Larry Kahaner

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How to Screw Up Your Novel: The Drop-In Character

How to Screw Up Your Novel: The Drop-In Character

By Larry Kahaner

I just finished a terrific book that had one major flaw. It’s a shame, too, because the book’s author is up there with Baldacci, Child and Crais. He’s not nearly as well known as these guys but he’s that good.

Beware the drop-in character.

Beware the drop-in character.

I won’t tell you the book or author so as not to embarrass him but my reason for telling you this is so you won’t make the same mistake. This goes for fiction and non-fiction writers.  Both can be prone to the same error.

The book is a business thriller that starts off with a bang (literally, if you know what I mean) and proceeds to bring in genius characters with their foibles, oddities and random proclivities that make you smile and keep reading. The plot concerns financial shenanigans. There’s a lot of computer type stuff, which I normally don’t like, but it’s done so well that it kept my interest.

Now here’s what happened.

A few chapters in, the most eccentric, fresh and compelling character I’ve read in years enters the picture but then you don’t see him (ok, maybe a few tiny times) until the end where he persuades the main characters to start a consulting team because they’re the best in the world at what they do. It appears to me that when he was done writing the book the author decided to turn it into a series. That’s cool, but he shouldn’t have introduced that great character unless he was going to use him the whole way through.

It’s wrong to parachute a character in – a unique one at that – and then not see him fully operate until the end of the book where he springs to life.

I get what the author was trying to do – and agree that it would make a great ‘book one’ of a series – but this was not the way to do it.

There were several choices the author could have made. First, rewrite the book to get the eccentric character intertwined from the start so he does not drop in unceremoniously at the end.

The second was to put him in the end of the book but do it so cleverly that the reader accepts it. How? Several ways come to mind. He could have been pulling the strings all along; he could have been the unknown person who dropped helpful hints to the main characters… a few more will come to me later.

So, did I enjoy the book? Yes, it was terrific and except for this one screw-up, it was nearly flawless. I even bought the second in the series, because, like I said, the author’s writing, plotting and storytelling is top notch. If he pulls this kind of stunt again, though, I’m getting a Kindle refund.

Why Do So Many People Write at Starbucks?

By Larry Kahaner

Why do so many people write at Starbucks?

The answer has to do with me going to Nevis.

View of St. Kitts from Nevis with rainbow bonus.

View of St. Kitts from Nevis with rainbow bonus.

Let me explain.

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

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

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

Dune_Shacks_of_Peaked_Hill_Bars_Historic_District

Dune shack of Cape Cod.

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

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

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

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

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

n p[eak

Nevis Peak

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

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

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

What if the US were run like a corporation and a madman was in charge? Check out my latest thriller USA, Inc. now available in eBook and paperback. Money-back guarantee. 

How Good Does Your Novel Have to Be?

By Larry Kahaner plainenglish

When I was just starting my non-fiction writing career, I wanted to be published in the Sunday New York Daily News magazine. I had been born and raised in Brooklyn and to me the pinnacle of  ‘getting in print’ was this publication read by millions. It was the tabloid newspaper for the masses and I wanted to reach that audience. For those who have not read the magazine, there was not much to the stories. They were mainly human-interest stuff, some sports, local color… you get the picture. Literary masterpieces they were not.

As much as I tried, I could not get them to buy my material. I tried for years and I was perplexed because I would read the stories and say to myself, ‘I can write better than this. Why won’t they take my stories?’

Fast forward to Boston University’s graduate school in Science Journalism where I met a professor to whom I was telling this tale. He said: “Maybe they don’t want anything better than what they have.”

The light bulb went on in my head. He was right. Not to sound cynical, but the editors were happy with the quality of the stories they printed. They didn’t want anything more clever, better written or exciting.

How does this to relate to novel writing? I read a lot of thrillers and some of them are what a reviewer friend of mine calls “perfectly fine.” They don’t blow the roof off the house or some such saying but they are enjoyable and satisfying to read. The most successful and bestselling authors know this. They don’t spend a lot of time concocting complicated phrases or sentences. They write simply, clearly and provocatively.

That’s the real secret of novel writing success. Fancy, witty and clever stories are okay… if you want to write them …  but nothing makes readers happier than a compelling story, simply told,  with a satisfying ending.

Leave the high falutin’ words for your dissertation. Just relate the story as if you were telling a friend. And, as I always say, you have only one job: make the reader turn the page.

 

Novelists, Find Your Voice

By Larry Kahaner

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

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

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

 

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

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

Rest assured that this is normal.

First, what is voice?

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

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

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

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

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

Read more…

Start Your Novel Off With a Bang

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by Mushymudpie at mushymudpie.deviantart.com/

By Larry Kahaner

Don’t Be A Victim Of Opening-Line Paralysis

I suspect you’re eager to keep reading because I have teased you with the notion that I can help you. That’s because I wrote a strong, provocative opening line.

Non-fiction writers, especially journalists, know about the importance of a strong lede. (Yes, we spell it that way in the biz.) I’m sure you do this for your own writing projects whether they’re reports, whitepapers or anything else you churn out.

Here are some ideas for writing compelling opening lines:

1 – Don’t worry about it – for now. For starters, just write anything that sounds halfway decent. There’s plenty of time to hone your awesome first lines later. To me, first lines are like titles; you have working titles and then make it better when you’re done with the book. Don’t let ‘first line perfection’ hold you up.

2 – Study classic first lines. Although this list purports to be the 100 best first lines, some are stinkers, (especially the longer ones) but most are excellent. Why? See the next point.

3 – As a writer you have just one job. Get readers to read the next line and then the next and the next and then get them to turn the page. If you can do that, you are on the way to being successful. See my guest blog about coercing readers to turn the page on The Thriller Guy’s blog.

The best first lines compel you to continue reading. They are provocative. They make you curious about what comes next.

Check out the opening lines of my novel-in-progress:

Read more…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more…

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