Filthy Lucre

America is a land where wealth is worshipped, and that would seem to indicate that a novel in which money is a major plot stake would be wildly popular. The paucity of financial thrillers, however, proves that the opposite is true. Whatever fever infects the trading floors on Wall Street brings a yawn in bookstores on Main Street. Why is this true?

The first reason is obvious: fiction is made up. No real money is at stake. Second, even in real life money is only a number, and it’s hard to imagine how much is at stake. Just ask a Congressman about this when the nation’s next spending bill incurs another $1.5 trillion dollars of debt. What, me worry? The third reason is more interesting, in fictional terms. What Americans crave is not the pile of dollars but the lifestyle it affords.

One of the enduring staples in literature is the novel about a family with great wealth. The ability to spend money magnifies the actions that family members take. Carefree scion Bob doesn’t head off on a summer day with his township’s beach sticker on the windshield. He takes a hot blonde out on his customized jet ski. That blonde is someone his younger brother pines for, and the reader wouldn’t care less if he was cursing about the beach sticker. Of course, if he had a bright yellow dune buggy . . .

This example implies another reason why a novel involving great sums can interest a reader: the relationships among those fighting for the money. Now we are entering a rich mine of possibilities. If a young trader at Goldman Sachs discovers that his mentor is actually out to ruin him, the reader’s antenna goes up. Notice, though, that the reason has little to do with money; the true issues are betrayal and revenge. Of course, if a palace in the Hamptons with a seven-car garage is the stake . . .

Although Americans pride themselves on being egalitarian, a land in which a plumber’s vote counts as much as a banker’s, the contrast between poor and rich provides another strong trend in fiction. That’s why a social climber is a stock villain; she is violating the norms of society. The reverse is also true: the rich woman who exploits a poor one violates our principles of fairness. Again note, the money is only an instrument in a relationship between characters. Therein lies its power as the root of all evil.

Exercise: When plotting a novel about wealth, first consider its moral effects on your chosen characters. That’s where you’ll find true emotional power. The contrasts you’ll want to draw gain greater clarity when you consider the ethical implications of building a plot line around power. At the heart of a maid’s stealing her employer’s gown is the crime of theft; the price of the dress merely magnifies the outrage.

“The only wealth which you will keep forever is the wealth you have given away.”
—Marcus Aurelius

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


All for Me

Any author writing a novel or a memoir in the I-voice can expect to write a lot of first-person pronouns. The usage is increased when writing in a colloquial style, since the author issues opinions, feelings, and the like as a way to include the reader in the storytelling. Like any other element in prose, however, reader fatigue can set in when I or me appears too often. How can you limit the frequency so that the first-person commentary stays fresh and effective?

A first pointer is eliminating mentions that come naturally when spoken. In prose the I-voice approach renders them gratuitous. If you use the common phrase “It seemed to me,” you have to stop and think. The whole book is according to your standpoint, so why use “to me”? One of the advantages of writing is that you can trim the often flabby realm of speech to greater concision. Look for all of the “to me” and “for me” expressions, and delete three-quarters of them.

Second, and along the same lines, look for expressions like “I saw” and “I thought.” Take for example: “I saw him duck his head inside the fancy Lincoln Town Car.” If you are present on the scene, the reader assumes that everything is being told from your purview. Just tell what happened without mentioning your eyes. The phrase “I thought” has more merit, because sometimes delivering a clear opinion helps the reader feel the emotion more strongly. Yet most of the time the same rule applies: aren’t you delivering your pronouncements on all of the proceedings? Again, a global search can delete three-quarters of them.

A third area consists of obvious opinions. These occur most often during passages featuring dialogue. If you have already established a viewpoint—say, your opposition to guns—you don’t need to tell us every time what you think when a hunter is speaking to you. Many times, in fact, you’re better off letting the statement hang by itself, since the reader is then given the chance to guess what you might think. Establishing viewpoints is a cumulative process, so the deletions of such comments occur more often later in the book.

Exercise: You should look for passive sentence construction, especially things happening “to me.” There is a greater chance that a self-reference will occur when a sentence begins with “There is” or “It is.” That’s because you have no subject that controls the sentence. Compare “It was useless trying to win this war of words with me” to “He was wasting his time trying to win this war of words.”

“Nothing in the world is more distasteful to a man than to take the path that leads to himself.”
—Herman Hesse

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Find a Quiet Place to Write

In our world of cell phones and text messaging, the idea of sitting down in the same chair to write every day may seem quaint. If you can write no matter where you find yourself at your chosen time in the day, all the power to you. Over the years, though, I have learned that I feel adrift when I attempt to write in a strange place. Since I try to write every day, inevitably I have ended up in a relative’s bedroom or a hotel room armed with my laptop. Sometimes I do make decent progress. Yet the duration when I’m immersed in the creative flow tends to be shorter, and many days the sludge in my head simply refuses to budge. So I would advise that you find what Virginia Woolf refers to as “a room of one’s own.” As with other aspects of making a commitment to yourself as a writer, choosing a single space in your apartment or house means that you want to use a central spot where you can regularly expect the magic to flow.

