Don’t Let Exhaustion Win

Writing is an art that wells up from the unconscious, and that places it within the realm of grand currents we struggle to control. Signs of the id’s enormous power in the world we live in are everywhere, such as its effect on people who deny climate change on ideological grounds. To avoid being swept away by these irrational tides, a rational person erects a dam for his own protection. Otherwise, you might be the one in a movie theater with a semi-automatic weapon.

Yet that protective barrier also hides the treasures that we labor to pour out onto the page. It doesn’t make sense that we cannot penetrate that barrier at will. So many other things we do, such as guiding our children to be good, seem to flow right out of the pipe. So it is not surprising that when we face a blockage to writing day after day, we turn away from our own futility. We can tackle some other task that we might even be able to accomplish before the end of time.

An author might be likened to a small mill set up on a large river. We are posed to capture its great flow of possibilities, if only we could corral that current to spin in our wheel and grind our corn into perfect sentences. What happens most of the time, however, is that we are too timid to face the onslaught. We understand the mechanism, because the gears make logical sense. The problem is, our natural tendency for self-protection keeps us inside our tawdry little house as the majestic river sweeps past.

You have to devise a logical plan to tap the flow. The only way to make the great wheel spin is to expose yourself to the river’s current. When the wheel creaks from the load, oil the gears to make it run more smoothly. As that happens, you become more proficient at understanding the ebbs and flows of your subconscious.

You cannot always expect to perform on demand. One morning you wake up feeling great—but your natural barrier is firm and your efforts at penetration result in a trickle. The next morning you feel like crap—but the writing flows out effortlessly. The important point is, you are a conscientious miller. You keep to the task, day in and day out. And pretty soon the world that you can break into sensible little pieces becomes less attractive than the castles you create in your free-flowing mind.

“Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time.”        
—Leonard Bernstein

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Chapter Summaries

Most nonfiction books are sold via a vehicle known as a proposal, which is a marketing document that lays out why the book will sell in its marketplace. Among the sections of a proposal is one that outlines what each chapter contains. It is known by various names, but many professionals call it the Chapter Summaries.

Quite a few authors treat the section as a sideline, devoting a scant paragraph to each chapter. Sometimes they skip the exercise altogether and provide merely a detailed Contents page, listing each subheading in the chapter. Unless you have a subject like a memoir where organization is unimportant, however, that level of treatment is not doing its job of helping you sell the book.

Think of the proposal from an acquisitions editor’s point of view. If she likes the proposal, she will bring it up in her imprint’s weekly editorial meeting. There she has to persuade the editor-in-chief and publisher to buy the book. Yet that process is hampered if no one really knows what’s in the book. Most particularly, what does it offer that no other book in the field does?

The section that answers that question best is the Chapter Summaries. Here you have to ask yourself if a paragraph can delineate each chapter’s topics in enough details to delve beneath the general buzz words that any book in that area covers. For example, you may have a chapter in a book about teenage boys in which you state that they respond better to an empathetic partner in education. There have been, of course, a slew of books advocating that men become more social. Rather than covering different classroom strategies in a glancing sentence apiece, why not break the best methods into a paragraph apiece? That way you could provide enough details that show why your strategy is different.

I don’t have any rule of thumb in terms of length—some chapters are shorter, or less complex—but shooting for a half page to a page gives you the scope to lay in some specific qualities that only your book possesses. Trying for 3-4 paragraphs rather than one means you have to fill up those paragraphs with unique details. If you think of it another way, in terms of marketing, each of those new details you’ve added is a selling point. Why would you not want to triple the number of selling points you have to offer?

Exercise: I should caution that the section is still merely an outline. An editor expects that you will respect her time. She’s busy, and she wants to get through a proposal quickly. (Otherwise, she could read the entire book.) So stay on a higher plane. Try not to go over a page for each one. If your book has any content at all, you’ll have plenty of plus points even in summary.

“I am unable to think of any critical, complex human activity that could be safely reduced to a simple summary equation.”
—Jerome Powell

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


By the Way

A primary concern for any author is creating a variety of approaches to the subject matter. If you are devising a conversation about a subject that has been covered in a hundred other books, such as a mother-teenage son argument, how do you write something original? Unless you are writing science fiction, the world of options for this type of conversation is limited.

One idea that works is creating cross currents. When writing a novel, you assume that your two characters will sit down and have the conversation you mean to tackle. After all, that’s what they’re supposed to do at this point in your planning: talk about X. That isn’t the way many conversations go in real life, though. If you can get your teenager to look up from his phone or stop playing video games, you have achieved a minor miracle. To him, at that moment when he’s about to top his best score ever, fighting once again for the rights to the car is a petty annoyance.

The same is true of a spouse that has just come home from work. In her mind she may be still fuming about an incident on the commuter bus. She is inventing what she really should have said to the bragging lout on his cell phone, and your polite request to talk about something really serious may need to be reinforced with “Are you listening?” and then “Hello, Earth to Lauren.”

