The Non-Fiction Novelist

Helping at-work writers to become novelists

Archive for the tag “finding your writing style”

Why an Establishment Author is Doing Amazon’s Kindle Scout

Part 1: The Weirdest Writing Thing I’ve Ever Done

By Larry Kahaner


In my entire writing career, this may be the weirdest thing I’ve done – and I once interviewed a convicted serial killer who asked me to write a book exonerating him while he boasted of his crimes.

I am participating in Amazon’s Kindle Scout program as an author.

But before I get to that, and for those of you who don’t know me, I am a

USA Inc 25 May 2016 KINDLE

traditionally published non-fiction author. This means that big publishers have published my books. I’ve been doing it for a long while, and I’ve been successful which to me means that my books are on shelves where people can see them (at least for a while), they sell on line and I’ve made a living for my family. See my books here. I also do other writing jobs like ghostwriting, magazine writing and whatever else comes my way.

My name isn’t a household word, except in my own home – and even that’s not always a lock.

I have seen the publishing business change drastically in the past few years. Like many legacy industries, they’ve been buffeted by technology most notably e-books and the internet. Even if you don’t follow the book biz you’ve seen the changes: Remember browsing in bookstores? Have a Kindle or read on your iPad? Okay, so you’ve seen it, but do you also know that Amazon sells 45 percent of books sold in the US? That’s an astonishing statistic.

(Aside: I’ve been a business reporter most of my life – still am – worked at Business Week and other places and one thing that I’ve noticed about the publishing business is that nobody ever walked into a bookstore and said: “I’d like the latest Random House book, please.” I’ll leave that to the branding experts to parse.)

Amid all of this chaos, Amazon has introduced a program called Kindle Scout which is a hybrid of traditional and reader-powered publishing. The way it works is that people go onto the site, read excerpts of books, and nominate the ones they like. After 30 days, Amazon decides which of the books to publish through their imprint, Kindle Press. If you nominate a book that is selected for publication, you get an early, free copy of the book and the author receives a contract and $1,500. The more nominations a book receives, the more likely it gets discovered by the Kindle Scout team, but Amazon still has the last word.

Although you may not fully understand or appreciate the logic, the book business doesn’t see me as a potential novelist, only a non-fiction author. In essence, I’m starting over. (For example, my agent doesn’t handle fiction although she suggested a few people.)

I worked on my novel for about 3 years and now, what to do? In fact, why did I even write a novel? I wasn’t used to working without an advance, so that was new to me, but I wanted to see if I could write fiction. Think of it as professional curiosity.

Should I try traditional publishers? First, I would have to get an agent, then he or she would try to sell it. Next, it would take months or longer for a publisher to… and blah, blah, blah. I’m writing a thriller not YA, fantasy or romance – these are the hot spots – so I’m already an outlier. Here’s another factoid: 50 percent of all sold books are romance novels. And one more, the large publishers make most of their money from their top half-dozen authors. Think Stephen King, J.K Rowling, James Patterson and Jackie Collins. Nothing against these folks, but that’s where publishers focus their resources, because it’s where they make their money.

When I sat back with my evening martini, the thought of going through the arduous and time-consuming process of dealing with traditional publishers made the gin taste like kerosene and the olives turn mushy. I wasn’t in the mood to self-publish so Kindle Scout here I come.

I’ve already made the first cut – they don’t accept every book – and in Part 2, I will explain some tricks and tips that I can offer from my short experience if you’re interested in going this publishing route.

For now, to see my book “USA, Inc.” go here.  If you think this is a shameless ploy to get your vote, you’re wrong. Read the excerpts and decide if this is something you’d like to read further. It’s not just a popularity contest, or an exercise in social media vote-getting, but tantamount to skimming the first few pages of a book and saying: “Hey, this looks promising” or “It’s not really for me.” I like that aspect. It’s got some integrity. It’s one reason why I chose Kindle Scout.

“Part 2: What You Should Know Before Doing Amazon’s Kindle Scout,” coming up in a few days.




Can I Write Novels Even if I Haven’t Had an Interesting Life?

Can I Write Novels Even if I Haven’t Had an Interesting Life?

By Larry Kahaner

I came across a blog from Guy Portman titled “10 Famous Authors’ Day Jobs” in which he lists… well… you get it.exciting life

What struck me most from reading Guy’s blog post is how many famous authors eventually gave up their day jobs (Natch. They’re famous.) and how many used what they knew from their day jobs and incorporated it into their writings.

