Promises, Promises

Among the categories of nonfiction books, self-help occupies a popular space. Whether the object of fixing is mental or physical, a reader purchases the book based on the hope that this program will make her wiser, richer, sleeker, or what have you. In the forefront of her mind runs a question: what will I get out of this book?

On the writing side, the author needs to be a huckster. That is not necessarily bad, if you really do have the goods to offer. You need to be encouraging, to say, “You can do it!” That is basic psychology: the more the audience is fired up, the more likely he will actually get off his duff and make some changes.

One way to inspire readers is to provide examples of others who have succeeded, either in using the book’s program or in a similar endeavor. For instance, a famous Hollywood actor may have used a star trainer’s high-impact running regimen, but the one you’re advocating has the same sprint-jog-walk cycle. You use star power to fire up the masses, along with examples from ordinary walks of life.

Past a certain point, though, the exhortations should be backed up by an actual regimen. That is the crux of the matter. What are you offering that is so much better than all of the hundreds of other programs? If you are trying to achieve better self-control, for example, what variation of counting to ten before speaking do you provide?

This is where your grand promises have to be anchored by utility. I mean that literally: how can a reader use the steps you provide? Laying out Step 1 through 5 is fine, but how can the reader interact with the advice? Let’s say you’re showing how to change careers. You have a number of distinct phases: recognizing you’re unhappy in your present career; sorting through other career options; researching the industry; education or retraining; and then the job process itself, from resume to interview to salary negotiation. Is your program showing the reader how to navigate these different steps? Or are you still throwing out platitudes of how much better you’ll feel when you find a job you really love?

Exercise: Examples of others’ success are most useful when accompanying practical steps. If Lou once did a tour in Japan, and that influenced his choice of importing tea ceremony pottery to the U.S., that example might be most valuable if placed within the phase of sorting through career options. As a reader, now I feel motivated to search within my own experience to see what I have enjoyed in the past.

“One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.”
—Abraham Maslow

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Editing History

Anyone writing a history book must gather an armada of facts. You start with the headliners of a chosen time, such as Queen Elizabeth I, and work your way down into intricate side alleys where hopefully none have gone before. You emerge from your toils with a masterpiece of assemblage—only to learn that it is too long for a publisher’s page requirements. How are you supposed to judge what should stay and what should go?

The first place to look is lengthy quoted material. By their very nature, excerpts from other sources fall in the category of support for your points. Maybe during the course of your research, you saw an entire paragraph from a historical figure that was marked by its passion and eloquence. So it’s all included. Yet if you need to make cuts, you have to decide whether that eloquence is really speaking to the point you’re trying to make. Maybe you keep only two sentences out of six.

A second field for cutting comprises repeated quotes from the same source. You may have a dozen quotes from an excellent biography of the Earl of Essex, for instance, and you’ve judiciously strewn them throughout the book, backing up a variety of points you’ve made. So you should look to see if you have other quoted material backing up that same point. If you do, excise the Essex bio quotes. A dozen times is probably going to the same well too often anyway.

Once the easy choices are made, you have to examine your text critically. How in depth are you getting on tangential subjects? You may have started off, for instance, using the creation of permanent theaters as a way of showing the rise of London’s middle class, but that devolves into a discussion of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. You’re going too far down a side alley for the book. You can probably trim a paragraph here and there concerning all sorts of ancillary tidbits.

Another area to consider is biographical material on minor personages. One of the problems with research is that some other author will have reams of information on her chosen topic. As you get deep into the weeds of your subject, that material seems important for providing context. If you had the space, that would be great. But if you need to prune, I don’t need to know how many wives and children the guy had if his reason for being in the book is a law that tried to ban theatrical entertainment as licentious.

Exercise: Footnotes are an author’s best friend when trying to reduce word count. Do you have a striking anomaly that you can’t bear to part with, but know it’s pretty far off the track? You create a footnote. These days, many of these are posted online, so you can be as ornate as you like.

“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”
—Harry S Truman

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Living the Dream

No one, no matter how happy, fails to look over the fence at greener grass. That is the human condition: to wish for something we are not. The desire to become someone else, even if only temporarily, is one of the main reasons people tell stories. All of those characters are, thankfully, not you.

That motive conflicts with another main reason to write: self-regard. You have to think that you have something special—the ability to write, if nothing else—that sets you apart from the hoi polloi. So if you’re going to write about the human condition, all the interesting stuff that’s happened to you sounds like a good lode to mine.

