Avoiding Idle Hands

Before starting a draft, many writers sketch out what attributes they think their characters should have. Once the draft is begun, a common impulse is to dump all of those background notes in one spot. Yet if the notes are broken up into pieces, each piece of information can become active, driving the story forward. The technique has, at the least, the virtue of giving that character something to do as the book goes on.

The character who has outlived her (usually minor) purpose is a problem I see regularly. Let’s assume Darlene is the sister of a murder victim, Annika. You have several paragraphs of background notes that help fill out Annika’s role (her sister’s part in her upbringing). That was the limit of your interest in Darlene—because you know she didn’t do it. Yet she does need to show up several times later in the story. The problem is, the reader may not remember who she is, because she hasn’t done anything since her first appearance.

First, consider how she could link up with other characters. The notes might be broken up so that each piece becomes a source of conflict. If Detective O’Shea, call him that, is investigating the case, Darlene’s background info could become fodder during O’Shea’s questioning of Annika’s nearest and dearest. If Darlene had visited her sister the night of the murder, but at first tells the detective they merely talked on the phone, his finding out that was a lie would cause him to re-interview her. That passive piece of background has been transformed into the basis for a hostile exchange. Darlene has become a source of suspense.

The detective might also find out about another suspicious piece of background. Darlene might have let Annika’s estranged husband come to her house for an entirely innocent reason: to talk to him about Annika’s number one problem with the marriage—his drinking. Yet once she’s murdered, Darlene might neglect to admit the meeting ever happened. After all, he was a belligerent asshole about it anyway. But if Detective O’Shea finds out, he could come running. The exchange might include a nice tension-producing accusation like: “Your brother-in-law was visiting your house the night before the murder because you wanted to scold him about his drinking?”

What has happened is that you have taken passive background information, meant to be dumped in one spot, and broken it into pieces that then can be acted upon. Darlene is not a major character, but she can add some pop to the story along the way. That’s a lot better than being a character that shows up with a chunk of background and then ends up not having a way to contribute to the main plot.

Exercise: Check the background notes you have for a character. Now, rotating from one to the next, run through in your mind how each one of your major characters (do you have five?) might interact with those notes. Do you see any promising friction through this linkage?

“Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.”
—George Lois

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Statues

One of the delights in writing historical fiction is imagining how real-life figures might act in situations that you devise. An author in this genre loves history anyway, and the personage can be one of the targets of research. As anyone engaged in this pursuit knows, many legends do not have firmly known personality traits beyond, say, George Washington’s steadfastness. That gives an author the leeway to make it up as it goes, to a certain extent.

Exploring the man (or woman) behind the myth can lead to pitfalls, though. The first occurs when featuring the personage on a recurring basis. One dictum of storytelling is that a character who appears regularly should gain increasing depth in order to maintain the reader’s interest in her. If the person on the throne, for one example, keeps on benevolently smiling when the protagonist reports, the reader stops caring about the ruler, and may even get annoyed because the character isn’t doing anything new. Totems are tall and impressive, but they always look the same.

A more serious offense is trivializing the personage. Such a character possesses a magnetism merely by virtue of being well-known. If you think about it, that happens in real life too, such as meeting Ellen Degeneres in the grocery store. She’s just buying squash, but you tell all your friends about the chance encounter. In fiction, a reader’s antenna bristles upon the mention. Does the writer’s conception of the person match the historical facts the reader knows about him? If Grover Cleveland keeps showing up at a brothel, wanting to try a new position in the Kama Sutra, exposing his big old belly over and over again, the reader may well become offended. He was a president, after all.

The harder work is doing such extensive research that an author feels confident enough to imagine how the personage would react in a fictional situation. George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo demonstrates the author’s brilliance, to be sure, but he also did a ton of research on Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. In order to pull off even a lesser feat means that an author needs to commit the hours needed to comb through correspondence, memoranda, etc. That may not be such a daunting prospect, however, for someone who loves research anyway. If a famous person exerts an instant pull on readers, think of how thrilled you will be when inhabiting her from the inside.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for any historical figures. Read the scenes focusing solely on them. Do their reactions show any fruits of research? If so, are you adding anything to a general reader’s impression of them, based on their high school history lessons, or the like? You are using the personages to aid your cause, so they should possess at least as much individuality as your other characters.

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”
—Winston Churchill

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Overloaded Explanation

In a civilization that increasingly progresses through scientific advances, a person who easily assimilates a body of knowledge in a scientific field can experience difficulties when he then tries to explain what he is writing about to a layperson. Twenty-first century, please meet the cave dweller. Perhaps the less gifted among us aren’t that bad, but the experience of explaining scientific terms can be a struggle. While many times this problem arises in nonfiction writing, any thriller writer who would like to emulate Michael Crichton is in the same boat. How do you smoothly lay out a process in which a term like NK-kB is easily understood?

The first thing to understand is that non-scientific minds really don’t get it, no matter how nice you are. I have edited (read: translated) dozens of science-based books, and I still feel a wall rise up in my mind when I see a term I don’t immediately recognize. You know, like the doors in the underground labs of James Bond movies? Sealed off, like that, knowing I belong in the stupid room. Now, could we try that again?

What I do as an editor dumbing down science is maintain consistency in approach. It is not enough to explain what the endothelium is in a blood vessel. You have to keep reminding the reader that it is a thin lining. Don’t then assume the reader will understand the adjectival form. I may have vaguely grasped how the endothelium is injured by junk food, but if you then casually throw in “endothelial dysfunction,” my mind freezes up. Couldn’t that be “injury to the endothelium”? If you keep the number of terms limited, we can sail on that shaky raft.

The same principle hold for multiple scientific terms in the same sentence. The lay reader may understand each of the terms, because you have explained each one individually, but that does not mean we will understand an entire conglomeration of them. For example, I tremble at a sentence like: “Formed from the amino acid L-arginine, oxygen and enzymes, nitric oxide is produced in both the endothelium and the smooth muscle cells to regulate the tone of smooth muscle within the artery.” I don’t really understand what amino acids are, what role oxygen plays, how enzymes work in this case, and nitric oxide conjures up memories of being terrible in high school chem lab. So try to keep it simple. If you use only one or a few terms per sentence, the reader won’t quit.

Finally, if you are writing a novel, don’t explain scientific terms in dialogue. In the first place, people don’t talk like that. More to the point, though, dialogue isn’t as precise as narrative. If you explain to the reader directly what the concepts are, you can write exactly the explanations that are needed for comprehension. Summarize what the doctor is patiently explaining to the cop, and the reader will feel far smarter.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
—Benjamin Disraeli

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Removing the Screen

A novice writer, trying so hard to inhabit a character, will often describe a piece of action taking place as seen by the character. The problem is, if you are truly inside your character’s head, everything is seen by her. Describing the act of seeing is a screen. Here’s an example: “When she looked up, she saw that he was easily making his way down, but when he landed, his foot slipped on a wet rock and he lurched forward.” On one level the narrative makes sense. If a character is contemplating her navel, and her attention is diverted by a more distant sight, she needs to look up. In addition, “she” controls the scene’s point-of-view, so she would be witnessing his clumsiness.

During the course of an edit, however, I usually take out all references to sight. It is possible that a character is so engrossed in something that she needs to physically turn her head to look up. Yet most of the time it is just lazy writing. More descriptive would be a phrase describing where the man is before he starts climbing down: a rocky bluff, a grassy dune, etc.

In particular, the phrase “she saw that” is hardly ever needed. If you’re inside the character, the point of view is assumed. A better strategy is to let the other character signal their presence first. Here is that sentence again, without the screens: “He called to her from the top of the rocky bluff. He easily made his way down, but when he landed, his foot slipped on a wet rock and he lurched forward.” She still is watching, but the actions of the other character are more immediate. The screen has been removed.

You can make the same implicit assumption for what a character thinks. The phrase “it seemed to her” is another one that I almost always delete. The entire book is filled with her thoughts, her opinions, etc. Everything that is narrated is the way it seems to her. Here’s an example, adding onto the beach example above: “It seemed to her that he had to stop trying to please her so much.” If she is the point-of-view character, you don’t need the screen. “He had to stop trying to please her so much” is more direct, allowing the reader to fully participate in her amusement and/or annoyance.

Exercise: Conducting a global search, key in any word related to sight, such as “look” or “see.” Judge whether the point-of-view character really needs to witness the event, or if it could just happen. Do the same with “seem.” This word rarely needs to be used in fiction. Everything is made up, so something is either real to the character or it isn’t.

“Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”
—Jonathan Swift

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine



As an editor, one of the more frequent roles I play is: referee of words. That is because seemingly every writer abides by strict grammar rules they have learned somewhere along the way. Given the wide variety of these “laws,” which often contradict each other, I have come to the conclusion that we are all storm-tossed refugees exiled from the faraway land of grammar class. We rely on our memory of those miserable days of main stems and dangling participles, and as we all know, memory is a fickle guide.

In these matters, a law of inverse proportions is at work. The less one knows about grammar, the more dear he holds his “rules” to his heart. The worst offender in this regard is the commentator within a writing group. I can’t tell you how many absurd theories I have heard coming from this mysterious oracle.

