Monday, September 28, 2015

GIVING VOICE TO THE ASSHOLE


Michael Adelberg wrote two novels that we published: A Thinking Man’s Bully, in 2012, described by Publishers Weekly as “A fresh perspective on bullying and the consequences of brutality into a novel brimming with personality and narrative brio,” followed,  in 2014, by Saving the Hooker. Kirkus called it "A funny tale of a lazy and unprincipled  postdoc whose brain resides firmly in his crotch. Well-crafted and enjoyable if you are up for a rather raunchy read.” So it comes as no surprise that Mike titles his blog: Giving Voice to the Asshole.


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"From the Greek tragedies, to Shakespeare, to Milton, to Voltaire, European stories were frequently built around prideful men doing terrible things. But the United States set out to be different. With few exceptions, they were optimistic. America’s first literary hero, Natty Bumpo, Horatio Alger’s “rags to riches” boys, and the plain-spoken heroes of the great westerns and detectives all tread the same path. Readers fully understood that virtuous heroes would overcome the odds and beat the villain in the end.


"Even amid the tumult of the 60s and 70s, when so many of America’s cultural norms were challenged—the goodness of the hero persisted. Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H and Randal McMurphy of One Flew over the Cukoo’s Nest were womanizing boozers bucking against society. They were more complicated than John Wayne’s “aw shucks” western heroes, but Pierce and McMurphy were still true heroes, driven by great inner integrity. We easily rooted for them against simplistic symbols of the status quo. 

"In the 1980s, heroes grew simpler again, particularly in Hollywood, where a new generation of fearless muscle-bound nit-wits (Rambo, etc.) set box office records. While there were exceptions here and there, popular American stories have always featured heroic main characters. But if you look closely, that truism is becoming increasingly less true. 


"Perhaps the tipping point came with the huge success of Seinfeld. The most popular television program of the 1990s starred a character who was a shallow narcissist. The so-called “show about nothing” built plots around waiting for a table at Chinese restaurant—there was never an existential threat to overcome, and only rarely a villain to best. By 2000, Americans were ready for something more interesting. 


"We started patronizing stories with deeply flawed, non-likable main characters. In 2003, Edward Jones won the Pulitzer with The Known World, a non-judgmental meditation on slavery that reminded Americans that free African-American owned slaves in the Antebellum South. Peter Carey’s The True History of Kelley Gang, a fictional memoir about a non-contrite 19th Century murderer rationalizing his sins to his daughter, won the Booker Prize shortly after that. Meanwhile, authors such as Brett Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, and political satirist Chris Buckley built followings on novels starring non-admirable main characters. 


"The foible-filled memoir-ish stories of David Sedaris and Augustin Burroughs found markets without heroes or big plots. Erik Larsen’s best-seller The Devil in the White City, took readers inside the head of a 19th Century murderer through journalistic narration. Even well-established, high-end authors like Philip Roth (Operation Shylock) and Don Delillo (Fallen Man) offered darker stories. It is hard to imagine a big publisher like Harper-Collins publishing something as dark as Alissa Nutting’s Tampa (unapologetic pedophile teacher gets away with raping a minor and manslaughter and starts up again elsewhere) even a decade ago.

"As is generally the case, small presses show the big presses what is possible. The Permanent Press, for example, has published several wonderful books with non-heroic main characters: The Double-Life of Alfred Buber (an older American attorney takes a prostitute bride in Thailand), Pretend All Your Life (Manhattan plastic surgeon operates on his son to help him flee his pre 9-11 life), and Time Among the Dead (aging English noble disparages his lineage, neighbors and society). I am honored that my own two novels starring non-admirable main characters are stablemates of these fine books.

"With small presses pushing the envelope, today’s best television programs are darker than ever. House of Cards, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Girls, and others, are all built around main characters who are basically assholes. Hollywood has not yet embraced this trend with open arms—but the success of The Social Network and The Wolf of Wall Street suggest that even a risk-averse Hollywood now understands that Americans will pay to see a complicated anti-hero in the starring role.


