Avoiding The Cringeworthy

Writing romance that fits properly into a tale? A relationship that comes across as genuine? One which doesn’t read as corny and silly, thus causing a reader to roll eyes? Especially where sex is involved?

Doing that is massively difficult.

Don’t believe me? Don’t you sit there guffawing. Try it. Go away and compose even a few paragraphs, come back to me and tell me you didn’t cringe in abject embarrassment at what you’d produced as a first sincere effort.

Given that reality, how in heaven’s name did someone else we’ve heard of ever seriously write, uh, uh…. Never mind. I digress. ;-)

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a red heart and I love you text.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a red heart and I love you text.

Yesterday I had one of those days. The literary agonizing (type, delete, think a bit, type feverishly again, alter, delete, type more, re-read, consider throwing the PC out the window, etc.) that stems from wanting to see two important characters have an intimate relationship? Yet in the gut also not really wanting to see that happen?

Okay, friends, what are we going to do today?” Yes, and what a headache I had by mid-afternoon from staring too long at the PC screen trying to figure that out. I needed Tylenol. I flicked through the pages and found myself thinking, “Not bad. It needs more tweaking. But, God, I just don’t know about this.”

Nothing like trying to seek to escape a novelistic corner into which you’ve willingly painted yourself. Welcome to the world of the writer. I must be nuts.

Then again, of course we all know romance is often a bit corny and silly in our real lives, isn’t it?

I’m back at it again. I posted this because I needed a break…. again. No sign of a headache again, though; but give it time. Today’s still young. :-)

Sense Of Place

Yesterday I received a Facebook message from my wife’s friend in Bristol; her husband is writing a novel. He had a question for me about New York City. Specifically he wanted to know something about Brooklyn.

You remember him? I wrote about him a few months ago. He’s the guy who’ll probably get a film deal after selling like, urr, a gazillion books…. and I’ll sell, uh, quite a few less. ;-)

I was startled he had a question about anywhere in the U.S. I say that because he has managed, without ever having even once set a foot in the U.S., to write vividly about life, people and places in the country. Everything he knows about the U.S. he has picked up from books, TV, films…. and, uh, me.

Amazing how some manage that. But I find there is also nothing more satisfying and useful than having walked the ground in the places you are using – or even just think may use – as story background. Doing that imbues a tale with a much more rooted “sense of place.”

Pope Francis passing by at an audience in St. Peter's Square, the Vatican, September 2013. [Photo by me.]

Pope Francis passing by at an audience in St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican, September 2013. [Photo by me.]

I was unsurprisingly pleased (to be honest, ecstatic is a better word) when one of my readers wrote me that she enjoyed my description of a neighborhood where she had lived. She said it brought back happy memories. That I had been there myself definitely made a difference: I don’t know if I would have been able to write about it quite as I had if I had never been there in person.

Yep, umm, just like our pal Ernest Hemingway. ;-)

“You fascist!”

….No, no, no, the post title doesn’t mean I’m calling *you* (friendly reader/ visitor) a “fascist.” Please don’t misunderstand. I used it because that (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) accusation is hurled in Passports during a morning, uh, “friendly exchange of views,” between Isabelle and Uncle Bill at Bill’s Rhode Island coastal cottage:

Next Bill called to the dining room. “Isabelle, toast and eggs?” Unexpectedly, he expanded the menu choices. “Want anything else? If you were being polite last night, don’t be. This is a continental house. Feel free to smoke.”

Despite being unsure if she had again misunderstood Bill’s English, Isabelle nonetheless dived in.

“White coffee and toast please, Uncle Bill. That will be lovely. Thank you.” Both feet on the floor now, she crossed her legs and pushed aside hairs hanging down on her forehead. “And so you know,” she added, “I don’t smoke. You think all the French are the same? We all smoke?”

“Well, all the French I know seem to smoke like chimneys,” Bill maintained as he advanced to the table and chose the seat across from her. Next he changed conversational topic mid-paragraph as he often did. “So what about that Mitterrand? He’s done over there soon, isn’t he? Who’ll be the next president?”

James sat on a longer side of the slightly rectangular table, between them, as if positioned inadvertently to referee. Taking some toast, he joked, “Uncle, you been watching the news on public television again?”

