31 May 2018

La Joie de l'Écriture*

by Brian Thornton

I have often heard other writers talk about how they don’t enjoy the act of writing so much as they do actually being a writer. I don't really get that.

I sincerely enjoy the act of writing. It's most fun when I can establish a routine, get the narrative up and running, consult my outline (such as it is on any given project), put between two-and-a-half and four hours straight into it.

The high you get when you really nail a scene, to say nothing of the feeling of accomplishment you get when you finish a project. For me, there's really nothing like it.

But no job is perfect, and writing is no exception.

I mean, it's not always fun. It's very often not fun.

Like the time I wrote eighty-thousand words in eight weeks.

Yep. You read that right.

Eighty-thousand words.

Eight weeks.

Without days off, that comes out to averaging 1,425 words per day. (And for the record, I took days off. You can't not take days off over a period working on a project like this one was.).

Now, most of the working writers I know cite a thousand words per day as a healthy goal. It's substantial (averages about three-and-a-half pages double-spaced), and it's not going to cause burn-out.

So why, you ask, would I subject myself to an experience involving a daily average that required me to generate nearly half-again as many words as the sane daily limit?

Simple.

I was on a deadline.

Hell, I was past my deadline.

More to the point, that deadline was not of the self-imposed variety. I had signed a contract, the advance for which was loooooooong spent.

How did I come to this pretty pass?

Here's the short version:

I had a contract (a different one) with an editor at a press where I had enjoyed some modest success publishing book-length nonfiction. In the midst of honoring that obligation, I found myself approached by another editor (at the same press), offering me money that was too good to pass up for an eighty-thousand word gig.

So I negotiated an extension on their deadline for this second project, building not only more time into my schedule, but time during the all-important summer months (My day gig is teaching, and I figured I could easily knock out this eighty thousand words over the end of the current school year and over the summer break before the next one.

Well.

Didn't quite turn out that way.

The initial project (which was collecting and editing an anthology, so there were a whole lot of moving parts involved) ran long. As a result I was under significant pressure to devote all of my available time and headspace (and at  the end of the school year, mind you! A time when teachers are in short supply of both!) to finishing the initial project.

So I did. I told myself that I could still finish on deadline, especially since I'd be able to devote the entirety of the second half of my break to this project.

Now, every contract I'd signed with this publisher had contained a timetable, by which I was legally bound to turn in a portion of the text as I went. You know; "Signatory will produce 25% (twenty-five percent) of contracted work by (insert proposed date here)."

This new contract had such a timetable.

I ignored it.

I did so because this was my fourth contract with this publisher. Every other editor I'd worked with had hastened to reassure me not to bother with the percentages/dates in the contract. All they cared about was getting across the finish line with a completed manuscript by my deadline.

So far I was batting a thousand on that front.

That is, until I ran into trouble with the anthology. Some of the collected work just wasn't up to the publisher's standards, and my acquisitions editor had me running interference with the authors I'd recruited for this anthology. Back and forth, back and forth. Requests for changes, and requests for more (None of them originating from me, mind you. When it came to being a collection editor, I was still on the low slope of a pretty steep learning curve!).

So I was late on the first one, and that snowballed and caused me to be late on the second one.

Last piece of the puzzle: the editor I was working with on the second one was new to publishing. She was greener than clover in the springtime.

Ergo to her, "25% by x date" meant "twenty-five percent by X DATE!"

I really didn't see that particular explosion coming (In both fairness and in retrospect, I should have. These two editors weren't talking with each other about their various projects with me. I assumed they were. So I had some learning to do, too.).

And it was an explosion (Like I said, GREEN!). She emailed, asking me to call her, so I did. Standing in the middle of my summer school classroom (did I mention that as a teacher I was on the looooooow end of the salary/seniority scale? Passing on the money to be made teaching $ummer $chool was simply not an option.) during the five-minute break between the first and second (and last) class of the day.

What a sucker.

I'm positive the kids out in the hall could hear every word she shrieked at me. It was embarrassing, to say the least.

And then I finally got smart.

A couple of minutes into getting bawled out in a way I hadn't endured since boot camp, I began to record the call (Long story. Let's just say it was a good thing the room I was teaching in had the set-up it did.).

I then got off the phone with editor in as professional a manner as I could, and called her direct supervisor, left her a voicemail asking she call me on my cellphone (this was over ten years ago, so you had to actually leave voicemail if you wanted to send a "call me back" message.

When I got the supervisor on the phone, I played the tape for her.

She was, happily for me, appalled.

I explained how my previous project had run long, and asked if we could renegotiate my deadline. She agreed (my editor's supervisor really was quite a professional, and I sincerely appreciated that). We also worked it out that my sole communication with my erstwhile editor from that point on would be via email, and that her supervisor would be cc'ed on every single correspondence.

As it turned out, I didn't start that eighty-thousand word project until the beginning of September.

Yeah, that worked out well.

I wrote a book (two books, actually: clocking in at a length of 40,000 words apiece.) in two months. The first two months of the school year.

Which, as any teacher will tell you, are the two busiest, most energy-sapping months of any given school year!

My new due date? Halloween.

I'm still not sure how I managed to pull it off, but I did turn in the manuscript by Halloween, collect my back-end check, and vow to never work with Screamy the Green-as Green-Can-Be Editrix ever again.

I'm sure she shed no more tears over that than I did.

Why is this all important?

Because it's almost summer, and I've got a book to finish.

And although I no longer find myself constrained to teach $ummer $chool in order to help keep body and soul together, I now have other, more enjoyable distractions: I'm happily married way out of my league to a wonderful woman who just got a promotion at work which promises to cut into her time on the home front.

And our son is about to turn six.

Marriage and fatherhood have proven more challenging in my quest to remain productive as a writer than any other obstacles I've encountered before them. Mainly because, as I said, they're enjoyable. But more than that, they are obligations which, for obvious reasons, I take dead seriously.

In the face of that remains the naked fact that getting to write makes me a better, happier, more balanced person. It's a big part of who I am.

