Larry Kahaner

Archive for the category “writer’s block”

Why Writers Should Read Crap

Why Writers Should Read Crap

By Larry Kahaner

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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.

Why Do So Many People Write at Starbucks?

By Larry Kahaner

Why do so many people write at Starbucks?

The answer has to do with me going to Nevis.

View of St. Kitts from Nevis with rainbow bonus.

View of St. Kitts from Nevis with rainbow bonus.

Let me explain.

Brain researchers don’t quite understand it all, but they’re learning more and more about something called ‘neuroplasticity.’ This is the brain’s ability to change neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behavior, environment, thinking, emotions and, of course, an unfortunate conk on the noggin. These changes in neural pathways and synapses determine, among other things, our creativity.

This means that your brain actually changes its functional structure based on your thoughts, environment and the other items listed above. What does this have to with writing? Simply put, by changing our neural pathways and synapses we can be more creative in our fiction as well as non-fiction writing. One way to do this is through a change in scenery.

I recall many times having trouble figuring out the approach to a feature article I was writing. Getting away from the office, even for a short while, really helped solidify my thoughts. The same went for my non-fiction books. Getting away always worked. A change often led me to ‘aha moments’ and I could see a whole book’s organization and structure in my mind’s eye for the first time.

Dune_Shacks_of_Peaked_Hill_Bars_Historic_District

Dune shack of Cape Cod.

Consider the Dune Shacks of Cape Cod. These ramshackle huts built for washed- up-on-the-shore sailors have offered help to the likes of Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, e.e. cummings and Jackson Pollack. Before modern science stepped in we thought the structures’ powers lay in solitude, beauty and the sound and smell of the surf. People used the word inspiration. Sorry. It’s just that it was different – very different – from where the writer/artist usually lived and worked. Not only was the scenery dissimilar to home but the shacks had no running water, electricity or other everyday amenities. How’s that for different? They still don’t offer creature comforts and you can enter into a lottery to try one for yourself.

You’re probably thinking that we writers have always known that a change in environment is good for our writing. Now we know why. The science is solid.

Writers often thrive in artistic and literary retreats. It’s not that the environment is so conducive to writing – although it may have to do with not having to cook your own meals or handling everyday family tasks – but, again, it’s that it’s different. A good pal of mine just returned from such a place where he clocked about 4,000 words a day while in residence. He claims his output was due mainly to being relieved of his daily household chores, but I’m going with the science.

By changing our environment, we change what we see, what we smell, how we feel and what we think. This helps to get us out of our brain ruts which have been worn deep by doing and seeing the same things day in and day out. Scientists now tell us that these ruts are real and not imagined. Leaving these ruts puts us on new paths of thinking and understanding and that’s always good for writers, fiction and non-fiction alike.

I can tell you right now that being on the island of Nevis is helping my ability to churn out new thoughts and ideas, and not just about writing. At the risk of being too obvious, Nevis is very different from where I live outside of Washington, DC. Nevis is lush and warm. It’s a roundish, volcanic island with one extinct cone in the middle, Nevis Peak, which is often shrouded in clouds. Yep; it’s different.

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Nevis Peak

But you don’t have to get on an airplane to get the same benefits of being in a different place. It doesn’t take much.

Sometimes I just move my laptop to my dining room table and that helps clear the cobwebs. Other times I sit in Starbucks and enjoy some flashes of writing fervor. It’s not the coffee or the slow internet that wires me for greater word output.  It’s being out of  my everyday office.

Instead of grinding away in the same digs, change your venue. Even small changes in your work environment can move your writing to new places.

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. Money-back guarantee. 

The Trouble With Flashbacks and Backstories

By Larry Kahaner

One of the best things about writing this blog is that it forces me to confront my own writing issues. Currently, I’m wrestling with a particular flashback in my current novel. You probably know that flashbacks and backstories are different although they are similar. Both devices occur in the past and writers use them to give readers a better understanding of a character or situation through past history and behavior.320px-Flashback

Backstories usually are standalone narratives whereas flashbacks are a character’s recollection. (I know that some will argue these definitions but I’m going to move on anyway as you consult your dictionaries.) Both suffer from the same malady, however. They interrupt the forward movement of your story.

In my particular case, the flashback is way cool. I’ve written it well and in real time. It moves like the wind and gives a great insight into my main character. On the minus side, it stops the main story dead in its tracks. The forward motion that I’ve worked so hard to achieve is halted, and I will have to work even harder to build up acceleration again.

The questions I have to ask myself is: Is it worth it? Cut out or leave in?

Actually, there’s a third choice. I could make the flashback shorter in hopes that the reader will speed over it. Nah. I either want to tell the whole flashback story or not at all.