The next step up in the annals of ignorance is the writing class. In this case, you have to feel sorry for the teachers. They usually are drawn from the ranks of related citizenry. For instance, the first class I took was taught by a supervisor of a Northeast bookstore chain. She would be forced during class to arbitrate between students, knowing hardly more than they did. My advice to writing instructors is to refrain from ever commenting on grammar rules. She should know that her fledgling authors’ difficulties lie far deeper than that.

The confusion extends, by the way, all the way inside the ranks of a publishing house. Editors are broken into two camps: acquisitions editors and copy editors. At one time, the former ascended the company ladder from the latter. Yet that ceased to be true many years ago. The plain fact is, the two groups of editors fight each other all the time.  Acquisitions editors always want their authors to be happy, and copy editors always want the prose to follow “house rules,” usually drawn from a guide such as the Chicago Manual of Style. So even at a level that can be considered elite, we are all floundering, struggling to reach the promised land. And what is the name of that sainted country? I would vote for: Common Sense.

Exercise: The most curious of these “laws” concerns the usage of the much-aligned verb “to be.” Although I would counsel that a passive verb be avoided most of the time, you have to consider what you are trying to accomplish. Right there, in the very last sentence I wrote, is the word “are.” Yet that is not passive usage. The word “are” is a helper for the verb “try” in the progressive tense. Progressive means that the action is still going on. You can see, from just this one example, why the imperfect referee sometimes wants to tear his hair out.

“Devotees of grammatical studies have not been distinguished for any very remarkable felicities of expression.”
—Amos Bronson Alcott

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


A Need for Perspective

Writing a memoir can involve a number of different narrative approaches. Most good ones depend on the graceful wordplay of the writer. Yet even if you are not gifted, you can still captivate readers if you’ve had interesting experiences. The key is to recall scenes with enough vivid details that the reader feels like he is participating. A personable style, such as that of a blithe California commentator, can also go a long way toward encouraging this sort of intimacy.

Stringing together a series of focused vignettes can make for a riveting memoir. You just pick all the highlights of your life. The problem with merely lining up well-recalled scenes, however, is that a reader can become lost along the way. Say, you are describing a decline into teenage alcoholism. After a while you run the risk that all of the scenes of stumbling and laughter will start to seem the same. The memoir will feel like it is spinning its wheels. Even worse, the reader may start to become disgusted with you because the debauchery is so relentless.

A little perspective is in order. Since people begin life in a state of innocence, that return to the garden can always be hoped for. In practical terms, you might want to use representatives from a more wholesome period to provide perspective. Let’s say you were a straight A student in school until your parents split up. Your friends were your fellow smart classmates. Dumber kids looked up to you. If you take the time to sprinkle in encounters with these members of your former set once you start drinking, the reader has a benchmark to gauge how much you are declining.

That is the key. You don’t want to return to the garden too soon, because that would be boring. You need to keep pushing along the road you’ve staked out. So you create perspective, usually by featuring other people that are established in your life. One good choice is your mother. Where was she when all this drinking was going on? What did she do to try to stop it? Did those efforts become increasingly desperate and, in the end, hopeless?

By means of perspective, you create progression. You start at step A and proceed downward to step Z. You insert paragraphs or passages of perspective so that the reader not only enjoys participating in the well-drawn scenes but also knows where you are along your road.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye for where each vignette stops. You have to create a bridge to the next scene anyway, and that gives you an opportunity to pull away the camera lens and provide an overview: This is where I stand now. One gap in particular where such inserts can be placed is when you are jumping a significant period of time between scenes.

“Don’t worry if people don’t recognize your merits; worry that you may not recognize theirs.”
― Confucius

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Sick of It

Drama depends on a protagonist driving a story forward. For that reason few books cover a part of life that fells the best of us. If any type of illness is covered, it is likely to be mental illness or similar topics such as alcoholism or drug use. The pounding headache, the upset stomach, the violent ejections of phlegm, these are banished to the sidelines as unpleasant lapses. Maybe that is a reflection of an author’s personally despising the lost hours lost to misery. Imagine: lying in bad, with the entire day awaiting, and your head is so clogged up, you just want to drink tonics and sleep.

Another reason may be that what happens inside you while ill falls in the same category of descriptions about mental states that many authors find so difficult to capture. If you can’t run off a string of interior monologue in general, how are you supposed to describe that strained feeling that seems to knit your eyebrows together? The revulsion of seeing your own blood on a Kleenex?

The lack of excitement engendered by staying home in bed seems to be a missed opportunity in other respects, however. The idea of blockage mirrors the obstacles we encounter in the course of our everyday lives. Illness is an analogue of life is a bitch, and that can lead to all sorts of explorations. The parallel of vomiting and moral turpitude is easy to draw, as is a migraine with guilt. The constriction of the lungs echoes the fear of expressing oneself in public, and coughing equates with futility in pursuing an aim.

Adding an interlude of sickness can be a way of revealing character. How does a noble warrior in any field handle the common cold? Is he helpless like a baby, glad to shed his mask for a few gasping days? Does she welcome the feelings because they justify her perpetual hypochondriac complaints? Is he annoyed because the illness interrupts his busy agenda? Does she welcome the chance to stay home with the kids, even if she is feeling lousy?

When regarded that way, as an impediment to whatever glory the character is trying to attain, it functions as a mechanism of opposition, and that is what any writer wants in a novel. What does the process of being laid low bring out in the character? As a reader, I’d be curious to find out.

Exercise: Illness can also be used as a tool in fomenting tension. A character who is falling in and out of antibiotic drowsiness is vulnerable. A person who cannot get out of bed is helpless before an attacker. In other words, any character who is not thinking straight creates an electric current of unsteadiness that keeps a reader on the edge of his seat.

“It is in moments of illness that we are compelled to recognize that we live not alone but chained to a creature of a different kingdom, whole worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body.”
—Marcel Proust

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Letting Air into Your Prose

The process of writing consists of thousands of micro decisions. The search for the bon mot can consume hours of agonized mental wrestling, muttered curses, hunts in a thesaurus, and hopefully end with a bolt out of the blue that feels just right. For those writers who like exactitude in their writing, this ongoing ordeal can lead, however, to tight, impenetrable prose. You can tighten the screws so much on a sentence-by-sentence basis that the reader is not allowed inside the story as a whole. 

For the concise at heart, how much air are you willing to let into your narrative? How approachable should it be? If you yourself are growing fatigued after you review a long paragraph—itself a hallmark of dense writing—you should consider several tradecraft techniques that make the prose less impenetrable. 

The first is consciously examining individual words. Look at a thesaurus-inspired choice such as “obdurate.”  While I love this word, it lies on a higher level of diction than synonyms like “tough” or “flinty.” Or, if you really want the word’s exact meaning, look at the rest of the sentence. Do you also have other high-toned words that a reader has to process? Maybe “obdurate” stays and those other words could become more common.

Another reason for too-tight prose is sentence construction. I’ll leave complex and compound sentences aside, and concentrate instead on the use of active (as opposed to passive) sentences. If you have ruthlessly eliminated “there is” and “it is” from your prose—which I definitely recommend in general—you might want to be more forgiving. You can torture a sentence just to avoid using “there is.” Rather than redlining every such clause, ask yourself: am I introducing a new setting, etc., that needs the sort of introduction that “there is” provides? You may find that occasional use of the passive sentence opens up the prose.

Finally, you can use narrative devices that let in air, especially dialogue. You can’t tighten up too much how people talk; you’ll know it sounds artificial, not to mention dated, like a Victorian novel. Sure, your intelligent characters could use a better vocabulary, but everyone except the New York literati is reduced to “you know” every once in a while.

Exercise: Rather than rigorously changing every cliché into an original (and possibly confusing) statement, write out an alternative on a provisional basis, to be read a week or so from now. When you check back, compare the two and make a decision then. You may find that a third choice springs out at you—and that’s the right choice.

“If the English language made any sense, lackadaisical would have something to do with a shortage of flowers.”
—Doug Larson

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


My Favorite Days

As baby boomers reach retirement age, many of them reflect on a life well lived—and decide that others would like to read about it. A seasoned perspective can be interesting, although the amount of wisdom gained with age does not increase by nearly as much as statues of historical figures might indicate. That’s why a memoir that careens from one golden memory to another can so easily fall by the wayside.

Compressing a life into a nonfiction book equals the difficulty of shrinking a fictional life into a novel. Forget about the limitation of how much can be packed into 300 pages. The imperative really consists of finding a way to tell a story that is cohesive over that span. That’s why many published memoirs focus on a particular subject, such as a street in Vienna between the two world wars. The narrow compass limits the equivalent of funny anecdotes told at a party.

Finding a central theme will not suffice by itself, however. That’s because memoirs proceed as a function of time, and that presents plenty of opportunities to digress along the way. Introducing a new person into the story might bring to mind the party-filled boarding house where the author was living at the time. Off we go for a page or two as the author recalls the chief raconteur of the house.

