I Write Novels, But – Shush – They’re Meant To Be A Secret

The other day, Bookshelf Battle raised an issue I think is worth addressing here:

Sometimes with all of the blogging, twittering, and social media-ing, I just wonder if all writers are doing are talking to other writers. It’s like we’re all door-to-door salesmen, knocking on a door, “Wanna buy my book?” And the person answers, “No, but do YOU wanna buy MY book?”

I gave that comment (and the post where it appeared) some thought, and figured I’d drop in my two cents/ pence.

Writing is a largely solitary endeavor. (Even those closest to you cannot fully understand.) Most of my days are taken up researching, organizing, proofing, and tapping, tapping, tapping out the draft for my latest book. (They don’t get written unless you write them.) So I like now and then to lean across the “office partition” and have a “glance” at what other authors at nearby desks are doing, or to take a break near the “water cooler” and have a “gab.” This site and other social media, like Twitter and About.me, are the ways I do that.

I’m on Twitter intermittently during the day – usually yammering (as you may know) about international happenings, travel, and expat stuff, and only very occasionally about my novels. I post here most days as well (as you also may know), and I do that early in the mornings – before I start the day’s novel writing.

Yes, this site is a “shop front” of sorts. Anyone is free to come by and browse. And to walk out empty handed too. As I do elsewhere. As we all do. Everywhere. I don’t buy something every time I click on Amazon.

Or should I not mention my books? Are visitors supposed to read my mind down their broadband lines? No one will ever know what you do unless you, uh, happen to bring it up.

Free Stock Photo: Home sale signs along a street.
Free Stock Photo: Home sale signs along a street.

The old-fashioned Yellow Pages are FULL of businesses, large and small, trying to let you know what THEY can DO for YOU if you PAY them. No one says they shouldn’t share what they do? How will any of us hope to find that (real) estate agent, that plumber, or a store that sells live Christmas tree stands, if they don’t advertise their existences?

I don’t target this at other writers. Others might like to produce something so narrowly focused. But my site is for anyone who clicks in from the big, wide internet.

That said, I’m not one – and never have been one – to stride into a room, wave around one of my books, and proclaim, “Look what I do! Tah! Dah!”:

Mingling, my wife mentioned my novel to one man. Trust her always to know how to work a room. (She’s much better at it than I am.) Moments later, he sought me out.

And he was keenly interested in the smallest of details. How do you write? What time do you start? Do you do it every day?

Others jumped in as we stood around the kitchen island, drinking and eating. Later, general conversation in the dining room drifted briefly to my novel, including the plot and my inspiration. “Why do you think I come to get togethers like this?” I joked. “I need new material!”

Grinning, our Danish girlfriend observed, “I was reading it on the Kindle, wondering, ‘Hmm, am I in here? Am I one of those French girls?’”

“Don’t worry. You’re not in this one,” I smiled. “Would you like to be in the next one?”

And let’s recall also, there should be fun in this as well!

If you blog – as an author, or because you travel, or because you live in a country different from the one where you were born, or for whatever reason you do – I enjoy reading what YOU have to say. We live in an insane world. Every individual’s experiences matter and illuminate it better. I have learned quite a lot courtesy of many of you.

If you like what you see here, great. If you are interested in my novels, I’m flattered, and I hope you enjoy them. In the end, it’s entirely up to you.

It’s very simple, really.

Have a good day, wherever you are in the world. It’s almost the weekend! :-)

I Was Having An Argument….

….with myself.

Specifically, yesterday I was working on a scene that sees two characters disagreeing strongly and moving towards an “explosion,” while a third witnesses the rising tension. This morning, I thought on yesterday’s post. I suppose I could now reply to this question:

6. When did you last talk to yourself? When did you last berate yourself to the point of tears?

It wasn’t merely “talk.” As I was writing yesterday, I was often having a real go. It got pretty heated.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of the Louvre Pyramid
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of the Louvre Pyramid

I do write occasionally while talking out loud – particularly when it comes to stretches of extended dialogue, and especially when there are multiple participants. I find it helps me to listen to how it reads to “the ear” as realistic chatter. Good thing I was alone in this case, as the “last third” of me tried several times to step in and calm the increasingly nasty and confrontational other “two-thirds”:

SneekNumber1_2015

Ah, our loving families. That’s only part of the exchange – which is also the first “sneak peek” I will share into the rough draft for the third (as yet unnamed) novel in the series.

By the way, none of the, uh, “three” of me got teary or berated myself.

Have a good Thursday, wherever you are in the world. ;-)

“Oh, God, not my mother?”

