Larry Kahaner

Helping at-work writers to become novelists

Archive for the category “novelists”

Can I Write Novels Even if I Haven’t Had an Interesting Life?

Can I Write Novels Even if I Haven’t Had an Interesting Life?

By Larry Kahaner

I came across a blog from Guy Portman titled “10 Famous Authors’ Day Jobs” in which he lists… well… you get it.exciting life

What struck me most from reading Guy’s blog post is how many famous authors eventually gave up their day jobs (Natch. They’re famous.) and how many used what they knew from their day jobs and incorporated it into their writings.

Item: Joseph Conrad – (1857 – 1924) – Many of Joseph Conrad’s works have a nautical theme. This is not surprising considering that the author had a 19 year career in the merchant-marine, which began when he left his native Poland as a teenager in 1874.

Item: Arthur Conan Doyle – (1859 – 1930) – The creator of Sherlock Holmes was an important figure in the field of crime fiction. Doyle was also a practicing doctor, whose field of expertise was ophthalmology. He quit medicine to concentrate on writing full time.

Item: Agatha Christie – (1890 -1976) – It was during World War I that prolific author Agatha Christie began writing detective stories. At the time she was employed as an apothecary’s assistant. Her knowledge of poisons was to come in useful in her detective stories.

These authors used what they learned on the job and in life as a springboard for their stories.

But what if you don’t have an interesting job, career or life to draw upon?

There’s no such thing as a boring life.

There’s always something in your past and present that you can look to for ideas and stories. There’s always odd, interesting and compelling people in your life upon which to fashion your characters and stories. You just have to be open.

I have a writing buddy who is working on a memoir and some of the folks he talks about make for fascinating character fodder. At the time, they may not have seemed so interesting, especially to a kid, but when we get older we see their bizarreness and they become highly writeable.

But even if they don’t seem so interesting now. It’s okay.

Think of a person that you know and make him or her weirder, odder, funnier or sadder. Look for the peculiar detail that others have missed. Embellish the small but compelling parts. Expand their quirk. Exaggerate a tic.

One last thought. Here’s the entry for Bram Stoker: “Stoker is best remembered for his seminal work Dracula, but he also wrote 11 other novels and 3 collections of short stories. The author spent 27 years working as an acting manager and business manager for Irving’s Lyceum Theatre in London.”

I haven’t read his other 11 novels but I can bet his job figured into these works. As for Dracula, Stoker’s inspiration reportedly came from a visit to Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire and a visit to the crypts of St. Michan’s Church in Dublin. My guess is that these creepy places produced a strong emotional reaction in Stoker which then formed the basis for his vampire novel. Another person, though, maybe not so much.

That’s the crux of it. What produces a strong emotion in you – a person, place or thing – is what you should be writing about.

How to Screw Up Your Novel: The Series Cheat

How to Screw Up Your Novel: The Series Cheat

By Larry Kahaner

I just finished reading a terrific book except for one thing. The ending was a cheat.

Every book must have one.

Every book must have one.

The author composed a quirky, clever main character with an animal sidekick that acts as a contract killer upon command. Very cool idea. The book moved fast, had an absorbing plot and the writing itself was workmanlike (one of my highest compliments) and even contained some flashes of wordsmithing brilliance.

But here’s the problem.

When I reached the end, the protagonist was left hanging in the middle of a predicament. Why? Because the author has a second book which he/she (I’m not giving you any more clues as to the writer’s identity) which takes up where the first book lets off.

Unfair.

As a reader, I deserve a satisfying and closing end to each book I read. If you want to have a second in a series, that’s great. If I like the first, I will most likely read the second and probably beyond, but I don’t want to be coerced or compelled by not having a real, honest-to-goodness ending to the first one.

I have many pals who write series, and they do it the right way. Each book stands on its own. This way, a new reader can dip into any book in the series and receive a satisfying experience without having to read the others. Trust me; if they like the book, they will read another one. Maybe the whole series. In fact, most readers are introduced to a series by the author’s most recently-published book, because that’s the one that publishers have hyped the most. This makes a complete, standalone experience even more crucial to a series’ success.

To write a successful series, an author has to insert enough backstory into each book so the new reader gets up to speed without boring those who already know the main characters. It’s actually not that difficult, but it does require some finesse.

Respect your audience; don’t cheat them out of an ending.

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.

