Don’t Let Exhaustion Win

Writing is an art that wells up from the unconscious, and that places it within the realm of grand currents we struggle to control. Signs of the id’s enormous power in the world we live in are everywhere, such as its effect on people who deny climate change on ideological grounds. To avoid being swept away by these irrational tides, a rational person erects a dam for his own protection. Otherwise, you might be the one in a movie theater with a semi-automatic weapon.

Yet that protective barrier also hides the treasures that we labor to pour out onto the page. It doesn’t make sense that we cannot penetrate that barrier at will. So many other things we do, such as guiding our children to be good, seem to flow right out of the pipe. So it is not surprising that when we face a blockage to writing day after day, we turn away from our own futility. We can tackle some other task that we might even be able to accomplish before the end of time.

An author might be likened to a small mill set up on a large river. We are posed to capture its great flow of possibilities, if only we could corral that current to spin in our wheel and grind our corn into perfect sentences. What happens most of the time, however, is that we are too timid to face the onslaught. We understand the mechanism, because the gears make logical sense. The problem is, our natural tendency for self-protection keeps us inside our tawdry little house as the majestic river sweeps past.

You have to devise a logical plan to tap the flow. The only way to make the great wheel spin is to expose yourself to the river’s current. When the wheel creaks from the load, oil the gears to make it run more smoothly. As that happens, you become more proficient at understanding the ebbs and flows of your subconscious.

You cannot always expect to perform on demand. One morning you wake up feeling great—but your natural barrier is firm and your efforts at penetration result in a trickle. The next morning you feel like crap—but the writing flows out effortlessly. The important point is, you are a conscientious miller. You keep to the task, day in and day out. And pretty soon the world that you can break into sensible little pieces becomes less attractive than the castles you create in your free-flowing mind.

“Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time.”        
—Leonard Bernstein

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Chapter Summaries

Most nonfiction books are sold via a vehicle known as a proposal, which is a marketing document that lays out why the book will sell in its marketplace. Among the sections of a proposal is one that outlines what each chapter contains. It is known by various names, but many professionals call it the Chapter Summaries.

Quite a few authors treat the section as a sideline, devoting a scant paragraph to each chapter. Sometimes they skip the exercise altogether and provide merely a detailed Contents page, listing each subheading in the chapter. Unless you have a subject like a memoir where organization is unimportant, however, that level of treatment is not doing its job of helping you sell the book.

Think of the proposal from an acquisitions editor’s point of view. If she likes the proposal, she will bring it up in her imprint’s weekly editorial meeting. There she has to persuade the editor-in-chief and publisher to buy the book. Yet that process is hampered if no one really knows what’s in the book. Most particularly, what does it offer that no other book in the field does?

The section that answers that question best is the Chapter Summaries. Here you have to ask yourself if a paragraph can delineate each chapter’s topics in enough details to delve beneath the general buzz words that any book in that area covers. For example, you may have a chapter in a book about teenage boys in which you state that they respond better to an empathetic partner in education. There have been, of course, a slew of books advocating that men become more social. Rather than covering different classroom strategies in a glancing sentence apiece, why not break the best methods into a paragraph apiece? That way you could provide enough details that show why your strategy is different.

I don’t have any rule of thumb in terms of length—some chapters are shorter, or less complex—but shooting for a half page to a page gives you the scope to lay in some specific qualities that only your book possesses. Trying for 3-4 paragraphs rather than one means you have to fill up those paragraphs with unique details. If you think of it another way, in terms of marketing, each of those new details you’ve added is a selling point. Why would you not want to triple the number of selling points you have to offer?

Exercise: I should caution that the section is still merely an outline. An editor expects that you will respect her time. She’s busy, and she wants to get through a proposal quickly. (Otherwise, she could read the entire book.) So stay on a higher plane. Try not to go over a page for each one. If your book has any content at all, you’ll have plenty of plus points even in summary.

“I am unable to think of any critical, complex human activity that could be safely reduced to a simple summary equation.”
—Jerome Powell

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


By the Way

A primary concern for any author is creating a variety of approaches to the subject matter. If you are devising a conversation about a subject that has been covered in a hundred other books, such as a mother-teenage son argument, how do you write something original? Unless you are writing science fiction, the world of options for this type of conversation is limited.

One idea that works is creating cross currents. When writing a novel, you assume that your two characters will sit down and have the conversation you mean to tackle. After all, that’s what they’re supposed to do at this point in your planning: talk about X. That isn’t the way many conversations go in real life, though. If you can get your teenager to look up from his phone or stop playing video games, you have achieved a minor miracle. To him, at that moment when he’s about to top his best score ever, fighting once again for the rights to the car is a petty annoyance.

The same is true of a spouse that has just come home from work. In her mind she may be still fuming about an incident on the commuter bus. She is inventing what she really should have said to the bragging lout on his cell phone, and your polite request to talk about something really serious may need to be reinforced with “Are you listening?” and then “Hello, Earth to Lauren.”

That’s the way life really is. Ships cross in the night, and each one is intent on his own nautical chart. When one party is initially disengaged, you also can reveal more about the relationship. That’s because a stock, inattentive answer is one that the character knows will usually get the other off his back. You can still work the scene so that the two parties engage fully, but this way you have revealed two layers of interactions: the present issue and the way things have gone in the past.

A variety of the initial disconnect involves the character bringing up the topic of concern. If Ellen is worried how the other party will respond, that allows you several possibilities for exploration. By her reasoning out how to ease into the subject, you show the reader what the other character likes. On the flip side, you reveal the anxieties that Ellen normally has in creating a confrontation.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for dialogue patches. Do any of them seem like bits heard on too many TV shows? Stop to consider the lead-in. How does the character feel about raising the topic? Is he irate? Is he begging? Next, consider where the other character is at this point in the book. Given what she’s had to put up with, how receptive is she to defend herself on this point?

“No rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude.” 
—Karl Popper

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Duel Buddies

Creating tension in every chapter is a common problem for authors writing suspense novels. Other factors come into play that are important but not exciting, such as setting up characters early on. You do need to craft a portrait of a protagonist so that the reader gets to know her enough to care about her. So what is the best way to balance the two imperatives?

You spread the wealth. When a plot is first conceived, it tends to be binary in nature. Character 1 must resolve the evil committed by Character 2. You can expand this metric to twin clusters of Protagonist + cohorts and Villain + cohorts, by the way. The problem is that the good side is not creating tension, because they’re not evil, and setting up the good guys usually the aim of character portrayal. So every chapter in which you are delineating character is a dud. 

Spreading the wealth means expanding beyond that binary plot opposition. You have multiple ways of creating tension. For one method, you need look no further than the title of Leslie Fiedler’s famous book of criticism: Love and Death in the American Novel. Who is the protagonist’s romantic partner? How can they be unhappy with each other? In this scenario, you write a chapter that includes a lot of good setup material, but it revolves, for instance, around the boyfriend’s announcement that he is going off on a long journey to “find myself.”

For another idea, people that you want to write about often are suffering from financial difficulties. That leads to rash actions that, while they can’t match up to a villain’s murder, can engender danger of a different form. Desperation about the shame of being exposed to a spouse is gripping enough to serve as a main plot, so it could work nicely as an alternate tension source for you.

Either of these purported scenarios could be expanded into hundreds of choices, limited only by your imagination. Notice in both, however, that the tension springs from an interaction with a nearest and dearest. Husband and wife, lovers, best friends, parent and child: when you develop antagonism on a personal level, it will produce friction. Better yet, while they’re shouting at each other, you can show all sorts of character traits.

Exercise: If you head off in too many minor plot directions, looking for tension, the reader will become confused. One way to manage the threads spiraling outward is to have them originate from a common source, such as a family. Amy might decide that Brad’s trip will start with a permanent bon voyage, but she’s also calling her sister, Carol, to check in. Carol has her own pressure cooker involving a workaholic husband getting an apartment in the city, etc. As they proceed forward, you have the sisters keep tabs on each other.

“I consider plot a necessary intrusion on what I really want to do, which is write snappy dialogue.” 
—Aaron Sorkin

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine 


The Rules of the Game

Authors know that they must make each part of their novel align with what goes before and after. This effort often requires several rounds of revisions, especially if a major cog in the plot is changed, requiring that all of the related elements cohere as well. The end result is seamless, with no repetition.

While getting all of the “facts” straight is difficult, and time-consuming, many authors accomplish that task more ably than one related to the characters involved in those scenarios. If Ted imbibes too much office Christmas party punch and becomes obnoxious, you can draw logical inferences from that plot incident. He might get fired, or put on probation, by his boss. He might face charges for the sexual harassment committed while under the influence. But these repercussions are plot issues. If you really want to strike gold with Ted, you should follow another sort of logic. What does he feel afterward?

