The Non-Fiction Novelist

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Archive for the category “characters”

How Readers are Cheated Out of their Imaginations

How Readers are Cheated Out of their Imaginations

By Larry Kahaner

I read a lot of indie books. Let me rephrase that. I read the first few pages of a lot of indie books. Most are terrible, and it’s often clear from the get-go when they’re not going to get any better.

book imagination

Artist: Igor Morski 

I’ve railed about the lack of excellent indie authors (and also praised some glorious finds) so I won’t do it again here, but I do want to explain one of the most flagrant early giveaways that a book is gonna stink.

It is over-description, and lately I’m seeing a ton of it not only in indie authors but some traditionally-published writers as well.

Why do some authors insist on depicting the minute details of a house, a mountain a person? It’s annoying, exhausting and pegs them as amateurs.

There are a few reasons why they do this, I think. First, they believe that it’s easier to spend time getting down to the atomic level rather than thinking about where the story goes next. And they’re right – in a way. It is easier to keep describing something in detail instead of moving the story forward. This takes guts, creativity and hard work.

Second, they believe that readers want this. Some do, but most readers want movement more than anything. They want the story to progress. They don’t want to read a page describing a twig – I just read an entire opening page describing a small branch. Brutal. – or the weather.

Third, they believe that a long description sets the tone for the book. True, but you get more ambience if the description is short, full of emotion, energy and integral to the story instead of borne from the author’s indulgence.

In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King explains why he doesn’t overly describe characters.

 

“I’m not particularly keen on writing which exhaustively describes the physical characteristics of the people in the story and what they’re wearing (I find wardrobe inventory particularly irritating; if I want to read descriptions of clothes, I can always get a J. Crew catalogue). I can’t remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story of mine looked like – I’d rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well. If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can’t you? I don’t need to give you a pimple-by-pimple, skirt-by-skirt rundown. We all remember one or more high school losers, after all; if I describe mine, it freezes out yours, and I lose a little bit of the bond of understanding I want to forge between us. Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

 

Those who are familiar with my blog know that I’m a fan of noir and detective novels. These past writers and their current day successors know how to cram a ton of description into a few words. Following are some recent favorites of mine. Note how these writers don’t nibble at the edges, but get right to point. Some might say the writing is over the top, too melodramatic, but I say ‘bulls-eye.’

 

James Sallis in Drive describes a pickup truck.

“Jodie’s former ride was a Ford F-150, graceless as a wheelbarrow, dependable as rust and taxes, indestructible as a tank. Brakes that could stop an avalanche cold, engine powerful enough to tow glaciers into place. Bombs fall and wipe out civilization as we know it, two things’ll come up out of the ashes: roaches and F-150s. Thing handled like an ox cart, rattled fillings from teeth and left you permanently saddle sore, but it was a survivor. Got the job done, whatever the job was.”

Nic Pizzolatto is not only an author but a screenwriter. He created the HBO show True Detective. Here, in Galveston: A Novel, he depicts a woman that he meets.

“A woman emerged out the room behind the counter, her flesh so grooved and dehydrated it might have been cured in a smokehouse. It was sun-baked the color of golden oak and draped across jagged bones. Squirrel gray hair. Her eyeglasses had a square of duct tape holding them together at the center, and she pushed them up on her nose.

I recommend Dodgers: A Novel by Bill Beverly whose style is refreshing, unique, and at times deceptively simple.

“The town smelled like corn cooked too long.”

 

In Mike Dime by Barry Fantoni, the 1940’s  noir oozes off the page.

“The center of the room was filled by a four-seated, seal gray velvet sofa that Norma Summers had re-covered in gin stains. She planted herself with some difficulty on the arm of the sofa and tried to get me in focus. The flap of her housecoat fell open as she attempted to cross her legs. It let more thigh through than it should have, but her thighs were never going to bother me, and she was beyond bothering about anything but the next drink.”

 

And the last one. Notice how the description in Beggars of Life by Jim Tully seems common, almost bland, until the last line.

Bill had blond hair, and a sharp face. He had blue eyes, a straight nose, and a square chin. He was a heavy-set youth, and his shoulders were broad and powerful. He had no morals at all, and was as irresponsible as the wind.”

