Shading the Truth

A writer, even a well-prepared one, starts a novel with a ton of questions about who their main characters are. Sparks that ring true emerge seemingly out of the blue as you write. As that process of connection becomes more sure, the frequency of sparks increases. That’s one of the best aspects of writing: discovering hidden gems inside yourself.

Many of these uncovered points affect plotting. Hector’s fascination with the rites of santeria, for instance, influences his desire to go beyond snatching purses. The issue then becomes: when do you tell the reader? How do you tell her? I have edited manuscripts in which the author pours out everything in one long spill of the truth. I suppose I do want to know that information—eventually. Not all at once, though, because now that topic is robbed of all its mystery. 

I am reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead right now, and while her prose lies far beyond the abilities of most writers, her narrative approach is instructive for anyone. She tells snippets of incidents from so far inside her first-person voice that I have to piece together what is going on. I want to keep reading until the full picture comes into better view.

You too can adopt this style. Let’s say you have all sorts of information about santeria: the chickens, the blood, the priest, the Mexican village, etc. Maybe you start with Hector’s attitude as he walks the streets, looking for prey. What does his participation in his grandmother’s rites make him feel like as a person? Write about how that affects his strut. Has he bought a collare with the beads of Shango? Does he finger it as he walks, feeling in touch with that superior knowledge? Notice that none of this work is saying boo about the thrill he feels when the chicken’s throat is cut. You’re saving that for when it will hit home.

You’re using a limited scope to mask the wider view. That’s the way we are in real life. Harriet could say, “My father is as tight as the bark on a tree.” If you don’t know the context, you think the reference is merely to his being cheap. You don’t know that’s what his divorced wife said a hundred times after he remarried. Or he refused to pay for Harriet’s college tuition even though he could easily afford it. In other words, the storyteller is taking her sweet time to lay out the whole truth.

Exercise: If you have a body of information you wish to impart, write out snippets of it. Half page max. See if you can write in such a way that the character’s viewpoint obscures large sectors of the whole. Shoot for six pieces, of progressively greater length, repeating certain key ideas. You’re luring the reader onward by deliberate narrative approach.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” 
—Harper Lee

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Getting Out of Your Own Way

Among the experts that contribute new books of value to their field, scholars rank among the most innovative. They likely have conducted cutting-edge research that is blazing a new trail. Or they have so much in-depth knowledge of a subject’s particulars that they can write masterful overviews. Many of them wish to disseminate their knowledge to the general public. Yet when they submit the manuscript to a literary agent or trade editor, they are told: the writing is too academic. What does that mean?

I’ll start with the obvious: scholarly jargon. If you can’t leave out terms that you know only your peers can understand, you’re not ready for the world at large.

A far more common obstacle to clear writing is: the wiring in a scholar’s large brain. Every sentence features a complex structure, with a phrase that amplifies that meaning, and another that qualifies that one, piling on the modulations until each sentence is a labyrinth all of its own. Reading a paragraph is a formidable hill for the lay reader—and we’re talking about 200 pages of them.

My first objective in a line edit is: simpler sentences. If I see a sentence with three clauses, I’ll look to see if there is a main sentence stem that contains power all of its own. That gets bracketed off immediately. A strong statement doesn’t need ornamentation. The rump that is left out? Maybe the two dependent clauses can be turned into a declarative sentence with a single participial phrase. I’m not necessarily looking to chop. But I do know that a reader needs a break—a simple sentence—every third sentence or so. Honestly? I’ll reverse the ratio the other way around if the prose will allow it.

The second objective is: simpler words. I’m looking for anything with three syllables or more ending in –tion,–ment, or –ize, for starters. Those are almost always abstruse words. I also jump on sentences where the adjective is doing the job of the verb: “They are cognizant that...” Aren’t you really saying, “They know...” or “They recognize...”? You may think you need the exact shade of meaning, but big words rarely do that for you.

In both cases, I ask authors to read their sentences out loud. Can you actually follow that complex sentence when speaking it? Can your tongue get around those long words? If you find yourself getting tripped up, how do you think your audience will react? Actually, I know. They’ll put down the book, saying, “I’m not smart enough to read this.”

Exercise: Another good tactic is: providing examples. There is no better way to cut through complexity than offering a true-life story of Larry and Sheila. If you offer frequent illustrations, in the form of short paragraphs or longer stories, readers will get the point instantly. We are Larry and Sheila.

“A good style must first be clear.”

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Explaining the Impossible

The last post covered certain structural elements inherent in ghost stories, and this one suggests further circumstances that can be employed to make spirits believable. The key word to consider is “surroundings”—because the core of the story is unknowable. (I’ll leave aside Peter Beagle’s wonderful novels.) Part of the power of a ghost is its inability to talk.

