The Non-Fiction Novelist

Helping at-work writers to become novelists

Archive for the tag “how to write thrillers”

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.)

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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.

 

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.

 

 

The Trouble With Flashbacks and Backstories

By Larry Kahaner

One of the best things about writing this blog is that it forces me to confront my own writing issues. Currently, I’m wrestling with a particular flashback in my current novel. You probably know that flashbacks and backstories are different although they are similar. Both devices occur in the past and writers use them to give readers a better understanding of a character or situation through past history and behavior.320px-Flashback

Backstories usually are standalone narratives whereas flashbacks are a character’s recollection. (I know that some will argue these definitions but I’m going to move on anyway as you consult your dictionaries.) Both suffer from the same malady, however. They interrupt the forward movement of your story.

In my particular case, the flashback is way cool. I’ve written it well and in real time. It moves like the wind and gives a great insight into my main character. On the minus side, it stops the main story dead in its tracks. The forward motion that I’ve worked so hard to achieve is halted, and I will have to work even harder to build up acceleration again.

The questions I have to ask myself is: Is it worth it? Cut out or leave in?

Actually, there’s a third choice. I could make the flashback shorter in hopes that the reader will speed over it. Nah. I either want to tell the whole flashback story or not at all.

Because I come from a journalism/non-fiction writer background I opted to brutally cut the flashback. Here’s the section under discussion:

“As the minister spoke, Mike remembered the funerals in Iraq. They were not ceremonies like today’s but what they called ‘ramp funerals’ where caskets containing service personnel were wheeled onto military transports for burial back in the States. Their buddies stood and watched as the caskets disappeared into the belly of a cargo plane. That’s what passed for funerals during the war.

He had his fill of death in Iraq. Mike saw too many pals die, too many ramp funerals, and the memories made him sick to his stomach.”

[Right here I had the rather long but again, very exciting flashback incident that occurred during the First Iraq War. It’s too lengthy to show. So, assume that you did read it and continue with the current day’s scene.]

“Now, here he was once more, watching the burial of one more comrade who died in the line of duty. Comrade? She was more than a comrade.

Did you miss reading the flashback? If I didn’t say anything, you wouldn’t have noticed anything was missing. I added “Comrade? She was more than a comrade.” to highlight my main character’s emotional state and offer a bit of backstory, as it were, about their relationship.

In summary, I cut several pages of flashback and replaced it with seven words.

My word count took a hit, but I have a better book.

How do you handle flashbacks and backstories? Any advice for others facing the keep-or-cut dilemma?

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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