The Non-Fiction Novelist

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Your Novel Ain’t Perfect. Let It Go.

By Larry Kahaner

I’m thinking a lot about what I’ve done for a living during the past 30 years. As a writer, journalist and author (mainly non-fiction and now a novelist) I every so often I come upon a sentence, a phrase, a thought about what it means to be a writer that strikes me hard where I stand. Usually, it’s something I learned that has helped turn me into a working writer.dali perfection

I was reading a blog the other day by the folks at the art of storytelling and a sentence resonated with me. “Most new writers start as perfectionists and must unlearn this to become true writers.”

For sure. I’m lucky that I learned this early on while in the newspaper business where you didn’t have time to torment yourself over your precious words.

I’ve been harping about this issue for years. I even wrote a blog about it. I compared novelwriting to the AK-47 rifle. The AK, if you’re not aware, is the most used weapon in the world and it has several characteristics that make it so popular. It’s cheap, easy to make, easy to use — and it’s not perfect. Yes, that last one is a positive attribute.

I’m quoting here from my post:

“It’s not a precision, 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.”

When newish writers ask me for advice I tell them to write the best that they can, but don’t obsess over every word or even every sentence. You can never make anything you write perfect. It’s impossible. (For another take on letting go see Cristian Mihai’s blog on the subject.)

One of my mentors once gave me the following advice. “Anything that’s written can always be made better.” Once you understand and believe it, you can proceed with your work and not get caught in the snare of perfection.

Even the best writers offer flawed prose but hide it among solid, serviceable, engaging and compelling bodies of work.

By definition, I believe that writing – like any craft or art – is an imperfect endeavor so do the best you can in the time allotted, to the limit of your abilities, and then move on. I’m not advocating sloppy work nor am I in favor of quantity over quality (something I’m seeing too much of these days because the mechanics of self-publishing are way too easy) but don’t be afraid to let your novel fly away when you’re done. Mind you, if you know that your book has a major defect or hole, fix it. Don’t be lazy or frustrated with it. Do the work, and don’t release it into the wild, until its right.

Then let readers decide if your book is perfect or not.

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. Watch the trailer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Stop Writing Crappy Fantasy Novels

Stop Writing Crappy Fantasy Novels

By Larry Kahaner

This is one of those blog posts that  get me in trouble.

I don’t do it on purpose. It’s just that some things bug me, and I can’t be quiet about it.dummies-161x200

Here it is: Stop writing crappy dystopian, sci-fi, and fantasy novels. I know I’m lumping them together, but they’re related as far as my beef is concerned. In fact, I’m just going to use the word fantasy from now on to encompasses these three genres.

Why do so many people write terrible fantasy novels? Because it’s easy.

Whoa. Writing a book is easy? No, never. Writing is hard. I know; I’ve written many books, fiction and non-fiction, and anyone who can finish a book gets an attaboy or attagirl from me.

What I’m talking about are writers who use the fantasy form to write awful books, because this form, more than any other (except maybe romance novels; I’ll get to you in a subsequent post) allows writers to be lazy and defraud their readers.

Here’s an example: One of your characters is trapped in a room and there’s no way out. Suddenly, they fish out a special piece of something from their pocket that transports them away. We had no clue about this magical item beforehand. It’s lazy writing. Its cheating. One of the hallmarks of strong authors is the ability to put their protagonist in a bind and get him or her out cleverly without resorting to trickery. Mystery writers are usually pretty good about it without pulling out a gun that just happened to be hidden in someone’s boot. But even some bestselling authors succumb to a savior parachuting in – a rescuer we’ve not seen before. In one mystery novel I read from a super successful author you were to wonder about the killer’s identity. As you should. Surprise. It was a long lost twin who came into the picture toward the book’s end. We had no idea this person existed and there were no clues to his even being alive. Cheater.

Fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss alludes to this problem when it comes to using magic. He writes: “If you want to write a fantasy story with Norse gods, sentient robots, and telepathic dinosaurs, you can do just that. Want to throw in a vampire and a lesbian unicorn while you’re at it? Go ahead. Nothing’s off limits. But the endless possibility of the genre is a trap. It’s easy to get distracted by the glittering props available to you and forget what you’re supposed to be doing: telling a good story. Don’t get me wrong, magic is cool. But a nervous mother singing to her child at night while something moves quietly through the dark outside her house? That’s a story. Handled properly, it’s more dramatic than any apocalypse or goblin army could ever be.”

Exactly. You can’t tell a strong story if you’re always relying on magic, bogus superpowers or outlandish ‘saves.’

How to prevent this from ruining your book is actually pretty easy. Don’t write yourself into a corner just because you want to made your work as dramatic, scary or provocative as possible. It’s okay not to know ahead of time how a character will get out of a jam, but do it in such as way that’s not ridiculous or unexpected.

Respect your readers, okay?

 

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.)

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.

Don’t Let Writing Keep You From Writing

Don’t Let Writing Keep You From Writing

By Larry Kahaner

Being a novelist is like being an actor or a painter. Sometimes you need a day job to make ends meet until your artistic talents are economically appreciated. The question for writers in particular is: do you write to pay the rent or do you take a day job that’s not writing?deadline

Some say that a non-writing job keeps your mind fresh and available for your novelizing but others (I’m in this camp) say that writing non-fiction keeps your word skills sharp and your writing-mind limber.

Those of you who are familiar with my blog and website, know that I’m a working writer, journalist and author, and that I’m also writing a novel. My website and blog are devoted to the idea that non-fiction writers bring unique and valuable skills to the fiction world.

There are also challenges. For example, this is the first time that I’m writing a book on spec which is an uncomfortable and unprecedented situation for me. I’m almost 70,000 words in (all writers know their word count even if they publicly say they don’t) and I work on my thriller when I’m not making a living by writing non-fiction.

I’m always on the lookout for others, like me, who write for a living and work on their novel when they can fit it in, so I was pleased to come across this blog by Lauren Tharp where she tackles the same issues that confront me and other working writers.

It struck me as comforting, but strangely eerie, that we have many of the same feelings and beliefs about how to handle our writing work lives and our non-worklife writing.

For example, Lauren writes: I have, and will always, put my clients’ needs before my own. Mostly because I like getting paid. I agree. Ya gotta eat and pay the mortgage. I feel lucky to earn my living as a writer and I won’t jeopardize it. However, to make time for my ‘other  work,’ as I call it, I schedule the time. I may work the morning on ‘money work’ (my other pet name) and the afternoon on my other work. Although counter intuitive, I find that when I dispatch my money work, it revs me up for my other work. I also find that time becomes more precious, so instead of spending it on Facebook or some other web-related time-suck, I will dive into my other work. My money work may sometimes creep into my other work time but not the other way.

(As an aside: A few hours ago, I got a call from a friend and editor at a magazine where I once worked who asked if I was available for a six-month assignment. It would be a weekly article of about 500-600 words. I explained that I was working on my novel – he knew that already – but he understood immediately (’cause he’s a working writer) when I told him that this work would only serve to stimulate my fiction writing. So, yes, I welcomed the additional work. Thanks for thinking of me, Jim.)

The other item that Lauren wrote was: For many writers, “mood” dictates whether or not they’ll sit down and write. However, for many successful writers, “mood” needs to either be ignored or be incorporated into their work. I agree here, too. Writers have to do their jobs whether they feel like it or not –  just like everybody else in this world.

These are just two gems from Lauren’s blog. She also quotes other working writers on how they juggle their time write their passion projects. It’s worth a look.

I’d like to add one more of my own findings. Writing for a living compels you to meet deadlines so you learn to write as best as you can in the time allotted. Even if there’s no deadline for your novel, it’s a good trait to know when to stop writing and hand it in. Too many novelists work ad infinitum, trying to eke out perfection, so they never really finish their book.