Item: Joseph Conrad – (1857 – 1924) – Many of Joseph Conrad’s works have a nautical theme. This is not surprising considering that the author had a 19 year career in the merchant-marine, which began when he left his native Poland as a teenager in 1874.

Item: Arthur Conan Doyle – (1859 – 1930) – The creator of Sherlock Holmes was an important figure in the field of crime fiction. Doyle was also a practicing doctor, whose field of expertise was ophthalmology. He quit medicine to concentrate on writing full time.

Item: Agatha Christie – (1890 -1976) – It was during World War I that prolific author Agatha Christie began writing detective stories. At the time she was employed as an apothecary’s assistant. Her knowledge of poisons was to come in useful in her detective stories.

These authors used what they learned on the job and in life as a springboard for their stories.

But what if you don’t have an interesting job, career or life to draw upon?

There’s no such thing as a boring life.

There’s always something in your past and present that you can look to for ideas and stories. There’s always odd, interesting and compelling people in your life upon which to fashion your characters and stories. You just have to be open.

I have a writing buddy who is working on a memoir and some of the folks he talks about make for fascinating character fodder. At the time, they may not have seemed so interesting, especially to a kid, but when we get older we see their bizarreness and they become highly writeable.

But even if they don’t seem so interesting now. It’s okay.

Think of a person that you know and make him or her weirder, odder, funnier or sadder. Look for the peculiar detail that others have missed. Embellish the small but compelling parts. Expand their quirk. Exaggerate a tic.

One last thought. Here’s the entry for Bram Stoker: “Stoker is best remembered for his seminal work Dracula, but he also wrote 11 other novels and 3 collections of short stories. The author spent 27 years working as an acting manager and business manager for Irving’s Lyceum Theatre in London.”

I haven’t read his other 11 novels but I can bet his job figured into these works. As for Dracula, Stoker’s inspiration reportedly came from a visit to Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire and a visit to the crypts of St. Michan’s Church in Dublin. My guess is that these creepy places produced a strong emotional reaction in Stoker which then formed the basis for his vampire novel. Another person, though, maybe not so much.

That’s the crux of it. What produces a strong emotion in you – a person, place or thing – is what you should be writing about.

Don’t Drink and Write

Don’t Drink and Write

By Larry Kahaner

This blog is aimed at new writers. If you’re an experienced writer, or an alcoholic, or both, don’t bother reading any further. Well, okay, you can. But what follows probably won’t  resonate with you. You’ll most likely sniff in defiance and pronounce it nonsense. Or, you’ve already handled the situation.

image from: Intelligent Life magazine

Many new writers try to emulate  their favorite authors. They somehow think that by using the same pen, the same notebook, following the same schedule and oddball habits (I only write in my pajamas with the cuddly bear on the front) that this will bring them the same success as those they admire. As I’ve said many times, the only habit that aspiring writers should copy from those before them is to sit down and write. Write a lot and read a lot. Those are the only habits that work all the time and every time.

One of my sins is bluntness but I can’t help it. Many times I’m asked during interviews about when I write, how I get my inspiration, where I get my ideas and I try to be polite… I really try… but sometimes I just can’t pull it off. I usually blurt out that these things don’t matter. As gently as I can I note that we all walk differently, we eat differently, we talk differently. It stands to reason that we all write differently so why copy anyone else? I’m usually marked as a nasty individual who offers no help to the nascent scribe. It’s not how I want be remembered.

Which brings us to alcohol.

So many brilliant authors drink too much. Many are functioning alcoholics and this penchant for drinking has led many newbies to believe that drinking is a prerequisite for perfect prose. How can you blame them when well respected authors boast of their alcoholic intake in quotes that we love to put up on our walls?

“Too much champagne is just right.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

“I began to think vodka was my drink at last. It didn’t taste like anything, but it went straight down into my stomach like a sword swallowers’ sword and made me feel powerful and godlike.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.” – Oscar Wilde

Goodreads has 442 quotes about drinking. There’s even a top ten list of 15 great alcoholic writers.

Why do writers drink? That same reason that anyone else drinks. “Boredom, loneliness, habit, hedonism, lack of self-confidence; as stress relief or a short-cut to euphoria; to bury the past, obliterate the present or escape the future,” notes Blake Morrison, writing in the Guardian.  Morrison also points out that in Olivia Laing’s book The Trip to Echo Spring, about six famous alcoholic writers, that there may not be a simple answer as to why many famous writers drink but I believe the above short list takes a strong cut at it.