By itself, the story might be very droll, but when the author continues to head down side alleys that glow with memory, the reader becomes distracted, losing the story thread. The enterprise is revealed for what it is: a sounding board for an old gas bag. The only way to elevate that type of memoir is by having an incredible number of exceptional incidents.

Once a focus is obtained, the element of wisdom gained comes into play. Success in the genre depends on stellar writing. After all, anyone can look back on highlights in their past. Since so many incidents are common to a wide range of people, the writing depends on unusual circumstances, to be sure, but also how the writer comments upon the event. If an older man tries in vain to sell his children’s wooden swing set, for example, what commentary he makes about the futile effort—how young parents view swing sets, among others—can make all the difference in the reader’s enjoyment. The more widespread the insight, the more readers feel included, warmed in the author’s grasp.

Exercise: If you have already written a fair amount of sprawling material, take a step back from the individual pieces and ask yourself: what do I really know, based on what my life has entailed? If it is Western-Eastern business relationships, for example, how could I present those incidents in a way that would shed light on the larger picture of how Western and Eastern mores have influenced each other?

“There is in me an anarchy and frightful disorder. Creating makes me die a thousand deaths, because it means making order, and my entire being rebels against order. But without it I would die, scattered to the winds.”
—Albert Camus

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Bearing Down on Verbs

Most writers know that they need to use active rather than passive sentence structure. “I aced the exam” is more forceful than “The exam was aced by me.” What I often find, however, is that the choice of active verb can also be less forceful because of its broad nature.

Walk, fall, say are but a few examples of verbs that encompass a variety of more precise verbs. One can walk, but also amble, stroll, meander, trudge, or plod. Each of these achieves a finer level of definition. They also bring a reader a little further inside your fictional world because the activity is more specialized, and thus evocative. “Larry crumbled” creates a different sensation from “Larry toppled.”

Another signal advantage of more precision is that you avoid repetition. The human beast moves in only so many ways, and usage of the same word over and over can lead to reader fatigue. A thesaurus is at any writer’s fingertips, and I avail myself of it continually as I’m editing. Yes, I do know many standard synonyms, but even those can become tired. Plus, I often find a terrific word—fairly standard, not exotic—that was just outside my mind’s grasp. In the example of fall above, I wouldn’t immediately think of “keel over.” By using more precise verbs, you are also keeping your language fresh for the reader.

Specialized verbs can, however, seem precious. If Georgia constantly “declaims,” the reader may wish she’d avoid speaking altogether. People just don’t declaim much in real life. Using three-dollar words all the time can become ridiculous, a parody of what you’re trying to achieve. So you do have to make a decision about how unusual a verb is. In any given list of a dozen synonyms for a verb, I will identify half of them as words in common usage, a few more on the fringe, and the rest exotic.

While you can try to employ better verbs at the very conception, you should be aware that such precision can stymie an author’s creative flow. You should get out whatever you’re thinking, even if the verb is common. For instance, if the original idea for a sentence stems from a desire to describe gingerbread trim on a Victorian porch, by all means put that down on the page. You will be going back to edit yourself anyway, so make more deliberate verb choices then.

Exercise: Run a global search for a verb with a broad meaning. Find out, first, how many times you’ve used it. Then draw up a list of possible synonyms, maybe a dozen or more. Go back to the broad verb you’ve highlighted and substitute from your list as you go through the manuscript. Try to determine how exotic you can go, given the context. By the time you’re done, you may have swapped out that broad verb 30 times.

 “To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man.”

Copyright @ John Paine, 2018


You Can Know Me by My Friends

I keep track of what’s going on in the books I edit. I create a separate file called “X reading notes,” and I enter a synopsis for every scene plus any comments. At the top of the file I list character names as they are introduced, mainly as a handy source of reference for the editorial letter that follows. Hopefully, as a character gains more prominence, he will be accompanied by family member, such as “w. Maria, s. Samuel, d. Isabella, f. Mort,” as well as friends and acquaintances. Such a grouping tends to single out the leaders of your pack.

In other words, the character list serves a schematic purpose. Like all readers, I enter a novel wondering which characters I should follow. You can set apart your main characters by posting background blocks about them upon first appearance, but you can also employ more seamless ways of setting a character apart. Too often an author starts off a major character within an inward-looking bubble, imitating the experience of the writer all alone at her desk. On the contrary, the people we know in real life have claims on us. So identifying outer parameters can become your best ally. A half dozen women in the novel may have husbands or others, but only Leslie is given the distinction of a sister who plays “Happy” relentlessly. That’s a signal to the reader. Humor is also a good indicator: if Shirley is witty and we can tell she’s best friends with Leslie, we think more of Leslie.

What happens if you have an important character who by structural necessity cannot appear in the early going? That’s when you’re trying to set up your major players, so we have time to get to know them during the course of the book. One simple way to point up such a character is introducing him at the beginning of a chapter. That placement is an announcement of sorts. We’re fresh off a chapter break, and some new person is leading a scene’s charge. He’s receiving quite a lot of attention . . . and now he’s linking up with a character we know is important . . . hey, we should pay attention to that guy too.

Exercise: You know who your important characters are. Take a look at how they are first introduced. Do you have clunky background sections upon their first appearance, making the rest of the book stop for them? Look at those back stories and pick out any characters that might make an impact during the course of the book. Could the former husband still sit in his parked car across the street some nights, for instance? In other words, take what is past and make them put pressure on what’s happening right now.

“Many of the characters are fools and they're always playing tricks on me and treating me badly.”
― Jorge Luis Borges

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Making Character Discoveries

Many writers start a novel with a plot concept and a few character sketches. The characters are put in service of executing the demands of the unfolding plot. As they gain more definition, they move from enacting plot events to having  thoughts about said events. If those are the only thoughts they have, however, the novel had better feature an unending string of exciting events.

One method of deepening characterization derives its impetus from thinking about the plot. This is expanding the horizon first to thoughts about events that occurred much earlier in the book and then beyond. Let’s use a running example to see how this works.

The marriage of Henry and Eleanor breaks up shortly after the novel begins. Henry works late hours, and he’s tired of being nagged about it. A younger office associate sees midlife male with money, and Henry tumbles. As Eleanor reacts with outrage and vituperation, the thoughts of both partners are focused on the  successive sad steps of the divorce proceedings, guided by their hawk-eyed lawyers.

As a writer, this plotting can be entertaining at first, but at some point the black-robed process starts to feel dull. Isn't this how divorces always go? The only way to achieve differentiation is through making the characters more individual. One way to do that is asking: what particular problems were Henry and Eleanor having before the breakup? You return to page 20, and sure enough, you wrote: “When he got home Friday night, he found a Post-It on the refrigerator informing him that she had taken the kids for the weekend to her parents’. She had been doing that a lot lately.”

If you’re on page 200, and Henry wakes up, feeling worn out by his energetic honey baby—who’s already left for work, of course, to impress Henry—he might think back to that evening, standing alone at the fridge. He was angry then, but reflecting back, how does he feel now? Regret that he didn’t make more time for the kids perhaps? Renewed anger at his wife for never telling him she felt neglected? Irritation with his golden-sixties mother-in-law?

All of these thoughts have more depth because the reader too remembers his feelings at that time. They are part of Henry’s history. But you can go beyond that. Take the mother-in-law, for instance. Henry might compare her to his present good fortune. “At least honey baby’s parents lived in Idaho.” And how about his father-in-law, a beleaguered mouse that, thank God, Henry has never been like? You could go on in that vein for a few more sentences. The long-past thoughts, in other words, are a gateway for further discoveries about Henry.

Exercise: When you comb through the material you wrote early on to set up your characters, open a new file in which you can expand upon the “facts” you find. Each time you locate a character, sketch out anecdotes that show the qualities the lead character remembers. Does, for instance, the mother-in-law play Joni Mitchell constantly?

“Memory has always fascinated me. Think of it. You can recall at will your first day in high school, your first date, your first love.”
—Eric Kandel

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Trembling Limb

People who thumb their nose at grammar seem to forget one of the most entertaining exercises, at least in my mind, in all of primary education. This was the drawing of the sentence tree. I will not deny that the instruction was rammed down our throats, usually by a kindly older woman with a remorseless heart. Yet I was intrigued by the sticks that had to be drawn to different clauses. Which words attached to which sticks?

These days, as an editor, what my mind retains foremost is the slanted line. That was drawn from the main stem of the sentence to a subordinate clause. In today’s prose, the elaborate arabesques of the Victorian era have mostly been stripped down to a leaner, more direct style of writing. In any given sentence, the chances the writer will compose more than one subordinate clause from a main stem is slight. “Approaching the woods, we veered off on a faintly marked path.” A subordinate clause is mainly used these days to vary the rhythm of the sentences. Even a three-sentence run of subject-verb, subject-verb can be tiresome.

In the process the participle (-ing) has become a more important part of speech. With some frequency I see authors spitting out participles as though they were just another tool in the arsenal, equivalent in force to an active verb. Yet that isn’t true. I know because the slanted line in the sentence tree tells me so. A participial phrase is a limb off the main trunk. Its use as a modifier means it is relegated to the function of an adjective or adverb, and that’s further down the list than a verb or even a noun.

