Ordinary Implants

When an author is trying to add depth to characters, increasing the number of their thoughts is a common technique. Readers marvel at how well a character’s thoughts echo our own, but how is that possible? To a degree, the credit goes to the author’s acuity of concentration. Yet one ingredient in the mixture can be mastered by any author: observation of what occurs day-to-day. Even better, you can use the quotidian details as a launching point for more distinctive insights.

For an author, “a life observed” is a maxim. You should be writing down all sorts of sights, smells, observations, etc., as you go through your daily routine. If you don’t, they remain in the province of hazy thoughts. Without them, your characters remain more hazy—because you are not inviting the reader to share those details.

I’ll use a trifling example to show what I mean. “He was so tired, it took him three tries to realize all of the toothpaste was at the bottom of the tube.” We have all experienced the exasperation of this common annoyance. The reader can identify, which means he is invited to participate.

Describing an everyday object is only the starting point, though. This is where so many writers fall short. An obstacle is identified from a clinical standpoint. The observer might as well be a robot. In real life we have thoughts, however fleeting, that guide how we view an object.

In the case of the toothpaste, you need to make associations. Who else uses that tube? If it’s the character’s husband, is he guilty of never squeezing from the bottom of the tube? Does this reflect a general neglect of domestic duties that drives the character crazy? Spinning off from there, does that mean the character is a neat freak? Is she sick of her husband in general and because of that notices the toothpaste? The word “always” looms into view: “he’s always . . .”

The annoyance about toothpaste, which isn’t really worth remarking upon, can lead to observations that help define a lead character and those around him. The one sentence of observation can provide a springboard for a sentence or a paragraph of associated reflections. That’s where your growth as a writer comes. You can refine those reflections into a viewpoint on life that is unique.

Exercise: Modern technology has proved a tremendous boon for a writer. You are no more than a click away from dictating your observations of a striking detail. You don’t have to be literary on the spot. Just get the thing down on paper, as it were. Once you’re back at your desk, the real can become fused with the imagined.

“There isn't any such thing as an ordinary life.”
—L. M. Montgomery

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Sufficient Prologue

A novel tends to be more slowly paced in the first third of the book. That’s because you have to introduce the major characters and give us some idea why we should care about them. Knowing their novel needs a compelling opening, many writers resort to an action-filled prologue. A deranged killer stalks an increasingly frightened young woman, or the like. With the scene-ending murder or other high point of drama, the reader is forced to turn the page to see how the novel will resolve the injustice.

If you want to do this, though, you can’t skimp on the effort. I see prologues that are a half page, a page, or maybe two pages long. Some action is instantly foisted upon me, and some terrible thing happens to a character I don’t know at all. Then the chapter’s over. I’m left wondering: Who was that masked man? Why in the world should I care about the perp or the victim?

Worse, I feel like the prologue has been dashed off, then stuck up front. I can almost hear the writer saying to herself, “Okay, I did what they said.” The problem is, the worst example of her writing has been placed at the most crucial juncture of the book, right at the beginning. If that opening half page doesn’t grab me, odds are good that I’m not going to bother reading the rest of the book.

The author has realized the imperative but then failed in the execution. A prologue needs to function as its own little story. You give us someone to care about, placed in a precarious situation that is developed fully enough that we feel nervous, and then something bad happens. Beginning, middle, and end. Can you do that in a half page? I never say never, but why don’t you give yourself a break? Think in terms of a minimum of five pages. That’s about how long a typical action scene is. Why should a prologue be different?

Exercise: The longer a bookstore browser holds your book in her hands, the better the chance she will buy it. If you have created a very short prologue, think about ways that you could fill out what the affected character does before you crank up the tension to ten. What is he thinking, at a dozen different points, before you kick into high gear? Think of it this way: the reader needs a reason to care about the victim in order to want justice for him.

“Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people.”    
—W. C. Fields

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Show, Don’t Talk

As any reader of commercial fiction knows, dialogue dominates the proceedings. Up to 90 percent of the content of bestsellers consists of characters discussing the charged situation they find themselves in. Dialogue is a frothy form of narrative, and that suits the mood of the weary commuter or squinting beachgoer just fine. Light reading to pass the time: that is a tried and true formula for success.