Writing from that perspective requires a different level of concentration. To use a metaphor, it means stepping onto a court in an arena, where the outcome is bound by the rules of the game. The aftermath of Ted’s drunkenness is not a one-time deal. That’s what I see most often as an editor. Okay, he got drunk, and presto, this happens. Issue over, let’s move on. Notice who is ruling that decision: the author, not the character. The author isn’t involved enough to be on the court.

In the game that is your novel, the rules of Ted’s behavior keep holding all the way through. After the initial response, his office mates are still smirking behind their hands. His wife isn’t letting up on him for weeks, honey, if ever. If you’re really involved, you’ll think through the reasons why Ted would get drunk there in the first place, and how they were exacerbated by his foolishness. Add to that the ongoing shame he feels, and now the aftermath has the potential for future explosions that are even worse.

That approach will take you so much deeper than the one-click method. Ted’s obstacle is not a problem to be solved at the first opportunity, getting it off your checklist. It can be an outgrowth of problems he’s had before and will keep on having until you provide the poor guy resolution.

Exercise: Speed is not your friend when immersing yourself in your book. When you have a significant occasion, don't merely consider the ripples that spread toward the future. Let your imagination devise the reason(s) the stone was thrown. When you work backward as well as forward, you may find new causes as well as new results. Take the time to write down all the tangents that come to mind both at the time and when they pop up later, out of the blue.

“This is my sport: it is my life. I study it; I think about it all the time. Nothing else matters.”
—Conor McGregor

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Poke to Provoke a Reaction

Aligning the plot lines of the good and evil forces in a novel is not as easy as it seems. If you think about the issue from a structural viewpoint, you’ll find that the tracks the protagonist and villain are pursuing often run parallel to each other, and do not necessarily converge. Why is this? The pursuits of the villain usually are far advanced in terms of completion, while the protagonist is a newcomer to the villain’s scheme. That’s one reason why Bond shows up just as the rocket is being launched: he didn’t even know about the party until an hour ago.

If the villain’s conspiracy is large enough, that can pose a dilemma for your plot diagram. Why would he notice a newcomer at all? Assuming that he would is where an author can conflate the two worlds she is straddling. Just because you know what both camps are doing doesn’t mean that either one of them knows. There is no reason, for instance, why a cabal planning to blow up America’s electrical grid should realize that a wind power chief has traced back a ping from the conspiracy’s server.

Because of the unequal progress that each camp has made when the novel begins, the first time they collide is dependent on how close behind the protagonist has come. What was all a puzzling mystery after the first attack, often in the prologue, has become clearer by that point. Yet the protagonist’s growing knowledge of a scheme does not automatically mean that the villain knows that someone has glimpsed behind his curtain.

It’s your job to force the protagonist to make the villain aware of her efforts. Think of the situation from his standpoint. If he assigns some henchmen to take her out, how does he justify that to himself? During the commission of any crime, things can go wrong. Why would he, who knows this maxim better than anyone, take that risk? He has to be prodded to do so.

That means the protagonist must represent a threat to the villain’s scheme. This moves her beyond faint suspicion of the guilty party. It moves her beyond talks with her partner about what she believes is going on. She must upset some part of his operation. In that way she makes that crucial first linkage between the two plot lines.

Exercise: Examine the first time the villain goes after the protagonist, which often occurs halfway through the book. She has uncovered only part of the scheme at that point, so how can that limited knowledge lead to her active interference to stop him? The act need not be intended; she can blunder into it. But she must poke the nest in order to bring out the hornets.

“Most of us don't have to worry about being shot if we poke our noses outside. So we are comfortable, but the people I'm writing about are definitely not comfortable, and being shot while they're still inside is a good possibility.”
—Octavia Butler

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


What Truths Do Your Characters Know?

When writing a novel, many authors operate as though they are wearing the same blinkers as their horses. That comes about because a writer is exploring simultaneously the ranges that characters and plots can achieve. This allied approach makes sense, since you need to find interesting things for your characters to do in order to show what they’re like.

Unfortunately, this organic line of attack tends to produce less twisty plots. While you are charting the course for a main character, you’re usually writing with limits on his point of view (1st-person or 3rd-person limited narration). This is where the blinkers come in. You’re trying so hard to conceive of what he’s thinking in any given moment that other concerns fall to the wayside.

Yet you don’t have to start at the beginning of the race. To extend the metaphor, you should examine all of the horses, by color and number, before penning “Chapter 1.” Writing initial character sketches is a good practice, but that’s still operating on the character side of the ledger. How do you devise a better plot?

You set up the novel by writing out what each major character knows about the story’s events at each stage. For instance, if a wife is the chief villain, the one who killed her husband, she knows about the murder, of course. She committed it. She expects consequences, such as the police investigating the murder. She can prepare answers for a detective. But what will come at her out of the blue? Like your protagonist?

That is the character who usually knows the least about what actually happened. What does he learn and when? You want the novel to proceed by a series of discoveries, or steps. So what are the steps in the progression? Who knows the truth about that step? At each point you then have to consider that character. How does she know that truth? What is the overall story, according to her? To return to the example of the murderous wife, what “truth” does her sister tell? Is she aware of what likely happened or not?

When you plan out schematics beforehand, you can link plot developments to certain characters much more easily. You may find that a character who divulges one truth will later tell another. How is that step accomplished? Because it is volunteered (implying malice toward the one accused) or forced out of her by the protagonist? You do not have to provide all of the steps before you start, but by working this way, you will already have a better idea of how to add twists to the plot.

Exercise: You can use personality to determine how a character perceives the truth. A basic example of this is the detective who leaps at the obvious solution in order to reduce his case load. Think to yourself: if you have an offbeat character, could she provide “truths” to the protagonist that completely screw him up?

“A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.”
—Oscar Wilde

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Your Slideshow

The itch to travel leads to encountering new panoramas. The natural step beyond that, for a writer, is to describe the novel scenery. Everything is fodder for a future novel. You can compile pages upon pages of material that, like a photo album, brings back warm memories of a visit. Upon reading them over, you realize you could grab certain pieces for the book you’re writing.

I strongly advocate scene setting. I always want to find out about places or customs I don’t know. This curiosity extends even to locales I know pretty well, such as an interesting sidelight of the meatpacking district in Manhattan. If a character is discovering interesting recesses, I like him better just for that.

Yet I caution against the travelogue approach adopted by less skillful writers. A paragraph describing Notre Dame as viewed from the Ile Saint-Louis may immerse a reader in Paris, but if that is followed by a walk to Shakespeare and Company to buy a book, I may start to get restless. Because the descriptive work takes so long, I am pulled out of the head of the narrating character and firmly into the embrace of the bragging author. I was there! I saw the ghost of Ernie!

You may be better off treating every destination as local. By that I mean: as used by a character in that locale. Multiple scenes set in Paris are featured, for instance, in Jean Echenoz’s terrific Je m'en vais (I’m Gone), and they are all put in service by his characters. A warehouse district is described not because it sparkles in the sun, but because a character hides stolen art there. As a reader I still enjoy the thrill of discovery, but I also know I’m getting somewhere in the novel’s journey.

A good way to fit in descriptions is thinking in terms of interstices. While your characters are engaged in their business, you slip in an interesting detail. Maybe a few on one page and a few more on the next. That’s the way a character—who is supposed to be telling your story—would regard her surroundings. She notices the massive rosette window of Notre Dame and puts that in the context of her feelings. The sight of the gargoyles later on inspires another feeling. Now your slideshow is put in the proper perspective.

Exercise: When you are reviewing photos you’ve taken, allow yourself the time to dwell on different aspects of a single one. If your husband is smiling in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, try to remember how he was feeling about you that day. Or during the preceding days. Or, think about what Versailles means in the bigger scheme of history. Would your character feel: All that splendor, or All that waste?

“My interest in photography is not to capture an image I see or even have in my mind, but to explore the potential of moments I can only begin to imagine.”
—Lois Greenfield

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


When Third Is the Same as the First

On first blush, the difference between the I-voice and the omniscient voice appears to be a wide gulf. As with any aspect of storytelling, however, the approaches are bent toward some degree of union according to the dictates of each individual writer. If you grow comfortable with a third-person character, you may come to see that the differences are barely distinguishable. You may choose that character to carry the entire narrative burden for you. This is known as third-person limited narration.

A hallmark of this style is how deeply inside a character’s thoughts the author probes. If Meghan launches into a full paragraph of how distressed she is after learning her father is gay and leaving the home, the pronoun “she” is virtually the same as the pronoun “I.” The two can appear interchangeably throughout the text, depending on how distinctive an author wants the thoughts to be.

Indeed, when authors are not getting inside a character’s head sufficiently, I enjoin them to write a passage initially in the first-person voice, then convert it to third- later. A find-and-replace of “I am” to “she is” may accomplish fifty percent of the conversion in one stroke. This process can be worked in reverse as well. This technique exposes times when the author’s hand is too heavy. When I read a sentence like “She thought her father was suffering from the workaholic ethos of his law partners,” I think, “Try pulling that off with ‘I thought . . .’”

