Larry Kahaner

Helping at-work writers to become novelists

Why I Chose Fiction Over Fact

Why I Chose Fiction Over Fact

By Larry Kahaner

A friend recently asked me why I have turned to writing novels instead of continuing my non-fiction book career.

The answer is two-fold. First, I wanted to try something different, transferring what I’ve learned from the non-fiction world to novels. Call it a professional challenge; it’s the thrust of this blog.why-fiction-quotes

Second, I’ve been a non-fiction book author all my working life, and I thought I was really making a difference in people’s lives. I have, and I’m proud of my work, but the world has changed.

We may be heading into a post-journalism world (and by ‘journalism’ I mean unbiased, fair reporting and writing that informs people) and my cynicism is growing. Lately I’ve been thinking that maybe, just maybe, fiction may be in the forefront of telling truths that last with us and make us better people.

I’m not the first to notice this, of course. Barack Obama, in his farewell speech cited the character Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird who said: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

How many minds were changed by this simple message in a book read by millions?

How many of us have been moved to think in new ways by classics like Catch-22, Lord of the Flies or any of the current dystopian novels such as the Hunger Games, that warn us about who we might become if we’re not mindful. Consider the parable The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho or almost anything written by Haruki Murakami. They simply make us more aware of others and ourselves.

We cannot remain unchanged after being fully engaged in reading about the life of someone else, especially if that person is made up. If we read the biography of a remarkable person, we see what the author wants us to see. If we read about a fictional character, we can go beyond the author’s description and see ourselves, too. We can put ourselves in their lives instead of watching from the outside. This offers a greater opportunity for introspection and growth.

I believe the power of fiction – books, movies, TV – is becoming stronger than ever as we become more polarized in our consumption of news and non-fiction books. Conservatives read their books; liberals read theirs, but everyone can agree to read an entertaining piece of fiction or watch a compelling movie.

I’m not saying that every story needs to have an earth-shattering, world-changing message. Sometimes a tale is just tale, and that’s fine. And neither am I talking about deliberate, heavy-handed propaganda disguised as fiction. I hate that.

I’m talking about telling a story with a moral, a story that moves us to think beyond our everything assumptions. The story doesn’t have to be true, but the message does.

My hope for my latest book USA, Inc., – aside from  being a good read – is that it may inspire people to think more about the damage that occurs from the confluence of greed and power. I confess without shame that my main goal was not to preach but entertain. I just wanted to write a compelling book that got readers to turn the page.

Consider it a twofer.

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.

 

 

 

 

Hey, Writers: Stop Your Freakin’ Whining

Hey, Writers: Stop Your Freakin’ Whining

By Larry Kahaner

Most of my working life, I’ve been a non-fiction writer. I’ve penned over 15 books some with my name and some I’ve ghosted. I know a lot of non-fiction writers. They’re my friends and colleagues.

crazy-author-1

Don’t be like this writer.

When I decided to write a novel, USA, Inc., which was just published, (shameless plug) I started hobnobbing with fiction authors, some established but mostly newbies like me. In fact, I started this blog to help me move from non-fiction to fiction. I hope I’ve helped others do the same, because many non-fiction writing traits, habits and experience are transferable.

Right off the bat, though, I noticed that fiction writers are different than non-fiction writers — and not in a good way.

They are a bunch of whiney-babies.

They complain about money. They grumble about how the work is difficult. They whimper about how they can’t find the time to write. They moan about plots, themes, dialogues, characters, distractions, attention deficit issues, emotional burnout and their muse being on holiday. Oh, and let’s not forget ‘writer’s block’ which is just a made up malady for not feeling like working today. (Do plumbers have plumber’s block? Do doctors have doctor’s block?)

The carping seemed endless.

google-search-for-crazy-writers

Even Google thinks so.

I was surprised at this infinite hole of discontent and unhappiness. I tried to understand it, but I couldn’t. Maybe it’s because I write for a living so complaining all the time would be soul-breaking. If I didn’t like the work, I would have obtained employment in a different area. Yes, writing is difficult; it’s even harder to make a living at it. I get that, but why do these fiction folks keep knocking their heads against their respective walls and tell the rest of us how hard their writing lives are? They seem to savor their arduous fiction-writing lives and relish telling anyone who will listen.

I’m not saying I’m totally right, but here’s what I think is going on:

Many fiction writers have this romantic notion that artists must suffer. They believe that if they’re not suffering and complaining then they’re not true creators. Where did they get this idea? Well, from many famous writers and artists who have hidden their anguish with alcohol, drugs, bad behavior and annoying habits that drive those around them nuts. They wore the displeasure of their craft like a badge of honor.

