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.
It’s a good motivator for women having friendships with women. Four women have a life-long friendship starting before high school. They drank a lot and did ornery things. The most unsettling thing for me was when they went swimming in the town’s water supply tank - that tub high up above houses that provides drinking water.
I’m not complaining, but slightly odd were all the naked scenes. The Ya-Yas take a bath together, swim. A naked mother beats her naked kids. A few scenes had Sidda walking around naked. The Ya-Ya girls would sleep together with arms and legs intertwined. This was not sexual. It was just wonderfully close loving friendship.
The main story is Vivi, one of the Ya-Ya women. Her adult daughter is Sidda. Sidda postpones her wedding to Connor because she fears she does not know how to love. She asks Vivi to send her the Ya-Ya scrapbook. Sidda wants to better understand her mother and their relationship. When Sidda was a child, Vivi beat Sidda with a belt leaving scars. Most of the book is Sidda thinking about events in the scrapbook and talking to the four women. Parts of the book are the Ya-Ya women thinking about events in the past. By the end of the book the reader has a full understanding of Vivi’s life, her troubles, her sadnesses.
My favorite part - a small part: Lizzie was not part of the Ya-Ya group. Her husband died, forcing her to support her two young sons. She starts a job selling cheap beauty products door-to-door, and she’s not good at it. She does not wear her own makeup well. Vivi demonstrates immense kindness by taking Lizzie under her wing. Vivi teaches Lizzie how to look, talk, and sell. Vivi also telephones women convincing them to buy beauty products from Lizzie. Lizzie blossoms and becomes successful. That was neat.
Although Vivi did a couple of nice things for others, I did not like her enough to enjoy her story. She’s always drinking, calling everyone darlin’. She didn’t accomplished things. I’m not asking for great achievement. A hobby would be fine - something she applies herself to, that she cares about. After her kids are grown I’m not aware of her doing anything with her time - other than drinking and socializing. It’s as if her life is blowing in the wind, responding to being blown around by others. Her husband did not give her money. She had to be tricky and sneaky to get cash to do things. I prefer stories where someone changes or causes change - or uses willpower to do something. I guess the main idea here is when someone is down, the sisters rally around and socialize to make them feel better.
I recently listened to a different book narrated by someone with a southern accent. It was charming and delightful to hear. I did not like Judith Ivey doing this book. I don’t know if it was her southern accent or her voice. It sounded harsh. It needed something softer. When she read dialogue from a woman with emphysema, she took a lot of long noisy breaths - also unpleasant. In a film that might be good, but I don’t want that kind of acting for an audiobook. I am guessing that those breaths were not written in the text.
Genre: women’s fiction, sisterhood
My mind wandered at times.
I like his quirky mind. Woody Allen was ok as narrator of the audiobook.
Genre: humorous thoughts
It has a guy Brad who is my hero. It reads like a John Grisham novel, but it’s a true story about stock exchanges, high frequency traders, and dark pools. The author is great at explaining complicated technical subjects and telling a good story around them. In the middle of the book I was so angry at the rip-off of investors, I was thinking of writing letters. But by the end of the book, I didn’t have to. Some good things happened. And now, various government agencies are investigating the problems described in the book - SEC, FBI, CFTC, FINRA, NY attorney general, and US attorney general.
The audiobook narrator Dylan Baker was excellent.
Genre: financial nonfiction
I love some of the things Archie does and the way he and Nero think. If you’re new to this series, I suggest reading Fer-De-Lance and Some Buried Caesar before reading this - only because I think they are better. They are all stand alones.
Two female immigrants come to New York and teach fencing. One is accused of stealing from a customer. Two men end up dead.
The audiobook narrator Michael Prichard was good.
Genre: PI mystery
This is book 6 in the series. It wasn’t as good as the first book (Fer-De-Lance), but it was still very good.
The audiobook narrator Michael Prichard was good.
Genre: PI mystery
Unexpected things happen.
The author’s mind is quirky - like he comes from another place. I’m frequently chuckling and smiling over the dialogue or what somebody does. So many authors sound alike when it comes to mysteries. Rex Stout is different. I would read more mysteries if they were like this.
The author began writing the Nero Wolfe series in 1934. Nero Wolfe is an extremely obese man who doesn’t like to leave his home. He is an eccentric genius. Archie Goodwin works for him and does the investigating, errands, and running around.
This is the first book in the series. They can be read as stand alones.
The audiobook narrator Michael Prichard was good.
Genre: PI mystery
But I did not like some of his jumping around with interrupting stories.
1. A woman was into drugs, alcohol, overweight, and couldn’t keep a job. After her husband left her, she decided to make one change - quit smoking. She had a purpose for quitting - to go on a desert tour. That one change started a series of changes, which resulted in exercising, losing weight, and keeping a job. Of special note were the scans of her brain. There is a section of the brain (I’ll call Area C) that is active when we crave food, drink, etc. The front of the brain (behind the forehead, I’ll call Area B) was not active for her - until she quit smoking. Area B can overpower cravings and become willpower. Area B became active when she quit smoking, as if it had been awakened, and then it started limiting other cravings as well. She began eating less and exercising more. It reminded me of something I heard about teenagers. Area B is not fully developed until the mid twenties, so teenagers take more risks prior to that time.
2. Willpower is like a muscle. If you exercise, it becomes stronger. Kids who practice piano or participate in sports build willpower with daily practice and workouts. This leads to becoming better students. Going to a gym on a regular basis also builds willpower - making yourself do the workouts. Willpower is similar to muscles in another way. After using a bunch of it, you need to rest. This was demonstrated in a test with cookies. People who used their willpower to avoid eating cookies did not do as well in the second test that also required willpower.
3. There is a good example in the last chapter showing how to analyze a habit in order to change it. It’s about a guy who ate a cookie every afternoon.
4. The story of how things changed at the Alcoa company was fascinating.
The rest of the book has many examples and stories. Several reviewers complained that the first part was good, but the rest was filler. I could see that, but I didn’t mind because most of the “filler” stories were interesting. Some I’ve heard before, but they are good stories and worth hearing a second time.
My main complaint was JUMPING AROUND AND INTERRUPTING STORIES! For example: the author was talking about the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. I was wondering how long the boycott lasted, when the author stopped and told the story of a church. After that he went back to finish the boycott story. This happened several times. I was annoyed and impatient. When you’re telling a story, finish it, and then go to the next.
Mike Chamberlain was good.
Genre: psychology nonfiction
This is a short piece, 1 ½ hours. I’ve heard these things before, but it’s fun to hear Dave’s take. Example: a baby’s purpose in life is filling diapers and putting disgusting things in his mouth.
Audiobook narrator Arte Johnson was good.
Genre: humorous essays
I listened to more than half and then stopped. It’s solving a mystery. Hap and Leonard are best friends. Leonard inherits a house from his estranged Uncle Chester. He asks Hap to live there with him and help him fix things. They discover a dead body. They believe the uncle left clues for Leonard about the murder. But the uncle had Alzheimer’s disease so his mind was not clear. So the clues were not logical. For example one clue has something to do with books, so they figure out that they need to talk to a guy who drives a book mobile. I lost interest after that.
The set-up may interest some. Leonard is black and gay. Hap is white and straight. Hap has a sexual relationship with Leonard’s black female attorney. She doesn’t want to date Hap publicly because he is white, but she’s happy to be in a private sexual relationship. Hap previously spent time in jail for refusing the draft during the Vietnam war.
The audiobook narrator Phil Gigante was good.
I laughed a lot. Humorous essays on a variety of topics. Most of them were funny. But a few less so. The weakest ones for me were the one about writing a screenplay and Dave’s retelling of “Twilight” the famous teenage vampire story. It was funny at first, but he could have stopped after the first third or so. It became repetitive.
The author did a great job of narrating the audiobook. Good timing with pauses. I didn’t have to keep stopping the tape the way I did with Woody Allen.
Genre: humorous essays
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