That’s why, when you are choosing what to emphasize in a sentence, a participle should be your second choice. While “approaching” is useful in the sentence above, it occupies only a supporting role to “veered.” The active verb does the hardest work of the sentence, implying the random, winding nature of forest paths in general, not to mention a certain element of danger, since we live in a world of sidewalks and dotted lines on roads. What if the sentence read: “We approached the woods, veering off onto a faintly marked path.” Now the path is a secondary element; the boring part—getting to the woods—occupies the prime real estate. So the sentence tree isn’t just a hoary relic. After you write a sentence, you might want to think of those slanted lines of yore.

Exercise: As you review your manuscript, keep an eye out for participles. When you find one, cross-check it with the main verb of the sentence. Which is stronger? Which more forcefully carries the main action of the sentence forward? What happens many times is that you sense the need to vary sentence structure automatically, and what you originally intended to be the main verb in yet another subject-verb sentence ends up as a participle. Why don’t you try flipping clauses, making the subordinate into the main clause and vice versa?

“Easy writing makes hard reading.”
—Ernest Hemingway

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


One Sojourn Too Many

Everyone has favorite vocabulary words, and “dilly-dally” is one of mine. Besides enjoying the acerbic British wit behind its origin, I have found it applies to certain manuscripts I edit. That is not to say the author intends for the reader to wait around until her indulgence is played out, but the overall effect is the same. This problem occurs especially in novels that involve travel.  While we all enjoy being on the road to somewhere new, you are advised to keep an eye out for the effect a journey can have on your plotting. Another interesting word might be kept in mind: “unmoored.”

A foreign locale by its very nature involves elements of a travelogue: descriptions of exotica, impressions of the travelers, etc. Because the author has usually gone to that place, he wants to evoke what he found special about it for the reader, somewhat like a photo slideshow for the folks back home. The danger of such a stopover in a novel is also analogous to boring said folks with too many photos.

When viewed structurally, any scene functions best when it builds from previous material in a plot line. Therein lies the danger of placing a dramatic episode on the way to somewhere else. Usually a novel builds up its original base of conflict in a particular locale, let’s say London. The protagonist emerges from whatever background surroundings have been created, and she encounters new forces in the City that necessitate her travels. Yet look what happens the moment she walks up that gangway. She is leaving behind the theater of former conflicts.

As a reader, I was enjoying those conflicts, and I had already formed allegiances for and against known quantities that the protagonist was facing. Once the character is traveling, she generally is encountering new, foreign faces, people I don’t know. Although a new enemy may have a startling scimitar, I still don’t really care that much what happens—because I don’t know the guy. A part of me is secretly hoping we get back to England, so I can root against that guy I know I really hate. That weirdo with the scimitar? What was his weird name again?

The problem of being left adrift can be resolved by bringing along a crew on the travels. The job can be accomplished with only one companion, because the protagonist’s progress still can be measured against this constant benchmark. Adding several more could provide some variety, in the way that a mirror can be turned to capture different facets of a face.

Exercise: If you really need to tell us about Sri Lanka, consider the structure of the tale at that point. Could the villain have a reason to shadow the main character to this new locale? If the protagonist has a treasure, or clues to find a treasure, you can build upon the strengths of the relationships developed back home.

“Facts are the enemy of truth.”
—Miguel de Cervantes

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Grounding the Theory Bird

Many nonfiction authors have a wealth of experience and wish to share their hard-won wisdom, on subjects such as health or business. These books can be filled with extraordinary ideas and insights—and yet they seem so theoretical. It’s as though the author were stationed on a helicopter and shouting to the masses below as he whizzes by.

The problem with ideas, as stirring as they are, is that they can come to feel like abstract principles the writer is spouting off, expecting us to believe everything she says. Ideas need to be grounded. The best way to do that is to provide real-life examples of the principles. For instance, an author may tell me how easy it is to switch away from eating wheat—go gluten-free!—but I’m still daunted by the prospect. Really, no wheat? Yet if she then features a story about Ken from Fresno, who bought a loaf of quinoa and flax bread and found it just as filling, my thinking starts to shift. I could be like Ken, I guess, the next time I go to Trader Joe's. All the author’s high-flown arguments about what our Paleolithic ancestors ate is interesting, but I wasn’t going to budge until I met Ken.

That’s why most news articles start with a solitary person. As readers, we can identify with one victim of a hurricane. If the article then goes on to tell us that 39 died and 200 were left homeless, we are still thinking about that one person. One tragedy multiplied by 39, actually by 239. A good nonfiction book uses the same technique. Globalization is just a phrase until Thomas Friedman tells us about one IT entrepreneur in Bangalore. A reader can put herself in the shoes of one person—oh, so that’s how the offshoring of IT works.

I instruct most nonfiction authors to follow a simple principle: theory, example. Set up the overarching principle, then provide a human being who exemplifies the principle. The best part is, examples are easy to write. Most authors can think of dozens of examples. If you critically examine a nonfiction book, you will see how often this happens. We fly high and then we are grounded. That keeps the prose real. We are all lowly creatures of the earth, after all, so don’t let your intellect exceed our grasp.

Exercise:  Pick out a chapter from your unfinished manuscript. Start reading it merely for the principles you are setting forth. Watch particularly for two principles stated back to back. Admit it, are your eyes starting to glaze over, because you’re drifting away from the text? You need an anchor. Think of an example, one paragraph long, and drop it in. When you read it back over, do you feel the new connection with the prose?

“We do not write because we want to; we write because we have to.”
— W. Somerset Maugham

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Automatic

Although the English language does not have the richness of touted others, it does contain a profusion of words that convey a variant of the act of speaking. One can “aver,” “declaim,” “insist,” “protest,” or “thunder.” In particular genres of fiction, such as historical romance, heroines lustily engage in employing all shades of these words. Unfortunately for them, even the authors they are trying to invoke, especially poor Jane Austen, never used these words so industriously.

The reason is simple: such colorful words call attention to themselves. More to the point, they compete for the reader’s attention with what the character just said. At the end of a sentence, am I remembering “We’ll see about that” or “she riposted”? Humble reader that I am, I’d be struggling with “riposted.” What does that mean, again? I ask myself, feeling the specter of the looming dunce cap. What is worse, if such descriptors are used regularly, the reader starts feeling bounced between what is said and how it is said. “I really can’t comment on what is a private matter”—by mid-sentence I’m looking ahead: how did she say that? The end result is a good deal of fatigue and possibly disgust because what everyone is saying isn’t all that interesting, anyway.

The word “say” is what I call an automatic. It exists, like the word “the,” in order to perform a necessary function in a sentence. It identifies the reason that words are put inside quotation marks. Most of the time, we’re interested in what is being said, not how it is being said. Every once in a while, using such a word helps the reader. For instance, “demand” is different from “allow,” and we need to know that because the words spoken might be taken several ways. I would advise, however, that such usage occur infrequently. I actually believe that an adverb (dreaded though they are) used in conjunction with “said” can often feel more natural, and thus expressive.

Exercise: Review a passage of dialogue and see which words are used to describe what is being spoken. If an active verb other than “said” is used often, see if you can change the words being spoken to convey what that verb means. You’ll find that your dialogue becomes less pedestrian because you’re not relying on these identifying tags to do the work.

“Few realise that English poetry is rather like the British constitution, surrounded by pompous precedents and reverences.”
—Austin Clarke

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Strung Together

A compound sentence can take on the qualities of a three-dollar word when it becomes predominant in an author’s style. Sentence length by itself doesn’t matter all that much (I used 21 words in the first sentence). As an editor, I object only when the piling on of phrase after phrase confuses the reader. Plus, the type of author given to such sentence structure tends to eschew the use of commas. The ideal, I suppose, is use long, unfettered strands to achieve a rolling sweep of words.

A pertinent question for any writer is how hard she wants to make the reader work. If her attitude is that she writes for herself and the reader had better admire the brilliance, she needs to be a brilliant writer, not only with words but arresting insights as well. That is, the challenge to the reader is rewarded by the hard work of the author.

Most writing, however, operates at a more pedestrian level. The excessive length in that case seems designed to lend an air of grandeur to common vocabulary words describing ordinary thoughts. The challenge to connect all of the clauses is the same for the reader, but the payoff for such effort is harder to discern. The lack of commas, which often provide a reader a break, can make the procession resemble a long march. So it is not surprising that readers can fall in exhaustion to the wayside.

Modern prose style emphasizes originality of approach. The Victorian era of layered, dense prose worked wonderfully in an era before film. In the 21st century, the authors I admire employ fairly short sentences, but the words are charged by the point of view, or the acuity of description, or the penetration beyond conventional ideas. The reader’s enjoyment derives from riding along on the book’s journey with a remarkable commentator. Life is shown to be strange and exhilarating, after all.

