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.
Not enough external action happening.
I read 49% of the book. Here is the first scene which is good. Ken and his brother Jack are outside guarding a home. Some military guys arrive. Ken and Jack shoot and wound one of them. The others leave. Ken and Jack realize the wounded guy is Mari the long lost sister of Jack’s wife.
CAUTION SPOILER (as to the first half of the book):
They take Mari to a medical facility to treat her wounds. She tries to escape once, but Ken catches her within minutes. She and Ken are sexually drawn to each other. They have sex. That’s it – for half the book. All the rest is writing about Ken’s and Mari’s thoughts, feelings, fears, and ponderings. It’s all internal and repetitive. Mari talks about her life as a prisoner of Whitney and being experimented on with physical and psychic enhancements. If she does not go back to the compound, Whitney will kill her fellow prisoners. Whitney wanted her to get pregnant by a specific guy, so Mari was repeatedly beaten and raped. Ken thinks and talks about his torture in the Congo. The skin on his back was stripped off and the rest of his body was cut making him look like a quilt - even his sexual organs. He fears he can never have sex again. He had a horrible father and fears he will be like his father. He also was enhanced with Whitney’s drugs, but he was not kept at the compound the way Mari was. He repeatedly asks Mari to tell him where the compound is so he and Jack can rescue the others, but Mari won’t tell him.
Everything is about what happened in the past. There is no current action, like Ken going somewhere, interacting with people or the environment, doing things, changing things. Instead it’s worries and thinking about the past. The past would be ok if the author showed “action” in the past – like how Ken arrived in the Congo, who was with him, what they said and did, what happened when bad guys took him prisoner, the details of how he got rescued, etc. Or things and conversations happening in Mari’s past. But no past action details were told.
Maybe the second half of the book is different. Many readers enjoyed this, so I say great. It’s just not the kind of writing I like.
Tom Stechschulte was good, as usual.
Genre: paranormal romantic suspense
Like the first book in the series, this is not great writing, but I felt good while reading it. The happiness flowed into my other life. And that makes it 5 stars for me.
I wish more regency romances were like this. Too many authors use inaccurate assumptions and secrets for excessive drama and suspense. Gracie does not. I’m not talking about Damaris keeping a secret about her past. That was reasonable. Here’s an example of something I liked. After sex, Damaris makes an assumption that is wrong. Another author would have Damaris leave the guy and not say why. But Gracie has the guy sense something wrong, ask her about it, and not give up until she tells him. So she tells him, and then he explains why the assumption is wrong. I was pleased because I am used to other authors who would draw that out for extended conflict. Sometimes I don’t mind drawing it out, but many times I do.
I loved the character Freddy. He was entertaining. He fears and avoids muffins (irritating females chasing him for marriage). Aunt Bea mistakenly thinks he likes to eat baked muffins. He does not correct her. So she frequently serves him muffins, and then he has to think of ways to avoid eating them, like throwing one in the fire, but then he worries there might be a smell.
HEROINE WAS RAPED IN THE PAST.
Some readers might want to know this. The rapes were not shown in detail, but they were mentioned. The f-word was used regarding this.
I really enjoyed the narrator Alison Larkin. I frequently complain when a female narrator uses a weird voice for the hero, and Larkin used a weird voice for Freddy. He did not sound sexy at all. He almost sounded comical. But this narrator is so wonderful with emotional interpretations - I loved it, weird Freddy and all. I loved the way she interpreted Mrs. Jenkins (a very minor character) who was Damaris’ boss at the pottery shop. I plan to look for more books that she narrates. However, one of my friends was disappointed with the narrator, so it’s a personal preference.
Genre: regency romance
This is not a great book, but I’m giving it 5 stars because I was in such a happy mood during the two days I was listening to it. I was smiling all the time – during and not during.
It reminded me of Georgette Heyer books. I like the author’s choices - what the characters do, how they react, what they say. There was a blackmail attempt and my initial reaction was uh oh, this could be a downer. But it wasn’t. The author did not string it out with secrets and drama. I felt good with what happened. It was not what most authors do. That is still strange to me. I give the author credit. I like her choices.
I liked the way Lady Bea would call Abby Miss Burglar. I liked the way Bea did not like vegetables. I liked Freddy’s attitude and fear of muffins (irritating females chasing him for marriage).
The only thing off for me was sex before marriage did not fit the characters. I would have preferred seeing the wedding first. I also would have liked more romantic relationship development – seeing Abby and Max spending time together.
The audiobook narrator Alison Larkin did an excellent job. I loved her emotional interpretation of characters. She made Freddy sound odd, but that was ok. Her voice for the heroine reminded me of Julie Andrews -- lovely. I was surprised that a friend of mine was disappointed with the narrator. So this clearly is a personal preference thing.
Genre: regency romance
And the audiobook narration was unpleasant.
Not my kind of book, but I think this will appeal to two types of readers. 1. Those who liked The Cuckoo’s Calling. 2. Those who like the challenge of trying to guess who did it, and how, and don’t mind a tell-all at the end.
Regarding 2: At about 80% into the book Strike says I know who did it. He tells Robin his assistant. He also tells her his plan of action for what he wants to do to catch the killer. The reader does not hear this. The reader is kept guessing as to who did it and what the plan of action is. The result is a tell-all at the end. I prefer learning what the PI learns as he learns it.
I felt that most of the characters were unpleasant and the conversations were unpleasant. I did not enjoy listening to them. The exception was Robin. I liked her story and her scenes. But hers was a minor part.
I wish the author would go back to the wonderful creative genius writing she did in Harry Potter. Her three books since then have been disappointing – for me. The biggest reason has been unpleasant characters.
I love listening to an upper class British accent, but I quickly tired of the accent used by the narrator Robert Glenister. I can take it in small amounts but not the whole book. The accent used for Strike and many characters was “loo wha I goh” (instead of “look what I got”).
Genre: PI mystery
I was reluctant to read this because I was not interested in a Kennedy conspiracy-analysis book. I was surprised and pleased that half of the story was about other things – time travel, interesting characters, and things they do. Jake makes more than one time-travel-trip because he sees consequences of his actions and wants to redo things. Another neat idea was the Past does not want to be changed, and each time makes it difficult for Jake in different ways. And more neat ideas. Aside from the tear jerker part, the overall plot has a happy ending which I liked.
THINGS I DID NOT LIKE:
HISTORICAL ACCURACY AND DEPRESSING:
King said he read a stack of books almost as tall as he was – for research. About 2/3 the way through there are 200 or more pages about Oswald in Texas and fictional Jake in Fort Worth and Dallas. I assume King is being factually accurate, but I don’t want facts from King; I want his imagination. That part of the book is dull. (If King were creating the character Oswald, he could put interesting and weird things in Oswald’s head. But we are not in Oswald’s head because King is being factual. Instead we get a textbook.)
Toward the end of the Oswald section, I was depressed and frustrated. I’m not sure why – something about the helplessness of so many bad things happening to Jake including amnesia. I’ve been ok with other books having bad things happen to the main character, but for some reason this was a downer. (On the day when I was reading this part, I felt too bad to talk to one of my friends.)
I don’t like first person narrative books. In third person I lose myself in the story. In first person I feel like I’m listening to someone talk. They experienced it not me. So when I started this book and realized it was first person, my reaction was “ohhhh noooo.” But I do have to say the author did it well.
TEAR JERKER ENDING.
I don’t want to read books that make me cry, and this one did. The reason for crying is in the Spoiler below.
Craig Wasson’s voice was ok. He did women well which is hard for male narrators to do. But I did not like the way he frequently laughed. It was like a nervous laugh or a chuckle that was NOT written in the text. It took me out of the story. I’m thinking “why is he laughing?” Here are three examples. I use caps for the words where he laughed.
“As I’ve said living in the past IS CONFUSING.”
“I spotted something on the floor of the backseat that made me flush with a sense of guilt that WAS FAR OUT of proportion to what the object was.” (It was a library book which he forgot to return.)
“I had a fine car, a car I’d sort of fallen in love with to TELL YOU THE TRUTH. And there was no shortage of good fast roads in Texas.”
Genre: time travel fiction
The tear jerker is mourning for two people in love who cannot be together.
Narrator Joyce Bean was very good for general narration and female voices. But she was bad with men. She made the hero unattractive and undesirable. She had weird ick voices for some men.
A fun idea was Bo seeing Reena across the room and for him “the music stopped. She was his dream girl.” He tried to get to her but she left before he could. On two more future occasions he sees her but is unable to get to her before she leaves. I was curious wondering when and how will they ever meet?
WHAT I DID NOT LIKE:
Bad guy was too perfect and no hope for the good guys.
The last third or fourth of the book was depressing. The serial killer/arsonist was getting away with many murders and fires. He was so smart and so perfect. He never made mistakes. Even though cops are watching and guarding places, the killer gets inside without being seen. That was not good for me. Reading about “perfect characters” (be they good or bad) is not interesting. I prefer stories where little things glum up the works – maybe an accidental witness seeing something. And there was “no hope” for the good guys. They just were not getting it – for years. Finally the bad guy calls Reena and gives her a clue.
Bad guy sets a fire and places a false fire extinguisher nearby which is an explosive device. So why does the firefighter grab the fake extinguisher instead of using his own equipment?
Reena and the cops know the killer is after people she knows. Reena tells everyone “do not be alone.” So what does Reena do? She goes somewhere alone – and the bad guy is there waiting for her.
Reena knows the bad guy has been watching her and mentions her sex life on the phone. So why does she later have sex with someone in her back yard?
There is one violent rape/murder scene - very unsettling.
Nora Roberts is hit and miss with me. My favorites are: Carnal Innocence, Born in Fire, Angels Fall, The Witness, Northern Lights, and Sea Swept.
Genre: romantic suspense
But bad guy parts were too formulaic.
The narrator Erika Leigh was good, but I question her interpretation of Willa. Willa is a tough rancher in charge of a large spread. The narrator used a soft southern-type female voice. It was a nice voice for a main character, but I wouldn’t have picked it for Willa. In one place the author wrote “Well?” Willa demanded. But the narrator said “Well” in a soft tone, not a demanding tone.
Her male voices were well done – something many female narrators do not get right. Her other female voices and her general narration style were also very good.
Three very different women must live together for a year. I enjoyed the girl bonding. I also enjoyed the three romantic relationships. Characters were nicely done.
Two bad guys were added for conflict. That part of the story was typical and formulaic. The bad guys get away with lots of things until the end when the good guys win. I would have liked more internal conflict within the bad guys, see inside their heads, and not having them be so perfect in avoiding detection for so long. It’s like Nora Roberts has the same bad guy formula that she inserts into many of her novels.
I was annoyed in one scene, but I’m probably overreacting. The killer wounded a guy (“victim”) and kidnapped a woman. The victim said “He took her” and then went unconscious. So we still didn’t know “who” “he” was. They had been looking for the killer for months, so the victim should have said the name of the killer. Yes, the author could justify this saying the victim was wounded and not thinking clearly. But I was still annoyed because it felt like a tool to prolong suspense. It wouldn’t have hurt to tell the name at that point. We learn the name soon after.
There are two rape scenes. One is referred to. The other is detailed with murder.
Nora Roberts is hit and miss with me. My favorites are: Carnal Innocence, Born in Fire, Angels Fall, The Witness, Northern Lights, and Sea Swept.
Genre: romantic suspense
but nice enough. Kept my interest.
Three people meet and fall in love with three others, which makes six for the group trying to locate three antique silver statues. A bad guy and thugs are the main enemy. An elaborate plan is set in place. There is some fun girl bonding among the three women.
I loved one scene where shy, nervous, hypochondriac Tia was planting bugs in the bad guy’s store. Bad guy confronts her. Tia is fumbling and nervous, but decides to use it and plays up her nervousness. Bad guy is impatient wanting to get Tia out of the store and takes Tia to the office. There Tia secretly plants another bug.
Bernadette Quigley is excellent. She used a pleasant Irish accent for four characters. She had a great accent for the female bad guy Anita – sneering, condescending, snake-like. She also had a very good general narration style. I was impressed enough to look up other books she narrated.
Genre: romantic suspense
My main problem was the narrator Woody Allen who is also the author. He did not pause enough. When I was having a laugh or thoughtful reaction, he sped onto the next item. That was frustrating. Several times I had to stop the tape so I could savor the humor and not quickly forget it. If he were standing before an audience he’d stop for the laughs.
Genre: humorous thoughts
I did not want to stop reading.
BUT, I did not like:
After they had sex, she said no more sex because she felt they should distance themselves because they would split eventually. Is that believable? Do people really do that? We like each other now but we should not enjoy each other?
I also wanted a little more time spent in Monk’s mind (the bad guy). One example: how did he find Avery when she was in the motel?
I wanted to know what was in Ann’s letter.
THE BUCHANAN/FBI SERIES:
This is book 3 in the series. I did not like books 1 and 10 “Heartbreaker” and “Sweet Talk.” But I really liked book 2 “Mercy” and this one. I suggest reading Mercy before this. John Paul is introduced in Mercy. He’s the hero in this book.
Joyce Bean was good.
Genre: romantic suspense
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