The more private the space, the less interruptions you will have. My office is the library, so I have a wall of books to inspire me. Yet in younger, poorer days, I wrote at the kitchen table, in a walk-on closet, in the dining room. In other words, as long as you aren’t disturbed, you can choose anywhere. I prefer an antique desk these days, but I’ve written on a wide board stretched across three tall plastic crates.

I am a territorial animal, so I like to mark off my space. You might want to buy a bulletin board and tack up favorite sayings or writing that you plan to edit the next day. I like art, so I have rice paper bodhisattvas and Klee and Wyeth reproductions and pictures drawn by my children lining the walls. Some writers thrive on clutter. Russell Hoban says his “room is composed of tottering stacks and shaky heaps of DVDs and videos, bulging shelves of books, slithery carpets of undiscarded draft pages, and delicately balanced objects of various weight and fragility poised to fall on my head.” Yet the Bronte sisters used the family dining room to write, and when Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte's biographer, first visited her, she was struck by its exquisite cleanliness and neatness.

The space doesn’t even need to be in your domicile. In many cities and towns you can rent out a writer’s space. Despite the expense and travel, the same practice applies in this venue. You’ve chosen a place to write. You make a daily  appointment with yourself to write. If it helps, pack a few personal items in your bag and place them on your rented desk.

Whatever space you make your own, it becomes a type of shrine—devoted to the Muse. You are the penitent, making the daily pilgrimage in the hope that today you’re going to write something really good.

“There is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life.”

—George Eliot

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Daily Grind

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, “I’m writing a novel.” To be polite, I’ll ask what it’s about, and often I’m delighted by how original the concept is. Yet somewhere along the line I always ask one key question: How often do you write? The most common answer is: “When I feel inspired.”

I would like to think that I dwell in an exalted precinct where its denizens tap into inspiration with great frequency.  After all, I am either writing or editing books every single day of my life. I am well aware, though, that true inspiration is a fleeting, elusive minx. I wake up many a morning feeling tired, fog-encrusted, knowing that I am as far away from being creative as the benighted soul composing the daily stock index. In fact, to put a number on it, I think I average two days out of five when I can genuinely say that the Muse is making my hand flow.

How does a fledgling author fight these odds? If you write only two days a week—that is, when you feel inspired—that novel is going to be decades in the making. More likely, you will give up entirely because you are so seldom connected to that pulse of creativity. Make no mistake: life wants to intervene. Writing is hard work, and many days you may not feel adequate to the task. When you’re stumped, when the words just won’t come, you can be easily distracted. If little Harry pops his head in the door and asks if you’d sit with him and watch Sesame Street, you may very well greet him like a conquering savior. “Are you kidding? I’d love to!”

What the first rule of writing? Keep your hand close to the pen. If you’re not having a great day, remember that you must go through the sloughs in order to scale the peaks. Great thoughts about your book will come to you, with great frequency, if you keep the book’s myriad subjects revolving in your mind. Yet when you are not thinking about it, the pipeline to that creative fountain is dead. You may have a stray thought here and there, but if you added up all those sporadic eureka moments, you probably wouldn’t fill two pages. You can encourage the Muse to come visit by staying in touch with her. The cream of the crop means you have a crop you tend to every day.

“Work every day. No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite on the nail.”
—Ernest Hemingway

Copyright @ John Paine, 2018


Judging an Evaluation

In the previous post I discussed the difficulty that an author experiences when trying to hire the right editor. I started with the first step in a multi-phase edit, pointing out what to look for in an editorial letter. If the edit is to consist of only the letter, however, that requires a different set of considerations.

This type of edit is commonly known as an evaluation. In it, the large-scale suggestions in the editorial letter are supplemented by page-by-page notes the editor takes while reading. That is the evaluation’s advantage, because an author can see exactly where the editor thinks the manuscript needs improvement. Unfortunately, the page-by-page notes are only as good as the eye of the editor. Here are a few guidelines.

The first is: how well do these smaller notes support the overall concerns raised in the editorial letter? If one of the topics in the letter is the book’s slow pacing in certain stretches, for example, you should receive specific examples of where it sags. Or, if the editor wrote a half page about not liking the protagonist, there should be successive examples where violations against the reader’s moral sense are committed, including when the editor started to give up on the character.