The next time you are tempted to compose a complicated sentence, stop and take a look at the core thought that governs it. Is it charged with value, whether of emotion, insight, or originality? If not, maybe a better approach is to step off that lofty authorial plane and dig down into what you’d really like to tell the reader.

Exercise: Knowing the grammatical rules of comma usage can help an author  tremendously. If the two full sentences you are joining with a conjunction express quite different ideas, you are muddying their distinction by lumping them together in a single flow. Maybe they should be broken into two sentences. If you want a smooth segue with opposing ideas, maybe the second half should start a new paragraph entirely.

“Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.”
—E. B. White

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Information Dump

When your novel features a world that is vastly different from our own, you have to supply enough details to show how people in that realm operate. This imperative appears most often in the historical and sci fi/fantasy genres, where old or new cultural norms represent a large portion of the book’s appeal. Inserting such explanations works well if you have an entire book in which to scatter them. What happens, though, when the main character(s) has to enter a new world, say, halfway through the book?

This problem appears most often in novels featuring a journey. While it’s fun to voyage to new lands, you also have to tell the reader how the joint runs. What were the people like in Atlantis? Who was fighting who in 19th century Ceylon? Once you get started on a flight of fancy, you soon find that it must contain enough complexity to make it feel satisfying enough to the reader to bother going there.

Not only does that add up to a lot of information, but you need to place most of it when you first cross that land’s threshold. That way the reader understands how different it is, or what the stakes are in this strange place. As a result the book slows down. A new character or two becomes a mouthpiece telling the newcomer everything that’s going on. The reader is overloaded with a new cache of information. None of that bodes well for a story.

What can you do? One good idea is to break up the background dump into smaller chunks. This can be done in several ways. The first is to front-load material before the character ever gets to the world. For example, a gray-haired exile from that destination could, upon learning where the character is going, tell a story about his former land. When a page or so is dropped in here and there, a good deal of background can be pre-told.

Second, you can determine which material needs to appear as soon as the new world appears. Maybe the reader only has to know right away that the Klingons and Metastis have been at war for hundreds of years. The stuff about the Klingon emperor can wait for another 30 pages, until the character reaches the palace. That way the reader can put her feet solidly on the ground, enjoy the view, but the pacing does not slow down.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for any long blocks of expository dialogue. Past a certain length, this device can strike a reader as artificial. Determine what needs to be said, because the main character interacts vocally with it, and what could be turned into narrative. All you have to is change it to indirect speech: She went on to relate how . . .

“When we first broke into that forbidden box in the other dimension, we knew we had discovered something as surprising and powerful as the New World when Columbus came stumbling onto it.”
—Ken Kesey

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


How Long Is a Reader’s Memory?

In a novel with a dominant main plot, the ending may be seen from a long way off. A sense of inevitability starts to mount until the lack of anticipation becomes draining, and the book becomes put-downable. Part of the craft of writing is keeping the reader confused, off balance, so that its turns, and especially the ending, cannot be predicted.

The best way to create variety is to create multiple plot lines. When a reader finishes a chapter featuring plot line 1, she becomes diverted onto line 2, or 3, which may or may not have anything to do with plot line 1. Because the main plot line will still contain the most scenes, you might consider an arrangement in which the subplot is compartmentalized into 8-10 scenes during the course of the book. So the first step is to sketch out how the plot line will build from one scene to the next. Write a paragraph that summarizes what each scene is about.

Then you need to become a manager. That’s right. Your reader’s enjoyment depends on how well you alternate between a main plot and a subplot. Let’s say you want to write eight scenes in the subplot. How many pages do you have in the manuscript? Let’s say you have written 400 pages. You know you want to start and end with the main plot, so that’s two more units. Then do the math. If 400 is divided by 10, you should insert a subplot scene every 40 pages.

Yet you have another consideration. It’s important that you keep subplot characters on the reader’s radar screen enough that he does not forget them. Is 40 pages too long to keep these characters vital in the reader’s mind? I think the maximum number is closer to 30, so you might want to think in terms of 30-40 pages.

Last, numbers count when you’re considering length of scenes as well. If you run out a skein of main plot scenes for 33 pages and then drop in a 3-page subplot scene, is that long enough for the reader to care less about what is happening in the subplot? Think about it: 33 to 3. I’m not sure why I should be bothering with the people in those 3-page scenes. Why don’t you shoot for 6-7 pages per scene, long enough for your subplot guys to matter each time?

Exercise: The tricky part comes in when you have more than one subplot. You still want a maximum of 30 pages of separation. If the main plot is A, and the two subplots are B and C, you might aim for an alternation pattern that roughly runs: A-B, A-C, A-B, A-C, etc.

“If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor.”
—Edgar Rice Burroughs

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Getting Familiar

The transition from narrating what a character does to what a character thinks is transformational for a writer.  Neophyte authors usually start from the outside, as though their main character is merely someone who does more walking and talking than others. Breaking through the barrier to interior work can be done in various ways. One is to allow a character to judge a situation on his own terms.

How does this work? Let’s say two characters are vying to solve a puzzle leading to a family heirloom emerald necklace worth millions of dollars. Laura comes upon Elmore, in the dead of night, pulling a secret lever opening a hidden wall in the library. If you as the author don’t put thoughts in Laura’s head, you’re missing out on half of the dramatic impact the scene contains.

So you personalize her reactions. Think from her perspective. First of all, what is the object worth to her in plot terms? Tell it her way, such as: “She had to stop him. She wouldn’t permit millions to be stolen from under her nose.” When you narrate plot advances that way, the words become charged. What happens matters to the character.

Now sit back and take a longer view. She’s been looking for that necklace for 100 pages, say. She feels like it is hers already, because of all that effort.  So you write that way: “She felt the pistol resting in her bathrobe pocket. That’s how far she would go to protect the necklace. Her necklace.” Again, all you’re doing is telling the reader about plot events, but the version becomes charged by relating how she feels about them.

You can also get personal by having a character disparage another. People say unkind things about others all the time, and that helps the reader feel like he is included in an inside joke. In the running example above, you could insert something like: “A scratch on the lock told her it had been recently jimmied. By Elmore. She should have known a snoop like that would find the treasure.”

Finally—and I can’t believe authors neglect this—you tell the reader how the character feels about a plot object. That tells the reader how she should feel about it: direct transference. What happens when Laura finally holds the necklace in her hands? “She gulped at the glorious sight. It was all she could have ever imagined.”

The plot proceedings haven’t changed. Only the viewpoint has. Each step of the way becomes charged emotionally. Now the reader cares what happens.

Exercise: Review a scene and highlight every sentence that is told neutrally—i.e., there is no assigned point of view for the statement. Now go back and examine each one. Sometimes you can’t apply a point of view—e.g., the moon is full no matter who looks at it. But you’d be surprised by how many times you can give the statement to a character.

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

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Letting Go

Expression in any art form depends on a combination of factors, among them talent and freedom from social norms. The first is more important, of course, because anyone can become a fall-down drunk. Yet time after time I encounter manuscripts in which the storytelling is fine, but the characters’ thoughts feel a little same-same, the insights are focused on the plot, and the overall story arc isn’t as exciting as promised. Because writing is such a sprawling enterprise, it is hard to define why such impressions creep up on the reader. The impact of the writing, though, is clear enough: the reader doesn’t want to read another book by that author.

On a regular basis we hear about some new scandalous act perpetrated by a Hollywood actor, and we scratch our heads, wondering why somebody would do something so stupid. Yet we don’t connect that with our society’s reverence for the down-and-out genius. The fact is that those actors lacked self-control long before they had the money to splash the headlines.

Writers tend to be very private people. Why else would they squirrel themselves away in a book-lined room for hours? That’s not normal. So, you see, already they are displaying aberrant behavior. The problem for most of them is that they don’t unlink their minds from the quotidian flow of everyday life. Even in solitude they are still bound by a desire to fit in when they leave that room.

A good friend once made an observation that has rung like a bell throughout the years. When I was a penniless writer, he said: “John, you’ll never be great, because you can’t let go.” He meant that I wasn’t willing to go out and make a fool of myself, and that’s what was needed to break through my self-imposed limits.

I am not advocating that writers become a plague upon society. I just am pointing out that a reason that you may be dissatisfied with your writing stems from the blockage on ideas that you impose upon yourself. Clarity comes from obstacles removed, as any guru could tell you. Once you are willing to become unhinged, you are able to view society from the outside. Then you can bring back to the reader what you’ve found.

Exercise: The next time you sit down to write, break free of what you have been doing. If you have been writing in the safe third-person voice, change to the more naked first-person. If you have been penning skillful repartee, have one of your characters bring down her fist and splinter the table. Rather than a character living comfortably on unknown funds, have him wonder where he is going to scrape up his next meal. Go beyond yourself. When you focus on narrating what you wouldn’t dare try, you’re crossing the boundary into exciting fiction.

“The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes.”
—Andre Gide

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Summing Up a Chapter

One of the keys of making the different pieces in a nonfiction manuscript—usually chapters—fit together is to link them. While you can stress certain themes of the book at multiple points, I am discussing the more straightforward work of adding a strong ending to each chapter. Here are a few pointers.

