Never Lived

A common dilemma faced by a young writer is: what do I have to write about? In many cases, the author grew up in suburbia, went to nice schools, and his parents aren’t demanding he become a tech magnate at age 25. Here is the dilemma of the rich man trying to pass through the needle’s eye to enter heaven. A comfortable life is not so nice when you’re trying to be a struggling writer. You have no struggles about which to write.

Do you just give up? Hand over the reins to a more deserving writer, such as an ex-con survivor of a ghetto? Of course not. You have issues that inflame you, and it’s quite likely that many people want to read your explorations into those issues. Being an up-and-coming techie in a small firm struggling to make it big in Philadelphia is only one example of a present-day milieu that you might be ideally situated to write about. Working as a trainer for poor women with diabetes in Chicago is a subject that would attract young college graduates interested in nonprofits.

Merely in these two examples you can see the larger themes that have dominated storytelling through endless generations. I am no literary theorist, but I read once that there are only 16 plots in the entire realm of fiction. That’s about right. So what does that mean to you? You don’t have to worry about creating a whole new matrix. You just need to be honest about the one you know.

If you really want to become a writer, you’re going to struggle anyway. The salary you make as a person who puts writing first, career later, is going to entail a lot of ramen nights. During my five-year stretch as a full-time writer, I worked as a carpenter, house painter, furniture delivery guy, and graduated to a long-haul mover. The point is, if writing really means that much, you will no longer be middle-class. You’ll become, depending on the size of the trust fund, the underclass struggler you admire. I can tell you from personal experience that veering off the smooth highway appointed for you will rattle your perceptions of the world.

So much of what constitutes experience in this world requires that you let go of childhood nostrums. You don’t even know you have them until you look back and say, “Whoa, lots of people couldn’t care less about that.” Your parents aren’t to blame for trying to keep you safe. But once you are out on your own, you have no excuses if you don’t pick up a sledgehammer and start trashing the walls.

 “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”
 —Henry David Thoreau

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Body of an Effective Query Letter, Part 2

In the Building a Book post a few days ago, I discussed what material the body paragraph of an author’s query letter should contain. The body paragraph, to remind readers, is the central paragraph that should resemble the copy on the back cover of a novel. My first tip was to include all of the book’s highlights and key character relationships—what makes your book unique. Now let’s move on to the second tip.

As much as possible, write the material from the point of view of your main character. The failure to do this is the main reason a query letter can read like a book report. When you do that, you are not writing in the same style that you wrote the book. You wrote hundreds of pages in that manner. So why does your summary sound so remote?

I realize that sometimes circumstances need to be brought up first—to provide the framing in which the main character operates. That may take a few sentences to set up. As much as possible, though, the character should be the subject of the sentences enumerating the book’s highlights. This method of attack achieves three important objectives.

First, it closes the distance between you and the material. As you did when writing the book, you are inhabiting the character from the inside out. The text becomes more immediate and compelling to the person reading it—because you are so much closer to it when you’re writing it. If it helps, write the paragraph in the first-person narrative voice first, then convert it to third-person. That type of immediacy grabs a reader’s attention.

Second, it gives the text an attitude. This allows you to set the tone right away. If you want serious, the character displays the major qualities he shows during the book: take-charge, paranoid, or what have you. If you want humor, the attitude might be: how the heck is all this stuff happening to me? All of the events are viewed through that filter. That gives the text a personal slant that matches what you did in the book.

Third, writing from inside the main character’s head informs how you write about the supporting characters. Your heroine has no problem calling her brother a clown. Would you do that if you were writing a book report? Right away you can see how a few words could describe their relationship. The writing style itself enables you to take shortcuts. It compresses the length of the text—which is exactly what you need.

Exercise: Review the back cover copy of a book you like with a sole focus. What sort of attitude does it have? Do you find yourself smiling as you read? That’s because the author is inhabiting the character fully enough that you recognize a part of yourself, as you do when reading the book.

“Marketing is designed to bring people into something.”
—Sue Naegle

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Body of an Effective Query Letter, Part 1

Authors often ask me for help with their query letter for submissions. I usually suggest breaking it into three paragraphs: an opening paragraph, a body paragraph summarizing the book, and a closing paragraph. Today I’ll address the body paragraph.

