the end of the manuscript, at which time I have a complete record of all events and when they occurred. 
  2. An old-fashioned appointment book. You can buy these at Staples or similar office products stores. I buy the one with four columns so I can track the protagonist, the antagonist and two other characters during the course of the novel. I do that because one behavior leads to another. When your heroine does something, your bad guy reacts. Events in a novel should be causally related. How people react to events in their lives causes conflict and moves the story along. 
  3. A regular run-of-the-mill calendar. This is usually my last option because the spaces are too small to include notes but it's great for keeping track of broad, sweeping events.

While I’m reading through the manuscript, I keep a tablet by my side on which I ask myself questions like:
  • Aren’t her muscles sore from horseback riding the day before? The character said in the manuscript that she thought they would be.
  • When did you tell the reader Detective Garcia was on vacation? That came as a surprise. It should come earlier.
The next read through is dedicated to copy editing. I aim for perfection, even though I never quite achieve that goal. Here's where I use the “find and replace” option for stuff like: is the proper abbreviation for Los Angeles LA or L.A.? And names! I hope you keep a list so you don’t forget who's who. In this book Tiffany became Chloe in one chapter. Good thing my error antennae began vibrating when I read the wrong name.

Okay, so now that I’ve corrected all things correctible, I’m finished…really I am. Except that last scene, maybe the angle of the parked car is slightly off. A diagram. Yes! That’s what I need. And measurements. I’m off to get a sketchpad and ruler.

Happy Monday!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

How to Write a Novel Part Fourteen

James O. Born

Last week we discussed one of the most important elements of novel writing: dialogue.  Dialogue not only distinguishes your characters, but it can set the tone for the entire book.  I make it a point never to criticize authors in public.  I will continue that through this post, but I must admit it's difficult.  It would be easy to point out stilted prose or cases where supposedly illiterate, back woodsman use words like "ubiquitous" or "corpulent."  (I'm just trying to show off my vocabulary but I'm serious about the dialogue of the uneducated in the book.)  The other thing that drives me crazy is children who sound like adults writing children.

The proper use of dialogue can also dictate the personality of your character.  Do you want to give the impression of a smug, jerk (at least to an American), have a character showoff using unnecessary French phrases.  You want to have your character instantly disliked, use terms like, "those people," or some kind of derogatory term for virtually any minority.

If you want your character to exemplify an ideal, simply have them talk to people as equals and with respect.  They don't focus on themselves and they worry about other people's actions and reactions.  It's kind of like real life.  The real life that you are going to create in your novel.

This is a short post today as I am preparing to travel.  I will continue the discussion on dialogue in two weeks.  Next week I intend to make some concrete announcements about my publishing career next Thursday.  No, I'm not throwing in the towel just yet.  But I can't blab about how to write a novel, then not write one every once in a while.  It's not good for my reputation or my bank account.

Today's quotes are a little different.  They are literally dialogue taken from a TV show.  What I feel is one of the best written shows on TV, Modern Family.  It takes place during a discussion between a stepfather and stepson who are slowly starting to bond.  The stepfather has bragged to his beautiful, younger wife that he intends to write a novel.  

You can't be a good writer without being critical of your own work
 Manny Delgado, age 12, character on the TV series Modern Family

“Enough chit chat, I have to get a character out of a bind.”
What did he do?
He told his wife he could write a book.
 Jay Pritchett from the TV series Modern Family

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Journalism, Education and Sex in Public Places

From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

Rambling thoughts from a non-rambling man:

Sex in Public Places

When I was editor-in-chief of Penn State's student newspaper, "The Daily Collegian," about a zillion years ago, we did not have a "sex columnist."  At the time, there was allegedly a sexual revolution going on, but I seem to have missed the battle cry.

These days,"Jill" (no last name) is the paper's sex columnist, and her current piece is "Jill Talks About Adrenaline Rush of Hooking Up with Risk of Getting Caught." 