Isabelle responded from across the table without hesitation, “Balladur or Chirac, of course.”

Pouring orange juice, Bill questioned, “Who?” He moved the toast plate closer to Isabelle. “Please, have some more. You know, I sensed it last night. You’re a Gaullist. You fascist! Gaullists hate Americans!”

“No, they don’t,” she answered softly. “They love France. It is the Socialists who hate Americans. Mitterrand has been a disaster for France.”

Bill smiled broadly and looked over at James sitting to the side. “Nephew, you sure can pick ’em.”

“Okay,” Isabelle began to question Bill mockingly, and a bit flirtatiously, “who should be President of France, as you sit here, great American writer, judging the world from, ooh, what little state is this again? Uh, Delaware? I forget.”

Bill lobbed a calculated grenade at Isabelle. “Whoever the Socialist is. We need socialism in the U.S.”

“Bah!” she dismissed that out of hand. “You have not lived under socialists. I know communists, yes, but I do not want them to rule France. You have been with Spanish writers and Cubans. They do hate America. I bet they are communists. We thanked God that Mitterrand had to spend so many years sharing power with Chirac.”

Ignoring her charges, Bill went another route. “God? I thought young Europeans today were a lot smarter than our Bible-thumping Americans?”

Isabelle was at a loss. “Aren’t you Catholic like James and your family?”

Taking a breath, he explained, “Right. You know, Isabelle, I think of myself as a Unitarian.” Seeing her appear to go blank at the word, Bill appended, “We believe in sort of everything.”

Isabelle was underwhelmed. She knew what a Unitarian was. “But do not Unitarians believe in God?” she grilled him pointedly while grasping her coffee mug. “And to say one believes in everything is to hold nothing sacred.”

Bill pronounced, “Nephew, she is definitely French!”

James complained, “Uncle, I didn’t think I was in this breakfast debate?”

Had enough? As James has? What? You mean that back and forth didn’t cause you as a conservative to turn socialist, or vice-versa?

I follow many of you who are also authors – or musicians, or actors, or you travel blog, or you’re interested in cultural issues, or you’re just sharing thoughts with us. It should go without saying I’m flattered if you follow me. In organizing my followings here deliberately along mostly “apolitical” lines, WordPress has become for me a welcome island of friendliness, learning and calm compared to much else out there in major media.

As we know, nothing exists in isolation. In recent days I’ve been surprised by several generally “non-political follows” who’ve suddenly taken to mounting Everest-height soapboxes. They’ve filled posts with barrages of heavy-handed political invective. (That’s being “charitable” in describing the content. I could use stronger language.)

If you wish to read diatribes from those who support your “worldview” (whatever it is), it is usually easy enough to find out there. Follow a few of the crazies on Twitter. Or just click over to commenter cesspools that are found on sites like CNN’s.

But if you don’t agree with the rantings (or perhaps even if you do to some degree), you may also feel you need a shower afterwards. In a friendly Twitter exchange I had had with a CNN.com producer about so many of the incredibly nasty online comments, he noted that he simply tells op-ed contributors not to read the comments below their pieces. Can you imagine? Yet it’s easy to understand why: the bigotry and viciousness some spew via keyboard is appalling – and, one has to believe, mostly also from those who would likely never be so rude to someone’s face.

Free Stock Photo: The White House in Washington, DC.

Free Stock Photo: The White House in Washington, DC.

I know I have on occasion blogged here on somewhat contentious issues. Amanda Knox, Devyani Khobragade, and immigration, immediately come to mind. But when I do, I try to do so with moderation, within the framework of my own knowledge and experience, and while remembering my self-imposed guidelines for this blog. (See the top banner.)

Civility and respect: where have you gone? If you want to scribble vitriol online, of course you are free to do so; but I did not follow YOU to read that. I firmly believe that chest-thumping, name-calling, and jumping up and down usually wins no friends who don’t already agree with you, and rarely changes minds.

Thinking To Ourselves

I haven’t shared a “sneak peek” into the in-progress sequel in a while. So, I thought, why not? As with previous “peeks,” this one may make the final novel after a cleaning up.

