Larry Kahaner

Writers Suffer from Zeigarnik Effect; Don’t Worry; It’s Normal

Writers Suffer from Zeigarnik Effect. Don’t Worry; It’s Normal

By Larry Kahaner

Many writers, including me, suffer from the Zeigarnik Effect, but I never knew it until yesterday.

Will Smith;Tommy Lee Jones

You don’t need Men in Black to erase your memory. You’ll do it on your own.

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts Stuff to Blow Your Mind and the hosts were  discussing lists, how they help you finish tasks, why we love them (think listicles) and, as an aside, can be considered a form of literature, according to author Umberto Eco.

They made the point that lists work because we remember unfinished items on our list but once we complete the to-dos, we often can’t recall the tasks.

This is a variation of the Zeigarnik Effect.

For example, after someone reads one of my books and starts mentioning parts they found especially interesting, or would like to know more about, I often find myself having no idea what they’re talking about. I’ve simply forgotten what I wrote. Usually, I engage in vague small talk until I can reach back into my noggin and retrieve some nugget that makes it sound like I really wrote the book. Other times, I come up with a delaying strand like “what exactly would you like to know more about,” or “what made you key in on that?”

Before I do a radio or TV interview, I find myself skimming my book and taking notes.

idiotI’ve talked to other authors and they have the same issue. Once they write something, it flies out of their brains like a flea from a skillet.

I have a close writer buddy who also reviews books for Publishers Weekly. When I told him about the Zeigarnik Effect, he said: “Never knew it had a name. When I finish [reviewing] a PW book it’s gone out of my head. Completely.”

According to Wikipedia, the Zeigarnik Effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. In my case, once I finish writing a book the details have left my brain.

As the story goes, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik first studied the phenomenon after her professor, psychologist Kurt Lewin, noticed that a waiter had better recollections of meals that had not yet been paid as opposed to those for which he received payment. After the server had completed the task –the meal was eaten and the check was paid – he was unable to remember any details of the orders. Zeigarnik then designed a series of experiments to uncover the processes underlying this phenomenon. Her research report, published in 1927, showed that participants who were solving a puzzle or constructing a box – and were interrupted – were able to recall the details of their actions (which side went with another side, for example) around 90 percent better than those who had completed the tasks undisturbed.

Why does this happen? Nobody knows for sure, but shrinks believe that we don’t like to leave tasks uncompleted so our brains keep it fresher than if we had finished the job. Actually, this may explain why, when you’re fretting about a tricky plot point, you wake up in the middle of the night with a solution. You subconscious was working on it all the time. Another possibility is that we tend to recall negative experiences more than positive ones. Not finishing a task is negative, and we hold on to it longer. Other theories have been put forth, but I like to think that when you’re done, you’re done. You don’t have to think about “it” any longer, and your mind is happy to comply.

There you have it. You can rest easy knowing that the Zeigarnik Effect is normal. There is no cure, but knowing that your malady has a name can be palliative and reassuring.

The end.

What was I saying again?

Book Publishing, Like Life, is Often A Matter of Luck

Book Publishing, Like Life, is Often A Matter of Luck

By Larry Kahaner

All of us want to believe that if we work hard, are honest in our dealings, are smart and have some talent, that we can succeed in anything we do whether it’s in business, sports, or publishing a novel.luck 3

I hate to tell you that if you believe this, you’re fooling yourself. Although many super successful people downplay luck as the reason for their success – hard work and high IQs are often cited – if they’re being honest, they know that luck played a large, sometimes gigantic reason for getting where they are.

The most recent forthright person to note this is billionaire Eric Schmidt who noted in a recent interview, “I would say I’m defined by luck, and I think almost anyone who’s successful has to start by saying they were lucky…  Lucky of birth, lucky of having intellectual and intelligent family home life, upbringing, global upbringing, etc.”

Schmidt, who made his fortune by being an early investor in Google, added: “I had the benefit of being early in the computer industry, so that’s like super luck.”luck 4

This is not to take anything away from Schmidt. Certainly, if he sat on his butt and did nothing, he wouldn’t be worth over $12 billion.