Essentially, sex in public.

Okay, so we were behind the times, with all our anti-Vietnam War editorials and blaming Nixon for everything, including awarding the 1969 mythical national championship in football to Texas...BEFORE the bowl games.  (Yes, Penn State went undefeated that year).

Anyway, I'm all for a sex columnist because, unlike fellow scribbler Jim Born, I'm a hip dude and a hep cat.

Eavesdropping in the Locker Room

So I'm in the locker room at the University of Miami student/alumni gym today, and I'm listening to two undergrads:

First Guy: Dude, I flunked the midterm in Beginning Pottery.

Second Guy: Yeah, I cut Jogging class.

First Guy: I'm thinking about taking Stretching.  All chicks.

So I suppose I should confess.  Back at Penn State, I failed Etiquette.  Really, I had a deadline at The Daily Collegian, causing me to miss the final.  A dinner party.

Jake Lassiter in Trouble Again

Just why did Jake Lassiter slug his client? The answer is revealed over on my website blog where Jake is "Flirting with Disbarment."
This all takes place in "Last Chance Lassiter," a prequel to the 10 book series featuring the linebacker-turned-lawyer. Herewith, as lawyers, say, a brief excerpt from Jake's disbarment hearing:

JUDGE BUCKSTROM: Apparently, Mr. Lassiter, you have a propensity for violence.

JAKE LASSITER: Not really, Your Honor. The only time I was arrested, it was a case of mistaken identity.

Q: How’s that?

A: I didn’t know the guy I hit was a cop.

Q: But in this case, Mr. Lassiter, you have admitted striking your own client.

 A: Technically, he wasn’t my client. It was our first meeting, and I hadn’t agreed to represent him.

Q: So why did you hit him?

 A: He came at me with a baseball bat from the collection on my office wall. Barry Bonds. Mark McGuire. Alex Rodriguez.

 Q: You collect from any players who didn’t break the rules? A: Innocent until proven juiced, Your Honor.

 Q: So your testimony is...your prospective client attacked you with your own bat?

 A: Under Florida’s stand-your-ground law, I could have shot him with a machine gun. You can read the rest of the "transcript" here.

 Paul Levine

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Dawn's Early Light

from Jacqueline

I was wide awake.  3:30am.  Jet lag – I only arrived back from England last Monday, and it always takes me a week to get back on track with my sleep.  Now 4:30am.  Questions and answers running through my mind.  I had them licked – but how would I fare under pressure?  Who knew?  Finally, sleep again.  Until 6:30am.   

OK, so maybe I am overstating my concerns about this, but believe me, I had known people blow this thing that I had embarked upon, so I made sure I was well prepped.  I had a folder with every single document required, I had done my homework and I was ready.  My husband insisted upon coming with me, even though I said, “You know, there’ll be a lot of waiting around – I’ll be OK on my own.”  “Oh no,” he said.  “This is way too important.  I’ll be there in the waiting room.”

The instructions were clear from the outset.  I had to be appropriately attired.  So, what would it be?  The red jacket with a blue and white scarf, just to set off on the right foot?  Or should it be sober grey?  In the end it was my black jacket (but should it be the 10-year-old first-ever-book-tour-crumple-free-in-a-suitcase jacket, or the eBay-Chanel-big-time-buyer’s-remorse jacket?  I went with the crumple free, plus the six-year-old-fourth-book-tour-black-pants and the vintage Hermes scarf (pink, because it’s spring) – another eBay find, this time without regret.  My late mother-in-law was responsible for my love of Hermes scarves – she bought me three, all told.  She had served with the American Army Nursing Corps in WW2, shipping out to Europe on the Queen Mary in 1942, to return home some four years later – she would be proud of me, though I think she would have preferred that red, white and blue Hermes scarf.  She loved her scarves, my mother-in-law.

