Larry Kahaner

Helping at-work writers to become novelists

Archive for the tag “novel writing”

The Trouble With Flashbacks and Backstories

By Larry Kahaner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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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:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Can You Model Successful Novelists?

By Larry Kahaner

Modeling successful people works, but in their desire to do what novelists do, many new writers often ask the wrong questions: Do you write in the morning? Do you use a pen? Does whiskey help? Which notebook is the best? These are superficial queries that don’t get to the essence of becoming a successful author.

Ask any professional writer and he or she will say the same exact thing:

anatomical-studies

Successful writers, like artists, do sketches for practice.

Sit in your chair and write.

 Many people don’t want to hear this because it means hard work. It’s much easier to buy the exact pen that your writer hero uses or purchase that ‘special’ notebook.

 Writing is hard, but the more you write, the easier it gets. Big surprise. Even the best baseball players still take batting practice every day because the more they do it, the easier it becomes to hit the fastball. This goes for everything in life.

So, how can a new writer practice if he or she doesn’t have a book in the works (or even if he does)? Here’s something that I’ve used and it might work for you. Watch people around you. Coffee shops provide a good venue. So does your workplace. Sitting in public transit offers opportunities. Eavesdrop on people. You don’t have to catch everything they say. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. Notice their mannerisms, their clothing, how they move their hands, how they express themselves…

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Fictional Villains Must Still Kick the Dog

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

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

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

How to do this? Simple.

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

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

 

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

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Writer’s Block and other Writing Myths

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

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

 

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

 

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

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