 

Here’s a personal example: My colleague and friend Bill Adler wrote in the late 1990’s a book titled Outwitting Squirrels: 101 Cunning Stratagems to Reduce Dramatically the Egregious Misappropriation of Seed from Your Birdfeeder by Squirrels. It’s what you think it is. It turns out that Rosie O’Donnell, who had a network show at the time, hated squirrels. One of her producers showed her the book, O’Donnell bought a copy for every audience member and had Bill on the show. The next month, it sold 30,000 copies. Luck, right?

A slew of similar stories abound.

I hear phrases like “luck favors the prepared,” and that’s true. We need to appreciate and act on a lucky break when we encounter it. We must be opened-minded to opportunities.

Why am I telling you all this? I receive emails from writers – new and experienced – who wonder why their manuscript isn’t selling or why they can’t get an agent. Sometimes it’s because your work is not, shall we say, your best. Often, however, it’s because a publisher or agent has their year filled or one morning an editor wakes up and says “If I see another serial killer proposal, I’ll scream,” but another editor thinks, “I would love to see another serial killer manuscript.” If your homicidal maniac book shows up to the second person’s desk, you’re golden. On the first editor’s desk… not so much.

But there’s no way of knowing who wants what at exactly at that moment. Editors may not know it either until they hear something on the radio during breakfast.

I read a fascinating take on luck from Daniella Levy who writes a blog called The Rejection Survival Guide and the post was called Is Success in the Writing Industry All a Matter of Luck? Levy notes that success in publishing hinges on four items:

1 – You happen to write what sells;

2 – You happen to get discovered by the right agent and/or editor;

3 – You happen to land a publisher that wants to invest in your book;

4 – Your audience happens to respond well.

Levy goes on the say: “There is something kind of depressing about the idea that so little of this is under your control… but there is something kind of freeing about it, too. If it’s not your responsibility, it’s also not necessarily your fault. If you’re not succeeding in a traditional sense, it’s not necessarily because you’re doing something wrong.”

Levy contends that we should “create because creation is an act of love.” That’s an encouraging and positive way to look at it. I don’t necessarily see it that way, but it’s valid nonetheless for some and certainly can ease the pain of rejection.

You should decide for yourself why you write and what keeps you writing despite setbacks.

Good luck.

Are the Jack Reachers a Dying Breed?

By Larry Kahaner

Is Jack Reacher dead?

This was the last question in a recent panel discussion sponsored by Mystery Writers of America’s Mid-Atlantic Chapter and probably designed to be the most provocative. I didn’t ask moderator Ed Aymar (The Unrepentant) if he meant it figuratively or literally as fans have often wondered if Lee Child’s character is dead or alive considering the hell this guy endures on a regular basis.

magnificent_seven1

The Magnificent Seven: Toxic Masculinity?

 

The panelists – John Copenhaver (Dodging and Burning), LynDee Walker (Front Page Fatality), Alan Orloff, (Pray for the Innocent) and Aimee Hix (Dark Streets, Cold Suburbs) – weighed in. One indicated that the old-style male protagonists – the Sam Spade and Mike Hammer types – who drank hard, didn’t take prisoners, didn’t suffer fools, led with their fists, accomplished their goals in a heavy-handed manner, that this type of hero was indeed over and done. (The term ‘toxic masculinity’ came up. Ouch!) Others said that the tough guy is still a viable character but perhaps may be changing, more introspective, more willing to admit that they’re damaged goods. And let’s face it, these characters have some heavy interpersonal baggage albeit it’s usually blamed on other people, the rigged system or whatever else you got. Some self-analysis would certainly be welcome.

My hand went up and I proffered that the tough guy protagonist is alive and thriving – and needed more than ever. Where our country is today, a hero who keeps his promises, acts in the name of justice, believes that bad actors should be punished and has what I’ll just call ‘old-fashioned values’ is a tonic. Sadly, our institutions are often led by liars,  those who’ve stepped on others to achieve their positions, people (mostly men, I admit with some sadness) who can’t distinguish between lies and facts, and downright cheaters. They move whichever way the wind blows thinking nothing of the greater good but only their own gain. I’m not just talking about politicians but business and social leaders, too.

I wince at how old-school fictional characters solve problems with violence, but they are at least consistent, honest and think beyond themselves. How many times have we heard one of these tough guys say: “The world will be a better place without…” before pulling the trigger? As readers, we want heroes with a solid moral compass even if it doesn’t point to everyone’s true north. That’s Jack Reacher to a ‘T.’