 

 

 

 

Drugs: The Author’s Other Drug of Choice – Part 2

Drugs: The Author’s Other Drug of Choice – Part 2

This guest blog from former workmate Gerry Karey, who blogs at Unhinged, grew out of a blog I wrote about alcohol and authors titled Don’t Drink and Write.

When I posted the blog on my Facebook page, Gerry commented:

“What about pot?”

To which I answered: “What about it?”

He took the challenge and looked at famous authors and their drug proclivities.

We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.  — Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

thomspons

“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me. – Hunter S. Thompson

That’s quite a picnic hamper. Mescaline, acid, cocaine, uppers, downers, screamers and laughers, oh, my.  If you can remember the 60s, you weren’t there.

Thompson was one of several mid-twentieth century writers who celebrated the use of drugs, particularly hallucinogens, and inspired and influenced a cultural movement.

Thompson is credited as the father of Gonzo journalism, a blend of fact and fiction. He may have captured the gestalt of the era as well as any writer. You just couldn’t believe everything you read, but it was an exhilarating, crazy ride.

A 2005 biography is entitled, Hunter S. Thompson: An Insider’s View of Deranged, Depraved, Drugged Out Brilliance. Thomas somehow managed to live until he was 68 when he committed suicide.

“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me,” Thompson once said. Until it didn’t.

Jack Kerouac was the key figure in the “Beat Movement.” A draft of his seminal, stream-of-consciousness novel, On The Road, was written in just three weeks and typed on a continuous, one hundred and twenty-foot scroll of tracing paper sheets that Kerouac cut to size and taped together.

It is a fascinating read. But great literature? Maybe not so much.

Kerouac continued to writes books and poetry, but nothing he wrote equaled the impact of On The Road.  How could it?

Drugs were very much part of the scene in On the Road, but Kerouac’s personal drug was alcohol. He died in 1969 at the age of 47, as a result of an internal hemorrhage caused by cirrhosis.

boroughs

“Whether you sniff it smoke it eat it or shove it up your ass the result is the same: addiction.” – William S. Burroughs

Major writers of the Beat era, all close friends of Kerouac, were Allen Ginsberg (LSD), Ken Kesey (psychedelics), William Boroughs, who was addicted to heroin, and Neal Cassady, who died of a drug overdose. “Whether you sniff it smoke it eat it or shove it up your ass the result is the same: addiction,” Burroughs said.

Other 20th Century writers who experimented with or used drugs: W.H. Auden, Jean Paul Sartre and Philip Dick (amphetamines). “Drug misuse is not a disease, it’s a decision…an error in judgment,” said Dick, who also used marijuana, mescaline, LSD, sodium pentothal. Hubert Selby, was addicted to pain killers and heroin that were first administered after surgery; Stephen King, who managed to kick his addiction to cocaine and other drugs; and Aldous Huxley, mescaline (see Huxley’s The Doors of Perception).

Would Dick have created his fantastic fictional worlds without drugs?  Would Hunter Thompson have been Hunter Thompson? Would any of those writers have achieved what they did?

Neurobiologist R. Douglas Fields asks: “Can the creative product—a song, painting, poem, or book—justify the sacrifice and harm that will accompany conducting the creative pursuit under the influence of drugs? If we accept the use of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD, and alcohol by rock musicians to achieve creative breakthroughs and delight us with their performance, what does that say about us in being willing to accept the destruction of another human being for our entertainment?”

“Drugs are a waste of time. They destroy your memory and your self- respect and everything that goes along with your self esteem,” songwriter/musician Kurt Cobain said.  Cobain struggled with heroin addiction and depression. He committed suicide in 1994, at age 27.

I do not know if this survey will persuade anyone not to use drugs (with the exception, perhaps of marijuana as a reward after a long day of writing). That’s not my intent. But I will reiterate Larry Kahaner’s advice to aspiring writers – all writers, for that matter:  “Write a lot and read a lot. Those are the only habits that work all the time and every time.”

There are no short cuts.

Don’t Drink and Write

Don’t Drink and Write

By Larry Kahaner

This blog is aimed at new writers. If you’re an experienced writer, or an alcoholic, or both, don’t bother reading any further. Well, okay, you can. But what follows probably won’t  resonate with you. You’ll most likely sniff in defiance and pronounce it nonsense. Or, you’ve already handled the situation.

http://moreintelligentlife.com/

image from: Intelligent Life magazine

Many new writers try to emulate  their favorite authors. They somehow think that by using the same pen, the same notebook, following the same schedule and oddball habits (I only write in my pajamas with the cuddly bear on the front) that this will bring them the same success as those they admire. As I’ve said many times, the only habit that aspiring writers should copy from those before them is to sit down and write. Write a lot and read a lot. Those are the only habits that work all the time and every time.