I’d allowed time to get stuck in traffic, to go back home if I forgot something – so we were early. Time for even more adrenalin to flood the system.  And then we were there.  630 Sansome Street in San Francisco.  According to my husband, once inside it’s like a cross between Stasi headquarters and the DMV.  Mind you, he can say that sort of thing – they can’t kick him out because he was born here, a Cleveland boy.  For someone arriving for their citizenship interview, well, it’s just Daunting Central and you’d better keep your opinions to yourself.

This office of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS, formerly the INS) was not unknown to me – I’d been there years ago for my Permanent Residence interview. In fact, I need never have come again, because as a legal immigrant, I could have just continued renewing my green card every ten years.  But there are advantages to having citizenship – and one is to vote in an election.  As a US taxpayer for almost a quarter century that is something I wanted to do, and there were other considerations – it was time.  And applying for citizenship is not something I had done lightly – Our Jim Born will attest to that. I collared him at the Virginia Festival of the Book (how many years ago was that, Jim?), to talk to him about the right to bear arms, and wanted to know what he thought. He advised me that I had to follow my heart, and if that was something I could not swear to – that effectively I would take up a weapon to protect the United States – then I should not do it. He was right.

I gave it a lot of thought.  At the time I was disillusioned with what I thought were a bunch of gun-happy politicians – and not only in the USA, mind you – too willing to wage war.  But I read the relevant parts of the Constitution and I read the Declaration of Independence, and I did my homework and a lot of thinking.  And I realized that if I wanted to live in a country, I had better be willing to protect it – and that is what I saw reflected in those important documents.  I was not being asked to tote a gun to Safeway, or to approve of those who do. I was being asked to protect the land of my choosing.

It was as I signed in for my appointment that I wondered how different people interpreted “appropriate attire” for an interview for citizenship.  The young woman checking in next to me looked as if she’d come straight from a party with the Kardashians.  A yellow mini skirt, black panty hose, red high heels and a leather jacket over a nicely coordinated turquoise-blue t-shirt.  Make-up applied with a trowel. She carried only her iPhone in a twinkly little wallet. I wondered if all her docs were on that iPhone, and where she had put the copies the instructions indicated should be brought to the interview.  She tapped her inch-long fingernails on the counter as she waited, looking sideways at the bulging folder I carried, marked “Naturalization Application.”

I was instructed to wait in section B.  My husband sat next to me, and I watched as he eyed up other applicants.  Only an Australian wore a suit – everyone else was in a variation of jeans and other very, very casual wear.  John leaned in to whisper in my ear.  “You are way overdressed,” he said.  “They won’t let you in looking like a stuck-up Brit.”  He grinned, which was just as well because my adrenalin was REALLY pumping now.   This was no place to throttle an American.

Finally I was called for my interview. I swore to tell the truth and the officer started without missing a beat.  Every single departure and entry back into the United States was reviewed, and I explained why I was away for five months in 2012 – that’s when my Dad passed away.  I was asked to state my occupation. Writer.  I was asked what I write, so I just said “Historical Novels.” I didn’t want to get into it, but then he said he was really interested in WW1.  I grinned.  We were on my turf.  He said that he had always wanted to go to the battlefields of Flanders.  Yes!  “I’ve been three times,” I said.  Then he looked at his notes.  And we were back to business.  Read this sentence. Write these words.  Answer these questions – and they came fast.  Had I ever committed a crime?  Had I been married more than once? Or to two people at the same time?  Had I ever lied on an official form?  Had I done this?  Had I done that?  No. No. No. No.

Then onto the next jump.  Questions on American history and Civics.  You have to get six correct answers out of ten. I aced the first six, so he stopped there.   It was the only time I slipped up – ish.  “Can’t I answer the others?” I said. “I did all that work!”  He laughed.  “It’s OK. You passed.”  Then he smiled and held out his hand.  “Congratulations.  You’re approved for citizenship of the United States of America.”  My bottom lip wobbled. 