I harp constantly about authors not respecting their readers. One way writers dis them is with over-description. They’re saying: “I don’t trust you to have an imagination so I have to tell you everything.”

That’s not cool.

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. All my books have a money-back guarantee.

 

 

Why Writers Should Watch “The Fear of 13”

Why Writers Should Watch “The Fear of 13”

By Larry Kahaner

If you agree that all prose – fiction or non-fiction – comes down to compelling storytelling, then the documentary The Fear of 13 is a must-watch. All writers can learn from it.

yarris shot.png

Click the image to watch the trailer

 

The movie concerns Nick Yarris, a convicted murderer who has spent 23 years on death row. Except for some flashbacks, the movie focuses on Yarris talking into the camera. Dressed in prison garb, seated in a dark cell, Yarris weaves a can’t-look-away tale of his incarceration, escape from prison (he was on the lam for about a month), then brought back to prison where he was beaten and abused by guards. He tells stories about his childhood, his drug addiction, the lives and loves of gay prisoners, how he met and married a woman who visited him behind bars, and how the new science of DNA would set him free – or would it? Did he really want it? At one point, fed up with prison he petitioned the court to comply with a convicted prisoner’s right to have his execution carried out. He wanted to die even though he professed his innocence.

This push-pull is the brilliance of director Don Sington. We are kept off balance as we rethink what is before us: Is Yarris still in prison or is the background simply a dark empty room? Is Yarris wearing convict clothes or a prison-type shirt? Was Yarris already executed and this is the story of his life? As his unbelievable account unfolds, you never know – until the end – and I’m not going to tell you.

While the director brings his skills, so does the convicted killer. At one point, before being thrown in solitary, a prison guard points Yarris to an empty cell and says “take those books with you.” Yarris, who only went as far as the 8th grade, complies. Is this another cruel bit of torture? Will the guard grab the books back or is it another way to catch Yarris breaking a rule so the guard can beat him? You don’t know until Yarris explains that this tiny act of kindness started him reading books for the first time. He consulted dictionaries to learn all the words he didn’t know. And there were plenty. Indeed, that’s where the title comes from. Yarris is proud to have learned the complicated word ‘triskaidekaphobia,’ the fear of the number 13.

As a prisoner, he had plenty of time to read. He says that he devoured over a thousand books, mostly popular novels, and this is clearly were he gets his storytelling prowess. He obviously learned what all writers know. If you want to tell stories, you must read, and read, and read.

His ability to grab the viewer and pull him in is outmatched by anyone I’ve read or seen in recent years. Again, the room is empty. It’s only Yarris. It’s only words, yet he never loosens his grip on you. You’re forced on the ride, and it’s a dark ride for sure.

His stories are so fantastic – and I mean that in the true sense of the word: “fantasy-like” – that the director was forced to disclaim at the beginning that Yarris’ stories have been verified. Whether he did or not really doesn’t even matter.

I defy anyone – writer or not – to watch Yarris and not appreciate his immense power of storytelling.

(P.S. – The movie came out in 2015. It’s available on Netflix and elsewhere.)

Five Reasons You Can’t Get Your Novel Published – And Why It’s Not Your Fault

Five Reasons You Can’t Get Your Novel Published – And Why It’s Not Your Fault

By Larry Kahaner

Dear Author:

            Thanks for sending us your manuscript. The plot is unique, the characters are compelling and the writing is top notch. It’s one of the best books we’ve ever read.Untitled

Unfortunately, it’s not right for us.

            Best Regards,

            The Publisher

 

What the…?

 

 

As an author with long-term success in publishing non-fiction books, I can tell you that publishing is not an easy game. It takes talent, perseverance and luck. Even more so for fiction writing. And missives like the one above seem to defy logic and common sense.

Let’s first dispatch the most obvious reason why you can’t get your novel published. Your book stinks. It’s poorly written, the characters suck and the plot is ridiculous. Assuming that’s not the case, that your book is just as good as, or better than, anything else out there, here are the top five reasons why a publisher won’t touch your novel.