Because I come from a journalism/non-fiction writer background I opted to brutally cut the flashback. Here’s the section under discussion:

“As the minister spoke, Mike remembered the funerals in Iraq. They were not ceremonies like today’s but what they called ‘ramp funerals’ where caskets containing service personnel were wheeled onto military transports for burial back in the States. Their buddies stood and watched as the caskets disappeared into the belly of a cargo plane. That’s what passed for funerals during the war.

He had his fill of death in Iraq. Mike saw too many pals die, too many ramp funerals, and the memories made him sick to his stomach.”

[Right here I had the rather long but again, very exciting flashback incident that occurred during the First Iraq War. It’s too lengthy to show. So, assume that you did read it and continue with the current day’s scene.]

“Now, here he was once more, watching the burial of one more comrade who died in the line of duty. Comrade? She was more than a comrade.

Did you miss reading the flashback? If I didn’t say anything, you wouldn’t have noticed anything was missing. I added “Comrade? She was more than a comrade.” to highlight my main character’s emotional state and offer a bit of backstory, as it were, about their relationship.

In summary, I cut several pages of flashback and replaced it with seven words.

My word count took a hit, but I have a better book.

How do you handle flashbacks and backstories? Any advice for others facing the keep-or-cut dilemma?

Novelists, Find Your Voice

By Larry Kahaner

Don’t be afraid to throw away your words. They’re not sacrosanct.

Don't be afraid to throw out your early pages.

Don’t be afraid to throw out your early pages.

 

When writing many of my non-fiction books including AK-47: The Weapon that Changed the Face of War and Cults That Kill: Probing the Underworld of Occult Crime, I generally threw out the first 50 or so pages during rewrites.

It takes a while to get your writing motor running,  to find your voice, which can change depending upon the book you’re writing. For me, the process takes about 50 pages. Some fiction writers swear that it takes them 100 pages before they hit the proper  voice. These first hundred pages then get tossed in the trash.

Rest assured that this is normal.

First, what is voice?

I like to think of voice as having two components. The first is the author’s style. It’s who you are, your personality, the way you see the world. Are you a serious person or a wise aleck? Clever or subtle? Upbeat or a downer? These traits are reflected in how you write. They belong to you, so own them. This voice generally stays the same but can change somewhat based on what you’re writing. When I write serious non-fiction, one side of my personality shows through, the journalistic, down-to-earth side. When I write novels, my less serious side shows through. However, my basic writing style – which I define as accessible, easy to understand and ‘talk-directly-to-the-reader’ – is always the same. That’s who I am as a writer.

The second meaning of voice is the speech, tempo and chosen words of the narrator. Is the dialogue long-winded or fast-paced? Do the words fit the time frame and environment? Is the narrator convincing? Does the dialogue sound true?

In most cases, the first kind of voice generally stays the same – with mild exceptions – because it’s you. The second will change with the story.

Now, back to finding your book’s voice. My method (and that of many writers I know) is to let the draft sit for a while, as long as several weeks or a month. When you come back to it, it’s as if you’re seeing it for the first time. Now, instead of reading it as the writer, you’re reading it as a reader.

Trust your instincts and your first reactions to the book. Be honest and objective. Keep your ego in check. It may sound trite but ask yourself: Is the book true to who I am, what I want to say and how I want to say it?

Read more…

Do You Have The ‘Authority’ To Write A Novel?

By Larry Kahaner
My non-fiction books like AK-47 and Values, Prosperity and the Talmud (pretty wide range, eh?) demand a lot of research. Not only do I read and study but I interview tons of people, which comes naturally to me as I earned my writing chops by being a newspaper and magazine reporter. Actually, I prefer interviewing people to book research although they complement each other and both have their place.respect-my-authority

As the research process continues, I continually ask myself: “Is it time to stop researching and start writing?”

The answer for me is when I see the book’s overall theme materialize in my mind. This doesn’t mean that I know everything I need to know. It does mean that I know enough that the ‘big’ story is clear and apparent. I actually can see a beginning, middle and an end.

Nothing is set in stone, though. It’s subject to change, even major changes, but I am confident enough to begin.

The same goes for fiction. Novel writing requires research. Some stories, especially historical fiction, may require a great deal of research. But the question is the same: “When do I have the authority to begin writing?” And the answer is the same, too. When you see the overall story clearly. When it all makes sense to you not just as a writer but as a reader, too.

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If You Insist on Having Writer’s Block, Here’s Help.