One of my sins is bluntness but I can’t help it. Many times I’m asked during interviews about when I write, how I get my inspiration, where I get my ideas and I try to be polite… I really try… but sometimes I just can’t pull it off. I usually blurt out that these things don’t matter. As gently as I can I note that we all walk differently, we eat differently, we talk differently. It stands to reason that we all write differently so why copy anyone else? I’m usually marked as a nasty individual who offers no help to the nascent scribe. It’s not how I want be remembered.

Which brings us to alcohol.

So many brilliant authors drink too much. Many are functioning alcoholics and this penchant for drinking has led many newbies to believe that drinking is a prerequisite for perfect prose. How can you blame them when well respected authors boast of their alcoholic intake in quotes that we love to put up on our walls?

“Too much champagne is just right.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

“I began to think vodka was my drink at last. It didn’t taste like anything, but it went straight down into my stomach like a sword swallowers’ sword and made me feel powerful and godlike.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.” – Oscar Wilde

Goodreads has 442 quotes about drinking. There’s even a top ten list of 15 great alcoholic writers.

Why do writers drink? That same reason that anyone else drinks. “Boredom, loneliness, habit, hedonism, lack of self-confidence; as stress relief or a short-cut to euphoria; to bury the past, obliterate the present or escape the future,” notes Blake Morrison, writing in the Guardian.  Morrison also points out that in Olivia Laing’s book The Trip to Echo Spring, about six famous alcoholic writers, that there may not be a simple answer as to why many famous writers drink but I believe the above short list takes a strong cut at it.

I’ve been a writer, journalist and published author for many years and I know many writers. Some of them drink a bit more than most, but that may be because they’re my friends. Self-selection and all that. But to a man and woman, they report that alcohol doesn’t help their writing. In fact, it hinders it.

Here’s one comment from a dear friend and prolific book author:

“I feel free and creative when I write in the company of wine. But the next day, usually, my grammar, syntax and coherence of prose look like crap.”

From another, whose non-fiction books are terrific, well-written and well-received. I asked him whether drinking helps his writing and he responded:

“I hate to sound like a prude, but I feel most free and creative when I’ve done a thorough job of reporting and know what the fuck I’m talking about.”

Does alcohol have a place in an author’s arsenal? Certainly, as a relaxer, a way to unwind after a day of hard writing and as social lubrication. It also can offer a short-term creativity kick. Another author friend who writes a blog under the moniker Thriller Guy offers this:

“… say you’ve got a problem that you can’t figure out – your character has been captured by an evil CEO and Our Hero is imprisoned in a laboratory where the resident mad scientist and his minions are threatening to suck the very essence out of his body. (Think Neo in The Matrix) How is Our Hero going to escape? TG can tell you from long experience, if you don’t know how to get your man (or woman) out of this pickle when you head into this scene, the answer is probably not going to just jump into your head. Trying to hammer out a solution to a problem like this can drive you nuts. What you need to do is to stop trying to figure out the answer, and let your subconscious come up with a solution. To do this you need to stop your brain from working so hard, to let the well fill up, by itself. Send the kiddies off to bed (if there are any kiddies) kiss the wife goodnight, (if there is a wife) pour yourself a stiff drink and settle into your chair. Then have a couple of more drinks. You can noodle away at the problem while you’re sitting there, but only in a general way. Drink too much, stagger off to bed, and go to sleep. And if you’re lucky, the next morning, when you go back to work, the answer will pop into your head. Almost unbidden. Ditto if you’re trying to come up with a title, solve a plot problem, searching for a “voice” to tell your story, a structure on which to build your novel. You need to stop trying to solve the problem, and let your writer’s brain solve the conundrum on its own. This is actually one of the few thrilling moments when being a writer seems almost like magic.”

He’s right.

Believe me, I like a martini in the evening. Occasionally, a few more, but I must tell you that of all the professional writers I know, the ones who write drunk do so in spite of their drinking and not because of it. They are functioning alcoholics, or close to the edge of it, who, if they weren’t writers would trudge off to the office every day, slightly hungover and put in a day’s work despite their condition. Think Mad Men. They drink because their body requires it, not because it makes them more creative. In fact, I often wonder how much better the words from Hemingway, Cheever, Poe or London would have been without their booze. We’ll never know.