The good news is that this summer the planets are aligning: our son is going to spend part of his days at his old preschool (which doubles as "summer camp" during summer vacation). I no longer need to teach $ummer $chool, and where I would usually need to pick up a college class in order to help me keep my teaching credential current, I'm all caught up on that front too.

So what am I going to do with this sudden influx of unencumbered time and equally unencumbered head space?

That's easy!

I'm gonna write!

(And it goes without saying, I'm gonna enjoy the hell out of it!)


(See you in two weeks, when I break down how I plan to be highly productive during this, my Unecumbered Summer!)

(*French for "The Joy of Writing")

30 May 2018

Wake-Up Call

by Robert Lopresti

I bicycle to work most mornings, on one of the busiest streets in my small city. At one point there is a highway overpass and sometimes apparently homeless people stand there with signs, begging for money from the people leaving the Interstate.  Usually this is not a problem, except that sometimes they leave piles of trash.

This morning,  I saw what appeared to be such a gentleman.  He was bald, in his thirties, and wearing a leather jacket.  He carried a black plastic trash bag which appeared to be stuffed with something the size of an exercise ball.

He was in the vicinity of a couple I had seen before, a woman walking her daughter to the elementary school.  The bald man was trying to talk to the mother and she was trying very hard to ignore him as they approached a traffic light.

I watched this and thought: Oh, crap.  Because if it got worse I was going to have to get involved.  I haven't been in a physical altercation in about fifty years, and my win-loss record back then was not great.

Now the mother and daughter were waiting for the red light to turn.  I was on the other side of the intersection, also waiting.

The  bald man turned and walked away.  Good.

And then he was back, talking over the woman's shoulder.  The light changed.  I thought: If he follows them I will have to interfere, right in the middle of the street.

But he turned and walked off.  Was he influenced by my presence?  I doubt it.  I don't know if he even saw me.

Riding the rest of the way to work I wondered what I would have done if action had proven necessary.  My thought at the time was to go straight into a verbal confrontation but I now think the better choice would have been a system I have heard about several times in recent years: Ignore the aggressor and come up to the victim with a big smile, acting like you know them.  "Hey there!  Can I walk with you to school?"

If it happens (again) I'll try that.

But let's consider a couple of other options.  I had a cell phone with me.  When I saw what was shaping up I should have pulled the phone out, started the phone app (whoever uses that?) and dialed 9-1-1.  Then if I felt I had to step into the scene I could have hit SEND.

You don't have to speak, by the way.  If you dial 9-1-1 and say nothing the cops will trace your phone and come to see what's going on.  At least they do here.  (Don't ask me how I know; that's another story.)

I checked.  It takes me fifteen seconds from reaching for the phone to being ready to hit SEND.  Next time, and may there never be one, I'll go do that first.

Now let's talk about guns.  I don't own one.  Never have.  But it occurred to me to wonder, what would have happened if I had had one with me this morning?

I certainly would have thought about getting it out.  Or at least getting it ready.  Knowing human nature (at least my human nature) as well as I do, I think I would have seen this as an opportunity to get my money's worth out of the gun, not by shooting it, but by attempting to scare the man off.

If I did that I figure one of four things would have happened.

1.  I would have shot the guy, which would have been bad.

2.  I would have dropped the gun, which would have been, at best, embarrassing.

3.  He would have taken the gun away from me (see comments above on my record with physical confrontations,) which would have been at best embarrassing and at worst tragic.

4.  He could have decided to walk away, which would have been good.

And that means the best result that could have occurred from showing a gun was the same as what happened without one.  Your mileage may vary.

So, that was my morning.  How was yours?






29 May 2018

Are the Sensitivity Police Coming to Get You?

by Paul D. Marks, Jonathan Brown, Elaine Ash


Contents:

—Context and White Heat – Paul
—Dude? Why so Sensitive? – Jonathan Brown
—The Right to Write – Elaine Ash
—Paul’s original post
—In conclusion – Paul


“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.”

                                                       —President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Four Freedoms Speech

     Context:

It’s time to revisit a topic that’s very important to me, and I would think it should be to all writers. And though some of it may be repetitive, and it is long, I think it’s worth your time if you’re a writer, a reader, a sentient being.

In March, 2017, I did a piece here about the Sensitivity Police (find it at this link, but also “reprinted” near the end of this new post, http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2017/03/the-sensitivity-police.html ). I don’t get very political on social media. There’s only two things that I talk about in that regard and then not that much. The two things are animal issues and free speech issues. The latter is what this post is about. In a nutshell, I’m a free speech absolutist. There’s almost nothing I don’t think people should be allowed to say or put in print. It can be awful and hateful and offend you or me. But that’s what’s great about this country – you have the right to say what you want. I don’t have to agree, I don’t have to break bread with you, but I’ll fight for your right to say it.

I see things all the time that I agree or disagree with but I don’t see much point getting into verbal firefights about them. I’m not going to change any minds and no one is going to change mine. Mostly, I just scroll past political posts.

This revisit is prompted by an article I saw recently in the Guardian, the British paper. The article was “Lionel Shriver says 'politically correct censorship' is damaging fiction.”  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/22/lionel-shriver-says-politically-correct-censorship-is-damaging-fiction

To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Lionel Shriver. And I still haven’t read her works. But I agree with that statement. Again, I am a total free speech advocate. I know the arguments about shouting fire in a crowded theatre or hurting people’s feelings, but I also remember when the ACLU defended the Nazis’ right to march in the Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois. (And for the simpletons out there, No, I’m not pro-Nazi!) And I remember when people would say “I may not agree with what you say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” That seems to be a dying sentiment.

I understand that people get offended. I get offended, but I just grin and bear it and move on. Maybe you’d rather fight back, verbally. Fine. Just don’t stop the other from saying whatever it is. I’m against any form of censorship. And it scares the fucking hell out of me!!! Free speech is the foundation of our society. Without it totalitarianism reigns. Yet a recent Gallup poll shows college students aren’t totally behind the concept of free speech — See:

https://medium.com/informed-and-engaged/8-ways-college-student-views-on-free-speech-are-evolving-963334babe40 .