By Larry Kahaner
            I don’t believe in writer’s block. Never did. Of course, there are days when I just don’t feel like working but it’s not because I’m a writer. It’s because I don’t feel like working. Period. I’m tired, I’m sick, I’m bored, I’m distracted…whatever.
            As I’ve said hundreds of times before: “Do plumbers have plumber’s block? Do doctors have doctor’s block?” No. There are no such things, so why do writers think they’re special?

work-no-500

I’m not going to answer that now. Instead, I’m going to help those who actually believe there is such a thing as writer’s block, but I’m going to call it “I-just-don’t-feel-like-working-today-but-it’s-not-because-I’m-a-writer syndrome.

 

Here are my tricks to work when I don’t feel like working:

 

1 – Set a time limit. I say to myself that I only have to work for 15 minutes but I have to write something. After that, I can stop. This works amazingly well because your brain sees an end to a difficult task so it’s okay with getting started. What always happens, and I mean always, is that I get on a roll and keep going. This works great for non-writing jobs, too.

 

2 – Jump in the middle. Sometimes I don’t have a clear notion about what I’m supposed to write now so I sit idle. By writing what I do know – even if it’s not the main idea or where I’m at in the story  – it gives me some wordage. For example, write a scene that takes place a few pages or even a few chapters to come. Hooray, you’re writing.

 

3 – I think of the saying by Michael Kanin who co-wrote the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy film comedy Woman of the Year: “I don’t like to write, but I love to have written.” Actually, I love to write but I love to have written even more. It’s called delayed gratification, and it’s part of being a grownup.

Read more…

Fictional Villains Must Still Kick the Dog

By Larry Kahaner
One of the challenges of using your non-fiction skills and experience to write fiction is the issue of characters. Much of work-related prose doesn’t feature people. There are exceptions of courses – you may have written a profile – but even then, you only touch on the person’s personality because the story is usually more about his or her work.
Alfred-Hitchcock

“In the old days villains had mustaches and kicked the dog.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Novel writing is different. It’s all about characters. It’s all about how they feel, how they act, how they relate to others, their demons and on and on. Readers want to know these people in great detail. If you, as a writer, don’t make the reader understand and care about the characters (and that holds for the bad guys, too) then no amount of clever plotting is going to make your novel a success.

How to do this? Simple.

In books, as in life, we judge people by their thoughts and actions, but mainly by their actions. If you want the reader to emotionally connect with your characters have them do something that elicits an emotional response. For example, Shakespeare had an easy and immediate way of telling the audience who were the evildoers. They would walk on stage and kick a dog. They would do it in a way as if the dog were a contemptuous creature. What could be a more heinous act but to hurt an innocent dog? On the other hand, as movie director Alfred Hitchcock noted:

In the old days villains had mustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They don’t want their villain to be thrown at them with green limelight on his face. They want an ordinary human being with failings.

 

I partly disagree with Hitch. Although audiences are indeed more sophisticated than those before them, the old villain tropes still work – and they work well – because they register an emotional click of disgust from readers.

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Writer’s Block and other Writing Myths

By Larry Kahaner
Every successful writer has his or her favorite myths. Here are some that I’ve heard or read about and eventually confronted, dealt with and dismissed. Here’s your opportunity to do the same.

writers-block04

1 – Write what you know: If writers wrote only what they knew, there would be no Star Trek episodes. Have you been to outer space? There would be no serial killer stories. How many novelists are serial killers? Don’t answer that. You get the picture. You don’t need to experience something to write about it convincingly. Unmarried people can write about marriage. If you’re going to write a sweeping historical saga read about that time, study the habits, clothes and mores of the period.  If you’re going to write about murderers and thieves learn about them. Meet some if you can (I have) but you don’t need to know everything about a topic to write with authority. Good writing is illusion.

 

2 – Show, don’t tell: You hear this all the time and it drives me nuts. There’s nothing wrong with telling the reader: “The cop was tall, his black curly hair was unruly. His eyes were blue.” You don’t have to describe the cop looking into the mirror and seeing his stature, hair and eyes. Another character doesn’t have to describe the cop either. You can do it. You’re the writer. One more thing: you don’t have to describe a character completely. Let readers use their imagination. Let them form their own pictures. I promise you that it will end up working in your favor.

 

3 – Writer’s Block: There is no such thing. Do plumbers have plumber’s block? Do doctors have doctor’s block? Writer’s block is often a way for inexperienced or lazy writers to say that they don’t want to work today. It’s a way for would-be writers to feel special. We all have those days that we don’t feel like working, but it’s not because you’re a writer. It’s because you don’t feel well, or you’re tired or you’re hungover. You have only two choices: you can work or you cannot work. If you want to get your book done then write. If you don’t, then don’t. And this is related to the next one…

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