I’m sorry to burst your romantic bubble but drinking doesn’t help writing. It hurts, and not  just the writing but your life in general. I leave you with this, an excerpt from the Handbook of Medical Psychiatry, 2nd Edition, edited by David P. Moore and James W. Jefferson. Sadly, it describes many famous drinking writers to a ‘T.’

“When alcoholics do drink, most eventually become intoxicated, and it is this recurrent intoxication that eventually brings their lives down in ruins. Friends are lost, health deteriorates, marriages are broken, children are abused, and jobs terminated. Yet despite these consequences the alcoholic continues to drink. Many undergo a ‘change in personality.’ Previously upstanding individuals may find themselves lying, cheating, stealing, and engaging in all manner of deceit to protect or cover up their drinking. Shame and remorse the morning after may be intense; many alcoholics progressively isolate themselves to drink undisturbed. An alcoholic may hole up in a motel for days or a week, drinking continuously. Most alcoholics become more irritable; they have a heightened sensitivity to anything vaguely critical. Many alcoholics appear quite grandiose, yet on closer inspection one sees that their self-esteem has slipped away from them. Most alcoholics also display an alcohol withdrawal syndrome when they either reduce or temporarily cease consumption. Awakening with the ‘shakes’ and with the strong urge for relief drinking is a common occurrence; many alcoholics eventually succumb to the ‘morning drink’ to reduce their withdrawal symptoms.”

Sound like any writing heroes of yours? Yeah, I thought so.

The Secret to Writing That Nobody Tells You

I am reblogging Jane’s post because it’s something that I’ve been harping on for years. Writing is work. You put your ass in the seat and write. Only when you can do this day in and day out can you call yourself a writer. You write when you feel like it and you write when you don’t feel like it – just like everyone else and their job. There are good days and bad days but you still go to work, right?

WORD SAVANT

When I coach people, there is an ugly truth about writing that I often hold back from them. It’s something you can only learn through gut-wrenching, razor’s edge, shard of broken glass experience.

There is no magic to writing, none at all. It’s nothing but grueling

No magic, no easy formula, no genius algorithm. There is no “secret” that is going to make everybody love your work, buy all your books, tell their friends about you, and get stars in their eyes when they hear your name.

It is simply monotonous, repetitive work.

I recently finished the manuscript for my first novel. For eight years I struggled to finish it. And do you know what finally helped me finish it?

Monotonous, repetitive work.

I did it by sitting down (almost) every day and writing a minimum of 500 words.

Some of those days were pretty good days. I would say…

View original post 828 more words

The ‘Starving Writer’ Notion Needs to Die

The ‘Starving Writer’ Notion Needs to Die

By Larry Kahaner

When I decided to make my living as a writer, lo, those many years ago, I realized that I better learn about money and investing. Why? Because I knew that being a writer can sometimes be a financial up-and-down kind of life. If you’re a writer, or plan to become one, you also better learn how to hanbella-new-writer-in-cafedle your money. If not, you’re in for a lifetime of disappointment, frustration and regret.

First, the good news. Being a writer is a great job. Do I really need to explain why?

However, some writing jobs or books don’t pay a lot of money. That’s why you have to be extra smart about your finances and money management.

After years of writing about business (one of my specialties) and investing my own money, I decided to offer presentations to colleges about personal finance. I call it the Fiscal Fitness Boot Camp and my goal was to help college students prepare for financial adulthood. During a presentation at the University of Connecticut, Waterbury, an attendee came up afterwards and asked me about my assertion that anyone could become a millionaire or more by the time they retired simply by saving and investing. She said: “I’m planning on becoming an artist and artists often don’t make a lot of money. Can I still become a millionaire by age 65?”

My answer was ‘yes,’ and for purposes of this blog change the word ‘artist’ to ‘writer’ and my answer remains the same.

I explained that the key to becoming rich is not about much you make, but how regularly you save and invest. By putting aside what you can each month into a stock index fund when you’re in your 20’s or 30’s, it will grow at around 9 percent annually for many decades and you’ll be a millionaire by age 65. (If you’re past these ages, this works, too, but you’ll end up with a lower amount.)  There will be hills and troughs so you have to hang tough. Through the power of compounding (remember compound interest from middle school?) your investments will grow large. See this blog for details.