——Or——

  https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/college-students-support-free-speech--unless-it-offends-them/2018/03/09/79f21c9e-23e4-11e8-94da-ebf9d112159c_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.fcceb8833c43

As writers sensitivity police should scare the hell out of us. As citizens of a free society likewise. Maybe what we write is uncomfortable, maybe you’re offended. Maybe you should toughen up.

This time around I’m inviting two guests to join me and add their opinions, Jonathan Brown and Elaine Ash. I was originally going to intercut the things that Jonathan, Elaine and I have to say on the subject, but I’ve decided to run all the pieces as a whole. I asked a few people if they’d want to comment from the point of view of wanting censorship of one degree or another. Nobody wanted to go on record. I truly hope you’ll take a few minutes to read everything.

***


     White Heat:

My Shamus Award-winning novel White Heat is a noir-mystery-thriller. It’s about P.I.s trying to find a killer during the 1992 Rodney King riots – that makes it much more than a simple noir-mystery-thriller. While protagonist Duke Rogers tracks down the killer, he must also deal with the racism of his partner, Jack, and from Warren, the murder victim’s brother, who is a mirror image of Jack in that department. He must also confront his own possible latent racism – even as he’s in an interracial relationship with the dead woman’s sister.

The novel looks at race and racism from everyone involved, black and white, and no one gets off unscathed. These things can be a little uncomfortable. Believe me, I know. I was uncomfortable writing some of it. Ditto for Broken Windows, the sequel coming out in the fall, that deals with immigration via a mystery story. These are touchy issues, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk or write about them. And if we do so honestly we might unintentionally hurt some feelings.

To quote from my article a year ago, “It’s getting to the point where we have to constantly second guess ourselves as we worry who might be offended by this or that? In my novel, White Heat, I use the N word. And don’t think I didn’t spend a lot of deliberating about whether I should tone that down, because truly I did not want to hurt or offend anyone. But ultimately I thought it was important for the story I was trying to tell and people of all races seemed to like the book. I think context is important. But even without context, as a free speech absolutist, I think people should be allowed to say what they want. There used to be an argument that went around that the way to combat negative speech was with more speech, but that doesn’t seem to be the case today. As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, ‘Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly.’”

I did add an Author’s Note warning people: “Some of the language and attitudes in the novel may be offensive. But please consider them in the context of the time, place and characters.” Today we’d call it a Trigger Warning. And I don’t mind doing that, as long as no one stops me from saying what I want to say.

If you don’t defend free speech now because your ox isn’t currently being gored, to coin a phrase, then no one will be there to defend you when it is. And revolutions always come back to bite the head off. Look at what happened to Robespierre during the French Revolution. It’s like that quote from Martin Neimoller during World War II: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

My mind hasn’t changed in the last the year. And now here are Jonathan and Elaine to talk about the issue:

***

     Jonathan Brown: 

Jonathan was born and raised in Vancouver British Colombia. He works as a writer, fitness trainer and drum instructor. His Lou Crasher mysteries recently landed him a two book deal with Down and Out Books. The first novel: The Big Crescendo is slated to be released in early 2019 and the follow up: Don't Shoot the Drummer will be released in 2020. Brown has also written a fictional biography about the life of boxing trainer, Angelo Dundee. The book: Angelo Dundee, a Boxing Trainer's Journey is published by The Mentoris Group and will be released in December 2018. Jonathan and his lovely wife Sonia enjoy life in sunny south Los Angeles. jonathanbrownwriter.com

Dude? Why So Sensitive?

When Paul was gracious enough to offer me a chance to weigh in on the ‘sensitivity reader’ issue I said, “Sign me up, please.” For those new to this phenomenon a sensitivity reader is someone hired by a publisher to read manuscripts with an eye sensitive to one particular race, religion or gender and so on. While the publisher’s heart may be in the right place or if the publisher simply wants to avoid a lawsuit, I think the practice is not only superfluous but also dangerous. Dangerous might be a little extreme, let’s say asinine instead.

Here’s where this jazz is headed. The sensitivity reader(s) will essentially be the politically correct police. The potential to take what might be the next great American novel and water it down to Disney meets Hallmark on Mr. Roger’s front porch is huge. For example, Writer X has a vigilante ex-gangbanger as the anti-hero. He enters the warehouse and finds the banger that killed his family. He raises the Sig Sauer. He closes one eye and lines up the enemy down the gun sight. Finally, he shall have his revenge. As a parting phrase the avenger says, “You’re a dead person of color with ancestry dating back to ancient sub-Saharan Africa!” As opposed to: “You’re a dead nigga!” Pop, Pop, Pop.

Under the sensitivity cop regime urban gang bangers won’t use authentic dialog; terrorists will be of a fictitious ethnicity (thus being limited to Science Fiction) and although books will still have steamy sex scenes the party engaging in coitus shall be genderless—out of fairness to the gendered. Can you imagine? Try this scene:

“Hey baby, want to get it on?”

“Sure, if you’ll just put your—”

“Don’t say it. I can’t wait to feel your—”

“No, don’t say it!”

And so the participants put their matching or perhaps mismatching parts together and…did it. 

The End

Can you feel the heat? No? Yeah, me either. I’m rarely the slippery-slope-guy and I’m truly weary of the expression but I must say the incline will become pretty slick here if we engage in this sensitivity reader censorship parade. And what, may I ask makes a sensitivity reader? How does one become one? Is there a questionnaire? The bigger question for me is why have we stopped trusting our own judgment? Don’t we all have some measure of built-in common sense about sensitivity? I say we do, if I may be so bold as to answer my own question.