The other errant notion is that creative types, like writers, are extreme, eccentrics or misfits and if you want to enter that group you must behave accordingly – and that includes telling everyone around you how difficult your craft is. If you don’t, then you’re not being really a creative.

Such nonsense.

You don’t have to be crazy and, moreover, you don’t have to act cray-cray just to fit into a misplaced notion that writers are a little off, weird or different. You can be normal and be a writer. All you have to do to be a writer is do the work.

I will concede that being a writer requires an open emotional life and that can manifest itself in day-to-day pain, discomfort and dislocation from society, but you don’t have to be a jerk about it to others or yourself. I will also acknowledge that good writers must dig deep inside to turn feelings into words and that can be a frustrating and often painful process. Doing this on a daily basis can make you a tad squirrely and you may want to vent. My advice is don’t. Try to foster a work/life demarcation like others who deal with raw, unsettling emotions like police, lawyers or Walmart employees.

One last point: Writing is a hard life and the work is difficult. The money doesn’t always come. You suffer rejection and disappointment in the pit of your being. You may not have the talent or temperament to be a writer, so why do it? Why do people insist that writing a novel is some pinnacle to be scaled no matter what the physical, emotional or spiritual cost? Not to sound harsher than I’ve been, but we don’t need any more books published. There are plenty. And…shhh… don’t tell anyone… if you don’t write your book, the world will still spin.

If you do continue to write, for god’s sake, stop freaking complaining about it. I’m tired of hearing it and guess what… so are your friends and loved ones.

Okay? Thanks.

PS – The irony of complaining about complaining did not elude me, so take that off the table when you’re composing your snarky responses.

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. 

Why Writers Should Watch “The Fear of 13”

Why Writers Should Watch “The Fear of 13”

By Larry Kahaner

If you agree that all prose – fiction or non-fiction – comes down to compelling storytelling, then the documentary The Fear of 13 is a must-watch. All writers can learn from it.

yarris shot.png

Click the image to watch the trailer

 

The movie concerns Nick Yarris, a convicted murderer who has spent 23 years on death row. Except for some flashbacks, the movie focuses on Yarris talking into the camera. Dressed in prison garb, seated in a dark cell, Yarris weaves a can’t-look-away tale of his incarceration, escape from prison (he was on the lam for about a month), then brought back to prison where he was beaten and abused by guards. He tells stories about his childhood, his drug addiction, the lives and loves of gay prisoners, how he met and married a woman who visited him behind bars, and how the new science of DNA would set him free – or would it? Did he really want it? At one point, fed up with prison he petitioned the court to comply with a convicted prisoner’s right to have his execution carried out. He wanted to die even though he professed his innocence.

This push-pull is the brilliance of director Don Sington. We are kept off balance as we rethink what is before us: Is Yarris still in prison or is the background simply a dark empty room? Is Yarris wearing convict clothes or a prison-type shirt? Was Yarris already executed and this is the story of his life? As his unbelievable account unfolds, you never know – until the end – and I’m not going to tell you.

While the director brings his skills, so does the convicted killer. At one point, before being thrown in solitary, a prison guard points Yarris to an empty cell and says “take those books with you.” Yarris, who only went as far as the 8th grade, complies. Is this another cruel bit of torture? Will the guard grab the books back or is it another way to catch Yarris breaking a rule so the guard can beat him? You don’t know until Yarris explains that this tiny act of kindness started him reading books for the first time. He consulted dictionaries to learn all the words he didn’t know. And there were plenty. Indeed, that’s where the title comes from. Yarris is proud to have learned the complicated word ‘triskaidekaphobia,’ the fear of the number 13.

As a prisoner, he had plenty of time to read. He says that he devoured over a thousand books, mostly popular novels, and this is clearly were he gets his storytelling prowess. He obviously learned what all writers know. If you want to tell stories, you must read, and read, and read.

His ability to grab the viewer and pull him in is outmatched by anyone I’ve read or seen in recent years. Again, the room is empty. It’s only Yarris. It’s only words, yet he never loosens his grip on you. You’re forced on the ride, and it’s a dark ride for sure.

His stories are so fantastic – and I mean that in the true sense of the word: “fantasy-like” – that the director was forced to disclaim at the beginning that Yarris’ stories have been verified. Whether he did or not really doesn’t even matter.

I defy anyone – writer or not – to watch Yarris and not appreciate his immense power of storytelling.

