The Non-Fiction Novelist

Helping at-work writers to become novelists

Archive for the month “September, 2014”

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:

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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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“There’s nothing wrong with using said,” he said.

By Larry Kahaner
One of the first things non-fiction writers learn is to use is phrases like … she said, he noted,  or she stated, after a quote. They use these words because they are neutral and unbiased, which is what you want in a press release, report or some other business document.

However, once these same folks try their hand at fiction writing, these phrases become she chortled, or he postulated, or even she puzzled. Worse yet, I’ve seen he said, quizzically and she said, longingly. Yuk.

There is nothing wrong with using simple, clear language after a quote – even in novels. Especially in novels.

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It’s okay to write ‘said.’

Said works. And it works well.

Strong dialogue shows how a person feels. You don’t need to explain it by using a word to modify how he felt when he just spoke the words. If you find yourself needing such a modifier, though, then rewrite the quote to reflect it. Make the dialogue stronger, more meaningful. Alternatively, there’s nothing wrong with adding another phrase or sentence like: … he said, offering his hand in friendship. Another way to go about this is: …he said. Bob knew they would be friends for a long time.

I know what you’re thinking. I read my manuscript and there are too many, … he saids. It doesn’t look right on the page because my dialogue is fast back and forth. The lines are short. If that’s the case, leave out some saids. The reader won’t lose track of who’s talking.

Like this:

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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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