First of all, elevate. What does that mean? The chapter has been operating on a plane filled with specifics. Let’s say you’re writing about growing up on a farm in the 1950s. The chapter has covered the different steps involved in threshing oats. You’ve covered the machinery, the phases, and storage methods. In the next chapter you want to switch to an old-time schoolhouse.

At the end of the chapter, you don’t want to keep on listing specifics. If you do that, the reader naturally assumes that the chapter will continue. After all, that’s the plane on which you’ve been operating for the past 15 or so pages in the chapter. So you start the last paragraph (or two, if needed) by making a more global statement about threshing. “With the growing use of tractors, those days when all the neighbors would move from farm to farm would unfortunately come to an end.” You’ve risen above the fray, so to speak. You’re using a general term like “those days.” If you were filming a movie, you would be pulling back the camera lens for a group shot. If you write a few more sentences, operating on this higher level, the reader will feel the narrative distance you are creating.

You could write a 3-4 sentence paragraph that merely pulls away. If you are more clever, though, you will want to write an entire chapter bridge. Think about what a bridge does. It joins two segments of land. So one pier, so to speak, is anchored in the chapter you are finishing. The other rises from the chapter to come. Your sentences form the bridge.

If you use those 3-4 sentences to lead away from the completed chapter, you have partly crossed the bridge. If the next chapter discusses a rural schoolhouse, you then have to ask yourself: how do I get from here to there? Well, you were a child, and you went to school every day. So the threshing occurred when you were on summer break. So the bridge sentences to get the reader to school could run something like: “Once our winter food supplies were safely stored away, we had to switch from threshing’s demanding physical labor to work of another sort. Fall was coming, and that meant the start of another school year. In some ways, the work of learning was even more demanding.”

You’re still on that elevated plane. You’re about to delve into the specifics of your old school in the next chapter. When you think of a bridge, it too is elevated. All you’re doing is taking a longer view. If you think about it, that’s easy. The hard work is collecting all of those specifics.

“Any man who afflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood.”
 —H. L. Mencken

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Just the Right Word

I'll follow up on the post the other day by drilling down deeper into word choices. That's because our minds can be stuck in certain ruts, and we end up using the same words over and over again. I frequently consult a thesaurus because a manuscript I’m editing keeps employing certain common words over and over again. While freshness of story concept is an overarching attraction for a reader, freshness of vocabulary can be a subtler but ongoing source of satisfaction.

I have to admit, I love reviewing an entire horde of possible substitutes for a word. Each has its own shade of meaning. Among the greatest assets of the American Heritage Dictionary are its boxes that parse out, in a sentence apiece, how a list of similar words should be employed. For instance, “bombast” and “claptrap” seem to be roughly equivalent, but the dictionary points out the difference. “Bombast stresses inflation of style but does not always imply insubstantiality of thought,” whereas “Claptrap is insincere, empty speech or writing.” I think most good writers want to make sure that they are using the right shade of meaning.

You need to be careful. though. Often I encounter a word that is approximately correct, but stands out like a sore thumb because it is elevated so far beyond the writer’s usual level of diction. A look at one of Merriam-Webster’s Words of the Day on my homepage shows the wide divergence of common versus fancy. The word was “nimiety,” one that, despite my fair knowledge of vocabulary, had me stumped. It turned out to mean “excess, redundancy.” Synonyms supplied included “overkill,” “plethora,” “superfluity,” “surfeit,” “surplus,” and “preponderance.” If you are writing a thriller in which you have tough guys and molls, the words that will fit your level of diction are going to be “overkill” and “surplus.” A reader of the genre immediately grasps the meaning and moves on. If you are careful, you will find another word at the same level of diction—that  will work perfectly.

The other words would be good choices in a more literary work, although I’m still not sure about “nimiety,” unless you like to use three-dollar words that send readers scrambling for the dictionary. (I will note that, oddly enough, in the days when I used to write down every word I didn’t know, I found Henry Miller had the widest range of vocabulary words. Read Black Spring at your peril.)

Being a wordsmith means knowing your tools. If you are as boundlessly creative as the authors you admire, the bon mot will pop into your fertile brain. Yet if you find yourself annoyed that you’ve picked the same word once again, a thesaurus provides a means by which to free yourself from the rut you’re in. Just think: an entire paragraph of similar words, and maybe even several paragraphs. That can only be described as a pleasure to behold.

Exercise: One reason you are frustrated enough to consult a thesaurus may be that you’re trying too hard. You’re trying to jam that overused word into a sentence. Instead, review the possible synonyms with an open mind. You may discover that an alternate word that you like won’t fit into your existing sentence—but it would if you reconstructed the sentence around the synonym.

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Plucking and Choosing

Writing software tools such as Find can be a godsend for a careful author. As an editor I have a mental clicker that keeps track of overused words and expressions. Yet an author has a harder time seeing these, because the repetitions represent the way you spark the power to generate other words used in those sentences.  In other words, certain ways of phrasing a sentence puts you in your wheelhouse for expressing a new idea. So, an author should use “quite” and “rather” qualifiers if they help prompt a sentence that is provocative and interesting. After you’re done, you just take out the “quite” or “rather”—and everything else still sparkles.

I run the Find function when my intuition tells me that a word is being overused, and I sometimes have been shocked by the results. I knew characters were doing a certain amount of staring at each other, but 148 times? A person could get eye strain from that. That’s where another computer aid comes in.

I use a dashboard thesaurus often, flicking the screen over to study possible alternatives. After all, I’m in the business of keeping the vocabulary in a manuscript fresh. On occasion I find that none of the synonyms really will work, but nine times out of ten I spy another word at the same level of diction that I know very well—and will work perfectly.

You can also run a global search on trickier items of redundancy. One phrase I look for often is “as if” or “as though.” This sort of sentence construction has valuable uses, but when I see it repeatedly, I usually feel that the prose in general is getting snarled in complex sentences. Again, writing depends on how an author thinks. If you naturally compose complex sentences, using “as though” is a natural extension of unspooling a thought. Many readers, especially nowadays, don’t think that way, however. What I tend to do is delete "as though" and separate the sentence into two.

What I really wish for—if Santa visits the world of computer editing—is a search function that would identify how many participial phrases are used in a manuscript. Many such phrases are stronger when they become an independent sentence. But if you try to look up “ing “ you will be frustrated. The suffix is used too often for other purposes. If robots can clean my house, how come they can’t look for a comma followed by a participle?

Exercise: If while reviewing your manuscript, you feel a tic that you’ve seen that usage before, stop. You have, almost for sure. Type the word or phrase into your Find window and see how many times it is used throughout the manuscript. You’ll likely gulp at the number. Then spend a few minutes looking up synonyms, not only for that word but for similar words. Start jumping through the search and adding fresh vocabulary.

“I have written—often several times—every word I have ever published.”
—Vladimir Nabokov

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Selective Engineering

When you edit a manuscript based on another person's advice, you may be surprised by how much impact a limited amount of rework has on the problem being addressed. Any author will be cheered by this news, because it accords with a natural law of writing. Advice given is sweeping; the writer’s response is grudging. It works that way because the author is the one who has to plow through the practical steps of making the changes.

As an editor, I know more than I want to about the depressing variety of author  responses to criticism. Some authors change a sentence here and there and ta-da! That kind of editing is too limited. Others rewrite and add hundreds of pages—toward a grand design that bears little resemblance to the advice.

You want to be strategic. How large is the issue being addressed? That tells you how many changes you should make. If, for example, someone remarks that he didn’t get to know the protagonist’s boyfriend well enough to care when he breaks off the book-long relationship, that’s pretty large. You would want to shoot for a minimum of five places in the manuscript where the relationship is augmented. Two of those might consist of new scenes entirely. In the end, how much are you really adding? Maybe 15-20 pages? Yet when the coverage is expanded in five separate locations, we get to understand the arc of the relationship much better. Now the break-up has an emotional payoff.

The advice may address a slighter issue, and your response should be commensurate. If a hero regularly meets with buds at a bar, the reader might complain that all the friends are an undifferentiated mass. So you pick out two—one loud and one sensitive maybe—and add coverage for them in those scenes. You cut down (or give the lines of lesser players to one of the two you picked) on the others, and you’re done. How many bar scenes are there, anyway?

You may decide that the change suggested will require too much work to be worth the effort. Let’s say a street kid ends up being adopted. You’re advised to make the child older, because a girl at age six functions essentially as a go-go doll. Pick me! Yet as you review the scenes in which she appears, you realize you’d have to rewrite all of them to make her 12, not to mention devising different plot outcomes because of her added sophistication. You have to ask yourself: how central is she to the drama? Is the story really about the adopting couple?

Exercise: With any change, first review the scenes in which the targeted characters appear. Only those scenes, lifted out from all the rest. Study the dynamics within that limited purview. Now start writing the new material or pruning the old. You can always figure out how the new work ties in with the rest of the book later.

“When you stand alone and sell yourself, you can't please everyone. But when you're different, you can last. “
—Don Rickles

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Out of Fashion

Popular interest in many subjects waxes and wanes in cycles, and the publishing industry follows suit. I raise this point because I sometimes receive submissions that, however well executed, I know will be a tough sell simply because of the genre. Yes, it is possible that a publisher will buy a drug-runner thriller these days, but the odds are long. That was so 90s.

One primary reason that authors embark on book-long quests in vain is because that is the sort of book they once enjoyed. A child can get wrapped up in the westerns written by Zane Gray, and when the time comes to write that first novel, the fondness for the days of frontier justice can resurface. Countless hours can be spent reliving the glory of horsemen riding up and down prairies. At the end of all that effort, though, you find what you knew all along—that is, if you frequent bookstores. No one reads westerns these days.

That is not to say that legal thrillers or bodice rippers are verboten. You just need to realize that you have to go beyond what authors were spinning out when that market was hot. An analogy can be drawn to rock ‘n’ roll: I might enjoy listening to a song that re-creates 80s pop, but I’m still going to feel that it sounds dated. Slavish imitation doesn’t work in any era.

You might think in terms of a hybrid. That was the origin of a hugely successful wave: the werewolf romance. Science fiction is employed liberally in dystopian novels. Mixing genres does pose a marketing risk—because publishing professionals want a label they can sell—but if you emphasize one above the other, the approach can be regarded as fresh.

You can also set out to write the finest in genre. Larry McMurtry’s sprawling Lonesome Dove not only was twice the length of the typical western, but it wove in a timeless romance. Patrick O’Brian raised the naval saga game with a high level of technical expertise. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall soars head and shoulders above most historical dramas. In other words, if you are willing to put in the hard work, the book will shine in the way any well-wrought novel stands out.

Exercise: The first step toward excellence is knowing what is ordinary. In any field, you should assess the competition to see what niche you can create for yourself. Can you add regional cooking recipes to your mystery, for example? Or, go the titanic route: make the book so colossal, so chock-filled with story elements, it will become a monument of its kind.

“Style is the perfection of a point of view.”
—Richard Eberhart

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


What Is a Copy Editor?

Any book that is published goes through a series of production stages, and one is the copy edit. Often a writer is confused by the position of copy editor. After all, their editor has already had a crack, isn’t that enough already? I’m afraid not. The copy editor comes in after that stage, and their job is to correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Often they will suggest minor textual changes as well, such as advocating parallel sentence construction, clarifying word usage, etc. Their work is vital to the process, because no reader enjoys a book that is filled with errors.

Part of a copy editor’s job is making sure grammar rules are followed consistently. If you have a full sentence after a colon, for instance, is the first word capitalized or not? Does it matter if that sentence is a question? Copy editors apply the rules, usually according in the Chicago Manual of Style, and also following a style sheet provided to them by the publishing house. That’s because almost all copy editing these days is done by freelancers.

Having been both an in-house copy editor and a freelance copy editor, I know most of the nuances of the trade. Above all, I know that copy editors can be rigid. In the desire of make usage consistent, they can go to absurd lengths. For example, some copy editors think that hyphens should not be used with common prefixes such as pre- and post-. So they become part of a word that does not normally have them, such as prelaunch and postlaunch. When this rule is applied inflexibly, words can become unwieldy, such as preconstruction. The reader has to stop to read the word again, because the assemblage is so odd.

Luckily for authors, the Chicago Manual of Style says that many grammar questions fall in a gray area. There is no absolute rule for, for instance, spelling out numbers after 10. In fiction you are supposed to spell them out to 100, but in nonfiction you often don’t. Chicago gives a general piece of advice for these questions: whatever style the author uses, follow that. So if you write a nonfiction book and are consistent about using numbers after 10, you should be indignant if the copy editor spells them all out.

You have the right to request that copyediting changes be reversed to what you originally wrote. Yet you should be aware, if you don’t have a firm grasp on grammar rules, that in most instances a copy editor is following someone’s rules. If you don’t know enough to protect your own reputation from ill word usage, you can be assured that publishing houses will protect theirs.

“Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.”
—T. S. Eliot

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Negative Vibe

One reason for writing a memoir is sounding off about a subject that has offended the author. While journalistic skills may come into play, this sort of book tends to be deeply personal. In inexperienced hands, that may mean too much passion stains the storytelling.

The attitude of the author can torpedo the entire enterprise. If she is railing against the police for its failure to enforce gun-control laws, for instance, care needs to be taken in balancing points of view. No matter how well intentioned—the author may want to save other children from gun violence—a constant barrage of negative opinions can have an effect quite different from what was meant. One possible outcome is that the reader starts to dislike the author for complaining so much.

Journalists follow a rule that applies in this case. They try to get opinions from both sides of an issue, no matter how obvious the injustice involved. A memoir cannot employ the same even-handedness, but it can achieve balance in other fashions. Rather than quoting from researched sources, the writer can employ personal correspondence that expresses the opinions of friends and family members. The chances that all of the author’s siblings feel the same way on all issues are quite unlikely, and allowing a contrary opinion can temper the narrative.

Another useful technique is inserting more details. Often what is dragging down a manuscript is the author’s tight control of the narrative. He ventures his opinion of an incident without diving deeply enough into what happened for the reader to experience it for herself. If you take the time to think of details that fill a scene, you can let the details express your opinion without commentary. For instance, a dingy, banged-up hallway in a hospital ward can express the author’s dismay at a relative’s medical treatment all by itself.

Dialogue is another useful tool. Following the same lines as details, the addition of what people said at the time pulls the story free of the author’s grasp. Such conversations permit the expression of other opinions. Moreover, a confrontation let out in the open can make an author’s case just by what is said—no opinions needed.

The progression from outrage stewing in the mind to outrage expressed through skillfully told situations is a variant of a novelist’s dictum to show, don’t tell. You let the reader convince himself that the issue needs correction. That's how you really change people's minds.

Exercise: In order to fully place a reader in a given scene, don’t work from what you’ve written already about it. Lean back in your chair and close your eyes. Imagine the scene and then try to identify a detail that jumped out at you at the time. Write that down. Keep leaning back and closing your eyes, allowing yourself to dwell in that place until you have compiled a list of details.

“The smaller the mind the greater the conceit.”

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Notes: The Next Best Thing

Some days you sit down to write, and instead of feeling a flow of clever words leaping from the wellspring within, you experience the sensation of deepest sludge. You fight it. You get out a sentence, maybe two, yet you remain trapped in the mire. You’re going nowhere and you know it. You just can’t break through today.

Luckily, writing also consists of notes you need to take to help shape a character or to advance a plot line. Writing notes is far easier than writing prose. The notes will never been seen by anyone but you, so they can be jotted down as they come to mind. You can write about what you intend to accomplish. Or, you can sit back and dream up descriptions for different characters. You remember a spiky look on a website and decide, “That’s the look I want for my supporting character.”

As an editor, I feel that authors who don’t write notes about what they want to do end up wasting a lot of time. They go off on listless forays that they end up throwing out, sometimes the very next day. If you like, notes are flags in a field; just because you know you’re going in that direction doesn’t limit you from pursuing butterflies along the way.

Best of all, by writing notes, you are staying in contact with your novel. Sure, the notes aren’t the final text, but you would edit and rewrite your prose anyway. What you’re really doing is giving yourself permission to live inside your book even though you’re not in top form.

This point is particularly important for authors who don’t have time to write every day. If you’ve gone a week or two without writing, writing notes can be a way of checking in with your story. You’re making a commitment to sit down, and the boost you receive may pave the way for a terrific writing session. Because creativity is so unpredictable, you may find that note taking is the spur that gets you writing, for real. Even if that doesn’t happen, I’ve often found that a note I write becomes an actual sentence in the novel. It comes out right, even if it was supposed to be merely a note. You’ve made an advance even on a day you wish you could hurl your computer out the window.

Exercise: You can also employ this technique for specific scenes. Rather than trying to write for your present scene, write out a half page or so of basic points you want to cover in that scene. If any one of them strikes you as something you’d like to add to, keep writing a few more sentences. Once you’ve finished a paragraph, see if you’d like to convert it into actual text for the scene.

“The ideal view for daily writing, hour for hour, is the blank brick wall of a cold-storage warehouse. Failing this, a stretch of sky will do, cloudless if possible.”
—Edna Ferber

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Rejecting Recaps

The mystery genre is filled with literary devices, and one of the more common is the recapitulation scene, in which the protagonist and often a sidekick add up the clues they have at the present time. When used the right way, such a scene can provide a new insight to the reader. The thinking goes: because we know those factors, we can deduce this result.

In my editing practice, I often suggest that such scenes be cut from the manuscript. Why is that? The answer turns on another component of mysteries: each scene should contain an element that moves the plot forward. Writers make a mistake when they think that talking about what happened represents a new plot turn. That’s not true. Usually the reader experienced the past plot action when it happened. So there’s no point in talking about an event we already know.

This mistake can be compounded when other characters who didn’t know about the plot event are told about it. The protagonist can tell A, B, and C about the same thing, with the only difference being how the new character reacts. In the meantime, the reader grows more and more sick of the plot spinning its wheels.

