Author of 'The Cain File' – a Kindle Scout Selection

Posts tagged “#amwriting

Ten books that made me want to be a writer

Who doesn’t read ‘top ten’ lists? There’s one going round at the moment where people rate their ten favorite books, and I was inspired to list the ones that influenced me as a writer. Here are ten by authors at the top of their game, whose stories reverberated, whose voices made me want to find one of my own. Books that made me say ‘I want to do that.’

10. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson) – Many a true word written in jest. Wins the opening line award: ‘We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.’

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the_postman_always_rings_twice-cover9 The Postman Always Rings Twice (James M. Cain) – Cain was master of the breakneck-paced novel with scummy characters you love to root for.

8. The Stranger (Albert Camus) – Another terrific opener: ‘Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday.’ Who says you can’t tell vs. show? Fun Fact: Camus was influenced by James M. Cain.

7. The Dancer Upstairs (Nicholas Shakespeare) – The story of a South American detective trying to do the right thing in a country beset by corruption and civil war. And then he falls in love.

6. Strangers on a Train (Patricia Highsmith) – Anything Highsmith wrote is steeped in psychological turmoil. This was her first. Hitchcock was compelled to make it into an equally excellent film.

"My imagination functions much better when I don't have to speak to people." - Patricia Highsmith

“My imagination functions much better when I don’t have to speak to people.” – Patricia Highsmith

5. God’s Pocket (Peter Dexter) – An orgy of wonderfully low rent characters, including one who drives around with a body in the back of a refrigeration truck and you just hope he gets away with it.

4 Killshot (Elmore Leonard) – Leonard pioneered the modern crime novel. This is his darkest and most powerful.Unknown

3. Of Human Bondage (W. Somerset Maugham) – 50,000 words too long but what words. Daring stuff for its time about a lost soul who falls for a woman of questionable morals. There’s a reason Maugham was one of the most popular writers of his era.

2. The Road (Cormac McCarthy) – I dare you not to be moved by this haunting tale of love between father and son during the apocalypse.

1. The Ginger Man (JP Donleavy) – One man’s battle against sobriety, decency and sanity. Hysterically funny and tragic at the same time. A masterpiece.

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Those are my ten. Did I miss a must-read gem? Feel free to let me know.

Viven los escritores!

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The Literary Chain Letter – aka ‘My Writing Process’

I’ve been tagged to tell you how I do what I do when it comes to doing what I love best to do: writing. Specifically, my writing process – or lack of one. But I’m happy to make something up. Well, I am a fiction writer.

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My writing process (high level view)

For the trail of this writing process request chain see Mark Miller, who referred me, and whose entry you may read by clicking said link. You will discover that Mark can really write, not only because he’s good, but also because he writes non-fiction, which requires sticking to the facts.

I truly admire anyone who can turn the truth into something readable as I find it a little – er – restrictive. I’m like the Irishman who had such a respect for the truth that he was known to use it in emergencies. Anyway, I digress. Which is part of my writing process actually: digression. Call it exploration. Research. But, back to the truth – briefly – to quote my old writing teacher, the stalwart Jim Frey. (No, not that Jim Frey, who committed a disgracia on Oprah. Talk about not sticking to the truth.) I mean the Jim Frey of ‘How to Write a Damn Good Novel’, who said ‘if your story needs a BART station in Golden Gate Park, then there’s a BART station in Golden Gate Park.’ (There isn’t, by the way, for those of you who don’t live in the People’s Republic of San Francisco.) The point is, it’s FICTION. It doesn’t have to be true, just believable. And sometimes, the more outlandish, the more believable.

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There are many approaches to effective writing.

I’m work-shopping a Noir novel at the moment, channeling the demons of Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard, Graham Greene and Patricia Highsmith and corralling them into a ’70s biker novel with a woman bent on revenge, and I can’t believe my fellow work-shoppers are buying some of the things Colleen Hayes, who gets out of prison and goes hunting for her wayward teenage daughter, gets up to. They don’t seem to have issue with the ‘fact’ that a bascially nice person goes nuts with a shotgun, but more with the very basic aspects of character – motivation, capacity, growth – that affect all characters in all novels under development. Like they say, if you can make a reader (or viewer) believe a man can fly, they must want to believe it.

But I digress.

