Sick of It

Drama depends on a protagonist driving a story forward. For that reason few books cover a part of life that fells the best of us. If any type of illness is covered, it is likely to be mental illness or similar topics such as alcoholism or drug use. The pounding headache, the upset stomach, the violent ejections of phlegm, these are banished to the sidelines as unpleasant lapses. Maybe that is a reflection of an author’s personally despising the lost hours lost to misery. Imagine: lying in bad, with the entire day awaiting, and your head is so clogged up, you just want to drink tonics and sleep.

Another reason may be that what happens inside you while ill falls in the same category of descriptions about mental states that many authors find so difficult to capture. If you can’t run off a string of interior monologue in general, how are you supposed to describe that strained feeling that seems to knit your eyebrows together? The revulsion of seeing your own blood on a Kleenex?

The lack of excitement engendered by staying home in bed seems to be a missed opportunity in other respects, however. The idea of blockage mirrors the obstacles we encounter in the course of our everyday lives. Illness is an analogue of life is a bitch, and that can lead to all sorts of explorations. The parallel of vomiting and moral turpitude is easy to draw, as is a migraine with guilt. The constriction of the lungs echoes the fear of expressing oneself in public, and coughing equates with futility in pursuing an aim.

Adding an interlude of sickness can be a way of revealing character. How does a noble warrior in any field handle the common cold? Is he helpless like a baby, glad to shed his mask for a few gasping days? Does she welcome the feelings because they justify her perpetual hypochondriac complaints? Is he annoyed because the illness interrupts his busy agenda? Does she welcome the chance to stay home with the kids, even if she is feeling lousy?

When regarded that way, as an impediment to whatever glory the character is trying to attain, it functions as a mechanism of opposition, and that is what any writer wants in a novel. What does the process of being laid low bring out in the character? As a reader, I’d be curious to find out.

Exercise: Illness can also be used as a tool in fomenting tension. A character who is falling in and out of antibiotic drowsiness is vulnerable. A person who cannot get out of bed is helpless before an attacker. In other words, any character who is not thinking straight creates an electric current of unsteadiness that keeps a reader on the edge of his seat.

“It is in moments of illness that we are compelled to recognize that we live not alone but chained to a creature of a different kingdom, whole worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body.”
—Marcel Proust

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Letting Air into Your Prose

The process of writing consists of thousands of micro decisions. The search for the bon mot can consume hours of agonized mental wrestling, muttered curses, hunts in a thesaurus, and hopefully end with a bolt out of the blue that feels just right. For those writers who like exactitude in their writing, this ongoing ordeal can lead, however, to tight, impenetrable prose. You can tighten the screws so much on a sentence-by-sentence basis that the reader is not allowed inside the story as a whole. 

For the concise at heart, how much air are you willing to let into your narrative? How approachable should it be? If you yourself are growing fatigued after you review a long paragraph—itself a hallmark of dense writing—you should consider several tradecraft techniques that make the prose less impenetrable. 

The first is consciously examining individual words. Look at a thesaurus-inspired choice such as “obdurate.”  While I love this word, it lies on a higher level of diction than synonyms like “tough” or “flinty.” Or, if you really want the word’s exact meaning, look at the rest of the sentence. Do you also have other high-toned words that a reader has to process? Maybe “obdurate” stays and those other words could become more common.

Another reason for too-tight prose is sentence construction. I’ll leave complex and compound sentences aside, and concentrate instead on the use of active (as opposed to passive) sentences. If you have ruthlessly eliminated “there is” and “it is” from your prose—which I definitely recommend in general—you might want to be more forgiving. You can torture a sentence just to avoid using “there is.” Rather than redlining every such clause, ask yourself: am I introducing a new setting, etc., that needs the sort of introduction that “there is” provides? You may find that occasional use of the passive sentence opens up the prose.

Finally, you can use narrative devices that let in air, especially dialogue. You can’t tighten up too much how people talk; you’ll know it sounds artificial, not to mention dated, like a Victorian novel. Sure, your intelligent characters could use a better vocabulary, but everyone except the New York literati is reduced to “you know” every once in a while.

Exercise: Rather than rigorously changing every cliché into an original (and possibly confusing) statement, write out an alternative on a provisional basis, to be read a week or so from now. When you check back, compare the two and make a decision then. You may find that a third choice springs out at you—and that’s the right choice.

“If the English language made any sense, lackadaisical would have something to do with a shortage of flowers.”
—Doug Larson

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


My Favorite Days

As baby boomers reach retirement age, many of them reflect on a life well lived—and decide that others would like to read about it. A seasoned perspective can be interesting, although the amount of wisdom gained with age does not increase by nearly as much as statues of historical figures might indicate. That’s why a memoir that careens from one golden memory to another can so easily fall by the wayside.

Compressing a life into a nonfiction book equals the difficulty of shrinking a fictional life into a novel. Forget about the limitation of how much can be packed into 300 pages. The imperative really consists of finding a way to tell a story that is cohesive over that span. That’s why many published memoirs focus on a particular subject, such as a street in Vienna between the two world wars. The narrow compass limits the equivalent of funny anecdotes told at a party.

Finding a central theme will not suffice by itself, however. That’s because memoirs proceed as a function of time, and that presents plenty of opportunities to digress along the way. Introducing a new person into the story might bring to mind the party-filled boarding house where the author was living at the time. Off we go for a page or two as the author recalls the chief raconteur of the house.

By itself, the story might be very droll, but when the author continues to head down side alleys that glow with memory, the reader becomes distracted, losing the story thread. The enterprise is revealed for what it is: a sounding board for an old gas bag. The only way to elevate that type of memoir is by having an incredible number of exceptional incidents.

Once a focus is obtained, the element of wisdom gained comes into play. Success in the genre depends on stellar writing. After all, anyone can look back on highlights in their past. Since so many incidents are common to a wide range of people, the writing depends on unusual circumstances, to be sure, but also how the writer comments upon the event. If an older man tries in vain to sell his children’s wooden swing set, for example, what commentary he makes about the futile effort—how young parents view swing sets, among others—can make all the difference in the reader’s enjoyment. The more widespread the insight, the more readers feel included, warmed in the author’s grasp.

Exercise: If you have already written a fair amount of sprawling material, take a step back from the individual pieces and ask yourself: what do I really know, based on what my life has entailed? If it is Western-Eastern business relationships, for example, how could I present those incidents in a way that would shed light on the larger picture of how Western and Eastern mores have influenced each other?

“There is in me an anarchy and frightful disorder. Creating makes me die a thousand deaths, because it means making order, and my entire being rebels against order. But without it I would die, scattered to the winds.”
—Albert Camus

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.