“What if there are months that I have no money invest?” she asked.

I replied: “If you miss a month or two, your nest egg won’t suffer in the long term, but try to put something away, even if it’s only $20, every month. Even that small amount will make a difference if you start today.”

Is it more complicated than that? Yes, but you don’t have to know everything right now. Take it slow and no whining about how you’re a writer/artist/musician and you shouldn’t have to know about money. That kind of thinking is for suckers.

Remember, the starving writer is a myth perpetrated by people who find poverty a romantic notion. If anything, penury keeps you from producing your best works.

 

The adage ‘do what you love and the money will come,’ seems a bit outdated and unrealistic to me. I believe the true key to life is to discover what you love to do and then figure out how to make a living at it.

For those of you who are interested in learning more, drop me a line and I’ll suggest some easy-to-understand websites and books to get you started.

I’m Just Trying Not to be a Jerk

I’m Just Trying Not to be a Jerk

By Larry Kahaner

One of the challenges and frustrations of writing is transforming what’s in your brain into words. So it was with great relief that I read a post from Ebonye Gussine Wilkins who writes at The August Rose Press blog. The ARP is a publisher and they’re always looking for well-written books to publish. Natch; they’re book publishers.jerk store 2

Over the past year or so, I’ve read a lot of indie published books, just the first few pages in most cases, because you can tell immediately if they’re crap. And many of them are terrible. On the other hand, one in a thousand is a gem, worthy of a decent advance. I sometimes wish these authors had tried the traditional publishing route and gotten well paid for their efforts. Some of the junk I see stems from the fact that many indie writers believe you need volume to make money. Hence, they push stuff out the door that should have stayed inside.

Other authors just simply should not be published – at least not yet – because they haven’t yet become proficient at their craft. Look at a list of successful, well-read and accomplished authors and you will see people with slews of unpublished books still living in their computers or printed on yellowing papers residing in their closets. Why? Because these books were not worthy of being published. We need more bad, unpublished novels to stay hidden from readers. Is that too much to ask?

As an author who has been traditionally published, I had been wanting to say something like this for a long time but didn’t want to sound like a jerk or a spoilsport. Believe me, I have great respect for anyone who can actually finish writing a book, because I know how difficult a job it is. I don’t question the effort or the passion, just the outcome.

Ebonye struck the perfect tone in her blog, saying what I’ve wanted to say for a while. Thanks for writing this so I don’t have to.

Read on…

What Really Makes an Author an “Author?”

POSTED ON FEBRUARY 13, 2015

By: Ebonye Gussine Wilkins

In the face of the perceived ease of indie publishing, many more people are suddenly becoming “authors.” Some people take their time and concentrate of every word they write, how it flows, and what they want to say. They go through multiple drafts with an editor to make sure the manuscript is in the best shape it can  be. They obsess about book cover design and how the typesetting is supposed to look. They pick laminates for covers and assign ISBN numbers. After months or years of intense labor, they produce a beautiful book.

Then there are other authors that push out thirty-five pages on Microsoft Word in Comic Sans in point 16 font. They hit F7 for spell check, run the “manuscript” through an eBook formatting program, buy a pre-designed cover design and BAM instant author-dom.

While I believe that both kinds of writers will consider themselves published authors by this point, there are so many variations between the two scenarios. They are simply worlds apart. Unfortunately, many writers take the latter approach and then proclaim they are real authors to all who will listen. It’s no wonder that traditional publishing houses look down on indie publishing authors: there is a lack of quality in the finished product.

Being an author, especially a published author means that you are dedicated to your craft. You aren’t interested in just putting out a product, you want to put out the best product that you can. Your finished product is a direct reflection of you, and if you don’t get it right, it erodes your credibility. Unfortunately, it’s not just a reflection on you if you’ve published independently. Many others may begin to believe that all indie publishing authors put out shoddy work. Do us all a favor, take your work as an author seriously. Authors support each other by making sure that they produce a polished product, so support your fellow authors by doing the same. It’s the right thing to do.

Don’t Let Writing Keep You From Writing

Don’t Let Writing Keep You From Writing

By Larry Kahaner

Being a novelist is like being an actor or a painter. Sometimes you need a day job to make ends meet until your artistic talents are economically appreciated. The question for writers in particular is: do you write to pay the rent or do you take a day job that’s not writing?deadline

Some say that a non-writing job keeps your mind fresh and available for your novelizing but others (I’m in this camp) say that writing non-fiction keeps your word skills sharp and your writing-mind limber.