[***** Warning: STOP here if you have not read Passports, think you might, and care about "spoilers." There is a pretty large "spoiler" below in the next paragraph, as well as several in the "sneak peek." *****]

Continue reading

It’s Not A 40 Hour Week

The more book you write, the more you need to remember, and the more you have to keep together. Working through the first sequel, I’m juggling several families, as well as multiple locations in three countries: the U.S. and France again of course, and this time Britain too. Subplots blend together, or they may not. I have to keep personal histories straight. I need to keep the timeframe in mind.

Because I’m writing a “real world.” I suspect penning fantasy is easier in at least this respect: you may always make up something magical to move a story along. But, as I like to joke, I have no vampires, so the story must not only be compelling and break new ground, but it must fit into its historical locale (the mid-1990s) and ultimately read “believably.”

Gee, what could be easier? But before I wrote any of it, I had already outlined broadly what would happen all the way to the end. I had summarized for myself in a Word document where I wanted the story to go and how it would get there. It was not unlike a builder framing a house.

* * *

After that framing, I began constructing the interior – which is where I am now. I’ve got about 75,000 words. Some will definitely be changed, and some seem likely to stay as is; but I’m not nearly finished yet.

I regularly re-upload the manuscript-in-progress in .pdf to an “e-reader.” Last night, I had been re-reading a section I’d written, oh, at least two months ago. I realized I had actually forgotten lots of the story details in that part of the book.

Re-reading in a detached manner after an extended interval has its creative benefits. I found myself doing what I always do, thinking: “Oh, that’s good! I wrote that?” as well as, “Geez, that’s a bit amateurish. You aren’t 14 years old. That’s getting the chop!” I also had some pangs of concern: “Hmm, am I going overboard with that sex scene? Remember women friends will again be reading this!” ;-)

How my real life novelist uncle would laugh at me. In Passports, I’d slotted in a fictionalized tribute to him that stemmed from an actual conversation I once had:

“You should write something,” she prodded him. “Your uncle could help you.”

Distinctly uneasy with that recommendation, James discounted it. “What he writes isn’t what I like to read. I couldn’t write what he does. I remember my grandmother once telling him off about the sex. ‘Where did you learn stuff like that?’ she yelled.”

“Hmm, yes, I agree with her from what I have read,” Isabelle smirked. “I think your uncle has learned many things a mother would not want to believe her son knows. It does not matter how old he becomes!”

It is sneaky dropping bits like that in, I know. But, hey, Ernest Hemingway would! ;-)

* * *

So I smiled to myself when I noticed Author Alliance tossed this out the other day for the consideration of “Twitterdom”:

image

Seriously? I was struck immediately with that being – for me, anyhow – impossible to answer. It was – also for me, at any rate – borderline silly. I tweeted back, “How long is a piece of string?”

Writing is not just the mechanics of pre-organizing the book, and then the typing, and the occasional extra research, and the editing. For me, writing these novels is all-consuming. They occupy and fill my mind.

They have become LIFE – which they should be if they are to be “alive” for future readers. Even when I’m not physically sitting in a front of a PC writing, I may well be thinking about what I will be writing, could be writing, or will change. How do I possibly note all that on a timesheet? ;-)

Oh, and Happy Bastille Day!

Upstate New York’s Guillotine

July 14 is “Bastille Day.” Saturday, the Rockland County village of Piermont commemorated it. A photo gallery from LoHud newspaper captures some of the event, including its display of the French Revolution’s most enduring and infamous symbol:

image

In stumbling on that photo while clicking through, I found it jarring and somewhat off-putting to see even a fake guillotine on a street amidst a party atmosphere. I suppose sticking your head into one is now considered a lot like allowing yourself to be locked into “the stocks” or “the pillory.” The real guillotine, though, was assuredly a heckuva lot more final than those.

The article led me to recall this I’d written back in March:

….when it comes to the Revolution, non-French are best advised to be cautious before shooting off their non-French mouth about it among French new acquaintances. Probe a little first, and make sure of where everyone stands, before you take to proclaiming how the Revolution was “fantastic” and that Robespierre is sadly misunderstood.

Years ago, a French inspiration for one of my characters told me, point blank, that she was never pleased when Bastille Day rolled around. To be clearer: she despised it. And why did she feel that way?

“They cut off my ancestors’ heads,” she seethed.