I’ve you’ve ever written about romance and relationships, you know it’s a minefield. We are all full of foibles. For those of us who pen fiction, trying to capture humans in print in order to bring characters of both sexes realistically to life is never simple.

Then there’s caricature. And humo(u)r. Recently, courtesy of Twitter, I came across this:

DameMag

Those questions come from a woman. Therefore, as a man, I tread here lightly. I will say this, though: they are mostly hilarious. A few choice examples:

13. Tell me in which ways I remind you of your mother.

Yep, that’ll frighten off most guys for sure. That’s a keeper. If in need, try that on any man.

14. If you had to murder one of your closest friends in cold blood, which one would you choose?

On the surface, that also seems a winner. But be careful. Before trying to answer, quite a few men might also be thinking, ‘Wow, that clearly deranged mind of hers makes me fancy her even more.’ (Not me, of course. I wouldn’t have thought that.)

15. Who on Earth wears Crocs to a dinner date? In the winter, no less?

This couldn’t be directed at me. I’ve never owned a pair. I thought they were for five year olds?

30. Imagine you slept with my best friend. How was it?

Now, for a man, here’s where marital status matters greatly. Coming at you from a girlfriend, well, that question’s one thing. But if comes at you from your wife…. it has now become MUCH scarier.

32. Share the last time you faked a British accent to sound smarter.

This has to be from an American web site. For has the author actually been to certain, uh, intellectual locales here in the United Kingdom? Or ever even watched EastEnders?

Have a good day, wherever you are in the world. That’s enough now. Everyone off the internet. Back to work! :-)

“Ok, friends, so what are we going to do today?”

Ah, you came back. Thank you.

I apologize for having gone somewhat “professorial” yesterday after I’d stumbled over some in U.S. media’s indifference as to why most European countries have anti-hate speech laws in the first place. That tweet wasn’t the only example. Too many seem to expect everyone to understand us – our history, our heritage, what makes us tick – but appear utterly unable to make the modest effort to try to understand anyone else.

Anyway, after I got that out of my system, I forced myself to get down to more writing. I employed my tried and true method. “Ok, friends,” I looked at the screen and asked myself, “so what are we going to do today?”

I’m learning that no matter how much you write, it never gets easier. The creative process each day is much the same. And regardless of all you’d written before, you still feel only as good as your last paragraph.

The only consolation is after two novels with most of the same characters, by the start of the third one you know pretty well who they all are. You could practically have them write their own dialogue. And if you asked them about something currently happening in the real world, you suspect, uh, they’d have an opinion or two:

“What is this show?” she questioned, raising her eyebrows, incredulous.

James sat on the sofa next to her. She handed him the remote. “It looks like a repeat from a few years ago,” he said. “It’s on live late on, uh, Saturday nights.”

“I cannot believe this, the way they are making fun of Arabs,” she observed, appalled at what she was seeing.

James’s grandmother appeared. They wished her good morning as she took a seat.

Revisiting the television program, James continued. “Oh, they blast everything. Some of it is in bad taste for sure. A lot of it isn’t funny also.”

“You would not see that in France,” Isabelle noted seriously. “We must be careful. We have bombs in France for years. Now you here see the World Trade Center.”

By the end, I think I had some good bits fall onto the “page.” (Technically, into Word on the Microsoft Surface Pro 3.) I’m still in the early, “skeleton” phase. With Frontiers, last year, I learned you should never, ever, consider “the long road” ahead.

However, I made a terrible mistake mentally in briefly doing precisely that. I’d sat back at one point and considered the finished books – which are sitting on my desk an arm’s reach away. For extra inspiration, I also have a group photo propped up of a bunch of us, and it includes our late friend Kam – in the last photo of her we took together.

The picture was suddenly the opposite of inspirational: it depressed me.

The books themselves were, in their ways, worse. Nearly 200,000 words and over 2 years work were staring back at me.

For a moment, I had a chill.

I put on my Sara Bareilles CD.

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See, I was telling the truth. I wasn’t kidding. I have that CD.

Briefly, I also really wanted to pour myself a drink – which I immediately discounted doing, while alone, before noon!

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A Sprite had to suffice.

I’d also considered taking a nap. (Obscure – or not so obscure, if you watch the program – Mad Men reference.)

I know I wrote something similar on here last year. Another volume to complete. Doing it AGAIN is a daunting task.

While you may have the book outlined, that’s far different than having the full tale completed. What gets you through is never imagining the “entire” project. Instead, it’s a series of tightly focused, small steps.

Slowly, a day at a time, that frightening void you had been staring at begins to fill itself up.

At least, early on, that’s what you must keep telling yourself.

