Stein is an author, editor, and publisher. His advice is geared toward fiction, with some thoughts for nonfiction. I am a reader and reviewer of books, not a writer. I have strong likes and dislikes about books I’ve read. I’m reading some “how to write books” to see if I agree with the experts. I’m delighted to say that writers who follow Stein’s advice will very likely make me happy when reading their books. I am more liberal than Stein in two areas: the first three pages of a book and his fifth commandment. Scenes that end prematurely are a subject Stein did not discuss, but I believe he would agree with me.
ADJECTIVES, ADVERBS, & FLAB:
For a while now I have been confused when I hear people say “cut adverbs.” I’ve loved some colorful writing that adverbs produce. I made a list of wonderful sentences with adverbs written by J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, and Georgette Heyer. I recently read three Hemingway short stories and noticed a lot of adjectives and adverbs in two of them. That intrigued me because he is famous for concise writing. Stein is the first expert who explains this subject to my satisfaction. Although he recommends cutting most adjectives and adverbs, he gives examples showing when they are valuable. I like his view. Stein and I both like the following paragraph which is full of adjectives and adverbs. Although a novel filled with this should probably be labeled poetry rather than fiction. Still it shows the emotional and sensual ability of adjectives and adverbs. Stein calls it “a nearly perfect paragraph.” It was written by a student of his, Linda Katmarian.
“Weeds and the low hanging branches of unpruned trees swooshed and thumped against the car while gravel popped loudly under the car’s tires. As the car bumped along, a flock of startled blackbirds exploded out of the brush. For a moment they fluttered and swirled about like pieces of charred paper in the draft of a flame and then were gone. Elizabeth blinked. The mind could play such tricks.”
Stein says “She’s breaking rules. Adjectives and adverbs which normally should be cut are all over the place. They’re used to wonderful effect because she uses the particular sound of words ‘the low hanging branches swooshed and thumped against the car. Gravel popped. Startled blackbirds exploded out of the brush. They fluttered and swirled.’ We experience the road the car is on because the car ‘bumped’ along. What a wonderful image. ‘The birds fluttered and swirled about like pieces of charred paper in the draft of a flame.’ And it all comes together in the perception of the character ‘Elizabeth blinked. The mind could play such tricks.’ Many published writers would like to have written a paragraph that good. That nearly perfect paragraph was ...”
Another example. Stein does not like the sentence “What a lovely, colorful garden.” Lovely is too vague. Colorful is specific therefore better; but lovely and colorful don’t draw us in because we expect a garden to be lovely or colorful. There are several curiosity provoking adjectives you might use. If we hear that a garden is curious, strange, eerie, remarkable, or bizarre, we want to know why. An adjective that piques the reader’s curiosity helps move the story along.
Stein says when you have two adjectives together with one noun, you should almost always delete one of the adjectives. He also recommends eliminating the following words which he calls flab: had, very, quite, poor (unless talking of poverty), however, almost, entire, successive, respective, perhaps, always, and “there is.” Other words can be flab as well.
PARTICULARITY (attentiveness to detail):
I love the following comparison. “You have an envelope? He put one down in front of her.” This exchange is void of particularity. Here’s how the transaction was described by John LeCarre. “You have a suitable envelope? Of course you have. Envelopes were in the third drawer of his desk, left side. He selected a yellow one A4 size and guided it across the desk but she let it lie there.” Those particularities ordinary as they seem help make what she is going to put into the envelope important. The extra words are not wasted because they make the experience possible and credible. (My favorite part: “Of course you have.”)
FLASHBACKS AND SCENES THAT END PREMATURELY:
Stein discourages flashbacks. He says they break the reading experience. They pull the reader out of the story to tell what happened earlier. Yay! I agree! I don’t like them either.
I don’t recall Stein discussing “ending scenes prematurely,” but I think (or hope) he would agree with me that they also “break the reading experience.” For example, Mary walks into a room, hears a noise, and is hit. The next sentence is about another character in another place. Many authors do this to create artificial suspense. It makes me angry, and my anger takes me out of the story because I’m thinking about the author instead of the characters. You can have great suspense without doing this. Stein says “The Day of the Jackal” is famous for use of suspense. The scenes in that book have natural endings.