1 – “We don’t have room on our list.” Legacy publishers are limited in how many books they publish every year. With so many good authors around they’re often booked solid for this year and maybe the next year. Some of their list is taken up with their perennial money-makers (think the James Patterson writing machine) and editors at these large houses are allowed a few new authors each year that they’re permitted to bet on. There’s not much room for others.

2 – “It’s not our kind of book.” Authors hear this a lot. You might be thinking “but I thought you published mysteries; mine is a mystery.” Your book may be just outside their comfort zone for many different reasons  – like there is a kidnapping and the editor doesn’t care for snatch jobs. Romance publishers often are sticklers for their own particular ironclad rubrics that can seem to outsiders as frightfully picky.

3 – “We’re not accepting any new books.” This is related to reason #1 but applies mainly to small, independent publishers who may publish only a handful of books annually. I’ve been a business reporter for decades and I’m often amazed at how companies (not just publishers) are reluctant to grow revenue by producing and selling more products – often out of fear of making it big or sacrificing quality control. For some smaller indies, producing more books and thus more revenue, might upset their cozy way of doing business. Again, this always strikes me as small-minded. Many industries are hamstrung by not having enough raw materials. Not so with publishing, If you have good authors clamoring for you to publish them, why not hire part-time or gig editors and production people who are willing to go with the ebb and flow of things?

4 – “It’s not a book that we know how to sell.” Publishers often will be blunt in saying these exact words or they’ll couch it by saying something similar to #2. In other words, they’re saying that your book doesn’t fit nicely into a genre that they recognize. For example, your protagonist might be an intergalactic PI. The publisher may know how to sell alien novels or PI novels but put them together and, ummm, we’re flummoxed. I find this shortsighted, too, because bestsellers often break these rules and do well for the publisher that takes a chance. Best example: When John Grisham tried to sell his first legal thriller publishers shied away because it was a new genre and it didn’t fit in with what they knew. Count how many rejections he received and how many books he’s written that have been blockbusters.

5 – “Right place wrong time.” An author friend of mine sold a book to a publisher that hadn’t been active in his particular non-fiction genre. As luck would have it, they were interested in expanding into this genre and were looking for a book such as his. Lucky guy. But it works the other way, too. A publisher may have just decided that they’ve had enough of one genre and are getting out of it for any number of reasons.

All of this should not discourage you. In fact, it should bolster you because these turn-downs are not under your control. You’re probably doing all the right things.

Here’s a last thought: The publishing industry is becoming more and more like the movie industry. Moviemakers are relying on the blockbuster film to help them turn a profit. Instead of making money on smaller movies throughout the year, they focus on only a few films and market the hell out of them to protect their expensive investments in exorbitant actor fees and promotion. When they fail, and they do, backers can’t complain too much because, ‘hey, it has George Clooney in it.’ It’s classic CYA.

On the other hand, we’re seeing this model get bashed by cable and streaming video companies like Netflix, HBO, Amazon and others who are producing lower cost films and making money doing it.

In the same way, I believe that e-books will disrupt the current book publishing model by lowering some production costs and taking book roster  constraints off the table for solid, hardworking and talented authors.

After the dust settles it will be a better time for authors and publishers.

It’s only a matter of time.

The Nexus of Art and Commerce

By Larry Kahaner with guest blogger zhyxtheman

Many writers have something important to say but they’re hamstrung by wanting to make their works commercial so they’ll sell well. In bending too far in that direction, they may miss the target they’re aiming for.

Zootopia_Soundtrack

Balancing art and commerce is never easy. Here, blogger zhyxtheman at Never Heroes discusses the issue.

 

The original was posted here.

 

Commercial Can Be Important

It is something that a lot of artists say, myself included. They don’t want to do shallow art just for the sake of selling it. There is no real interest in creating the next big franchise or money maker. That art is shallow. In fact, it may not even be art, and just a product people create to sell and line their pockets. There’s also a certain bitterness that more ‘important’ and ‘thoughtful’ fiction is not as widely seen as the latest big action film. People have a hard time quoting a French film about the Holocaust, but most people can drop lines from any Schwarzenegger action epic.

But commercial art can have messages that are important, and packaging it right can help that message reach more people.