Second, how weighty are the suggestions? If the evaluation is filled with remarks such as not liking a character’s hair color, or dress choices that seem to contradict her personality, how useful are they to you? Such suggestions are essentially minutia. The same holds for a story’s crucial questions such as plausibility. If the editor doubts that a character would decide to investigate a crime, that’s a big deal. The entire course of the book hangs on swallowing that premise. If the suggestion points out the unbelievability of a character submerging a car in a pond, that’s an easy fix—if you decide you want to fix it at all.

While on the subject of the picayune, I’m not even talking about the lowest level: pointing out grammar or spelling corrections. You can hire a copy editor to correct your grammar for a fraction of the cost. I stress this point because many so-called editors are really just jumped-up copy editors. I suspect, from the material they post, that a significant proportion of them don’t know the difference between the two types of editors. Don’t pay for the one if you’re expecting the other.

Returning to the evaluation, a final guideline is: how many large-scale suggestions are offered as opposed to the specific ones? You still should be receiving a broad picture of how the novel is progressing. If the letter is two pages long and the page-by-page list is seven pages, you know that the editor is not seeing the forest for the trees. That’s the hard part of an editor’s job, and it provides the most benefit.

“Writers have to put up with this editor thing; it is ageless and eternal and wrong.”
—Charles Bukowski

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Judging an Editorial Letter

The disadvantage of being an insider in any industry is not realizing how that world looks to an outsider. Before becoming an independent editor, I worked for several decades for various publishing houses, and I learned my craft in the ways senior editors taught me. They knew the difference between development editing and line editing, and that copy editing occupies a rank below them, focusing on grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

In the brave new world where mainstream publishers are struggling and indie publishing represents a viable option, an author who wants to hire an editor faces a quandary. I find all sorts of people advertising their services online, whether through promotional emails, twitter posts, or forums such as Writer’s Digest. When I read their CV and hopefully a few blog posts about their editing approach, I often shake my head. I know that they aren’t qualified. But how is someone fresh to publishing supposed to know that?

In a field as intangible as writing, I’ll try to point out a few guidelines that are useful. I’ll start by breaking an edit into smaller pieces. The most basic unit is an editorial letter. This occurs in the first stage, after an editor reads a manuscript. If you have discussed what the editor offers, you may have agreed that this letter is only the preliminary phase of the edit. In that case the letter should lay out the groundplan of what you can expect in the future. 

The letter is usually broken into 4-5 major areas of possible improvement, e.g., depth of the protagonist’s narrative voice, trimming research, or strengthening a plot line with more frequent scenes. Notice that all of these are sweeping suggestions. You want to see if the editor understands priorities, and that means starting at the top and working down. If your protagonist commits so many uncivil acts that the reader grows to dislike him, for instance, an observation about one thing he said to his wife on page 250 isn’t going to help you. The reader has already given up on him by that time.

If it helps, think of a letter in terms of: theory, example. Sticking with the previous example, the broad-ranging statement about the unlikable protagonist is made first, and the observation about page 250 is merely an example of that larger statement. You will not profit from a string of minutia. You’re hiring the person to see the forest, not the trees.

At the same time, you do want examples. As you probably know from a writing class, people make sweeping, unfounded statements all the time. That’s because they’re not trained to see a pattern emerging from a series of examples. The editorial letter should provide those patterns, backed up by specific instances. Also, look for tone. If the letter turns very negative about a specific point, that means it is being belabored. You don’t want passion; you want analysis. 

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you're inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” 
—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


First-Person Historical

Using the I-voice in narration can be a siren, as in Circe, for the unwary writer. Its intimacy seems like a shortcut to the type of engaging narrator used by skilled authors. What the novice doesn’t understand is that the narrative voice is merely a vehicle for telling a story. It doesn’t change the content of what is told.

This lack of understanding can hamper an author who decides to use first-person narration in order to better connect with the way people acted during a chosen historical era. In terms of content, how is historical drama broken down? You want to narrate plot events, historical research, and characters’ feelings. 

The I-voice can govern to some extent how plot events are told. Depending on how deeply inside a character’s mind you are while narrating, the actual event may be colored by emotions, to the point that the reader hardly can tell what is happening at all. Most beginning writers, however, do not have the ability to write this way. They will narrate plot events pretty much as they happen, with descriptions of physical movements, dialogue, etc. That limits the benefit of the I-voice.

This narrative voice fares worse when recording historical data. The wrong-headedness of this approach is revealed when ordinary facts are related. The description of a log cabin is the same whatever voice is being used. The spiritual beliefs of the Second Awakening are the same whatever voice is used. The I-voice actually does the author a disservice, because the distance created by cold, hard facts pushes the reader further from the person telling the story. I believe the only advantage offered is when the research is put, often literally, in the character’s hand, such as the leather reins to a horse. Note, however, that the character’s comment, which is flavored by emotion, is what makes the research intimate.

Which leads me to the best reason for choosing the first-person narrator: to record the characters’ feelings, particularly those of the protagonist. This happens to be the best reason for using a first-person narrator no matter what type of novel you’re writing. The immediacy of the voice makes emotions more vivid, and that is your main job. 