(For those of you who really want to feel like waffling, watch the Magnificent Seven – the first one, damn it, not the remake – and then let’s talk moral compass.)

In a world full of compromises – usually ones that chip away at our best intentions – guys like Reacher suggest a simple, uncomplicated and value-rich way of life. He and his brethren give us hope that such an existence can be achieved even though it isn’t an easy path.

Whew, I was glad to get that off my chest not only about literature but about social issues, which was, oh, yeah, the topic of the event titled Crime Fiction as Social Commentary. It was held at George Mason University’s Fall for the Book annual event.

 

 

Spoiler Alert: My Novel Isn’t About Donald Trump

By Larry Kahaner

I’m sorry to disappoint everyone, but my novel “USA, Inc.” isn’t about the current U.S. president.

The problem obviously comes from my original cutline (which I’ve recently changed. Why? Read on.) “What if the US were run like a corporation and a madman was in charge?”

confirm bias

CHAINSAWSUIT.COM

 

Because of the politically and socially charged atmosphere in which we’re living, potential readers on both sides of the aisle were interpreting this teaser according to their own belief system — and many of them thought the story was about Trump.

It wasn’t. It isn’t. In fact, I started this book several years ago when the president wasn’t even a blip on the POTUS radar.

Reading the longer description sometimes helps to dispel this errant notion. (I’m not shilling my book here; I’m trying to make a point): “Relegated to the low end of the law enforcement food chain after his fall from grace at the FBI, Mike Wardman vows to find the people responsible for the  murder of his ex-fiancée and uncovers a plot to topple the government of the United States. The action spreads from Chesapeake Bay to the Caribbean island of Nevis as Mike uncovers a maniacal billionaire’s plot to use a Constitutional loophole to run states like corporations – that only he controls.”

Even so, readers’ knives already were sharpened and those on social media chimed in with comments like, “Don’t we already have this situation?” and “What did you expect from Trump?” Those on the opposite side of the political spectrum, said: “How dare you call our President a madman?” and “We need the government to be run like a business, and Trump is a business success.”

Hello… how many times do I need to say that my book is not about Trump?

These responses show me that a) people don’t read past a headline before making an assessment and b) people see what they want to see despite what’s presented to them.

Sociologists have a name for this. It’s called Confirmation Bias, and it occurs when people bring their own pre-conceived notions into a new situation.

We are seeing first hand this closing of the mind in our current political landscape where truth goes out the window and people take positions based on their own convictions and self-interest despite verifiable information to the contrary.

People are reading into things that don’t exist – like thinking that my book is about the President – because they are so quick to decide what something is about without reading beyond the headline. They want to take offense, and they want to take sides. (Disclaimer: I am not a fan of the president’s policies.)

There’s an old saying attributed to Rabbi Shemuel ben Nachman in the Talmud:  We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.

And that’s the real problem.

Thanks for listening and please read my book.

It’s not about Trump.

PS – Watch the trailer.

Pulpster Robert Leslie Bellem: Doing What He Had to Do

By Larry Kahaner 

First, a half-hearted apology. I haven’t blogged in a long time, but I’m not that sorry. I’ve been working on a new novel, a detective yarn in the pulpster style, and as a writer you gotta spend your time where it gives you the most payback. I enjoy blogging and hearing from my fans, but the book took precedence. george-reeves-superman

 

While I’m taking a short hiatus from my novelwriting, however, I’ve been reading the works of Robert Leslie Bellem. For those of you not familiar with him, he was a pulpster, and like his ilk he wrote as much as he could and as fast as he could.

For me, a guy who has been a working writer, author and journalist all of my adult life, I’ve always admired these scribblers. There’s no waiting for their muse, no complaining, no being a whiny baby (Oh, yeah, they often got loaded and complained plenty about low pay and crazy publishers but that’s not complaining. That’s getting your anger up so you can write some more.) and moving where the markets are buying. Like other pulpsters, when the pulp magazine market ebbed, he moved into TV, writing a bunch of episodes of The Lone Ranger, Adventures of Superman, the Perry Mason show, 77 Sunset Strip, Charlie Chan, Dick Tracy and Wanted: Dead or Alive. Check IMDB for an elephant-sized list of writing credits.

