29 October, 2013

#SpecialFeature :: Advice and Content: A Writer’s Thoughts and Words by Timothy Jay Smith

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*** SPECIAL FEATURE - October'13 ***

About the Author
Timothy Jay Smith lived in Jerusalem for two and a half years during the rollout of the post Oslo peace process, assisting Palestinian businesses regain market access. Raised crisscrossing America pulling a small green trailer behind the family car, Smith developed a ceaseless wanderlust leading to an international career that has seen him smuggle banned plays from behind the Iron Curtain, maneuver through war zones, and stow away aboard a “devil’s barge” for a three day ocean crossing that landed him in an African jail. Smith's awards include the Paris Prize for Fiction, and the Stanley Drama Award. 


What’s the best and worst advice on writing that you ever received?
Let me start with the bad advice, because I had plenty of that when I started writing. Basically, three things were said that delayed my finding my own ‘voice’: don’t use semicolons; don’t use the ‘F’ word (or crude language in general); and don’t use words that people have to look up. 

Fortunately, I got past all this advice. When you read the excerpts below, you’ll see that I am a fan of semicolons and dashes. I tend to write fast-paced stories, yet occasionally using sentences that are longer gives fluidity to my style, and creates opportunities for more poetic language or descriptions—which attract people to my work.

In terms of foul language, it felt completely dishonest to avoid it. For a lot of characters it was out of character. There’s a reason why we say that someone who swears a lot ‘has a sailor’s mouth.’ Sailors swear. So do soldiers and angry fathers. I’m conscious not to use crude language gratuitously, but to avoid it altogether? Phooey that!

Unknown words big and small? Sometimes an exotic word is the right word. Allen Ginsberg, who used the word “dithyrambic” in a poem, died the year I started writing A Vision of Angels, so in homage to him, I appropriated his word to describe a rabbi. That’s an unusual situation, though, for choosing a word. I love language, studying it and learning where words come from, so occasionally an unusual word finds its way into my work. I’m conscious, though, not to overuse them, but if an author sends me to the dictionary a couple of times, I’m also appreciative of that.

Best advice? Trust your reader. They will remember things. They do not need to be reminded of the set-up for an action or scene. It means, you don’t have to tell what they have already seen, and you always want to avoid telling something (rather than showing it) whenever you can.

What’s your response to negative reviews?
Writers need feedback, and if it’s negative, there’s more to learn from it than constant praise. We seek feedback from other writers and friends while working on a piece, and I regard reviews in the same way. They are feedback, good or bad, on a particular novel or my writing in general. I’ve never had a really devastating review, and where reviewers have faulted my work, it’s often things I have already considered. As a writer, you make choices that are not going to please every reader.

Do you have advice for aspiring writers?
In fact, there are four things I’d like to say to aspiring writers:

Never forget that writing is a craft to be learned and constantly honed. A writer needs a good dose of imagination and inspiration, but you have to understand the craft itself—from sentence structure to story structure—to be a good writer. That doesn’t mean, don’t break the rules. It means know them well enough to break them successfully.

Writing is not an occasional thing. You either work at it, or you don’t. You can’t take something like a novel, fiddle with it for a day or two, then put it aside for a week and make progress. You will always be retracing your steps trying to figure out where you are.

You need to have an idea what your goal is as a writer. Do you want a handful of colleagues to admire your blog, or do you want to become an international bestseller? Because the levels of effort are very different. If you are trying to break-out, the competition is enormous, and today’s authors are asked to do many things publishers used to do routinely. It’s a full-time job with lots of overtime.

There is no better life than a writer’s life. You can take your work anyplace. It is constantly engaging and fulfilling, and creates endless opportunities for interesting life experiences. I became a writer as a second career, and I have never looked back.

So, please share with us some excerpts from your books, and tell us why you have chosen them.
Before I start, let me say that excerpts, including my novels’ entire first chapters, can be read on my web page.  Here are the links:

A Vision of Angels: http://www.timothyjaysmith.com/novels/a-vision-of-angels/a-vision-of-angels-excerpts/

Cooper’s Promise: http://www.timothyjaysmith.com/novels/coopers-promise-novel/coopers-promise-excerpts/

At book readings, I select a dozen or so excerpts to convey characters and story, and that’s too many for this setting. So, I am choosing four from Angels and one from Cooper’s Promise that try to set story, theme and mood. Here they are:

From A Vision of Angels, a scene that introduces the main American character’s internal goal:

Breaking free, he sprinted towards the smoke changing his film while dodging traffic. He reached the torched bus as the first emergency vehicles arrived with their sirens blaring and blue lights flashing. Flames engulfed the vehicle and its unlucky passengers, some still seated upright as their flesh melted away. Everywhere the wounded moaned while stunned shopkeepers, standing in piles of broken glass, watched forensic teams start the discouraging task of picking flesh off walls with oversized tweezers and dropping them into cloudy plastic bags.