When that same reader decides to write his own book, it is not surprising that he emulates that style. Dialogue is easy to write, after all. It suits the time needs of many hobbyists, since a few pages can be ripped off in a matter of minutes. It also can be produced even when a person is worn out after a day of work. She can read the results on the weekend, when she has a block of free time, and discover: hey, this stuff is pretty good. 

You may, however, forgive John Grisham for not quaking in his boots just yet. As anyone in any other field of endeavor knows, a prize easily won may not be esteemed as highly by others. Any author needs to put her work in context. I have had conversations in which the person I was talking to somehow felt the office manual she had written was in the same league as the novel I was editing. By way of analogy, would you regard chatter in a supermarket aisle as equivalent to a Ruth Bader Ginsburg talk at the 92nd Street Y? Of course not. 

While office mates can get away with strange conflations of relative values, you have a tougher audience. The person reading your book has likely read dozens of books in your field. Are you really matching up with your favorite author? Entertaining a reader is hard work. 

A fictional conversation works best when it discusses either a plot event that just happened or an event about to happen. In other words, dialogue usually does not drive a story. You need to walk the talk—and that means devising a plot in which the characters are more than armchair quarterbacks. Sure, they do a lot of talking—deep inside a mine in Uganda. Or in a back aisle in WalMart while they’re stuffing sock packs inside their coat liners. Put them in danger first, then see what they have to say as the missile is about to launch.

Exercise: Review the stretches of dialogue in the manuscript. After each one, write down, in one sentence, what the conversation was essentially about. That is a plot point. When you have finished, read down your list and see what your story is really accomplishing. If too many conversations revolve around the same plot points, you need less talk and more doing.  

“A lot of good arguments are spoiled by some fool who knows what he is talking about.” 
—Miguel de Unamuno

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine



What Has Happened Lately?

In trade publishing, nearly all nonfiction books are sold through a marketing document called a proposal. While space limits discussing all of its sections, an essential one is the first section a prospective agent or editor reads: the Overview. In 3-5 pages you need to encapsulate what your book is about, including its selling points. If the Overview doesn’t capture the publishing professional’s interest, she probably won’t bother reading the rest of the proposal.

Because most nonfiction authors write about what they know well—usually developments in their profession—their passion for the subject shines through the prose. Many an author knows he is part of a long continuum, building on the shoulders of giants before him. That thorough knowledge suffuses the material.

Once the first draft of the Overview is written, an author is advised to stop and ask herself one question: what does the agent or editor know about the topic? Most people who work in publishing specialize in a certain area, or a few main areas. So they also know all of the works written by the previous giants. They rightly believe that a reader will choose a book written by an established authority rather than one by a newcomer.

How do you distinguish yourself in a crowded field? Your best advantage is the span of time that separates your book from theirs. Let’s say you want to write about teenage girls gaining self-confidence. A giant in that field is Raising Ophelia, published in 1995. That gives you 20 plus years of new developments in the field since the book was written. Right away you can start listing landmark clinical studies and school programs that have occurred since then. Does your book cover those new developments?

You have to take a further step, though. What other best-selling books in your field have come out since then, even if they build directly on the shoulders of Ophelia? Let’s say a book came out in 2010. Do the selling points you’re including sound a lot like the main points of that book? Then you’re still in danger of sounding like me-too. What has happened in the seven years since then? Can you find 4-5 points—which hopefully include your original contributions—that are fresh?

Exercise: Amazon.com is a good place to go to compare books. Each title has a blurb, and often an Inside Look, that lists its main selling points. If you wish to go deeper, type in the book title and then “review.” Some critic out there will provide what is essentially a synopsis of the selling points. Once you have drawn up a list of them, check that against the list of your points.

“People are in such a hurry to launch their product or business that they seldom look at marketing from a bird's-eye view and they don't create a systematic plan.”
—Dave Ramsey

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Checking Yourself

Creating authenticity in a character demands careful thought. This effort extends over a wide range of writerly issues, from dialogue that rings true to inner thoughts that a reader shares. Maintaining a reader’s trust is hard enough when you’re writing about people you know well. What happens, however, when you need to include characters of a different race or ethnicity?