Take for example the Disney film Zootopia. This recent smash has been making waves and gaining praise for much more than just its animation. While on it’s surface it looks like a mere cartoon about cute anthropomorphic animals, it discusses a much more important and relevant topic.

In Zootopia, the populace is divided into predators and prey, though the two no longer eat each other. A series of strange incidents start occurring where predators go insane and revert back to their predatory instincts. The two main characters are a cop bunny named Judy Hopps and a con artist fox named Nick Wilde, prey and predator respectively.

After uncovering that predators are reverting to their natural instincts seemingly without cause, Hopps holds a press conference, speculating that these attacks are due to natural instincts. The exchange between her and Nick after the conference sounds a lot like something out of a different kind of film.

Nick: Clearly there’s a biological component? That these predators may be reverting back to their primitive savage ways? Are you serious?

Judy: I just stated the facts of the case! I mean, its not like a bunny can go savage.

Nick:Right. But a fox could, huh?

Judy: Nick stop it! You’re not like them.

Nick: Oh, so there’s a them now?

Judy: You know what I mean! You’re not that kind of predator.

Nick: The kind that needs to be muzzled? The kind that makes you believe that you need to carry around fox repellent? Yeah the only thing I did notice that little thing on the first time we met. So l-let me ask you a question; Are you afraid of me? You think I might go nuts? That I’ll go savage? You think that I might try to eat you!?

Judy reaches for her fox spray. Nick’s face drops.

Nick: I knew it. Just when I thought someone actually believed in me.

 

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know what this movie is about. One reviewer said it best when they said  Zootopia was Disney’s answer to Crash.

crash

Some will say it’s a cheap bait and switch, advertising something as a children’s film only for it to be a ‘message movie.’ Here’s the thing though. Shouldn’t that be what mainstream movies try to do?

You see this in a lot of different eras and a lot of different genres. The 1980s saw a slew of highly commercial and highly profitable movies dealing with the Cold War and the dangers of nuclear proliferation. One of the most famous of which, War Games, had a computer attempting to start World War III, unable to tell the difference between the projections in its program and the real people it was going to kill. When the young hero, played by Matthew Broderick, uses a game of tick tack toe to teach the computer that nuclear war is a no win scenario, the computer laments the following:

“Strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

The preview audience cheered at the line.

Two of my favorite science fiction/horror films of all time, Alien and Aliens, feature strong anti-corporate messages. The best example is in Aliens where a corporate CEO, played by Paul Reiser, attempting to smuggle one of the deadly creatures back to Earth for use in their bioweapons division. When his plan is revealed, the heroic Ellen Ripley calls him to the carpet for his greed, saying he is lower than the monsters she and the marines are fighting.

“You know Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

 

While it’s sometimes popular to disregard commercial film and literature as being just that, the fact remains that this work is the most widely seen. Experimental art films are wonderful, visually stunning, and psychologically unsettling pieces, but they don’t appeal to the masses. A story about a young boy going to a school for wizards does. People may not be too interested in seeing another documentary warning about the dangers of climate change, but an adventure to preserve the beauty of the far away Pandora is something people will flock to. An anti-corporate message will bore most people, but throw in acid bleeding aliens and you will draw a crowd.

Important and relevant messages can reach a wide audience if they’re packaged right. This isn’t a cop out and it doesn’t diminish the purpose os your art. Doing this only increases its chances of reaching more people, ensuring your message is heard by a wider audience, and allows the to have fun while you’re discussing potentially hot button topics.

Balancing both commercial and topical art can be difficult, but if you go too far in either direction, you have failures. The Transformers movies may earn a lot of bank, but they’re pretty shallow and exploitive action films. A French art film about genocide may be well made and heartfelt, but people need to see it for the message to be heard. If you find the healthy middle ground, you can make something people love, something that lasts, and something that gives an audience food for thought.

Zootopia has a cast of cute animals, but it’s still about the problems our society continues to face with ethnic and racial groups continuing to mistrust and categorize each other. If that message is still there, who cares if it’s told with a fox and a bunny?

 

Writing Lessons from a Pulpster

By Larry Kahaner

I just read The Pulp Jungle, the autobiography of author Frank Gruber.