If a manuscript becomes ‘green lit’ by a publisher that means an agent and possibly her assistant has read the manuscript. Then, let’s toss in two to four low-level readers at the publishing house and cap this off with one or two of the top brass readers.  Do you mean to tell me that from agent’s assistant to top Banana none of those cats know what is basically offensive and what’s not? I call bullshit. As members of society we all know what is basically offensive but now we’re too afraid to say it, so let’s put it on the sensitivity reader…yeah that guy. Phew, thank god we now have a scapegoat if this thing goes south, right? Grow up people.

If this castration of the arts by ‘sensitivity cop’ flies then Noir literature will become beige, Romance will have gender sensitive sex scenes (which I suppose means all genders will have an orgy all at once, what with inclusion and all…hmm) and Horror films will no longer have the ominous black cat, they will have to be Tabbys, Siamese or Ginger cats…which will be referred to as: orange hued. Imagine:

As I walked down the dark alley I glanced over my shoulder and noticed a six- month old tabby cross my path. It was then that I knew…I…was…doomed! (Insert wolf howl sound effect!)

Let art be art. It’s a good thing the sensitivity cops didn’t tell Picasso how to paint, and didn’t instruct Beethoven to avoid all minor keys and thank god they didn’t force Harper Lee to make the accused, Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mocking Bird a white-male primary school teacher with a sunny disposition.

***

     Elaine Ash:

Elaine Ash edits fiction writers—from established authors to emerging talent. She works with private clients, helping them shape manuscripts, acquire agents and land publishing deals.  www.bestsellermetrics.com

The Right to Write

When Paul asked me to throw my hat in the ring for a post on free speech and sensitivity readers, I gulped. Navigating these topics can be as delicate as tucking a hand grenade inside a wasp’s nest. But, admittedly, I’ve brought this on myself, since I take pride in freedom of speech and feel strongly about the right to write.

One way to look at sensitivity readers is simply as a new layer of vetting that writers must hurdle when they submit to Big 5 publishers. First, let’s refresh  on what some famed writers have had to say about protecting artistic integrity.

“Because if you don't stand up for the stuff you don't like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you've already lost.”
― Neil Gaiman

“Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice.”
― Henry Louis Gates Jr.

“I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”
― Oscar Wilde

Taken in context with these quotes, the picture of a sensitivity reader redlining a literary opus looks as clunky as jackboots on a ballerina. Add on that the average pay of a sensitivity reader is $250 per manuscript, and it seems impossible that anyone paid this low could influence a billion dollar-plus industry and force millionaire writers to change their work—but they are.

Do Sensitivity Readers Affect You?

First you have to look at your target publishers. There are sensitive and not-so-sensitive publishers. In general, sensitive would be Big 5 and their imprints; non-sensitive would be medium and small indie publishers. Big 5 science fiction and fantasy publishers trend “sensitive.” YA and children’s markets likewise.

Mystery and crime-related genres have strongly resisted sensitivity. In fact, noir and transgressive genres are expected to be offensive—that’s how they make a larger point. But agents have recently confided to me that it’s getting harder and harder to sell mystery fiction. Does this have to do with sensitivity bias? I suspect so, but have no figures to back up that claim other than the frontline reports of literary agents. In other words, publisher demand has constricted, and I suspect that it’s not for lack of the buying public—it’s because publishers fear backlash and boycotts. (More about this later.)

S-readers are not called in on 100% of manuscripts, but if a publisher sees that a writer of one ethnicity might be writing a character of another ethnicity, they will call on an S-reader to vet the manuscript. The problem with this is pretty obvious. Since the original writer isn’t reporting fact but creating art to make a larger point, the original intent of the art may become skewed. Want to check the rules to make sure you get them right? Err, that could be a problem. There is no sensitivity readers guild to consult, and no published compilation of guidelines.

A Case in Point

Science fiction/fantasy author Mary Robinette Kowal has killed projects over negative feedback from sensitivity readers.  http://maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/sensitivity-readers/   The problem with this tactic is that the rules she’s trying so hard to abide by are not set in stone, they’re not law. They’re merely someone’s opinion, and opinions change. The court of public opinion can change with the day of the week. Is it even possible to write something that offends no one? I suppose so. The greater question is, Is it possible to write something that offends no one that is worth reading? Stories are supposed to disturb, instigate, provoke thought. That comes with the risk of offense.

What sensitivity readers are really all about comes down, in the end, to cold hard cash, as everything in business does. Looking at a hot topic through the cool lense of business is a way to bring practicality to the subject. If a publisher is afraid that they may become the target of an angry boycott, they’ll do everything possible to avoid it. Until recently, these boycotts had real power. But the recent trend is “boycott backlash” where the boycott-ee suffers a drop-off from advertisers, and then receives a sympathy bump from purchasers who disagree with the boycott. It reminds me of when banning books was all the rage. It only made them more popular. What people are told they can’t have, they make special efforts to get.

Sidestep the Time Wasters

My purview is not to make a case for S-readers or against them. I’m here to point out navigation tactics. As I write this, tens of thousands of manuscripts are waiting for Big 5 vetting when some of them could be sailing into medium-sized publishers and landing deals without added delay.

If you are a first-time author, my advice is to go for a smaller publisher to land your edgy material. If you are an established author looking to make the leap to Big 5, you’d have the best bet with a fairly controversy-free manuscript from the race or gender aspect. “White savior writing” is a thing, and sensitivity readers are rejecting it. Google the term and read about it for yourself.

Meanwhile, many mystery and crime readers are looking for gritty authenticity, using nomenclature that coincides with a hardboiled PI or criminal.  Already, you can see how S-readers may chill the edgy, provocative material that underscores much of the best mystery writing.

Express Yourself

As an editor, I’m about preserving the integrity of the writer’s vision, intent, art and freedom to write. I am not a censor for political correctness. For example, I’m horrified by third-wave feminist Andrea Dworkin’s contention that every act of sex is an act of rape. Would I edit a story with a character in it who held that belief? Most definitely. I’m not a censor, I’m an editor. My job is to preserve the writer’s vision, even if I disagree with it.

