Saturday, December 22, 2018

Naked Came the Stranger

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published December 18, 2011. 

By Kevin Killiany

At some point during discussions of the viability or validity of independent publishing someone critical of the concept is bound to opine that traditional publishing houses act as quality filters, ensuring that only books worth reading get published. Which will usually cause someone on the other side of the fence to bring up Nicole "Snookie" Polizzi's "A Shore Thing." Fact is, you don't have to cite extreme market miscalculations like that one. The old Barnes & Noble in Wilmington was a few blocks from UNCW and had a café friendly to writers and college students, complete with wooden tables for four and a long counter with stools across the front where I did much of my early writing. (The new, trendier B&N is nearer the beach and its café features little round tables fit for two coffee cups and a biscotti; no counter.) One of the pleasures of writing there was that at any time I felt overwhelmed or discouraged, I could stroll through the racks and find a dozen books worse than anything I'd written published by major houses.

However, as bad as some traditionally published books are, in every case they represent a storyteller's sincere effort to master the craft and an editor's belief in the quality of that effort. (Or, in Polizzi's case, the belief that a tell-all book disguised as a novel by a TV reality show personality would be of interest to someone, anyone.) You might take it as a given that no one ever set out to write a bad book. And you would be wrong.

Back in the late 1960s the bestseller lists in the USofA were dominated by works by writers like Harold Robbins, Jackie Collins, and Jacqueline Susann. Vapid novels about morally bankrupt people who would make the characters of Gossip Girl look like philosophical giants exploiting everyone around them, having sex at the drop of an innuendo, drinking and drugging to ridiculous degrees, and either coming to a bad end or finding eternal happiness as a result. This was the era of "Valley of the Dolls" and "Portnoy's Complaint." By the standards of today's more erotic romances, the sex was pretty tame, but it was shocking stuff forty-five years ago.

A newspaper columnist named Mike McGrady became so fed up with (or so alarmed by, depending on the source) the "sex sells" mentality he saw driving American culture that he decided to do something about it. He put together a team of twenty-four fellow journalists for the sole purpose of producing a horrifically bad novel with lots of sex and trying to sell it. The basic premise for "Naked Came the Stranger" was a husband and wife who are NYC celebrities with a morning radio talk show. The wife (Gilly) discovers her husband (Billy) has been cheating on her and decides to even the score by having sex with as many married men in their upscale Long Island community as possible. Her goal is to corrupt and seduce every archetype of civic and moral leadership she can find. Rules for writing were purple prose throughout (example: Gilly's breasts are "pendulums of passion swinging in the winds of lust") and two sex scenes in every chapter, with the sex act itself depicted mechanically but with awkward euphemisms for the clinical details. None of the writers knew anything about what the others wrote and McGrady required rewrites if he detected any literary merit whatsoever. Gilly's appearance and body type change with every chapter, though she is consistently beautiful. (There's a scene wherein the sight of her naked breasts causes a homosexual man to become heterosexual.)

In 1968 a relative of McGrady's posed as new author Penelope Ashe marketing "Naked Came the Stranger" as her first novel. The book sold to the first major house she
approached and was published in 1969, becoming an instant bestseller (the picture of the naked woman on the cover probably helped). Book reviewers in major markets, including Stern, Le Monde, and the New York Times, used phrases like "sizzling" and "thought-provoking" and compared the ersatz Penelope Ashe to John Updike and Philip Roth. She appeared on talk shows, was interviewed about sexual liberation in women's magazines, and advised aspiring writers to impale themselves on their typewriters. After a few months the authors appeared en mass on the David Frost Show, explaining their reasons for the hoax and expressing some embarrassment that their intended pillory of "sex sells" novels was now outselling its competition. The revelation of the hoax actually triggered a jump in sales fueled by widespread speculation the novel was in fact a roman-a-clef and that the adulterous men in the Long Island community were nationally known public figures.

Naked Came the Stranger is more fun to read about than it is to read. In fact, reading it is a chore. Not only are the mores of the period awkward by today's standards, the book itself is deliberately and methodically awful. Oh, there are moments. Like when Gilly asks a pornographer where he gets all his kinky ideas and he replies: "Like every other writer, I draw from the human condition." But on the whole, McGrady did a thorough job of eradicating anything of value from the manuscript.

Naked Came the Stranger was a bestseller not because of its excellence, but because people will read what they want to read despite what any arbiters of literary taste say or gatekeepers of excellence do. And "gatekeepers" includes the band of hoaxers who were sounding the alarm about the degeneration of American literature. The trend they were protesting matured, outgrew its "look what we can get away with" stage, and diversified into the spectrum of spicy, sensuous, and erotic romance novels that today makes up the lion's (lioness's?) share of the world fiction market. All of which says a lot about the role of traditional publishers, and the potential future of independents.