It’s not a done deal until I take the Oath of Allegiance, which he said he would try to have scheduled for the end of April – turns out the next San Francisco Oath Ceremony is on my birthday, and he didn’t miss the connection.  So, fingers crossed.

I left the office still shaking, walked along the bland antiseptic hallway and out into the waiting area. My husband stood up to greet me and I gave him the thumbs up. We hugged among that sea of plastic chairs and the smiling faces of people waiting –there weren’t many; it was a slow Good Friday in the Citizenship department.  And I guess we looked kind of funny, the woman in business-black and a posh pink scarf and a guy in jeans and a sweatshirt. I looked around and smiled back – and I could tell that each of the earth’s continents was represented there in Section B, a gathering of people who had come searching for a new Life, Liberty and their stab at the Pursuit of Happiness in the United States of America.  There’s nothing bland, really, about a latter-day Ellis Island.

Have a lovely Easter.  It’s my favorite holiday, the herald of new beginnings.

PS:  And what did my mother say in a ‘phone call on the morning of my interview.  “The best of British luck to you, my darling.”

Thursday, April 17, 2014

How to Write a Novel Part Thirteen

James O. Born

My thanks to Kat Carlson for pinch-hitting for me last week. In the coming weeks I have an impressive array of authors who will be contributing their viewpoints to the blog.

Today I want to start a multi-day discussion on dialogue. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of a modern novel. Of course I wanted to say modern "crime novel," but that's just my personal preference. I've published science fiction as well as crime novels, but I read everything. And I mean all different genres; from literary novels about feuding farming families in the Midwest to historical fiction about Rome. And I am here to tell you there is almost nothing harder than writing good dialogue and nothing that will sink a novel faster than bad dialogue. It doesn't matter if the novel is set in the 1920s or around the birth of Christ, in the South or in South Boston. The choices you make when writing dialogue will affect all aspects of the reader’s experience. I'm not trying to freak you out, but this is the nuclear arms race of writing. There is very little that's more important. Except college football.

Dialogue is one of the clearest and most direct ways to express your character. Even internal dialogue can let the reader know how smart, how funny or how sincere any particular character may be. It's fun to read funny dialogue spoken by characters who remain cool under pressure and can come up with great one-liners, but it is just as important to read dialogue that expresses sorrow or concern in a way that lets readers know the gravity of the situation and the depth of the character’s compassion. The word choices that a character makes in the story should have no reflection on you, as the writer. If you limit yourself to having everyone speak the same way you do, I can almost guarantee you've written a boring novel. The dialogue comes from the character’s background, not yours!

If you're writing a novel about the Ku Klux Klan and other modern racist organizations you should use words that are not generally accepted and I hope you don't use in real life. I had several long discussions with the late Elmore Leonard about the use of various slang for African Americans. He used them as a pointer to the hardest of the hard-edged characters. No one could ever call Dutch Leonard a racist. Eventually, I did use the worst of those words as a way to delineate just how bad the bad guys in my stories really were. I only met one person who ever considered it racist to put it in the novel. No matter how I tried to explain that it clearly had nothing to do with my beliefs, he said the use of such words in any form was racist. He may have a point, but I disagree. I don't think a writer should be censured for trying to make a story realistic and characters true to their background. It's a touchy subject and one you should address on an individual basis, but you can't be scared of it. My first agent once told me, "You can't write a book that you picture your grandmother reading." That is an excellent bit of advice.

Another man, who, after reading Walking Money, suggested that conversations around my house must be spicy with all the salty language. He seemed truly disillusioned when I told him that I rarely used foul language in real life and that that was just one particular character who would string together the most inappropriate and dirty words. In truth, even during the height of my law enforcement career, I ran across real-life people who said disgusting things. And I made it a point not to speak like that, certainly not around my wife and children. But sometimes people can't separate the character from the author. Break out of your comfort zone. Have your characters say things you would never dream of saying. We have a whole lot more to cover on this subject, but since the Miami Heat's final game starts in a few minutes and I do, at some point, have to continue writing novels in order to keep my house and my wife, I'm going to bring this discussion to an end.

