Thursday, March 28, 2013

THE MEMOIR THAT TOOK 50 YEARS TO WRITE


I've asked Michael to post about the long journey required to write his best-selling memoir, The Atomic Times:

By Michael Harris

Three-eyed fish swimming in the lagoon.  Men whose toenails glow in the dark.  Operation Redwing where the F words were Fallout and Fireball. In 1956, I was an army draftee sent to the Marshall Islands to watch 17 H-bomb tests. An "observer," the Army called it. In plain English: a human guinea pig.

I knew at the time that the experience could make a fascinating book, and I wrote a novel based on it while I was still there. The problem was that Eniwetok was a security post. There were signs everywhere impressing on us that the work going on (I mopped floors, typed, filed requisitions and wrote movie reviews for the island newspaper “All the news that fits we print”) was Top Secret. “What you do here, what you see here, what you hear here, when you leave here leave it here.”

I was afraid they would confiscate the manuscript if they found it but a buddy who left Eniwetok before I did concealed the pages in his luggage. When he got back to the States, he mailed those pages to my father so I had what turned out to be a very rough draft.

What was wrong with the book?  Let me count the ways.  I didn’t know how to write action, plot and character.  I did know how to leave out everything interesting that was happening  around me. Back in the States after my discharge, I thought about writing Version #2 but for ten years, I had nightmares about the H-bomb almost every night.  I survived the radiation (unlike some of my friends), but the memories were also a formidable foe.  I tried to forget and more or less succeeded.

My perspective gradually changed over the years and I began to remember what I had tried to forget:
  • We were told we had to wear high density goggles during the tests to avoid losing our sight but the shipment of goggles never arrived—the requisition was cancelled to make room for new furniture for the colonel's house.
  • We were told we had to stand with our backs to the blast—again to prevent blindness. But the first H-bomb ever dropped from a plane missed its target, and the detonation took place in front of us and our unprotected eyes.
  • Servicemen were sent to Ground Zero wearing only shorts and sneakers and worked side by side with scientists dressed in RadSafe suits. The exposed military men developed severe radiation burns and many died.

The big breakthrough came when enough years had passed and I had overcome the anger and the self-pity resulting from the knowledge that I and the men who served with me had been used as guinea pigs in a recklessly dangerous and potentially deadly experiment. At last I had the perspective to understand my nuclear year in its many dimensions and capture the tragedy and the black humor that came along with 17 H-bomb explosions. In addition,  certain significant external realities had changed.
  • Top Secret documents about Operation Redwing had been declassified.  I learned new details about the test known as Tewa:  the fallout lasted for three days and the radiation levels exceeded 3.9 Roentgens, the MPE (Maximum Permissible Exposure).  Three ships were rushed to Eniwetok to evacuate personnel but were ordered back after the military raised the MPE to 7.  That, they reasoned, ensured everyone's safety.
  • I made contact with other atomic veterans who told me about their own experiences and in some cases sent me copies of letters written to their families during the tests.  As we talked, we also laughed:  about officers who claimed Eniwetok was a one year paid vacation;  about the officer who guarded the political purity of the daily island newspaper by deleting "pinko propaganda," including a speech by President Eisenhower.
  • By now, Ruth knew the material almost as well as I did and provided crucial perspective and detailed editing expertise.

At last, I was able to pull all the strands together.  After 50 years, I was able write the book I had wanted to in the beginning.

Having struggled to write a memoir for so long and having been asked for advice by others contemplating writing a memoir, I can pass along a bit of what I learned along the way. 
  • Make sure you have enough distance from the experience to have perspective on what happened.   Exposure to radiation and the resulting reactions—anger, terror, incredulity—produce powerful emotions that take time  to process.
  • Figure out how to use (or keep away) from your own intense feelings.  In the case of the H-Bomb tests, anger and self-pity were emotions to stay away from.  So was the hope of somehow getting “revenge.”
  • Sometimes the unexpected works. For me, finding humor in a tragic situation—  the abject military incompetence in planning and executing the H-Bomb tests—freed my memory and allowed me to write about horrific experiences.
  • Figure out (most likely by trial and error) how much or how little of yourself you want to reveal.
"A gripping memoir leavened by humor, loyalty and pride of accomplishment. A tribute to the resilience, courage and patriotism of the American soldier." Henry Kissinger