I would venture to say that most writers are better off striving for wish fulfillment rather than self-exploration. It is true that having a rough life makes for interesting stories, but how many people really have it rough? I’ll go beyond that and ask another question: how many people who have endured hardships have the talent or the perseverance to write about them in a way that inflames the reader?

That question strikes at the heart of the matter. Writing about yourself is like writing in a journal. You try to capture past incidents in words, however imperfectly. Because the material chimes inside of you, causing deep feelings associated with remembrance, you don’t realize as clearly how it would impact someone else. It is a shortcut, in other words.

Longing to inhabit another’s shoes takes more effort. You have to draw up defining characteristics: who is that person like? You have to keep asking yourself how the person will react in a given situation. What would he say to that? Would he respond at all? You walk around during the day, after the writing session, thinking about what you have written. And at a more advanced stage, the character starts telling you what he wants.

Where are your personal feelings in this construct? They’re inside everything the character does. You’re still the same egotistic maniac. Yet you are pouring those drives into an ideal, someone larger than yourself. That being may be just outsized enough to capture the reader’s interest.

Exercise: If you have a character that is largely autobiographical, you might use two guidelines to judge how effective she is. First, are her plot events progressing in an arc that is intrinsic to the circle you’re completing inside the book? Put another way, are you sticking in stuff just because it happened to you? Second, are her feelings interesting, or are they as mundane as you, gazing over the fence, are?

“If a poem is each time new, then it is necessarily an act of discovery, a chance taken, a chance that may lead to fulfillment or disaster.”
—A. R. Ammons

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Checking Your Drafts

Writing on a computer is such an improvement in so many ways. A brilliant idea comes to mind, and a few keystrokes later, it’s down on paper. Revising also is such a breeze. Yet the very ease also leads to complications centered on loss. As in, forever lost in the computer. Here are a few tips to avoid gnashing of teeth.

The problem exists on both a micro and macro level. At the word-by-word end, you may edit a sentence or paragraph and replace it with what, at that moment, you think is better. Only later when you are thinking about it, in that obsessive way writers do, you decide you like the first way better. You return to the computer, and find it irrevocably gone. You try to recapture what you wrote, but the wording isn’t right. You blew it.

You have to get in the habit of creating a new file every time you revise. It seems like a pain, but you don’t have to copy and paste the entire manuscript. You start at the chapter heading (or even the top of the single page you want to edit) and drag the mouse to copy that section you know you’re working on. If you don’t want your manuscript file to get too cluttered, create sub-files (“Chapter X”). But don’t throw out your drafts until a much later date, when you’re sure you know what you want.

On a macro level, the danger can be that you lose material between drafts. Say, you write a scene for a murder, in draft #1. Yet when you read it over, you realize that circumstances impacting the murder changed. So you write a new scene that accommodates the changes. When you complete that draft, you’re reading it over and you realize that certain parts of version #1 were actually better, except for those few things you really needed to change. Only you can’t find the scene you wrote earlier.

Rather than reading pages upon pages in frustration, use the Compare Documents function in Microsoft Word. It asks for two files, so you put the original in one box and the latest draft in another. A third file emerges that shows only the changes between the two drafts. Now all you have to do is flip to the general section where the murder should be, and the highlighted text will jump out at you. (Note that you can also use this function for micro comparisons as well.)

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it."

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Book from Blog Posts

If you have been maintaining a weblog for any length of time, the idea that all that good work can be converted into a book will grow like a dawning light. The principles of the process seem straightforward enough. You have written reams of material, enough to fill a book. You have written on a variety of topics related to a central subject, which can be divided into reasonably coherent chapters. So what are the pitfalls?

The first one is the nature of the post itself. It is designed to be short: 400-500 words max. In book terms, that is a little more than a page. So while you may have 300 posts, jumping to a new topic every page makes for a bumpy book-reading experience. You in effect are adopting an epistolary style, hoping every “letter” is really interesting.

A book’s rhythm tends to work in longer sweeps. If you peruse any nonfiction book, you’ll notice that chapters are usually broken down into sections, which run roughly 3-5 pages long. To redesign your posts to fit such a pattern, you’d have to link 3-4 posts into one continuous narrative. Moreover, you’d have to do that 100 times.