Those of you who are familiar with my blog and website, know that I’m a working writer, journalist and author, and that I’m also writing a novel. My website and blog are devoted to the idea that non-fiction writers bring unique and valuable skills to the fiction world.

There are also challenges. For example, this is the first time that I’m writing a book on spec which is an uncomfortable and unprecedented situation for me. I’m almost 70,000 words in (all writers know their word count even if they publicly say they don’t) and I work on my thriller when I’m not making a living by writing non-fiction.

I’m always on the lookout for others, like me, who write for a living and work on their novel when they can fit it in, so I was pleased to come across this blog by Lauren Tharp where she tackles the same issues that confront me and other working writers.

It struck me as comforting, but strangely eerie, that we have many of the same feelings and beliefs about how to handle our writing work lives and our non-worklife writing.

For example, Lauren writes: I have, and will always, put my clients’ needs before my own. Mostly because I like getting paid. I agree. Ya gotta eat and pay the mortgage. I feel lucky to earn my living as a writer and I won’t jeopardize it. However, to make time for my ‘other  work,’ as I call it, I schedule the time. I may work the morning on ‘money work’ (my other pet name) and the afternoon on my other work. Although counter intuitive, I find that when I dispatch my money work, it revs me up for my other work. I also find that time becomes more precious, so instead of spending it on Facebook or some other web-related time-suck, I will dive into my other work. My money work may sometimes creep into my other work time but not the other way.

(As an aside: A few hours ago, I got a call from a friend and editor at a magazine where I once worked who asked if I was available for a six-month assignment. It would be a weekly article of about 500-600 words. I explained that I was working on my novel – he knew that already – but he understood immediately (’cause he’s a working writer) when I told him that this work would only serve to stimulate my fiction writing. So, yes, I welcomed the additional work. Thanks for thinking of me, Jim.)

The other item that Lauren wrote was: For many writers, “mood” dictates whether or not they’ll sit down and write. However, for many successful writers, “mood” needs to either be ignored or be incorporated into their work. I agree here, too. Writers have to do their jobs whether they feel like it or not –  just like everybody else in this world.

These are just two gems from Lauren’s blog. She also quotes other working writers on how they juggle their time write their passion projects. It’s worth a look.

I’d like to add one more of my own findings. Writing for a living compels you to meet deadlines so you learn to write as best as you can in the time allotted. Even if there’s no deadline for your novel, it’s a good trait to know when to stop writing and hand it in. Too many novelists work ad infinitum, trying to eke out perfection, so they never really finish their book.

Lauren ends with this: If you, really, truly, want to write for yourself, nothing, can stop you –  not even writing.

True that.

Why Writers Should Read Crap

Why Writers Should Read Crap

By Larry Kahaner

elsewhere

Thanks to sblazak.wordpress.com for this headline.

All writers get the same advice. Read the great writers; study the great works. Learn how seasoned, professional and successful authors get the job done. All true, but I maintain that it’s also crucial for writers to read crap to learn what not to do.

How do you know what’s crap? It’s not a book that didn’t sell well, although that sometimes may be a clue. It’s not one that received bad reviews either. Some of the world’s greatest books have garnered negative comments from critics. Crappy writing is like the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on what constitutes pornography. You know it when you see it. And you know it because you’ve mainly been reading good writing.

More concrete indications of bad prose are sections that make you go ‘huh?’ or that make you laugh because they’re so ridiculous even though the author meant it to be serious. It’s prose that’s boring, even if you can’t articulate why your mind is wandering. Crappy writing just doesn’t sound right to your ear.

Other bad writing signs include no variation in sentence length, too much telling instead of showing, overshowing, no drama, no emotion, backstories that are too long, unnecessary detail, and on and on. I’m not talking about mechanical problems with grammar or lapses in POV or tense but simple, bad freakin’ writing.

Here are some examples from real self-published books. I have changed the wording slightly so as not to embarrass the author.

Sample: “We have to move quickly, pal. We already have an elite team on its way to Nigeria to rescue the pilot. But these paratroopers are going to stand out like chocolate chips in vanilla ice cream without some assistance on the ground. I need someone to be there to meet them or they’ll be minced meat.”

What did you learn? It’s trite and boring because the writing is obvious, full of clichés and the ‘chocolate chips?’ Make it stop. Send the elite team? Why would you send the non-elite team? And yes, we do have to move quickly because moving slowly would… well.. you know.