My best advice is to avoid writing to trends and never write to satisfy sensitivity readers. Take my client Chrome Oxide, winner of two coveted Writers of the Future awards. He’s a humorist making fun of big government and bureaucracy—using the sci-fi and fantasy genres as a backdrop. He came to me thinking there was zero chance of getting a publisher—self-publishing would be his only option. But there are so many alternative publishers now for everything from comic books to novels, that a good agent, or an editor wearing many hats like me, can find a market.

If your agent says there’s no market for what you’ve written, it’s time to get another agent. For Chrome Oxide I had to go to Superversive Press out of Australia, but the terms were the best I’d seen anywhere. The terms almost made me cry, they were so beautiful. This publisher really, really wanted Chrome’s material.

Only you can assess where your manuscript and platform as a writer stand in terms of attractiveness to publishers who assess writers through sensitivity vetting. It’s a big world with many markets. Ultimately, what does not sell will take a diminished place in the market and readers will find what they’re looking for.

Bottom line, you must write who you are and what makes you tick, not what you guess sensitivity readers will approve. Express yourself freely and then find the market that matches your angle. It’s out there waiting if you look.

***

      Thank you Jonathan and Elaine. And here's my/Paul's previous post:

Here’s the pertinent part from my earlier article (see link above):

And now to the subject at hand: I recently came across an article in the Chicago Tribune titled “Publishers are hiring 'sensitivity readers' to flag potentially offensive content.” That, of course, piqued my interest. And I will say at the outset that I’m a free speech absolutist. If you don’t like something don’t read it, but don’t stop others from saying it or reading it.
http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-publishers-hiring-book-readers-to-flag-sensitivity-20170215-story.html

After all, who’s to say what’s offensive? What’s offensive to me might not be to you and vice versa. That said, I see things every day that I disagree with. I don’t like to say that I find them offensive because I think that word is overused and I also think people tend to get offended too easily and by too many things.

As writers I think this is something we should be concerned about. Because, even if you agree with something that’s blue-penciled today tomorrow there might be something you write where you disagree with the blue-pencil. Where does it end? Also, as a writer, I want to be able to say what I want. If people don’t like it they don’t have to read it. I don’t want to be offensive, though perhaps something may hit someone that way. But we can’t worry about every little “offense” because there are so many things to be offended about.

It’s getting to the point where we have to constantly second guess ourselves as we worry who might be offended by this or that? In my novel, White Heat, I use the N word. And don’t think I didn’t spend a lot of deliberating about whether I should tone that down, because truly I did not want to hurt or offend anyone. But ultimately I thought it was important for the story I was trying to tell and people of all races seemed to like the book. I think context is important. But even without context, as a free speech absolutist, I think people should be allowed to say what they want. There used to be an argument that went around that the way to combat negative speech was with more speech, but that doesn’t seem to be the case today. As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly.”

And, of course, publishers have the right to publish what they want. But limiting things doesn’t change much. It just goes underground.

The Tribune article says, “More recently, author Veronica Roth - of ‘Divergent’ fame - came under fire for her new novel, ‘Carve the Mark.’ In addition to being called racist, the book was criticized for its portrayal of chronic pain in its main character.” So now we have to worry about how we portray people with chronic pain. Again, where does it end?

I’ve dealt with chronic pain. Should I be offended every time someone says something about those things that I don’t like. Get over it, as the Eagles say in their eponymous song. The piece also talks about writers hiring people to vet their stories for various things, in one case transgender issues. If it’s part of one’s research I don’t have a problem with that. Or if it’s to make something more authentic. But if it’s to censor a writer or sanitize or change the writer’s voice, that’s another story.

There’s also talk about a database of readers who will go over your story to look for various issues. But again, who’s to say what issues offend what people? Do you need a reader for this issue and another for that? If we try to please everyone we end up pleasing no one and having a book of nearly blank or redacted pages. Or if not literally that then a book that might have some of its heart gutted.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for authenticity but I think this kind of thing often goes beyond that. When we put out “sanitized” versions of Huck Finn or banning books like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which has also been banned and of which Wikipedia says, “Commonly cited justifications for banning the book include sexual explicitness, explicit language, violence, and homosexuality.”


The Wall Street Journal also talks about this issue, saying in part, “One such firm, Writing in the Margins, says that it will review ‘a manuscript for internalized bias and negatively charged language,’ helping to ensure that an author writing ‘outside of their own culture and experience” doesn’t accidentally say something hurtful.’ I’m not saying one should be hurtful, but I am saying one should write what they want to write. And if taken to the ultimate extreme then we would only be “allowed” to write about our own little group. And that would make our writing much poorer.

I’m not trying to hurt anyone. But I do believe in free speech, even if it is sometimes hurtful.

We should think about the consequences of not allowing writers to write about certain things, or things outside of their experience. Think of the many great books that wouldn’t have been written, think of your own work that would have to be trashed because you aren’t “qualified” to write about it. There are many things in the world that hurt and offend and that aren’t fair. And let’s remember what Justice Brandeis said.

In closing one more quote from the Journal article: “Even the Bard could have benefited. Back when Shakespeare was writing ‘Macbeth,’ it was still OK to use phrases like, ‘It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ But that is no longer so. The word ‘idiot’ is now considered cruelly judgmental, demeaning those who, through no fault of their own, are idiots. A sensitivity reader could propose something less abusive, such as, ‘It is a tale told by a well-meaning screw-up, signifying very little but still signifying something. I mean, the poor little ding-dong was trying.’”

***
     In conclusion:

So there you have it, three arguments for freedom of speech.


~.~.~

I’m thrilled – I’m Doubly Thrilled – to announce that my short story “Windward,” from the anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes fromSea to Shining Sea (edited by Andrew McAleer and me) is nominated for a Best Short Story Shamus Award – and that the anthology as a whole is nominated for a Best Anthology Anthony Award. Thank you to everyone involved!



~.~.~

My Shamus Award-Winning novel White Heat was re-released on May 21st by Down & Out Books. It’s available now on Amazon.