When you think of the genre, certain familiar stand-bys come to mind: an old house, twilight, being alone, a legend about who died there and under which circumstances. All of these factors play on our fear of unusual elements. Doors don’t slam on their own. Darkness can play tricks on your eyes. Being alone can be frightening in any setting, including a deserted late-night city street.

In a story, who determines what is normal? At the beginning of the book, both the reader and lead character are on equal footing. We know that meeting a ghost, or suffering demonic possession, is as likely as a free ride to the moon. So the character’s initial job is providing a foundation that will be violated. It helps if what is normal in your chosen location is pretty weird to start. If the heroine discovers her old aunt likes to sip tea at three in the morning, for instance, you’ve already unnerved the reader. We all know how weird our aunts can be.

Yet even spooky circumstances must be disrupted by the alien force in order to cause true fright. This is where the hard work of selling the reader gets fully under way. The character can be scared during the incident, sure, but it’s what she thinks afterward that cements the apparation’s existence. Or what she says to friends or family, trying to define the inexplicable in words. The fact that she is led by stages to believe in ghosts, after repeated visits, pulls us toward that belief. If she starts with doubt and ends in awe, she has lured us into the fictional zone that is required to enjoy the story.

That process is accompanied, though, by a question: Why does he keep staying around? You need to devise a family connection, such as his grief for the person who inhabits the ghost, or his inability to leave, either for physical or contractural reasons, as in The Shining. You have to think through, at the very beginning: why doesn’t he run for his life? In answering that question, you may also find the reason he can break the hold the ghost has over him.

Exercise: When you are plotting out the book, draw up a list of reasons why you don’t believe in ghosts. Then draw up a list of explanations you’d tell yourself after a ghost visited the first time. Then draw up a list of reasons why this particular locale might be haunted. You’re setting the stages that lead the reader to acceptance.

“The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts.”
—Italo Calvino

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Beyond Our Ken

Reading a ghost story induces irrational fears even in the most analytical mind. So how does an author set up the structural elements that create fright in fiction? The first fact to acknowledge is that the supernatural is a hard sell to most readers. When you talk about whopper plot premises, this one ranks as one of the hardest to swallow.

I’ll start with a definition of a ghost. It is a creature that inhabits a specific space in a mysterious way. It cannot communicate its desires—unless you go for the thumping idea in seances (one means yes, two means no). It does scary things, like whirl around and send objects askew. Its power lies in its ability to do things that defy explanation.

Viewed in structural terms, how can a ghost be compared to similar story ideas? If you think about most plots, they require that a lead character enter a region of the unknown. The author has to sell the reader on those far-fetched premises as well. How the heck did she get into that mess? is one question that comes to mind.

The difference with the paranormal is that investigation into how to resolve the problems created by a ghost will quickly reach a dead end if you pursue the ghost for answers, the way a hero can investigate a villain. Such a probe leads only to more whirling, more vases thrown against walls. Go ahead, try to pin that down.

That is why many of these stories use a library, or some store of manuscripts about magic. This lore sets up the rules of the game you will play with the reader. By using formula X, you will induce the whirligig to do such and such. When that formula doesn’t work, you keep digging: using formulas Y and Z and, eventually, the lead character’s triumphal intuition. It turns out that, hidden inside us, we all have the answer for dealing with ghosts. But that answer needs to be set up by the formulae. Otherwise, the reader’s reaction is going to be: that was too easy. If you think for a moment, you’ll realize you don’t want the reader to say that about any plot premise.

Exercise: You can also set up the rules in a simpler fashion. If the young woman (that is the usual protagonist) tells others what happened to her, she is engaged in rationalizing the inexplicable. While she is telling another character, she is also laying the groundwork for why we too as readers should accept what happened. The more reasonable she is about being frightened, the more the juxtaposition draws in the reader.

“I think the supernatural is a catch-all for everything we don't understand about the vast other parts of life that we cannot perceive.”
—William Shatner

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Pushing Yourself

Many writers likely remember a practice in college called bullshitting. An assignment called for a paper that was X pages long, and you only had enough material for a paper X/2 long. So you spun out verbiage, making the ending sentence of a paragraph basically restating the first sentence, etc.

This practice is carried over into the business world as well. An important memo from the corporate equivalent of an Olympian god really only wants to tell employees that the corporation has reduced its matching of 401K contributions to 3%. That requires merely a sentence or two, but instead an entire page is filled up with corp speak, designed to mask the fact that the lowly employee is being cheated.

Since prolixity tends to increase with age, it is not surprising that a nonfiction writer brings this bad habit to that book he’s always been meaning to write. By a certain age a writer with any talent can say the same thing a half dozen different ways. That’s fine if the document’s length is short and its message instantly forgettable. When rephrasing occurs often in a book, though, the overall result is sludge. The reader has to read so much for so little gain.

A book does allow a writer more space to expand her ideas, but its very length also imposes a cost. You need to have enough interesting material to fill it out. I can’t tell you how many business books I have read that contain only a few ideas, and then the author spends the rest of the book spinning out permutations of them. The result? I read the introduction and the first chapter or so—and skim the rest. Is that what you want for your life-long dream?

Think of a book as a great maw. It can ingest reams of data. If you want readers to stay interested, you need to be pushing on constantly to new points, with new examples. Not every point needs to be original, because there are traditions in different fields that cause books to overlap, but you should find recent research to back up that point. Use an example of someone today who illustrates the point. To put your stamp on the subject, you have to put in the work to make it stand out.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for redundancy. While you do need to emphasize certain points with repetition, don’t do it often. Instead, be ruthless with yourself. If taking out a sentence leaves a short paragraph, join it up with the next paragraph. Don’t clog up the book because you didn’t have enough material to fill out a point.

“The ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition.”
—W. H. Auden

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


But He’s So Obvious

As anyone familiar with the mystery genre knows, readers engage actively in trying to solve the puzzle, and all possible culprits go up on a mental suspect board. That’s just like a detective’s board, on which suspects and relevant clues are mounted with pushpins. Among the possibilities is usually an obvious suspect, a character advanced by the author early on with damning clues.

If you think in terms of the guessing game, one of the primary functions of this character is to mask the other suspects. I often use the hunting term, a “blind,” to describe this process. While a reader really hopes that the obvious suspect is not the culprit, because she is so obvious, the possibility cannot be discarded. If new clues come up, they must be mounted on the board. The reader can never dismiss the obvious suspect because of this uncertainty. It could be that the author is going to end with a lousy twist—the one we guessed all along.

To maximize the obvious suspect’s utility as the book goes on, the character works best if you continue occasionally to give him extra clues. A good deal of confusion can also be sown if the character is obnoxious or domineering or some other antisocial trait that raises the reader’s hackles. Since their function is to distract, merely being ostentatious can help your cause.

There is another aspect that should be pointed out. You cannot be tricky by neglect. If the evidence strongly implicates the character, the reader will not ever give up believing that he could be “it.” Even if the character is dropped for hundreds of pages, he is tainted by the association forever. He simply cannot become a satisfying twist. So you might as well use him to hide the others.

The last point I’ll raise in this regard is the topic of switching the role to another character as the book goes on. In this scheme, the obvious suspect—who has never been satisfying to a true mystery buff—is supplanted by another suspect to whom disturbing later revelations are attached. Because the reader is constantly sifting through clues, dramatic weight added to an emerging character can have the effect of putting two obvious suspects on the board. Now the distractions are doubled. The reader still doesn’t want to choose the obvious suspect, but isn’t this new character becoming too obvious? Meanwhile, the true fiend remains lurking in the shadows of your blinds.

Exercise: Pick a character who has both motivation and relationship, and have several significant facts attached to him early. Now decide how that character can continue to hog the reader’s attention by force of exaggerated personality. As with any suspect, draw up a list of clues. Make sure you hold some back for later, so the reader cannot forget him entirely. Now draw up a shorter list for a second obvious character. How do the two characters complement each other?

“A blank piece of paper is God's way of telling us how hard it is to be God.”
—Sidney Sheldon

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


From On High

A novel uses seduction to lure its readers within its pages. Most authors realize that such wiles are necessary because the reader has many competing interests—i.e., books on her shelf (or in her Kindle). In order to make the reader stay with your book, new enticements must continue to be offered. Even if the material is dense, the reader must participate or the game is over.

Despite this commonsensical baseline, I occasionally receive submissions that spurn such notions. Within the first few pages it becomes obvious that the author has a mission, usually philosophical. He is employing the novel as a ruse of a grander sort: to educate the masses. Pages upon pages roll on, in which talmudic ethics or the like are explored. I am left to wonder how madness can reside within the same skull as profundity.

From an editorial standpoint, I don’t know why any author would believe that readers will be entranced by such a bombardment. It takes me only a moment’s reflection to realize that readers by and large are highly intelligent. If they want to read a philosophical tract, they will go to the Philosophy section in the bookstore. I have an abiding interest in Jean-Paul Sartre, but I would be disappointed if Nausea set out to instruct me. If I want existentialism straight up, I’ll read his Being and Nothingness.

Plenty of novels contain philosophy within their pages. Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain and Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game come to mind immediately. Yet these ideas are embedded within interesting stories. The characters face obstacles that create tension. The reader is enthralled by the characters, and that’s why we’ll stick through the heavier passages. That’s because such authors know that a shaman is also a trickster. When they put on a performance for us, they know we expect to be entertained.

Exercise: If you have philosophical concerns before writing a book, look first at how your characters can embody such ideals. Choose them accordingly. Then lay out a series of obstacles that challenge their makeup. When they reach the other side, how did they use your philosophy to get there? That’s what a novel does best.

“For there is in mankind an unfortunate propensity to make themselves, their views and their works, the measure of excellence in every thing whatsoever.”
― Edmund Burke

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Keeping Your Balance

An author either starts with or accumulates a storehouse of information about his major characters. This can consist of sketched character notes early in the process, as you are feeling your way forward, or data gleaned from research into a particular profession. It is piled up, in an ancillary file, waiting to be unloaded into the manuscript.

How much is used at any given time depends on how busy your character is. If a detective, to use a basic example, is tracking down clues for two linked murders—interviewing witnesses, sending material to a crime lab, etc.—you’re probably not going to stop for two pages to discuss her hyperactive father, even though you know it is crucial to understanding her ultra-calm personality.

Now let’s flip to the other side of the ledger: the killer. He has already done his dirty deeds. He has to wait for the detective to make some progress before he reacts to her threat. So now is a great time to dump in those two pages of his mother and her adroit iron. Actually, since he has to wait maybe 100 pages for the detective to catch up, all of his early scenes might be background- or milieu-heavy.

What is the effect on the reader? It’s like reading two books: one action-based, one rich with lore. The detective is kicking ass, while the increasingly boring murderer is sitting on his thumbs. On the other hand, the detective looks slight compared to the densely portrayed villain. She’s a hard worker but sort of a lightweight, you know?

The problem is the imbalance in plotting. A setup was arranged at the beginning whereby one force in the good-evil equation has already accomplished his initial plot business.  You want the reader to know what a horrible man he is—and hey, here are all these notes you wrote on him. I’ll also point out, by the way, the effect of placing the detective’s notes later in the book. She’ll still be running second-best to the richly portayed villain—because you told the reader his characterization was so important, he should get his full coverage first.

The solution is to run two levels of plotting. While the detective is busy with the past, the killer is moving on to new deeds. When you drop in information about one of them, you drop in info on the other. Action and info both in a chapter, keeping the dramatic weights evened out.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out only for background or research passages. For each character, write down the length of each one and on which page it appears. Your protagonist should get the most coverage earliest. That will signal to the reader who is dominant.

“Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”
—Abraham Lincoln

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine



Understanding the intellectual capacity of your readership is no easy feat. Unless you are writing a literary novel, the spectrum of your audience can range from post-graduates to high school dropouts. Using the right level of diction is hard enough without a further complication, yet for many authors, writing brings out the inner teacher.

Certain elements of a novel do require instruction. A story often incorporates an aspect of our wide-ranging civilization that is little-known. That’s not to mention that readers love finding out about such stuff. It’s cool, and if it isn’t explained, the reader may not understand what is being discussed.

The necessity to expound on the unknown applies only to these realms, though. What I find fairly often is that a writer given to explaining abstruse matters also overwrites in general. This can take place on a simple level, as a matter of excess verbiage. “He walked down the length of the arched corridor. At the end he opened the door to the hallway.” The reader already knows he’s in a corridor, so what’s that “to the hallway” doing there? Does the door need identification?

More serious is a pedagogical style in general. Whenever a topic comes up that the author has researched, we get a little explanation about it. This can be interesting background information, say on a historical time period prior to the events in the novel. A few such pieces here and there are fine, even enjoyable. But if the book has to pause every time a character might have background that could be explored, the pacing get clogged up with all of the asides.

My concern ratchets to a higher level when background fills are only part of an overall narrative style in which the author tells the story from a hoary distance. So much information is crammed into the story, the characters become puppets with minds. Whatever action they take is described so summarily, in step with the informational waltz going on around them, that the reader cannot participate. In a word, the author is telling, not showing.

A novel is more like a symphony, with quiet interludes followed by crescendos. Information is quiet, to be dispensed during certain periods. Vigorous movement, even if only in the mind, is the loud part. You need them both.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye for pacing. How many times are you delving into background information featuring research? If there are a lot, make decisions about which pieces really pertain to the story you’re telling. Is the aside nice to have or need to have?

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”
—Zora Neale Hurston

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.