That narrative distance shows one of the primary pitfalls of the third-person limited voice. It is so easy for an author to make anything he wants to write into a character’s thoughts. This leads to the cardinal sin of telling rather than showing. The key to stopping such laziness is to avoid all telling of plot events and secondhand commentary within interior passages. Once the thoughts are divorced from exposition, they are free to roam where a person’s mind will. In the example above, for example, maybe she tells of one Sunday when she went into work with her father, only to be stranded for hours in a conference room. How did she feel with nothing to do, thinking about all the fun things she could be doing?

Where the author best intrudes is in summary work. You want to cover minor scene setting quickly, or want to denote a lapse in time. You pull back from the character’s intense gaze in order to avoid wasting the reader’s time during a bridge between scenes.

Exercise: Review the manuscript looking for interior monologues. If you are explicating plot, even of events that have already happened, stop to consider whether it should be converted into an action scene. Is it important enough for such treatment? If not, see if you can convert it into her feeling or opinion about the event.

“I go straight from thinking about my narrator to being him.”
—S. E. Hinton

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine



What’s in It for Me?

One primary concern of a nonfiction author should be the motivation of the person buying the book. In most areas of nonfiction, he does not want to be entertained. He wants practical information on the art of negotiation, for instance, or how to calm a colicky baby. The primary question in his mind when opening the book is: What’s in it for me?

Many writers I have worked with, particularly those from scholarly backgrounds, don’t answer that question squarely. They are experts in their field, and they assume that any knowledge they impart will benefit the beetle-browed crowd. The first chapter might wander off into esoterica that the author personally finds interesting—because she is bored by the basic knowledge she has espoused so many times in other venues.

That’s a cardinal mistake. The author is viewing the book from her own perspective. She’s not considering what the reader wants. That’s one of the primary reasons a browser will close the book. He enters the first chapter actively looking for advice that directly addresses the problem he is experiencing. If he feels that the material is too personal or he can’t see the point of the opening discussion, he’ll put the book back. Usually, there are 3-4 other books on the same subject right next to yours on the shelf.

What’s in it for me? You have to keep that question in mind with every page you write. Yes, you are an expert, but writing is the art of communication. Before you start, write down a list of the most common questions you are asked about your subject. Those are the ones the reader wants answered too. Is the subject complicated enough to constitute a chapter by itself? If so, how would you go about starting to answer it and where would you conclude? The reader will want to follow that same logical progression.

Exercise: Examples used to illustrate a point are a principal area of wandering. Take a hard look at the examples you are using. Does the one on social media marketing, for instance, really prove the point you just made? Or it is a “war story” from your personal experience that you’ve always found amusing? If you didn’t know the people in the example, would you care? More important, would you be able to put yourself in that person’s shoes, and after the story is over, you say, “You know, I see what the author means by that point”?

“Manuscript: something submitted in haste and returned at leisure.”
—Oliver Herford

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Hands Off

I have a guideline I follow when I am line editing that may prove useful to you. I’ll call it my hands-off rule. I first read ahead. I might read the next chapter or maybe the next 50 pages. While I am reading, I’ll likely see numerous places where a wrong word is used, a sentence’s meaning is vague, and all sorts of other editing considerations. I feel frequent urges to stop and suggest an alternative. But I don’t. I keep reading onward, letting the momentary impulse drain away. The purpose of the review is to gather my overall impression of what the chapter or section contains.

I have not forgotten all those twinges, however. When I go back to where I left off and start editing, I see all of the places I wanted to correct. Yet the rewrite work dovetails better with the writing because I first have scanned the lie of the land ahead. If I were to edit as I read, I would resemble a gopher, digging up what is directly in front of me, attacking individual obstacles but not integrating my approach with the larger aims of what the author is trying to accomplish.

Now consider your own writing. When you are reviewing your story, what is really your motive behind the editing? If you are like many writers, a common reason is because you’re not in the right mood to write new work. You want to feel inspiration from what you’ve already created. Yet what happens when you have your pen ready at hand? You can always find words that can be improved. You find gaps in story logic and insert a bridge sentence. Pretty soon you find that, rather than reading a few chapters to sense where you want to go next, you’ve barely gotten beyond a few pages.

Now, let’s go to the next day. Lo and behold, upon a second review you find that most of the corrections you made the day before are terrible. What you wrote the first time around was much stronger. What have you done to yourself?

You need to employ the hands-off rule. You cannot make any corrections for X number of pages. None. You will keep reading, amid your growing neurotic misery that what you have written is terrible. And you know what? By the time you reach the end of the chapter, you may find yourself saying, “Hey, that’s not so bad, after all.” Now you’re ready to edit.

Exercise: If you simply cannot avoid your urges, then give in a little. If you see a word you have misspelled, go ahead and correct the spelling. If you see a comma you left out, make that correction. These are momentary pauses that do not interrupt the overall flow of your reading experience. But if the correction takes more than a few seconds? Hands off!

“I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.”
—Gustave Flaubert

Copyright @2017, John Paine


Setting Cues

Economy of expression is sometimes more prized by the reader than the writer. An author who enjoys creating mellifluous sentences can be carried away by describing every sumptuous appurtenance in a kitchen, to give an example. By the time she has reached the steel Braun coffee maker, I’m already skipping over all the other select items.

That’s because, as a reader, I am not a passive drone. I’m actively looking to identify what type of kitchen it is. Two characters could be standing around a kitchen island, and I already have an inkling of what the place is like. If the wife reaches for one of a row of copper pans, I have the place fairly well pegged. I can fill in the Viking stove, 20-cup Cuisinart food processor, etc. A few passing mentions will suffice, so spare me the shopping list.

Setting is still important. If you do not describe where we are, the effect is similar to watching a play without scenery. Yet how long does it take to describe a moribund dentist’s office off Ninth Avenue? A rusty ring in the bowl where you spit out can lead right into the entrance of the seventy-year-old cadaver with the truly awful breath. A bedroom can be mined for several key prompts that tell us what a character is like. If everything, from the bed covers to the curtains, is done in shades of pink, we know the husband is not the master of that domain. Of course, his willing participation in such decorating opens the door to other possibilities.

Setting details can be sprinkled throughout a scene as the characters use them incidentally. If you are selective, you can carefully insert these touches in a way that does not obstruct the ongoing action. They supply continuous mood enhancement while remaining in their proper place: in the background.

Setting, above all, controls mood. It can influence how a character feels, primarily. Yet you can also use setting to sway how the reader feels, as any reader of Edgar Allan Poe is aware. If we already know that a forest is dark and forbidding, the character does not have to comment on the setting at all. We read a passage of dialogue, for instance, tinged with the consciousness that the characters must be glancing over their shoulders for creepy surprises. Precisely because they are not talking about the setting, I am more aware of it.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out for descriptions. If you have laid out a full paragraph of a rich person’s library, see if you can break it up into constituent pieces. Could the walnut bookcase be mentioned when the owner reaches for a book? Could the plush carpet calm the nervous feet of a visitor? Notice, too, that such smaller pieces allow for the point-of-view character to make a remark about them, bringing the reader still further inside your spell.

“It is not necessary to understand things in order to argue about them.”
—Pierre Beaumarchais

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Colored by Emotions

A good novel values point of view above all else. A church basement might sport a ring of chairs for a twelve-step meeting, for instance. Are you going to describe the chairs, or do you envision them through the eyes of a prescription-drug addict who is reluctant to expose himself to the chairs’ occupants? How does he feel when he sits down, seeing his knees are too close to his neighbors’? When you charge a scene with emotion, the reader’s experience of that basement can change radically.

Don’t write as though your character is a tourist. She has an attitude toward each new environment, even if it is as pedestrian as eagerness for the vegetables at Whole Foods. Rather than describing a plastic sack of quinoa, how about telling us her attitude toward the long-haired sixties survivor examining its label? Or her reaction to the sight of their vacuum-packed chicken. What’s with all that plastic?

You want to describe what is unique about the character’s environment, not a bunch of physical markers that anybody with a phone camera can capture. Rather than the dimensions of a room he is entering, describe how the cavernous room makes him feel. Does he have past associations with large rooms? Even a passing sentence of playing in a school gym and being persecuted in dodgeball adds to our knowledge of his personality.

That’s when you know you’ve moved beyond being a spectator. Everything is viewed through a filter that is determined by the character’s mood and past history. Narrating the pink blush inside the blossom of a dogwood petal is good, but how about the character’s feeling so great because it’s spring at last?

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out for descriptive work. If you have descriptions that merely fill out the setting, stop and think about how they affect the character’s mood. Where is she in the novel at this point? How could you use a stray sight to offset her ongoing gloom, for instance? Now you’re using description as part of your character-based arsenal.