In 1789, the Revolution had begun seeming to be much like the American Revolution, causing Americans there at that time, such as Thomas Jefferson, to applaud it. However, he departed for home within a year, and other Americans in France looked on in horror as the Revolution descended into a chaotic, bloodthirsty mess. It did not produce many “heroes.”

Indeed, another French character inspiration pulled me up squarely on this suggestion of one perhaps vaguely arguable “hero”:

“Napoleon was a butcher, like Hitler,” she decreed.

Okay, I’ll be quiet now. And there were absolutely no George Washingtons. So while it has become France’s “national day,” underneath it all a disquiet remains: “Bastille Day” is not quite the “unifying” holiday in France that the “4th of July” is in the U.S.

After U.S. independence was recognized by Britain in 1783, those Americans who had opposed it often emigrated to Canada or other British territories, or even to Britain itself. (For example, one of Wellington’s officers killed at Waterloo in 1815 was a New York-born DeLancey, whose prominent family had opposed U.S. independence.) Or they simply stayed in the new U.S. and reconciled themselves to it – and they were allowed to do so. There were not thousands of executions of American “counterrevolutionary” loyalists who had supported remaining part of the British Empire.

The guillotine strikes me as similar to the electric chair. Or maybe I’m just too sensitive? I suppose 220 years since the Terror is deemed enough time to have passed for the guillotine to be confined safely to the realm of Renaissance fair-style history.

After A Working Vacation

Noticing Mr. Scott off-duty reading what appears to Captain Kirk to be still more work-related materials, he smilingly confronts the Enterprise’s chief engineer:

Capt. Kirk: Another technical journal, Scotty?
Scott: Aye.
Capt. Kirk: Don’t you ever relax?
Scott: I am relaxing.

How many of us do that? I’m sure I’m not alone. What did I bring along as “light reading” for the beach and poolside while on vacation?:

Florida vacation “light reading.” [Photo by me, 2014.]

Hey, don’t laugh. You have your preferences too. And when she saw what went into the bag as we packed, my wife voiced surprise: “What? No Jefferson biography?”

Err, nope. Not this holiday anyway. Ah, but I knew there is always also what’s on the Kindle! ;-)

* * *

That said, I did not read or, naturally, write – other than a bit on Twitter and Facebook, a couple of emails and, of course, this blog – too much that wasn’t my manuscript. As a result, I made more manuscript progress than I had expected before we started the long trek down I-95 to the Florida Keys.

Yesterday, I assessed the full manuscript. I have enough of it now that I can pull up the in-progress sequel in .pdf and compare it to the final .pdf of Passports. Its internal format and layout will be the same as Passports. Given the books are a series, I want them to fit nicely side by side.

I even have cover photo ideas – both for front and back. I’m still unhappy with “stock model” photography I’ve seen (apologies to photographers; I do know you have to eat too), so the back cover may – may – include a photo of a “non-identifiable person” that I snapped a long time ago. I’m still wrestling with using it or not: it looks agonizingly good, though – thus my dilemma. (I could still be persuaded on “stock photos” if I saw any I really liked.)

Most importantly, it appears splitting the sequel into halves, as I had been thinking I might, won’t be necessary. I have plowed through so much since mid-June that if I can keep it up I may be able to get the whole “400 page” sequel published in one shot during the late autumn as I had hoped. Almost time again for the proofreaders….

* * *

You do learn lots, storyline, and storytelling-wise, one book to the next: what sorta works v. and what is a home run. I am immensely proud of Passports. But I promised Kam’s sister I would dedicate the second volume to Kam, so I’m determined (obsessed is probably a more accurate description) to make the second volume “better” than the first one.

Overall while the sequel is still far from finished, I’m happy about where I am now compared to where I was at this point in mid-2013 with the Passports manuscript…. long before this blog appeared in the endless internet universe and most of you knew I even existed. And, of course, before I knew most of you existed either! ;-)

What a world we live in now, isn’t it?

I hope you’re having a good weekend….

For July 14

I kept to my plan. Yes, while on vacation I actually got more of the sequel written. As I had explained to our friends’ young daughter, “When you’re writing, you’re never on a holiday really.”

The other day I also had an idea for the already published opening volume. A “Bastille Day” sale for Passports on Kindle was so obvious I was annoyed at myself for nearly having overlooked it:

France's President Jacques Chirac. Bastille Day, 1995. [Photo by me, 1995.]