This point was driven home to me while watching the superb documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Using the words of James Baldwin, the film points out how little white America knew about their black brethren in the 1960s and how little it continues to know today, even after electing a black president. Based on the manuscripts I read, I would venture to say that same willful ignorance extends to Latinos, Native Americans, and so on.

We think we know. Everyone is bombarded with cultural messages all day long. From advertisements to TV shows to the news cycle, we imbibe the novel perspectives of diverse people. I would even say we require fresh viewpoints in order to keep from being bored. Yet why is it that when I read about a black detective, say, I don’t sense any hint of suspicion toward his white peers? Or the Latino husband that must have a mistress and seven squalid kids at home?

How does an author stand in the shoes of such a character? You have to dig deeper. There are plenty of sources beyond the surface impressions gained through exchanges in the breakroom or through the TV screen. By way of analogy, I discovered at an early age that I learned more about a foreign country through novels by native authors than all of the news reports ever produced. Extending that idea, why not start the search with Native Son?

What makes this type of exploration difficult is that the story, if it’s any good, sweeps you away. The experiences and feelings of humankind are common to a large degree. You have to force yourself to read with intent. In my experience, the length of such bouts of concentration is maybe five pages—before you get caught up. But distinct impressions about a character’s attitude toward a range of subjects can be gleaned. You can then inform these permanent attitudes with temporary feelings that you yourself have felt.

Exercise: Fear is the predominant feeling emphasized in the movie. Fear of the white man. When you consider such a stamped-in attitude for your character, ask yourself: how many forms does fear take? It can make a person bite her tongue, but it can also, in a crisis, flare into anger. If you use that range in the different scenes for your character, maintaining the constancy of fear is not as hard.

“Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity.”
― James Baldwin

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Mean Today

As anyone knows, we are not always in command of our moods. “He woke up on the wrong side of the bed” is the most common expression related to the phenomenon. These inexplicable shifts—I am a stranger to myself—pose a mystery. What are the contributing factors? Are biorhythms to blame? A forgotten dream during the night? For the more superstitious, has someone stuck a pin in my poppet?

For a fiction writer, this inscrutable change is difficult to capture. That’s because you are making stuff up anyway, and laying the blame for someone acting out of character on a “bad mood” can seem like manipulation of the reader. Oh, I see, the will of the wisp, eh? Worse is trying to provide an explanation for the behavior. No matter how labored, it still seems like an excuse. Oh, that’s why I’m supposed to swallow it?

A better method is setting up a set of circumstances that the mood is violating. In a basic model, the character herself notices a sudden flare-up in temper, for example, and scolds herself. There was no reason to get so upset over something so trifling. In other words, the mood becomes real because the character is shown fighting herself, trying to gain control. Yet when the morning really goes off the rails, e.g., when she finally tells her boss to stop using his small brain, you have provided a plausible setup. She’s been spending the last X number of pages trying to curb her dangerous mood.

Another model that works is intoxication with a mood. A character who is habitually gloomy is walking to work and realizes, hey, the sun is shining. She is caught up in the freshness of her perception. She gives money to the filthy beggar on the corner of her office building. She gaily greets her secretary, who instantly wonders what he’s done wrong. Only gradually, because life will grind away at any mood, does she revert to snappishness.

You can exploit a character who exerts rigid control over his life. Take a man who disclaims emotions because everything to him is rational. This is a sucker waiting to fall—more accurately, to spiral out of control. Moods are irrational, and anyone who pretends otherwise is merely clamping a lid on a boiling pot. At some point, pow! The lid blows into the fan hood and let’s see what bubbles out. Entire novels have charted the course of a character set free from the strictures of his old life, so you can manage the mood of one morning.

Exercise: When you have a plot event that seems implausible, see if you can arrange the mood of the main character involved. That means backtracking from the event in order to set it up. Look at the character’s main qualities, then subvert one of them—and make her conscious of how strange it is.