“The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Know Your Procedure

As a longtime editor of crime dramas, I have worked with many former police officers. How authentic the story is depends to a large degree on an author’s knowledge of law enforcement routines. You should know them just as you would research any other topic related to your novel.

Police authors often complain that people think knowledge of police procedure can be gained through watching TV. While these shows do their own research, the rules are bent to provide entertainment. You may be amazed by a new technical device featured on CSI, but you should be aware that most municipalities could never afford to buy it. That’s one reason why difficult cases end up being referred to state police agencies, which have greater resources. The FBI may be called in to handle highly specialized duties such as profiling.

Procedure is based on practicality, not potential for glamour. As you may know, most crimes are easily solved. When a detective is assigned the case of a woman murdered in her own home, he consults police logs for any calls on earlier occasions about spousal abuse. That’s because detectives have commonsense rules based on what works best in their profession.

Nor do they rely on eureka moments. I enjoy works written by police officers, but I can’t say that any of them displays any more than a middling genius. They follow their noses because they know, better than the rest of us, that normal people can act irrationally when their world spins out of control.

You need to know what procedures are followed if only because readers who like crime drama will flinch at any false notes. In most towns, you can call a local detective to schedule an interview. Then prepare a list of questions you need answered. You can also consult books on crime procedure, right in the comfort of your own home. I know an author who just attended a weekend seminar on police procedures, such as how to defuse a bomb and how to use chemicals for blood work. Even better, don’t bother relying on an exotic technical procedure. Create an exotic rationale behind the murder.

As for police procedure? TV will not tell you how the drill goes. Get off your behind. Pick up the phone. You may find, after learning about how predictable police officers are, that you sleep better at night.

Exercise: When you review your manuscript, keep an eye out for any law enforcement officials. Examine what they say to a victim’s relative. Is that really what they would say, or are you trying for a Columbo effect? If you turn up any points you’re not sure of, you should find out. Don’t destroy your credibility with the reader because you were lazy.

“If I am a fool, it is, at least, a doubting one; and I envy no one the certainty of his self-approved wisdom.”
—Lord Byron

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


What Is the Rush?

As you transition from your notes and/or character sketches to the actual chapter you want to write, you face choices about when to use this material. The temptation, especially with a minor character, is to use all of the notes at once. After all, you have collected them and they have to get into the book sometime, so why not now?

You may instead want to split up those notes and ladle them out in dollops as the novel goes on. That way you create intrigue by giving incomplete information. Let’s say the protagonist is trying to understand how Annika could have been murdered. She asks her sister Darlene if she had come by Annika’s house on the fatal night. Now, what notes do you have? You had Darlene projected as only a minor character, and you have only a few paragraphs. You could provide all of them at once and eliminate the “Darlene” section from your notes. After all, you know she didn’t kill her sister.

What if you break up the pieces you have, though, and string them out? Maybe Darlene at first says she called Annika that night. In a subsequent scene, however, a neighbor says he saw a car like Darlene’s, identifying three of the last letters that match her license plate, parked in the driveway. Now Darlene has to explain that, in fact, she did visit Annika that night. She just didn’t want the cops to be suspicious unnecessarily. Despite the excuse, the flavor of Darlene’s participation in the novel now is quite different.

You also wrote notes about Darlene’s being seen at a local bar with Annika’s estranged husband, Ron. You had thought that it would misdirect the reader in a minor way—because you know that’s not where the book is headed. Darlene actually agreed to meet him there because he’s such a lush that he heads there straight after work, and she wanted to discuss a birthday party for her niece before he got drunk and belligerent for the evening. You had thought that would prove her innocence. But if the protagonist first hears that Darlene and Ron were drinking together, now Darlene’s cute explanation about the niece takes on a different flavor. Oh, really, that’s what you were talking about?

All you did was break your notes into three pieces. Now someone who was not in the running could be a person of interest, at least for a portion of the book. Isn’t that a better use of your notes?

Exercise: Review your manuscript for any conversations in which a huge chunk of information about a character is spilled out all at once. If you can, break the notes into a number of pieces. Once you have broken them apart, think about how they could be used in conjunction with other plot developments. That clump of passive background notes could become active pieces that help drive the story forward.

“Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world.”
—George Sand

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Ending on the Highest Note

Where you leave a reader at the break before the next chapter has a large influence on whether he will turn the page. This point seems straightforward, but I can’t tell you the number of times that I have enjoyed an exciting chapter, only to feel stranded out in the middle of nowhere at its end. I’m left feeling like the conflict creating the excitement wasn’t really the point of the scene.

To use the imagery of a cliffhanger in a slightly different fashion, think of a chapter as a drive up a mountain until it reaches the edge of a cliff. Focus on way up, not the ending. What matters is the momentum you build in one specified direction. An event as seemingly insignificant as a mother’s scoffing at her daughter’s rough charcoal drawing could be made into a terrible blow if the daughter spent the entire scene beaming inside about how happy it will make her mother.

Conversely, if you have a dynamic piece of action for which there is no build-up, placing it at the end of a chapter is not going to have much impact. The event will come at the reader out of the blue. Let’s say the chapter mainly features two villains arguing over their slice of the take, and suddenly a third villain shoots someone outside the window. Why the heck did he do that? The chapter wasn’t about that. If the action is exciting, then use it as a focal point around which to organize everything leading up to it in the chapter.

If your chapters frequently comprise several scenes apiece, you need to determine the dramatic weight of each of the scenes. To judge when you should end the chapter, write down the event that closes each scene. One sentence, describing what happens. If, for example, the first scene ends with the FBI showing up and confiscating a company’s files, that seems like a pretty high point of drama. But if your next scene follows the company’s owner to his child’s baseball game so that he can talk to his wife about the FBI showing up, that is a piece of lesser action. Don’t end the chapter there. You don’t want a chapter that steps down from one event to another. Keep driving up that mountain.

Exercise: A character’s reaction to an exciting plot event can be moved to the start of the next chapter. This is an ideal place for such material, anyway. Characters discussing an event is not as exciting as the event itself. It is secondhand news, even if an important new plot pursuit emerges from that discussion. Think about that in terms of structure. If a new direction emerges, that constitutes a new start—so it belongs at the start of a chapter.

“Write something, even if it's just a suicide note.”
—Gore Vidal

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Too Far from Friends

In a world where face-to-face communication has been supplemented by contacts through texts, emails, and social media sites, it is not surprising that these modern forms have become increasingly prevalent in fiction. When you stop to think about it, written messages of any type are perfect tools for a writer. A FB post or tweet can convey creepiness or enthusiasm by turns. An email continues the age-old epistolary tradition. A text can add a feeling of urgency.

I have edited novels in which such messaging contributes a great deal of tension. For instance, the gap between a Hollywood star and a stalker was reduced in one book via a series of threatening or bizarre messages. The disturbance caused by remote communication operates on the same principle as the violation of privacy that a person experiences when his home is burglarized. No one is supposed to be allowed in that space. Even better, from a suspense point of view, a book reader is used to being shocked by words written down.

Yet if you are going to step up any form of pressure, the villain had better show up in person. Think about it this way. A child is not just bullied on social media; she also has to show up in school every day. So you need to plot out your story in such a way that what started off as remote becomes intensified by personal encounters. In other words, a series of menacing texts can work as an early-book device—as a preliminary phase of intimidation. Yet you need to move on to more gripping forms of fear in later stages.

If the plot premise involves stalking, let’s say, the desire of the predator to “touch” his victim means you can put increasing obstacles in his way. Police protection is the first mechanism that comes to mind, although a large and/or armed friend would serve the purpose as well. What happens as a result is a heightened struggle around those contacts.  The more the stalker’s desire is thwarted, the more crazy he becomes about fulfilling his desire. That means your story is following a progression from low-level to intense. That’s what you want out of any novel.

Exercise: Messages are treated by book designers as extracts, or indented text. That makes them pop off the page visually at the reader. Review the narrative text surrounding the message. Would some of it be more alarming if you plucked it out of the text and placed it in the extract? Experiment with different pieces and see if you can ratchet up emotion simply by the format in which the material appears on the page.

“The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book.”
—Mickey Spillane

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Albatross Around Your Neck

Once you have finished writing a novel, the notion of writing a sequel can be mighty tempting. Many popular books are part of a series, featuring the same hero, such as Harry Bosch or Kay Scarpetta, and writing that way increases brand recognition. Plus, you already have gone through the process of discovering your characters, so you know them well. What isn’t as apparent at first is how much of a burden a previous book can place on your new book.

What you have already written exerts a pull on you because you realize that so much of it works. You may resurrect some of the burning issues of the first book, because they still inflame you. Let’s take a for-instance. The heroine is a pubescent girl abused by a stepfather, and she hates her mother for turning a blind eye. If the stepfather is killed at the end of the first book, though, how much good is that hatred going to do in the second book? The punishment has already been served. Even worse, the stepfather is no longer around to actively perpetrate his evil.

