And instead, she became a #novelist-too

Comments Off on And instead, she became a #novelist-too

Holding PenThe #MeToo movement, also called a moment, has delivered many disturbing ones over the past months. Men have been forced to face their history with the women in their lives, and for some of them, it’s a history of failures. There’s not an ending coming for this movement anytime soon. It would seem the only repair is to raise a new generation of men who see these violations to be as senseless as genocide.

The #MeToo story spreads across unexpected subjects. Writing novels has taken a hit. One tale is being told by one woman about another, a woman she admired and held up as a role model. In the New York Times, a column by Amanda Taub tells the story of Heidi Bond. These stories all have lessons and costs. Taub’s story about Bond includes a striking comment about anyone’s career as a popular novelist. Becoming an author can be portrayed as a misfortune.

Bond has reported that Judge Alex Kozinski sexually harassed her a decade ago while she worked as a law clerk for him. Clerks, if you don’t know, are lawyers in this kind of job. Taub knew Bond while both women studied in Michigan’s law school. This time out, the harassment story led to Bond leaving her profession and slipping away from her career, and even the use of her name.

Taub explains, in the article that ran in the Times.

The harassment tainted her career so much that even though she had access to some of the most coveted jobs in the country, she wanted nothing to do with them. She left the legal profession entirely, and is now a successful romance novelist writing under the name Courtney Milan.

Bond’s transition from abused attorney to romance novelist looks like it’s painted as an utter fall from power and magnificent, meaningful work. Becoming a novelist is no small bit of work to get successful at it. Romances are read by women, by and large. The tone that I read in Taub’s writing — she’s a journalist, and so a writer like Bond — felt like the career of romance writing was some ash heap.

Bond’s accomplishment has her books in the top 500 Victorian romances at Amazon. Big list. High number. She publishes herself, which is the smart way to get books out if you write in genres.

But romance writers get dismissed, even by other writers. Romance writers get read in great numbers, a thing that separates them from some earnest, MFA-studied novelists, nominated for prizes because their readership is rooted in literature experts. Romances first came into my house in a box from a good friend, one with a Master’s degree in Library Science. Jane said she had another box of these romances waiting for me if I made my way through the ones she brought.

I’m trying comprehend Bond’s story on an emotional level. A bright and capable woman says she was abused by Kozinski and ultimately left her dream career. The place where Heidi Bond resurfaces is amid a life’s work creating stories about women and men striving to love each other. Those stories often involve women coming into their rightful places in life, where their talents and drive are rewarded with happiness. They are recognized and respected. Sometimes these heroines’ jobs in the novels make a great difference in life.

On a personal level they want it all, though, and they are entitled to that. They want to experience love, and the majority of those characters want that love from a man. The men in the romances are unlike the judge. They are sometimes mistaken and full of flaws. Few of these men have a disgraceful act against a woman in their past. They are complex nonetheless.

Complexity is something that’s been put to the side during the movement. I’d like to believe that Amanda Taub’s article did not use “romance novelist” as a tut-tut clucking of disregard. It’s possible that I read that into the piece on my own. But just after Taub delivers the report on the romance writing, she tells us that Bond’s story is about “the systemic and institutional consequences of this kind of harassment.”

Those consequences include working to become a successful novelist. This in no way forgives what the Kozinski may have done. There’s also nothing like novelist harassment, unless you count the unkind acts that Amazon reviewers do every hour of every day. Like Bond knows as an author, we sign up for that kind of abuse as writers.

Writing novels might not change the world in the same way that laws in courtrooms can. But creativity brings meaning to our lives, and few kinds of creativity aim so straight for our hearts as romance novels. Writing them can be noble work, not a consolation prize.

We have to take care here in this moment, while women and the men who support them weed out abusers and re-educate them, not to lose our grip on love. Exemplary love between men and women is no fantasy. Having a role model is a good thing for every one of us, whether it’s a top lawyer or the heroine in a novel. A model from fiction is created with imagination—the special talent that writers have to inhabit and comprehend, with compassion, every aspect of human nature and foibles.