Publishers Weekly calls White Heat a "...taut crime yarn."



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com



28 May 2018

School's Out...A Belated Thank You

by Steve Liskow

Many of my Sleuthsayers colleagues are or were also teachers, and as the school year winds down with proms, exams and commencements, it seems like a good time to remember those people who got me to where I am.

 We hear about test scores and teacher evaluation and lots of other concepts, so it's easy to forget that the basic goal is to help students learn more and better so they can become responsible adults. Teachers don't make a lot of money and their popularity is always fickle (especially in America, where they've been political whipping posts for as long as I can remember), but they wield enormous impact. I retired fifteen years ago next month, and about seventy former students are now Facebook friends (We get along better now that they don't have to laugh at my jokes). A few even read my books.

For years, I claimed that the teacher mattered less than the student's drive to learn, maybe even aided and abetted by his or her parents. I still think that test scores are a bogus way to measure a teacher's worth. My belief stems from having several mediocre teachers along the way but two well-read and decisive parents whose DNA included a strong work ethic.

But now I remember the handful of excellent teachers vividly and the others are a generic blur, and it's changed my opinion.

My first really good teacher, June Roethke, was the sister of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Theodore Roethke, and she taught ninth-grade English at South Intermediate School. Miss Roethke ("RETT-key") cared nothing about self-esteem or understanding her students, and most of us had nightmares when we learned that we would be in her class. She made us keep a loose-leaf notebook exclusively for her class, divided into homework, vocabulary, reading, grammar, spelling, and several other sections I no longer remember. She mandated that we open the rings at the beginning of class and leave them that way because she didn't want to hear that infernal clacking for the next hour.

She read us poetry and made us memorize poems to recite to the class (I learned "The Glove and the Lions" by Leigh Hunt). She would berate us for a wrong answer in discussion. She divided the room into teams and asked arcane grammar questions (I didn't know an appositive is always in the same case as the word with it is in apposition until I guessed wrong in front of my henchmen) to earn extra credit on a quiz. She demanded that we all be better than we dared to dream we could ever be. After surviving her class, I have yet to learn anything new about American grammar. Because I got a "B" (Her last reported "A" was reportedly when MacArthur  signed the treaty with Japan), I was placed in honors English in high school even though I didn't sign up for it.

Sophomore year gave me three great teachers. Edith Jensen retired after teaching me biology, and she was even tougher than Miss Roethke. The week before exams, she told me in front of the class that I had a solid "B" average, which would excuse me from taking the exam (Most teachers liked the chance to grade fewer papers), but she told me I had to take it anyway. Old mimeographed handouts and charts and worksheets lay all around the room, and I took them all to complete again. When the diagrams of crayfish, frogs, and the heart turned out to be the bulk of the exam, I finished fifteen minutes before anyone else. I put the paper on her desk and walked back to my seat, turning back just in time to see her wink at me. I never told anyone because I knew they wouldn't believe me.

Sharon Hunter, a history major and English minor, became my honors English teacher in 1962, and made us use writing prompts and what is now called "free-writing" and peer editing a decade before anyone else even mentioned it. Miss Roethke taught me correctness, but Ms (Actually, she was still "Mrs.") Hunter helped me find my own writing voice. She called me "Step-on" just to bust my chops--which she did to everyone else, too, because she had no favorites. I think we all suspected that we were her favorite, though, and we all loved her back...or at least, didn't give her too much grief.

Rose Marie (Mudd) Nickodemus was a direct descendant of the Doctor Mudd who set John Wilkes Booth's broken leg. She and Mrs. Hunter were young and attractive in a school with an average faculty age of somewhere around the half-life of U235. I had a terrible time in algebra, repeating the class in summer school, but Mrs. Nickodemus, who taught plane geometry, knew that some of us could visualize better than others and urged us to use colored pencils or soda straws to construct the figures in our proofs and move them around to test our ideas. Without knowing it (Maybe...), she also gave me the basis for the five-paragraph essay form nobody would talk about until years later, too.

Marjory Jacobson, who had a PhD in math from the Sorbonne, taught me first-year French in eleventh grade. she insisted you don't know a language until you think in it, and made us define the vocabulary words in French even though we were starting from scratch. A Saginaw Michigan native like me, she'd lived in France long enough to teach us idioms the textbook omitted. For example, always refer to a girls as a "JEUNE fille" (YOUNG girl) because a "fille" was a streetwalker. Imagine a group of sixteen-year-olds reacting when she dropped that one on us. Fifteen years after taking her class, I could read the French portions of Mann's The Magic Mountain well enough to get the substance if not the nuance.

Senior year, I had Don McPhee for trig and solid geometry, not long before he left to become the math chair at a nearby community college. Brilliant, patient, and hilarious, he wrote a foot-tall "E" on the wall to the left of the chalkboard to remind us that "left" was "east" when we plotted coordinates on graphs. Round;faced and balding with Clark Kent glasses, he divided the class into groups of five for the second semester and made us teach each other solid geometry. He visited each group every day or two to monitor us and clear up confusion, but he showed us that we understood the material well enough to stand on our own. Without his help, I doubt that I could have passed physics, presented by a teacher who should have retired before I was born.

I left high school planning to be a dentist, but hated my first year. Half-way through my sophomore year, I considered switching to English because Miss Roethke and Mrs. Hunter showed me I could handle it. Later on, I stole the peer teaching and writing prompts from them. I borrowed the three-dimensional (now called "learning modalities") from Mrs. Nickodemus and Mr. McPhee, and the high standards from Mrs. Jacobsen and Miss Jensen. What was left, I worked out myself. There wasn't much.
Arthur Hill High School, my alma mater

I graduated in 1965 and left Michigan for Connecticut two years later. Two of those teachers retired by the time I moved, and I know four had passed away when I returned for my reunion in 2000. If the other two are still alive, they're nearly 80.

But they aren't really dead as long as I remember what they gave me.

I wish I could tell them that I hope some of my students think of me the way I've come to think of them.