The problem is, you derive none of the benefits from the first book—the growing tension between the characters—and all of the liabilities. Anyone who hasn’t read the first book will not understand the urgency that you so carefully built in the other book. That means the past operates as a dead weight lugged around by the present-day story.

A sequel needs to develop its own plot lines. What you want is to carry forward a core cast of characters from the first book and employ them in fresh pursuits in the second book. The characters who belonged to the plot of the first book must be jettisoned if they are not active characters in the sequel. For instance, if the mother of the abused girl is not given a new plot pursuit, she’s not worth more than a cameo appearance—a piece of background information.

You are still writing from strength. You still know intimately the small group of characters that are leading book two. But when you are sketching out the plot lines for the book, make sure that those characters are not hovering like carrion birds over what is now a carcass.

Exercise: A reader of a sequel needs background information on your main characters. You can create back stories that summarize what they did in the first book, just as you would insert background pieces for any character. But keep it at that: pieces a half page or a page long that are inserted into a new story.

“The only reason I would write a sequel is if I were struck by an idea that I felt to be equal to the original.”
—Dean Koontz

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Happy Ending

The idea of ending a novel happily displeases many writers. The entire book has been filled with struggles, goes one argument, so why do the heroes get to ride off into the sunset? Others point out that life seldom provides happy endings, so why should a narrative that is trying to mirror life? It may be that you think such an ending is not worthy of your endeavor.

The reason for all the carping is, of course, that readers overwhelmingly favor a happy ending. A novel is meant to affirm life, in this view. If I close the book wanting to kill myself, what good does that do? I already know life sucks. Plus, many readers feel that the heroes deserve a reward after all their trials. If you are employed by a publishing house, your view may be more mercenary. You know that happy endings sell.

For that very reason, I advise most writers to consider a happy ending. Yet I also enjoy novels that are dark, that don’t end well or have endings that are ambiguous at best. It depends on the book.

The true question is: have you been honest enough with your characters that you feel a bleak ending is justified? If you have spent the entire book creating vivid action scenes in which the protagonist is wielding a modern version of the sword Excalibur, you are already committed to flights of fantasy. If you love escapism and entertainment, that’s fine. Just don’t pretend that the novel will somehow become more true to life by tacking on a sad ending.

On the other hand, in Under the Volcano Malcolm Lowry spends the entire book exploring the Consul’s terrible alcoholic journey. A happy ending for that book would be weird. That guy will not be frolicking in the sands of Cancun any time soon. The ending is sad because, the way the story is heading, the Consul has no other way out but death. The power of the novel comes not from its ending, but from everything that has propelled him forward all the way through.

Exercise: If you flinch at happy endings no matter what type of book, you might want to consider writing alternate endings. Writers do that all the time. Using the threads that constitute the core of the novel, run them through happy and sad scenarios. It may be that you end up in the middle, with an ending that is ambiguous. Just be aware that you may, in effect, be shrugging off any moral implications of what the characters did during the book.

“To move the world, we must first move ourselves.”

 Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Blocking Out Initial Places

A common problem novice writers have is failing to think enough about where their characters should be positioned in the first chapter. Life before page 1 might as well be a tabula rasa—because it in fact is a blank slate to the author. Yet in almost all cases, your characters have lived for a number of years before the curtain rises.

Most authors recognize that fact, and they provide background stories—narrative summaries that convey key events in their past. Yet I am constantly surprised by how poorly positioned the characters are at the story’s onset to create immediate excitement—and reader interest in them.

You need to ask yourself, what are the main character’s relationships status quo ante (before the book begins)? What I usually find is that the author knows where the plot begins. A signal event such as a murder occurs, and the story is set in motion. Yet stop to think about what contributes to a novel’s tension besides the galvanizing plot event. It’s the friction between characters. You don’t have to wait for a plot to develop to foment that tension. If chosen wisely, your characters have been at odds for a number of years previously.

What would be the best positions for your main characters as the book opens? What if your hero-heroine duo don’t meet until page 50? You need to devise friction with characters both on the hero’s side and the heroine’s side.

Let’s use the latter as an example. Chrissie has two bratty children, and her husband is coming home later and later these days. So what should Chapter 1 feature? I would advise that you throw that mix right in the reader’s face: status quo ante. The chapter opens with the heroine getting a headache because her two children are yelling at each other about some stupid video game her husband bought. She goes out into the family room to yell at them to shut up—and her husband, befuddled with drink, walks in the door and says, “Dear, dear, why don’t we all calm down?” Sure, this charming scene can’t match up with the excitement of an initial murder, but we do want to find out if the heroine is going to have a fight with her husband. She might even be mad enough to kill the guy.

Exercise: In terms of general principles, there are several useful questions to ask yourself. What antagonistic event happened to the hero two weeks before the murder occurred? Two days before it occurred? Two hours? Can you set up lingering conflict from that event so that his very first scene has a crackling edge in which he is arguing about that event with someone else? Now your knowledge of the character’s past propels him forward right from the start.

“Beware of no man more than yourself; we carry our worst enemies within us.”
—G. K. Chesterton

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Means to an End

The writing of a first draft is an unfolding journey filled with wonderful uncertainty. Even if you have an outline, the characters often don’t go where you thought they would. Their needs in turn can influence how the book develops. Once you have completed the first draft, however, the process is different. Now you know how the book turns out. Not only does each plot thread have an end point, each character arc has an end point. As you start a revised draft, you can combine these two results to accentuate the progress of both.

While rewriting involves a great deal of sentence-by-sentence checking for sentence rhythm, fresh vocabulary, and the like, you can be a craftsperson on a higher plane as well. You can use the concept of end points to strengthen the novel’s overall architecture.  Here I will focus on minor characters, since this technique can be tailored for them so easily.

First, ask yourself: what is the point of a minor character? To support a major character. You can make sure your minor characters are doing their jobs in a deliberate fashion. The key to this technique is starting at a character’s end point first. How does he end up? Then work your way back from there to determine what you want him to contribute in all of the scenes leading up to that end point. This backward-looking technique allows you to pinpoint how he is supporting a major character.

You need to identify in which scenes the minor character makes an impact (as opposed to just being in the background). Let’s say the total is eight scenes. Using the alphabet, that means you work back from Scene H through G, F, E, etc. Draw up a chart in which you start at the bottom. Write a sentence or two that summarizes what the minor character does in that scene. Is she really helping the major character go to where she’s going in that scene? Could you, knowing the end point, make the minor character more forceful? Sly? Distracting?

By the end of this process, you can set up status quo ante factors (i.e., before the book starts) in such a way that dovetail with your new plot aims for the minor character. What was he doing with the major characters in the week before the book opens? The month? All the way back to childhood? Now tell us a few background stories that provide a foundation for your eight scenes in the book.

Exercise: Being an editor, I love plot charts, but how exactly do you draw one up? The key is creating meaningful column headings. Start at the left and make a skinny column titled “Ch” (for Chapter). Next to that create a column wide enough to encompass how many “Pages” (e.g., 342-47) a scene takes. The third column in this chart is a very wide one called “Synopsis.” Write down in a sentence or so what the character does in the scene. Now you have a brief outline of what you need to improve.

“Half my life is an act of revision.”
—John Irving

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Maligned Prologue

A striking cover induces a reader to open a book to page 1. In a literary novel the narrator’s voice alone will draw the reader forward from the first sentence, intrigued by the idiosyncratic point of view. Authors who are first learning the craft, however, cannot rely on this advantage. They instead must rely on a more blunt instrument: forward momentum. In terms of plot dynamics, action propels a story forward. That’s why so many novels employ a prologue—an exciting scene that captures the reader’s attention right away.

Of course, for every good idea in fiction, you can find a school of critics that decries it. I don’t advocate prologues as an axiom—many times they are mishandled—but the impulse behind using one is not wrong-headed. The novel’s opening scene does the job it’s supposed to—lure the reader further into the book.

Far worse is the alternative: a dull opening. Say you have an opening chapter that describes a character engaged in a fairly mundane crisis, strewn with bits and pieces of character description and background. The ending of the chapter trails off, usually inside the lead character’s mind. So a reader is left with the question: Why should I bother turning the page to Chapter 2?

While you must have confidence in yourself as an author, you cannot make the mistake of thinking that advice suitable for an Iowa MFA candidate will work for you. If your protagonist does not have an instantly captivating point of view, you should rely on plot to help you. Lead with action, draw the reader into the book.

If you’re not sure, the best advice I can give you is: read other books. What type of novel do you think you’re writing? Go out and read an author that is regarded as best in class. Read the first page of that novel. Now read your first page. Are you matching up with that wonderful voice? Or do you still have more to learn before you can dominate the page? Don’t be depressed. Just be smart about what you can deliver to the reader.