If that sounds like I am equating being a lawyer headed to the Supreme Court with being a successful romance novelist, I’m guilty of that. Without being too glib, laws do get reversed, even the ones that do good. And so good laws can then be replaced by unfair ones. The worst thing that can happen as a result of a romance novel is that it gets pulped by a publisher who couldn’t sell it. These days even that’s unlikely, since self-publication, and success, is well within any hard-working author’s grasp.

Harassment is abuse and a sin and a crime. There’s no crime in abusing writing, but I’d rather not see it thrown onto the ash heap. We may not need to celebrate this moment by dismissing something as complex as creating a novel. We’re going to need love going forward. We’ll need it closer to our lives than just imagined in the pages of a book. Those pages are a good place to start, though.

Know the difference between memoir, autobiography and biography: all about you


It’s rather simple, but people do get them confused. After you examine them, you’ll want to write a memoir. Because it’s the most dramatic tale, and so the most entertaining.

Memoir: A story written with the word I. As the author, you are the hero, the protagonist of this story. Everything that happens in it relates to you, and we should see that relationship. However, great memoirs are often about things other than the author. Out of Africa is about a coffee farm in Africa. My Life in France by Julia Child is as much about the character of postwar France and living the life of a US State Department employee’s bride, plus the rigors of publishing a first book. A memoir doesn’t contain everything that happened in your life—only selected events that relate to your theme. A theme like, “Even when you discover who they really are, how can you save your loved ones?”

Autobiography: A story all about you, but with everything that’s interesting included, in chronological order. Drama is important because we hear this tale in the voice of the I. But accuracy is even more important. Roger Ebert wrote a great book, My Life, before he died. But it was hailed as a memoir because not all the connecting pieces of Ebert’s life are in the book. They do all contribute to his theme, but it all had to be true. Autobiographies often appear as stories of the lives of celebrities, but are often ghost-written. We’re led to believe it’s the voice of the subject talking to us, but the ghosts are channeling that voice.

Biography: A complete examination and telling of the life of someone who is not the author. Covers all significant events of the person’s life, not just those related to a theme. Think reporting, with verve and style, at its best. The voice of the writer emerges here, just like in the last two forms. But at no point does the reader live the events in a biography as if they were their own. Not even an autobiography can do that — because it’s basically a self-biography.

Here’s some good news. Memoir demands drama, the very thing that drives people to read fiction. But a memoirist — or as I like to call them, memoiristas, because their writing should become daring — they work with what they’ve experienced or see first-hand. Not only what they remember exactly, however. Everything that anyone writes becomes a form of fiction as soon as you put it onto the page, or your laptop screen. It’s your story. Just because all the details are not there in a way you could prove doesn’t mean you cannot start. You begin with a disclaimer that your story will contain changes to character names, compressed events, even a warning that what you’ll read doesn’t portray actual events.

It’s this greater truth that a memoir is after, the understanding that leads to wisdom and the resounding bell of connection — that’s what drives us to read memoirs. Here’s the boxed disclaimer in front of the memoir Dry, by Augusten Burroughs.

Author’s note:

This memoir is based on my experiences over a 10-year period. Names have been changed, character combined, and events compressed. Certain episodes are imaginative re-creation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events.

That, dear writer, is license that a biographer, or even an autobiographer, cannot enjoy. So write the bigger truth of the story.

Story endings that fit their means

Comments Off on Story endings that fit their means

So much has been written and said about the Sopranos finale. I’m prepared to give a writer like David Chase any kind of ending he wants to his epic television show.

The commentary on the “surprise-cut” ending calls out viewers’ preferences for story. The howlers, well, they like genre stories: mystery, sci-fi, romance, all respectful of formula and always with a resolution. As in the Tom Waits song, they all “want to know the same thing we all want to know — how’s it gonna end.” Genre sells best. That’s why the howls are loudest this week.

A significant minority of viewers have sounded off with satisfaction after Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” cut off in mid-chorus, with a sudden cut to black. They’re literary readers, in my view, who enjoy stories with an ending you create yourself, like life. So few times do we know how everything turns out. Or if we do know, we’re wrong, because we have only our own point of view to consider.