Have a good Friday, wherever you are in world. :-)

On Location: Long Island And The Catskills

It’s finally back here in Britain. Last night, we watched the second episode of Revenge for 2014-2015. (We saw the opener last week.) I’ve written about that escapist show before, although not in this context.

The program does accurately reflect aspects of the incredible wealth (often “weekend wealth”) seen on Suffolk County’s “South Fork” – in east end towns such as Southampton and East Hampton. But when I write of “Long Island” in the novels, it’s about the “middle class” island. In one exchange in Passports between Uncle Bill and Joanne (James’s mother), I decided to slip in this reference to the dramatic difference in lifestyles:

As her brother gave her a long look, Joanne added caustically, “You know, we were always imagining Lake Ronkonkoma as the sublime setting.”

“Really? What? Not East Hampton?” he joked.

“Oh, yeh, us Brookhaven billionaires,” she smirked.

Brookhaven is a large town (that would probably be better described as a “township” – encompassing many hamlets and villages) in central Suffolk that runs the width of the island from north shore to south shore.

Continue reading

Watching Our Words

Like so many – perhaps including you – I followed yesterday’s coverage of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office in Paris by gunmen apparently claiming to have been avenging the magazine’s caricatures of the Muslim Prophet Muhammed.

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Last night, on France 24, during discussion of the killings, a studio guest wondered at one point if too much criticism of Islam was stoking tension with Muslims in France. Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, “Submission,” came up. (The other day, just before the attack, I saw noted that “Submission” had been “Number 1″ in Kindle book sales in France.) Bloomberg View summarizes the book this way:

It was at least symbolic that the cover of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo was a newly published book, “Submission,” by the French author Michel Houellebecq. The novel’s plot imagines France in 2022 after the election of an Islamist government, which has excluded women from working and opened Islamic schools. The premise is ludicrous (even by 2030, Muslims are projected to make up only 10 percent of the population, and France is among the world’s most determinedly secular countries).

The France 24 guest had made much the same argument about the book being “ludicrous.” (I think he called it “preposterous.”)

Anchor/ presenter Laura Cellier quickly – and quite rightly – replied that the book is fiction. She questioned: Should fiction not be allowed?

Can they both have been right? That there may be “too much criticism,” but that criticism – in all its forms, including via fiction – is going to come everyone’s way in a democracy? Well, yes.

It was – to me anyway, as a writer – eery how the issue had been framed in those terms.

Caricature cartoons, of course, can be hard-hitting stuff – especially if you are on the receiving end. Charlie Hebdo assailed politicians, the religious, most anything, in often the most crass and vulgar manners. In fact, its attacks on Islam have often been relatively “tame” compared to how it has regularly skewed Christianity. For example, this was published last month, and tweeted last night by Paris-resident photojournalist, and Syrian anti-Assad activist (and regular guest on France 24), Emma Suleiman:

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We have all seen what we may support, or treasure, torn apart by critics. Most of us also just take it in stride. We understand it’s called freedom of speech and that it’s a bedrock of our democracy.

Yet we can easily forget not everyone everywhere thinks that way. If you are an author, are you mindful of what you write? Do you ever worry about any possible reaction beyond just a “1 star” Amazon review?

I think on some of the things I’ve touched upon for story purposes – race, religion, immigration, Israel, Palestine, even police brutality, among others – and I do wonder occasionally how some readers might receive them. Sometimes it’s only a sentence or two, and I admit I’ve thought to myself briefly, “Is this such a good idea, writing this?”

I’ve not consciously cut out anything out of “fear.” But I have also been “careful” at times, partly (as I reflect on it now) out of an innate respect that I may actually feel, and which I am perfectly entitled to feel. Moreover, being rude should not be elevated to a virtue that’s beyond criticism either.

There’s a line here, and I can’t say I know where it is. Yet if we ever lose the ability to feel free to speak our minds even in an “offensive” manner (to some), where are we? Somewhere I suspect most of us surely don’t want to find ourselves.

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UPDATE: Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, in the Telegraph….

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….is well-worth a read.

For My Eyes Only – For Now

Yesterday, I was writing at one point while listening to the “Gladiator: More Music From The Motion Picture” CD I’d gotten for Christmas (along with, uh, Sara Bareilles – now, there’s a musical contrast):

Photograph of More Music cover. [Photo by me, 2015.]
Photograph of More Music cover. [Photo by me, 2015.]

At the outset “More Music’s” inner sleeve notes make clear that what’s heard on the CD are often “first drafts” of music from the film, or music that didn’t make it. So technically it isn’t from the released, final “Motion Picture.” (By the way, if you’ve never seen Gladiator, it is really something else. Superb.) Composer Hans Zimmer writes:

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Musicians can get away with that, whereas a novelist would probably look ridiculous doing something similar.