Exercise: One way to start with a strong pull is moving a scene from later in the book up front. You feature a central crime first, then backtrack to the beginning to unfold why the crime took place. This is a very common narrative structure even for a literary novel. Just make sure you don’t divulge all the great details. Tell a portion of the scene—and tell the rest when you reach the scene again in its chronological place.

“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.”
—Benjamin Franklin

 Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Groundplan

Most Americans who emerge from college think they know it all. That brashness stems partly from the natural exuberance of youth and partly from the general excellence of our institutions of higher education. I often find, however, a strange gap in that all-encompassing knowledge: an ignorance of basic grammar rules. That cause might be attributed to another dominant American trait: the desire to rebel. Grammar belongs to the hoary old days of junior high; it tries to confine your freedom of expression. Rules are made to be broken, right?

Throughout my twenties, when I was primarily a writer, I paid not the slightest attention to grammar. I knew all that stuff—because I basically knew everything. I was blazing new frontiers. I should add that I have since edited authors who are much older but still retain the same loathing for those days of main stems and subordinate clauses.

Like a chameleon, we all change our skin to suit new circumstances. When I first joined publishing, I became a copy editor. That is the person below the rank of an editor, tasked with correcting a manuscript’s spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Many authors hate these creatures. Alice Kahn famously remarked, “It is wonderful that our society can find a place for  the criminally literal-minded.” While I certainly saw extreme pettifogging when I reviewed the work of other copy editors, I was surprised by how often I agreed with them.

What happened to my youthful dreams of freedom? Absolutely nothing. What I came to realize was that grammar rules are ever mutable. Although they can be applied rigidly, they were (and are) developed in the first place as a means to enable people to communicate effectively with others. Why should you use active verbs? Because they most effectively propel your sentence forward. Why should you avoid adverbs? Because you should first examine the sentence to see if you can employ a stronger active verb. All of these tiny calculations are a wonderful aid in helping writers get the maximum force out of every sentence. In the case of grammar, knowledge truly will set you free.

Exercise: How well do you know your grammar? What was the last time you looked at a grammar book? For that matter, what was the last time you looked at Strunk and White? Rather than regarding grammar as a set of rules, you can take their principles as a roadmap as you become more fluent in your writing. Sure, rules are made to be broken, but you should know what they are first. What you may find is that you’ve been following many of the “rules” of grammar all along.

“Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’. Otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”  
—C. S. Lewis

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Beginning, Not End

If a “chapter” in a novel was renamed “story unit,” an author’s conception of its construction would be clarified. A story unit implies that the chapter must make forward progress by the time it ends. Judged in this light, where is the best place for a background story?

At the beginning of a new chapter, you have momentum cresting over the previous chapter break. Yet, in terms of a story unit, the beginning is the chapter’s low point. The reader is catching his breath after the previous chapter. Since background material does not drive a story forward as hard as present action, it is best inserted at this point.

The reader does want to find out more about what makes the book’s main characters tick. While she is catching her breath, she’ll enjoy the greater breadth that background material provides. Plus, she knows that you have the rest of the chapter to create another story obstacle that will provide new plot propulsion.

By contrast, back stories don’t function well as endings of chapters. That means you’re back-stroking the paddle just when you want to position the canoe to jump over the chapter break. One horrible mistake occurs when an author doesn’t know where to put a back story. So he sees an action scene to which the back story relates loosely—and dumps it in after the action. That casts all that fine action into the shade of less exciting material.

I’ve even seen back stories about another subject entirely dumped at the end of a chapter. Yet that means you’re telling us that the entire chapter wasn’t really that important, because now you’ve segued onto some other subject as its ending. The reader is left puzzled—and now that chapter break looks like a good excuse to put the book down. That’s because she doesn’t feel any need to turn to the next chapter. You’ve left her unmoored at the end of a story unit.

Exercise: Look for where your back stories are placed within a chapter. In particular, judge them purely in terms of story momentum. Is the background material competing with the present-day story line? Try lifting the back story out of the chapter and judge the momentum now. Do you see where it’s really starting to catch fire? Place the back story before that point.

“A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.”
—Kenneth Tynan

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Using Others as a Yardstick

The changes that lead to a character’s turning point stem mainly from how he reacts within, but the progression can also be gauged by how others react to him. That’s because a reader is swayed by the opinions of a third party. Unless we are given a reason otherwise, we tend to believe what is written on the page. For example, we can be thinking, as we’re reading, that the protagonist sure likes to spend money, and if another character remarks on it, we feel that our guess is confirmed. That supporting character’s reaction has given us an insight into the lead character.

A friend of the protagonist works well as a gauge in a character arc. After all, who knows how much a person changes better than someone who knows where she started from? The observations made by the friend need not be passive remarks, like commenting on a new haircut. The friend can be upset because the heroine is changing, and they can fight about why she hasn’t stayed in the old-shoe place that the friend found comfortable. A number of these fights can lead to a total break, whether temporary or permanent, which can disturb both the protagonist and the reader.

A stranger that the protagonist gets to know can perform the same function. Although his remarks, or looks, operate on a less-informed level, a stranger also is less encumbered by the preconceptions of a longtime friendship. So if your hero finds himself trying to solve the murder of his sister, a private detective he hires can show progressive reactions to the increasingly bold things that the hero says. “Whoa, slow down, Junior.” A half dozen of these remarks over the course of the book can be very useful markers for the reader.

Such work can be overdone. If you’re trying to explain how Clark Kent transformed into Superman, remarks about how amazing the new Superman is can be distrusted by the reader. That’s the equivalent of a character’s continuing to be somehow fascinated by a speech that utterly bores the reader. Understatement works better, slipping in subtle hints that the heroine we thought we had pegged is blossoming into someone unexpected.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out for supporting characters that appear in a number of scenes with your protagonist. What is the supporting character’s original view? As you keep flipping through pages, keep track of your protagonist’s arc. How could the supporting character help us understand the evolution? See if you can insert a dozen reactions that chart the changes.

 “It's a damn good story.  If you have any comments, write them on the back of a check.”
—Erle Stanley Gardner

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Lost in the Proceedings

When you create a character who will have a significant impact in your novel, one of the first considerations is when he should be introduced. Most authors give such a character an early start, mainly because he is needed to helm his associated plot line. Setting up your major players early also means we have time to get to know them during the course of the book. The longer the character arc, the more involved the reader becomes.

What happens, however, if you have a key character who by structural necessity cannot appear in the early going? This could happen, for instance, if she is a doctor in a remote village that others realize they must visit. That character runs the risk of being treated as an also-ran. After all, the author didn’t bother to introduce her until page 200, so why should the reader bother being interested in her?

In this case, proper positioning is vital. The biggest disservice a writer can do to this johnny-come-lately is to bury him within a scene populated by characters the reader already knows well. By this point we have likely settled on our favorites, who can easily elbow aside a new character. Often he gets lost among the multitude, and by the time I realize he is supposed to be important, I’m having a difficult time trying to remember how he fits within the web of the novel. Maybe the readers of your novel are more perspicacious, but I wouldn’t count on it.

The best way to point up a latecomer is introducing her at the start of a chapter. That placement is an announcement of sorts. We’re fresh off a chapter break, and some new person is leading a scene’s charge. She’s receiving quite a lot of attention . . . and now she’s linking up with a character I know pretty well . . . hey, I guess I should pay attention to her too.

Following up a strong beginning, you can have that character start off a few more chapters shortly afterward. The more he associates with players we know are important, the better he will recover from his late start. Over the course of the next 100 pages, that character can gradually assume his rightful stature.

Exercise: You can’t force love. Just because you know the character will be important later doesn’t mean the reader has the same assumption. Treat the new character first as an appendage off a main character. Use her association with that known quantity to get the reader interested in her—because we’re interested in any character who interacts with the people we’ve grown to know. Then the friend of our friend can become something more.

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.”
—Flannery O’Conner

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Elevate Your Walk-ons

Part of a writer’s job consists of exploring ways to enhance the dramatic impact of a plot event. Depending on the type of novel you are writing, you may have a number of plot events that contain the potential for a very moving scene. The question is: who is impacted by the event?

To show how to use a logical train of thought to reap emotional rewards, I’ll use a single running example. Let’s say a ferry riding through a storm capsizes in the enormous waves. In this case, the author’s starting point is: crowds of people falling from the decks, the clamorous shouts for loved ones, and a number of other stirring details.

Yet who is at the center of this emotional turmoil? The story’s power would be increased exponentially if a character that we cared about was on that boat. It might be a child, call him Josh, placed on the ferry by a father, the book’s protagonist, desperate to get his son off an island. Right away the emotional import of the capsized ferry is drastically altered. Because Josh is important to the hero, he is important to the reader.