 

lonerangBellem wrote in a variety of genres for many pulp magazines, (He also wrote a few novels) but my favorite works of Bellem are the Dan Turner: Hollywood Detective mysteries. They first appeared in Spicy Detective magazine in the 1930s and the rag was called spicy because they required sexy action between consenting adults. What’s so amusing to me is that these risqué sections seem shoe-horned in, and I’m sure it’s because they were a requirement. I know that because a) I’ve been a writer for decades, trust me; I can tell, and b) they’re all essentially the same. You can tell that Bellem pulled them off a stack of index cards to satisfy the Spicy Detective rubric. His short stories are peppered with these scenes at regular intervals with overuse of the words bodice, breasts (which are often heaving), lace and peek-a-boo. Unlike his usual clever use of words and phrases in the rest of a story, these spicy scenes are mundane, overworked and clearly written just to get the manuscript past the editor.

Here’s a typical one:

“I danced my fingers over her shoulders; dislodged the negligee. Her skin was golden, like rich cream. Her breast looked taut and palpitant under a peek-a-boo lace; I began to enjoy my work. After all, I’m not a wooden Indian.” (Cat Act)

Feel free to recombine the words in a different order, and you have another scene that Bellem could insert as needed.

Besides these scenes, Bellem possessed the clever wordage, style and cadence of the pulpster’s meal ticket. They’re funny, some might argue overwritten, and clearly of their time.

“It was the brand of scream that turned your ear-drums grey around the temples: high in a feminine register, penetrating as a buzz saw, harsher than a jolt of prohibition gin. The minute I heard it I started running hellity-slash across the vast, barnlike sound stage building. I smelled trouble. Damned bad trouble. A private snoop gets hunches sometimes.” (Cat Act).

And another:

“She tried to stop me with a slug from her fowling piece. Lanza snapped out of his trance in the nick of time, though, and lashed upward with his right brogan; kicked her full on the gun-wrist. It was damned accurate kicking. You could hear her arm bone snapping. She screamed, and the Bankers’ Special went sailing in a lazy arc; clattered into a far corner.” (Cat Act)

Here’s one of my favorites because it’s funny and not funny at the same time:

“And the fettered blonde lovely looked as panic stricken as a Czechoslovakian statesman in a room full of Hitlers.” (Cat Act)

And here’s one with the classic pulpster words and rhythm:

“So I had to get hold of some geetus to keep Gertie from throwing me in the soup.” (Blue Murder)

Of all the pulpsters I’ve enjoyed and written about (See my blog entry Writing Lessons from a Pulpster) Bellem appears to have been having a lot more fun. He wrote for the lettuce, the moolah, the folding green, no doubt about it, but he appeared to be having a bit of a laugh at –  and with – the reader.

If you doubt me, the humorist S.J. Perelman noticed this, too. In a 1938 piece in The New York titled “Somewhere a Roscoe…” he wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about how much he loved the fictional dick Dan Turner and the magazine group that published the character. Perelman wrote: “I hope nobody minds my making love in public, but if Culture Publications, Inc., 900 Market Street, Wilmington, Delaware will have me, I’d like to marry them… And I love them because their prose is so soft and warm.” Perelman went on to offer examples of Bellem’s Dan Turner prose. Perelman was having some fun, too, just like Bellem, but you could tell that he truly appreciated the words for what they were: Prose that was hitting on all eight.

 

Larry Kahaner is the author of the thriller USA, Inc. 

 

 

 

So Long Thriller Guy… Yeah, We Knew Ye

By Larry Kahaner

As someone who has been writing a blog about writing for a few years, my posts often feel sweet and light compared to my longtime buddy and blogger Allen Appel alias The Thriller Guy. TG is a master at telling would-be writers how the book biz is really played, how it’s sometimes a game for suckers and to stop bellyaching about the ‘writer’s life.’ A novelist himself, Allen aka TG, not only has an impressive stable of novels but has reviewed over 500 thrillers for a major trade publication. (And wrote a cool memoir, I might add.)

small portrait allen 3

He has the goods and doesn’t mind telling you about it. His advice is tough, rugged as a moonscape, and real as a Taser in the face. Lots of amateur writers don’t like him because he doesn’t coddle, doesn’t equivocate and doesn’t tell them what they usually hear from friends and family about their precious prose. On the other hand, when you need help with a vexing hunk of writing, he’s there to work you through it – as he’s done for me over many a sandwich and red Solo cups of Jameson.