"Why do Americans increasingly love the villain? Perhaps it is because the typical hero-villain tale has grown boring. We have seen the hero overcome the odds to beat a simplistic asshole villain dozens of times over. Today’s reconstituted James Bond and today’s reconstituted Batman are basically the same person—they just dress differently. Yawn.

"Writers have long loved their villains even while forced by convention to vanquish him (or, very rarely, her). There is a reason that Milton’s Lucifer (Paradise Lost) and Heath Ledger’s Joker (The Dark Knight) have all the best lines. Recent trends, however, finally free writers to embrace anti-heroes and develop their complexities.

"To misappropriate Tolstoy’s observation about families, 'All heroes resemble one another, all assholes develop in their own way.' So authors, let’s keep developing our anti-heroes and continue giving voice to the asshole."


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I invite you to comment on Mike’s blog. You may also contact him directly at michael.adeleberg@gmail.com.

COMING NEXT WEDNESDAY be sure to tune in to yet another weekly blog.



Marty

THE BLIND LEADING THE BLIND

Charles Holdefer teaches at the University of Poitiers, France, and at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, Rosemont Writers Retreat and elsewhere. He has published four novels with the Permanent Press, including The Contractor, which was also translated into Italian and Russian. His essays have appeared in The New England Review and World Literature Today, his reviews in New York Journal of Books and Dactyl Review, and new short fiction is forthcoming this fall in Chicago Quarterly Review.  This is his blog. 

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The Blind leading the blind is how Flannery O’Connor once referred to writing workshops. O’Connor is arguably the most important writer to emerge out of an MFA program, and her opinion is not something I take lightly.

“For most of the year, I don’t teach writing. I’m a literature teacher at a French university, and despite their tradition of ├ęcoles des beaux-arts, French institutions do not welcome “creative writing.” It’s viewed with suspicion as a dubious “Anglo-Saxon” import, a sort of New Age intellectual junk food. I’ve been here long enough that perhaps some of that scepticism has rubbed off on me. (That’s surely why O’Connor’s remark resonates.) When it comes to literature in the classroom, we tell ourselves that we are defending a sort of rigor.

“In the summer, though, I board an airplane and come back to the U.S.A. to see friends and family and, yes, to lead writing workshops. The experience is a marked shift, like switching into another language.

“Workshops are fundamentally different from literature classes because they address the question of process. From a teacher’s point of view, it’s messier and requires improvisation. How do you stoke the creative impulse? Is it possible to generalize for a group of individuals with different tastes and experiences in life?

“This is a slippery zone, and perhaps because I hear O’Connor’s voice at the back of my mind, I’m at pains to warn students of common stumbling blocks: issues narrative arc, characterization or word choice. I also give manuscripts some hardnosed line editing, in defense of a kind of rigor which, truth be told, is sadly lacking in much academic writing. (It’s the profs who are a bunch of snowflakes, in my opinion, not the novelists.)

“Still, these are only first steps, encouraging competence. But there’s more to writing than competence. Truly excellent writing—this is what O’Connor is concerned about—must push beyond the comfort zones of competence and take risks. It has to dance along the precipice of conventional expectations. It cannot play safe and it might need to offend. It has to push toward something unknown.

“And this is where process comes into play. A workshop is not really a class that a writer completes and gets a grade. (Even if some institutions like to pretend otherwise.) Rather, it’s a moment that a writer passes through, engaged in a highly personal exploration that only he or she can pursue. No teacher or peer can tell the individual where to go next or what the “answer” is. (Or what merits an “A”.) But the group situation can make an individual more aware of this predicament, of this artistic solitude. This, in itself, is pedagogical.

“Usually, I try to plant questions, to steel the writer for the sterner tests ahead. What are you going to do when you leave a cozy workshop circle where people readily agree to read and discuss your work? What are you going to do when you’re denied the comforts of groupthink? What the hell is driving you? What are you looking for when you face the page, alone?

