Larry Kahaner

Helping at-work writers to become novelists

Archive for the tag “art & fear”

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.

Why Writing A Novel Is Like The AK-47 Rifle

Why Writing A Novel Is Like The AK-47 Rifle

By Larry Kahaner

ak image

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

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

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

The inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov – the weapon also goes by his last name – knew that it was not a perfect weapon, that it had flaws but he knew that it could operate underwater or be buried in the ground, dug up a year later, and still work. It’s not a precison, beautifully- constructed weapon like the U.S. M-16 rifle, but it did the job and, unlike the M-16, it didn’t have to be taken apart on a regular basis to be cleaned. In fact, the reason why the AK works so well is because it is not perfect. The parts don’t fit precisely together so dirt and gunk don’t accumulate in the mechanism. It just kicks out the muck and keeps firing.

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

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

They write:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let readers decide if it’s perfect or not.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: