The Non-Fiction Novelist

Helping at-work writers to become novelists

Archive for the tag “how do you write a novel”

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.)

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.

How Good Does Your Novel Have to Be?

By Larry Kahaner plainenglish

When I was just starting my non-fiction writing career, I wanted to be published in the Sunday New York Daily News magazine. I had been born and raised in Brooklyn and to me the pinnacle of  ‘getting in print’ was this publication read by millions. It was the tabloid newspaper for the masses and I wanted to reach that audience. For those who have not read the magazine, there was not much to the stories. They were mainly human-interest stuff, some sports, local color… you get the picture. Literary masterpieces they were not.

As much as I tried, I could not get them to buy my material. I tried for years and I was perplexed because I would read the stories and say to myself, ‘I can write better than this. Why won’t they take my stories?’

Fast forward to Boston University’s graduate school in Science Journalism where I met a professor to whom I was telling this tale. He said: “Maybe they don’t want anything better than what they have.”

The light bulb went on in my head. He was right. Not to sound cynical, but the editors were happy with the quality of the stories they printed. They didn’t want anything more clever, better written or exciting.

How does this to relate to novel writing? I read a lot of thrillers and some of them are what a reviewer friend of mine calls “perfectly fine.” They don’t blow the roof off the house or some such saying but they are enjoyable and satisfying to read. The most successful and bestselling authors know this. They don’t spend a lot of time concocting complicated phrases or sentences. They write simply, clearly and provocatively.

That’s the real secret of novel writing success. Fancy, witty and clever stories are okay… if you want to write them …  but nothing makes readers happier than a compelling story, simply told,  with a satisfying ending.

Leave the high falutin’ words for your dissertation. Just relate the story as if you were telling a friend. And, as I always say, you have only one job: make the reader turn the page.

 

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