Before this sounds like an elegy instead of a celebration, let me present the last blog from the man who always reminds you to “Sit down; Shut up; Get to work.”

 

So long, Thriller Guy

“It has become obvious that the always shadowy Thriller Guy has not made the transition from scarred urban warrior crouched in his basement lair to the kinder hills and small towns of North Carolina.

I’ve thought about how to bring him to a natural, or unnatural end. Maybe going down in a brisk pre-dawn firefight on some unnamed snow-capped ridge under siege from a legion of turbaned AK-wielding hajjis. He’d like that. Or perhaps something more ironic, more absurd. I’ve always been amused by the scene in the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe when George sits Martha down after a long night of drinking and tells her, in Richard Burton’s solemn, sonorous voice, that their son Jim was killed that afternoon on a country road… “when he swerved to avoid hitting a porcupine and crashed into a tree.” How ignominious. How completely un-Thriller Guy.

At any rate, it’s clear that he’s run out of writing advice to sling around.

 

Read the rest here.

What if the US were run like a corporation and a madman was in charge? Check out my latest thriller “USA, Inc.” now available in eBook and paperback. All my books have a money back guarantee. Watch the trailer.

 

 

 

Your Novel Ain’t Perfect. Let It Go.

By Larry Kahaner

I’m thinking a lot about what I’ve done for a living during the past 30 years. As a writer, journalist and author (mainly non-fiction and now a novelist) I every so often I come upon a sentence, a phrase, a thought about what it means to be a writer that strikes me hard where I stand. Usually, it’s something I learned that has helped turn me into a working writer.dali perfection

I was reading a blog the other day by the folks at the art of storytelling and a sentence resonated with me. “Most new writers start as perfectionists and must unlearn this to become true writers.”

For sure. I’m lucky that I learned this early on while in the newspaper business where you didn’t have time to torment yourself over your precious words.

I’ve been harping about this issue for years. I even wrote a blog about it. I compared novelwriting to the AK-47 rifle. The AK, if you’re not aware, is the most used weapon in the world and it has several characteristics that make it so popular. It’s cheap, easy to make, easy to use — and it’s not perfect. Yes, that last one is a positive attribute.

I’m quoting here from my post:

“It’s not a precision, beautifully- constructed weapon like the U.S. M-16 rifle, but it did the job and, unlike the M-16, it didn’t have to be taken apart on a regular basis to be cleaned. In fact, the reason why the AK works so well is because it is not perfect. The parts don’t fit precisely together so dirt and gunk don’t accumulate in the mechanism. It just kicks out the muck and keeps firing.

One of the sayings in Kalashnikov’s Soviet Union was “Perfection is the enemy of good enough,” and I was reminded of this while reading Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It’s a great read for all artists including writers.

An important point the authors make is that many writers are stopped in their tracks because they’re trying to achieve perfection on the first go-around.”

When newish writers ask me for advice I tell them to write the best that they can, but don’t obsess over every word or even every sentence. You can never make anything you write perfect. It’s impossible. (For another take on letting go see Cristian Mihai’s blog on the subject.)

One of my mentors once gave me the following advice. “Anything that’s written can always be made better.” Once you understand and believe it, you can proceed with your work and not get caught in the snare of perfection.

Even the best writers offer flawed prose but hide it among solid, serviceable, engaging and compelling bodies of work.

By definition, I believe that writing – like any craft or art – is an imperfect endeavor so do the best you can in the time allotted, to the limit of your abilities, and then move on. I’m not advocating sloppy work nor am I in favor of quantity over quality (something I’m seeing too much of these days because the mechanics of self-publishing are way too easy) but don’t be afraid to let your novel fly away when you’re done. Mind you, if you know that your book has a major defect or hole, fix it. Don’t be lazy or frustrated with it. Do the work, and don’t release it into the wild, until its right.

Then let readers decide if your book is perfect or not.

What if the US were run like a corporation and a madman was in charge? Check out my latest thriller “USA, Inc.” now available in eBook and paperback. All my books have a money back guarantee. Watch the trailer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Review of my thriller “USA, Inc.”

A Review of my thriller “USA, Inc.”

By Larry Kahaner

I’ve received many book reviews during my career – every media from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal – but few as laudatory as this one from Kurt Brindley who writes a popular blog at www.kurtbrindley.com. I don’t usually put up reviews of my books on this blog – they’re over at Kahaner.com –  but sometimes you just gotta brag. Plus, it feels so satisfying when a true reader appreciates your work.

