The Non-Fiction Novelist

Helping at-work writers to become novelists

Archive for the tag “writing style”

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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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.

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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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?

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…

Do You Have The ‘Authority’ To Write A Novel?

By Larry Kahaner
My non-fiction books like AK-47 and Values, Prosperity and the Talmud (pretty wide range, eh?) demand a lot of research. Not only do I read and study but I interview tons of people, which comes naturally to me as I earned my writing chops by being a newspaper and magazine reporter. Actually, I prefer interviewing people to book research although they complement each other and both have their place.respect-my-authority

As the research process continues, I continually ask myself: “Is it time to stop researching and start writing?”

The answer for me is when I see the book’s overall theme materialize in my mind. This doesn’t mean that I know everything I need to know. It does mean that I know enough that the ‘big’ story is clear and apparent. I actually can see a beginning, middle and an end.

Nothing is set in stone, though. It’s subject to change, even major changes, but I am confident enough to begin.

The same goes for fiction. Novel writing requires research. Some stories, especially historical fiction, may require a great deal of research. But the question is the same: “When do I have the authority to begin writing?” And the answer is the same, too. When you see the overall story clearly. When it all makes sense to you not just as a writer but as a reader, too.

Read more…

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