Every draft I do is dated that one day. The next day is another draft, dated that day, and so on. If I make a subsequent change, I can always go back to an older iteration and re-use something. I never “obliterate” an eclipsed version so it’s lost forever.

I’m continuing in that “approach” with the brand new, third volume’s (very early) manuscript. Doing it that way, I’ve kept hundreds of Word drafts from the two now finished novels. The completed books unsurprisingly often ended up rather different when compared to what was in early drafts.

One example: Names. In Passports, initially “James” and “Béatrice” were known by other names. “James’s” earlier name just didn’t click for me, nor fit within his family scheme I was developing. In fact I now recall “Béatrice” actually had two earlier names. I went for “Béatrice” in the end owing to it having been a common name given to many Frenchwomen born from the 1960s until the mid-1970s. Both new names, to me, worked better in the stories. Now, I can’t imagine them called anything else.

In Frontiers, “Rita” is first mentioned while James’s parents – Jim and Joanne – and grandmother are chatting about his upbringing (while he is safely well out of hearing a continent away):

“Hmm, not high school. They were in junior high. He was fourteen. Ninth grade,” Joanne corrected herself slightly.

“Rita was his first real girlfriend,” Jim turned to Lucy and recalled fondly. “In some class she passed him a note with her phone number. At first, he didn’t want his mother to know.”

“Hiding things from his mother began pretty young with him,” Joanne declared.

She had a different name too, which I changed only about a month before publication. Her previous name was, to me, just too similar to another character’s name. It was as simple as that: I didn’t want any reader confusion.

Understand, though, I won’t reveal here what their earlier names were because I don’t want anyone thinking about any of them, “Hey, Rob, I liked that other name better.” ;-)

Another example. I must have made at least two dozen major changes to the opening chapter of Frontiers. By that I don’t mean stuff here and there. I mean I shredded and re-shredded the entire thing – background, location, happenings, nearly all of it – repeatedly until I was satisfied with it.

I did that because several times after I’d re-read it, I still didn’t like it. “It doesn’t convey what I want,” my shoulders slumped again and again. “And it’s the first chapter!”

I can’t see myself as a writer ever releasing the whole “first draft” of a finished book to show readers “the process.” The “sneak peeks” I had shared into Frontiers over the year were just that – and largely finalized. The final version is THE STORY. Looking back on them now, the earlier drafts, frankly, often make me cringe.

Anne stepped up to him. “Oh, yes, of course.” She added, “You’re turning into a silly old Frenchman. Do me a favor, if you’re looking to make a fool of yourself with a girl fifty years younger than you, at least wait until after I’m dead.”

My books and “papers” will be left first to my wife. I suppose she’d leave them to my niece and nephews. Unless of course Oxford wants them. (Hey, my nephew goes there. ;-) )

What they do with them after I’m gone someday is entirely their call. In that, I suppose I see things a bit like Isabelle’s mother, ripping good-naturedly into Isabelle’s father in Frontiers. What happens after I’m dead, well, happens.

Have a good Tuesday. :-)

Author As “Key Figure”

A novelist can create death at any moment. If you take what you do seriously, that’s actually an awesome literary responsibility. It’s not something that should be done – in my view – lightly.

You can also write long-term illness into a story. Suicide too. But naturally there are no ramifications to any such plotlines beyond what appears on your pages.

For novels are fiction, of course. When it comes to the issue of suicide in real life, I often think of what West German chancellor, Willy Brandt, surprisingly wrote in his autobiography. While a young man on the run from the Nazis during the Second World War – including in Nazi-occupied Norway – he said he had never considered taking his own life were he about to be caught by the Gestapo. He wrote that, unlike other resistants who had said they were prepared to kill themselves, he wouldn’t have because one never knew if a way out might appear unexpectedly at the last moment.

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Unless we die suddenly, most of us will experience ourselves becoming terminally ill. Should we be able to ask someone to “assist” us in hurrying along to death? That issue has been debated fiercely for years, and the debate will likely continue. It also increasingly appears many to most of us do believe we should be able to ask for such “assistance.”

What does that have to do with novelists?

Some of them, such as former law enforcement people who now pen crime novels, have a professional knowledge of their subject. For example, my uncle. He may reasonably discuss “policing issues” on, say, Today; in his area of expertise he perhaps warrants being taken more seriously “policy-wise.”

However, once he’s on set with Savannah Guthrie (which he hasn’t been, to be clear) that doesn’t mean if he blurts out his take on U.S. policy over Ukraine, or the aerial campaign against so-called ISIS in Syria and Iraq, or on U.S. immigration reform, that his views on those matters ought to be granted extra credence. Or, indeed, that they will even make sense.