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Thursday, March 21, 2013

The aaargh draft & the universe of Writing Fast


HOLD YOUR NOSE AND TYPE—THE UP SIDE OF WRITING FAST
We all know about a certain anatomically impossible act frequently recommended but today I’m going to talk about another, less frequently recommended, but also anatomically impossible act: the plusses of holding your nose and typing. But, you ask, won’t I add to the “tsunami of crap”? The answer is yes, of course, but let me remind you that writing slowly and agonizingly can also result in unspeakable crap. So, you choose.
  • When you write fast, you get the engine running.
  • You quash the inner scold, that mahatma of negativity that rains on your parade. By writing fast, you don’t give yourself time to censor or second-guess yourself and you avoid obsessing over whether your hero should be blond, brunette or a power-baldy à la Bruce Willis. You can always figure out the details later and, more often than not, as the character engages and develops, hair color (or lack of hair) will become obvious.
  • Writing fast increases your chances of “getting into the flow” and gaining access to your sub-conscious or what Steven King calls “the boys downstairs.” Those “boys”—or girls if you’re of the female persuasion—are the source of creativity. They are the ones who come up with the unexpected (even to the writer!) plot twist and help you get the work done.
  • By watching the words and the pages pile up, you give yourself the gift of a sense of accomplishment. Where there was nothing, there is now something and the mere fact that there’s “something” where once there was nothing builds confidence.
  • Last of all, writing fast is professionally crucial in these days of self-publishing because new books help sell old books. Just ask Joe Konrath or Dean Wesley Smith.

Now that I’ve persuaded you (I hope!) of the plusses of writing fast, one obvious question rises: How do you make yourself write when you’re tired, distracted, uninspired or just plain “not in the mood.”
My friend Rona Jaffe used to “read something good.” Which meant one of her already-published books. For Rona, reading her own work reminded her of what she did well and what she’d been successful at.
Other writers read something by an author whose work they admire
Coffee works for some. Loud music for others. Vivaldi’s The Seasons for still others.
An external deadline can help: a contract or even a promise to someone else—including the dog who is in need of a walk.
Setting a word target, a time target, a scene target adds focus in the form of an achievable goal.
Do you respond better to the kiss or the whip? If the first, promise yourself a Dove Bar at the end of your just-get-it-down writing session. If the whip, then no dessert for you tonight unless you get your quota filled!
Shut the door, turn off the phone, the internet, do whatever you have to do to get the job done.  Adapt Nora Roberts’ approach: you will permit interruptions only in the case of “blood or fire.”
Roni Loren wrote 97k words in 55 working days and did the revisions in 5 days. She had always thought of herself as a slow writer but deadlines compelled her to speed up. She was surprised by the result and blogged about what she learned here.
Once you've done your prep work , whether you're a pantser who starts out with a vague idea or maybe some characters plus an incident or a plotter who loves detailed outlines, begin to write your story. Power through because once you’ve got something —just about anything—down on paper or, these days, on the screen, you have a point of departure. You can always fix it later. If you don’t have something down, there’s nothing to fix.
In the Universe of Writing Fast, there are a number of possible outcomes:
  • Might be much better than you think and just needs a light edit. Yay! Treasure the moment because you get to feel you're better than you think.
  • Might be pretty good but needs a careful edit. OK, editing is part of the job of being a writer so get on with it.
  • Might be dull, drab and needs major, butt-in-chair revision. That’s OK, too, because revision is also part of the job.
  • The aaargh! draft: So what you wrote is real crapola and needs a four-corners rewrite? Don’t let that get you down and don’t forget: It ain’t the writing it’s the rewriting. Professionals know it and the aaargh! draft is the perfect case in point.
  • Even worse than the aaargh draft is draft so putrid it threatens the integrity of the time-space continuum. We’ve all been there, done that and that’s why keyboards come with delete buttons. Just because you wrote it doesn’t mean you have to publish it or even that anyone else has to see it. Just trash it, see if there's anything you can learn from it, and move on.
  • Saving best for last: OMG! Did I write that? It’s just about the best feeling a writer can have and, when you write fast, you outrun your insecurities and second guesses, your tendency to “fix” and fiddle, you’re also raising the odds of the OMG!-Did-I-write-that? outcome.
So, dear readers, do you write fast? Or slow? Have you ever tried to change the way you write? How did that turn out?

As for me, I wrote THE CHANEL CAPER fast because the MC, Blake Weston, her voice, her attitude came to me one day more or less out of the blue. What did take time, though, was revising, editing and polishing that first draft. But that's the way the process usually works for me.

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

James Bond meets Nora Ephron. Or is it the other way around?