(P.S. – The movie came out in 2015. It’s available on Netflix and elsewhere.)

A New Era of Pulp Fiction?

A New Era of Pulp Fiction?

By Larry Kahaner

I have been waiting for an announcement like James Patterson’s “Book Shots” to cement my ongoing belief that the modern age of pulp fiction is upon us.book shots cover

Patterson’s new book machine is producing novels “under 150 pages for under $5.” It promises: “Life moves fast – books should too… Impossible to put down. Read on any device.” The website also touts: “All Thriller. No Filler.”

Swell, baby.

The reason for this foray into modern pulp with their short-page count and compelling covers is obvious. Our attention spans are shorter, and we all carry our phones and devices around with us. But the idea is cleverer than that. These books are first focusing on thrillers and romances therefore adhering to the top two reasons why people read novels: entertainment and escape. These genres offer both – in spades, sweetheart.

spicy detective - Copy           As many of you know, I’m a fan of pulp novels. I relish the fast pace, the vivid language and colorful characters. These pulps (named for the cheap paper they were printed on) spawned a stable of fast-writing authors who were paid miserly and, in order to make a living, churned out books by the cartful. In between books they wrote serials and short stories for magazines like Black Mask and Argosy. They moved back and forth with ease.

The books were short, cheap, (yes, I mean inexpensive) engaging, had tons of action, and their lurid covers promised titillation. Ditto for the pulp magazines.

From these pulpster ranks came great writers like Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammett, L. Sprague de Camp, John D. MacDonald and Robert Heinlein. They honed their skills by writing fast and hooking readers even faster.

What I see now mimics the age of pulps. Online magazines have taken the place of physical magazines along with lots of writers who are writing lots of books. I especially see this in the indie book explosion where many authors produce books by the score charging low prices and even giving away free copies to entice readers to their later works.

But here’s the killer difference. Most of the modern-day pulpsters are not working for  publishers who pay them a pittance. (I don’t know what Book Shots pays.) They’re taking a flyer on themselves, paying their own way into the self-publishing game and ginning up their own covers. They no longer need a jamoke with a printing press.USA Inc 25 May 2016 KINDLE

What happens next? Will we see world-class writers emerge from this burgeoning sea of modern pulp authors? Will publishing history repeat itself?

I certainly hope so. Between prolific indie authors and commercial powerhouses like Patterson’s Book Shots, everything is in place for a new generation of writers to pay their dues and take their place with the break-out pulpsters of the past.

Shameless plug: To read an excerpt from my Kindle Scout book “USA, Inc.” click here. If it is nominated, you get a free e-book and my appreciation.

Why an Establishment Author is Doing Amazon’s Kindle Scout – Part 2

Part 2: The Hidden Cleverness of Amazon

By Larry Kahaner

Amazon’s Kindle Scout program makes my head spin. It’s clever in ways that you don’t see. (Read “Part 1: The Weirdest Writing Thing I’ve Ever Done.“)

USA Inc 25 May 2016 KINDLE

Amazon has disrupted the traditional publishing business which consists of the following flow: the author who writes the book, to the agent who acts as a filter for publishers and the publisher who produces the book. The last link in the chain is the bookstore. In the olden days, the publisher would not only acquire, edit and print, but market, promote and sell the book. However, in the past few years, publishers have taken less of a role in marketing, promotion and publicity, leaving much of it to authors. (Except for top authors who still get this treatment even though their books don’t need it.) And publishers certainly do far less editing and working with authors’ writing than ever before.

At every step in this worn-out process, Amazon has inserted their monkey wrench. They took on bookstores by making physical browsing obsolete. You now can read the first few pages of any book on line without charge. You can even return an e-book if you don’t like it. For better or worse, bookstores are disappearing or morphing into coffeehouses.

Next, e-books. Although they didn’t invent e-books, they made it a real business. E-books cut publishers hold on physical printing. Unfortunately, e-books led to lot of crappy books, because Amazon and others made publishing  e-books just too easy. It’s a shame because a lot of really good books, from unknown and even known authors, are being drowned in a sea of publishing dreck. We need a filter, someone like an agent.

Behold: Kindle Scout.

When an author submits a book to Kindle Scout, the editors at Amazon (many of whom are highly-skilled editors laid off by the publishing industry during the recession) become the first filter, the job of agents. They don’t accept every book that comes their way which is a plus for potential readers because they don’t have to wade through a ton of poor books to find one they want to read.

But it gets better.