France’s President Jacques Chirac. Bastille Day, 1995. [Photo by me, 1995.]

After all, in one chapter in that first volume, we find ourselves once again on July 14, 1995:

…On the Champs-Elysées, they managed a spot right along the curbside barrier. The growing crowd pressed all along it as far as they could see. As the parade began, James admitted to Isabelle he was amazed by the French military he saw passing. Even the U.S., which revered its military, did not do martial parades quite like this, he said…

So the Kindle book is 99 cents on Amazon.com until July 15. (Unfortunately, its regular price is apparently too low for a similar sale to be possible on Amazon.co.uk.) I haven’t done a “promo” like this before. It’s new territory for me. :-)

Happy Independence Day, 2014

A few thoughts on today’s U.S. Independence Day. It’s an extra-special one for us because it’s my wife’s first as a U.S. citizen. And she is – as you know if you visit regularly – British.

It’s also the first one for some time in which we are actually physically present in the U.S. We have often laughed on our trips around the U.S. over the years as to how the history of “1776 and all that” seems a bit awkward at times. Invariably, at some point, she’d hear some tour guide say something like this:

“Welcome. This is where George Washington lived. He was our first president. He led the American army in battle against the British.”

Or:

“This is the home of Thomas Jefferson. He is most famous for writing the Declaration of Independence during the war with Britain. He also once said he would have sunk that whole island into the sea.”

Or:

“Here, at Yorktown, this is where the Americans and the French cut off the British under Lord Cornwallis, and the British army eventually surrendered.”

She accepts all of that. That was then, she jokes; and things have changed rather a lot since. And, earlier this morning, she reminded me with a smile that this is “her country” too now.

However, one matter she is never too happy about is, uh, that “the French” were here! ;-)

Photo that is the source for the Passports novel cover. [Photo by me.]

Photo that is the source for the Passports novel cover. [Photo by me.]

The famous Tricolor we know so well is not the French flag under which France aided the U.S. in the war. The French flag then was that of the Ancien Régime. During the 1790s, Americans became split on whether they owed the new French revolutionary regime anything, given that regime was not the one that had helped America win independence.

And the U.S. Stars and Stripes was not the flag under which independence was declared either. But never mind. It all gets too complicated. :-)

Happy 4th of July!
________

UPDATE: That said, one Lynn Cole, resident in Italy, shares this view in The Guardian:

I am not a god-fearing, gun-toting, flag-waving, red-blooded American but a world citizen, and always have been.

She would hardly be the first to fancy herself a “world citizen.” To confirm it, my suggestion for anyone who holds that opinion is the next time you approach a border officer in airport arrivals in New York, London, Paris, Rome, or wherever globally, that you inform the officer of that status. A U.S., or other country’s, passport will no doubt not then be required of you as you are warmly greeted, “Welcome, World Citizen.”

Hemingway Wasn’t Home

We stopped by Ernest Hemingway‘s yesterday. Uh, but he wasn’t in. However, here’s his front door and his study:

Ernest Hemingway's front door, Key West. [Photo by me, 2014}

Ernest Hemingway’s front door, Key West. [Photo by me, 2014}

Ernest Hemingway's study, Key West. [Photo by me, 2014.]

Ernest Hemingway’s study, Key West. [Photo by me, 2014.]

And, wow, his swimming pool looked too inviting on a 90F+/30C+ degree day in Key West!:

Ernest Hemingway's massive swimming pool, Key West. [Photo by me, 2014.]

Ernest Hemingway’s massive swimming pool, Key West. [Photo by me, 2014.]

Although I suspected one snark it was more than likely to draw from the significant woman in my own life, the 30 minute guided house tour is well-worth it. Near the start of ours, the guide remarked that Hemingway’s novels were inspired by, and built upon, places he had lived, where he had traveled, and people he had known. With a mischievous wink, we were then told how “in the next room, are photos of some of the women in his life.”

As we were all escorted across the hall, my wife looked at me knowingly. I knew exactly what was coming. With a smile, mumbling over to me, she cracked, “Uh, huh. Yeh. And he’s not the only one….”

Yep, and there it is! Done. Good, we got that over with. ;-)

Oh, and you’re probably not surprised that my novelist uncle loved seeing – via Facebook – where we’d been.

Happy July!