Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Book Review: How to Write Action Adventure Novels by Mike Newton

The Action Adventure genre, or "Men's Adventure" as it is sometimes erroneously labeled, has been the focus of this blog since its inception.  My amateur writing career, such as it is (or - hah! - isn't), has always focused on this genre.  But one thing I have found lacking is advice for writers who cater to the shoot-em-up, punch-em-out variety of fiction.  You can find writing guides for mystery, thrillers, espionage, and other niche genres, but they all tend to try and carry themselves with a little more finesse than your average action yarn, and forget about the generic "advice for aspiring novelists).

Back in the late 80's veteran action writer Mike Newton, who has written a number of Gold Eagle Executioner novels and a pile of other action adventure reads, sat down and wrote a guide for poor schmucks like me who wanted to write about guys running around with Uzis and grenade launchers.  This reference book, How to Write Action Adventure Novels, has no doubt been buried largely unread in the back room piles of used bookstores for decades now.  But Mike is a smart guy and knows that his work can live on once again in an eBook format.  I picked this up for my Kindle late Wednesday night, and finished it Saturday evening.

Overall, this is a very solid book.  Mike covers a lot of the basics that most writers should understand (but its always good to be reminded), like having a strong hook, how to develop good characters, and so forth, but he always looks at things from an action and adventure standpoint.  This is coupled with a lot of excerpts from books and some of them are of what NOT to do, which I always think is a good idea.  He also reminds writers that research is vital for such a niche genre because so many of the readers have military or law enforcement backgrounds, and can sniff out a fake very quickly.  Although very dated now, a large number of reference works are provided for authors who didn't know where to begin in the pre-Google days.

Lastly, there is a whole chapter on breaking into the genre publishing gig.  This is actually the saddest part about this book, because it makes it so obvious how much of a stranglehold traditional publishers have over the authors.  Advice like how you never want to call unsolicited  - which in and of itself is not a bad thing to say - is badly colored when it's followed up with how you never want to annoy anyone, ever, because somehow, some day, they might be in a position to open or close the gates for your career.  Reading this section of the book, is it any wonder Kindle Direct Publishing and other indie pub outlets are being flooded?

For five dollars, I think this book is still a good investment.  I found most "so you want to be a writer" books make me want to throw up, and this one is refreshingly honest, well-written, and possesses just the right amount of cheek and sarcasm.  Highly recommended.


Civil War Horror said...

Sounds like a good book. I don't write action books per se but I do have a lot of gunfight scenes. I presume he covers how to make a good fight scene?

Tom Johnson said...

I found many Action Novels just involved a lot of sex - usually about every other page - and that seemed to please some publishers. I read a so-called new pulp war novel a while back, and the soldiers are in a deadly firefight, with bullets flying all around them, and the main character is thinking about last night's sex with one of his subordinates! I had to laugh at the scene. In a firefight you don't have time to think about last night's sexual encounter. If you do, you're going to get your brains blown out. But it's entertainment, right? I guess that's what the reader and publisher wants.

Joe Kenney said...

I got this through Interlibary Loan a few months ago and read it. As you say, enjoyable but a sad relic of a passed time. In fact it came out as the genre was already dying. I got most enjoyment from the various series Newton would name-drop, especially the ones he put down. I also enjoyed his occasional references to Don Pendleton's seminal work in the genre.

Jack Badelaire said...

@CWH: He doesn't get into specifics, but he does offer good general advice. For example, making sure if you go down the rabbit hole of factual gun information, you had better get your facts right or someone WILL call you on it. He also talks about visual imagery and the dangers of using too many instances of the same descriptive, or the opposite danger of using a different term every time and just sounding like you're promoting thesaurus sales.

@TJ: Yeah, it really depends on the publisher and the title. The Stony Man titles were very lean on sex, but I know Deathlands has a decent amount. The Death Merchant has almost no sex whatsoever, while the Nick Carter books had several sex scenes apiece. The Sergeant, an otherwise hardcore WW2 action series, had some shockingly graphic sex scenes throughout.

Jack Badelaire said...

@JK: Yeah, it does show its age, but it is almost worth reading for nostalgia's sake. His whole introduction reads like a much longer and more thorough version of my "Children of Vietnam" essay in HFJ #1: how Vietnam sparked life into the genre, but over time the titles started to die out and be replaced by the "techno-thriller" a la Tom Clancy and such, whom he mentions.

Hank Brown said...

The nostalgic value alone might make it worth the purchase.

Many years ago I read an article in Writer's Digest about writing action-adventure, and was kinda' pissed about how condescending it was. Seems like the whole thing was an exercise in finding different ways of saying: "You're writing this for morons. Forget plot and characters and just let the bullets fly."

That's good advice about doing your homework when writing about things you haven't done. I wish more authors would take that to heart.

Jack Badelaire said...

@HB: Yeah, he's definitely not talking down, but it's more a lot of candid advice.

As to the research, I agree. At the very least, I will use a quote from Dirty Harry in Magnum Force: "A man's got to know his limitations". If your'e not a Military or Law Enforcement guy and you don't think you can do the research, than sure, write action and adventure if you want, but keep all the technical details out of the picture. Better to go with less detail than the wrong detail.

Brian Drake said...

My father bought me a copy of the original hardcover the year it came out, 1989 or so, and I still have it--he got it for me because, while I was only 14, I was already writing. Anyway the edges of the pages are starting to yellow but I still read it often and it is one of the best resources I have.

brian january said...

I read it some years ago before starting to write adventure thrillers, but I remember that it had some solid advice from an old hand.

Brian January

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