The Non-Fiction Novelist

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Archive for the category “voice”

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.

 

 

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.

Book Reviewers Can be Jerks

Book Reviewers Can be Jerks

By Larry Kahaner

Whether you are a seasoned author or just published your first book, reviews play tricks on your self-confidence as a writer. Like everything else in life, some people like your stuff and some people hate it (thanks, Captain Obvious) and there’s nothing you can do about it.review-book

Every book has its supporters and detractors, and if your head isn’t screwed on, it can be a career killer.

Let me stipulate up front that most reviewers, indeed, the vast majority of reviewers are writing honest, objective reviews. This blog is about the other ones.

I offer some points to remember if you decide to read your reviews. I say ‘if’ because many successful authors never read reviews. I used to think this was BS, but it’s true. These folks understand the reality of reviews.

And here they are:

  • Reviews are supposed to be objective, but they’re not. Readers bring themselves into the review based on their own beliefs. Here’s a personal example. I published a book titled AK-47: the Weapon that Changed the Face of War. Pro-gun people said I blamed all the world ills on this ubiquitous weapon. Anti-gun people said that I glorified the weapon. Both can’t be true. Right? I even read one review that chided me for not including more pictures of guns. Hello… it was not a gun-porn book, but a political view of the world’s most-used weapon.

 

  • Some reviewers and readers are pissed off about a specific subject matter so they give a low rating hoping that potential readers will ignore a book. Think books about climate change. Others love the topic so they give a high rating hoping that others of their ilk will buy it and somehow bolster the cause. Neither reviews have anything to do with a book’s merit. Case in point: I once wrote a book about a company called MCI (not the MCI WorldCom that was later involved in a scandal). The title was On The Line. The company beat AT&T in court and this opened the way for competitive long distance phone service. I got hate reviews from those who were angry that AT&T was no longer the country’s de facto monopoly phone company and venerable Ma Bell (youngsters, stay with me on this) was being broken up. Others were glad to see the old monopoly split into regional companies which eventually ushered in the telecommunications system we have today. I even received a letter from David Packard, head of Hewlett-Packard, chiding me for writing about this start-up company which he believed would lead to the downfall of Western civilization. What about the book’s merits? Didn’t really matter. And no sour grapes here by the way. The book did really well.

 

  • Last one: Reviewers are swayed by what the reviewer thinks the author stands for. The classic case is Salman Rushdie who penned a novel in 1988 titled Satanic Verses, which caused a stir among many in the Muslim community. They accused Rushdie of blasphemy, and in 1989 the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. Many death threats followed and Rushdie went into hiding with armed guards. To show their support for Rushdie and their dislike of the Ayatollah many people bought the book – it became a best seller – and critics offered rave reviews because they supported free speech and wanted to strike a blow against radical Islam. It had been reported at the time that many Western consumers bought the book but never read it. They just wanted to make a point. Rushdie says he is not anti-Muslim. He was born into a Muslim family and now considers himself an atheist. By the way, many reviewers wrote about the controversy itself and not the book. That’s not their job.

My final point is this. You can’t please everyone. Mind you, I’m not talking about warranted, even constructive criticism, but make sure a review is about your book and not about you or anything else before you react. Write your book the best way you know how and work on having a thick skin or don’t read reviews at all. Your choice.

Coda: I have a good writing buddy who also is a reviewer for a respected trade publication.  I often send him my blogs to gut-check them before posting. He had this remark: “Perfectly reasonable blog, though it will never make anyone feel better about a bad review. They always hurt, even if you know you were treated unfairly.”

What if the US were run like a corporation and a madman was in charge? Check out Larry Kahaner’s latest thriller “USA, Inc.” now available in eBook and paperback. All my books have a money-back guarantee.

Writers: Don’t be a Victim of Beginner’s Luck

Writers: Don’t be a Victim of Beginner’s Luck

By Larry Kahaner

How many times have you read an author’s first book and it was terrific? The second, not so much, and the third, well…

alchemist-book-cover

Beginner’s luck is crucial to this story.

Were they blessed with beginner’s luck, the phenomenon that allows first-time fishers to catch the big one and novice archers to hit the bull’s-eye?

I’ve been thinking about beginner’s luck since re-reading The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho. In this story, the shepherd Santiago enjoys beginner’s luck when he decides to travel to Africa. He sells his sheep quickly and easily (that’s the luck) to finance his trip and is on his way to fulfill his ‘personal legend.’ The rest of the road is rocky and he encounters many situations that test his mettle. He does indeed meet an Alchemist whose last words to Santiago are: “Every search begins with beginners luck and ends with the victor being severely tested.”

Questions come quickly when it comes to writers and beginner’s luck. Is that all they had in them – that one amazing book? Was it a publishing industry fad fluke? Did they take their talent for granted and not try harder? And, the classic, ‘success went to their head and they got lazy.’

