“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:

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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

A New Mafia

Thinking on after yesterday’s post about Muslims in France as part of the fabric of society now, and “jihadists” in their midst, I found myself considering the subject from this personal perch. It’s an imperfect comparison to be sure. But I don’t think it’s without important, relevant touch points.

Anyone with an Italian surname (as I have) in the U.S. has faced “the Godfather” reaction from the mass of Americans who have no Italian heritage.

One may reasonably equate terrorists like the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher killers to Mafia “hitmen” beholden to their “bosses.” Like mob “foot soldiers,” they spring up from among failures in their “community.” They often prey on their own – “protection” rackets, etc. – in doing their masters’ bidding. They make the mass of their law-abiding “community” look bad, and often terrify them, but are also perversely supported by elements within that same victimized “community” itself.

And, again, like the Mafia, their “bosses” have “big dreams” of seeing the world re-ordered to conform to their own agendas and fantasies.

I find nothing entertaining about the Mafia. Yes, The Godfather films are great filmmaking (I’ve never read the books), but I grew up loathing them. I despise the veneer of “romance” and “honor” those movies have thrown over what are in reality murderous thugs who couldn’t run a lemonade stand without beating someone over the head with a brick.

Meaning Al Pacino and Marlon Brando they are most definitely not. They aspired to that. Indeed after The Godfather film was released, mobsters headed to cinemas to try to learn how they were supposed to behave. Seriously.

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It took decades to crush the worst of the Mafia in the U.S. The struggle was often spearheaded by determined Italian-American lawyers (like one Rudolph Giuliani) who had had enough. (The struggle in Italy continues.) But getting the mob under control never could have happened without all manner of lower-level law enforcement and “infiltration” that included, and required the participation of, and support of, ordinary Italian-Americans.

“Don’t look into their eyes! You’ll be turned into stone!”

I don’t like to talk U.S. party politics here, really (as you know, it’s about writing and expats, etc.); but this is interesting in terms of media. And it this isn’t just an Americans’ issue. It’s also an international one given how U.S. domestic politics can resonate around the world:

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I don’t watch Fox News with any regularity. The article also addresses Fox’s left-wing opposite number: MSNBC. MSNBC is not available here in Britain, but, similarly, I wouldn’t watch it much either even if it were.

I find both Fox News Channel and MSNBC to be essentially unwatchable yell and snark fests. However, back in the States, my mother must be one of the few who revels in both channels. “I like to hear what both sides are screaming about,” she laughs.

There’s a program on Fox I’ve seen a few times called “The Five.” My Mom likes that one for amusement; but to me, frankly, the less said about it the better. One minute chattering hosts hold forth on ISIS (“The Middle East is so complicated, and Obama won’t do anything!”), or global economics, and after a commercial break on some celebrity’s award show outfit.

My Mom often has MSNBC on as background noise in the kitchen. In my mind, it’s mostly a blur of predictably left of center opinions. A few times, however, I’ve also overheard anchors/ presenters getting so carried away I expected hammer and sickle flags to be unfurled on set at any moment.

From U.S.-based TV news channel offerings – and I know I’m a minority, and I know it has its own issues – I still much prefer CNN. Here in Britain, we see CNN International. Above all, it has Hala Gorani:

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Choose your viewing carefully. Also create a list of varied web sites from at home, and from around the world. Spending “quality time” on news is far more worthwhile than sitting through Fox and MSNBC doing their TV impersonations of “talk” radio.

And life’s too short.

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

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. :-)

I Admit It: I Like Sara Bareilles

Yesterday, ending their nearly week-long, post-Christmas visit, we drove my in-laws home to Enfield. After depositing them, and a quick lunch, we returned to Wiltshire. It’s about a 2 hour, 15 min drive each way.

So Mrs. Nello drove to London and I drove back. During the day, she began to develop a bit of a cold. No surprise: her parents had them too. Half of England seems to have the sniffles at the moment. (I’m still okay, but fully expect now to get sick also within days.)

The weather had been great, but cold (by English standards) – clear and frosty:

Frosty Wiltshire farmland, not far from our house. Photographed earlier in the week. [Photo by me, 2014.]
Frosty Wiltshire farmland, not far from our house. Photographed earlier in the week. [Photo by me, 2014.]

Friday was warmer, sunny and pleasant; but that was apparently a blip. Wednesday into Thursday, frost gave way to the rain. It is rainy again this morning. (I can hear it hitting the house. It’s about 7 AM as I write this.) Everyone has been mostly inside, sharing germs.

At one point, I glanced over at Mrs. Nello as I drove; and I saw she was snoozing. Much of the M4 is long, straight and dull – especially in the dark of an early evening. Tired of the radio, I decided to play a Christmas gift CD.

That’s right: it was a Sara Bareilles CD.

And I like it. “The Blessed Unrest.” That one.

Eh, men reading this: don’t judge me. I like her music and her voice. I especially like “Brave”:

SaraBareillesBrave

In one of her other songs on that CD, she sings about Queens, New York too.