That’s the way life really is. Ships cross in the night, and each one is intent on his own nautical chart. When one party is initially disengaged, you also can reveal more about the relationship. That’s because a stock, inattentive answer is one that the character knows will usually get the other off his back. You can still work the scene so that the two parties engage fully, but this way you have revealed two layers of interactions: the present issue and the way things have gone in the past.

A variety of the initial disconnect involves the character bringing up the topic of concern. If Ellen is worried how the other party will respond, that allows you several possibilities for exploration. By her reasoning out how to ease into the subject, you show the reader what the other character likes. On the flip side, you reveal the anxieties that Ellen normally has in creating a confrontation.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for dialogue patches. Do any of them seem like bits heard on too many TV shows? Stop to consider the lead-in. How does the character feel about raising the topic? Is he irate? Is he begging? Next, consider where the other character is at this point in the book. Given what she’s had to put up with, how receptive is she to defend herself on this point?

“No rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude.” 
—Karl Popper

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Duel Buddies

Creating tension in every chapter is a common problem for authors writing suspense novels. Other factors come into play that are important but not exciting, such as setting up characters early on. You do need to craft a portrait of a protagonist so that the reader gets to know her enough to care about her. So what is the best way to balance the two imperatives?

You spread the wealth. When a plot is first conceived, it tends to be binary in nature. Character 1 must resolve the evil committed by Character 2. You can expand this metric to twin clusters of Protagonist + cohorts and Villain + cohorts, by the way. The problem is that the good side is not creating tension, because they’re not evil, and setting up the good guys usually the aim of character portrayal. So every chapter in which you are delineating character is a dud. 

Spreading the wealth means expanding beyond that binary plot opposition. You have multiple ways of creating tension. For one method, you need look no further than the title of Leslie Fiedler’s famous book of criticism: Love and Death in the American Novel. Who is the protagonist’s romantic partner? How can they be unhappy with each other? In this scenario, you write a chapter that includes a lot of good setup material, but it revolves, for instance, around the boyfriend’s announcement that he is going off on a long journey to “find myself.”

For another idea, people that you want to write about often are suffering from financial difficulties. That leads to rash actions that, while they can’t match up to a villain’s murder, can engender danger of a different form. Desperation about the shame of being exposed to a spouse is gripping enough to serve as a main plot, so it could work nicely as an alternate tension source for you.

Either of these purported scenarios could be expanded into hundreds of choices, limited only by your imagination. Notice in both, however, that the tension springs from an interaction with a nearest and dearest. Husband and wife, lovers, best friends, parent and child: when you develop antagonism on a personal level, it will produce friction. Better yet, while they’re shouting at each other, you can show all sorts of character traits.

Exercise: If you head off in too many minor plot directions, looking for tension, the reader will become confused. One way to manage the threads spiraling outward is to have them originate from a common source, such as a family. Amy might decide that Brad’s trip will start with a permanent bon voyage, but she’s also calling her sister, Carol, to check in. Carol has her own pressure cooker involving a workaholic husband getting an apartment in the city, etc. As they proceed forward, you have the sisters keep tabs on each other.

“I consider plot a necessary intrusion on what I really want to do, which is write snappy dialogue.” 
—Aaron Sorkin

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine 


The Rules of the Game

Authors know that they must make each part of their novel align with what goes before and after. This effort often requires several rounds of revisions, especially if a major cog in the plot is changed, requiring that all of the related elements cohere as well. The end result is seamless, with no repetition.

While getting all of the “facts” straight is difficult, and time-consuming, many authors accomplish that task more ably than one related to the characters involved in those scenarios. If Ted imbibes too much office Christmas party punch and becomes obnoxious, you can draw logical inferences from that plot incident. He might get fired, or put on probation, by his boss. He might face charges for the sexual harassment committed while under the influence. But these repercussions are plot issues. If you really want to strike gold with Ted, you should follow another sort of logic. What does he feel afterward?

Writing from that perspective requires a different level of concentration. To use a metaphor, it means stepping onto a court in an arena, where the outcome is bound by the rules of the game. The aftermath of Ted’s drunkenness is not a one-time deal. That’s what I see most often as an editor. Okay, he got drunk, and presto, this happens. Issue over, let’s move on. Notice who is ruling that decision: the author, not the character. The author isn’t involved enough to be on the court.

In the game that is your novel, the rules of Ted’s behavior keep holding all the way through. After the initial response, his office mates are still smirking behind their hands. His wife isn’t letting up on him for weeks, honey, if ever. If you’re really involved, you’ll think through the reasons why Ted would get drunk there in the first place, and how they were exacerbated by his foolishness. Add to that the ongoing shame he feels, and now the aftermath has the potential for future explosions that are even worse.