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out for research passages. As you read them, ask yourself: could the point-of-view character possibly know this? Would he think about the historical data in such a dispassionate way? You may have to dumb down the research in order to make it fit within the qualities you have given the character. If you write the novel this way, from the inside out, you will find that engaging narrator you seek.

“One of the strategies for doing first-person is to make the narrator very knowing, so that the reader is with somebody who has a take on everything they observe.” 
—Rachel Kushner

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


All the Pauses

The human being is a cautious animal. In times of danger, we make sure the coast is clear before climbing down from our primeval tree. The hesitance in our actions stems also from being social creatures. Most people think before they speak, taking into account the mood or importance of the person speaking to them, among other considerations.

Given this basic instinct, it is not surprising that many writers fill their novels with pauses. Phrases like “for a moment,” “for a few minutes” (an extremely long time, by the way), or “he hesitated” occur frequently, and why should they not? A good novel is filled with unexpected events, and a lead character has to react to the surprise in a believable fashion. I have edited novels in which people hesitate multiple times within the same conversation.

For all of its realism, though, a novel can become weighted down by the repetition of this device. It falls in the same category of too often used words such as stare, turn, and yell. One of the tasks in writing is keeping vocabulary fresh, and the synonyms for “hesitate” are fairly limited. Many of them are colloquialisms that may not be appropriate for your characters. You won’t find much ground to plow there, in other words.

The best way to avoid overuse is to raise your purview above physical actions. Hesitation is a concrete manifestation of silence through time. So, how can you suspend time in a way that is not physical?

You can cover topics that take time to work through. A simple example is: “At first she wasn’t sure how to respond. Such an idea had never occurred to her.” There is the pause needed to couch what she says next. Once you enter the personal realm—note that these sentences describe a mental, not physical, state—you have opened the gate to entire acres of possibilities.

Let’s rephrase that example: “How dare he say something like that? To her, of all people.” Again, the sentences frame what she will say next. But notice that hesitation is no longer part of the equation at all. You don’t need it. If a character is confronted by a surprise, you tell the reader how she reacts to it. You’ve raised your game to another level entirely.

Exercise: Do a global search in your manuscript for the words “pause” and “hesitate.” Your goal is to eliminate two-thirds of them. When you find an instance, read the material just before and after it. What would that character most likely feel, given those circumstances? Then go one step further. Mull over the topic being raised. Could you relate the character’s feelings to what he experienced earlier in the novel about a similar topic?

“On the Plains of Hesitation bleach the bones of countless millions who, at the Dawn of Victory, sat down to wait, and waiting—died!”
—George W. Cecil

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Staggering Research

A novelist who undertakes the study of a bygone era can amass reams of historical data by the time she sits down to write the first draft. This endeavor is pursued for several basic reasons. The first is to get her facts straight. Dirt roads were the norm until the 19th century, for instance. The second is to immerse herself in the mores, beliefs, etc., of the era. This study may well govern how the author first imagines the characters as well.

The idea of exploring the details of a new realm in order to bring it to life explains why so many novels begin with copious amount of research about the chosen time period. Scene setting is required, for sure. A brougham was more suited for certain purposes and a cabriolet for others, to continue the previous example. Yet research can also serve as the author’s opening wedge in general. Cold, hard facts are easier to relate than what the main characters of that bygone era are feeling.

When you consider that an author of any type of novel learns more about his featured characters as he keeps writing, the reasoning of the historical writer becomes clearer. Research falls more to the wayside as the author-character bond grows. This reaches a height by the end of an early draft of a manuscript.

Yet when an author begins to edit the book, that opening section will still be clogged up with research. One of the tasks of the editing round(s) is to examine how what is written affects the reader. Many authors are loath to cut what they’ve already written. It’s perfectly good material, goes the thinking.

So it is. The question is, does it all have to be front-loaded? In terms of writing imperatives, the need to create dynamic characters that will pull the reader into the tale far outweighs scene setting. I often see this imperative followed in a first chapter and maybe another one or two. But soon enough the early chapters become freighted with the full details of some arcane ritual, such as fashioning spoked wooden wheels. The author just can’t help herself. Even worse, she may be using the research to hide the fact that she didn’t know her characters very well back then.

You have to be willing to rip apart research to suit the characters’ needs. If you think about the matter, you’ll realize that a reader that is really interested in a nonfiction topic will . . . read a nonfiction book. Just like you did. A novel is educational to an extent, by inference, but it better entertain us first.

Exercise: Review the first 100 pages of the manuscript, looking for blocks of research. Could you extract certain details from a patch and place them later on? If you have a series of patches, could several of them move later in the book? In general, think lite. The reader only needs the lite version.

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”
—Albert Einstein

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.