That leads to a second problem: redundancy. When you are writing a single post, you need to introduce a topic each time. Otherwise, the reader wouldn’t know the context in which the subject is being raised. So, for instance, if you have a book on housing, you want to clump related data from American tech-driven cities vs. rust-belt cities, coastal vs. heartland cities, and international trends as well. When you shove them all together, how many times will you be repeating the same basic premise to lead off and end the topic? You may find, after culling almost all of that material, each post is only 300 words long.

Related to this issue is: discipline. A post is an informal vehicle. What makes most good blogs successful is the narrative voice. The spontaneous nature of this sort of writing can lead easily to versions of soapbox oratory. Such hectoring is fine in a short format, even enjoyable. But that’s because, as a reader, you know it won’t go on for long. Now let’s aggregate those appeals 300 times. How much of that stuff can you stand, even as a writer? With a book you have to maintain an even keel, because it doesn’t take that much for a boy to cry wolf.

Exercise: One way to avoid weaving together topics is to design the book as a collection of tips, e.g., 201 Ways to Solve a Housing Crisis. That way the posts can stay in the same format they were written. You will still, however, face the problems of repetition and shrillness of advocacy. And you have to ask yourself: is a tip book what I really wanted to write?

“Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.”
— John Muir

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Eulogy for the Living

When a loved one passes, it is time for reflection about what qualities the deceased possessed. A memorial service is held, and if you were close enough, you feel like you’d like to say some words about the person. Most of these remarks are fairly brief. The person shares a funny story or two. Some outstanding traits are cited as a way to remember the one now gone.

One of the biggest problems I see with writers is a lack of focused background information. A lawyer will tell a war story that was so hilarious in the corridor outside the courtroom. A doctor will tell a story about a patient with a curious malady. Real-life stories offered up as entertainment. That’s all fine, but it also reveals the distance of the author from what he’s writing. His feet are still anchored in the real world. 

That’s why a eulogy can be a useful guide when you are selecting background information about a character. Unless it is your protagonist, or other significant character, you want to be brief. A paragraph, maybe two, about the personality and then move on. A little later, perhaps a short past story that helps to frame what the character is going to do next. This material is dropped in on the way to the novel’s next big event. 

What if the character died? What would you say about her? To a large degree, that’s what you’re trying to get done with background material. You don’t have much time; most characters aren’t that important. Instead of the qualities that marked a dead person’s life, you think in terms of the qualities that make a character distinct from the others. What do I want from this character? You tell an anecdote because it so perfectly reveals what the character is like. 

Writing background material is, to a large degree, the art of compression. You compose a quick study and move on. When it is focused, the character jumps off the page. That’s what you want: an array of vivid characters. You can shape each background as just another tile in a well-composed mosaic.

Exercise: Examine your latest draft with a focus only on one character. What material have you assigned to her? If you were summing up her life, what would jump out at you? Then consider how that fits with all of your other characters. How are their eulogies different?

“Eulogy. Praise of a person who has either the advantages of wealth and power, or the consideration to be dead.” 
—Ambrose Bierce

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Keeping a Promise

Anticipation of what lies ahead can be as delightful as the event. Fiction depends on the promise of future rewards. Yet because it also depends on delivering better rewards as the story builds, the nature of the reader’s anticipation itself changes.

That’s why bold statements made by characters fall flat if not acted upon in a timely fashion. If your villain promises that the hero will be murdered, that threat needs to be carried out fairly soon, or the threat will come to seem empty. Why is that? Because the promise is static, and the rest of your story is dynamic. 

An extended example will show how this contrast in momentum works against you. On page 175 the villain—call him Chas—makes the promise. The next time he appears, maybe on p. 200, the reader is wondering if this is when the promise will be acted upon. But it turns out Chas is engaged in other nefarious business and may not mention the earlier promise at all. A slight let-down, but hey, he’s a busy boy. The next time he appears, page 225, maybe the promise is mentioned again, with a little more virulence in his voice as he says it. But no action is taken. And in fact no action will be taken until page 275, in the villain’s fourth appearance since the promise was made. 

What happens during those four scenes? The reader becomes suspicious that the villain really will live up to his promise, for sure. But the reader also starts to forget the original potency when the promise was made. With each successive let-down, further resentment builds up. The delight of anticipation has been turned on its head. Now the reader is sick and tired of the stupid idea, since it didn’t lead anywhere. 

You’re better off building up to the promise. That is, Chas becomes increasingly enraged by what the hero is doing—usually conducting an investigation that comes ever closer to the truth. The promise matches the level of threat posed by the hero. When the villain is very close to being unmasked, now he makes the promise—which he has to keep in order to protect himself.