Okay, yeh, another song happens to be entitled “Little Black Dress.” Never mind that. I didn’t know that song existed until I got the CD.

Wait. Why am I justifying myself? I have nothing to be guilty about!

I know what you’re thinking. You’re smirking. But I can prove I’m a man. Here. Look. These are the books I received for Christmas. Here’s the list:

A Subaltern on the Somme.”
The Battle of Kursk.”
Wellington: The Iron Duke.”
War and Remembrance” (for after I finish “The Winds Of War”).
General Richard Montgomery and the American Revolution: From Redcoat to Rebel.”
Trajan: Optimus Princeps.”

Does it get any more “guy” than the likes of those?

Hmm. Suddenly I also remember attending an Alison Moyet concert (longer ago than I now care to recall) with a girlfriend. At some point, it hit me that I was one of about the “50 guys” in the audience of a few thousand. Or so it seemed anyway.

[Shrug.] I suppose we never really change. As a teen, and in college, I always gravitated more toward “girl friends” than “guy friends.” I had guy pals, but I always preferred hanging out with women.

There were guys who made fun of that tendency. Somehow, you’re supposed to want to do lots of “guys only” stuff – with no women around.

I’ve never understood that. “Men’s only” clubs? Seriously? Why the hell would you – as a man – not want women around?

Probably to feel freer to lie about the women you don’t actually know, that’s why.

Eventually, those same “guys only” types also end up wondering how you know the cool girls you do.

It’s not rocket science. Younger men, take note. ;-)

Have a good – and healthy – Saturday, wherever in the world you are reading this. :-)

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. :-)

That’s Cricket

Happened to see this tweet this morning, and it got me thinking:

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Many Americans may not like soccer, but at least they get what’s going on: each team want to get the ball into the opposing team’s goal somehow without using their hands.

Cricket is certainly more complicated. I won’t even attempt to explain nuances. In simple terms, it’s not unlike baseball. However, there is nowhere that’s a “foul ball” – everywhere is in play.

To score runs, after the one who is being “bowled” at makes contact with the ball and decides to try to run, both batsmen run back and forth between the wickets accumulating runs until they don’t want to risk being run “out.” A batsman is “out” (like a runner in baseball) if the fielding team somehow knocks the batsman’s wicket down. Every time running batsmen switch wickets (and they run carrying their bats), it earns their team 1 run.

A ball hit that rolls across the marked field boundary is an automatic 4 runs. (No running between wickets is required.) One that clears it on the fly is 6 runs. Hence the term one often hears in places like Britain and Australia: “Hit for 6.” It’s like saying “home run.”

The teams do that for two “innings” – for 10 outs per team; hence the high scores. That’s essentially the gist of the game. Once I figured out what they were trying to do, I admit I was hooked.

The first time I really paid close attention to a match in progress was during the 1999 World Cup. It was Australia vs. South Africa – and if you know cricket you know to what I’m referring. Two names: Lance Klusener and Allan Donald:

What an introduction to the game. My wife also warned me afterwards, “It’s great fun to watch at times, but don’t think it’s always that exciting.” ;-)

Have a good Monday!

Snow In England – Don’t Leave The House

It hasn’t snowed here overnight in London – fortunately. Parts of the country to the north got a several inches, though. That led to the predictable abandoned cars, stranded motorists, and people seeking refuge in churches, etc., and so on.

The BBC reporting on a couple of British snow. [Screen capture by me.]
The BBC reporting on a couple of British snow. [Screen capture by me.]
Yorkshire gets snowfall, and several inches is almost never a laughing matter anywhere. Still, England in a snow generally is perhaps best-described as a lot like snow in, say, Atlanta: it happens in winter occasionally, but no one ever seems honestly prepared for it. Local governments don’t own garages full of plows and salters. It just isn’t worth the investment for a couple of days a year of snow.

When it snows even a couple of centimeters/inches in southern England especially, it’s utter chaos. I will never forget about a decade ago taking 9 hours to drive roughly 10 miles in north London. A dusting or so fell in a late afternoon, and by the time we (in my then office) all had left work – early! – at around 4pm, the buses weren’t running, the Tube was shut, and the trains were a mess.

As for the roads, don’t ask. No one in southern England knows what a winter tire is of course. Far worse, some people seem not to comprehend how to drive in snow. First of all, you take it easy. Snow is, after all, uh, slippery.

Cars hit each other at traffic lights, or slid off roundabouts. Some drivers were going too slowly to take hills and got stuck; or others took them too quickly, got to the top and slid down the other side and crashed into parked cars. I saw several drivers give up, turn their cars off, and walk away.

It was surreal. It was like a Hollywood, end of the world, disaster flick. I was waiting for Morgan Freeman to rap on my car window.

But I made it home…. around 1am.

To add to today’s “fun,” King’s Cross train station in London is actually closed due to “overrunning engineering works.” Seriously. No fiction author would dare invent this stuff. If you wrote it, you’d get laughed for being totally unbelievable. ;-)