(More about Naked Came the Stranger in Museum of Hoaxes and Wikipedia)

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The One Writing Rule You “Must” Follow

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published August 11, 2010.

By Charles Gramlich

I hear a lot of advice about writing. I listen to it all, though I don’t necessarily take it all. Here are some of the “rules” I’ve picked up over the years:

Show don’t tell.
Kill your darlings.
Avoid adverbs.
Never use clichés.
Ain’t ain’t a word.
Avoid Info Dumps.
Conflict on every page.
Use adjectives sparingly.
Don’t split infinitives.
Character trumps plot.
Avoid “ing” endings.
Never a day without a line.
Don’t open with description.
Never write in second person.
Don’t start sentences with “and” or “but.”
Characters must change during a story.
Dialogue should do more than one thing.
Develop a full biography for each character.
Never repeat salient words close to each other.
Use active rather than passive sentence structure.
The first word that pops into your head is the best word.
Always begin a story with people talking to each other.
Know every element of your story before you start writing.
Children and animals are naturally sympathetic characters.
Avoid authorial intrusions (Direct address from author to reader).

The truth is that none of these are rules. At best they are guidelines, and at worst they are straightjackets. The one absolute rule of writing is that there are no absolute rules. “Show don’t tell” is a good guideline but you can’t always follow it literally or your work would be unreadable. When you’re moving characters around in a story but the travel itself isn’t important, just tell it and get it done. The rule really means to “show” the interesting stuff. Otherwise your work will be weighed down with useless detail.

Never start a sentence with “and” or “but” is a bad rule. Sometimes those are perfect to start sentences with. Note every sentence, of course.

Never begin with description might be a good rule but it’s one I refuse to obey. I often start with description, and, for me, I hate, hate, hate books and stories that start with dialogue. I almost always put them down immediately.

Never use clichés is both a good and a bad rule, depending on the situation. Cliché description, like “red as a rose,” or “free as a bird,” is generally weak because readers have seen the phrasings so much that they don’t really process the meaning. However, sometimes having a character speak in clichés is just the right element to bring your story to life.

“In media res” is generally a good rule, I think, but it also depends on the genre. It’s a critical rule for thrillers, but not nearly as necessary in literary fiction. And when someone tells me to “never use adverbs” I counter with “never throw a tool out of your tool kit.”

One of the best things about writing, and one of the most intimidating, is the incredible freedom it affords you to do and say whatever you want. Certainly, you should listen to the advice of others. I’ve given plenty of advice myself, and I think it has been good advice. But don’t let anyone fool you into believing that guidelines are rules. It just ain’t so.

So, tell me, what are some of the other “rules” of writing that aren’t really rules? What have I missed?

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Must-See TV for Writers

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published January 21, 2018.  

By Maggie King

As a writer, I love TV shows that use intricate plots and settings to show the ups and downs of being human in a less-than-perfect world. As a crime writer, I am especially fond of shows in the mystery genre. Regardless of the genre, the best TV features conflict as a common denominator.

The following are my top picks:

Cast of As Time Goes By from BBC
As Time Goes By (1992-2005) was a BBC-produced romantic comedy of manners about Lionel and Jean, who were lovers in their youth only to be separated due to a communication failure (communication issues dog every relationship, don’t they?). But they meet up again thirty eight years later and resume their relationship, in fits and starts.

As Time Goes By portrayed well-drawn characters in relationships that were very real. The humor was natural and not manufactured. Lionel and Jean loved each other, despite occasional minor conflicts. My husband and I share the same affectionate marital banter that Lionel and Jean enjoyed. Their story has gladdened the hearts of romantics everywhere.

I try to emulate this tone and interaction for my characters. Most stories have a romantic component and my Hazel Rose Book Group mysteries are no exception.

Beck is a Swedish police procedural, based on the novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. The characters are sharply drawn, from the plodding, methodical Martin Beck to his hot-tempered, politically incorrect partner, Gunvald, a loose cannon if ever there was one. The writers allow the characters to grow throughout the series, giving them plenty of opportunities to reveal their humanity, warts and all. There is violence, especially when Gunvald gets involved, but it’s not on a par with the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo series.

Writers can learn much about creating riveting stories and compelling characters from watching Beck.

Downton Abbey Talk about conflict! This acclaimed British period drama revels in it. It’s educational to see how the fast-paced stories keep us glued to our seats. The secret, I believe, is to supply each character with back-to-back personal challenges, whether they be related to money, marriage, death, birth—the list goes on.

