General Information

When the term “fledgling writer” is used, the mind’s eye conjures up a fresh-eyed college graduate ready to conquer the literary world. Yet that designation fits a retiree fresh from the working world as well. In the latter case, all of the energy stored up from college lies dormant during a career, until the prospect of free days without end leads back to that wellspring.

In the mash of feelings about literature—an aspiration and/or admiration shared by a wide body of the public—opinions about what constitutes a good story can meld with a lifetime of related experiences. I once talked to someone, for instance, who equated writing a human resources manual with writing a novel. While this is an extreme example, I commonly come across novels packed with material that seems bereft of true soul.

If the process of learning how to write can be likened to approaching a tiger, it is not surprising that inexperienced authors fall back on old standbys as they forge their uncertain way forward. A former banker, for instance, might portray a young character who approaches a mentor with questions about what banking really is, or what constitutes a good loan. A former journalist might go on for pages about the inside doings around the nation’s Capitol—without any character required at all. Meanwhile, the tiger is still growling.

That’s because wrestling with the tiger means exposing tender feelings that most people spend their careers hiding. A primal yell will not be well received in a quarterly meeting, even when the boss deserves to be drawn and quartered. All of that suppression, the sucking up to get ahead, leaves a heavy imprint that is not erased merely because boss and employee move on to Florida. Humans are reflexive animals, after all, and after years of training we too sit up and beg.

A writer fresh out of college tends to err on the side of expressing too much spirit, unbridled by the needs of the characters. The mature adult suffers the opposite problem. They must start first with a lead character. The central question is: what makes the character tick? Forget about the surroundings, the life lessons. Who is this person, and why would anyone else care about what they do?

Older writers have a tremendous advantage: they know all sorts of character types. When the writing starts from inside one single character, the rules of banking are instantly replaced by: the fear of making a terrible loan. One aide in the Capitol has just stepped way over the line. Start there.

Exercise: An inexperienced author too often conflates the desires of the lead character with their own desires. That leads to writing about external circumstances. Instead, spend a week writing about life experiences of the character that have nothing to do with your experiences—and why the character would do such crazy things.

“You don't think anyone who lives an ordinary life has plenty of trouble and torment to write about?”
—David Shields

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Concrete Conversion

Writing a novel entails a process of continually filling out details. These can be character thoughts, plot events, or descriptions, to name the largest categories. A vital aspect of this constant elaboration takes place during the revision phase. It consists of nailing down points that were vague during the initial rush of words. A general description about the heart of autumn, for instance, turns into a flurry of leaves stirred by a passing car. The better writer is engaged in an unending hunt for particulars.

Correcting for further clarity is an aim of most writers during the editing phase. Clunky lines are thrown out. Pieces of dialogue you thought were clear the first time have to be modulated to make sure they have the intended meaning. Much of this sort of work is instinctive; you read and react. Yet what I am talking about is a granular approach. Are you getting the most out of every sentence?

A comment about a character, such as “He was given to boasting at parties” can lead to a hunt through the book for a party you know the character attended. Yet he doesn’t boast there. So what does that comment mean? You need to add in a quarter page, perhaps before the main business he needs to accomplish at the party begins, in which he boasts. Then delete the vague comment.

The process can help tremendously when furthering a plot objective. An unanswered question about a character often produces plot tension, and the more sharply the issue is drawn, the more impact it has on the reader. You may have positioned Annie, for example, as showing up several times at crime scenes. Yet when you examine each one more carefully, you notice that you did not assign her any specific business that would cast true doubt. So, in each of those scenes you add a strange bruise on her cheek, or unseemly flirting with a detective, or taking selfies with the victim in the background.

The search for exactitude extends to the narration. So many first drafts have a neutral point of view—because the author is trying to figure out what is going on as the scene unfolds. Yet upon revision the storyteller can take firmer control. Maybe he adds, after describing the flurry of leaves, how dead leaves make him positively ill. The door opens to an anecdote about a mother’s collection of pressed leaves, which the narrator’s older sister swept up while the family settled the estate.

By the time the revision—or more likely, multiple revisions—is completed, the novel is stuffed full of details. The clumsy lunges of the first draft have been replaced with unceasing slashes of a sure sword.

Exercise: During a revision, always be aware that any object can be magnified to greater specificity. A “bottle of wine” has a color, or comes from a region, or sparkles in the light when it is poured. The more impact you want it to have, the more vivid it should appear.

“Concrete is heavy; iron is hard but the grass will prevail.”   
—Edward Abbey

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Sleep for a Month on It

Writing any book takes a long time. I occasionally edit authors who write at white-hot speed, but the number is not great and neither are the books. There is a reason why, with so many authors, their first book is their best. With no deadline to meet, the writing can span months, revolving through numerous iterations, each of which adds a new layer of complexity. What is not as apparent in this involved process is how long a section may lie fallow before you turn your attention back to it. That gap in time can also be a tool in producing the best results.

The process of writing goes through three broad stages: research and notes; bursts of new creation; and editing. If the process takes several years, let’s say, then Chapter 5 may not be revisited for months on end. When you return to it, you read almost as you are coming upon the prose for the first time. Yes, you recognize the general drift for the characters and plot, but the individual sentences, all the tiny steps of getting from beginning to end, are a source of surprised delight—and, if you’re serious, consternation.

Let’s focus on that third stage, editing, because it is so often in conflict with the second, writing new material.  That’s because most authors face an ongoing problem of feeling blocked. You wake up on the wrong side of the bed for writing, and no matter how much you try to fight through it, you continue to feel listless. So you decide to edit what you’ve already written. After all, you set aside the time. You might as well get something done. And who knows? After a time the muse may finally come knocking.

That’s fine as an expedient. One day sucks, okay, write that off. But what do you do when the blockage malaise extends over several days, as it so often does, or even a week and more? You have to try harder, of course. No one cares if you never write a book, or another book. You’re the one who likes to tap into the flow of creativity.

You must push yourself to write new material every time out. If you set aside an hour and the pen only flows for the last 20 minutes—well, the pen flowed, didn’t it? What you can’t do is settle into a routine of editing yourself. A book takes long enough to write. When do you think you’ll ever finish if you don’t make a little progress every session?

Exercise: When you’re editing, don’t worry about getting everything exactly right. You’re only thinking everything’s right at that point in time. A writer is never satisfied. So put Chapter 5 aside. Sleep for a month on it, then come back. You’ll find more niggling things that need to be fixed. But during that month, if you force yourself to keep pushing ahead, you’ll have left that chapter far behind.

“A book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.”
—Franz Kafka

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.