But we will continue the discussion over at least the next week and perhaps two. There are so many aspects to writing dialogue that some of them just happen without thinking about it. How do you feel about reading uncomfortable language in a book? Does it sweep you up in the realism of the story? Or does it turn you off? I have very successful author friends who do not use certain words even in their hard-boiled detective novels. This comes back to the first major point of this series of blogs. When writing a novel, it’s up to you how you write it.

Today's quotes are:

“Be daring, take on anything. Don’t labor over little cameo works in which every word is to be perfect. Technique holds a reader from sentence to sentence, but only content will stay in his mind.” ―Joyce Carol Oates

"I write plays because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself. I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation." —Tom Stoppard

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Pulitzer Prize and Edward Snowden

From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

The Washington Post cleaned up when the Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday. The newspaper won both the "public service" award and the "explanatory journalism" medal. The latter was for a series detailing the challenges faced by people on food stamps. The former was far more controversial. Shared with the Guardian, the Post won the Pulitzer for its revelation, examination, and explanation of National Security Agency documents STOLEN by Edward Snowden. (I prefer the word "stolen" to "leaked" or "disclosed.")
 The Post says it had a team of 28 journalists working the story; I was happy to learn there's still a newsroom in America that has more than two dozen reporters and editors. But I'm not happy with the Pulitzer and the reflected glory it shines on Edward Snowden, that fleeing felon now protected by that great defender of liberty, Vladimir Putin.

I express my views in detail on this subject on MY OTHER BLOG, today entitled: "Pulitzer Prizes 2014: Snowden Gets the Last Laugh."

As for the Washington Post, I find some irony in a story it published a few days ago, essentially pointing out the flaws in the Pulitzer Prizes. The story was entitled "Five Myths About the Pulitzer Prize" and asserted:

1. The Pulitzers don't honor the best in American journalism. Magazines, for example, are excluded.

2. Small news outlets don't have much of a chance.

 3. Some newspapers chase prizes at a "disservice to readers." Frankly, I don't agree with that. "Chasing" Pulitzer Prizes generally means spending significant resources on major projects that serve readers. Pulitzer Prize and Joseph Pulitzer

4. The Pulitzer Prizes are stuck in the 20th Century. That may have been true, but last year, the tiny on-line publication InsideClimate News won the award for national reporting for its "rigorous reports on flawed regulation of the nation’s oil pipelines, focusing on potential ecological dangers posed by diluted bitumen (or "dilbit"), a controversial form of oil." 

InsideClimate News beat the other finalists, heavyweights Boston Globe and Washington Post, to win the award. (I suppose the medallion could be updated. It still shows a man hard at work on a 19th Century printing press, but isn't that part of the charm?) pulitzer 1953 medallion
The complete list of the 2014 Pulitzers, from the History award for Alan Taylor's “The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832," to Poetry, Vijay Seshadri's "3 Sections," can be found here.

Paul Levine

Monday, April 14, 2014

Lessons from a Critique Group Junkie

Patty here

I have been in one writers critique group or another for the better part of twenty years, long before a publisher bought my first novel. Some writers feel comfortable sending a first draft to their editors. In fact, some editors prefer that. My editor always got the best, most polished book I was capable of writing because I would have been embarrassed to do otherwise.

Critique groups are not for everybody, but I can’t imagine writing without one. Some groups had strict rules about the number of pages you could read, the time allotted and the way others were allowed to critique. In one group, critiquers could only say what they wanted more of or less of in the pages read. No one was allowed to “pile on” to another member’s negative comments. In some groups the comments were given in an orderly manner, traveling from one person to the next in the circle. Some were free for alls. In some groups, the writer read their pages. In others, each group member read the pages silently so the voice of the reader did not influence the written words. The lessons I learned from each group are essential to my life as a writer.