Readers, who are attracted to the cover and the teaser line, read the excerpt and vote if they would like to read more. Authors, of course, are compelled to not only produce a ‘selling cover’ but the promotional material, and then cajole readers to sample the excerpt. In essence, authors are doing the jobs that traditional publishers have given up on – which publishers now expect most authors to do anyway. As an incentive for doing this work, Amazon gives authors about half of the proceeds, a much larger chunk than traditional publishers.

But wait, there’s more.

If your book is not chosen to be published by Kindle Scout, many authors will then self-publish because they already have a great cover, followers who voted for their book and the confidence and marketing/promotion skills they learned during the campaign. Kindle Scout is like a training program for authors.

The best part is that readers have their pick of professionally-written, vetted books that are a cut above the slap-dashed self-published books that are flooding the market.
Bottom line for Amazon: They get to sell better-written books with compelling covers by authors who know the business side of writing.

Amazon is just so damn clever.

Shameless plug: To read an excerpt from my Kindle Scout book “USA, Inc.” click here. If it is nominated, you get a free e-book and my appreciation.

 

Why an Establishment Author is Doing Amazon’s Kindle Scout

Part 1: The Weirdest Writing Thing I’ve Ever Done

By Larry Kahaner

 

In my entire writing career, this may be the weirdest thing I’ve done – and I once interviewed a convicted serial killer who asked me to write a book exonerating him while he boasted of his crimes.

I am participating in Amazon’s Kindle Scout program as an author.

But before I get to that, and for those of you who don’t know me, I am a

USA Inc 25 May 2016 KINDLE

traditionally published non-fiction author. This means that big publishers have published my books. I’ve been doing it for a long while, and I’ve been successful which to me means that my books are on shelves where people can see them (at least for a while), they sell on line and I’ve made a living for my family. See my books here. I also do other writing jobs like ghostwriting, magazine writing and whatever else comes my way.

My name isn’t a household word, except in my own home – and even that’s not always a lock.

I have seen the publishing business change drastically in the past few years. Like many legacy industries, they’ve been buffeted by technology most notably e-books and the internet. Even if you don’t follow the book biz you’ve seen the changes: Remember browsing in bookstores? Have a Kindle or read on your iPad? Okay, so you’ve seen it, but do you also know that Amazon sells 45 percent of books sold in the US? That’s an astonishing statistic.

(Aside: I’ve been a business reporter most of my life – still am – worked at Business Week and other places and one thing that I’ve noticed about the publishing business is that nobody ever walked into a bookstore and said: “I’d like the latest Random House book, please.” I’ll leave that to the branding experts to parse.)

Amid all of this chaos, Amazon has introduced a program called Kindle Scout which is a hybrid of traditional and reader-powered publishing. The way it works is that people go onto the site, read excerpts of books, and nominate the ones they like. After 30 days, Amazon decides which of the books to publish through their imprint, Kindle Press. If you nominate a book that is selected for publication, you get an early, free copy of the book and the author receives a contract and $1,500. The more nominations a book receives, the more likely it gets discovered by the Kindle Scout team, but Amazon still has the last word.

Although you may not fully understand or appreciate the logic, the book business doesn’t see me as a potential novelist, only a non-fiction author. In essence, I’m starting over. (For example, my agent doesn’t handle fiction although she suggested a few people.)

I worked on my novel for about 3 years and now, what to do? In fact, why did I even write a novel? I wasn’t used to working without an advance, so that was new to me, but I wanted to see if I could write fiction. Think of it as professional curiosity.

Should I try traditional publishers? First, I would have to get an agent, then he or she would try to sell it. Next, it would take months or longer for a publisher to… and blah, blah, blah. I’m writing a thriller not YA, fantasy or romance – these are the hot spots – so I’m already an outlier. Here’s another factoid: 50 percent of all sold books are romance novels. And one more, the large publishers make most of their money from their top half-dozen authors. Think Stephen King, J.K Rowling, James Patterson and Jackie Collins. Nothing against these folks, but that’s where publishers focus their resources, because it’s where they make their money.

When I sat back with my evening martini, the thought of going through the arduous and time-consuming process of dealing with traditional publishers made the gin taste like kerosene and the olives turn mushy. I wasn’t in the mood to self-publish so Kindle Scout here I come.

I’ve already made the first cut – they don’t accept every book – and in Part 2, I will explain some tricks and tips that I can offer from my short experience if you’re interested in going this publishing route.

For now, to see my book “USA, Inc.” go here.  If you think this is a shameless ploy to get your vote, you’re wrong. Read the excerpts and decide if this is something you’d like to read further. It’s not just a popularity contest, or an exercise in social media vote-getting, but tantamount to skimming the first few pages of a book and saying: “Hey, this looks promising” or “It’s not really for me.” I like that aspect. It’s got some integrity. It’s one reason why I chose Kindle Scout.