For this vital paragraph, my advice is always the same: Read the back cover copy of a book you like and use that as a model. The results I get back, however, show that fiction writers aren’t necessarily marketing geniuses. Most of the time the paragraph reads like a book report. I do understand that distilling all the pages of a novel into one paragraph can be daunting, so I have two tips. In order to describe them in enough detail to be useful to you, I’ll split them into two posts, the next one to appear in a few days.

The first tip concerns what is written. You have to move fast. Every sentence must cover a highlight or important feature of the book. You only have 8-10 sentences, and each one has to count. Forget all the connective material you would usually write, creating that nice flow of words. Rather than two paragraphs that cover how the protagonist found his uncle dead, you want 1-2 sentences. Rather than a long explanation of why his uncle hated his father, you should write why the father is a suspect—in one sentence. The relationship of the brothers is static; moving from the murder to a main suspect is active.

You should draw up two lists. The first enumerates the book’s most important events. Each of these are selling points. You’re pointing out what makes your book unique, separate from all those titles populating the bookshelves. Try to include five of them, minimum.

The second lists the most important relationships. The main character should interact with the other major characters in instantly recognizable ways, e.g., “If she could just get her mother to shut up for a minute . . .” I should note that this list of characters often overlaps with the most important events, e.g., “She never thought her mother would tell a police detective . . .”

With those two lists, you now construct a mini story. It won’t cover the breadth of your book, not even close. The narrative logic you create comes only from those two lists. How does one event lead to the next? How well am I getting to know, at a glance, how the main characters relate to each other? With your best plot points and best characters, you can write a great little story.

Exercise: How do you read the copy on a book’s back cover critically? First, look to see what the subject of each sentence is. You’ll find that it’s often the main character: the driver of that sentence. Second, assess how many opinions the character has. If she’s wildly opinionated about everything, does that match how you’ve written your book? If not, you should raise your game.

"Marketing is a contest for people's attention."
—Seth Godin

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


A Streamlined Outline

A nonfiction proposal is broken down into sections, and one of the most important is the Outline, or Chapter Summaries. In it an author supplies, in paragraph form, a brief synopsis of which topics each chapter covers. This boiling-down process is daunting enough, but you also face what might be called the Three Bears problem. How long should each synopsis be?

You don’t want it to be too short. If you write merely a paragraph, you won’t be able to provide any material beyond the most basic. If the chapter is covering inflation, for instance, you don’t have the space to outline why your view of the Phillips Curve is any different from another author’s.

You don’t want it to be too long, either. The editor who is reading your proposal doesn’t have time to read pages upon pages of an outline. You want to limit each synopsis to roughly a half page, if you have 15 or more chapters, up to a page if you have less. That provides enough space to not only raise a topic but also provide your unique slant on it.

What happens if you have written complicated chapters? Let’s say you have a chapter in which you discuss the four standard views of what caused the Great Depression, why each is wrong, and the three reasons why your argument is more compelling. How could that possibly fit within such tight boundaries?

You can start, during your review of the full chapter, by skipping over all of your examples. Explaining how a theory works practically should not be included in an outline. You’re trying to hit all the high points. In a typical chapter, examples take up about half the space. So if you have a 20-page chapter, now you need to distill from merely 10 pages.

Second, you may have to limit the scope of your review. Out of the four standard views for the Great Depression, to return to that example, how common are one or two of them? Maybe you cover only the Keynesian and monetarist camps. Then you could set up a summary paragraph in which you oppose the liberal and conservative views directly, in effect killing two birds with one stone. That would leave space for two more paragraphs in which you summarize your new contributions. That’s what an editor wants to see, more than one more critique of standard views.

Exercise: A useful trick in creating an outline is picking out topic sentences. Copy and paste them into the chapter summary. Don’t worry during this phase about how the sentences hang together. Just transpose them. Once you have, you’ll have a list of sentences that don’t seem to flow into each other. That’s all right, because now you start phase two—working not with the chapter but just that list.

“If I try to articulate every little detail in a drawing, it would be like missing the forest for the trees, so it's just about getting the outline of the forest.”
—Jeff Koons

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Lying to the Reader

When an author is considering how to tell a story, one choice is an unreliable narrator. The attraction of such an approach is obvious. The protagonist becomes a filter for the events that happen, setting up at the very least a terrific novel-ending twist. So why don’t more authors adopt this approach?