Who?terror by night.jpg

Unless you’re a fan of pulp authors like me, you might not know the name or any of his pseudonyms like Stephen Acre, Charles K. Boston and John K. Vedder.

Gruber died in 1969 at the age of 65 and during his lifetime he was one of the world’s most prolific writers. He wrote more than 300 short stories for over 40 magazines, more than  sixty novels, and over 200 screenplays and television scripts.

His books have sold over 90 million copies and translated into scores of languages.

During his prime, he wrote more than 800,000 words a year. He worked in the morning; he worked at night. He wrote on weekends. He typed away on a manual typewriter for most of it.

By his own admission, some of his work was excellent. Some of it less so. But still he wrote.

He was driven to succeed as a writer, which to him meant he made a decent living for him, his wife and son despite receiving rejection after rejection. He never gave up and submitted his work sometimes retyping stories if the manuscript became dirty or torn from the overhandling of editors who refused them.

He mainly lived in New York with other pulp writers who were his friends, people you may have heard of like L. Ron Hubbard (Yes, that L. Ron Hubbard), Max Brand, Carroll John Daly and Cornell Woolrich. Like them, he started out working for ¼ of a cent per word until he broke into the ‘big’ magazines like Argosy, Field & Stream, Black Mask and Thrilling Detective. They would live in tenements, shimmy around landlords to whom they owed back rent, and made meals of ‘tomato’ soup which they fashioned from automat ketchup, hot water and free crackers that were meant for customers actually buying soup.

In case you were wondering, the name pulp was taken from the cheap paper pulp used in these magazines. When your writing took off, you would work for the more expensive glossy paper magazines that the writers called “slicks.”

It was an age, during and after the great Depression, when publishing houses came and went, producing hundreds of monthly or weekly pulp magazines for a population for whom reading lurid and exciting tales was solid entertainment and an escape from the economic horrors around them.

Next came dime paperbacks and Gruber and his fellow ‘pulpsters,’ as they called themselves, toiled to fill pages of these paperbacks that were tucked into back pockets and purses. It was the beginning of publishing houses that you probably have heard of like Dell, Penguin and Farrar & Rinehart.

It was a rough life, living hand to mouth, but they enjoyed whatever money they made (they usually picked up their paychecks in person on Fridays) and would get together for parties that evening. There was no food, just gin and some lemonade or seltzer as mixers. Gruber tells the story of one party at the temporary apartment of writer George Bruce that brings home the idea of what it meant to be a pulp writer.

 

“It was a rather small apartment and thirty-something guests were jammed into the place so that you could hardly move around. About ten o’clock in the evening George announced that he had a deadline for a twelve-thousand word story the following morning and had to get at it. I assumed that it was a hint for the guests to leave, but such was not the case at all. George merely went to his desk in the one corner of the room and began to bang his electric typewriter. George sat at that typewriter for four solid hours, completely oblivious to the brawl going on around him. At two o’clock in the morning, he finished his twelve-thousand words and had a drink of gin.”

 

Gruber and his fellow writers went where the money was. He wrote Westerns when they were in vogue, detective stories when they were big and horror stories when readers couldn’t get enough of the genre. Gruber went to Hollywood on and off where he wrote scripts and later TV shows. You might know some of his novels or short stories, that that were turned into movies, his original screenplays or his early TV shows: Zane Grey Theater, Death Valley Days, 77 Sunset Strip, Dressed to Kill, Terror by Night, The Kansan, The French Key and Shotgun Slade.

Towards the end of his career, Gruber made a good living but it took years for him to get there. Now, along with many other writers of his era, he is enjoying a resurgence among readers.

For today’s writers, his career offers many lessons.

First, never give up. The pulpsters understood that to be successful in the long run, to actually make a living as a writer, they needed quantity and quality. Competition among writers was fierce and editors were picky. You had to deliver good product and lots of it.

Second, accept that writing is hard work. It’s physically hard on the body and the mind. It’s not easy to sit for hours on end when it’s much more fun to go out.

Third, learn to live with all of this plus the loneliness.

He writes: “Only a writer who has endured the writing of a dozen stories, of a hundred, of four hundred, understands the agony that went along with those countless hours of mental aberration.

“And only a writer who has endured all of it knows about the terrible loneliness.

