The Importance of Being Ernestine

The axiom “It’s a man’s world” is losing its potency these days. Nowhere does this observation apply more than in the world of book publishing. Two-thirds of all fiction readers are women, and that dominance is reflected in publishing employment as well. If you submit a manuscript, the chances that one of the three people involved in approving the sale—editor, editor-in-chief, and publisher—will be a woman is very good.

What does that mean to a male writer of commercial fiction? A novel set in the locker room, the barracks, or the executive suite has less of a chance of selling if it doesn’t feature a prominent woman character. This seems dumb, because everyone knows that the sexes regularly segregate themselves in their activities. Guys don’t want to discuss hairdos. Gals are bored by sports stats. It’s, like, biological, right?

I am inclined to agree, but I also think it doesn’t matter. You might as well tilt against windmills or rail against the sun setting. Times have changed, and the day of the boys club novel has run its course. Women’s novels by and large have always included a healthy amount of thinking about men, and the same is becoming more prevalent on the other side of the divide. I’m not talking about giving the wives more lines of dialogue; rather, I’d advise you to think in terms of a female lead.

The next consideration is: what do women like to read? As romance, perennially the best-selling genre, shows, they like to read about relationships. Not necessarily sex, but it doesn’t hurt to have some sexual intrigue, as in any novel. Women also like characters that are better defined, and this work can be done through the relationships they have with others. In an action-oriented book, that means pairing the male lead with his counterpart in a way that their interactions build over the course of the story.

You can also keep them separate, running dual plot lines. A novel is a large vehicle, capable of carrying multiple plots. If the male lead is attractive enough, though, you probably want to pair them at some point. Keep in mind that many of the characters, in a genre like military thrillers, will be men in both plot lines. The point is to focus the reader’s attention on how they are interacting with her, the way you would with any plot lead. In other words, your novelistic considerations don’t change, and the book will be fuller as a result.

Exercise: If you are worried you cannot portray a woman in any depth, pick out an interesting woman in your own life. Identify her three most salient traits, and write down a list of examples of how she shows that trait. Now look at the plot outline. Can you meld the two lists so that her personality fits into the plot?

“Man does not control his own fate. The women in his life do that for him.” 
—Groucho Marx

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine



The Language That We Use

Every person over the age of 25 is haunted by a specter that looms larger with the passing years. We become out of touch with the hip idioms used by a younger generation. Even worse, we become unable to say them. I cringe when I hear a 50-year-old using “rad,” for instance. It just doesn’t sound right coming out of the mouth of an older person.

A similar problem besets an author writing a contemporary novel. The world of complete sentences, of distinctive adjectives, and a host of more formal elements of a bygone era has been replaced by a style that is closer to the spoken word. I should note the careful decision making of modern masters has not changed a bit. If anything, the cadence of today’s literature rings more true than ever.

I raise this issue because most authors are not aware of how important word choices are. They tend to write in the style they were brought up with. Heck, they are pleased merely to be getting their thoughts down on paper. Yet the tastes of their readers has been changed by the more modern books that they read. I am reading The Sellout, for instance, and as much as I enjoy Paul Beatty, he does not write like Richard Wright.

You need to keep this in mind as you pen your ideas. If the language you’re using seems fussy or ornate to a reader, the very word choices impose a distance between her and the text. It takes on a sepia tint like an old photograph—quaint, but why didn’t people ever smile in those days? Even worse, a reader, after trying so many times to connect with the content, can grow bored with the formality.

Precision in word choice dictates that you assign the dated language to older characters. If you are an elderly writer, your protagonist is likely closer to your age anyway. Younger characters have their own idiom, which you have likely seen in popular media countless times. You just haven’t been in writing mode—i.e., writing down what they are when you come across them. If you’re really daunted by the task, you need merely visit an Instagram page of a younger person, and you’ll find slang galore.

That is the crux of the matter: how lazy are you? Are you willing to get out of your armchair to discover what they say? If not, you’d better hope that your marketing efforts find that older demographic.

Exercise: You can adopt a different tactic altogether. Your prose in general can be elevated above how anyone speaks. This happens most often when the narrative point of view is so far inside the main storyteller’s head that the dialogue is an extension of his thoughts. When all of your prose is crisp, readers want to engage on that higher plane.

“Adults are obsolete children.”
—Dr. Seuss

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Trolling for Ideas

One of the most fertile sources of ideas is, not surprisingly, other books. That’s because the acuity of a good writer often reminds you of thoughts you yourself have had before. I should pause to clarify terms. I am a staunch enemy of plagiarism, as is anyone engaged in the book industry and knows how hard writers struggle. The mining of ideas I am suggesting operates at a plane once removed.

Rather than copying the written words, you can jot down the concept that struck you. For example, let’s say you’re reading about a young man who, being awkward at parties himself, becomes jealous of his girlfriend for spending too much time enjoying the company of another man at a party. You realize that for your book, such an incident would be perfect for demonstrating the character’s overall decline into paranoia. What’s more, you are struck by how well the author captures not only the initial poisonous simmering at the party, but how the character thinks about it afterward. At a conceptual level, you see the technique employed, and that becomes a springboard for your original train of narration.

At a lower level, reading other books can remind you of details that you want to add to scenes. Again, don’t steal what is original, but use the book as you would any other source you research. If the author is writing about dogs, you can seize upon appurtenances that help fill out your possibly vague memory of when you owned a dog. You can convert items such as dirt smearing the dog’s red collar or dried hanks of fur where the dog has wallowed in mud into your own wording. Just as valuable, you may read something that sparks off in your mind a memory of how you felt about your dog at a certain time, perhaps the way you felt about the white hair that slowly ringed its muzzle as it aged.

Remember the reason you’re looking for ideas: to feed more ideas into your book. By the same token, I have deliberately rented movies merely to pick off details that relate to a setting, often in the past, that reside in the back of my mind and will not come to the forefront on its own. You are a hunter, so go gather for your book.

Exercise: Keep a pocket notebook or iPad at your side when you read your next novel. When you see a striking idea, stop and write, in your own words, how that idea would fit into what you have in your story. It may well be that what you write down has nothing to do with the book you're reading—but rather it sparked off a new idea.

“The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn't behave that way you would never do anything.”
—John Irving

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.