The scene was all too familiar to David. Somalia, Bosnia, Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan. He’d covered their wars—wars all nourished by ancient carnage. Unexpectedly war had become the story he was destined to tell. Mogadishu had been his first story—the shittiest assignment given to the cub reporter—where he discovered the broken humanity that the war had swept over. Children lost to their mothers. Farmers lost to their land and families to their livelihoods. The young men forced to fight and the girls forced into prostitution. David had been telling war stories ever since, not afraid to explore what others were unwilling to find behind the front lines—though he’d been there enough times too.

Wars only stopped when they became too personal and David had decided to personalize each one. He prowled hooker alleys, drug dens and black markets using his reporter’s camera to capture the images that would wake up the world to each war’s own misery; not its carnage—that was ancient news—but its toll on people taking detours to survive. When it got back to headquarters that he had been prowling Kabul at night masquerading as an Afghani deaf mute, his editor ordered him home and David balked. He had his own war to fight: the war against wars, and he decided to cover the one war that had spawned so many others. The war for the Holy Land. A war so old that it had lost its human face.

David had decided to give it one.

The medic tagging body parts.


The bloodied woman on the litter.


The dazed boy holding a cone with ice cream dripping off his elbow.

Click! Click! Click!

From A Vision of Angels, a scene that conveys my principal Palestinian character’s bittersweet life:

Nothing had devastated Amin’s mother as much as losing her lemon groves. When the trees were in their fullest bloom, after supper Yasmin would stand in the yard exclaiming how they smelled their sweetest at night. In moonlight you could see their milky flowers running over the hills. They still owned a smaller if meaner farm—Amin’s intended dowry—and his father, despite his ruinous state, managed to call in enough favors to build a new home on it worthy of the Mousa name. His mother asked Rashid to clear an area for a small grove, and the next day the foreman arrived with a truck full of saplings, claiming most came from the old garden. How that was possible they couldn’t guess yet all hoped it was true.  

They made a celebration of the day. Home for the summer, Amin participated in deciding which trees to plant where. Yasmin, always full of superstitions, hung a beaded amulet in the branches of the first tree planted and tossed coins onto the soil around it.

Rashid had brought a pine that he wanted to plant in the middle of the grove. Amin’s father was pleased with the tree, which the foreman explained was a rare species for the area, growing taller and sturdier than the local scrub varieties; though he was unconvinced about Rashid’s chosen spot for planting it, thinking it would look orphaned amidst the lemons. Rashid finally won the day arguing the pine would give enough shade to prolong the blooms on the closest trees. Amin’s mother was thrilled. What could his father say?

Rashid enlarged the grove over the next seasons, and the pine grew tall and straight benefitting from the same special care that Yasmin gave her lemons. Like a giant sundial its shadow moved around the grove as Rashid had predicted, providing enough protection that the lemons indeed bloomed all year round.

From A Vision of Angels, a paragraph that describes Beirut as I first knew it in the early 1970s: 

Beirut’s Mediterranean sauciness was a relief after the gritty, windswept hills of Amman. Sa’eb would stroll past the seafront hotels listening to snatches of French as long-legged and scantily-dressed women stretched in chaise longues. Polished cars sped along the corniche; behind their tinted windows, Saudi princes and less noble men rode to assignations where they could indulge in pleasures off-limits in their native lands. The burnt-earth smell of hashish mixed with tobacco smoke in the nightclubs where belly dancers inspired noisy crowds and oil money gambled in the back. Drugs and politics pulsated through the city. Easy dealing Beirut. Paris of the Middle East. A freewheeling frenzy gripped the city. As diners in fashionable restaurants compared snowfall at European ski resorts, in the surrounding neighborhoods, the fedayeen were organizing their private armies and jockeying for loyalty in the world’s most fractious country. Sporadic gunfights spiraled out of control. Guerillas stormed the glitzy hotels, and from their penthouse terraces arced mortars over chichi boutiques into warring neighborhoods. Stunned families stared into open air as their apartment facades crumbled into the streets.