Now backtrack from that harrowing scene of capsizing. If Josh appears in a handful of scenes with his father before he boards the ferry, we get to know him. Josh matters to us, because the author has pushed him in front of us and made him matter. Plus, the benefits are dual-pronged. Not only do we sit on the edge of our seat as Josh thrashes about in the storm-whipped waves. We also empathize with the father once he learns the ferry has sunk. Back and forth, scene after scene in two plot lines are laden with emotional freight.

Once this change is made, the next issue is: how can Josh be sustained? In other words, once the boy is out on his own, he now is the leader of his own plot line. What should that mean to you, as the author? Immediately you have to start thinking: how can I elevate other walk-ons to support Josh? Granted, the boy could latch onto a spar and float by his lonesome, but it would be far easier to give Josh a companion via which to contrast his fear and/or bravery.

More than one might mean a lifeboat, and Josh is hauled up onto it by a few wind-tossed, soaked survivors. Now you need to give them names, so Josh can interact with them. After all, you elevated Josh from a crowd. Now you must elevate his supporting character(s). They have a key role to play now. Josh’s interactions with them will keep him vital to the reader until he is rescued at last.

Exercise: If you have a dramatic plot event, see if you can plausibly place a major character at the heart of it. If not, give the protagonist a loved one or the like to serve that purpose. If you have to backtrack from the event to make this new character matter to the reader, is that such a hardship?

“Tell the readers a story! Because without a story, you are merely using words to prove you can string them together in logical sentences.”  —Anne McCaffrey

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Daily Journal

I frequently enjoin writers to write every day. That practice maintains the vital whispering link between you and your book. Yet every writer has days when he wakes up feeling flat and empty. The mere thought of leaping into your made-up world brings on an irrational resistance. No, just N-O. I don’t feel like it today.

That’s where maintaining a journal can come in handy. Writing about what happened to you the day before isn’t hard. Or, you can remember a past moment of humiliation, maybe a month ago, vividly enough. Or, you may have seen a stark image, say, how low the embankment wall of the Boston Public Garden pond is when it is drained in the winter. That is the beauty of a journal. You’re not on task when you write in it. You’re not worried that the crappy way you’re writing today is going to be seen by anyone. Best of all, you may find that some of the personal material is serviceable for your book if you just reshaded it to fit.

The journal also provides a fall-back option that helps maintain your confidence. If you’re having a tough time getting started, at least you don’t have to quit in failure, which can bother you for the rest of the day. Maybe you can write about a funny thing that happened to your best friend in high school. Halfway through, you realize that the anecdote might be retailored to fit a character in your novel. As an added benefit, you have that relaxed, charming narrative voice as you related it to your journal.

A journal can be seductive, however. Maundering on about your day, such as the hurtful thing Jane said when she really doesn’t know Kim very well at all, can end up being a replacement for writing. Because a journal isn’t meant for public consumption, your prose can be unstructured. Your “characters” are not well defined—because you know them so well. They don’t have to be interesting, and there is nothing urgent about a chance meeting in the supermarket.

That’s why you want to keep your eye on the prize. Use the journal as a way to prime the pump. You might start by writing down an argument you had with your mother on the phone yesterday. Relive the intensity of those emotions. But keep in mind that a journal is supposed to be a collection of thoughts you are going to use in this story or in future stories. Even in the relaxed confines of private material, you are still trying to write about interesting topics.

Exercise: Set a limit on how long you will write about personal material, maybe 15-20 minutes. Then turn back to the novel and see if you feel any looser. Often the biggest hump on a blocked day is getting out the first sentence. Once your fingers are pumping, see if you can train them back on your greater purpose.

“Inspiration does exist, but it must find you working.”
—Pablo Picasso

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Meaning of the Word Surfeit

The tall man wearing a velvet blue ascot, Harold, standing next to his wife with a line of rings on one ear, Madeleine, offers his hand to shake. In the next paragraph we are introduced to Moe and Sheila, an adorable couple from Seaside, don’t you know? Then Henry and Gretchen come strolling in on top of the next page, athletic and strategically underdressed for the occasion. Do you see what is happening? I’m already forgetting about Harold and . . . what was her name? I’m flipping back to check. Madeleine, that’s it . . . now, where was I? What’s going on in this scene, anyway?

The impulse behind gathering all of your main characters in an introductory scene seems logical. Once the reader meets them, they can all go on their separate ways, pursuing their various plot lines—but we know they’re all connected. The only problem with this idea is that a reader does not have the same familiarity with the personages as you do.

When you start Harold’s plot line, several chapters later, the reader has probably already forgotten who he is. After all, Sheila was a very funny gal, and her plot line started in the very next chapter. So the reader may be left wondering, as she reads about Harold, why she should be bothering to read about him. You’re thinking, “I introduced him already, back in that scene,” but that was 20 pages ago. A lot, hopefully, has happened in 20 pages.

What I’ll call the launch meeting format does not work well in novels. In the early stages a reader is looking for reasons why he should read your book, not for your sparkling ability to quick-sketch character types. As the book progresses, you only have time to develop a handful of main characters. Single them out at first; have each one perform a piece of action that stirs our interest.

Once we can pick each of their faces out in a crowd, throw that party. Then see what happens. Knowing already that Henry is a dolt, we’ll want to know why Madeleine would marry him. From the very start of the scene we are laughing at what Sheila says, because we already know how funny she is. We’re interacting at the party, because we know where our core interests lie. You’ve pointed them out to us.

Exercise: The all-in-your-face-at-once approach occurs frequently in political novels. Don’t assume that “Defense Secretary” connotes any special meaning, because it doesn’t. Review all of the scenes in that plot line. How have you introduced us to your key players? We don’t have to meet everyone in an initial Cabinet meeting. Before that conclave, have the President meet individually those selected members we should follow.

“Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.”
—E. L. Doctorow

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Your Golden Hour

You should pick one time that you are going to write. No matter how long you run on any given day, always start at that time. That way you know, no matter how great or lousy you feel, that time is sacred. Picking a single time also creates a good habit. Your writing time becomes part of your regular routine. It’ll undoubtedly be the hardest part of your routine. Many days you won’t feel like writing. You won’t have the right energy. That’s why imposing a schedule is so important.

Many would-be writers don’t have the luxury of free time. You can’t quit your day job on a promise that someday in the hazy future your novel will be published. Believe me, I understand. Except for a few early years when I worked part-time to support my writing, I have worked a 40-hour week for most of my career. So I’m not sitting on some lofty throne in academia handing out advice that is impossible to achieve in real life. I know very well how commuting on a daily basis can grind you down to a sullen husk.

You can feel ground down—or you can decide that you can rise above your boring day. That’s why you want to write, isn’t it? I can’t tell you how many evenings I’ve looked back, and the period I spent writing was the only satisfying portion of that day. Sure, writing is hard work, but when you keep at it, you’ll find that over time, you feel like a much bigger person. You’re the one who keeps plugging into that electrical charge. You’re the one who’s fulfilling her creative urges.

Let’s look at your workday from the perspective that you are determined to find free time. If you stop to consider how much time you waste—watching television, surfing the internet, arranging appointments that you could just as easily tap into your phone on the commuter train tomorrow morning—making a commitment of a spare hour a day becomes easier. You’re going beyond a to-do list. You are stepping up to the plate to declare that your writing counts.

Exercise: Experiment with different times of the day. Try out the early morning for a week. Does losing that extra hour of sleep make you feel like you want to strangle someone at work? Try out the evening. Do you feel too worn out from the day? Could you commit to drawing up outline ideas on the commuter bus? Can you write on a plane? You’ll never know until you try. You may surprise yourself by what feels right for you.

“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”        
—Mary Heaton Vorse

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Casting Back

Editing material is more comforting than creating it. You can attach yourself to a rhythm that is already flowing across the page. Writers spend countless hours hunt and pecking through a scene, adding tidbits that can add up to much more vividness overall.

One great way to create stronger character continuity during the editing phase is to have your character refer to plot events that just occurred. Before starting a scene, you review what happened in the scene before it. In particular, what happened to the lead character? How would she feel afterward (i.e., how would you feel afterward)? Does that event remind her of other events that occurred earlier in the story, and how does she feel about them now?

You can stretch further than this. Did the event remind her of an event that happened before the book started? In other words, could it spur a background piece that fills our her character? Or, did the event touch upon a prominent personal characteristic, such as pride, that now has her reassessing her very self?

This process of burrowing down into the past events of the book happens because you have gotten to know your lead characters. You know how they will respond in a given situation. What you may not have included during an earlier phase of writing is how they bounce around among the bumpers (as in pinball) you have constructed for them. If Howie made a mean comment, Lynn can think about it in retrospect, turning over what he really meant by that. By bouncing off that comment, Lynn may come up with a new revelation she hadn’t considered.

That ball of thoughts, and many others that can spring from a past event, also helps to  determines the character’s attitude in the scene you are presently reviewing. Now you are not only adding bon mots during the editing process; you are making them personal to your characters.

