The Non-Fiction Novelist

Helping at-work writers to become novelists

Archive for the month “January, 2015”

Why Writers Should Read Crap

Why Writers Should Read Crap

By Larry Kahaner

elsewhere

Thanks to sblazak.wordpress.com for this headline.

All writers get the same advice. Read the great writers; study the great works. Learn how seasoned, professional and successful authors get the job done. All true, but I maintain that it’s also crucial for writers to read crap to learn what not to do.

How do you know what’s crap? It’s not a book that didn’t sell well, although that sometimes may be a clue. It’s not one that received bad reviews either. Some of the world’s greatest books have garnered negative comments from critics. Crappy writing is like the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on what constitutes pornography. You know it when you see it. And you know it because you’ve mainly been reading good writing.

More concrete indications of bad prose are sections that make you go ‘huh?’ or that make you laugh because they’re so ridiculous even though the author meant it to be serious. It’s prose that’s boring, even if you can’t articulate why your mind is wandering. Crappy writing just doesn’t sound right to your ear.

Other bad writing signs include no variation in sentence length, too much telling instead of showing, overshowing, no drama, no emotion, backstories that are too long, unnecessary detail, and on and on. I’m not talking about mechanical problems with grammar or lapses in POV or tense but simple, bad freakin’ writing.

Here are some examples from real self-published books. I have changed the wording slightly so as not to embarrass the author.

Sample: “We have to move quickly, pal. We already have an elite team on its way to Nigeria to rescue the pilot. But these paratroopers are going to stand out like chocolate chips in vanilla ice cream without some assistance on the ground. I need someone to be there to meet them or they’ll be minced meat.”

What did you learn? It’s trite and boring because the writing is obvious, full of clichés and the ‘chocolate chips?’ Make it stop. Send the elite team? Why would you send the non-elite team? And yes, we do have to move quickly because moving slowly would… well.. you know.

Sample: “Hi, Bob! Sorry, I’m so late! She awkwardly returned the kiss, her kitbag bumping against her knees and her laptop bag hanging from one shoulder.”

What did you learn? First, cut the exclamation points. You’re allowed only a few per book and they should be reserved for “Look out!” like when a rock is falling on a character’s  head. Show me how she ‘awkwardly returned the kiss;’ don’t tell me. Last, who cares about her kitbag hitting her knee or that her laptop bag hanging from one shoulder? (Can a laptop even hang from two shoulders?) What does that sentence add? Mood, ambience, emotion, anything? Nothing! (I used the exclamation point because I felt that I was in danger.)

I was going to offer one more example, but this exercise made me a little sick to my stomach, so I’ll stop here.

Again, why read crap? So you know what not to do. You’re learning from others’ mistakes without people like me making fun of you in this blog. We are all guilty of lapses in writing judgment. I have made the same mistakes that I detailed here (which I seek and destroy in the rewriting process) especially because I come from the non-fiction side of writing books where some of these transgressions – like telling instead of showing – is not only acceptable but encouraged. In fact, one of the tenets of non-fiction writing is “tell people what you’re going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them.” Do this in fiction and you’re inviting readers to pummel you.

My advice is to read some crap every once in a while but not too much. And don’t pay for it. Please. Read the free samples on Amazon. You only have to read (thankfully) the first few pages to learn their abject lessons.

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.

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