I’ve been a writer, journalist and published author for many years and I know many writers. Some of them drink a bit more than most, but that may be because they’re my friends. Self-selection and all that. But to a man and woman, they report that alcohol doesn’t help their writing. In fact, it hinders it.

Here’s one comment from a dear friend and prolific book author:

“I feel free and creative when I write in the company of wine. But the next day, usually, my grammar, syntax and coherence of prose look like crap.”

From another, whose non-fiction books are terrific, well-written and well-received. I asked him whether drinking helps his writing and he responded:

“I hate to sound like a prude, but I feel most free and creative when I’ve done a thorough job of reporting and know what the fuck I’m talking about.”

Does alcohol have a place in an author’s arsenal? Certainly, as a relaxer, a way to unwind after a day of hard writing and as social lubrication. It also can offer a short-term creativity kick. Another author friend who writes a blog under the moniker Thriller Guy offers this:

“… say you’ve got a problem that you can’t figure out – your character has been captured by an evil CEO and Our Hero is imprisoned in a laboratory where the resident mad scientist and his minions are threatening to suck the very essence out of his body. (Think Neo in The Matrix) How is Our Hero going to escape? TG can tell you from long experience, if you don’t know how to get your man (or woman) out of this pickle when you head into this scene, the answer is probably not going to just jump into your head. Trying to hammer out a solution to a problem like this can drive you nuts. What you need to do is to stop trying to figure out the answer, and let your subconscious come up with a solution. To do this you need to stop your brain from working so hard, to let the well fill up, by itself. Send the kiddies off to bed (if there are any kiddies) kiss the wife goodnight, (if there is a wife) pour yourself a stiff drink and settle into your chair. Then have a couple of more drinks. You can noodle away at the problem while you’re sitting there, but only in a general way. Drink too much, stagger off to bed, and go to sleep. And if you’re lucky, the next morning, when you go back to work, the answer will pop into your head. Almost unbidden. Ditto if you’re trying to come up with a title, solve a plot problem, searching for a “voice” to tell your story, a structure on which to build your novel. You need to stop trying to solve the problem, and let your writer’s brain solve the conundrum on its own. This is actually one of the few thrilling moments when being a writer seems almost like magic.”

He’s right.

Believe me, I like a martini in the evening. Occasionally, a few more, but I must tell you that of all the professional writers I know, the ones who write drunk do so in spite of their drinking and not because of it. They are functioning alcoholics, or close to the edge of it, who, if they weren’t writers would trudge off to the office every day, slightly hungover and put in a day’s work despite their condition. Think Mad Men. They drink because their body requires it, not because it makes them more creative. In fact, I often wonder how much better the words from Hemingway, Cheever, Poe or London would have been without their booze. We’ll never know.

I’m sorry to burst your romantic bubble but drinking doesn’t help writing. It hurts, and not  just the writing but your life in general. I leave you with this, an excerpt from the Handbook of Medical Psychiatry, 2nd Edition, edited by David P. Moore and James W. Jefferson. Sadly, it describes many famous drinking writers to a ‘T.’

“When alcoholics do drink, most eventually become intoxicated, and it is this recurrent intoxication that eventually brings their lives down in ruins. Friends are lost, health deteriorates, marriages are broken, children are abused, and jobs terminated. Yet despite these consequences the alcoholic continues to drink. Many undergo a ‘change in personality.’ Previously upstanding individuals may find themselves lying, cheating, stealing, and engaging in all manner of deceit to protect or cover up their drinking. Shame and remorse the morning after may be intense; many alcoholics progressively isolate themselves to drink undisturbed. An alcoholic may hole up in a motel for days or a week, drinking continuously. Most alcoholics become more irritable; they have a heightened sensitivity to anything vaguely critical. Many alcoholics appear quite grandiose, yet on closer inspection one sees that their self-esteem has slipped away from them. Most alcoholics also display an alcohol withdrawal syndrome when they either reduce or temporarily cease consumption. Awakening with the ‘shakes’ and with the strong urge for relief drinking is a common occurrence; many alcoholics eventually succumb to the ‘morning drink’ to reduce their withdrawal symptoms.”

Sound like any writing heroes of yours? Yeah, I thought so.


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?


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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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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