Exercise: As you review the previous scene, think about how the plot event would affect the lead character. Write down how it would affect you. Now take the next step. Keep reading the scene and see if that reaction fits how he’s acting now. When you can, insert a few references to that past event. By the time you’re done aligning the scene with the past, you’ll also be that much further inside the character’s head.

“I'd rather tinker with a story after writing it, and then tinker some more, changing this, changing that, than have to write the story in the first place.”
—Raymond Carver

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Break for Emphasis

In commercial fiction, where to break for a new chapter is one of more important structural concerns an author has. Unless you employ very short chapters as a rule, you need to watch how to construct a chapter that contains multiple scenes. I should point out, to start, that any chapter structure works as long as it is used consistently. If you set up a pattern of 4-5 page chapters, the reader gets used to that rhythm. Conversely, if you set up a pattern of chapters that each has 4-5 scenes, the reader falls into that rhythm. What doesn’t work is an author mechanically stringing scenes together within a chapter because each one is supposed to contain X number of scenes.

The problem with the multi-part chapter lies in what might be called: diminished by the tide. In other words, each scene creates an emotional wave. That wave ebbs as the reader becomes interested in the following scene, and so on throughout the chapter. If a major plot turn occurs in Scene 2, that wave should be important. Yet the reader responds to your signals. If you immediately follow that scene with another one, that tells him: oh, I guess it wasn’t so important, because it’s just another scene in this chapter.

The even worse sin is muddying the emotional impact of a key plot turn with a following scene that features a less important event. The reader ends the chapter remembering that minor event better. That’s because a chapter break can allow her time to reflect on what happened during the chapter. Yet the reader isn’t a dummy. She knows which plot turns affect her most powerfully. So why, she may ask, did the author bury that event in the middle of the chapter?

White space on a page can be the exclamation point for a key plot event. As a bookstore browser, you probably are well aware that each chapter break represents an opportunity to put down the book. Yet if the emotional impact of a scene is strong enough, the reader turns the page. The tide, in effect, carries the reader over the break. So when you have key events, make the event stand out by placing the scene at the end of the chapter. That way its emotional impact will linger in the reader’s mind.

Exercise: If you like longer chapters that contain multiple scenes, go through your draft and make one-sentence summaries of every scene. When you are finished, look at the list and assign a rough value to the scene’s importance: 1, 2, or 3. Do you have any 1’s in the middle of a chapter? If so, see if you can work the timing of the scene so that it comes last in the chapter. Or, make it a stand-alone chapter.

“Success comes to a writer, as a rule, so gradually that it is always something of a shock to him to look back and realize the heights to which he has climbed.”
—P. G. Wodehouse

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


What Are Bones

As an editor, I make a living from cutting text. So I know better than most that an attempt to strip away fat risks cutting into the bone. The problem is, how do you tell one from the other? While some decisions are subjective, depending on a person’s taste, I overcome this problem to a large extent by making a few value judgments.

The first is the dramatic weight of each character. You probably know your top five characters, but what about the ones that fall outside that top tier? You can run an easy test to determine each character’s value to the book. Go through the manuscript and make a rough count of the pages in which the characters actively make a difference in the story line. Exclude mere mentions or scenes in which they are part of the background. Once you see the totals, you can make a sensible decision about which ones could be pared back or excised altogether. Cutting out the minor scuffling can save a ton of pages.

A harder decision involves characters that interact with the book’s protagonist. In general, you want to keep all of your hero’s scenes. Yet you can use the same measuring stick with the characters interacting with him. How much of a difference does a scene make in the book? Those scenes that have less impact on the main plot—such as phone calls home to mom, written to show the main character’s personal side—might be mostly changed from full dialogue-driven scenes into narrative summaries, taking up a paragraph. Scenes with colorful cameos, such as drunken college friend Claire, might be dropped altogether. Maybe you can develop Claire into a major character for your next book.

A third option is a main character’s minor plot lines. You know where she’s going in general, but what about the side trips along the way? If she’s trying to solve who killed her sister, for instance, how much time are you spending on her visits to the police station to hear the indifferent detective report the same lack of progress? One scene of no progress is plenty; summarize the rest in a paragraph apiece. Or, does she continue to probe a suspect when the plot developments have clearly moved beyond that initial logic? You should cut back those later scenes to the essentials. Finally, how much space is being devoted to background information about characters whose importance is tangential? Are all of those background stories, even the ones involving the heroine, really providing that much illumination?

Exercise: Judging according to a character’s plot function sounds mechanical, but what your characters do for your story line constitutes the book’s bones. If Aunt Mathilda is merely cute and funny, adding local color, she isn’t a big loss. If Aunt Mathilda keeps doing things that make her vital, then you’d better hold back.

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
—Scott Adams

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Example Proves the Rule

This principle is an important aspect of the effort an author must make to concentrate. Picking one example is often the best way to illuminate the spirit of the whole. That’s because a reader can recognize nuances of the individual instance, whereas a reference to a trend can remain too general to grasp.

Let’s start with a train of thought, one of the most difficult tasks a novelist must accomplish. Consider the sentence: “Irene was so sick of her job.” That statement, in itself, is not bad. We all can identify with that. Yet it’s also undefined, a widely made claim that doesn’t really move us. Does that mean she’s a chronic complainer? That’s a lot different from a woman browbeaten by a boss who “inadvertently” touches her.

Stop and step down to the next lower level. What is her single biggest problem with her job? Now expand on that idea: who is implicated in that issue? What are the particular circumstances that bring it about? In other words, use the one specific idea as a wedge to open the entire subject. Let your mind go and enumerate all the details that make her sick of that one aspect of her job. Let’s say her commuter bus is frequently crowded by the time it reaches her corner, and she often has to stand. Now I, as the reader, can identify with that. I know how much I’d hate to stand.

This same method of couching general statements around a specific incident applies to character development. Let’s say, to stay with the job motif, you’re writing a novel about Wall Street greed. The hero, Allen, has joined a hedge fund run by Jared. Rather than saying, “Jared was legendary for making brilliant trades,” could you focus on one trade in particular? Take your time to bring the example to life—with Jared’s overconfidence in the outcome, as opposed to Allen’s doubt about how money could possibly be made. Who did Jared talk to just before he made the trade? What has that person gloatingly said to Allen?

Now you can expand to that string of Jared’s strange triumphs. What, in passing, were the circumstances of those trades? If one person keeps showing up during the process, could Allen wonder if he’s behind the trades? In other words, the example proves the rule because you can define Allen in terms of the characters grouped around that one deal. Even though Wall Street usually bores me, I’m interested because I want to know how Allen fits in that menagerie.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye for general statements and change them to specifics. You only want to pick the most illuminating. We don’t need a full run-down on what Casey buys at the grocery store for her family of four. In other words, don’t expand on mundane material. Just pick out the most telling points you want to make. Then group your thoughts around those nuggets.

“Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.”
—E. L. Doctorow

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Way of Pedestrians

In a world filled with workshops and writing coaches, I am frequently beset with the outcomes of what may have begun as sage advice. Avoid adverbs like the plague. Don’t ever use the word “said.” Forms of the verb “to be” should always be replaced with an active verb. One of the more baleful results comes about from the dictum to paint a textual picture.

While I am an advocate of the telling detail, what usually emerges from the fair cabin hideaway is a profusion of details about common pursuits. It is not enough to write: “She walked down the street.” Details are added to create greater accuracy: “She walked down the sidewalk on the side of the street.” Now, I ask you, how is the second version superior to the first? As a reader, we assume that people walk down sidewalks and sidewalks are located to the side of a street. So yes, the setting is more detailed, but the added details are wasting our time.

Let’s return to the phrase “telling detail.” That means: what sets the sidewalk apart from others? It could be a “cracked sidewalk,” in which case you might add that the town where your hero lives saw its heyday in the 1970s, before the crankcase plant was shut down. That would tell me something. The character could be walking not on the sidewalk but in the road, a popular suburban practice (especially with baby strollers) that separates the younger generation from the less free older one.

Adding details in writing can be likened to adding details to an anecdote told at a party. If the storyteller is explaining why she was an hour late—an hour late!—in picking up Henry from practice, we don’t necessarily want to learn the details about how late her own mother used to be, or the old jalopy she used to drive, or commentary about women of that generation. The listener is likely to experience the mental equivalent of tapping her toe.

Details of the written sort operate the same way. We don’t want to know that the character opened the car door, slid into the bucket seat, put the key in the ignition, cranked the engine, and then put the lever in reverse. All that stuff could be skipped. What I want to know is: did she nearly back out into a passing car? Why didn’t she look that way? Does that indicate something about her mental state because of a terrible thing that just happened?

What tends to be forgotten once beyond the hallowed precincts of writing advice givers is the best advice you’ll ever be given. Use details to define character. You want to get inside your hero’s head? Make his world revolve around him. Everything that helps us to know him better is a detail worth including.

“Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret.”
—Matthew Arnold

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.