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“Here’s a true story: when I was getting an MFA at the University of Iowa, one of my odd jobs to support myself was in the Special Collections department of the university library. I was briefly assigned the task of organizing the personal papers of Paul Engle, who’d served as director of the Iowa writing program for many years.

“These papers were a terrible mess. They’d been kept in a ramshackle barn in Engle’s back yard that also served as his office. I remember personal correspondence with Robert Penn Warren covered with bird shit. There were letters from W.H. Auden, Carl Sandberg and a youthful Gwendolyn Brooks.

“My assignment was simple: to shake off the bird shit and other detritus and put the materials in chronological order. An easy task, really, but I was a bad worker, because I got distracted and spent a lot of time reading the correspondence. (That wasn’t supposed to be part of the job, but snooping in someone else’s mail can be irresistible fun.) Eventually my supervisor grew impatient with my slow pace and shunted me off to another task.

“There was one letter from the late 1940s that made a strong impression on me. Engle was away from campus and spending a sabbatical in Florida, and a colleague at Iowa sent him a chatty update about goings-on at the workshop. He dropped various names of writers clearly considered as hot prospects (none of which were recognizable to me) and it’s only later, buried deeper in the letter, that there’s an allusion to a certain ‘Flannery.’

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“Well, she did all right. Too bad this teacher appears not to have fully recognized her gifts. (Though it should be said that others in her workshop circle realized she was someone special, and championed her work.) In the end, though, her achievements remain the idiosyncratic artistry of someone who learned and then moved on.

“And what do I mean by moving on? It’s not necessarily a simple symbolic break of leaving home or school or a writing circle. O’Connor, after a brief time in the northeast, resettled on the family farm near Milledgeville, Georgia, where she spent the rest of her life.

“Geographically or professionally, she didn’t go far. Failing health, sadly, was one reason. But it was also because her personal exploration had attained another level. She was working through answers to the question, “what the hell is driving you?”

“It’s well-known how important O’Connor’s religious convictions were to her fiction, but it’s also worth saying that a reader or aspiring writer doesn’t have to share those convictions (I don’t) in order to learn and delight in what she accomplished.

“Such a powerful yearning to make sense! Yes, it’s an imperfect, sloppy, perhaps “fallen” world. This is blatantly obvious in our institutional settings. Yes, blind lead the blind.

“But isn’t that a testimony to how much we want to see?”

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If you want to contact  Charles Holder you can  contact him at holdefer@yahoo.com  and I hope you will also leave your comments here.

COMING NEXT WEEK a blog from Mike Adelberg entitled GIVING VOICE TO THE ASSHOLE. This is one you surely don’t want to miss.


Marty


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

WHAT WRITERS CAN LEARN FROM MARKET RESEARCH



Chris Knopf is one of three co-publishing partners at The Permanent Press, and for many years has been a partner in a very successful advertising agency, Mintz + Hoke, with 55 employees. His thirteenth thriller, Cop Job, a return to his Sam Acquillo mystery series, has had excellent pre-pub reviews and will be published this September. Chris has won the Nero Award, one of the major mystery awards, and has been a finalist for many others, and his books have been translated widely. Beyond that, no further introduction is necessary. This is his blog.

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For decades I worked on fiction whenever I could steal the time from my life as an advertising creative.  Though the ad world can be all-consuming, and exhausting, I actually found the escape into this made-up world a welcome diversion, a creative pursuit of an entirely different character.
           
While actually writing, I enjoyed the solitary nature of the work.  But when I thought I had something that could be a finished product, I suddenly felt isolated, sort of professionally deaf, dumb and blind.
           
Unlike the literary world, advertising is highly collaborative. The basic unit isn’t an individual, but a creative team, usually composed of an art director and copywriter.  You create together, huddled in a room somewhere with drawing pads and magic markers.  You build off each others’ ideas, volleying back and forth when things are flowing, goofing around and debating nonsense when they aren’t. 
           
