The Non-Fiction Novelist

Helping at-work writers to become novelists

Archive for the tag “creative writing”

So Long Thriller Guy… Yeah, We Knew Ye

By Larry Kahaner

As someone who has been writing a blog about writing for a few years, my posts often feel sweet and light compared to my longtime buddy and blogger Allen Appel alias The Thriller Guy. TG is a master at telling would-be writers how the book biz is really played, how it’s sometimes a game for suckers and to stop bellyaching about the ‘writer’s life.’ A novelist himself, Allen aka TG, not only has an impressive stable of novels but has reviewed over 500 thrillers for a major trade publication. (And wrote a cool memoir, I might add.)

small portrait allen 3

He has the goods and doesn’t mind telling you about it. His advice is tough, rugged as a moonscape, and real as a Taser in the face. Lots of amateur writers don’t like him because he doesn’t coddle, doesn’t equivocate and doesn’t tell them what they usually hear from friends and family about their precious prose. On the other hand, when you need help with a vexing hunk of writing, he’s there to work you through it – as he’s done for me over many a sandwich and red Solo cups of Jameson.

Before this sounds like an elegy instead of a celebration, let me present the last blog from the man who always reminds you to “Sit down; Shut up; Get to work.”

 

So long, Thriller Guy

“It has become obvious that the always shadowy Thriller Guy has not made the transition from scarred urban warrior crouched in his basement lair to the kinder hills and small towns of North Carolina.

I’ve thought about how to bring him to a natural, or unnatural end. Maybe going down in a brisk pre-dawn firefight on some unnamed snow-capped ridge under siege from a legion of turbaned AK-wielding hajjis. He’d like that. Or perhaps something more ironic, more absurd. I’ve always been amused by the scene in the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe when George sits Martha down after a long night of drinking and tells her, in Richard Burton’s solemn, sonorous voice, that their son Jim was killed that afternoon on a country road… “when he swerved to avoid hitting a porcupine and crashed into a tree.” How ignominious. How completely un-Thriller Guy.

At any rate, it’s clear that he’s run out of writing advice to sling around.

 

Read the rest here.

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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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

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.)

Why an Establishment Author is Doing Amazon’s Kindle Scout – Part 2

Part 2: The Hidden Cleverness of Amazon

By Larry Kahaner

Amazon’s Kindle Scout program makes my head spin. It’s clever in ways that you don’t see. (Read “Part 1: The Weirdest Writing Thing I’ve Ever Done.“)

USA Inc 25 May 2016 KINDLE

Amazon has disrupted the traditional publishing business which consists of the following flow: the author who writes the book, to the agent who acts as a filter for publishers and the publisher who produces the book. The last link in the chain is the bookstore. In the olden days, the publisher would not only acquire, edit and print, but market, promote and sell the book. However, in the past few years, publishers have taken less of a role in marketing, promotion and publicity, leaving much of it to authors. (Except for top authors who still get this treatment even though their books don’t need it.) And publishers certainly do far less editing and working with authors’ writing than ever before.

At every step in this worn-out process, Amazon has inserted their monkey wrench. They took on bookstores by making physical browsing obsolete. You now can read the first few pages of any book on line without charge. You can even return an e-book if you don’t like it. For better or worse, bookstores are disappearing or morphing into coffeehouses.

Next, e-books. Although they didn’t invent e-books, they made it a real business. E-books cut publishers hold on physical printing. Unfortunately, e-books led to lot of crappy books, because Amazon and others made publishing  e-books just too easy. It’s a shame because a lot of really good books, from unknown and even known authors, are being drowned in a sea of publishing dreck. We need a filter, someone like an agent.

Behold: Kindle Scout.

When an author submits a book to Kindle Scout, the editors at Amazon (many of whom are highly-skilled editors laid off by the publishing industry during the recession) become the first filter, the job of agents. They don’t accept every book that comes their way which is a plus for potential readers because they don’t have to wade through a ton of poor books to find one they want to read.

But it gets better.

Readers, who are attracted to the cover and the teaser line, read the excerpt and vote if they would like to read more. Authors, of course, are compelled to not only produce a ‘selling cover’ but the promotional material, and then cajole readers to sample the excerpt. In essence, authors are doing the jobs that traditional publishers have given up on – which publishers now expect most authors to do anyway. As an incentive for doing this work, Amazon gives authors about half of the proceeds, a much larger chunk than traditional publishers.

But wait, there’s more.

If your book is not chosen to be published by Kindle Scout, many authors will then self-publish because they already have a great cover, followers who voted for their book and the confidence and marketing/promotion skills they learned during the campaign. Kindle Scout is like a training program for authors.

The best part is that readers have their pick of professionally-written, vetted books that are a cut above the slap-dashed self-published books that are flooding the market.
Bottom line for Amazon: They get to sell better-written books with compelling covers by authors who know the business side of writing.

Amazon is just so damn clever.

Shameless plug: To read an excerpt from my Kindle Scout book “USA, Inc.” click here. If it is nominated, you get a free e-book and my appreciation.

 

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. Enjoy the trailer. 

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.

Drugs: The Author’s Other Drug of Choice – Part 2

Drugs: The Author’s Other Drug of Choice – Part 2

This guest blog from former workmate Gerry Karey, who blogs at Unhinged, grew out of a blog I wrote about alcohol and authors titled Don’t Drink and Write.

When I posted the blog on my Facebook page, Gerry commented:

“What about pot?”

To which I answered: “What about it?”

He took the challenge and looked at famous authors and their drug proclivities.

We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.  — Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

thomspons

“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me. – Hunter S. Thompson

That’s quite a picnic hamper. Mescaline, acid, cocaine, uppers, downers, screamers and laughers, oh, my.  If you can remember the 60s, you weren’t there.

Thompson was one of several mid-twentieth century writers who celebrated the use of drugs, particularly hallucinogens, and inspired and influenced a cultural movement.

Thompson is credited as the father of Gonzo journalism, a blend of fact and fiction. He may have captured the gestalt of the era as well as any writer. You just couldn’t believe everything you read, but it was an exhilarating, crazy ride.

A 2005 biography is entitled, Hunter S. Thompson: An Insider’s View of Deranged, Depraved, Drugged Out Brilliance. Thomas somehow managed to live until he was 68 when he committed suicide.

“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me,” Thompson once said. Until it didn’t.

Jack Kerouac was the key figure in the “Beat Movement.” A draft of his seminal, stream-of-consciousness novel, On The Road, was written in just three weeks and typed on a continuous, one hundred and twenty-foot scroll of tracing paper sheets that Kerouac cut to size and taped together.

It is a fascinating read. But great literature? Maybe not so much.

Kerouac continued to writes books and poetry, but nothing he wrote equaled the impact of On The Road.  How could it?

Drugs were very much part of the scene in On the Road, but Kerouac’s personal drug was alcohol. He died in 1969 at the age of 47, as a result of an internal hemorrhage caused by cirrhosis.

boroughs

“Whether you sniff it smoke it eat it or shove it up your ass the result is the same: addiction.” – William S. Burroughs

Major writers of the Beat era, all close friends of Kerouac, were Allen Ginsberg (LSD), Ken Kesey (psychedelics), William Boroughs, who was addicted to heroin, and Neal Cassady, who died of a drug overdose. “Whether you sniff it smoke it eat it or shove it up your ass the result is the same: addiction,” Burroughs said.

Other 20th Century writers who experimented with or used drugs: W.H. Auden, Jean Paul Sartre and Philip Dick (amphetamines). “Drug misuse is not a disease, it’s a decision…an error in judgment,” said Dick, who also used marijuana, mescaline, LSD, sodium pentothal. Hubert Selby, was addicted to pain killers and heroin that were first administered after surgery; Stephen King, who managed to kick his addiction to cocaine and other drugs; and Aldous Huxley, mescaline (see Huxley’s The Doors of Perception).

Would Dick have created his fantastic fictional worlds without drugs?  Would Hunter Thompson have been Hunter Thompson? Would any of those writers have achieved what they did?

Neurobiologist R. Douglas Fields asks: “Can the creative product—a song, painting, poem, or book—justify the sacrifice and harm that will accompany conducting the creative pursuit under the influence of drugs? If we accept the use of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD, and alcohol by rock musicians to achieve creative breakthroughs and delight us with their performance, what does that say about us in being willing to accept the destruction of another human being for our entertainment?”

“Drugs are a waste of time. They destroy your memory and your self- respect and everything that goes along with your self esteem,” songwriter/musician Kurt Cobain said.  Cobain struggled with heroin addiction and depression. He committed suicide in 1994, at age 27.

I do not know if this survey will persuade anyone not to use drugs (with the exception, perhaps of marijuana as a reward after a long day of writing). That’s not my intent. But I will reiterate Larry Kahaner’s advice to aspiring writers – all writers, for that matter:  “Write a lot and read a lot. Those are the only habits that work all the time and every time.”

There are no short cuts.

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