“Part 2: What You Should Know Before Doing Amazon’s Kindle Scout,” coming up in a few days.

 

 

Five Reasons You Can’t Get Your Novel Published – And Why It’s Not Your Fault

Five Reasons You Can’t Get Your Novel Published – And Why It’s Not Your Fault

By Larry Kahaner

Dear Author:

            Thanks for sending us your manuscript. The plot is unique, the characters are compelling and the writing is top notch. It’s one of the best books we’ve ever read.Untitled

Unfortunately, it’s not right for us.

            Best Regards,

            The Publisher

 

What the…?

 

 

As an author with long-term success in publishing non-fiction books, I can tell you that publishing is not an easy game. It takes talent, perseverance and luck. Even more so for fiction writing. And missives like the one above seem to defy logic and common sense.

Let’s first dispatch the most obvious reason why you can’t get your novel published. Your book stinks. It’s poorly written, the characters suck and the plot is ridiculous. Assuming that’s not the case, that your book is just as good as, or better than, anything else out there, here are the top five reasons why a publisher won’t touch your novel.

1 – “We don’t have room on our list.” Legacy publishers are limited in how many books they publish every year. With so many good authors around they’re often booked solid for this year and maybe the next year. Some of their list is taken up with their perennial money-makers (think the James Patterson writing machine) and editors at these large houses are allowed a few new authors each year that they’re permitted to bet on. There’s not much room for others.

2 – “It’s not our kind of book.” Authors hear this a lot. You might be thinking “but I thought you published mysteries; mine is a mystery.” Your book may be just outside their comfort zone for many different reasons  – like there is a kidnapping and the editor doesn’t care for snatch jobs. Romance publishers often are sticklers for their own particular ironclad rubrics that can seem to outsiders as frightfully picky.

3 – “We’re not accepting any new books.” This is related to reason #1 but applies mainly to small, independent publishers who may publish only a handful of books annually. I’ve been a business reporter for decades and I’m often amazed at how companies (not just publishers) are reluctant to grow revenue by producing and selling more products – often out of fear of making it big or sacrificing quality control. For some smaller indies, producing more books and thus more revenue, might upset their cozy way of doing business. Again, this always strikes me as small-minded. Many industries are hamstrung by not having enough raw materials. Not so with publishing, If you have good authors clamoring for you to publish them, why not hire part-time or gig editors and production people who are willing to go with the ebb and flow of things?

4 – “It’s not a book that we know how to sell.” Publishers often will be blunt in saying these exact words or they’ll couch it by saying something similar to #2. In other words, they’re saying that your book doesn’t fit nicely into a genre that they recognize. For example, your protagonist might be an intergalactic PI. The publisher may know how to sell alien novels or PI novels but put them together and, ummm, we’re flummoxed. I find this shortsighted, too, because bestsellers often break these rules and do well for the publisher that takes a chance. Best example: When John Grisham tried to sell his first legal thriller publishers shied away because it was a new genre and it didn’t fit in with what they knew. Count how many rejections he received and how many books he’s written that have been blockbusters.

5 – “Right place wrong time.” An author friend of mine sold a book to a publisher that hadn’t been active in his particular non-fiction genre. As luck would have it, they were interested in expanding into this genre and were looking for a book such as his. Lucky guy. But it works the other way, too. A publisher may have just decided that they’ve had enough of one genre and are getting out of it for any number of reasons.

All of this should not discourage you. In fact, it should bolster you because these turn-downs are not under your control. You’re probably doing all the right things.

Here’s a last thought: The publishing industry is becoming more and more like the movie industry. Moviemakers are relying on the blockbuster film to help them turn a profit. Instead of making money on smaller movies throughout the year, they focus on only a few films and market the hell out of them to protect their expensive investments in exorbitant actor fees and promotion. When they fail, and they do, backers can’t complain too much because, ‘hey, it has George Clooney in it.’ It’s classic CYA.

On the other hand, we’re seeing this model get bashed by cable and streaming video companies like Netflix, HBO, Amazon and others who are producing lower cost films and making money doing it.

In the same way, I believe that e-books will disrupt the current book publishing model by lowering some production costs and taking book roster  constraints off the table for solid, hardworking and talented authors.

After the dust settles it will be a better time for authors and publishers.

It’s only a matter of time.

The Nexus of Art and Commerce

By Larry Kahaner with guest blogger zhyxtheman

Many writers have something important to say but they’re hamstrung by wanting to make their works commercial so they’ll sell well. In bending too far in that direction, they may miss the target they’re aiming for.

Zootopia_Soundtrack

Balancing art and commerce is never easy. Here, blogger zhyxtheman at Never Heroes discusses the issue.

 

The original was posted here.

 

Commercial Can Be Important

It is something that a lot of artists say, myself included. They don’t want to do shallow art just for the sake of selling it. There is no real interest in creating the next big franchise or money maker. That art is shallow. In fact, it may not even be art, and just a product people create to sell and line their pockets. There’s also a certain bitterness that more ‘important’ and ‘thoughtful’ fiction is not as widely seen as the latest big action film. People have a hard time quoting a French film about the Holocaust, but most people can drop lines from any Schwarzenegger action epic.

But commercial art can have messages that are important, and packaging it right can help that message reach more people.

Take for example the Disney film Zootopia. This recent smash has been making waves and gaining praise for much more than just its animation. While on it’s surface it looks like a mere cartoon about cute anthropomorphic animals, it discusses a much more important and relevant topic.

In Zootopia, the populace is divided into predators and prey, though the two no longer eat each other. A series of strange incidents start occurring where predators go insane and revert back to their predatory instincts. The two main characters are a cop bunny named Judy Hopps and a con artist fox named Nick Wilde, prey and predator respectively.

After uncovering that predators are reverting to their natural instincts seemingly without cause, Hopps holds a press conference, speculating that these attacks are due to natural instincts. The exchange between her and Nick after the conference sounds a lot like something out of a different kind of film.

Nick: Clearly there’s a biological component? That these predators may be reverting back to their primitive savage ways? Are you serious?

Judy: I just stated the facts of the case! I mean, its not like a bunny can go savage.

Nick:Right. But a fox could, huh?

Judy: Nick stop it! You’re not like them.

Nick: Oh, so there’s a them now?

Judy: You know what I mean! You’re not that kind of predator.

Nick: The kind that needs to be muzzled? The kind that makes you believe that you need to carry around fox repellent? Yeah the only thing I did notice that little thing on the first time we met. So l-let me ask you a question; Are you afraid of me? You think I might go nuts? That I’ll go savage? You think that I might try to eat you!?

Judy reaches for her fox spray. Nick’s face drops.

Nick: I knew it. Just when I thought someone actually believed in me.

 

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know what this movie is about. One reviewer said it best when they said  Zootopia was Disney’s answer to Crash.

crash

Some will say it’s a cheap bait and switch, advertising something as a children’s film only for it to be a ‘message movie.’ Here’s the thing though. Shouldn’t that be what mainstream movies try to do?

You see this in a lot of different eras and a lot of different genres. The 1980s saw a slew of highly commercial and highly profitable movies dealing with the Cold War and the dangers of nuclear proliferation. One of the most famous of which, War Games, had a computer attempting to start World War III, unable to tell the difference between the projections in its program and the real people it was going to kill. When the young hero, played by Matthew Broderick, uses a game of tick tack toe to teach the computer that nuclear war is a no win scenario, the computer laments the following:

“Strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

The preview audience cheered at the line.

Two of my favorite science fiction/horror films of all time, Alien and Aliens, feature strong anti-corporate messages. The best example is in Aliens where a corporate CEO, played by Paul Reiser, attempting to smuggle one of the deadly creatures back to Earth for use in their bioweapons division. When his plan is revealed, the heroic Ellen Ripley calls him to the carpet for his greed, saying he is lower than the monsters she and the marines are fighting.

“You know Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

 

While it’s sometimes popular to disregard commercial film and literature as being just that, the fact remains that this work is the most widely seen. Experimental art films are wonderful, visually stunning, and psychologically unsettling pieces, but they don’t appeal to the masses. A story about a young boy going to a school for wizards does. People may not be too interested in seeing another documentary warning about the dangers of climate change, but an adventure to preserve the beauty of the far away Pandora is something people will flock to. An anti-corporate message will bore most people, but throw in acid bleeding aliens and you will draw a crowd.

Important and relevant messages can reach a wide audience if they’re packaged right. This isn’t a cop out and it doesn’t diminish the purpose os your art. Doing this only increases its chances of reaching more people, ensuring your message is heard by a wider audience, and allows the to have fun while you’re discussing potentially hot button topics.

Balancing both commercial and topical art can be difficult, but if you go too far in either direction, you have failures. The Transformers movies may earn a lot of bank, but they’re pretty shallow and exploitive action films. A French art film about genocide may be well made and heartfelt, but people need to see it for the message to be heard. If you find the healthy middle ground, you can make something people love, something that lasts, and something that gives an audience food for thought.

Zootopia has a cast of cute animals, but it’s still about the problems our society continues to face with ethnic and racial groups continuing to mistrust and categorize each other. If that message is still there, who cares if it’s told with a fox and a bunny?

 

Writing Prompts are Dumb and a Waste of Time

By Larry Kahaner

I must say it, no matter how much you’re going to hate me: Writing prompts are dumb.

I don’t know any working writers who use them.

zombie prompts

Yeah, this is a real book.

Why would you spend time and energy on something that you’re not going to use, something that’s supposed to “get your creative juices flowing” and then toss aside?

Why not just start working on your short story, book, blog or whatever you’re trying to churn out? That’s how you get your creative spark ignited.

I know, I know… many new writers feel naked without the cloak of writing prompts. They love ’em. Websites have lists and lists of ideas like: “Write about a day in which everything went wrong” or “what would happen if we found out that we actually could breathe on the moon?” You want to write about these things? Fine. Go ahead and write a story or novel based on one of these premises, but why waste time writing a few pages just to get your engines revved?

I can hear the cries now: “But I need something that I can throw out as I get my ‘writing mind’ in gear.” What are you, a car on a cold day that needs to be warmed up? (Actually, you haven’t had to do that with cars for about the last 20 years.) I will admit that sometimes what we write first thing in the day is not as good as what we write a few pages down the line. That’s to be expected. The brain gets in the groove like it does for all jobs (not just writing) that we undertake. When you’re done for the day, week, or even the whole book, pronounce your work a first draft and rewrite it. That’s what writing is, not some phony-balony prompt that someone gives us.

My guess is that writing prompts were the product of creative writing teachers who didn’t think students were smart or creative enough to come up with their own ideas. Bull. Students have lots of great ideas. Let them loose. For whatever reason, the concept of prompts has been passed along to where there are entire books devoted to writing prompts. Don’t believe me? Go on Amazon.com and type “writing prompt books.” I saw one that touted “1200 Creative Writing Prompts.” They’re even broken down into genres like horror, mystery and romance. I saw prompt books that were written by cats and dogs.

It’s crazy.

Know who else likes writing prompts? Bloggers who write about writing. When you’re searching for something to write about just do a blog about prompts. Throw out a few ideas, and bing-bang, you’ve got a blog.

If you’re a writer, why waste your time with these distractions? Yes, that’s what prompts are. Distractions from your real writing. It’s no different than procrastinating, not wanting to do the hard work of writing. Some people call it ‘writers’ block,’ a concept which I don’t believe exists. Here’s my blog on this fallacy.

In their heart-of-hearts, why do people love prompts? They’re safe; no one will read them (unless you’re in class) so you don’t have to endure criticism of your work. More important, you can make believe you’re working on your novel (Hey, I’m writing, ain’t  I?) and you won’t feel so bad about not sitting your butt in the chair and really doing the work that needs to be done.

Is all this a bit harsh? I’m not sorry. Not a bit.

If you want to be a writer, stop being such a wuss. Forget prompts.

Just write.

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. Enjoy the trailer. 

Writing Lessons from a Pulpster

By Larry Kahaner

I just read The Pulp Jungle, the autobiography of author Frank Gruber.

Who?terror by night.jpg

Unless, like me, you’re a fan of pulp authors, you might not know the name or any of his pseudonyms like Stephen Acre, Charles K. Boston and John K. Vedder.

Gruber died in 1969 at the age of 65 and during his lifetime he was one of the world’s most prolific writers. He wrote more than 300 short stories for over 40 magazines, more than  sixty novels, and over 200 screenplays and television scripts.

His books have sold over 90 million copies and translated into scores of languages.

During his prime, he wrote more than 800,000 words a year. He worked in the morning; he worked at night. He wrote on weekends. He typed away on a manual typewriter for most of it.

By his own admission, some of his work was excellent. Some of it less so. But still he wrote.

He was driven to succeed as a writer, which to him meant he made a decent living for him, his wife and son despite receiving rejection after rejection. He never gave up and submitted his work sometimes retyping stories if the manuscript became dirty or torn from the overhandling of editors who refused them.

He mainly lived in New York with other pulp writers who were his friends, people you may have heard of like L. Ron Hubbard (Yes, that L. Ron Hubbard), Max Brand, Carroll John Daly and Cornell Woolrich. Like them, he started out working for ¼ of a cent per word until he broke into the ‘big’ magazines like Argosy, Field & Stream, Black Mask and Thrilling Detective. They would live in tenements, shimmy around landlords to whom they owed back rent, and made meals of ‘tomato’ soup which they fashioned from automat ketchup, hot water and free crackers that were meant for customers actually buying soup.

In case you were wondering, the name pulp was taken from the cheap paper pulp used in these magazines. When your writing took off, you would work for the more expensive glossy paper magazines that the writers called “slicks.”

It was an age, during and after the great Depression, when publishing houses came and went, producing hundreds of monthly or weekly pulp magazines for a population for whom reading lurid and exciting tales was solid entertainment and an escape from the economic horrors around them.

Next came dime paperbacks and Gruber and his fellow ‘pulpsters,’ as they called themselves, toiled to fill pages of these paperbacks that were tucked into back pockets and purses. It was the beginning of publishing houses that you probably have heard of like Dell, Penguin and Farrar & Rinehart.

It was a rough life, living hand to mouth, but they enjoyed whatever money they made (they usually picked up their paychecks in person on Fridays) and would get together for parties that evening. There was no food, just gin and some lemonade or seltzer as mixers. Gruber tells the story of one party at the temporary apartment of writer George Bruce that brings home the idea of what it meant to be a pulp writer.

 

“It was a rather small apartment and thirty-something guests were jammed into the place so that you could hardly move around. About ten o’clock in the evening George announced that he had a deadline for a twelve-thousand word story the following morning and had to get at it. I assumed that it was a hint for the guests to leave, but such was not the case at all. George merely went to his desk in the one corner of the room and began to bang his electric typewriter. George sat at that typewriter for four solid hours, completely oblivious to the brawl going on around him. At two o’clock in the morning, he finished his twelve-thousand words and had a drink of gin.”

 

Gruber and his fellow writers went where the money was. He wrote Westerns when they were in vogue, detective stories when they were big and horror stories when readers couldn’t get enough of the genre. Gruber went to Hollywood on and off where he wrote scripts and later TV shows. You might know some of his novels or short stories, that that were turned into movies, his original screenplays or his early TV shows: Zane Grey Theater, Death Valley Days, 77 Sunset Strip, Dressed to Kill, Terror by Night, The Kansan, The French Key and Shotgun Slade.

Towards the end of his career, Gruber made a good living but it took years for him to get there. Now, along with many other writers of his era, he is enjoying a resurgence among readers.

For today’s writers, his career offers many lessons.

First, never give up. The pulpsters understood that to be successful in the long run, to actually make a living as a writer, they needed quantity and quality. Competition among writers was fierce and editors were picky. You had to deliver good product and lots of it.

Second, accept that writing is hard work. It’s physically hard on the body and the mind. It’s not easy to sit for hours on end when it’s much more fun to go out.

Third, learn to live with all of this plus the loneliness.

He writes: “Only a writer who has endured the writing of a dozen stories, of a hundred, of four hundred, understands the agony that went along with those countless hours of mental aberration.

“And only a writer who has endured all of it knows about the terrible loneliness.

“A writer is truly alone. He sits and thinks, works and reworks his ideas, his thoughts. And then he writes and rewrites. And while he is doing all of this, he is utterly alone.”

Takeaway: If you can’t be alone for long periods of time, seek another line of work.

Fourth, write what sells. I know that many writers want to write what they want to write. Fine, maybe you’ll get lucky, but writing is a business and the customer wants what the customer wants. It doesn’t mean to pander, but it does mean to fulfill a current need.

Fifth, and last, understand that your stories must be, as Gruber put it, “unusual.” Heroes must be colorful, different, unique. His series characters were certainly that. There was a crime-solving encyclopedia salesman named Oliver Quade, Shotgun Slade who was a wild West private eye and the private eye team of Otis Beagle and Joe Peel who alternated between being legit detectives and swindlers depending upon if they got caught in the act of larceny.

The same ‘unusual’ tag applies to backgrounds themes, motives and murder methods. “The streets of the big city are not necessarily, colorful. If they’re not, make them so,” he wrote in his 11-points that all mysteries must contain. On the Thrilling Detective website you will find Gruber’s 11-points taken from The Pulp Jungle.

Gruber never forgot what readers really want above everything else. They crave to be transported away from their lives to a more ‘unusual’ place than where they’re living now. It may sound obvious but it ain’t easy to do.

It requires imagination, hard work and guts to write ‘unusual.’

 

 

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