The Quest for Variety

When an author is writing a first draft, the repetition of favored words represents a desire to employ the force the word contains. At this stage language is not as important as getting the idea down on paper. Because writing proceeds linearly over an expanse of time, an author can forget that they felt the impulse to use a same word before, often multiple times.

When it comes time to review the first draft, however, a different imperative has to take hold. Keeping the reader entertained consists of efforts large and small. Not only slashing plot events but also individual word choices. Inserting a fresh vocabulary word 500 times can make a pronounced, if subtle, impact on the reading experience. No matter what level of diction you are writing on, you can find synonyms that fit within the prose.

Searching for a bon mot leads to another editing practice that will alter your customary means of expression. For instance, if you decide that “They moved to the door” should be replaced by “They marched to the door,” the connotation of “march” can lead to further changes in the sentence and possibly beyond. What is causing them to march as opposed to, say, amble or stroll? You might see that an earlier piece of dialogue might well inspire anger in the listener: hence march. So you fiddle with that earlier piece until it becomes toned up as well. A little more juice out of that bite of the story.

A good way to shake up norms is changing sentence structure. Writers also tend to write the same type of sentence, such as a main clause followed by a participial phrase. “They swept across the clearing, checking their back trail all the way across” is an example. You can add tension merely by chopping the sentence in half, since shorter sentences put the emphasis on active verbs. “They swept across the clearing. All the way across, they checked their back trail.”

My favorite way, as an editor, of varying habits is adopting a more forceful point of view. So many times authors write a passage as though they are looking down on a scene, trying to imagine how it unfolds. If you know theater, this approach is akin to “blocking”—that is, providing stage directions on where characters should go and when. When you blend exterior with interior, though, you get much better results. “They moved to the door” might become “They had to go to the door in order to find out what in the world was going on outside.”

Exercise: Check the draft for habitual words. While you can use more common words more often, see if “said” can be converted to “replied,” “retorted,” and the like. You don’t want to go crazy; you’re just trying to see if more flavor will fit there. If making a word substitution doesn’t feel right, look at the sentence. Maybe that’s what's keeping the prose in lockstep.

“There is no time for cut-and-dried monotony.”
—Coco Chanel

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Do Historical Villains Suffer?

The fate of most antagonists in fiction is preordained. They suffer the punishment they deserve, traditionally at the hands of the protagonist. The damaged fabric of the world is repaired. What happens, however, to real-life villains that we know from history walked away from the mayhem they caused?

This question poses a challenge to a fledgling novelist who may be more adept at inserting research than exploring characters—which is where many novelists begin. The task of describing a satisfying character arc is complicated by the fact that villains are easy to write about. Evil is shunned in the real world, but in a novel it’s fun. It’s the main reason we’re reading. So as the writer catalogues one cynical real-life deed after another, they* believe a well-rounded character is emerging.

The problem, of course, is that life is flat. It’s nice to believe that the meek will inherit the earth, but the truth is, they will remain poor. That’s not satisfying, and the unrest caused by the moral indifference of reality is another reason we read novels. When viewed through that glass, the accumulation of evil deeds in a novel increasingly calls for restitution of some form.

History is hardly an infallible record, particularly when the chronicler attempts to assign psychological reasons for a personage’s behavior. Therein lies a novelist’s gateway to their own interpretation of what motivates an evildoer. Probing into such a psyche can yield how the malefactor justifies their actions. This occurs not only during self-examinations but, importantly, when they talk to others as well.

An author can create a companion character whose opinion the evildoer values. A daughter is a perfect example. For example, while wearing sheets with eye holes forms a brotherhood in the adult world, that same father wants his daughter’s esteem. He might be desperate to hide his involvement in the lynching of the father of his daughter’s black friend. Still an evil son of a bitch, but one with a conscience imposed on him by a relationship.

Exploring gaps in the historical record provides another benefit as well. It forces an author to dig deeper into the character. In uncharted waters, you have to put yourself on the line in order to come up with satisfying character motivations. Now the evil that we all have within has a chance to express itself on the page.

Exercise: Luckily for the fiction writer, no man is an island. Think about the people that the historical figure knows. Could one be chosen that appears at regular intervals, serving as a benchmark for the evildoer’s descent into hell? Maybe the world can be damned, but that one person: I can’t have that one think badly of me.

“The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”
—Tom Clancy

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

*When not specific, non-gender personal pronouns are used in this blog.


Get Your Blood Moving

I am a firm believer in the need for a transition period, of five or so minutes, between your everyday life and sitting down to write. You need to wipe out all of that mundane crap in order to concentrate. Here is an idea for authors whose primary problem is feeling sluggish.

Back in my college days, I developed an interest in Indian gurus, and the first prerequisite for an acolyte is learning how to meditate. I would like to tell you that this was the beginning of a remarkable career, filled with om chants longer than any Westerner in history. The fact is, however, that I was terrible at meditating. I couldn’t keep my thoughts still, no matter how hard I tried. Luckily, a benevolent, if exasperated, spiritual advisor showed me a series of physical exercises that each ended with a furious burst called “dragon’s breath.” Since I enjoyed playing sports, this approach was much more to my liking. The physical exercises closely resembled calisthenics.

I did eventually work out an adequate meditation technique that stilled my mind for writing. Yet on days when my thoughts were whirling like a manic ping-pong ball, I would instead employ this dragon’s breath practice. I developed a routine that consists of side-to-side stretches of the arms and legs, touching toes, and stomach crunches. What type of calisthenics you choose doesn’t matter. The point is, I decided to hold each position while I counted to ten. While I am  counting, the numbers block out all those random thoughts. On days when you find that your thoughts are quiescent, you can hold the stretch position without counting. You’ll know when the ten count ends, approximately, and the time doesn’t matter anyway. The purity of suspended motion, mind completely blank, often is the prelude to a very good writing session.

No matter which technique you use, learning to focus on nothingness is just like trying to focus on what your characters are thinking. After all, what are you trying to accomplish when you write? You’re trying to dig deeply into your thoughts. Everyday crap gets in the way of that journey. Although this spiritual technique ended up being directed at a more selfish purpose, you will find that concentration prior to writing is truly a path to bliss.

Exercise: Which types of stretches should you use? If you played sports in school, you probably can recall a set of warm-up exercises right off the top of your head. If not, the Internet is filled with exercises of every imaginable variety. You just have to type in the sort of movement that interests you. In the end, all you’re doing is calming your body in order to plumb your mind.

“Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.”
—Jane Yolen

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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