For given what I’ve sometimes heard from him privately about the likes of those, in my opinion, trust me, they may not. ;-) Much the same could be said for his view on legalizing “assisted suicide.” (Which I don’t know.) Outside of his “knowledge base,” he’s fundamentally no more insightful than the rest of us and is just another someone offering an opinion.

Yet for some media it appears being an author marks one out as somebody worth hearing spout on a variety of complex questions of the day. I suppose all of us who have written books should be pleased to discover how wide-rangingly brilliant we are about the totality of the human condition. But based on my own “knowledge base,” I suspect most walking egos novelists had probably best confine their public policy pontificating to storylines they’ve fashioned in their novels.

Have a good day, wherever you are reading this. :-)

Obsessed By You

Yes, I wrote just the other day that I planned some time off. Well, I lasted two days. I have plunged now into fully outlining what had been the sketchy ideas I had had for the third novel.

Although they are naturally exasperating at times, I am missing my fictional “friends” from Passports and Frontiers. If you ever in real life feel a bit isolated and alone (even when surrounded by people who love you; I have had bouts of that for as long as I can remember), you discover pouring yourself into characters forces the mind elsewhere. You hope your efforts in the end grab readers and your characters and story take them away from some of their own worries and troubles – and perhaps even help them in some small ways too.

Beginning of the outline of the next volume.
Beginning of the outline of the next volume.

Once again, I’m aiming to finish in about 12 months. The new manuscript is still untitled (although I’ve got an idea for one that I suspect will be the title), but if you know the first two books this coming third will follow much the same form and style. Staring back at us from the pages will be most of the characters we’ve met before – eventually to take us roughly to three years from where the series started “in 1994.” There will also be several new ones, and introductions to some we’ve heard merely mentioned in the first two books.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a rock guitarist.
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a rock guitarist.

Back on Christmas Day, with my 12 year old nephew and 17 year old niece, I was watching music videos of some of the “all time greatest Christmas songs.” Many were by artists who, now, in 2014, are long past retirement age. Yet many are still out there recording and performing live.

I could only smile at some of the clothes and haircuts of decades ago. Did we actually look like that? “Welcome to 1984,” I joked to my niece at one point.

If those singers are still at it today, it’s because they can’t stop. One supposes they like – and likely need – the money; but we all need money of course. What they also love is the audience, and bringing joy to the faces of their long-time fans.

I’m learning we as authors are not all that different. We may not sing for our supper, but writing for an appreciative readership is certainly much the same thing. I’m finding it is something of an addiction, and can even turn into an obsession. ;-)

Hope you’re having a good Sunday, wherever you are in the world. :-)

Merry Christmas

It’s almost upon us. If you celebrate, I hope you have a Merry Christmas. If you don’t observe it, I’d like to offer you best wishes for the coming year.

I almost forgot. You have to see it. Hey, you like our tree? The tree stand is doing its job well:

Oh, Christmas tree. Oh, Christmas tree. [Photo by me, 2014.]
Oh, Christmas tree. Oh, Christmas tree. [Photo by me, 2014.]
We spent yesterday in Bath doing last-minute shopping. It is one of the most attractive city centers in England. One of the possible reasons: some of the shops. For example, it seemed everything in the Hilfiger store started at £100 and only went up from there.

Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit. Still, by comparison, £60 shirts at the shop in Bath would’ve probably gone for $45 at the Woodbury Common Outlets Hilfiger in upstate New York. Yep, they don’t call Britain “treasure island” for nothing.

In some ways it has been a very mixed year. Yes, I got Frontiers finished. And my Dad survived heart failure. Those are certainly positives.

On the heavily negative side, we lost someone who is utterly irreplaceable. An emptiness that will never be refilled will stay with us forever. This is the first Christmas without her and I’ve been trying not to think about that. Instead, when her absence crosses my mind (as it is now), I’ve tried to imagine that, come mid-January, she’ll just suddenly appear via a text or a phone message, saying she’d just got back from Rome, or Dubai, or Chicago, and her parents also introduced her to yet another man she’s not really interested in, and she wants to meet up for lunch at a brand new restaurant she’s been wanting to try. But I know that won’t happen of course.

There’s no law written anywhere that says a next year has to be better than the last. Sometimes it’s definitely not. But let’s be optimists anyway, not only about our own lives, but about the wider world as well that 2015 will be better for all of us.

We have some fun here too as you may know if you stop by regularly. We have to laugh now and then. I just wanted to use this short post also to thank you again for reading and following my modest, novel-writing site. :-)