Group 1: This band of merry wannabes formed in 1992 after taking a class at UCLA Extension called “How to Write a Credible Sex Scene.” None of us had been in a group before. None of us were published. In fact, none of us had ever written much of anything. Our meetings were madcap free for alls. When the group dissolved, I realized:

Group members must be serious about actually writing something. 

Group 2: Before I joined, the group had hired a published horror author for the month to teach us the craft of writing. I left when he told me I shouldn’t be writing mysteries because so many others had done it better than I ever would. I learned:

Don’t attack the writer or his/her vision. Say what you like about the work and suggest constructive changes, acknowledging that even though you may have a book or two under your belt, yours is just one person’s opinion. 

Group 3: A well-known writer and teacher led the group. The members were talented writers (far better than I was) as well as students of literature. Every time I got feedback I felt as if I’d just had a masters class in writing. In the next nine years, I wrote two novels and part of a third and learned volumes about the craft of writing and the writer’s life. By the time the group disbanded, I had forged lifelong friendships and learned:

You have to complete a novel before somebody will publish it. If you hope to finish, it is better to learn about criticism and rejection among a supportive group of friends than to be alone when you realize the world does not always love your writing. I also learned not to take praise too seriously, either. 

Group 4: A published writer and teacher led this group by a strict code of conduct. All of the members were talented writers who had been in the group for many years. I dropped out when, for the third time, I arrived at the meeting place only to discover they had changed the venue without telling me. The lesson:

If you accept new members into your group, 
then accept new members into your group. 

Group 5: For a while I feared I’d never find another critique group. Then, by some stroke of dumb luck, I found this group, or maybe it found me. Most members are successful screen and TV writers, which gives me a whole new prospective on structure. Some have also written newspaper and magazine articles, short stories, novels and non-fiction books. They are talented, wise, supportive and funny people. Lesson learned:

Persistence is usually rewarded. 


Friday, April 11, 2014

Character In The Lines ...

from Jacqueline

I’m still in England, and have just arrived back in Sussex (at my mum’s house), following a couple of days in London.  At the moment, I love London.  It really is hopping, and probably the most dynamic city in Europe – certainly the richest, that’s for sure, and you need every penny while you’re there!  And I say "at the moment" because there have been times in my life that I have disliked the city, have been disappointed in its character at every turn.  But right now I like the place.  If you want to read a book – a really great novel – that demonstrates a fine example of place as character, you would do no better than to read Capital by John Lanchester – it’s a witty, smart, clever story about London that manages to weave a social message with a “thumping good read” - as the British reviewers are often known to say when they get their hands on a good book.  But I digress …

One thing I love to do – wherever I am – is to go to exhibitions of photography, particularly if the photographer is known for being able to capture character in a face, a place or a moment in time.  I prefer black and white photographs – there is something about the way shades of light and darkness come into play to bring out the essence of personality, of mood, of intention, even.  I will often stand in front of one photograph for ages, just looking, just thinking, just wondering – who would that character be in a story, if I were to write about him/her?  Call it research by another name, a flexing of the creative muscle, another way to look at how we develop character, and the possibilities there for the writer.  On Wednesday, my friend Corinne and I went along to a major exhibition of David Bailey’s work at London’s National Portrait Gallery, and it was fascinating.  I guess if you’ve heard about David Bailey, you will probably think of him as a photographer of sixties icons, such as Jean Shrimpton (“the Shrimp”), probably the best known model of her day.

 But he also took these photographs:

The nasty looking pair at the bottom were the gangland kings of crime in the east end of London in the fifties and sixties.  The Krays were beyond brutal and put quite a number of other gangland wonder boys in concrete boots – and they’ve been holding up docklands along the Thames ever since, giving new meaning to the words “human support system.”  Look at those faces – say you were creating a gangland monster, how would you bring those faces onto the page, with all their shades of light and dark and charisma and sociopathic madness? Can you see it?

