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


One Step Ahead

When you are plotting your novel, use the concept of veils. A certain array of plot events lie on one veil, but if you whisk it away, what occurs on the veil beneath it? Can you also rip that one away to uncover another one? You may be thinking that to create such a construct, you must be diabolically clever, but that’s not true. You just haven’t spent enough time planning.

Every plot event contains a hidden potential. That’s because the reader only knows what you permit her to know about the event. Let’s take an example. To impress a gangbanger, a young man steals a car. At a stoplight about to change, he brazenly opens someone’s car door, yanks the driver out and, jumping in, roars off. Nice scene, you say to yourself. But if the follow-up is merely the gangland guy saying, “Good job,” you’re not thinking ahead.

Key aspects of that scene have possible contingencies. Which gang does the impressed one belong to? How high up on the food chain is he? What about the car: does it have unique features that would permit tracking it? How about that driver? What if his mother is the mayor (and it’s her prized vehicle)? And I haven’t even talked about the injuries the driver suffered after being thrown out of the car.

Those aspects lie on the veil beneath the veil containing the carjacking. By now you may be shrugging: okay, I could have done that. But the what-ifs aren’t the crucial part of the exercise. Even as you’re devising the next veil, you should be thinking about the veil below that.

You should be scheming on multiple screens. At the top of one file you place the heading: gangster. In a series of short paragraphs, you run out where the links to the gangster could go. How many scenes could you write on him, and how many could contain new revelations that the carjacker doesn’t know? At the top of another file you write: mayor. What type of relationship does she have with her son? How about her hold on the police chief, in charge of tracking down the car? In a series of scenes, you explore the interesting twists along that skein.

Once you have devised different trails, you can braid them. You literally can mix and match paragraph summaries from different files in creating the plot outline. That’s not so awesomely clever, is it?

Exercise: Try to get in the habit of stopping at each plot juncture to think of interesting possibilities. If you lay out potential arcs based on the characters involved and the clues left behind, you’ll keep providing yourself with future options. You may decide, after thinking through how the skein would affect other plot elements, that it throws the book out of whack, but that’s hardly a problem. Nothing’s been committed to paper yet.

“It appears to me that almost any man may like the spider spin from his own inwards his own airy citadel.”
—John Keats

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


When Is Enough Enough?

Past the first draft or so, the process of writing is accretive. You add little bits of characterization or nail down plot points to be consistent throughout. You run through the manuscript, substituting better words and editing out sentences that, at one remove, seem to be trying too hard. The bedeviling aspect of such work is that you can always find new stuff that needs to be fixed.

When do you finally declare a book finished? In considering that question, I will first raise a note of caution. As an editor, I think authors in general should work much harder on their prose in order to reach a high polish. So this post is not about letting yourself off easy.

Having said that, I do believe that revising can reach a point of diminishing returns. You can tell when to stop when the objectives you mean to tackle at the beginning of the revised draft have dwindled down to local issues—i.e., sentence by sentence. For instance, at the start of a second draft you may be still contemplating such significant changes as adding or enlarging the role of a best friend for the protagonist. Or you may decide to change the narrative voice from omniscient to first-person. This sort of change entails a huge amount of work.

The next time through, the issues you’re facing might be more on the level of adding clues or minor plot points to bolster a character. Or you may decide to cut back on a minor character whose usefulness has declined because of the way the story has evolved. At the same time you may be inclined to strike out the last two or three sentences of long paragraphs of interior monologue, realizing they make the pacing drag too much. Still a sizable amount of work, but more of the hammer and tong variety.

Then comes the draft where the scale of such changes narrows even more. You may still decide to expand a scene, but for the most part you are engaged in making sentences more active, shortening sentences in action scenes, substituting for words used too often. You still have plenty to do, as evidenced by all the red ink of editing, but most of it is busy work.

That’s where you start to draw the line. Past a certain point you’re lingering with an old friend, not wanting to deal with the onerous prospect of starting a new project. You can do that for years, literally. But how many books are you not writing because you’re hanging on with good ol’ Mickey and Buddy and Sue?

Exercise: When I’m reviewing a new draft, I use a function in Word (Tools/Track Changes/Compare Documents) to highlight only the changes. If you do this and see that almost all of the changes consist of a new word here and there, with very few full sentences added, you have your proof. You’re done. Move on.

 “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
—Leonardo da Vinci

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.