Exercise: Draw up a two-column list and put the names of opposing characters at the top of each. Go through the manuscript and write down what each does in terms of the other. You’ll see the level of opposition rise from minor to major on one side. Are you matching up an equivalent response on the other?

“Oaths are but words, and words but wind.” 
—Samuel Butler

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Fulfillment of Rage

The maxim that conflict is the lifeblood of fiction is more easily applied outwardly than within. It’s easy to imagine what your protagonist will do when crossed. We all have rage-filled inner monologues about what we should have said to so-and-so. Writing extends that practice and puts it down on paper. “Take that! And that!” and five pages later, “Well, I guess that settled that.”

Yet a hero who only lashes out at others will not gain the reader’s loyalty. The conflict must also rage inwardly in order for us to truly participate. This is where so many fledgling writers fall down on the job. The expert huntsman turns out to be awkward and aw-shucks with Sally. Just a regular doofus. While I suppose you can make that work, chances are good it won’t.

What sweeps away a reader? Rage is a good starting point. What separates the historic from the merely active? A useful analogy can be found in sports. The players who succeed at the top level have talent, for sure. But it’s their passion to win at all costs, usually to themselves, that marks the truly great.

How does a writer profit from that analogy? By making the character’s desire outsized. It’s so mammoth, it’s unsupportable; it’s impolite in refined society. Take the simple example of a romance heroine. Why does the rake choose her in the first place? Because she’s not satisfied with her role in life. She’s fighting against her father, her mother, and/or the majordomo who runs the castle. She’s worthy of interest not because the author is good at writing sex scenes. She stands out because she’s a fighter. We all wish we could be so brave.

How does an author employ that rage on his protagonist’s behalf? The kernel can be a localized conflict, such as a fight with an worry-wart spouse, but that won’t take you very far. The rage needs to appear consistently through the novel. (Otherwise, you have resolution of the initial conflict by default—he calmed down.) It may well be that the spouse causes ongoing conflict, but that’s too convenient. Why doesn’t your hero walk away? What keeps him in the ring, so to speak, is where fiction gets interesting.

The reasons why a person battles with herself does not require psychoanalysis. How many wives stay in a marriage because of the children? How is that loyalty repaid, especially if the child is a rebellious teenager? What about her parents’ shining example, exemplified by their 40th wedding anniversary? If you draw up a list of reasons, and then think through how they would change over the time span of the novel, you have book-long inner strife.

“The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.”
—William Faulkner

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Assembling Pieces

An author looking for ideas that can fill a novel may have a background that includes forays into short fiction. Their most common form, short stories, have the virtue of being a more manageable prospect than a sprawling novel—20 pages as opposed to 200. If you have written short stories, the question then arises: could material you’ve already written be assembled into a novel?

I’ll first take a half-step and point out that a sub-genre already exists that combines related short stories into a larger whole. The idea for this post comes from my present reading of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, a collection of tales that depict the history of African Americans. While each story jumps to another character, the anguish of slavery and its aftermath govern all of them. This style of assemblage resembles the construction of Tim O’Brien’s The Things We Carried, regarded as the finest novel of the Vietnam War. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson tells the collective history of a small town.

It is probably apparent by now that a powerful unified theme can be the glue that holds disparate pieces together. If you think of a grand topic that interests you—coal mining, for instance—you might rewrite your present stories in a way that aligns them with a theme. You’ll also find, in the process, that the renewed immersion in them sparks off ideas for new related stories.

Another towering element that might be considered is a central character. The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout* are outstanding examples of this type of collection. If you have a character or core cast of characters who form the heart of several stories, you may be able to examine them with an eye toward: can I find a thread that would combine them into a satisfying whole?

You can also take the further step of cracking open their shells and repurposing the material toward a larger aim. A short story often completes a circle it sets for itself, but within that logic are incidents that would work in a longer format. Aunt Moira would still be upset by the vandalism of the swing set, for instance. If you lift out the governing mood, plus the lead-in and lead-out bridges, the event is ready for use.

Exercise: Anyone who has written a novella has an easier road to expansion, but usually that can’t be done merely by embroidering present material. You need a wholly new character or subplot to fill out a new stretch of 50-100 pages. You may find nascent buds for such work in any number of your present players.

“In a rough way the short story writer is to the novelist as a cabinetmaker is to a house carpenter.”
—Annie Proulx

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

*My thanks to Michael Knight and his fine list in a recent Publishers Weekly article for reminding me of these books.

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.