27 May 2018

I Didn't Plan for This

by R.T. Lawton

Memorial Day is right around the corner. A time for thinking about cemeteries and flags and flowers. A time to reflect on those who've gone before us and decide how we can best honor them. Possibly a good time to ponder over how we ourselves would like to be remembered.

Some honorees are traditional in their ceremonies or may establish their own traditions. Some of these approaches are just plain different.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849( was first buried in an unmarked, weed-covered grave over which the sexton later placed a small block of sandstone with the number 90 engraved into the stone. Later, a marble headstone was commissioned. Because of the immense weight of these memorials, the place where they were carved was next to the railway yards to facilitate easy transportation. Unfortunately, a train ran off the tracks and through the monument yard, destroying Poe's marble headstone before it could be moved for installation at his grave.

About 1949, and possibly earlier, on the anniversary of Poe's birth, an anonymous person would enter the Baltimore cemetery and leave a bottle of cognac and three roses on Poe's grave. This tradition continued until the last official visit in 2009.

Marily Monroe's crypt
Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962), real name Norma Jean Baker, was interred at the Westwood Village Memorial Cemetery, crypt 24, in Los Angeles three days after she committed suicide. Her ex-husband, Joe DiMaggio, took care of the arrangements. He didn't want the funeral to become a Hollywood affair, so he tried to keep the ceremony private. However, in the years after Marilyn was interred there, it became a popular cemetery for celebrities. Hugh Hefner even bought the tomb next to Marilyn so he could rest eternally beside the first Playboy Playmate.

For three successive years, DiMaggio had red roses delivered to Marilyn's tomb. Over time, her stone became discolored from lipstick imprints of kisses from fans.

Al's grave in Mt. Carmel Cemetery
Photo by JOE M200
Alphonse Gabriel Capone (1899-1947), known as Al Capone, was originally buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Chicago, but after his headstone was vandalized a few times, he was relocated to Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois. His original black headstone was left in Mt. Olivet as an attempt to fool sightseers and souvenir hunters as to his final resting place.

The large grey upright headstone in Mt. Carmel with the name Capone carved in it is for the Capone family. Al has his own small flat stone nearby. People still leave various objects on his grave.

Jesse James grave in Kearney, MO cemetery
Jesse Woodruff James (1847-1882) got shot in the back of the head in St. Joseph, Missouri and was originally buried on the family property. His body was later exhumed and subsequently planted in a cemetery in Kearney, Missouri. However, a man named J. Frank Dalton (1850-1951) and claiming to be Jesse Woodruff James, or Jesse passing himself off as J. Frank Dalton to avoid the law (as was claimed), got buried in Grandbury, Texas. To figure out which one was the real Jesse James, both bodies were exhumed and DNA analysis was performed. The body in the Kearney grave passed the James test, while the other corpse didn't live up to the required data. Seems that just because you're right though, doesn't mean you get to rest in peace.

1967 photo of the French graves taken from a Huey
by Jim Bracewell, 229th Avn Bn
After the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, French Mobile Group 100 abandoned Ankhe and retreated along Route 19 towards Pleiku in the highlands of French Indo-China. En route, they were ambushed several times by the Viet Minh and lost over half their strength. One of the first to die was a trooper who took a poisoned dart to the head from a Montagnard blowgun. Most of the French dead were buried in Mang Yang Pass on the north side of the highway. Allegedly, they were buried upright and facing west towards France. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Vietnamese Communists were said to have removed the white headstones from the site.

In a cemetery near the New Orleans French Quarter you can sometimes read a brief history or a comment about the occupant of certain graves. A headstone might label the resident as "the consort of" a particular person, or might state that the occupant died of a certain disease. Or, you might see three graves in a row and discover that the occupants had once been involved in a love triangle and eventually ended up in side-by-side tombs.

So, how do you plan to be remembered? Planned anything poignant to be engraved on your stone? Or even possibly safer, are your ashes hopefully taking a flier in some special place? Speaking of which, I had an ex-partner who asked a Sheriff's Deputy he played golf with to scatter his ashes on a certain golf course. A year after my ex-partner's death, the deputy was cleaning out his own closet and discovered he still had the ashes. So much for making plans.

At this point, please feel free to share any graveyard trivia you might have.

26 May 2018

Top Ten Peeves of Writing Teachers

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl) 

Recently, a jovial colleague asked me if I was a good teacher or an evil one.
I'm definitely on the kind side of the equation.  The last thing I want to be is a Dream Killer.  But even the kindest, most dedicated writing teachers can get frustrated.  So when a colleague suggested I rant on these pages, I gracefully accepted.  (With the sort of grace that might be associated with a herd of stampeding mastodons.)

So here are my top ten peeves as a writing teacher:

THE OBVIOUS

1.  "I don't need no stinkin' genre" - aka Students who turn their noses up at the genres.

In addition to basic and advanced writing skills, I teach the genres in my Crafting a Novel course.  Meaning, we deconstruct each of the main genres of fiction (mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, western, literary...) to see what publishers expect.  This is particularly important when it comes to endings.  Mickey Spillane said those famous words:  "Your first page sells this book.  Your last page sells the next."

Most publishers categorize the books they accept into genres.  Most readers stick to a few genres they like best for their reading pleasure.  So it stands to reason that if you can slot your work into an already active genre, you have a better chance of getting published and read.

Many students refuse to classify their work.  They feel it is 'selling out' to do so.  (Yes, I've heard this frequently.)  They don't want to conform or be associated with a genre that has a formula.  (One day, I hope to discover that formula.  I'll be rich.)

So I often start out with half a class that claims to be writing literary fiction,  even though not a single student can name a contemporary literary book they've actually read.  *pass the scotch*

2.  The memoir disguised as fiction.

These students have no interest in writing fiction. They really only want to write one book ever, and that is the story of their life.  (Ironically, many of these students are only twenty years old...sigh.)  But they know that memoirs of unknown people don't sell well, so they're going to write it as a novel.  Because then it will be a bestseller.

