The Non-Fiction Novelist

Helping at-work writers to become novelists

Archive for the tag “the writing life”

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.

Book Reviewers Can be Jerks

Book Reviewers Can be Jerks

By Larry Kahaner

Whether you are a seasoned author or just published your first book, reviews play tricks on your self-confidence as a writer. Like everything else in life, some people like your stuff and some people hate it (thanks, Captain Obvious) and there’s nothing you can do about it.review-book

Every book has its supporters and detractors, and if your head isn’t screwed on, it can be a career killer.

Let me stipulate up front that most reviewers, indeed, the vast majority of reviewers are writing honest, objective reviews. This blog is about the other ones.

I offer some points to remember if you decide to read your reviews. I say ‘if’ because many successful authors never read reviews. I used to think this was BS, but it’s true. These folks understand the reality of reviews.

And here they are:

  • Reviews are supposed to be objective, but they’re not. Readers bring themselves into the review based on their own beliefs. Here’s a personal example. I published a book titled AK-47: the Weapon that Changed the Face of War. Pro-gun people said I blamed all the world ills on this ubiquitous weapon. Anti-gun people said that I glorified the weapon. Both can’t be true. Right? I even read one review that chided me for not including more pictures of guns. Hello… it was not a gun-porn book, but a political view of the world’s most-used weapon.

 

  • Some reviewers and readers are pissed off about a specific subject matter so they give a low rating hoping that potential readers will ignore a book. Think books about climate change. Others love the topic so they give a high rating hoping that others of their ilk will buy it and somehow bolster the cause. Neither reviews have anything to do with a book’s merit. Case in point: I once wrote a book about a company called MCI (not the MCI WorldCom that was later involved in a scandal). The title was On The Line. The company beat AT&T in court and this opened the way for competitive long distance phone service. I got hate reviews from those who were angry that AT&T was no longer the country’s de facto monopoly phone company and venerable Ma Bell (youngsters, stay with me on this) was being broken up. Others were glad to see the old monopoly split into regional companies which eventually ushered in the telecommunications system we have today. I even received a letter from David Packard, head of Hewlett-Packard, chiding me for writing about this start-up company which he believed would lead to the downfall of Western civilization. What about the book’s merits? Didn’t really matter. And no sour grapes here by the way. The book did really well.

 

  • Last one: Reviewers are swayed by what the reviewer thinks the author stands for. The classic case is Salman Rushdie who penned a novel in 1988 titled Satanic Verses, which caused a stir among many in the Muslim community. They accused Rushdie of blasphemy, and in 1989 the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. Many death threats followed and Rushdie went into hiding with armed guards. To show their support for Rushdie and their dislike of the Ayatollah many people bought the book – it became a best seller – and critics offered rave reviews because they supported free speech and wanted to strike a blow against radical Islam. It had been reported at the time that many Western consumers bought the book but never read it. They just wanted to make a point. Rushdie says he is not anti-Muslim. He was born into a Muslim family and now considers himself an atheist. By the way, many reviewers wrote about the controversy itself and not the book. That’s not their job.

My final point is this. You can’t please everyone. Mind you, I’m not talking about warranted, even constructive criticism, but make sure a review is about your book and not about you or anything else before you react. Write your book the best way you know how and work on having a thick skin or don’t read reviews at all. Your choice.

Coda: I have a good writing buddy who also is a reviewer for a respected trade publication.  I often send him my blogs to gut-check them before posting. He had this remark: “Perfectly reasonable blog, though it will never make anyone feel better about a bad review. They always hurt, even if you know you were treated unfairly.”

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.

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.

The ‘Starving Writer’ Notion Needs to Die

The ‘Starving Writer’ Notion Needs to Die

By Larry Kahaner

When I decided to make my living as a writer, lo, those many years ago, I realized that I better learn about money and investing. Why? Because I knew that being a writer can sometimes be a financial up-and-down kind of life. If you’re a writer, or plan to become one, you also better learn how to hanbella-new-writer-in-cafedle your money. If not, you’re in for a lifetime of disappointment, frustration and regret.

First, the good news. Being a writer is a great job. Do I really need to explain why?

However, some writing jobs or books don’t pay a lot of money. That’s why you have to be extra smart about your finances and money management.

After years of writing about business (one of my specialties) and investing my own money, I decided to offer presentations to colleges about personal finance. I call it the Fiscal Fitness Boot Camp and my goal was to help college students prepare for financial adulthood. During a presentation at the University of Connecticut, Waterbury, an attendee came up afterwards and asked me about my assertion that anyone could become a millionaire or more by the time they retired simply by saving and investing. She said: “I’m planning on becoming an artist and artists often don’t make a lot of money. Can I still become a millionaire by age 65?”

My answer was ‘yes,’ and for purposes of this blog change the word ‘artist’ to ‘writer’ and my answer remains the same.

I explained that the key to becoming rich is not about much you make, but how regularly you save and invest. By putting aside what you can each month into a stock index fund when you’re in your 20’s or 30’s, it will grow at around 9 percent annually for many decades and you’ll be a millionaire by age 65. (If you’re past these ages, this works, too, but you’ll end up with a lower amount.)  There will be hills and troughs so you have to hang tough. Through the power of compounding (remember compound interest from middle school?) your investments will grow large. See this blog for details.

“What if there are months that I have no money invest?” she asked.

I replied: “If you miss a month or two, your nest egg won’t suffer in the long term, but try to put something away, even if it’s only $20, every month. Even that small amount will make a difference if you start today.”

Is it more complicated than that? Yes, but you don’t have to know everything right now. Take it slow and no whining about how you’re a writer/artist/musician and you shouldn’t have to know about money. That kind of thinking is for suckers.

Remember, the starving writer is a myth perpetrated by people who find poverty a romantic notion. If anything, penury keeps you from producing your best works.

 

The adage ‘do what you love and the money will come,’ seems a bit outdated and unrealistic to me. I believe the true key to life is to discover what you love to do and then figure out how to make a living at it.

For those of you who are interested in learning more, drop me a line and I’ll suggest some easy-to-understand websites and books to get you started.

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