When the team either feels they have something to show, or they’re just out of time, other people enter the process.  The creative director does her winnowing and shaping, and then frequently the ideas end up with a researcher.

This is where we’d learn if the people we hoped to influence with our creative work were, in fact, influenced.  The myth both within and outside advertising is that market research is a science.  In some cases it’s pretty scientific, but when checking out creative work, it’s much more of an art.  And a lesson in humility.

I did a lot of this myself, researching my work and the work of others.  In its simplest form, you take rough renderings of your ideas and put them in front of people who represent the audience you want to reach.  If you’re doing it right, they know as little as possible about what you’re trying to do.  To use the term of art, you want unaided respondents.  Because any foreknowledge will tend to skew the results. 
           
How does this relate to creating fiction?  Most inexperienced writers make the mistake of either clutching their writing to their chests, fearing the consequences of criticism, or showing it to friends, family, co-workers, etc. This is a terrible idea.  What you’re likely to get are reactions that are either too kind or too harsh.  Or simply uninformed.  Thus, bad feedback is worse than no feedback at all. 
           
To overcome my sense of isolation with my first book, I had a brainstorm.  I contacted a friend who lives in New York, and is also an accomplished short story writer.  I asked her to pick a reader whom she felt had decent literary judgement, but with no professional axe to grind.  The other criterion, the most important, is that this person didn’t know me from Adam.  Knew absolutely nothing.   100% unaided. 
           
What I got back was priceless.  I revised the draft, Marty and Judy Shepard liked the book, and there you go.
           
I still do this with every book, though by now I also have readers who know me well.  But I trust their judgment.  Aided respondents also have their place, though that’s a subject for another post.
           
 A word about writers groups.  Good ones can be very valuable; not-so-good are dangerous.  With good ones, you leave your ego at the door, and you hold up your end with honesty and seriousness of purpose.  As soon as your get-togethers turn into group therapy, the efficacy is lost.  Or turns destructive. 
           
There’s one thing that’s even more important than untainted feedback.  Your own judgment.  Take everything you hear with a grain of salt.  Consider everything with an open mind, capturing what improves the product, rejecting what doesn’t.  
           
At the end of the day, you’re still the god of your made-up world.

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You can reach Chris by email at chrisk@mintz-hoke.com or by responding on this website.

WE WILL BE TAKING A SHORT BREAK after this blog, a brief time off from our Wednesday blogs for five consecutive months.  We also invite anyone having anything to do with books to submit a blog to either Chris or to me, Marty Shepard, at

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

THE BOOK DOCTOR

Karen Owen is a freelance editor of manuscripts, a monthly opinion columnist at The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, VA, and the former publisher of Van Neste Books.  She lives with her husband, novelist and Hammett Prize-winner, Howard Owen, in Richmond, Virginia. 

This is her story, and a perfect follow-up to Daphne Athas’ THE GRAMMAR OF POWER which was posted last week.

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“As a former newspaper editor and former publisher/editor of literary fiction at Van Neste Books, I’ve been in a love affair with the English language for quite some time.  I also do freelance editing work on manuscripts in many genres, from novels to memoirs to local history.  While I continue to write a monthly opinion column for a daily newspaper in Virginia, what I enjoy most is the editing process.

“When I was a publisher, I did not have the financial wherewithal to hire any assistants.  I was chief financial operator, editor, creative director, book-packer and promotions person, and the joke was:  ‘I am Van Neste Books.’  Unless a manuscript grabbed my attention by the second chapter, I did not have the luxury to finish reading it.

“The same was true if I ascertained that the editing required to whip the manuscript into shape would be too onerous.  Assuming the writer was no William Faulkner, there were times when I was forced to move on to the next item in my in-box.

“And forget Thomas Wolfe.  For most publishers, the days of indulgence by a Maxwell Perkins are gone.   They don’t have the staffs or the time to wrestle a story to the ground.   It may sound shallow, but neither do they want overly long word counts, as the costs to publish these books can be prohibitive.