Sample: “Hi, Bob! Sorry, I’m so late! She awkwardly returned the kiss, her kitbag bumping against her knees and her laptop bag hanging from one shoulder.”

What did you learn? First, cut the exclamation points. You’re allowed only a few per book and they should be reserved for “Look out!” like when a rock is falling on a character’s  head. Show me how she ‘awkwardly returned the kiss;’ don’t tell me. Last, who cares about her kitbag hitting her knee or that her laptop bag hanging from one shoulder? (Can a laptop even hang from two shoulders?) What does that sentence add? Mood, ambience, emotion, anything? Nothing! (I used the exclamation point because I felt that I was in danger.)

I was going to offer one more example, but this exercise made me a little sick to my stomach, so I’ll stop here.

Again, why read crap? So you know what not to do. You’re learning from others’ mistakes without people like me making fun of you in this blog. We are all guilty of lapses in writing judgment. I have made the same mistakes that I detailed here (which I seek and destroy in the rewriting process) especially because I come from the non-fiction side of writing books where some of these transgressions – like telling instead of showing – is not only acceptable but encouraged. In fact, one of the tenets of non-fiction writing is “tell people what you’re going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them.” Do this in fiction and you’re inviting readers to pummel you.

My advice is to read some crap every once in a while but not too much. And don’t pay for it. Please. Read the free samples on Amazon. You only have to read (thankfully) the first few pages to learn their abject lessons.

Why Writing A Novel Is Like The AK-47 Rifle

Why Writing A Novel Is Like The AK-47 Rifle

By Larry Kahaner

ak image

The AK-47 is the most used weapon in the world, but it’s not perfect.

Several years ago I wrote a non-fiction book about the AK-47 rifle. It was not a gun book, per se, but a history about how this ubiquitous weapon changed the world, certainly the world of war. For those of you who never watch television, read the web or see a magazine, the AK-47 is ‘the gun’ that you see everywhere. It’s what we think an automatic weapon should look like with its distinctive banana-shaped magazine (the part that holds bullets). It’s the most popular weapon in the world because it is simple, never jams, it’s cheap, and anyone can use it effectively. It is the choice of terrorists, mercenaries and even government armies. (Click here to watch a book promotion video that I made.)

What does this have to do with writing a novel? I’m getting there.

The inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov – the weapon also goes by his last name – knew that it was not a perfect weapon, that it had flaws but he knew that it could operate underwater or be buried in the ground, dug up a year later, and still work. It’s not a precison, 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.

They write:

“To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work; your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done. Getting on with your work requires a recognition that perfection itself is (paradoxically) a flawed concept…. For you, the seed for your next art work lies embedded in the imperfections of your current piece. Such imperfections (or mistakes, if you’re feeling particularly depressed about them today) are your guides – valuable, reliable, objective, non-judgmental guides – to matters you need to reconsider or develop further. It is precisely this interaction between the ideal and the real that locks your art into the real world, and gives meaning to both.”

Being perfect is a hot button issue for me and I’ve discussed it in previous blogs. One reason for my interest is that I see too many writers not writing because they’re waiting for that perfect moment, that perfect phrase or that perfect muse to enter the room. That’s not how real writing (as opposed to dilettante writing) works. Real writers write and what comes out is never, ever perfect.

It bothers me greatly when I see writers paralyzed by their work, losing confidence, patience and even perspective because they want it to be perfect. Worse yet, not even starting or quitting because they don’t believe it will end up being perfect.

I know that ‘writing prompts’ are really popular these days so here’s one for you. Write something with the understanding that it will not be perfect. Give yourself permission to make  mistakes knowing that you can fix them later.

The freedom is exhilarating and your work will benefit. Without the constraints of perfection, you will see a marked difference in your book. That’s why National Novel Writing Month spells success for many authors. Writing 50,000 words in a month doesn’t allow you time to seek perfection, but you do rack up the words for more conscious and thoughtful rewriting later.

Kalashnikov had said that he wanted his weapon to be better designed, but he didn’t have the skills (he was a tinkerer not an engineer) or the know-how. He just made something that worked and put it out for the world to use.

That’s all you really want for your novel. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to work for the reader. Fix the big mistakes, for sure. The smaller ones, too. Make it as good as you can -don’t cheap-out on the rewrites – and then let it fly.

Let readers decide if it’s perfect or not.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: