All the Build-up

A writer’s determination to concentrate on the page at hand results in torrents or dribbles of words, depending on the writing session. The erratic flow stems from the ability to tap into the subconscious. We all know that the impulses of the id defy logic, which helps to explain why authors need to edit their text. What we thought was gold at the moment of madly typing may turn out to be the dross of a not-so-good writing day.

Now let’s pair this well-known phenomenon with the momentous task of filling hundreds of pages. The writer’s confidence in striking gold tends to produce spurts of text. A eureka-like impulse can lead, after mulling over the idea, to a decision to turn the novel in that direction, however briefly. For instance, to help explain why a normal businessperson would investigate a murder, you decide to include a background story on the bullying of a younger sister.

The story emerges into view, and the writer sets off, hiking stick in hand, to explore it in sufficient details to make the point ring true. What was conceived of as a paragraph, or maybe two, mushrooms into a page or two. It is needed, you judge, because it just took that long to explain the motivations and the circumstances of how the bullying occurred.

At a later point, however, you read over that chapter. You’re more distant from the heat of writing, and you feel a discomfort that the chapter has bogged down so much. You look at the background story and realize it’s too long—but now you’re stuck. It does explain why the protagonist would go to such extraordinary lengths for vengeance. You wrote a tight background piece—no fluff, the thing moves at a good narrative summary pace. You can’t see a way to trim it any more than it already is.

You are at the second stage of regulating the impulses of the id. You thought you had tamed them while writing the piece. Yet you have to consider the number of words needed to set up a plot point. You can gauge whether to keep a point by examining how many are needed to set it up. Ask the question: is the impact of the point worth all the words?

You are exercising, on a larger scale, the judgment you used to make the hundreds of smaller cuts you’ve already made. If the piece sticks out for too long, considering the purpose it serves, it has to be excised. You made a bigger mistake, that’s all.

Exercise: You can accomplish the same purpose by other means. If you made a larger decision—oh, it’s the sister who should be killed—you wouldn’t need the long back story. Or, you write a scene in the present in which she is bullied—with the hero actively trying to help. Now it’s not a drag on the story at all.

“The main engagement of the writer is towards truthfulness; therefore he must keep his mind and his judgement free.”
—Gabrielle Roy

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


When Different Isn’t Good

The pastime of reading can leave a scrambled impression of what books are trying to accomplish. With some novels, clear demarcations are sometimes hard to draw, even for publishing professionals. For example, I used to manage a bookstore, and when a carton of new books arrived, the question would arise: in which bookcase should this book be placed? Failing all else, it went in the omnibus Fiction case. Even then, though, the book Venus on the Half Shell, written under the pseudonym Kilgore Trout, seemed to belong in the science fiction case rather than with the rest of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels.

Most inexperienced writers do not belong to the same pedigree. The melange of impressions left by all the books they’ve read can result in the desire to bend genres. They are tired of the same old formulas and decide to write their own version of fiction-busting In Cold Blood. They pick a subject close to their heart, and off they go.

Intent, however, is only a starting point. Having a firm knowledge of the genre you mean to break is next on the list. In this way melding different categories of literature resembles satire. You must know how the game goes before you create a variant based on it that will produce laughter. If you don’t know how an Agatha Christie mystery works, for example, your book will be perceived by readers merely as a bad mystery. They don’t get the jokes because you don’t know the tropes.

A far worse hodgepodge results from literally imitating Capote. I believe Dante would place in the lowest level of hell the “instructive novel.” That is, the author amasses tons of nonfiction research and lards their scenes with factoids. The reader ends up learning far more about, say, apiarists (beekeepers) than was ever desired. I can take only so many smokers before I myself am deathly calmed. Or, to use another example I’ve seen more than once, does the writer really think that readers know nothing about Jewish religious traditions?

The result of such instruction is the same as in the classroom of yore: utter boredom. I imagine that one of the things they teach in teachers colleges is how to keep their subjects lively and entertaining. Then too, consider the pursuit. If you are going to history class, you know you’ll be learning history. Far better that than expecting to read a mystery and finding history lessons.

Exercise: The rule to follow with any research longer than a sentence is: put it into action. If your characters can act upon the factoids in a way that furthers the drama, keep them. If they are shoved in there because you are playing teacher for a day, get rid of them. You’ll find you lose three-quarters of the research, and the reader will bless you for it.

“My alma mater is the Chicago Public Library. I got what little educational foundation I got in the third-floor reading room, under the tutelage of a Coca-Cola sign.”
—David Mamet

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


The Wrong Cap

With the growth of the young adult market, more and more adult novelists are trying their hand at the game. The logic behind the decision is straightforward. The YA market holds the promise of sales, while the adult market seems to have a foreclosed sign hung on it these days. Plus, anyone who has completed the arduous journey of writing an adult novel can surely write one for kids, right? Aren’t they, like, half as long?

I could write a post about first studying your market, but here I’ll focus on a common problem I encounter within the texts I edit. It stems from the natural impulse of an adult to instruct those of more tender years. This desire is combined with the freedom that writing gives its practitioner. Hey, why not me? I’ll show them instruction can be fun.

The writer sets off on the self-appointed mission. The standard relationships between characters are built, only a teenager (in YA) is the protagonist. A theme is chosen to guide the relationship toward a turning point. We start at Point A and end at Point Z. Let’s take the example of a historical novel set during the Revolutionary War. Uncle Bertram will show nephew Elias why fighting representatives of the colonies’ government was a good idea.

A step-by-step process takes place, the way any plot line is developed. In this case, Uncle Bertram is at Elias’s elbow, pointing out at one step perhaps why British soldiers alienated farmers by stealing all their animals. How the Hessians were both fearsome and light-fingered toward all possessions in sight. Elias is a teenager, though, and he won’t be convinced easily—because we all know teenagers don’t listen to adults. The result can be dialogue passages dropped in every 20 pages that turn the huge ship slowly around.

Just from this telescoped overview you can see why the young reader’s eyes are slowly closing. Any teacher could tell you that kids like novels filled with action—lots of it. That is why so many successful YA writers have teaching experience.

Another good reason for avoiding instructive passages stems from a principle that governs all novels: show, don’t tell. Let’s position the teenager in the novel as the son of a farmer, and one of the animals slaughtered is Bessie, the teen’s favorite horse. In this case you need only tell us how he feels. We can figure out for ourselves that British soldiers were bastards. You are asking the reader to  participate, and that process starts at a very early age.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for discussions on the same topic that are progressive. Highlight them and then read them in isolation from the rest of the book. Do they start to seem numbing? Then look at the incident that precipitated the discussion. Could you add in the teenager’s thoughts at the time the stuff is going down? Afterward, you can probably cut the discussion.

“The wages of pedantry is pain.”
—Carroll O'Connor

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine



Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.