Here’s the beginning of his review or you can skip over to the full review on Kurt’s  website. USA Inc 25 May 2016 KINDLE

“When acclaimed and prolific author, investigative journalist, and private investigator Larry Kahaner reached out to me to see if I would be interested in receiving a copy of his latest thriller, USA, Inc. (A Mike Wardman Novel: Book 1), I was at first skeptical, for the last two books that I read that were pitched to me as “thrillers” – one which I reviewed here and, the other, because I won’t review here any book that I cannot honestly give at least a Three-Star rating, I wouldn’t review – turned out to be less like thrillers and more like romance novels.

However, I was intrigued by Larry’s proposal after checking out his impressive bio; and then, after reading the book’s synopsis and preview, I was hooked, completely, and quickly wrote back to him to accept his kind offer.

And I’m truly grateful that I did because I found in Larry’s book a Five-Star Story that is fresh, fast, topical, and, yes, quite thrilling to read.

Literary fiction is my natural space for my literary endeavors; mostly, because I find they instruct me about life in ways foreign or less apparent to my way of living and thinking, often while set in surreal, nightmarish environments completely alien to my own. And the literature I like best (Kafka) instructs without the pedantry (Dickens) and overbearing, lifelike details (Balzac) that I look to literature to escape from in the first place…and which I too often find in genre fiction.

 

Which is why USA, Inc. is a rare gem of a genre fiction find for me.

Read the rest of the review here.

Don’t Feel Compelled to Publish an E-Book on Amazon and Other Life Tips

Don’t Feel Compelled to Publish an E-Book on Amazon and Other Life Tips

By  Larry Kahaner

  • Be kind to unkind people. It’s difficult, so do your best.
  • Discover what you love doing – then figure out how to make a living doing it. Too many people do it the other way, end up in a career that makes them miserable and they’ve become trapped by their income. Law students take note.einsteinshow
  • When you have a decision to make, take fear out of the equation. Also, make scary decisions more quickly; the longer you stand on the diving board, the more frightened you become. And, speaking of fear, know that when you see hatred in a person, it usually has its roots in fear.
  • Don’t be overly concerned about taking a short term job that’s not quite to your liking. The benefits of making a living, making your way in the world are immense. Even a lousy job beats sitting around the house in your underwear. See the rule about loving what you’re doing.
  • Relationships are difficult. Be wary of couples for whom their joining always appears to be rosy.
  • Not everyone has to have kids.
  • Growing old can be difficult, but realize it’s a gift that not everyone gets.
  • Be grateful.
  • When something good comes along, take more if it’s offered except for pie. Too much pie can make you sick.
  • Spend money on experiences, not stuff. Never rent a storage unit for more than a few months.
  • Hard work can get you far, but never underestimate how much luck plays in life. Can you make your own luck? No; that’s why they call it luck, but you can be open when it comes along. Try not to be angry at people who squander their luck. Bastards.
  • Say ‘yes,’ to new experiences as a default. Before you die, you will regret more about the things you didn’t do, than the things you did. This rule often applies to having sex.
  • Money can’t buy happiness, but lack of money can make you miserable. Find a happy ratio of work vs. leisure for you.
  • Friends will come and go in your life. Enjoy them while they’re around, and resist figuring out why you like being with them.
  • Don’t feel compelled to write an e-Book and publish it on Amazon. We have plenty of books. Good ones, too. Not that yours would be bad. But it might. So, think twice, please.
  • Everyone is on their own journey. Try not to be judgmental about others unless they’re really doing something dumb, considering an awful tattoo, or are being hurtful to others.
  • Learn a few good jokes and hone their telling to precision.
  • Get a dog, and always be the person they think you are.
  • Don’t think zoos are cool. The animals would much rather be back where they came from.
  • Social media is a time-suck. Read a friggin’ book once in a while.
  • You don’t have to respond to everything said to you. Sometimes you can just smile.

What if the US were run like a corporation and a madman was in charge? Check out my latest thriller “USA, Inc.” now available in eBook and paperback. All my books have a money-back guarantee.