Like the man said, who wants to read about people who never really existed, doing things that never really happened? I do. And so do a lot of you. And I want to write about it, too. What an arrogant thought, really, thinking that someone wants to read something you just made up. But they do. If it connects. And, to do that, it has to connect with the author. So that’s part of the reason my writing process might seem so fluid. Because looking for inspiration, that little nugget, requires a lot of wild casting and hoping the line doesn’t get snagged in a tree. Or around your neck. But if it does – so what? Print is cheap. You’re not shooting a movie. Go big.

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In my other life, the one where I make money, I’m a computer programmer, and one of the tenets of modern software development is to iterate. Start with something and keep refactoring it, until it works. Don’t shoot for perfection right off. To me, writing fiction and code have much in common that way. All programmers write code their own way too.

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I like to write women protagonists. Why? I find them a great contrast to most of my bad guys (who tend to be guys) and I think that women characters can have a wider emotional range. They get away with a lot of things men can’t. I admire writers who can write dark sympathetic male characters. Case in point: Stephen King. In ‘The Shining’ his protagonist breaks his five-year-old son’s arm and the reader still identifies with him.

Some rules I follow but not always:

1. Don’t keep going back to the beginning of your draft every time you sit down in front of your computer (or pen and paper). Push ahead.

2. But do sit down at your computer (or pen and paper) as much as possible. Some people say every day but if you work for a living this may not be doable. But half an hour writing is better than half an hour not writing.

3. Be prepared to throw away most of what you write. Keith Richards jammed for hours – months, in many cases – to come up with a riff for one of those three minute gems. It was worth it. Segovia practiced for five hours per day. Write a lot and be prepared to write a lot of sh*t. It’s good enough for Henning Mankell.

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One of the tamer Sasquatch Erotica titles out there.

4. Read as much as you can. Read what you want to write. For me, those are my heroes (Elmore Leonard, Patricia Highsmith) but I also read the odd classic and I even read some junk. I’m an American author and popular fiction (and culture) is ingrained in me. I draw the line at Sasquatch erotica however.

5. Work-shop your work. If you don’t, you’re an amateur. Listen to the critiques. If more than two critiquers make the same comment, they’re right. Sorry, Hemingway, you got to kill your darlings.

6. There is no rule six.

7. I like to write early in the morning, mostly because that’s when I have time but also because my mind isn’t clogged with mundane garbage yet. I don’t check my stocks before I write, read email, or do anything that pulls me out of the ‘fictive dream.’

8. I read my work out loud.

9. I listen to all the critique but in the end it’s my story. I need to decide what happens. This is so hard but for me was the breakthrough that made my work better (IMHO). Trust your instincts. ‘Write from the fingertips’ Jim Frey says.

10. I write thrillers and mysteries. It’s important to stay within the genre, whatever genre you choose. Literary fiction is a genre, by the way. But by the same token, you need to break the genre, just a little, to make your story fresh.

11. I try to have fun and remember why I write. I get disappointed and frustrated just like everyone else but if the entire world isn’t in love with my books, that’s their problem. And it’s a first world problem to be wallowing in writer’s angst.

"My imagination functions much better when I don't have to speak to people." - Patricia Highsmith

“My imagination functions much better when I don’t have to speak to people.” – Patricia Highsmith

12. I do quite a lot of research (hasn’t Google made research easier, everyone?) For my biker Noir novel, I read more than I wanted on the history of Meth in this country and all I can tell you is that fiction ain’t got nothin’ on the truth. I’m still trying to get some of those images out of my mind. Much of my research is on the page in early drafts but eliminated as I rewrite. Tip of the iceberg is what I aim for. Elmore Leonard is a master at including that one detail that brings a scene or character to life.

13. There is no such thing as writer’s block. As Jim Frey said, what would you say to a plumber who said that he (or she) had ‘plumber’s block?’ You’re a plumber. Get to work. If you can’t be wonderfully creative today, do some low-level self-editing. There’s always something to do to make your novel better.

So there you have it.

I want to call out three fellow authors I think are innovative and pass the baton, and hope they follow suit and tell us how they write. (It’s a chain letter. If we all do this the entire world will be inundated with blog posts about writing. And then what? A few million authors at the end of the chain will be stuck and the internet will probably break. But if my three chosen authors wish to participate I look forward to their secrets for success.)

Tess Collins – author of Appalachian fiction and more
Anne-Rae Vasquez – paranormal, fantasy, dystopian (and more)
Jill Nojack – queen of the fae (and more!)

If you write, I hope my humble thoughts have encouraged you in some way. We all do it differently but we all do a lot of it the same. What an arrogant thing to think that someone will want to read something you made up.

But I digress.

¡vivan los escritores!


How to Write a Crappy Novel: 12 Rules

Too much ink has been spilled on how to write the great American novel. Let me show you how to write a crap one.

Here are twelve ways:

boredbookdog1. Descriptive passages (long). This is key. At least thirty percent of your novel should be pondering, descriptive prose. Details. Lovingly described. And remember—don’t tie your details to a telling character trait, like the evil prince’s amulet. Describe the trees outside the prince’s house for a paragraph (two is better) before he utters a word of dialog. Set the scene. Warm up those engines. Describe the engines. You are an artist. Weave that wandering tale. Forget what Elmore Leonard said about leaving out the parts people skip over. What did he know?  Long descriptive passages.

2. Open your novel with a character waking up. The best way to do this is to have your character wake up, describe everything he or she sees, then do a lot of reflecting, and then have another short descriptive passage. Especially if you’re writing a thriller. This way your readers can really get to know your character before anything happens. Then:

3. Backstory! Lots of backstory. Flashbacks. Flashbacks within flashbacks if you’re a pro. Do not trust your readers to pick things up on the fly. Is your novel about some man in the throes of alcoholism? Then, as a reader, I probably need to know where his parents went to school. And what they like to eat. Same if your protagonist is the first female astronaut about to take off on her maiden flight.

4. Cross Genres. One thing that keeps readers on their toes is when they’re never quite sure what kind of book they’re reading. Confining your novel to one genre won’t accomplish that. The crappiest novels have elements of mystery/paranormal/sci fi/literary/young adult/romance and vampires all thrown in. And erotica. And memoir, even if your memoir would put your mother to sleep. And more vampires.

boredbooktwo5. Growth. Don’t do it. Who wants to read about characters who change through adversity all the time? Or reach some epiphany by the end of the novel? Hasn’t that been done before? And please, don’t have minor character growth either, where characters display subtle levels of change from the beginning to the end of each scene.

6. Conflict. Another no-no. Ties in with Growth. Who wants a character in terrible trouble, on the brink of failure, only to have them in constant conflict with other characters too? It only creates tension. Lots of eating scenes where characters ruminate on mildly amusing anecdotes (backstory), with *description* are best. If you somehow do manage to accidentally slip some growth or conflict into your novel, under no circumstances have it escalate into a series of events where your protagonist must meet ever-increasing challenges to achieve their goal.

7. Don’t workshop your novel. Those amateurs who think they know how to write? Think they know what your novel needs? Just because it’s got description and backstory they don’t get, they have the audacity to suggest you might consider trimming it. Perhaps they don’t feel engaged by your 800 page memoir with vampires. Why are you showing them your work in the first place? Do you want your ideas stolen? I’m going to say it again because you need to tell readers the same thing multiple times: don’t workshop.

8. Use lots of colorful dialog tags. Forget the ‘he said/she said’ rule. Much better to treat the reader to ‘he interjected angrily’ or ‘she shouted demonstratively’.

9. Tell, don’t show. Why use a bunch of words to build up a scene, appealing to at least two senses at all times, where the character’s emotional state is revealed through action and situation? Much easier to simply say ‘Fred went to primary school when he was six’. Especially if Fred is the captain of a ship that is sinking.

pretentious - moi?10. Be cryptic. It’s not your job to hold the reader’s hand. They need to work for it. Art is never easy. You may not even be trying to tell the reader anything in the first place. The point is, it’s their responsibility to unearth the gem(s) in your description-laden prose. Great authors may not even ever know what their own novel is about. That’s just the way art works.

11. Vague protagonist. You know what your protagonist is thinking; if your readers are paying attention, so should they. No need to spell it out and spoil the magic.

12. Length. Since you are a great writer, the more the better. Lots of words. Lots! Who wants John Lennon for three minutes when you can have Yoko Ono screeching for an entire album side? See how long this piece is? I could have edited it down and made it shorter. But why? I’m an artist.

¡vivan los autores!