That approach will take you so much deeper than the one-click method. Ted’s obstacle is not a problem to be solved at the first opportunity, getting it off your checklist. It can be an outgrowth of problems he’s had before and will keep on having until you provide the poor guy resolution.

Exercise: Speed is not your friend when immersing yourself in your book. When you have a significant occasion, don't merely consider the ripples that spread toward the future. Let your imagination devise the reason(s) the stone was thrown. When you work backward as well as forward, you may find new causes as well as new results. Take the time to write down all the tangents that come to mind both at the time and when they pop up later, out of the blue.

“This is my sport: it is my life. I study it; I think about it all the time. Nothing else matters.”
—Conor McGregor

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Poke to Provoke a Reaction

Aligning the plot lines of the good and evil forces in a novel is not as easy as it seems. If you think about the issue from a structural viewpoint, you’ll find that the tracks the protagonist and villain are pursuing often run parallel to each other, and do not necessarily converge. Why is this? The pursuits of the villain usually are far advanced in terms of completion, while the protagonist is a newcomer to the villain’s scheme. That’s one reason why Bond shows up just as the rocket is being launched: he didn’t even know about the party until an hour ago.

If the villain’s conspiracy is large enough, that can pose a dilemma for your plot diagram. Why would he notice a newcomer at all? Assuming that he would is where an author can conflate the two worlds she is straddling. Just because you know what both camps are doing doesn’t mean that either one of them knows. There is no reason, for instance, why a cabal planning to blow up America’s electrical grid should realize that a wind power chief has traced back a ping from the conspiracy’s server.

Because of the unequal progress that each camp has made when the novel begins, the first time they collide is dependent on how close behind the protagonist has come. What was all a puzzling mystery after the first attack, often in the prologue, has become clearer by that point. Yet the protagonist’s growing knowledge of a scheme does not automatically mean that the villain knows that someone has glimpsed behind his curtain.

It’s your job to force the protagonist to make the villain aware of her efforts. Think of the situation from his standpoint. If he assigns some henchmen to take her out, how does he justify that to himself? During the commission of any crime, things can go wrong. Why would he, who knows this maxim better than anyone, take that risk? He has to be prodded to do so.

That means the protagonist must represent a threat to the villain’s scheme. This moves her beyond faint suspicion of the guilty party. It moves her beyond talks with her partner about what she believes is going on. She must upset some part of his operation. In that way she makes that crucial first linkage between the two plot lines.

Exercise: Examine the first time the villain goes after the protagonist, which often occurs halfway through the book. She has uncovered only part of the scheme at that point, so how can that limited knowledge lead to her active interference to stop him? The act need not be intended; she can blunder into it. But she must poke the nest in order to bring out the hornets.

“Most of us don't have to worry about being shot if we poke our noses outside. So we are comfortable, but the people I'm writing about are definitely not comfortable, and being shot while they're still inside is a good possibility.”
—Octavia Butler

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


What Truths Do Your Characters Know?

When writing a novel, many authors operate as though they are wearing the same blinkers as their horses. That comes about because a writer is exploring simultaneously the ranges that characters and plots can achieve. This allied approach makes sense, since you need to find interesting things for your characters to do in order to show what they’re like.

Unfortunately, this organic line of attack tends to produce less twisty plots. While you are charting the course for a main character, you’re usually writing with limits on his point of view (1st-person or 3rd-person limited narration). This is where the blinkers come in. You’re trying so hard to conceive of what he’s thinking in any given moment that other concerns fall to the wayside.

Yet you don’t have to start at the beginning of the race. To extend the metaphor, you should examine all of the horses, by color and number, before penning “Chapter 1.” Writing initial character sketches is a good practice, but that’s still operating on the character side of the ledger. How do you devise a better plot?

You set up the novel by writing out what each major character knows about the story’s events at each stage. For instance, if a wife is the chief villain, the one who killed her husband, she knows about the murder, of course. She committed it. She expects consequences, such as the police investigating the murder. She can prepare answers for a detective. But what will come at her out of the blue? Like your protagonist?

That is the character who usually knows the least about what actually happened. What does he learn and when? You want the novel to proceed by a series of discoveries, or steps. So what are the steps in the progression? Who knows the truth about that step? At each point you then have to consider that character. How does she know that truth? What is the overall story, according to her? To return to the example of the murderous wife, what “truth” does her sister tell? Is she aware of what likely happened or not?

When you plan out schematics beforehand, you can link plot developments to certain characters much more easily. You may find that a character who divulges one truth will later tell another. How is that step accomplished? Because it is volunteered (implying malice toward the one accused) or forced out of her by the protagonist? You do not have to provide all of the steps before you start, but by working this way, you will already have a better idea of how to add twists to the plot.

Exercise: You can use personality to determine how a character perceives the truth. A basic example of this is the detective who leaps at the obvious solution in order to reduce his case load. Think to yourself: if you have an offbeat character, could she provide “truths” to the protagonist that completely screw him up?

“A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.”
—Oscar Wilde

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.