I laughed out loud at the ending — after a moment of wondering about our satellite reception. David Chase has always used a “take it or leave it” approach to his HBO storytelling. Characters dropped, plot lines left tangled. If the howlers had looked closer at his style, they shouldn’t have been so stunned.

But millions of people, from the sports-talk host Jim Rome to my grocery store bagger, all had a better ending in mind. A flock of yay-ohs, all wanting to write the sweetest part of Chase’s story for him, to act as vicarious storytellers. Chase fights for his story, outlasts actor holdouts, agrees to write and produce about twice as many episodes as he wants. In his moment of ultimate spotlight, everybody wants their ending tacked onto his story.

You want an ending to a brilliant story with mesmerizing characters? Write your own damn story. Then you are entitled to whatever finale you can dream up. Asking for anything else is an ending that’s beyond your means as a storyteller.

Writing a double life

1 Comment

My friend Laurie Cosbey, who’s working on a psychological thriller, spread the word about a storied novelist’s double life as a writer. Joyce Carol Oates has a well-known literary bibliography, including her more-than-autobiographical novel The Falls, based on Oates’ formative years in the Niagara Falls area of Western New York.

But Laurie told our manuscript response group that Oates has got two other outlets for her creativity.

She is a bestselling literary writer, but she also writes genre fiction under a pseudonym Rosamond Smith. She says her genre work is all about doubles. I think that’s something all writers are interested in, because we seem to be living double lives, one in our work and one in the world. She also writes suspense novels under the name Lauren Kelly.

There’s even more to Oates. She’s a prolific essayist, too.

In her book of essays, The Faith of a Writer, she’s interviewed about her 738-page epic Blonde: based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Oates won the National Book Award at age 32, one of the youngest winners ever for a novel.

Hooray for hens and their book buying

Comments Off on Hooray for hens and their book buying

Back at the WLT Agents & Editors conference, Evelyn Palfrey introduced me to the term “hen-lit,” books aimed at the beyond-30s generation. (It’s what she’s written, and well, too.)

This morning I saw this item in the report from Debbie Ridpath Ohi:

Hyperion launches new imprint for women

Named Voice, the new imprint is just one of several aimed at female readers. Warner Books already has a women’s imprint called 5 Spot and will be launching Springboard Press in the fall; aimed at baby boomers, a large percentage of its titles will cater to female readers. “Voice is specifically focusing on women from their mid-30’s and older and will have a resolutely anti-chick-lit bent,” said its founders.

There’s more in a New York Times story.

I don’t know if I want to put too fine a point on this, but if you’re writing fiction, you’re writing for women, three readers out of four. Of course, you should write whatever story is in your true voice. But imagine telling it to your sweetheart, girlfriend, wife or office pal, if you’re a fella — and if you care about getting picked up by a publisher who’ll print more than 1,000 copies of your book

Slipstreaming toward a genre

Comments Off on Slipstreaming toward a genre

One of the hard things for an writer to accomplish is knowing where their book will land on a bookstore’s shelves. Write a mystery, romance or western, and you have no challenge on this score. Write a story that simply tells a tale, though, and you have two choices: mainstream, or slipstream.

The latter term was coined by science fiction writer Bruce Sterling in 1989, and it’s even got a Wikipedia entry. Eventually that entry will lead you to Sterling’s article. He quips that he’s made up the word based on mainstream. Slipstream is also a kind of propulsion drive used in Star Trek, too, but in Sterling’s view it’s a story that crosses genres (say, sci-fi and mainstream) and describes a world that’s different.

For a master list of the wide and wooly range of slipstream, have a look at the titles Sterling compiled along with Nova Express sci-fi editor Lawrence Person. (Both living in Austin, by the way, home of our Writer’s Workshop.)

Sterling’s article is worth reading if you’re writing something that isn’t quite one genre or another. For now, I’ve decided that Viral Times is slipstream fiction. It’s not a section in Barnes & Noble, but at least it’s a more accurate description of how rich the story will be once its finished.