How Readers are Cheated Out of their Imaginations

How Readers are Cheated Out of their Imaginations

By Larry Kahaner

I read a lot of indie books. Let me rephrase that. I read the first few pages of a lot of indie books. Most are terrible, and it’s often clear from the get-go when they’re not going to get any better.

book imagination

Artist: Igor Morski 

I’ve railed about the lack of excellent indie authors (and also praised some glorious finds) so I won’t do it again here, but I do want to explain one of the most flagrant early giveaways that a book is gonna stink.

It is over-description, and lately I’m seeing a ton of it not only in indie authors but some traditionally-published writers as well.

Why do some authors insist on depicting the minute details of a house, a mountain a person? It’s annoying, exhausting and pegs them as amateurs.

There are a few reasons why they do this, I think. First, they believe that it’s easier to spend time getting down to the atomic level rather than thinking about where the story goes next. And they’re right – in a way. It is easier to keep describing something in detail instead of moving the story forward. This takes guts, creativity and hard work.

Second, they believe that readers want this. Some do, but most readers want movement more than anything. They want the story to progress. They don’t want to read a page describing a twig – I just read an entire opening page describing a small branch. Brutal. – or the weather.

Third, they believe that a long description sets the tone for the book. True, but you get more ambience if the description is short, full of emotion, energy and integral to the story instead of borne from the author’s indulgence.

In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King explains why he doesn’t overly describe characters.

 

“I’m not particularly keen on writing which exhaustively describes the physical characteristics of the people in the story and what they’re wearing (I find wardrobe inventory particularly irritating; if I want to read descriptions of clothes, I can always get a J. Crew catalogue). I can’t remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story of mine looked like – I’d rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well. If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can’t you? I don’t need to give you a pimple-by-pimple, skirt-by-skirt rundown. We all remember one or more high school losers, after all; if I describe mine, it freezes out yours, and I lose a little bit of the bond of understanding I want to forge between us. Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

 

Those who are familiar with my blog know that I’m a fan of noir and detective novels. These past writers and their current day successors know how to cram a ton of description into a few words. Following are some recent favorites of mine. Note how these writers don’t nibble at the edges, but get right to point. Some might say the writing is over the top, too melodramatic, but I say ‘bulls-eye.’

 

James Sallis in Drive describes a pickup truck.

“Jodie’s former ride was a Ford F-150, graceless as a wheelbarrow, dependable as rust and taxes, indestructible as a tank. Brakes that could stop an avalanche cold, engine powerful enough to tow glaciers into place. Bombs fall and wipe out civilization as we know it, two things’ll come up out of the ashes: roaches and F-150s. Thing handled like an ox cart, rattled fillings from teeth and left you permanently saddle sore, but it was a survivor. Got the job done, whatever the job was.”

Nic Pizzolatto is not only an author but a screenwriter. He created the HBO show True Detective. Here, in Galveston: A Novel, he depicts a woman that he meets.

“A woman emerged out the room behind the counter, her flesh so grooved and dehydrated it might have been cured in a smokehouse. It was sun-baked the color of golden oak and draped across jagged bones. Squirrel gray hair. Her eyeglasses had a square of duct tape holding them together at the center, and she pushed them up on her nose.

I recommend Dodgers: A Novel by Bill Beverly whose style is refreshing, unique, and at times deceptively simple.

“The town smelled like corn cooked too long.”

 

In Mike Dime by Barry Fantoni, the 1940’s  noir oozes off the page.

“The center of the room was filled by a four-seated, seal gray velvet sofa that Norma Summers had re-covered in gin stains. She planted herself with some difficulty on the arm of the sofa and tried to get me in focus. The flap of her housecoat fell open as she attempted to cross her legs. It let more thigh through than it should have, but her thighs were never going to bother me, and she was beyond bothering about anything but the next drink.”

 

And the last one. Notice how the description in Beggars of Life by Jim Tully seems common, almost bland, until the last line.

Bill had blond hair, and a sharp face. He had blue eyes, a straight nose, and a square chin. He was a heavy-set youth, and his shoulders were broad and powerful. He had no morals at all, and was as irresponsible as the wind.”

I harp constantly about authors not respecting their readers. One way writers dis them is with over-description. They’re saying: “I don’t trust you to have an imagination so I have to tell you everything.”

That’s not cool.

What if the US were run like a corporation and a madman was in charge? Check out my latest thriller “USA, Inc.” now available in eBook and paperback. All my books have a money-back guarantee.

 

 

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