“A writer is truly alone. He sits and thinks, works and reworks his ideas, his thoughts. And then he writes and rewrites. And while he is doing all of this, he is utterly alone.”

Takeaway: If you can’t be alone for long periods of time, seek another line of work.

Fourth, write what sells. I know that many writers want to write what they want to write. Fine, maybe you’ll get lucky, but writing is a business and the customer wants what the customer wants. It doesn’t mean to pander, but it does mean to fulfill a current need.

Fifth, and last, understand that your stories must be, as Gruber put it, “unusual.” Heroes must be colorful, different, unique. His series characters were certainly that. There was a crime-solving encyclopedia salesman named Oliver Quade, Shotgun Slade who was a wild West private eye and the private eye team of Otis Beagle and Joe Peel who alternated between being legit detectives and swindlers depending upon if they got caught in the act of larceny.

The same ‘unusual’ tag applies to backgrounds themes, motives and murder methods. “The streets of the big city are not necessarily, colorful. If they’re not, make them so,” he wrote in his 11-points that all mysteries must contain. On the Thrilling Detective website you will find Gruber’s 11-points taken from The Pulp Jungle.

Gruber never forget what readers really want above everything else. They crave to be transported away from their lives to a more ‘unusual’ place than where they’re living now. It may sound obvious but it ain’t easy to do.

It requires imagination, hard work and guts to write ‘unusual.’

 

 

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.

What Authors Know About “Go Set a Watchman” That You Don’t

By Larry Kahaner

I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to write this, but it appears that I have no choice but to set things right about Go Set a Watchman, the newly-published work by Harper Lee.watchman

The screams and cries are becoming louder as the book rockets to the number one place on the bestseller list and shows no signs of falling. People, people, people… Atticus Finch as you know him from Mockingbird, and supposedly depicted in Watchman has not changed. He didn’t become a racist. He didn’t forsake you. He’s a different person altogether.

Authors know what I’m talking about but for the rest of you, let me explain.

Lee wrote Watchman first. She turned it in to her editor who told her to rewrite it from a different point of view. This is not an uncommon, request, especially for a first time author. When I wrote my first book, On the Line, I turned in my first one-third of the manuscript so my editor could see how I wrote, whether we were on the same page (heh) and whether my approach was what they wanted when they paid me my advance. He came back with excellent advice. Change my point of view from several people, to just one person who, after all, was the true focal point of the story. I rewrote it in that manner, and the book was published and did extremely well, hitting the business bestseller list, going to paperback, audio, the whole deal.

What did I do with the original draft? I threw it away. It wasn’t the book that the publisher wanted and it was tossed. It deserved to be tossed.

See where I’m going?

Lee wrote a draft. The publisher didn’t like it, she put it aside, and she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird which did even better than my book. Clearly, with the editor’s guidance, and I’m sure some additional thinking on her part, Lee decided that Atticus Finch was indeed to be the virtuous man that he ended up being. That’s the Atticus Finch that we all love, admire and feel connected to because he was courageous for his time. The Atticus in Watchman was a first try, a wrong draft  to be relegated to the wastepaper basket once the real book was finished. Unfortunately, the manuscript survived and it’s making the publisher lots of money and many readers unhappy. Some folks are so distraught that I fear ritual suicides or the complete dismantling of their moral tenets.

If you’ve ever seen DaVinci’s sketches of the Mona Lisa, they look nothing like what the masterpiece ended up as. Would anyone think those sketches were the real Mona Lisa? Of course not. They were drafts, first tries, a clearing of the mind on canvas, whatever you want to call it. Look at them. Study them, but don’t say they’re the Mona Lisa.

The same applies to Watchman. It’s not a sequel, prequel or any other ‘quel.’ It’s a standalone book that, if Lee had not written it, might now be amongst the other discarded drafts that all writers produce before they turn in their best work, the work that reflects their final and true thinking.

Okay, are we good on this?

How to Screw Up Your Novel: The Series Cheat

How to Screw Up Your Novel: The Series Cheat

By Larry Kahaner

I just finished reading a terrific book except for one thing. The ending was a cheat.

Every book must have one.

Every book must have one.

