Can’t Say No

A parade of negative voices marches through our lives every day. Whether we have neglected to fix the leaking refrigerator, or forgotten to call the gutter service yet again, we are always after ourselves to be better. So it is not surprising that lurking on the underside of every sentence you write is a negative opinion of that sentence.

You have probably experienced the strange progression of beliefs we all entertain about our own work. At first you’re convinced the sentence you just wrote is pure genius, the best thing you ever composed. The next day, while editing, it seems more pedestrian, and a flicker of doubt appears: How did I think that was so great? A month later, while reading over a chapter, possibly because you’re in a negative head anyway, you see the sentence and feel the urge to strike it out altogether.

The same duality that allows perfectly harmless members of society to create the most vile serial killers in their thrillers also operates in this very small, private sphere. In finest Shakespearean style, our greatest strength, volatility, is also the source of our greatest weakness. I suppose writers should be glad that the only destruction they wreak is on their poor, defenseless words. I have, in fact, often evinced the opinion to friends that if everyone became creative, violence in society would cease. The volcanic eruptions we all feel would merely loop back on ourselves.

You must remain cognizant, however, that when you write, you are creating that feedback loop. The same voice that urges you to get up every morning at an ungodly hour can also turn on you and say, “You fool, give up. You can’t write.” You cannot give in to thoughts created at the low ebb of your subconscious cycle. They are going to happen.

Creativity is atavistic to a certain extent, but you are a member of a highly evolved civilization in which you are trying to participate as a writer, one of the highest achievements any person can attain. So don’t do it. Don’t permit wholesale destruction of what you yourself have created. Just wait for the next time you revisit that sentence.

Exercise: Not everything an author writes is gold, however. When you feel doubt about what you’ve written, go granular. Examine a single sentence and ask yourself what you don’t like about it. Using the same words, try to invert the structure. That construction, such as placing an adjective first in the sentence, will probably look flowery and affected, but now ask yourself: have I made the right choice for that adjective? Could you convert the adjective into the verb? By the time you are finished resolving that small puzzle, the black cloud that descended over you earlier may have parted to allow light to shine through.

“Writing is an act of creativity. You do it because it opens a wellspring of thoughts and feelings inside you that you didn’t know you were capable of expressing so well.”         
—Albert Einstein

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Uncoupling Your Strengths

The composition of sentences follows a rhythm that is individual to every writer. Each one of us has a way we like to tell a story. Some authors prefer to employ short, simple sentences. Others find that they achieve the best results when a subordinate clause or two flows off from the main sentence stem. What I try to achieve as an editor is a mixture of the two. While a complex or compound sentence offers more variety of structure, making the reading experience more textured, it can also have the unfortunate effect of muddying the impact of simpler components contained within it.

Why is that? Reading is an accretive process. We do not tend to linger on a single sentence. Instead, that sentence leads to another, and it is wrapped up inside a paragraph that leads to another, and on we go through a series of pages before we look up and notice the water glass on the nightstand. The contents of each sentence is flavored by what comes before, and its influence spills onto the next sentence.

A writer can get caught up in this never ceasing flow of words. If he is given naturally to complex sentence structures, he may be loath to simplify his sentences because all the parts do seem to hang together. As someone who is constantly breaking sentences apart and reconstructing them, I know this problem acutely. That’s the way I write myself. Yet I realize that a complex sentence is less forceful. An arabesque structure is fine for description. It tends to undercut the power of action, however. A simple declarative sentence punches home its point. You should not be sacrificing the import of your words in favor of style.

Even worse results can be achieved during the editing process. An author may notice that she has too many simple sentences in a row. Subject-verb, subject-verb: how monotonous. So she throws in an “and,” links up two sentences with a comma, and presto: a more varied sentence rhythm. Or she adds a participial phrase to start the sentence: “Putting her iPhone away in her purse, she pulled the red emergency brake cord.” Why do that, muddying a dramatic piece of action with a common, boring thing we all do? Again, there is no point in augmenting rhythm if you’re sacrificing power.

You might want to pay more attention to what you are writing, each sentence at a time. If you tend to write complex sentences, take a look at the clauses. Could that excellent choice of a participle become an active verb? Would two simple sentences help break up the density of a complex paragraph? That’s the sort of rhythmic question that ends up mattering to the reader.

Exercise: You should avoid the use of the word “and” when the components of your compound sentence are strong as individual sentences. Did you use a good verb? Make it distinctive by letting it command a simple sentence. Did you put in the “and” to link up two pedestrian sentences? Maybe you should spruce up your word choices in each of the sentences. That way you’ll have not one but two story units that have a little bang in them.

“He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas of any man I ever met.”
 —Abraham Lincoln

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


When Ordinary Is Depressing

“Life is a beach” T-shirts did not become popular because our lives are so uplifting. We read books to escape our daily regimen of gruel. Yet authors may feel that they should be writing about real life. That’s what all the great novelists do. Why should I strive for any less? runs this view.

Lack of talent is the obvious answer, but lack of depth is the real culprit. Let’s look at what most authors can achieve in order to point out why striving for strange and extraordinary is usually the better objective. We’ll start with a character’s comments on the quotidian. As we all know, our lives are filled with encounters with people we consider stupid. Such meetings provide the fodder for many a dinnertime anecdote. So why don’t they work as well in novels?

In short, they are so ordinary. While readers may realize that they have experienced a similar fate, that recognition also brings about a feeling of disappointment that the author has not supplied a more entertaining experience. Compounding this problem is the addition of other comments about jerks, pages upon pages of them. That’s what real life is like, right? All of them suckers. As these add up, the feeling of negativity grows as well, weighing down the novel.

A second feature of narration that covers the surface of daily life encompasses the many details that bring these encounters to fuller life. While these may be precisely drawn, resulting in true insights—hey, I’ve done that—the results remain on the level of illuminating the ordinary. The reader may think: that incident in a big-box store has happened to me too, but then I promptly forgot it because it wasn’t worth remembering.

Worst of all is the lack of imagination the lead character shows when surrounded by banality. A middle-aged manager may keep condemning his ogling office buddy, but his own marriage is so boring, he barely has sex. A bank clerk may disparage a colleague that wears gobs of makeup, but she still can’t find a man who is attracted to her mousy looks. Why do I need to know more about these people?

What an exploration of malls and backyard barbeques fails to realize is what makes a novel great in the first place: the narrator’s point of view. Good writers know life sucks, and that’s why they create protagonists that are themselves extraordinary and grotesque. Only from that bizarre viewpoint can life be examined. The interest in reading such a book is what the character takes away from experiences that would typically produce ennui. Better yet, how the character intervenes embarrassingly into an event, upsetting the expected tedium.

Exercise: Use the ordinary as a jumping-off point. Your job as a writer is to take readers where they haven’t been before. Set up the cardinal points that govern the protagonist’s life—and then devise how to set them on their ear. This process can consist of action and/or thoughts, but above all, be original.

“I would never write about anyone who is not at the end of his rope.”
—Stanley Elkin

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.