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.
Audiobook narrator was a bad fit – elderly lady reading erotic sex?
If you liked Fifty Shades of Grey, then DO NOT READ THIS – IGNORE THIS REVIEW.
I’m not a good source for these books. I gave Fifty Shades 3 stars, and Knight is similar to Fifty. It’s not a good fit for me. I felt insecure and unsettled with both books.
Sophie is Bambi-like, shy, totally beautiful, probably in her late 20s. Her husband is on a ten-day trip with his mistress. Sophie does not know he has a mistress but she suspects. Sophie gets a new job working for Lucien as his personal assistant. Lucien owns sex clubs and sells sex toys. When doing a background check on Sophie, Lucien discovers her husband’s affair. So, Lucien feels free to seduce her.
I read the first half and lost interest. I skipped to the end. Most of the first half is Lucien sexually pleasuring Sophie. I kept thinking when is he going to get some? Finally he does. But I was not feeling good about it. It seemed the only reason he liked her was because she was sooo beautiful. It made me feel undesirable and insecure. I could not identify with her. I also kept thinking her beauty is no basis for a permanent relationship. He will tire of her down the road and go for another beauty. Hey, I’m fine with couples in other books having hook-ups and short-term sexual relationships. But for some reason I wasn’t feeling good here. Plus there’s the adultery thing – bringing guilt. She’s the type who needs permanence and principles.
This is mostly sex scenes: explicit, sex toys, self-pleasuring, back-door action, bondage, and spanking. (There may have been other things in the part I did not read.)
Cliffhanger: This book ends in the middle of the story. You need book #2 to finish.
At the end of the book Sophie’s husband Dan comes home from his trip and does not know that Sophie knows he has a mistress. That could have been a great scene – the conflict, the confrontation, he wanting to keep what he has. But the book ends, so you have to go to book #2 to see it. So I read the beginning of book #2 and was totally disappointed. That scene (of words between Sophie and Dan) was not shown. Instead Lucien tells Dan that Sophie knows about the mistress. Then Dan leaves home. There is no scene where Sophie yells at Dan, or asks why or how could he do that, or Dan groveling. We don’t even get Dan saying he’s leaving. It just jumps to a week later and we learn that Dan is living elsewhere. Maybe something happens later in book #2. I don’t know.
AUDIOBOOK NARRATOR - Claire Wexford.
I do not want to listen to a little old lady read erotic sex scenes for twenty-something Sophie. However, I think she is a good narrator for other books.
Narrative mode: 3rd person.
Genre: erotic contemporary romance.
But the audiobook narrator’s breaths and swallowing were a problem.
I loved Mattie, the 14-year-old-girl who had the brains, attitude, and actions of an adult. I laughed several times. I loved the dialogue. It was special and different from what I’m used to. I think it was accurate for how folks talked back then and there. One thing odd was that the author used “said I” or “said he” after quotes. I’ve never read books done that way. It was uncomfortable, but I went with it. For those who want happy endings, this works.
Amazon reviewer arunan said it well. Mattie's just a really strong character and in the end, the title "True Grit" is as much about her as it is about her tough guy guardian, Rooster Cogburn.
Donna Tartt did a fabulous job. I can’t imagine any actress doing it better. But SHE HAD A BIG PROBLEM. I kept hearing her breathing, swallowing, and mouth noises. She needed to use a better microphone or have those noises removed during the editing process. Such a shame because she did a great job otherwise.
Narrative mode: 1st person Mattie.
Genre: western historical fiction.
I was also annoyed with hearing the audiobook narrator’s breaths.
The premise of Juliette being a courtesan, the why, and her actions were ridiculous. Her actions did not fit her motivations – a violation of writing rules. I describe it in Spoilers below.
There were some plot events that could have been interesting, but they were not developed. Instead most of the story is internal angst and pondering. She tells him something false and then is angsty and hurt because he believes it. He is angsty and hurt because he believes it.
There is child abuse and a disturbing scene killing a puppy. I don’t mind bad parents being the bad guys, but this was too troubling for me.
Juliette is married to abusive man Oliver. She pretends to have affairs with other men so Oliver will divorce her. He does. That’s the only part that made sense to me. The rest does not. Now Juliette’s dream is to fall in love, get married, and have children. But her actions don’t fit her motivations. She tells the world that she is a courtesan so that she can be free to attend parties and have fun. Then she falls in love with Wil. She wants to marry him, but she won’t be honest with him. She knows he is troubled about her being a courtesan, so why does she continue lying and telling him she is a courtesan? Then when he does not propose marriage, she is furious, angry, and angsty and runs away so he can’t find her.