In a number of cases, I will propose that the conversation result in a new finding. If it is learned that the watchman was missing not only on that Tuesday night, but every Tuesday night of the past month, that represents a plot advance. Now the reader has to learn why that pattern was set up and, more to the point, with whom on the outside? I would turn the page to learn the answer to that. But I’m not as motivated if Jennie responds, “It seems suspicious that the watchman was missing Tuesday night.” I may like Jennie a ton as a person, but she is not producing anything new by saying stuff like that.

The charisma of the characters is a mitigating factor. In many talk-filled mysteries, such as those by Janet Evanovich, the reader is having such a good time that plot advances become less important. We just want to find out more about the crazy mixed-up family. But in that case, I would advise cutting recap scenes just so we can focus on the funny conversations.

You need new tricks up your sleeve. Inventing new steps in a mystery isn’t hard. But you can’t rely on characters to do a plot job for you. You need further bread crumbs in your scheme.

Exercise: The main reason for excessive recap scenes is the lack of good suspects. You should try to have three in play at any given time. That allows you the scope to plot out three intersecting lines. Each of the suspects has different steps in his trajectory, and when you mix and match them, you’ll have plenty of plot advances.

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”
—Arthur Conan Doyle

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


How Much Is Enough?

The world of nonfiction books is filled with good intentions. An author has a desire to impart knowledge, and once the process gets under way, it takes on a life of its own. You start to realize that each topic you are covering has complexities that need to be covered. Pretty soon what started as a gleam in your eye has expanded into a manuscript that is hundreds of pages long. You’ve written so much, you don’t remember what you were writing when you started off.

At a certain point you need to stop and look around you. More exactly, you need to go to a bookstore or library and check the other books in your field. If you are writing about the evolution of barns, for instance, you should seek out all those books. You’ll find an array of approaches. Some books consist only of text: they’re pure histories. Others, particularly regional and how-to books, may mix text and drawings. A coffee table book is oversized, filled with stunning color photos and not much text. Who needs text for a Vermont barn at the height of autumn?

Beyond type, you need to examine the average length of the book. If you are writing a book on how to stop a baby from crying at night, you don’t want to write a 400-page tome. Think of the poor, suffering parents that are your main audience. Do they want to spend all that time reading through every possible permutation, from common colic to weird disorders suffered by only one in a million babies? If most of the books on that shelf are 200 pages long, you have to be smart. Write a 200-page book. If they see your big, fat monster, they are likely to think: I don’t have time to read all that.

The same consideration works on the converse side. If you have written only 100 pages, you need to consider adding either more text or more pictures. Yes, in this day of electronic books (think: Kindle Short), you don’t have to worry that your printed book will look like a pamphlet. Yet you do need to think of your reader’s consideration of value. A book is like any other piece of merchandise. If other books are offering 200 pages, the reader may feel that reading 100 pages is taking the cheap route. If you are or you know a wonderful illustrator (not your sister, please), you might commission her to create 20 drawings related to, say, babies and parents.

“A great man is always willing to be little.”  
―Ralph Waldo Emerson

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Ideas from Your Notebook

If you can’t get started during a writing session, you might turn to a source of inspiration that can take you in unexpected directions. I’m assuming that you keep a pocket notebook, or the electronic equivalent, around you at all times. Writing is the art of observation, to a very large extent. William Burroughs once wrote: “Nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making something exist by observing it.”

As the day passes, listen to what your office mates are saying. Listen to the oddball everyday stories or incidents that someone inevitably comes up with. Go out at lunchtime and observe how the light strikes a building’s window or how the flounce of a hem reveals a bony knee. I have an old notebook filled with pages of observations of the Boston Common at different times of the year. The material that can fill your novel is all around you, at all times; you just have to pay attention.

Most important, keep a notebook on your night table. You are probably already aware that some of your most powerful thoughts come to you at the twilight margins of either waking or falling asleep. If your story is revolving in your head, never far from the front of your mind, you will find that these are crucial moments in which some of the best sentences in your novel come to you.

Because these notes are so random, they most likely do not pertain to the passage you want to write in today’s session. Yet if you’re really stuck, trying to write in sequence may be beyond your powers anyway. Go grab a notebook that you know has several pages of observations. Read through them and see if any would fit in any part of your novel. If one or more does, go to the place in the manuscript and see if you can insert it. You’ll find, if your writing is tight enough, that you have to rework the material around the insertion. You may have to fashion an entire descriptive paragraph to include it.

You can see what I’m driving at. That jotted-down note is firing up your creativity. You’re devising solutions, just as you do all the time as you write. Granted, the material isn’t making your novel move forward. But when you’re done with the draft, you’re still going to have that terrific sentence or paragraph in it. You may well decide that your writing session was worth the pain just because that one piece is so compelling.

Exercise: If none of the above options work, you should turn to your diary for inspiration. Reading through it can be a slog—did I really need to revisit that conversation I’ve had a thousand times with my mother?—but you may well find material that would work well in the novel. In other words, it is a slower means of finding applicable details.

“Words are often seen hunting for an idea, but ideas are never seen hunting for words.”
—Josh Billings

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Contrasting Contexts

Story tension bubbles from circumstances placed before the reader. No matter how local, such as a kitchen table drama, or wide-ranging, like an international thriller, you can keep a reader in your thrall once you set out the main stake and then create obstacles barring your characters from reaching it. Set in the right context, subtle changes can seem monumental.

What does not work as well is pitting a domestic plot line against an exotic one. While you may intend that each operates under its own imperatives, that is not how a reader views them. If the reader is flipping from one to the next, the context expands to the size of the largest plot line. You may achieve contrast, but not of a sort that is favorable to your purposes.

For a domestic drama, let’s choose cyber bullying as an example. Plenty of opportunities there for creating suspense—nasty teenagers, hand-wringing parents, the ultimate threat of suicide. Depending on how deep the characterizations run, and how many twists the bullying takes, I could become immersed in a story like that.

What happens, however, when a thriller plot is overlaid on top of it? One of the parents might be an FBI agent, and she is involved in a harrowing case involving a serial murderer who would in fact love to murder the FBI agent for nipping so closely at his heels. Now the mean things that the kids write on social media are placed in contrast to a trail of murder victims. You’ve created a sticks and stones dilemma: how much do words hurt? 

The reader experiences evil as different levels of catharsis. You can run up the scale of criminal activities, from shoplifting all the way to premeditated murder. What you can’t do is pretend that a lesser crime will impact the reader the same way as a greater one. If you expect me to wait the whole book for Erica to commit suicide while Evil Gent out there is slaying victims left and right, you’re living in a fool’s paradise. Commission outranks anticipation, period. 

The domestic material can serve as preliminary material, helping to set up a drama. But if you’ve created two worlds, you need to find ways to bridge them. A novel is a construction of stages that are progressively more cathartic, and a plot operating at a lower level may cause the reader eventually to yawn.

Exercise: If you wish to keep both plot lines, map out when one starts outstripping the other. You might want to cut down and/or consolidate the later domestic material so that it appears earlier in the book. Then ask yourself if you could use a major character to create a 30-50 page bridge subplot in the more dynamic one. 

“One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries.” 
—A. A. Milne

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


In the Eye of the Beholder

Among the tricks to get inside the mind of your main character are those that focus on ordinary life. You can use a character’s feeling about a daily matter to draw the reader into your fictional world. That’s because, no matter how wide-ranging the story, you still want to mine thoughts that we all share. Here is one you can easily pick up, once you train yourself to think about it.

Try to focus on a particular object that holds a memory for you. A fancy shirt, for instance, might bring to mind a memorable night out when you wore that shirt. A cracked desk might recall the dumbbell day you let a door you were re-hinging fall on it. One good target is using objects to remember when a person praised you. Here is a personal example that sticks out in my mind for obvious reasons, as you’ll see. A friend of my daughter’s came over during the holiday season, and when I found them in the library, she exclaimed: “Mr. Paine, you have an incredible fiction collection.” No matter what basis of knowledge she had to make that claim, it often rings in my mind when I look toward the bookcase where she was standing.

You can apply this idea to your novel. As you go through your day, random statements, many from years ago, pop up as you see different objects around your house or neighborhood. Stop and write them down. If you are thinking of your story, you may realize right away where that idea could be applied. Or, you can alter it to suit the character, but you’ll still be raising the sort of thought that readers will recognize instantly.

The memory becomes even more useful when you expand on it. If you are using the night out with the shirt, you might remember an anecdote that happened to a friend in a bar. You can write a capsule story about how embarrassed you were that he was making such a fool out of himself, even though he didn’t mind one bit. The one memory, in other words, becomes a key that unlocks the door to an entire room of related recollections.

Exercise: Stop writing. Let your mind wander as you roam around your house or apartment. This sort of memory can’t be forced. You have to let it come to you, as A. A. Milne would say. Yet once you form an association, the blazing sentence will stick out in your mind. Then see how you can fit it into your story.

“Life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going.”
—Tennessee Williams

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.