The author composed a quirky, clever main character with an animal sidekick that acts as a contract killer upon command. Very cool idea. The book moved fast, had an absorbing plot and the writing itself was workmanlike (one of my highest compliments) and even contained some flashes of wordsmithing brilliance.

But here’s the problem.

When I reached the end, the protagonist was left hanging in the middle of a predicament. Why? Because the author has a second book which he/she (I’m not giving you any more clues as to the writer’s identity) which takes up where the first book lets off.

Unfair.

As a reader, I deserve a satisfying and closing end to each book I read. If you want to have a second in a series, that’s great. If I like the first, I will most likely read the second and probably beyond, but I don’t want to be coerced or compelled by not having a real, honest-to-goodness ending to the first one.

I have many pals who write series, and they do it the right way. Each book stands on its own. This way, a new reader can dip into any book in the series and receive a satisfying experience without having to read the others. Trust me; if they like the book, they will read another one. Maybe the whole series. In fact, most readers are introduced to a series by the author’s most recently-published book, because that’s the one that publishers have hyped the most. This makes a complete, standalone experience even more crucial to a series’ success.

To write a successful series, an author has to insert enough backstory into each book so the new reader gets up to speed without boring those who already know the main characters. It’s actually not that difficult, but it does require some finesse.

Respect your audience; don’t cheat them out of an ending.

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Write the Steamiest Sex Scenes Ever: Guaranteed

Write the Steamiest Sex Scenes Ever: Guaranteed

By Larry Kahaner

When writers ask me how to write sex scenes, I always give them an answer that they hate.

Don’t do it.

Why?

It rarely works and makes you look like an idiot.

Men's Health UK

It’s what you don’t see that’s sexiest (Men’s Health UK)

I’m not sure why, but most authors, even famous and popular ones, can’t write a sex scene to save their lives. I have my theories as to why this is true but it doesn’t matter. No matter whom the author, their sex scenes often come out ludicrous or mechanical. Thriller writers are the worst offenders as are those transitioning from non-fiction to fiction.

Oddly enough, this even holds true for erotica writers. Each time they try to describe the sex act in a new and novel way, with the aim of titillating their readers with something different (and I applaud them for their effort), the result is often farcical.

I don’t mean to say that there aren’t strong sex scene writers out there. There are, but they are rare.

This dearth of bad sex scene writing even has its own award given by the Literary Review. Among the short list finalists his year were two Booker-winning novelists and one from a Pulitzer Prize winning author.

A Guardian article noted: “The Literary Review sets out to find ‘the most egregious passage of sexual description in a work of fiction,’ and describes it as ‘Britain’s most dreaded literary prize.’ Established by Auberon Waugh in 1993, its purpose is to draw attention to ‘perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction, and to discourage them,’ with former winners including Sebastian Faulks, A.A. Gill and Melvyn Bragg.”

Here’s some good (bad) news. “I think this is one of the strongest shortlists in recent years, containing some real literary heavyweights,” said Literary Review’s Jonathan Beckman.

Here’s an article about the winner, Ben Okri for the passage in his book The Age of Magic. This is Okri’s 10th book. He won the Booker in 1991 for The Famished Road and has received, among other prizes, the Commonwealth Writers’ prize, the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction and the Guardian Fiction prize. He’s no slouch but look what he wrote:

“When his hand brushed her nipple it tripped a switch and she came alight. He touched her belly and his hand seemed to burn through her. He lavished on her body indirect touches and bitter-sweet sensations flooded her brain. She became aware of places in her that could only have been concealed there by a god with a sense of humour.

“Adrift on warm currents, no longer of this world, she became aware of him gliding into her. He loved her with gentleness and strength, stroking her neck, praising her face with his hands, till she was broken up and began a low rhythmic wail … The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.”

Okri’s response to winning: “A writer writes what they write and that’s all there is to it.”

So, what to do about your sex scene?

Leave it largely to your readers’ imagination. Start with this: “She took his hand and they walked into the bedroom. Darkness fell.” Spiff it up a bit, talk about clothing, smells and lighting but NOT too much. Your readers will fill in the blanks with their own imaginations, and I can bet that it will be a million times sexier than what you could describe.

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.

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