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.
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?)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
That’s how you write The &^%$#@! Novel.
From the messy desk of Paul Levine...
Last night, you might have watched the University of Connecticut's basketball team defeat Kentucky for the NCAA championship. Men's championship, that is.
Tonight the Connecticut women take on Notre Dame in the women's finals. Two undefeated powerhouses, well-coached teams of immense talent, meeting at last.
So far, so good.
Collegiate women's basketball has been getting far more news coverage than in the past. It's a quality product played by dedicated athletes. Yesterday's New York Times had a major profile of Connecticut's charismatic center, Stefanie Dolson, pictured here.
The story described how the determined young woman lost weight to get in better shape. Here's the piece: "UConn's Center Adds Fitness to Her Ebullience."
The article reported that Dolson, as many sports fans know, is six feet, five inches tall. So, I wondered, reading the article: Just what did Dolson weigh previously and what does she weigh now? The story, by veteran sportswriter Jere Longman didn't say! (Longman merely reported that Dolson "lost 15 pounds and gained stamina and lean muscle."
Is that sexism, reverse sexism, political correctness, or just bad journalism?
Any time Shaquille O'Neal or Charles Barkley gained or lost a few pounds, it was big news, with all the stats included. (O'Neal hovered around 325 pounds, the much shorter Barkley played at about 250 pounds, then gained and lost enormous amounts of weight after retiring).
If I were really interested in Ms. Dolson's weight -- which, I'm not, it's the damn principle -- I could go onto UConn's official website. After all, the championship men's team is listed by height AND WEIGHT.
Surely, the university gives men and women equal treatment on its website, right?
Just heights. No weights.
What do you make of this?