From A Vision of Angels, a paragraph wherein my main Israeli character ponders what he might have done differently to avoid a terrible fate:

The day’s withering light seeped into the kitchen. Jakov sat at the breakfast table staring at its hard white surface as he would search a palimpsest waiting for answers to be revealed. What could he have done differently? What could he have done for this day never to have come? His questions conjured a host of remembrances and what-ifs, but nothing that directed him along a new path or to a different destination. Had he been too lenient with Rachel, ever-ready to please his baby girl? Or absent too long during Mishe’s growing up years, allowing seeds of rebellion to be sown? Memories, snippets of conversations, vignettes of their childhoods and teenage years intermingled and coalesced, his chronological clock suspended as Jakov wondered if things would have been different if he had said that then, or been there when, or listened better or loved more, or or or.... All these fragments, these distilled moments that take on profound meaning in hindsight were nothing more than simple stitches in life’s whole cloth, and Jakov knew that each stitch he examined would be sewn and knotted again should time’s wheel reverse itself, for the unraveling in the present could not have been seen in the past. He was shaken to his soul by the certainty that their wretched fate was the sum of naïve actions.

Finally, from Cooper’s Promise, a scene that conveys a sense of the book’s place, gritty mood, and main characters. (When Lulay says “I talk-talk him into using one,” she is referring to a condom.)

Lulay didn’t give her john a good-bye anything. She was done with him and needed her ice water, and Juma had a nice tall glass of it waiting for her. Crossing to the bar, she dodged come-ons from guys who knew she hadn’t had time to spit out the last one, and she couldn’t quite believe it, her expression said. She was still girl enough to have that look. 

Handing her the water, Juma gave her a look that asked if everything was all right, and she said something that amused the barman and made him shake his head. Lulay took a mouthful of water, and leaning her head back, gargled it before swallowing. She took another sip, and swiveled on her heels, legs akimbo, zeroing in on Cooper. She always knew where to find him. She had Cooper radar, and she knew he’d seen her walk out with her john. She puckered her mouth like she was going to send him a big kiss with lips newly painted crimson, and instead squeezed out an ice cube like a turd into her palm. 

The power came on and the jukebox flickered to life, spinning a seductive beat. Lulay’s untrained body, still a girl’s body, still a body remembering before her bleeding had started, and she could almost see womanhood but hadn’t yet, that was the body that danced first, that found firm footing as she shook her glass at Cooper like a voodoo charm. Even the men slumped at the bar perked up for this dance of the Black Lolita. She rolled her chilled glass across her forehead, cooling that hot girl’s body, cooling scenes seen by a woman, and that was the body that danced next—her woman’s body. She swaggered into that woman’s dance, moving her feet to a second beat, shutting her eyes in remembrance of every ass she’d grabbed and every night she’d swallowed. 

When the lights flickered off again, Lulay rescued another cube from her glass and dabbed her neck with it like wet kisses washing away the johnny slobber. That cube melted fast, so hot was her little body; the next cube pressed to her face hardly touched her cheeks before turning into ersatz tears. 

Again an animal cry threatened to escape Cooper’s throat, so tormented was he by her wretchedness, and he pushed through the beery couples until he stood in front of her.

She held out her glass to him. “Do you want some ice water, Cooper?”

He shook his head no. What look Cooper had on his face, he couldn’t say. Despair? He felt it. Fear? Impotence? Determination? He felt them all.

“Why did you start wearing lipstick?” he asked.

“Juma gave it to me.”

“Did you have to put it on?”

“You don’t think I’m pretty?”

“I think you’re prettier without it.”

“He didn’t hurt me,” she said, and when Cooper asked who, her eyes landed on her last john. He was swilling beer at the bar and exchanged no notice of recognition. “I talk-talk him into using one. That’s why he takes too long. It slowed down his come-come.”

“How did you convince him?”

“I told him it makes men bigger.”

“That’s good,” Cooper said, chuckling appreciatively. “I hadn’t thought of that strategy, and it’s a good one. Men always want to be bigger.”

“Men are big enough,” she said, not having to look too hard to find several leering at her. Everything was emerging on Lulay all at once; hips, lips, tits all getting fuller and rounder and making her more and more desirable. “The next time he’ll hurt me,” she said. “It takes him too long and he has to pay more. It’s too expensive not to hurt Lulay.” She reached into her glass to retrieve the last ice cube and slipped it into one of his many pockets. “Free me, Cooper,” she said, and left him to go back to work.

With her tears melting in his pocket, Cooper watched the girl push her way to the bar. She didn’t need to try to seduce, she did so naturally, and she brought every man around when she slammed her glass of ice water on the long counter and said, “Make it a double” as if that African beauty knew a good time.

She brought Cooper to his knees, and on his soul he swore he’d set her free.

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