I chalk it up to beginner’s luck which is not some magical belief but a real thing that can work to our advantage if we understand how it operates. Here’s how:

  • Beginners have nothing to lose. Writers artists and musicians do their most imaginative and inspired work when they don’t have an image to maintain, and when they don’t care about how it’s received by critics. They are free to create a work that is unique, using their own voice, and without preconceived notions holding them back.
  • Beginners don’t know the rules. They see the world in their own way and don’t feel the need to conform to standards of creativity pushed by others. I find this aspect common in writers who pen the most avant-garde first novels then are afraid of keeping up the pace and thus revert to less exciting prose because they’re afraid of reaching for new heights again. Failure is easy; success is hard.
  • Beginners rarely have expectations beyond finishing the work. This allows them to keep an eye on the final goal and not what others will think of it. This eliminates self-censorship, a serial killer of creative writing. Say, what was that annoying song? Come From the Heart (I had to look it up.):

You got to sing like you don’t need the money

Love like you’ll never get hurt

You got to dance like nobody’s watchin’

It’s gotta come from the heart

If you want it to work

Great lyrics, excellent advice, but it was irritating to hear lousy versions of it played at every wedding and bar mitzvah I have attended for the last twenty years. Here’s a good cover by Guy Clark.  His wife Susanna Clark composed the song.

Here’s the takeaway. Allow yourself to write every day with beginner’s luck and know that you can keep receiving its gifts if you pay attention to its pitfalls.

(If you’re curious, you can read more about beginner’s luck on Wikipedia. There’s some science behind it.)

 

What if the US were run like a corporation and a madman was in charge? Check out Larry Kahaner’s latest thriller “USA, Inc.” now available in eBook and paperback. All my books have a money back guarantee.

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 Prompts are Dumb and a Waste of Time

By Larry Kahaner

I must say it, no matter how much you’re going to hate me: Writing prompts are dumb.

I don’t know any working writers who use them.

zombie prompts

Yeah, this is a real book.

Why would you spend time and energy on something that you’re not going to use, something that’s supposed to “get your creative juices flowing” and then toss aside?

Why not just start working on your short story, book, blog or whatever you’re trying to churn out? That’s how you get your creative spark ignited.

I know, I know… many new writers feel naked without the cloak of writing prompts. They love ’em. Websites have lists and lists of ideas like: “Write about a day in which everything went wrong” or “what would happen if we found out that we actually could breathe on the moon?” You want to write about these things? Fine. Go ahead and write a story or novel based on one of these premises, but why waste time writing a few pages just to get your engines revved?

I can hear the cries now: “But I need something that I can throw out as I get my ‘writing mind’ in gear.” What are you, a car on a cold day that needs to be warmed up? (Actually, you haven’t had to do that with cars for about the last 20 years.) I will admit that sometimes what we write first thing in the day is not as good as what we write a few pages down the line. That’s to be expected. The brain gets in the groove like it does for all jobs (not just writing) that we undertake. When you’re done for the day, week, or even the whole book, pronounce your work a first draft and rewrite it. That’s what writing is, not some phony-balony prompt that someone gives us.

My guess is that writing prompts were the product of creative writing teachers who didn’t think students were smart or creative enough to come up with their own ideas. Bull. Students have lots of great ideas. Let them loose. For whatever reason, the concept of prompts has been passed along to where there are entire books devoted to writing prompts. Don’t believe me? Go on Amazon.com and type “writing prompt books.” I saw one that touted “1200 Creative Writing Prompts.” They’re even broken down into genres like horror, mystery and romance. I saw prompt books that were written by cats and dogs.

It’s crazy.

Know who else likes writing prompts? Bloggers who write about writing. When you’re searching for something to write about just do a blog about prompts. Throw out a few ideas, and bing-bang, you’ve got a blog.

If you’re a writer, why waste your time with these distractions? Yes, that’s what prompts are. Distractions from your real writing. It’s no different than procrastinating, not wanting to do the hard work of writing. Some people call it ‘writers’ block,’ a concept which I don’t believe exists. Here’s my blog on this fallacy.

In their heart-of-hearts, why do people love prompts? They’re safe; no one will read them (unless you’re in class) so you don’t have to endure criticism of your work. More important, you can make believe you’re working on your novel (Hey, I’m writing, ain’t  I?) and you won’t feel so bad about not sitting your butt in the chair and really doing the work that needs to be done.

Is all this a bit harsh? I’m not sorry. Not a bit.

If you want to be a writer, stop being such a wuss. Forget prompts.

Just write.

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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

The Secret to Writing That Nobody Tells You

I am reblogging Jane’s post because it’s something that I’ve been harping on for years. Writing is work. You put your ass in the seat and write. Only when you can do this day in and day out can you call yourself a writer. You write when you feel like it and you write when you don’t feel like it – just like everyone else and their job. There are good days and bad days but you still go to work, right?

Word Savant

When I coach people, there is an ugly truth about writing that I often hold back from them. It’s something you can only learn through gut-wrenching, razor’s edge, shard of broken glass experience.

There is no magic to writing, none at all. It’s nothing but grueling

No magic, no easy formula, no genius algorithm. There is no “secret” that is going to make everybody love your work, buy all your books, tell their friends about you, and get stars in their eyes when they hear your name.

It is simply monotonous, repetitive work.

I recently finished the manuscript for my first novel. For eight years I struggled to finish it. And do you know what finally helped me finish it?

Monotonous, repetitive work.

I did it by sitting down (almost) every day and writing a minimum of 500 words.

Some of those days were pretty good days. I would say…

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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.

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?

Read more…

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