You’re Allowed to Meander

When you write regularly, you will encounter times when you cannot summon the will to be creative. To get the ball rolling, you might try this: don’t go forward, go sideways. Although your initial inclination is to start where you left off the day before, you don’t have to. Writing isn’t a to-do task, to be completed by Friday at five o’clock. Besides, breaking out of the linear mode can be good for you. You should feel free to go where your spirit moves you.

These off-track writing forays can take many forms. A common one stems from a vague thought that has been nagging you for a while, sometimes for months. A fleeting thoughts flickers in your head—“You really should write a description of her”—then flits away again. You don’t follow it because you’re immersed in the scene you’re writing. Well, today is the day to pursue it. You’re stuck anyway. Go write down that description.

Another idea is to write out something that’s easy for you. For instance, you know that you’re planning for Eddie and Sue to have a fight a few chapters down the road. Try writing out the dialogue, making sure the fight keeps escalating. Dialogue is easy to write. You may find out when you finally reach the future chapter that your dialogue doesn’t really work anymore, but that’s okay. Part of choosing what’s right in your book is ruling out what’s wrong. The key point is that you made strides forward on that sludgy day.

Another writing assignment that commonly is put off for later is a background segment on a character. A narrative summary, covering a person’s past in one sweep, is also an easier task for a writer. You don’t have to focus so hard on the details. Again, this background piece may not make the final cut. But everything you write about your fictional world is helping you to realize it more vividly.

Exercise: Forget about that half-written page you’re working on, where the way forward seems as likely as a half-formed tron creature slogging through muck. Instead, turn to your notes for one of your main characters. Have you managed to include all of the notes so far? Let the interplay between what you wrote in the notes and what you know you’re written in the actual manuscript bob back and forth in your mind. You’re not on a track today, destined to leave the station at 5:15. You’re just letting yourself dwell inside your book.

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
—E. L. Doctorow

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine


Signs Along the Road

A nonfiction manuscript must marshal an untidy heap of facts into a logical flow. A single life alone is filled with disparate elements, and when you have material covering multiple individuals, managing the assemblage can seem overwhelming. The author no longer is writing within the tidy confines of an article. Yet many nonfiction books that I edit read like a string of articles. Sometimes one follows from the other, and sometimes it doesn’t. The long-range result, over the span of an entire book, is a jumpy, confusing reading experience.

To a certain extent, narrative logic can be achieved by placing like material together, even if they are out of strict chronological order. In other cases, however, that strategy is too intrusive. When time sequences are seriously bent, jumping back in time for start a new one can in itself be confusing.

The solution is posting signs along your narrative road. If you have to take a left turn for a few pages, say, then veer right back to the topic you had been covering, you create a few signs. Readers are willing to go where you want—as long as they understand why.

To see how this works, let’s take the example of a book about an urban gang. Within the gang are confidential informants, or snitches, to the police. The narrative keeps going back and forth between their revelations to their police control: call him Rick. Plus, you have to include other crimes that show up on the police blotter. How can all of these be corralled?

At the start of each new section, you begin with a sign. This can be merely a sentence (“In the meantime . . .”), but it’s usually a paragraph long. If the previous section featured a drug dealer, and the new one covers auto theft, such a paragraph might begin: “Rick was not only interested in cocaine, however. He wanted to indict gang members for the cars they stole.” Within those two sentences, you have turned the reader in a new direction. You elevate above in-depth details—“the mook cut the ounces into gram bags”—and go for a more global view. On that elevated plane you then transition into topic #2.

Exercise: The other important element of a sign is the focal point. In this example, that most often will be Rick. He is overseeing the investigation; therefore, he can be used on an elevated plane. When explained this way, it seems so simple. But it works. Readers trundle off happily on your new path, thanks to your posting signs.

“In complex trains of thought signs are indispensable.” 
—George Henry Lewes

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine


Not Your Views

The novelty of writing a novel places a beginner at one end of an uncertain bridge. The act of imagining you’re someone else means that you cross an unseen divide in an unknown direction. In the end you are supposed to achieve the merger of author and character.

How well this is accomplished is affected by a primary quality that all authors need to possess: a big ego. You wouldn’t be writing if you didn’t think, on some level, you have a fantastic gift to offer. Yet a big ego entails being full of yourself, and that may not fill up your characters as much as allow you to do what you’d do normally—proclaim your beliefs. In this case, not to a cocktail party guest but to a reading audience.

The intrusion of an author into the narrative occurs most often when a character provides his opinion on what’s going on. It’s supposed to be a deeper dive, into the mind of the character. What I see with regularity, however, is this type of thinking: The character is really me; I can spout off about anything I want. So some pet insight about race relations, or what have you, goes in the book. Not only that, but in order to limn in all of the nuances of your complex position, the harangue can go on for a page or more. The book stops short. The reader starts to nod off. Worst of all, the “speech” doesn’t even line up with the character’s actions in other parts of the book.

Giving political opinions is the lowest dive, in this humble editor’s opinion. I won’t go into how tired I am of elections in America. Instead I’ll merely point out that no nonfiction opinion breaks your fictional spell faster than a rant about politics. Plus, a reader may not read the book until several years after it is written. Will anyone care less about your Trump/Obama/Bush impersonator then?

When you inject your personal opinions into a novel, you’re showing how far across that bridge to your character you still have to go. The character isn’t you, or the book would be boring. It’s hard work to create someone that captivates a reader. So, get over yourself. Make sure that what the character thinks is really clever and unique.

Exercise: Review the manuscript solely for a selected character’s thoughts. When you locate each one, stop and consider: What have I written about her so far? Does all of that line up with the thought here? Even better, ask yourself: how could I make this thought add to what I’ve already portrayed about her?

“Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
—John F. Kennedy

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.