FIRST THREE PAGES OF A BOOK MAY NOT BE AS CRITICAL AS THEY USED TO BE:
Stein said a “book must grab the reader in the first three pages or they won’t buy the book.” This was based on studies watching customers in book stores. They looked at the jacket and then the first one to three pages. They either put it back or bought it. I think the internet changed things by providing customer reviews. I buy around 240 books a year. I never buy a book based on the first three pages. My decision to buy is based on customer reviews and/or book jacket summaries. I suppose the first three pages might still be important for customers in physical stores like Barnes & Noble and Walmart. But today we have books that become best sellers as ebooks and subsequently are published in paperback, for example Fifty Shades of Grey. Bloggers and reviewers spread the word, not bookstore visitors.
STEIN’S TEN COMMANDMENTS FOR WRITERS:
I’ve edited for brevity and to remove thou shalt’s.
1. Do not sprinkle characters into a preconceived plot. In the beginning was the character. (I like this, but I also think Stephen King has a good idea - something to try. He creates a “situation” first, then the characters, and last the plot.)
2. Imbue your heroes with faults and your villains with charm. For it is the faults of the hero that bring forth his life, just as the charm of the villain is the honey with which he lures the innocent.
3. Your characters should steal, kill, dishonor their parents, bear false witness, and covet their neighbor’s house, wife, man servant, maid servant, and ox. For readers crave such actions and yawn when your characters are meek, innocent, forgiving, and peaceable. (I love this.)
4. Avoid abstractions, for readers like lovers are attracted by particularity.
5. Do not mutter, whisper, blurt, bellow, or scream. Stein prefers using “he said.” (I’m not sure about this one. I like hearing these words. Maybe in moderation?)
6. Infect your reader with anxiety, stress, and tension, for those conditions that he deplores in life, he relishes in fiction.
7. Language shall be precise, clear, and bear the wings of angels for anything less is the province of businessmen and academics and not of writers. (I assume this includes cutting adjectives, adverbs, and flab - but keep the good ones.)
8. “Thou shalt have no rest on the sabbath, for thy characters shall live in thy mind and memory now and forever.” (I’m not sure how this is advice to writers.)
9. Dialogue: directness diminishes, obliqueness sings.
10. Do not vent your emotions onto the reader. Your duty is to evoke the reader’s emotions.
Do not write about wimps. People who seem like other people are boring. Ordinary people are boring.
Cut cliches. Say it new or say it straight.
If not clear who is speaking put “George said” before the statement. If it is clear, put “George said” after or eliminate “George said.”
Don’t use strange spellings to convey dialect or accents.
Book copyright: 1995.
Genre: nonfiction, how to write.
Husband did despicable things I hadn’t read before.
This was a really good story with interesting secrets that I didn’t expect and interesting ways of finding out about those secrets. I liked the changes Diane went through. It feels like women’s fiction because there is a lot of story about various characters. It feels like it’s moving a little slow, but not really. It just doesn’t have the action and suspense that I’m used to. It’s about ordinary people, how they live, what they do. I was fully immersed.
I can’t believe how bad Diane’s husband was. What he did... and it gets worse. I was in the mood for a husband doing bad things with divorce in the offing. This fit the bill. I liked the way her husband was not happy in the end. He had to settle for things he didn’t want. Diane got revenge. Revenge might not have been her goal but it was the result of her standing up for herself and doing what was best for herself and others. The revenge was subtle but good. I loved Diane’s happy and successful end.
There was a good secondary story about Tamsen and what helped her out of her problem.
I was surprisingly pleased with the first sex scene. The guy kept thinking the girl would resist or slap him, but she didn’t, so he did a little more thinking she would resist, but she didn’t, so he did a little more. I enjoyed being in his mind during this. This felt different from other sex scenes. I suppose other authors have done something similar, but it felt fresh to me.
I was totally unaware of the narrator Karina Fernandez, which means she was very good.
Genre: contemporary romance, divorce
Good plot with abusive husband. Narrator not for me.
A good story about ordinary people who turn into something different but they are still ordinary.
Two stories are told. 1: Dolores is married to an abusive man. I loved her strength about it. I loved what she did to make him stop hitting her. I wonder if more women could do that.
She threatened to hurt him while he slept, and he believed her. Of course I did not like that she was forced to kill him, but it was a good story about how and why she did it.
2: Dolores works as a housekeeper for wealthy woman Vera. Vera becomes bedridden and Dolores becomes her caretaker. Vera was mean. I liked hearing about their relationship: ordinary people doing un-ordinary things.
I enjoyed the first story more than the second. I want happy endings, and this barely squeaked by as happy enough for me.
The entire story is told in first person which I did not like. Dolores is telling her story to the local constable/police-guy Andy. It was hard to lose myself in the story because of that.
The actress narrating had an elderly voice which fit the character (Dolores is 65 when telling her story), but it wasn’t pleasant. There was a grating quality to it. I prefer a softer voice.
Genre: relationships fiction, abused women
Characters were nice people but not compelling enough for a story.
My mind kept wandering. A lot of conversation about ordinary things. Characters did not interest or intrigue me. Stella likes to organize and manage things. Logan is creative and artistic with his landscaping but appears disorganized in other things. I wasn’t drawn to the relationship. The sex scenes didn’t do anything for me.
The plot surrounding the ghost was not well developed and not finished. They hired someone to go through old records to discover the story behind the ghost. He started, but the book ended before he worked on it.
The narrator Susie Breck was ok.
Genre: contemporary romance with a little paranormal
This doesn’t have the wow or really out-there with the unexpected, but it was enjoyable and entertaining.
Dev is a 21-year-old college student taking a summer job at an amusement park. I liked reading about the people he met and the things he did. There’s a little mystery, a little paranormal, a scary part with a killer, some unexpected things, and a happy end. My thoughts were Stephen King sure is a good story teller - even after all these years.
The cover with a frightened sexy redhead does not fit the feel of the book.
The narrator Michael Kelly was very good. His voice sounded like a 21-year-old which fit the story well. I wondered what his accent was. He said contractions in a way I wasn’t used to, for example the word didn’t: I say dident, he says didnet.
Genre: mystery and general fiction with paranormal
A bunch of people make stupid assumptions which dragged the story, but great job on the monster (dog).
I really enjoyed the first half - getting to know various local people with different stories. For example: a guy who drinks too much. When he sees his friend the dog he says “Hello you son of a whore.” I like watching people say and do things I never would.
The second half has Cujo imprisoning Donna and her son in the car in the heat for a couple of days - growing closer and closer to death I was frustrated during that part because everyone was making stupid assumptions. No one did anything smart. I don’t mind some characters doing stupid things, but this was too many. The dog was the smart one. All the other characters are questioning or saying I wonder where so and so is. Or I wonder why this or that. And then someone else says oh it’s probably such and such. So the first person says you’re probably right and does nothing. As a result, no one visits the farm which would save Donna’s life. The cops, the husband, the dog owners, the mailman, the neighbors. Everyone assumes something that keeps them from going to the farm. I felt impatient.
The ending was partly happy, but also sad.
I rounded to 4 stars because it’s a creative, amazing idea for a monster - the huge rabid dog. I liked that we were in the dog’s mind at times. That was a treat. I loved the way the author developed and described local people, their motivations, feelings, and actions. I laughed at the way the author wrote about the imaginary monster in the closet scaring the little kid.
I did not like the narrator Lorna Raver. Her voice sounded elderly, gravely, and at times irritating. The most irritating was when she spoke as Tad being whiny or scared.
Genre: suspense thriller
I’ve loved some of Koontz’s books: Watchers, Lightning, and Intensity. This book was not for me. I couldn’t read it all. I read the first third and the last several chapters. The entire story (from what I read) is the guy Mitch and his wife being helpless victims. It starts with the bad guy kidnaping Mitch’s wife and making it look like Mitch killed his wife. The bad guy then forces Mitch to do things. Mitch was a helpless victim throughout the book. Finally at the end, with a moment of luck, there’s a happy ending for Mitch and his wife. The author does not tell what happened with the money, police, and other things at the end.
This book was similar to Velocity because of the helpless victim throughout the book. Velocity had a killer planting evidence on the guy’s property multiple times and threatening to call the cops each time. I didn’t like either one of these stories. I prefer the protagonist be able to have some control over something. I want a different plot.
The narrator Holter Graham was good.
Genre: suspense thriller
At the end my feeling was: not a wow, but very fulfilling.
I’ve read 13 books by Nora Roberts. I was averaging 3 ½ stars for her books written in the 1990s. But then I gave 4 ½ stars to Angels Fall (2006) and now to this (published 2012). Is she getting better? I’m surprised. Too many authors seem to tire out or write repeats of the same stuff after a while. Not Ms. Roberts. Maybe I’ve been picking the wrong books to read. But now, I’m going to look for more.
The best part was “the characters.” I was sooo drawn to Liz/Abigail. A favorite trope for me is a smart woman, who overcomes odds, and is not a helpless victim. I loved her vulnerabilities and her strengths. I liked reading about her, thinking about her, and listening to her. I pictured the author losing herself in the character Liz, to come up with such fitting dialogue. Brooks was so fun. He was oblivious to her walls. He just kept pursuing her, chipping away at her walls.
This story has wonderful relationship development. It has good guys doing smart things to outwit bad guys. Bad guys do smart things too. I like that the author did not use stupidity. Instead the author had a character’s personality with weaknesses cause conflict, not just doing something stupid.
The narrator Julia Whelan was very good.
Genre: romantic suspense
but it did not work for me. The narrator made it worse.
It was dragging and dragging. Finally at about half way through I stopped reading and jumped to the last two chapters.
I might have liked it better if I were reading as opposed to listening. The narrator used a strong Croatian accent and an Icelandic accent. The accents were not enjoyable. There’s a reason TV anchors sound the same - it’s pleasant for the majority of the population.
There was one scene I found funny. Andro was a crazy gay boy who jerked off two men at the same time, one Serbian, one Croatian. The author said “It was the strangest image I have from that f***ing war. If we had gay nations there would be less wars.”
I did not like the ending. The main guy/narrator is shot. We don’t know if he lives or dies. It was not funny.
The title is misleading because it is such a minor part of the story. Toxic enters a girl’s messy home to hideout. He cleans it before she arrives home.
Genre: humorous crime fiction
Don’t do the audiobook - terrible narrator. Read the paperback or ebook.
Sadie and her children spend the summer with Aunt Dody and cousins. Sadie is recently divorced. She doesn’t want a new relationship, but she is attracted to Dody’s gorgeous neighbor Desmond.
I really enjoyed this. I smiled a lot. I liked being in Sadie’s head. I loved her interaction with her cousin Fontaine, a gay interior decorator. I enjoyed the developing relationship with Desmond. This was not a powerful wow story. It’s a pleasant, everyday people around you kind of story. There were several conflicts caused by Sadie making inaccurate assumptions and jumping to wrong conclusions. Those were nicely done. But one of them bothered me - toward the end Sadie was mad at Des for something that she should not have been mad about.
Sadie has some low self image problems and does some silly things. I was fine with that, but some readers might prefer a stronger heroine. This book has a chick lit feel, but it does have a romantic happy ending. Although I wish there were more romance and declaration of love at the end.
The narrator Lori Reyes was a huge problem. She had a terrible, high-pitched screechy voice for Dody and the children. It was like fingernails on a chalkboard. I cringed every time she used that voice. She would be a good narrator if she NEVER raised her voice to a higher pitch. Her natural voice and low voice for men was good.
Genre: contemporary romance, divorce
but the second half is exciting, engaging, and felt good at the end.
A lot of the story is cliched characters - done too many times before and predictable. The Vice President had no brains and followed whatever his smarmy chief of staff (Dallas King) told him to do. Dallas made all decisions based on polls, public opinion, and future election possibilities rather than something intelligent. Those parts pulled the story down - made it drag.
The bad guy was evil in all ways - and then lucky when things went wrong. I was annoyed with how easily he got away. His actions have been done before, nothing special or different.
But, the parts with Mitch Rapp were excellent fun. The last half was best, when Mitch was making decisions and taking action. Mitch is the smart, effective, undercover guy. His physical description - he won the triathlete Ironman competition.
A few times the author annoyed me with too much jumping around in the middle of crisis scenes. I’d prefer some of them completed rather than interrupted. For example, a good guy is secretly doing something near a bad guy. Then the scene switches to military leaders elsewhere discussing what to do. The author was artificially drawing out suspense. Not all of this was bad, but when I get mad at the author and think about the author in the middle of a story, then it’s not good.
The ending was rushed. I wanted more development of things.
I had trouble deciding between 3 and 4 stars. I finally went with 3 because I don’t have any desire to read more in the series. This was a tough call, because the last half was clearly 4 stars.
The narrator Nick Sullivan was good.
Genre: action suspense thriller, terrorist
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