Lauren ends with this: If you, really, truly, want to write for yourself, nothing, can stop you –  not even writing.

True that.

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.

Guest Blog: Robin Latham – “Why Not Pinterest for the Novelist?”

Novelist Robin Latham is writing a book about the Caribbean and has discovered that Pinterest helps organize her research material. This works for non-fiction writers, too. Here’s how she does it.

Why Not Pinterest for the Novelist?

by Robin Latham

For a very long time (I’m embarrassed to say how long) I’ve been doing research for a novel set in the Caribbean during the sugar days – the late 17th-early 18th centuries. The Internet existed when I first began the research, but not with the extent of resources it offers now. My early research involved tracking down sources at libraries or in online used book stores. Sometimes I even took notes by hand when the source was rare or only available in the archives of the tiny Caribbean island of which I was writing.

Nevis: Queen of the Caribbees

Nevis: Queen of the Caribbees

It remained a hobby for a long time as I rambled through different sources trying to find out – not the historical timeline of the island, which was easy to establish – but the day to day aspects of a culture that aren’t necessarily written down. In my case, I had three very different cultures to understand on this island:  the Anglo planters (mostly Scots and English), the African slaves (mostly from nowadays Ghana/Nigeria), and a small colony of Sephardic Jews who had brought the knowledge of farming and refining sugarcane from Brazil to the British Caribbean islands.

My questions were simple.  How did they dress? What did they eat? How did they entertain themselves? How did they practice their faith (whether Anglican, African, or Jewish)? In short – what did their world look like?

At my day job one day I attended a presentation about using social media to promote health education messages. One of the vehicles discussed was Pinterest, which I’d heard about, but had thought was mostly for ladies looking for new interior decorating ideas. Something about it intrigued me.

I wanted to see how Pinterest worked. It took me several hours just to figure out how to “pin” something. Then I had to figure out what I wanted to pin. That’s where my exploration of Pinterest abruptly ended. I wasn’t looking for interior design ideas, or recipes, or patterns for crocheting baby booties. Nor did I want to pin any of those things.

Time passed. I began to gather all my resources for my novel so I could learn what I had and where to find it. Much of what I had now was on the Internet and I wasn’t sure how to archive sites with http addresses other than putting them into a WORD document. I tried Evernote but the interface was so formidable that even “Evernote for Dummies” flummoxed me. Besides, I didn’t need to be able to search every resource I had by keyword. I just wanted to see what I had collected all in one place.

Planting cane in the West Indies

Planting cane in the West Indies

So, Pinterest.  Maybe I did have something to pin after all. I started pinning all kinds of material: covers of all the books I’d  used in my research (a visual bibliography); photos and drawings from the period of sugar mills and sugar mill technology; archaeological sites, sugar mill ruins, maps and prints of people, places, and flora and fauna from the colonial days; figural art from the Yoruba, Ibo, and Congo cultures; and photos I’d taken on visits to the island of historical sites such as the Sephardic cemetery and colonial fortifications that were still standing. My pins became even more encompassing as plot points began to coalesce into a full story.  I was pinning costumes from current celebrations – Junkanoo, Sugar Mas, Cropover –  that had  been going on for centuries in the British Caribbean islands because they have close visual connections to African tribal art and ceremonial rituals. I pinned links to contemporary kaiso/calypso music, which is heir to a musical tradition extending back to the plantation days and which offers sly social commentary on the ruling class (as well as a call to dance and drink troubles away). One of the subplots of my novel involves mechanical fancies run by water power. I found all kinds of places in the world with miniature mechanical villages and pinned pictures and links to them.

800+ pins later, I’ve discovered that Pinterest is a wonderful writers’ resource. It gathers all my sources and lets me see them in one place. I can’t emphasize how important it is to see your novel visually, not just as words on a page. Looking at things seems to activate a different kind of knowing and understanding than reading does. Using Pinterest makes my story richer.

You can find Robin Latham’s Pinterest page at Tradewinds: A Novel in Progress

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