This is one of Bailey’s photographs that might not resonate with you, but it does with me. It’s a WW2 bombsite in East London – in the 1960’s. In my childhood there were bombsites all over east and south-east London in particular – hard to believe that the building of arenas for the 2012 Olympics helped get rid of the last of them.  What words can ever be used describe this sort of place?  But remember that, amid the terrors such detritus points to, the human spirit might have been battered and bruised, but not quite destroyed.  That place is a character as much as the flesh and blood of any human, and as a writer, if I am setting a scene there, I'll need to get to the nub of it in the way I string together words and phrases.

 Last year I went to another exhibition – the work of famed photographer (and costume designer), Cecil Beaton.  He was known for photographs like this - oh, and he also designed the costume:

That's doing things the other way around - giving color and texture to a character from the page.  Here's another of his photographs:

But during the war he was not only a member of the intelligence services, but a wartime photographer.  With this photo of a young child wounded in the bombing of London, he managed to garner more support from the American people for war with Germany than all the politicians put together, when it was published in LIFE magazine.

 He also took this photograph.  How would you describe the men in that bomber? Can you see tension?  Can you tell their ages?  

One of my photographer heroines is Vivian Maier.  What an extraordinary woman.   She was not a professional photographer, but she produced a phenomenal body of work cataloging life in Chicago in the middle of the last century.  Towards the end of her life, locals thought she was a batty old lady who walked or bicycled the neighborhoods with a couple of cameras around her neck, but she left thousands of prints and negatives when she died – the story of how they were discovered can be read in many places online, just Google her name.  But look at these, for example, then wonder who these people are and what stories you might give them.  If I were your writing teacher, I might call this an exercise in character.

This one is a favorite:

So next time you read the news or you flick through a magazine in print or online, look at the faces, look at the places, at the detail, at the minutiae.  There are stories there you know – string a few together, and maybe you'll have enough material to create a thumping good read.

And before I leave you - next Friday is a VERY BIG DAY for me. I'll be telling you all about it in my next post, which will be here at www.nakedauthors.com on Saturday April 19th (I think I will be too busy all day Friday, and too excited and nervous all day Thursday to tell you about it ...)

Until then, have a great week!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

How to Write a Novel Part Twelve with Guest blogger Kat Carlton

I pointed out in some of my earlier blogs that a key to success, at least for me, was either tricking other people into doing my work or, hopefully, taking credit for other people's work. This rarely involves outright stealing a manuscript and then bludgeoning the writer, but I wouldn't rule it out completely, either. I've tried it with Paul Levine, but he is surprisingly agile.
I put the call out far and wide to some of my friends associated with publishing, which included writers, critics as well as editors.  I explained to them what I was trying to do here on Thursdays and got a good response.  Our first guest blogger is the lovely Kat Carlton.  All you need to know is that she’s a good writer and a friend of mine but I’ll also share this:

Kat Carlton is the alias for a covert creative operative who’s content to kick ass from behind her laptop, since (unlike her characters) she can barely spell the word ‘karate’ and has the street smarts of an eggplant. Two Lies and a Spy (Simon & Schuster) is her first young adult novel. Please visit Kat at www.KatCarltonAuthor.com.

Writing the *&^%$#@! Novel by Kat Carlton
So, you want to write a novel? Really? Is there something wrong with you? Are you nuts? Do you enjoy, say . . . cutting each leaf and twig of your hedges with manicure scissors? Searching for buried treasure in a cat box? Tweezing the hairs of a rabid raccoon, one by one? Because that might be more fun.

Sure, I can tell you about the process of writing books. I have written 24 contracted ones for 4 New York publishing houses. And I know you probably want me to be all upbeat and cheery and wave pom-poms at you. “Gimme me an S! Gimme a T! Gimme an O, R, Y! You can do it! Go! Rah, rah!”

