Your Slideshow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


When Third Is the Same as the First

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine



What’s in It for Me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Hands Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @2017, John Paine


Setting Cues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Colored by Emotions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Know Your Procedure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.