I’ll start with some common sense. A person is unreliable for a reason. In our real lives we all know relatives or the like that distort the truth. This can occur with a black sheep in the family, a person prone to exaggeration, or someone who’s not quite right in the head. All three can be combined in the same person. The verdict among those who know such a person is: he is very entertaining, but I wouldn’t trust him with a dime.

That is why the famous unreliable narrators in literature tend to be scoundrels, such as Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley or Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Just like your black sheep relative, they are trying to con the reader. Indeed, with both heroes the power of the storytelling derives in large part from the simultaneous loathing and fascination the reader feels toward him.

Such a personage clashes with another imperative: the reader’s desire to stick with a protagonist through the book. If it becomes apparent that the heroine is lying repeatedly to the reader, the implicit author-reader trust is broken. If the heroine has not endeared herself in other ways, the reader may put down the book in disgust.

As a result, managing an unreliable narrator is a difficult task for a writer. It requires delving into the mind of the character to such an extent that her perverted view of the world makes sense to her. Yet you can be tactical about what bends her prism. First you need to decide: what is she protecting? If she is trying to block out a life-changing event from the past, you can have her cry out against similar events in a way that exculpates herself.

Let’s say a man cheats repeatedly on his wife, the best woman he’s ever met, because his jet-filled career once filled him with an inflated view of himself. He could decry other men’s foibles, march in #MeToo rallies, and other means of atonement, all in the doomed hope that she will forgive him someday. At some point the reader starts to realize that the guy is going overboard on this stuff. That’s when you make the reader realize how desperately unhappy he is in his second marriage.

Exercise: What do people lie about and for what reason? That is the starting point when planning to write through an unreliable narrator. First pick out what the character means to hide from the reader, whether in the past or ongoing during the novel. Then decide what hints should escape, clueing in the reader that the character is not on the level.

“A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies.”
―Alfred Tennyson

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Folksy in Nonfiction

Credibility is a byword when writing a factual book. You need to prove that your opinions deserve more attention than others’. You can gain that exalted position by your long years of expertise, your position at the cutting edge of research, and so on. Beyond that storehouse of facts, though, any narrative work is also shaped by the style of relating them. Leaving aside such fields as memoir, in which the author’s voice should dominate the reader's attention, how far should you stray into a personal approach?

The staunch grammar teacher of old had a cardinal rule: never use the word I in exposition. The reasoning behind that is solid. Personal opinions are not as persuasive as cold, hard facts (even if these comprise experts’ opinions). A personal story can be charming, but it also introduces a looseness in the argument. The reader may smile at the descriptive touches—oh, coin collecting was so fun—but simultaneously regard the detour as less convincing.

How is a balance struck, between warmth and authority? The best two guidelines are: relevance and frequency. If you use, for instance, a childhood example of coin collecting to lead into a discussion of money supply in the U.S. economy, the personal example serves as a way to ease the reader into a complex topic. Returning to the coin example at intervals serves to calm readers’ fears that they are too stupid to follow the analysis.

If that approach is used too frequently, however, you run the risk of trivializing a subject and/or offending the reader by assuming he’s a dolt. A big offender is this regard is the use of the word we. It can refer to experts in the field, the general population, or the author and reader. Talk about looseness. While it is friendly, it also undercuts the facts being presented. I just edited a manuscript written in this style, and by taking out 98 percent of the we’s, the text shaped up into a persuasive argument that will have policy makers talking.

I understand why authors rebel against writing stiff, dry prose. They get enough of that stuff in their academic or business lives. In the attempt to be inclusive, however, you need to pick your spots. What type of material really is difficult to understand? That’s when putting a blade of grass in your mouth will help. But don’t throw your arm around the reader’s shoulders. By and large, they are wondering: why am I bothering to read you?

Exercise: Comb through the manuscript for familiarity in the prose. You’re looking for balance. If you are factual 95 percent of the time, that’s roughly the right proportion. The reader is not a two-year-old. Most newspapers write at the sixth-grade reading level. That’s as low as you need to go, too.

“Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes.”    
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Too Indirect

Focus in prose can be scaled according to a number of factors. By adding intensive details or filling out conversations, you add immediacy. By covering events in narrative summary and indirect quotes, you’re passing over material on the way to somewhere else. Most of the time, of course, you’re trying for a tight focus, because that type of writing has the strongest impact. So why bother with the indirect approach at all?

A well-told scene can be likened to a beads on a necklace. As much as possible, you want to jump from one bead to the next. As a reader gains knowledge of your fictional world, you can pack these scenes closer and closer together. That’s why climax sequences are so exciting—you already provided the filler earlier.

You might consider indirect prose as the string holding the beads together. If Karla’s dad is waiting until all the other teenagers in the car have been dropped off before his guns start blazing about her being drunk, you want to get through the driving to different houses quickly. To use this example, you’d have: vivid scene of Karla getting smashed at the party —> vivid scene of Karla’s father yelling at her. The stuff that fills out the arrow is indirect. No one cares about the other kids. Let’s skim through that byplay to get to the good stuff.

As part of the summarized stretch of material, you can use indirect quotes. “Whoa, that was some party!” would work fine if Karla was boasting about it the next day with a friend that didn’t get invited. But if it’s spoken by George, whom she doesn’t even like but does live two streets over, you want to keep it to a dull roar: George made his typical lame remark about what a great party it was. What he says is not important to the story. That’s what you just told us with that indirect approach.

What you want to avoid is a straight reduction. Rather than five lines of spoken dialogue, you decide it can be covered in three sentences of prose. Hold up right there. That doesn’t do any good. You’re not summarizing at the right level. What the reader experiences is three lifeless sentences. You want to go higher. Be the executive you always dreamed of—that stuff deserves only one sentence. Maybe it’s not worth covering, period. Does George’s prattle really matter to Karla—i.e., the reader—at all?

Exercise: Review the manuscript for long stretches of dialogue. If you see a portion that is merely getting the conversation around to the new topic you want to cover, chop out all of the sentences between the two topics of interest. Summarize the bridge in one indirect sentence, maybe two. You’re summarizing at a high level, not tit for tat.

“Brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes.”
—William Shakespeare

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Using Italics in Fiction

The urge to use something besides ordinary type to indicate special elements is understandable. I’ll point out at the beginning that the reason that regular type is used most often is because it is the easiest to read. Italic text becomes hard after roughly a paragraph. Keeping this in mind, what are the most common uses of italic text?

The most prominent is an emphasized word. After you finish writing a sentence, you realize that the reader can’t tell what is meant because you’re not speaking aloud, when adding emphasis is easy. So you italicize the key word that changes the whole meaning. That’s fine, it’s done a lot. But to my mind, it’s lazy writing. Because you haven’t constructed the sentence correctly, or broken apart a string of sentences, the reader often has to stop and read the sentence all over again to see what it means with that word italicized.

Next in line is a thought. If you’re writing in the omniscient past tense, a sentence written the first-person present tense is often italicized. That indicates that the character is thinking. Entire books have been written this way, with thoughts set off in italics, so there is obviously nothing wrong with the method. Like anything, a reader gets used to the rhythm. I will point out, however, that the reader can just as easily get used to switching to a character’s thoughts without italics. If you introduce the first batch of thoughts by appending the tag “he thought,” you’ll soon be able to jettison the tag. The reader thinks: Oh, first-person present tense—must be a thought.

A more egregious use, to my mind, is setting off elements such as letters or emails. This quickly lands the prose in the realm of hard-to-read. My eye skips over text of this form after a while, for the simple reason that it’s a strain. I’m hoping the passage will end soon. The fix for this is easy: indent the text on both side by a quarter inch, and add a space above and below the excerpt. That’s a hallowed convention, and then the entire passage is enjoyable.

The one use I do think is effective is its use to make text creepy. If you have ghosts in your story and they communicate through partial sentences in italics, it strikes the reader as weird and unsettling. That’s precisely the point.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for any italicized words. When you find one, first see if it is placed in a long sentence. That may be why you had to italicize it. Break that sentence in two, even creating a sentence fragment if it helps. Or, follow the sentence with what could be called a “mirror clause.” It works like this: “She didn’t see why he got all the credit. She did all the work.”

“My quest, through the magic of light and shadow, is to isolate, to simplify, and to give emphasis to form with the greatest clarity.”
—Ruth Bernhard

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.