You can do it. Really. I want you to know that. But writing a novel is a long, arduous process during which you may question your abilities, your perseverance and your sanity. So you should be afraid. Be very afraid. The question is: what do you do with that fear?  

I still struggle with it. I’m a professional novelist, but on many days, I’d rather peel off my own skin whole and sew a dress out of it than sit at my computer and write. I’d rather scrub toilets at the bus station. I’d rather floss an angry alligator’s teeth.

But here I sit, writing. And egad! I must soon commit novelism again. The voices in my head are driving me to it, despite Microsoft and Webster and the ghost of my dead mother telling me that ‘novelism’ is not a word. I must commit it.

As a serial author, you’d think that those voices commandeering my brain would actually be helpful in plotting my course of fictional mayhem—or at least my new novel—but they aren’t. Neither is that mythological creature, the Muse. That fickle tramp is off romping in blank white sheets with some other scribe.

Nope, it’s just me here, cursing at the cursor and myself for having agreed to write a blog on writing The *&^%$#@! Novel. But I’d rather do this than my taxes, so . . .

Let’s talk about fear.

Writing a novel is scary enough when you haven’t ever written one. I will give you that. But writing a different kind of novel after you’ve written over twenty--and they haven’t set the market on fire--is terrifying.

See, my plans to hit the Times list writing Sassy, Sexy Fiction with No Literary Pretensions have backfired so far. I intended to laugh all the way to the bank (which is now laughing at me) with the added benefit of pissing off my aforementioned dead mother, who was a very lofty literary critic and scholar. (Mummy, I do hope there’s good Scotch up there. I know you’ve had to pour yourself some stiff ones ‘cuz of me.)

I mention my own terror not because it in any way trumps yours . . . I say it because it is so very normal to be afraid. As I mentioned, you should be afraid. The question is how you perceive that fear and what you do with it.

Writer’s block? It’s fear, plain and simple. Writer’s block is your avoidance of your manuscript because it’s scaring the piss out of you that you can’t get the words out. So siddown, you. The more you run from it, the more it’ll torture you.

Compulsive and paralytic self-editing? That’s fear, too. Fear that once you get the words out, they won’t be elegant enough or pithy enough or brilliant enough or funny enough. So stop it already! Just spill. The more anal retentive you get about that one particular sentence or paragraph, the worse it will be.

Research mania? Guess what . . . it’s not your noble thirst for knowledge. It’s—say it with me now—fear. Stop reading background stuff and get your own words on the page. Create specific situations. Then research on a need-to-know basis.

The crappiest thing about fear is that old, moldy cliché: the only way through it is through it. Yeah, I see the skid-mark you’re leaving as you try to sprint around it. Yeah, I see you at the bar trying to pretend it’s not there.

We all deal with fear—it may be our very reason for writing in the first place. Wanting to leave a mark on the world. Or at least a squiggle somewhere in Google.

So change your approach to fear. Let it energize you. Punch it in the face. Wrestle with it; embrace it until it’s sick of you, twists away and runs off to torment someone else.

Whatever you decide to do with your fear is up to you. But it will come back to haunt you as you write, so use it. Smear it onto your pages as drama, as comedy, as angst or as crisis. How you handle fear is ultimately more important to your career as a novelist than inspiration, punctuation or approbation.

So hold fear off with a gun while you read craft books and figure out a beginning, middle, and end. Beat it with a hammer while you muse on how your character grows and changes during your plot. Plunge a knife into it as you string sentences and paragraphs and pages and chapters together. Poison it as you revise. And flat-out bomb it as you do it all again.

What’s that you say? I’m asking you to become an ambidextrous, violent, grandiose psycho who fights imaginary battles with abstract concepts—all while typing and possibly drinking coffee at the same time? 

Well, yeah.

That’s how you write The &^%$#@! Novel.