“What I try to do as an editor is to turn a diamond in the rough into what I call a lean, mean fighting machine, while preserving its inherent creative quality.

“A manuscript may be beyond redemption:  In these rare instances, after taking a look at sample chapters, I return it to the writer with the sad news that I cannot take money from him or her under false pretenses.  A book is either publishable, or it is not—unless a writer is willing to self-publish.

“Here are the kinds of things that I, as a professional editor can, offer.

“Most writers, even those who are professionals themselves, simply cannot edit their own work.  (I confess that I can’t edit my own creative endeavors.)  Even when I get a second or third book from one author, I often encounter the exact same mistakes that I did in his first.

“I generally read a book twice: Once for spelling, punctuation or factual errors, and a second time for inconsistencies in plot, redundancies in dialogue or expressions, or questioning the meaning of a particular sentence or the motives of a character.

“I can sense when a writer needs to tighten up or cut to the chase.  The best first sentence of a chapter, often buried beneath throat-clearing, is sometimes three paragraphs in, and the end of the chapter often could be cut short by two or three paragraphs. 

“Common mistakes by writers include:  Too many adverbs are used.  Characters are said to have ‘shouted’ or ‘grinned’ or ‘grimaced’ or some such other word when ‘said’ or ‘asked’ is all that is required. Exclamation points are overused or ellipses are used incorrectly or too many words are in italics or all upper-cased.  Sometimes these devices are used at the same time.  Dialogue is either too literal—needlessly adding ‘er’ or ‘um’—or is unrealistic, telling readers information better offered in general narration. 

“Sometimes the writer advances the plot too quickly, via sheer laziness:  A woman in the process of getting a divorce somehow encounters no resistance at all in a legal settlement with her husband, sometimes twice in the same book!  The same writer may become bogged down by descriptions of attire or interior decorating. 

“A character, paralyzed by the thought of a lover in a dalliance with someone else, time and time again allows herself to be distracted from confrontation by the prospect of terrific sex.  A judge seeking to preside over a speedy trial remonstrates to this effect repeatedly, yet inexplicably calls a recess 15 minutes after court has been called to session. 

“A famous line in a movie is misquoted.  The motive for murder or war is misunderstood or misstated.  A football player jumps up and down on a mattress after having suffered an injury to his Achilles tendon. Modern communication, such as texting, is too literally and liberally described, as are current, soon to be obsolete, expressions of speech.  New characters are introduced and given specific names but are never heard from again.  An “aha!” moment comes to a character in a dream.

“Words are misspelled.  Commas are omitted.  Quotation marks are misplaced.  Too many words are used.  Too many words are upper-cased, getting in the reader’s way.  Writers refer to ‘2 p.m. in the afternoon.’

“Consistency is a big problem for many fledgling writers:  It doesn’t matter whether a character’s interior voice is written as “No, no, no, no, no” or the more stream of conscious ‘No no no no no,’ nor is Cormac McCarthy’s lack of quotation marks in dialogue a problem.  But whatever device is used, it must be consistent throughout. 

“A character’s name or eye color changes. Whether a character sees a college mate every single day alters from chapter to chapter.  A turn of phrase is overused because the writer has forgotten it was employed in the first place, sometimes just on the previous page. 

“Long experience has taught me to never ignore the faint, teensy-tiny inner voice that questions a fact, or timing, or misuse of a word.  In the end, that is what is required, even when a missing comma is overlooked. 

“A writer often expresses reluctance at paying what is—for the time spent on a manuscript—a fairly modest fee.  If he doesn’t want to pay for a good editor, he should find a trusted friend, family member or educator—preferably one with knowledge of the English language—to read and correct the manuscript before he seeks an agent or publisher.

“A writer has but one chance to make a first impression. That opportunity must not be squandered.” 

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If you want to contact Karen, her email address is karenvnowen@gmail.com and I hope you will also post a comment on this blog.

COMING NEXT WEEK: Chris Knopf’s blog on What Authors Can Learn From Market Research.