Frequently during the book he is cold and distant and calls her a whore or courtesan. And then she has all this hurt because of it, but she never corrects him.
A man attacks Juliette. The gardener hears her screams and comes to save her. The attacker runs away. Now there is a big mystery about who the attacker was. Juliette could not describe him because he was behind her. So why didn’t they ask the gardener to describe the attacker? Soon after that, Juliette goes somewhere alone and is attacked again. I’m willing to accept occasional stupidity, but not on top of all this other stuff.
AUDIOBOOK NARRATOR - Lucy Rivers:
I didn’t notice them at first, but later in the book I could hear the narrator’s BREATHS. They were annoying and distracting. She needs to use a different microphone, or do something in the editing process to remove the breaths. Other than that she was good.
Narrative mode: 3rd person.
Genre: regency romance.
During the book was interesting, but depressing ending.
Jamie is telling us (in first person narrative) about his life from age 6 to old age. He met Reverend Charles at age 6 and their paths crossed several times during Jamie’s life. Charles is a minister who invents electricity that heals people. Jamie and Charles like each other and have a connection. When Jamie is sad about his brother’s injury, Charles cures the brother. Later, Charles becomes famous healing people in religious gatherings.
Because I saw the Horror label, I thought I’d see an evil creature doing bad things during the book. That did not happen. Instead for about 98% of the book there are suspicions but no obvious horror.
Most of the book is watching Jamie’s life – who he meets, how he lives, things he does. It was good because Stephen King writes good characters and dialogue and events. Frequent topics are aging, disease, death, and religion. My favorite part was Jamie’s early years, his first love, learning to play guitar, and joining a band. Less interesting was Jamie’s heroin addiction.
My feeling at the end of the book? What a depressing story. This is not for me. Something awful is revealed -- but it is creative. Would I recommend this book? I don’t know. I enjoyed watching Jamie’s life, but the ending ruined it. I’d want a different ending.
I don’t like 1st person narratives. It feels like I have to politely listen to somebody talk. I would have preferred close 3rd person.
David Morse sounded like he was tired and depressed. He does good voices and good emotional interpretations, but the overall feel was monotone. But maybe he was trying to sound depressed to fit the depressing ending.
Narrative mode: 1st person Jamie.
Genre: fiction with some horror.
But I wanted more relationship time together.
Julie moves in with a dysfunctional family during her first year at college. I loved how she improved their lives and they were good for her. I wanted to be in her shoes. This is my nerdiness showing but I was so excited when Erin the mother gave her user name and password to Julie, so Julie could have access to the Harvard Library! (Erin taught at Harvard.) I love libraries! Back to the story. I loved the Flat Finn cardboard idea and the things happening with that. (Creative) I liked the dialogue. I liked the mix of characters.
I’m not sure I can put my finger on it, but the last half was a little draggy. Then, the big separation was a downer with angsty stuff. At that point I did not care for Julie’s actions. She was too rigid and unforgiving. I wish the author skipped the separation and spent that time developing the romantic relationship. I would have loved seeing the couple spend time together as a couple and hold each other and kiss each other on purpose. Because their relationship didn’t develop much, the ending felt too quick. I wanted fuller feelings at the end. But overall it was a good story.
I’m so happy that this was written in 3rd person. Thank you author. I don’t like 1st person.
Some reviewers complained that they guessed the secret before Julie did. That didn’t bother me. It’s not mandatory to keep readers in the dark. Another thought: You’ll need to suspend disbelief the way everyone lied about something. But it made the story better so I was ok with it.
Julia Whelan was excellent.
Narrative mode: 3rd person.
Genre: contemporary romance, less angst New Adult.
While I was reading this book I thought reading books like this is what makes life worth living. Oh I wish I could find more books like this -- exciting, inspirational, struggles, pain, perseverance, heroes.
My favorite quote: Joe’s girlfriend was angry about something done to Joe and said to him “I just don’t understand why you don’t get angry.” Joe said “It takes energy to get angry. It eats you up inside. I can’t waste my energy like that and expect to get ahead. When they left, it took everything I had in me just to survive. Now I have to stay focused. I’ve just got to take care of it myself.”
MY ONE COMPLAINT:
There are pictures in the physical book, but NO PICTURES for audiobook buyers. To the author and publisher: Please include pictures in a PDF file for audio buyers to download.
Fred Hermann was fabulous – clear voice, good interpretations. He reads like he’s interested in what he’s reading. He should do more books.
Narrative mode: 3rd person.
Genre: nonfiction, sports history.
It’s short. 31 minutes. I liked learning about Woody’s past. He was not a good student. He did not like to read books. But he read some solely for the purpose of dating - because the women he dated liked to talk about books. I would have liked a longer interview.
I had a few chuckles but no laugh-out-louds. Sometimes my mind wandered. I like his weird mind. Woody Allen has a strange relationship with food. Several times he mentioned something odd with food. Many of the vignettes did not have endings. He just sort of stopped.
Woody Allen narrated this. It was better than his narration of some of his earlier works. In those he spoke too fast, not pausing enough for ideas to settle and for a laugh.
Genre: humorous thoughts.
It’s no fun to root for good guys who keep losing.
Nine people are trapped in a closed area. Escaped prisoner Jeb has a gun and uses it to take food and water from the others for himself and Mickey. Garrett and the good guys try to ambush and fight Jeb and Mickey, but they repeatedly lose until the end. The reasons they lost were bad luck, incompetence, lack of smart planning, and some heroine stupidity. Some of these are mentioned in Spoilers below.
Garrett sneaks up on Jeb but his crowbar accidentally makes a noise which alerts Jeb, who starts shooting. Garrett sets a trap, but it’s not well done. Lauren screams in surprise, but Garrett thinks she’s in danger so he abandons his ambush to go to her. Garrett tells Lauren to tie Mickey. She uses tape. Garrett says Mickey will get out of the tape, but he does not tell her to redo it with rope. Mickey gets out. Lauren is stupid and gets too close to Mickey and he grabs her.
I was also frustrated with Owen. He is helping the good guys, but they don’t like him because they think he is a hate monger. He should have told them one sentence. “He got his Nazi tattoos because it was the only way to survive in prison.” But no. He lets the good guys think he’s a white supremacist. And he’s not. I felt this was an excuse for conflict and it did not fit Owen’s motivations. Owen was my favorite character. He had been a victim of his environment. He was a good guy. He did good things for others even when against his own interest.
The set up was good for some exciting suspense. The character definitions were good. But what the author had the characters do was not. I’d prefer my hero have better skills.
There were a few brief sex scenes, not much detail. There was one attempted rape, stopped before he unzipped.
There’s not much relationship development between Garrett and Lauren. It was sexual lust amidst survival disaster. I thought Lauren got mad at Garrett for unfair reasons, so I didn’t like her as much. There was a happy ending for them.
Piper Goodeve was good.
Narrative mode: 3rd person.
Genre: romantic suspense.
Story lines were not finished.
I felt like Grisham wanted to educate people about problems in Appalachia - maybe to get support to change laws and get help for problems. So he wrote a novel about a lawyer who goes to Appalachia to work in a free legal aid clinic. Most of the book is sad stories about people who are hurting and come to the lawyers for help. The worst problems are black lung disease caused by coal mining. Coal companies won’t pay workers’ claims. The companies drag things out in the legal system for years before paying any benefits to sick workers. There are also cancers from coal related pollution. Instead of traditional underground mining, coal companies do strip mining which is like a rape of the land and destroys water sources.
I love Grisham because he makes characters so alive, and he does that here. But it was not a fun read. One main character gets killed but the rest are ok at the end, which made the ending sort of happy. There were two major court cases that were not finished, in Spoiler below.
One case finished, but it was going to be appealed. The other case had important evidence that caused a lot of suspense with bad guys trying to get it. That trial had not begun when the book was finished.
I was disappointed that a murder was not solved. Was the author in a rush to finish this book? The only reason I did not give it 2 stars was because I did not wish it would be over. I just wanted more so it would be complete.
Catherine Taber did a good job. She had a quiet serious tone to her voice which fit the sad serious material. She did men well. Some female narrators lower their voice in a way that makes men sound weird. This narrator did not do that.
Narrative mode: 3rd person.
Genre: legal fiction with a little suspense.
Report Inappropriate Content
If you find this review inappropriate and think it should be removed from our site, let us know. This report will be reviewed by Audible and we will take appropriate action.