“Nothing helps a bad mood like spreading it around.”
—Bill Watterson

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Moving On

Losing at love is a common topic for a romantic plot line. That’s because the fall from a state of bliss creates anguish, which is an ideal way to foment ongoing tension in a character. Remembering the good times makes use of time shifts, a narrative technique that readers enjoy. In many cases, the unhappiness is succeeded by a new attempt at love, and the mistrust engendered by the past partner creates trust issues with the new one. As a plot premise, a broken heart has to be rated as A+.

What works well as a book opens, however, can become depressing, even annoying, as the story ventures forward. Part of the reason is that despair is bleak, and there is only so much of it a reader can take. We already know life sucks; why do you think we’re escaping into a book? Hand in hand with this feeling, a novel usually holds out a reason to hope. There is a way to higher ground, if only the character can find it.

Another reason is stagnation. Once the initial circumstances of the past love affair—the winning ways of the partner, the relief from prior loneliness, the fun escapades shared—are laid out, often over a lengthy course, maybe a few hundred pages, a character can be increasingly seen as running in place. Get over it already. Don’t you see that new guy likes you? Are you blind?

This growing perception is driven by the forward momentum of other characters in the novel. They are getting somewhere in their quests, and thereby they draw a reader’s interest. By contrast, a character still moping becomes a less desirable plot line to follow. With that character, the second verse is the same as the first. And the third. And the fourth . . .

An author often responds to this urgency by cutting down on background scenes, limiting the past thoughts to a paragraph or two before pushing forward into the present. In some ways, this transition period is worse—because that sort of work is distant storytelling. We’re not even getting a fully realized scene anymore. Even if it occurred in the past, at least the reader can immerse himself in it.

A better tack may be to transfer the bitterness caused by the old lover onto the new one. The sourness becomes a distorted prism through which the present is viewed, one that is broken by the growing realization that love rules all, even a new, not as amazing, love. However tempered, it does represent forward progress.

Exercise: Once the original scope of the past love is laid out, over the course of a few scenes, mix in the new love interest. Give the reader some hope, even if the light is all the way at the other end of the tunnel. By halfway through, the past can be intermixed with the present—by the new partner demanding to be taken seriously.

“I think about you. But I don't say it anymore.”
—Marguerite Duras

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Use of You

In many fields of nonfiction, authors combine a mixture of facts and theories to create a series of convincing points. The art of persuasion needs to be employed because you are staking out new ground, going beyond accepted norms. Depending on how many facts you marshal to your cause, you may need to win your arguments through a more conversational method.

Of the narrative weapons at your disposal is one that addresses the reader directly: you. An example can be seen in the previous paragraph. I used it to focus the reader's attention. As an editor, one of my jobs is to motivate authors to be better. Using “you” is intended to grab them by the lapels: come on, get off your duff. Or, I’m not talking about some mythical author here; how about what you do?

This style works when the writing is a call to action. That’s why “you” is used so often in such categories as self-help, health, and business. The author is trying to spur the reader to break old habits, or extend their participation in new ways such as pilates. Readers are supposed to respond to a summons.  

Using “you” works less well in other contexts. While it adds immediacy, it also risks loss of credibility as an expert. If an author has amassed a preponderance of evidence for a theory, the facts alone will tip the scales in most readers’ minds. In this case, “you” may feel ingratiating. That’s because within an arsenal of facts, a direct appeal to the reader may seem weak by comparison. The facts speak for themselves.

That negative points up the need for balance in a narrative. Notice in the past two paragraphs, “you” wasn’t used in direct address at all. I wanted the reader to feel that they are filled with facts. With this neutral approach, the reader is pulled along by the logic of the argument. This observation is very similar to the principle that a nonfiction writer should avoid the use of “I” in exposition. A sentence with the word “I” is more of an opinion. Is that what you want to express a particular point?

Exercise: One key to making “you” work is using it consistently. Because of its in-your-face nature, it looks peculiar when it appears only occasionally. You can just hear the reader saying, Oh, what? I’m supposed to participate? If it is used regularly, though, say in the opening and closing sections of every chapter, the reader will accept it as part of the narrative’s rhythm.

“Even the gods are moved by the voice of entreaty.”

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.