The Non-Fiction Novelist

Helping at-work writers to become novelists

Archive for the tag “finding your voice”

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.

 

 

A New Era of Pulp Fiction?

A New Era of Pulp Fiction?

By Larry Kahaner

I have been waiting for an announcement like James Patterson’s “Book Shots” to cement my ongoing belief that the modern age of pulp fiction is upon us.book shots cover

Patterson’s new book machine is producing novels “under 150 pages for under $5.” It promises: “Life moves fast – books should too… Impossible to put down. Read on any device.” The website also touts: “All Thriller. No Filler.”

Swell, baby.

The reason for this foray into modern pulp with their short-page count and compelling covers is obvious. Our attention spans are shorter, and we all carry our phones and devices around with us. But the idea is cleverer than that. These books are first focusing on thrillers and romances therefore adhering to the top two reasons why people read novels: entertainment and escape. These genres offer both – in spades, sweetheart.

spicy detective - Copy           As many of you know, I’m a fan of pulp novels. I relish the fast pace, the vivid language and colorful characters. These pulps (named for the cheap paper they were printed on) spawned a stable of fast-writing authors who were paid miserly and, in order to make a living, churned out books by the cartful. In between books they wrote serials and short stories for magazines like Black Mask and Argosy. They moved back and forth with ease.

The books were short, cheap, (yes, I mean inexpensive) engaging, had tons of action, and their lurid covers promised titillation. Ditto for the pulp magazines.

From these pulpster ranks came great writers like Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammett, L. Sprague de Camp, John D. MacDonald and Robert Heinlein. They honed their skills by writing fast and hooking readers even faster.

What I see now mimics the age of pulps. Online magazines have taken the place of physical magazines along with lots of writers who are writing lots of books. I especially see this in the indie book explosion where many authors produce books by the score charging low prices and even giving away free copies to entice readers to their later works.

But here’s the killer difference. Most of the modern-day pulpsters are not working for  publishers who pay them a pittance. (I don’t know what Book Shots pays.) They’re taking a flyer on themselves, paying their own way into the self-publishing game and ginning up their own covers. They no longer need a jamoke with a printing press.USA Inc 25 May 2016 KINDLE

What happens next? Will we see world-class writers emerge from this burgeoning sea of modern pulp authors? Will publishing history repeat itself?

I certainly hope so. Between prolific indie authors and commercial powerhouses like Patterson’s Book Shots, everything is in place for a new generation of writers to pay their dues and take their place with the break-out pulpsters of the past.

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.

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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5 Reasons Bullying Made Me A Better Writer #1000Speak – Building On Bullying

I am reblogging this post from Sacha Black because of the insight she has about how bullying made her a better writer. I was never bullied, but I understand how being bullied can make someone think and feel differently than others. That’s the part – the thinking and feeling differently than others part – to which I can relate, understand and appreciate, which I believe makes me a better writer. I applaud Sacha for speaking out.

Sacha Black

5 Reasons Bullying Made Me a Better Writer

I had to coax myself into posting this. Not because I didn’t want to do a post for #1000Speak, but because bullying is one of those things that everyone has been affected by, and I am no exception. It’s all a little close to the bone. Bullying is one of those universal topics that touches the lives of almost everyone. But I want to focus on the positive. On why being bullied made me a better writer. Without having been bullied I wouldn’t have focused on writing in my youth, and I probably wouldn’t have realised writing was my dream. So am I compassionate with the bullies? No, probably not, I know that’s the point of 1000speak, but, I am grateful for the experience of bullying.

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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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