SHORT TIME ONLY! Park Avenue Series Books 1-3 Boxed Set usually $7.50 now $.99.  Get em while they're hot—and they ARE!   Kindle   Nook


The Story Behind The Story: The Chanel Caper


For a long time I’ve wanted to write about the ups and downs of a long-term relationship and about the way romance can wax and wane, evolve and transform over time. In The Chanel Caper, Blake Weston and her DH, Brooklyn boy and ex-NYPD cop Ralph Marino, have been through it all—the break ups and makeups, the squabbles, the spats and the stand-offs. Even so, after twenty-six years of living together (and sometimes driving each other crazy), they are still holding hands in the movies. And they still have the hots for each other!

A second element that went into creating The Chanel Caper was that as my friends and I approached sixty, I realized that 60 isn’t what it used to be (and maybe never was). Maybe 60 is—or isn’t—the new 40 but attitudes toward age and aging have been transformed by medical advances, new discoveries about the importance of nutrition and exercise and Baby Boomers' determination to stay on top of their game.

Throw into the mix the fact that I’m a news junkie and love to write about the social and cultural atmosphere of the time in which a book is set. The Chanel Caper takes place in the fall of 2008 when the global financial system faced collapse. From Ponzi-schemer Bernie Madoff to bankers in five thousand dollar suits flying their private jets to Washington to scrounge for money, the financial crisis of 2008 was a richly ironic background for my story of murder, .

Other characters in the story were inspired by headlines, news stories & current events:

  • a washed-up Martha Steward wannabe trying to make a come back with the help of a red balconette bra
  • a one-eyed, one-legged Afghan warlord who doesn’t speak a word of English
  • an über neurotic, germ-ophobic billionaire freaking out as the stock market plummets and his net worth goes down—and down
  • a flack-jacket-wearing gung-ho war zone reporter with a humongo pair of 36 DoubleD's
  • NYC’s ubiquitous sidewalk vendors of faux designer label bags, sunglasses and scarves
  • the city’s vast selection of ethnic restaurants and foods.
  • news reports about the deadly consequences of counterfeit drugs
  • the rise of the Chinese economy and the glam and glittering city of Shanghai
  • trendy gurus and hot self-help fads


Add in Bollywood movies, the world's best shade of red lipstick and one drop-dead fantastic way to deal with a cheating husband (+ a dick joke) and you have an idea of some of the ingredients that went into The Chanel Caper. I had fun writing it. I hope you have fun reading it!



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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Who loves you, baby?

SHORT TIME ONLY! Park Avenue Series Books 1-3 Boxed Set usually $7.50 now $.99.  Get em while they're hot—and they ARE!   Kindle   Nook

And now for the subject du jour:

There are—at least—two kinds of just about everything. For example:

Dog lovers or cat lovers but there’s overlap.

MickeyD’s or Burger King but that doesn’t preclude the occasional Taco Bell.


Perfumed or Fragrance Free but not always—sometimes the hint of jasmine is irresistible.
Black or White but there are also shades of grey (sometimes more than 50!)
Mozart or Notorious B.I.G. but there’s room for both.
Jamaica Blue Mountain or Indian Single-Estate Darjeeling but both coffee and tea taste good and will keep you going.
Macs or PCs but both do the job.
Beach or Mountains but both have sun, fresh air and natural beauty.
Bikes or Cars but they’ll both get you where you want to go.
Beer or Wine but both go soooo well with dinner.
Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe—blonde or brunette—but they both left a mark.
Lots of choices but there's one fool proof way to sort the diamonds from the rhinestones:  People who do what they say they’re going to do and people who don’t. The first are treasures beyond words and you will forgive their cranky moments, lousy taste in clothes/music/tv/movies and  inability to tell Warhol from Watteau because they are reliable and you know you can count on them.
Headache? They’re there with the aspirin.
Bad breakup? They’re the shoulder you cry on.
Fired, laid off, downsized? They’re there with comfort and contacts who will help you find the job you need.
Then there’s the rest: They love you, love your book, wouldn’t miss your opening/party/reading for anything, will call their best friend, the President/CEO/Big Boss on your behalf.
But don’t hold your breath—because you know they not gonna do whatever it is they promised on the Bible/their sainted mother’s memory/their favorite pair of Nikes to do. They’re the here-today-gone-tomorrow, leave-you-in-the-lurch buddies, the bff’s we all know and even like—but also know we can’t depend on.
So now you know what pissed me off this week.
At least it gave me the idea for this blog so I’m counting my blessings and telling all my reliable friends how much I love, cherish and appreciate them.

 On her way: THE CHANEL CAPER, a romcom mystery thriller starring a Baby Boomer couple that addresses two of the most crucial questions of our time: Is there sex after marriage? Is sixty the new forty?

In a nutshell:  James Bond meets Nora Ephron. Or is it the other way around?

Here's a peek at the cover: