Larry Kahaner

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.’

 

 

Why an Established Author is Going Indie

By Larry Kahaner

Sheri McInnis has enjoyed success with big publishing houses, but is now going indie with her new books.

sheri mcinnis

Sheri McInnis

Why not go with the big houses if they’ve published you before? Sheri explains it in the following blog entry in ways that make sense for many professional authors. She may be on the cutting edge of book publishing these days with phrases like “multi-published author” making the rounds. A multi-published author is someone who publishes both with traditional publishers as well as independently. (I know; some use the phrase to mean something different.) We’ve witnessed an increasing amount of crossover lately especially from authors who publish an e-book on their own, which is then bought by a legacy publisher. (Witness the self-published book The Martian, later bought by Crown and now a movie blockbuster.) Or, in some cases, traditionally-published authors who, for their own reasons, want to publish a particular work independently – like Sheri. The lines are blurring.

I often voice a low opinion of indie books. Just like anyone with a smartphone seems to think they’re a photographer, anyone with a computer and an internet connection reckons that they’re an author. Yeah, they’re an author, technically speaking, but their stuff often stinks because there is no filter, a role that agents, editors and legacy publishers filled. This sieve kept a lot of poor writing from reaching the bookshelves. Not always, but often. On the other hand, nothing gives me a greater surprise than to read an indie author who has penned a book to make a publisher wish they had paid closer attention to their slush pile. Here’s a recent find: Dream Brother: A Novel by Brian Marggraf. And another: Mintwood Place by Bob Gilbert. One more: The Test of Time by Allen Appel (Allen is a colleague who was also published by large houses).

Thanks to Gordon A. Wilson, on whose website this first appeared, and to Sheri for permission to publish her post.

 

 

The Top 5 Reasons I’m Self-Publishing – Instead of Going Back to the Big Guys

by Sheri McInnis @SLMcInnis

1) CONTROL

I’ve worked with some of the most successful editors in the business – and I was especially fond of my first one at Atria. But that didn’t make the revision process any easier.

Because as much as publishers hail creative freedom, unless you deliver an ‘approved manuscript’ your book won’t even be published. That means there’s subtle pressure on you to take your editor’s notes – whether you agree with them or not.

The editor isn’t the only one who requests changes either. Notes will come from your agent, the editorial assistant, even the publisher. And their input can range anywhere from the helpful to the heartbreaking.

Even the marketing department gets in on things. For instance, the marketing people didn’t like the original title of my first book, so the publisher changed it to Devil May Care. Bad luck for me because at around the same time another ‘devil’ book came out. But you probably heard of that one.devilmaycare

The Devil Wears Prada was so popular, people didn’t just confuse the titles – they actually thought I was Lauren Weisberger! One bookstore manager was so excited to meet because my book was “just flying off the shelves!”

You can’t imagine how disappointed we both were when I got to the store and he had a huge stack of Prada waiting for me to sign.

Remember, there are lots of people who get involved in publishing your book,  and as the author you aren’t the one with the most control.

 

2) TIMING

Even if I signed a contract tomorrow, the book wouldn’t hit the shelves for at least eighteen months – probably more. I simply don’t want to wait that long.

For one thing, I’m not getting any younger. But most importantly, the main part of the book takes place in 2021. There are technological advances and environmental disasters that only make sense with a believable padding of time.

I also have a specific release date in mind – November 11. The book – a supernatural thriller called The Hunter’s Moon – is about witches and this date is pivotal to the main character’s story arc.

But unless I’m Stephen King or Sophia Kinsella, it would be crazy to request a particular release date from a publisher. They have hundreds – if not thousands – of titles carefully staggered over many seasons.

Even then, a publisher has the right to change the release date – which happened on my second book, By Invitation Only. A more popular writer bumped the release by a month. That writer was Sophie Kinsella.

 

3) MONEY

Just a handful of years ago, even a mediocre book advance was in the fifty thousand dollar range (that’s what mine were; though I shared the second with my co-writer).

Unfortunately, publishers didn’t fare well after the 2008 recession. My (former) agent told me most advances were down to about 10% what they were – and the business is still recovering.

The downturn also resulted in less money for promotion. Book tours, launch parties and flashy displays are for only a lucky few writers. So whether you self-publish or not, you still have a huge job of promoting the book yourself – both in terms of time and money.

There are still great book advances out there. Romance writer Jasinda Wilder recently signed a 7-figure book deal with Berkley. Of course she had quite a bit of success already. She’d sold two million e-books as an indie author.

What I find most interesting is that even with a big contract, Jasinda is going to continue to self-publish some titles. According to the Guardian, the most financially successful –  and happy – writers are ones with a foot in both camps.

 

4) PRACTICALITY

In all honesty, it would probably take years – if ever – for me to get another book deal. Neither of my novels were disasters but they didn’t perform as well as expected. What’s worse, I turned into an emotional wreck after the books flopped and actually gave up writing fiction (twice), meaning I wasn’t able to quickly write another book to bounce back.

So why would a publisher take a chance on me when there are so many great first-timers out there? Or thousands of bestselling indie authors who already have a loyal following?

Over and above the performance of my books, I’m launching into a genre that I have no experience in. There’d have to be a lot of changes in the publishing world before someone signed me simply because ‘this idea came to me in a dream.’

If I want to continue writing, I really don’t have a choice but to go indie. Which brings me to  …

 

5) BECAUSE I CAN

Since the beginning of the printing press, books have been expensive and complicated to produce, which is why authors have always been dependent on publishers to print and distribute their work.

However, in just a few short years, indie writers have changed the game completely. Today every writer on the planet has the opportunity to reach millions of readers, and there isn’t the same stigma to self-publishing that there once was. That’s not just a change in the publishing world. It’s a revolution in the way stories are told.

Whether you decide to follow the holy grail, choose to self-publish – or try some combination of the two – it’s an exciting time to be a writer. Telling stories is what really counts, no matter how we get it done.

 

Don’t Hate Me Because I Write Fast

By Larry Kahaner

I write fast.

I write fast because that’s just how I learned to write, lo those many years ago, when I was a newspaper reporter. You wrote fast because the job demanded it. You had your notes in front of you, the clock was ticking, editors were waiting for copy, and you hit the keys and didn’t pick your head up until the story was done. You read it over quickly, made your changes, made sure you didn’t say something dumb or wrong, and handed it in. You didn’t use fancy words or clever turns if it meant that you slowed down the process. If you weren’t sure of something you either left it out or used some weasel words to make it accurate and beyond the reach of libel lawyers. The key was to do the best you could in the time you had.

I write fast. What of it?

I write fast. What of it?

It was the finest training for any writer, and I’m grateful to have had that experience.

Even now, when I don’t have to write fast, I still do.

There are benefits. For one thing, you get done with your work sooner. Who doesn’t want that?

Second, there’s no time for self-censorship which is the bane of many writers. Sure, you make mistakes, don’t use exactly the word you want but you can fix it later in the editing process, which is a slower and more thoughtful activity. I have a buddy who’s working on a thriller and he stopped in mid-sentence and asked me about which firearm his hero should be using in a specific situation. (I’m the author of a book about the AK-47 so I know some stuff about guns.) Anyway, I gave him the answer off the top of my head but then told him that it didn’t matter right now. I told him to just write the word “rifle” and fix it later. By stopping to think about the perfect rifle, he not only lost his train of narrative thought, but slowed his writing momentum. Writing is physical exercise, like walking or running, and when you stop, it’s sometimes difficult to get moving again.

Third, you don’t suffer writer’s block. How can you if you never stop moving?  As I’ve said many times before, there’s really no such thing as writer’s block even though some writers insist on believing that it exists.

Over the years, people have asked me how long it takes to write a particular story, article or book. When I answer, I often have to endure the usual comments about how can I write well if I do it so fast. If I’m even inclined to answer, which sometimes I’m not, I point to other writers who’ve written quickly. (Thanks to Kristen Lamb’s blog for this list.)

To wit:

  • William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks.
  • Ernest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises in six weeks.
  • After being mocked by a fellow writer that writing so fast created junk, John D. MacDonald wrote The Executioners in a month. Simon & Schuster published it in hardback. It was also serialized in a magazine, selected by a book club, and turned into the movie Cape Fear 
  • Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in nine days on a rented typewriter.
  • Isaac Asimov was the author/editor of over 700 books during the course of his career.
  • Stephen King writes 1,500 words a day every day of the year except his birthday. He’s published over fifty novels, and I don’t even know how many short stories and novellas. Let’s just say he’s written a LOT. Could he have done this writing a book every three years? Every five?

The truth is that just because you write quickly does not indicate that your writing is either good or bad, which brings me to National Novel Writing Month. It’s going on now. For those of you unfamiliar with it, every November participants aim to write 50,000 words during the month. NaNoWriMo, as it’s called, is voluntary and you can keep track on line. If you accomplish the goal, you receive bragging rights and some words that you can rewrite at a more measured pace.

One of the main objectives of this exercise is to keep would-be writers as well as experienced authors from slogging along in misery whilst trying to write their novels. By moving so quickly, you don’t have time for self-flagellation, malingering or complaining about how difficult writing can be (boo-hoo).

Does NaNoWriMo produce some solid books? Yes, it does. Some great books. It also produces some awful crap, because speed has nothing to do with quality.

I’m not ashamed of being a fast writer. Still, this is one of those times that I’m not going to tell you how long it took me to write this blog post. Just reread the author list above, okay?

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.

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.

What Authors Know About “Go Set a Watchman” That You Don’t

By Larry Kahaner

I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to write this, but it appears that I have no choice but to set things right about Go Set a Watchman, the newly-published work by Harper Lee.watchman

The screams and cries are becoming louder as the book rockets to the number one place on the bestseller list and shows no signs of falling. People, people, people… Atticus Finch as you know him from Mockingbird, and supposedly depicted in Watchman has not changed. He didn’t become a racist. He didn’t forsake you. He’s a different person altogether.

Authors know what I’m talking about but for the rest of you, let me explain.

Lee wrote Watchman first. She turned it in to her editor who told her to rewrite it from a different point of view. This is not an uncommon, request, especially for a first time author. When I wrote my first book, On the Line, I turned in my first one-third of the manuscript so my editor could see how I wrote, whether we were on the same page (heh) and whether my approach was what they wanted when they paid me my advance. He came back with excellent advice. Change my point of view from several people, to just one person who, after all, was the true focal point of the story. I rewrote it in that manner, and the book was published and did extremely well, hitting the business bestseller list, going to paperback, audio, the whole deal.

What did I do with the original draft? I threw it away. It wasn’t the book that the publisher wanted and it was tossed. It deserved to be tossed.

See where I’m going?

Lee wrote a draft. The publisher didn’t like it, she put it aside, and she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird which did even better than my book. Clearly, with the editor’s guidance, and I’m sure some additional thinking on her part, Lee decided that Atticus Finch was indeed to be the virtuous man that he ended up being. That’s the Atticus Finch that we all love, admire and feel connected to because he was courageous for his time. The Atticus in Watchman was a first try, a wrong draft  to be relegated to the wastepaper basket once the real book was finished. Unfortunately, the manuscript survived and it’s making the publisher lots of money and many readers unhappy. Some folks are so distraught that I fear ritual suicides or the complete dismantling of their moral tenets.

If you’ve ever seen DaVinci’s sketches of the Mona Lisa, they look nothing like what the masterpiece ended up as. Would anyone think those sketches were the real Mona Lisa? Of course not. They were drafts, first tries, a clearing of the mind on canvas, whatever you want to call it. Look at them. Study them, but don’t say they’re the Mona Lisa.

The same applies to Watchman. It’s not a sequel, prequel or any other ‘quel.’ It’s a standalone book that, if Lee had not written it, might now be amongst the other discarded drafts that all writers produce before they turn in their best work, the work that reflects their final and true thinking.

Okay, are we good on this?

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.

Drugs: The Author’s Other Drug of Choice – Part 1

Drugs: The Author’s Other Drug of Choice – Part 1

This guest blog from former workmate Gerald 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.

Here’s Part 1 of his report.

“Drugs are a bet with your mind.” –  Jim Morrison,  1943-1971, poet, songwriter.

baudelare

Charles Baudelaire: Proud member of the Club of Hashish Eaters

In the 19th Century the drugs of choice for writers and poets was opium and hashish, expanding to a cornucopia of substances in the 20th Century.

Why the link? R. Douglas Fields, a neurobiologist, writes on a Scientific American blog: “Statistics show that among all categories of creative artists, writers suffer by far  the highest incidence of bipolar disorder. . . Cured of their mental illness, such artists and writers would be gutted of their creativity and stripped of the means to realize it.”

And many artists who have “healthy minds choose to accept the Faustian bargain an induce madness with drugs to reach new summits in their art. . . some artists are willing to endure the self destruction of devastating mood disorders and psychosis of mental illness to fuel creative works of art by deliberately inducing these mental states with drugs to unbalance an otherwise health brain.”

OPIUM

Cultivation of opium poppies for food, anesthesia and ritual  purposes dates back to the Neolithic Age. It was a potent form of pain relief for thousands of years. Widespread use of opium continued through the American Civil War, before giving way to morphine, which is processed from opium.

In 19th Century Britain, opium was cheap, legal and widely available. Morphine was commercially available by the early 1820s.

English essayist Thomas De Quincey, 1785-1859,  tried opium in 1804 to relieve the pain of a toothache, taking it in the form of  laudanum – as many Victorians did – a tincture of opium dissolved in alcohol. The effect was immediate and transported De Quincey to another realm.

He wrote that the pain vanished and he was “swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me — in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed. Here was a panacea for all human woes: here was the secret of happiness. . .  happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket: portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint bottle: and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail coach.

 De Quincey was addicted within a few years and tried kick the habit with little success.

 De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater  (1821) launched a fascination with drug use and abuse, writes Robert Morrison,  Queen’s National Scholar at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. De Quincey “invents recreational drug taking, but he also details both the lurid nightmares that beset him in the depths of his addiction as well as his humiliatingly futile attempts to renounce the drug.”

John_Keats_by_William_Hilton

John Keats: Opium Guy

De Quincey described the dark side of opium addition in Confessions, noting the states of gloom “amounting at last to utter darkness,” and lurid nightmares of persecution, violence, incarceration, and death,” Morrison writes.

However, De Quincey overbalanced “on the side of the pleasures of opium; and…the very horrors themselves, described as connected with the use of opium, do not pass the limit of pleasure.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote that his poem, Kubla Khan, was composed one night after experiencing an opium-influenced dream, before which he read a work describing Xanadu, the summer palace of the Mongol ruler and  Emperor of China Kublai Kahn. Lord Byron, John Keats and Percy Shelly all used opium.

Did it help make them great poets?

M.H. Abrams for his senior honors thesis at Harvard in 1934 wrote how an opium-using poet, “utilized the imagery from [opium induced] dreams in his literary creations . . .”

The great gift of opium, Abrams wrote,  “was access to a new world; one which ordinary mortals, hindered by terrestrial conceptions, can never, from mere description, quite comprehend. It is a world of twisted, exquisite experience, sensuous and intellectual.”

Before your reach for the pipe or the laudanum, consider Althea Hayter’s 1968 book, Opium and the Romantic Imagination.  Hayter suggests that opium use reveals “some of the semi-conscious processes by which literature begins to be written.”

Opium-induced dreams may have inspired the Romantic poets, Hayter writes, but opium works “on what is already there in a man’s mind and memory.”  What separates the Romantic poets from the run-of-the-mill opium users – and less talented writers –  is being able to communicate these visions in a poem.

Opium might provide “that heightening of experience that every poet wants to feel and then to impart. . . But it can never be a substitute for innate imagination . . .”

Although opium may present the writer with unique material for his poetry, “it will probably take away the will and the power to make use of it.”

Opium won’t transform you into the next Byron or Shelly. Not even close. Opium’s better known cousin today is heroin, which is derived from morphine. Heroin will not put you on the road to literary brilliance, but it can kill you. You certainly don’t need me to tell you that.

HASHISH

Confession, and I can say this because I am not planning to run for office, I smoked pot and I inhaled. I never attempted to write while I was high. I never wanted to do much of anything, as I recall.

Napoleon’s troops discovered hashish in Egypt and brought cannabis back to France where it became a popular recreational drug.

The Club des Hachichins (Club of Hashish Eaters), active from 1844 to 1849,  numbered Charles Baudelaire and Alexandre Dumas among its members. Baudelaire reportedly didn’t personally use hashish much, but observed the effects of the drug.  In 1860 he published  Les Paradis Artificiels  (Artificial Paradises).

“It sometimes happens that people completely unsuited for word-play will improvise an endless string of puns and wholly improbable idea relationships . . . But after a few minutes, the relation between ideas becomes so vague, and the thread of your thoughts grows so tenuous, that only your cohorts… can understand you.”

Been there, done that.

“At first, a certain absurd, irresistible hilarity overcomes you,” he wrote.  “The most ordinary words, the simplest ideas assume a new and bizarre aspect. This mirth is intolerable to you; but it is useless to resist. The demon has invaded you…”

The senses become “extraordinarily keen and acute . . . In sounds there is colour; in colours there is a music…” Baudelaire wrote. All is “complete happiness. There is nothing whirling and tumultuous about it. It is a calm and placid beatitude.”

Every philosophical problem is resolved. Difficult questions become clear and transparent. “Man has surpassed the gods.”

Eventually you come down, of course, and Baudelaire concluded that while hashish enhances the imagination it is highly dangerous to subordinate all such processes to the drug. For the creative artist to believe that they can create only when “high” is a disaster.

Based on my limited personal experience, the last thing I wanted  to do when high was sit in front of a typewriter (did I mention that it was a long time ago), and write. Taking Baudelaire at his word, I think it unlikely the legalization of pot will lead to a literary renaissance in Colorado. However, it may become the most blissfully happy state in the country.

End of Part 1

Watch this blog for Part 2 of Drugs: The Author’s Other Drug of Choice

 

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