Here's what I tell them:  What happens to you in real life - no matter how dramatic and emotional it is for you - usually doesn't make a good novel.  Novels are stories.  Stories have endings, and readers expect satisfactory endings.  Real life rarely gives you those endings, and so you will have to make something up.

If you want to write your life story, go for it.  Take a memoir writing class.

3.  "My editor will fix this" - Students who think grammar and punctuation are not important.

Someone else will fix that.  They even expect me - the teacher - to copy edit their work.  Or at least to ignore all seventeen errors on the first page when I am marking.  *hits head against desk*

I should really put this under the 'baffling' category.  If you are an artist or craftsman, you need to learn the tools of your trade.  Writers deal in words;  our most important tools are grammar, punctuation and diction.  How could you expect to become a writer without mastering the tools of our trade?

4.  The Hunger Games clone.

I can't tell you how many times students in my classes have come determined to rewrite The Hunger Games with different character names on a different planet.  Yes, I'm picking on Hunger Games, because it seems to be an endemic obsession with my younger students.

What I'm really talking about here is  the sheer number of people who want to be writers but really can't come up with a new way to say things.  Yes, you can write a new spin on an old plot.  But it has to be something we haven't seen before.

There are just some plots we are absolutely sick of seeing.  For me, it's the 'harvesting organs' plot.  Almost every class I've taught has someone in it who is writing a story about killing people to sell their organs.  It's been done, I tell them.  I can't think of a new angle that hasn't been done and done well.  Enough, already.  Write something else.  Please, leave the poor organs where they are.

THE BAFFLING

5.  The Preachers:  Students who really want to teach other people lessons.

And that's all they want to do.  Akin to the memoir, these students come to class with a cause, often an environmental one.  They want to write a novel that teaches the rest of us the importance of reuse and recycle.  Or the evils of eating meat.

Recently, I had a woman join my fiction class for the express purpose of teaching people how to manage their finances better.  She thought if she wrote novels about people going down the tubes financially, and they being bailed out by lessons from a friendly banker (like herself) it would get her message across.

All noble.  But the problem is:  people read fiction to be entertained.  They don't want to be lectured.  If your entire goal is to teach people a lesson, probably you should take a nonfiction course.  Maybe a PR one.  Or here's a novel <sic> idea: become a teacher.

6.  Literary Snowflakes - Students who ignore publisher guidelines.

"A typical publisher guideline for novels is 70,000-80,000 words?  Well my book is 150,000, and I don't need to worry about that because they will love it.  Too bad if it doesn't fit their print run and genre guidelines.  They'll make an exception for me."

I don't want to make this a generational thing. Okay, hell yes - maybe I should come clean.  I come from a generation that was booted out of the house at 18 and told to make a living.  'Special' wasn't a concept back when we used slide rules instead of calculators.

Thing is, these students don't believe me.  They simply don't believe that they can't write exactly what they want and not get published.  And I'm breaking their hearts when I tell them this:  Publishers buy what readers want to read.  Not what writers want to write.

7.  Students who set out to deliberately break the rules in order to become famous.

There are many ways to tell a story.  We have some rules on viewpoint, and we discuss what they are, the reasons for them, and why you don't want to break them.  The we discuss why you might WANT to break them.  Apparently this isn't enough.  *sobs into sleeve*

I have some students who set out to break every rule they can think of because they want to be different.  "To hell with the readers.  I'll head-hop if I want.  And if Gone Girl has two first person viewpoints, my book is going to have seventeen!  No one will have seen anything like it before.  They will think I'm brilliant."

Never mind that the prose is unreadable.  Or that we don't have a clear protagonist, and thus don't know whom to root for.  e.e.cummings did it.  Why can't they?

8.  Students who come to class every week but don't write anything.

They love the class.  Never miss a week.  But struggle to complete one chapter by the end of term.  Not only that, this isn't the first fiction writing class they've taken. They specialize in writers' workshops and retreats.

It seems baffling, but some people like to hobby as aspiring writers.  They learn all about writing but never actually write.  Of course, we veterans can get that part.  Writing is work - hard work.  Writing is done alone in a room.  In contrast, learning about writing can be fun.  Especially when done in a social environment with other people.

THE 'I COULDN'T MAKE THIS UP'

9.  Other writing teachers who take our classes to steal material for their own classes and workshops. *removes gun from stocking*

Not kidding.  I actually had an adult student come clean about this.  By class seven, he hadn't done any of the assignments and admitted he was collecting material to use for the high school creative writing class he taught.  I'm still not sure how I feel about that.

10.  Students who don't read.

This is the one that gets me the most.  Last term I did a survey.  I asked each student to write the number of books they had read last year on a small piece of paper and hand it in.  I begged them to be honest.  They didn't have to write their names on the paper, so I would never know who had written what total.  Here's the tally of number of books read:

Highest number by one person:  26

Lowest number by one person:  0-1

Average:  7

Yup, I'm still shaking my head over that low.  He couldn't remember if he'd actually read a book or not.  (How can you not KNOW?)

And these people want to be writers.  *collective groan*

To be clear here:  I read 101 novels last year.  I read for one hour every night before bed and have done so for years.  That's seven hours a week, assuming I don't sneak other time to read.  Two books a week.  And that doesn't include the hours I spend reading student manuscripts over three terms.


If reading isn't your hobby, how can you possibly think you can write?  Why would you want to??


FINAL THOUGHTS

Here's what I've learned:  Students take writing courses for all sorts of reasons.  Some take it for college credit course.  Some take it for interest, as they might take photography or cooking classes.  Some need an escape from dreary jobs, and a writing class can provide that escape, if only temporarily.  But many actually do hope to become authors like I am.  When I connect with one of them, and can help them on their way, it is magic.

There is no greater high.

Melodie Campbell writes capers in between marking assignments.  Or maybe to avoid marking.
The B-Team is her latest.  You can get it at all the usual suspects.

on AMAZON