Midsomer Murders Don’t be fooled by the idyllic-looking county of Midsomer—its murder rate beats that of any urban area. Passions run high and evil lurks everywhere. Midsomer Murders is a slightly quirky British detective drama based on the crime novels by Caroline Graham. The main characters enjoy satisfying relationships, and the guest characters tend to be eccentric and harbor pasts (and often presents) ridden with secrets and scandals. They are often involved in the arts, academia, and the occult: painters, actors, writers, professors, fortune tellers, etc.

I especially liked the episode “Written in Blood,” where murder took place in a writing group.

Miss Marple Ah, the beloved Miss Jane Marple, created over eighty years ago by Agatha Christie. The elderly spinster lives a quiet life in the village of St. Mary Mead—quiet until a villager is murdered and that happens with alarming regularity. Miss Marple nails the murderer(s) every time, using her powers of observation. Sometimes she disguises her shrewdness with a dithery manner. Living in a village, she is well-acquainted with the vagaries of human nature, and she can always draw a parallel between the latest crime and a villager, or village incident.

There are countless adaptations of the stories and a number of actresses have played Miss Marple. Joan Hickson is my favorite as she best matches my picture of how the character looks, acts, and speaks.

Agatha Christie has influenced many crime writers over the years, especially with plot development. I expect that she’ll do so indefinitely. I think the Columbo character played by Peter Falk often channeled Miss Marple, with his bumbling ways that concealed a sharp mind.

From Wikipedia
Taggart, one of the UK’s longest-running series, is an unflinching police drama from Scotland. I rent the DVDs from my local library. The story lines are intricate as are the personal relationships of the recurring and guest cast members. I enjoy the depictions of the relationships, many of which are unenviable and riddled with friction between characters who are far from perfect. Twists and turns in the plot culminate in the killer, or killers, being identified. More often than not the end comes as a stunning surprise.

These gritty stories are set against Glasgow’s grand architecture.

In my estimation Taggart is a must-see show for crime writers.

Touched by an Angel was a popular American series that ran for nine seasons. I’ve long been attracted to stories of people who have reached turning points in their lives. Sometimes they’re between a rock and a hard place. As they’re grappling with personal demons, conflict, and tough choices, along comes an angel in human form to guide them and impart God’s wisdom.

This show inspired me on many levels. At the beginning of my debut mystery, Murder at the Book Group, the main character, Hazel Rose, is standing at a crossroads. She is at loose ends in her life and is hard pressed to make even the smallest of decisions. Solving the victim’s murder gives her the opportunity to grow and get out of her rut.   

Writers can get inspiration from many more great shows: Brokenwood, Janet King, Inspector Morse, Maria Wern, Wallander, West Wing, and Winds of War/War and Remembrance are just a few.

Tell us your favorites.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

What Is a Platform and Where Do I Find One?

Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published January 14, 2013.

By Sunny Frazier

The hot topic today, the buzz word in the writing industry, is “Platform.” Writers are constantly told they need one, but nobody seems to have a clear idea of what a platform consists of or how to construct one. If you build it, will they come?

Here's the problem. Many writers, in the thrall of creating a book out of their imagination, haven't bothered to learn how the industry works. Everything has changed, but too many potential authors believe what they've seen in the movies--the romantic vision of art and the written word with publishing hacks doing promotion and getting their book on the bestseller list.

I doubt if that dynamic ever really existed, but if it did, it's as dead as Hemingway. The reality is that Big Publishing isn't interested in any work that doesn't have guaranteed sales right out the door. That's why Snookie got a contract and you didn't. But then again, she has a platform. One built with substandard materials, but one that exists.

Independent presses also have to try for guaranteed sales. They struggle enough without handing out contracts to people who have no sense of promotion. That's why we hope to see something in place, to hopefully hedge our bet that the book will sell. This is why we look hard for the author's platform.

Start with name recognition. Sell yourself by getting on sites where you get a page to decorate and interact with people. Book Town, Crime Space, and of course, Face Book. Put up photos, post blogs, jump into forums, initiate discussions. Have a personality that people will remember.

Start collecting your fan base. Anyone who communicates with you is a potential reader. Research each one, take notes on bits of info (do they have a cat? What part of the country are they from?). Everyone likes feeling they get personal attention. So, make the effort.

Get a website up. Create a bog. Make it compelling. Offer people something they can use, not just your idle thoughts on a subject.

It takes the sale of 200 books for a publisher to break even. Can you come up with that many buyers? Indie presses have distribution, but it's hard to get libraries and bookstores (the ones that still exist) to stock POD books. The public still has trouble seeing the economically feasible format as “real” books. That's why authors have to convince the reading public that their book is worth buying. You do that with a fan base and by physically promoting your work.

This is what a publisher looks for—not promises by writers uneducated in promotion, but those who have an established presence before publication. A platform. This is the author we are willing to invest in and hope for a return.