Your Lying Scoundrels

Everyone knows you’re not supposed to lie, but we all do it. You may want to cover up a trivial mistake, such as accidentally calling the wrong number and then making an excuse why you called. The reason might be more serious, such as why the car has a new dent in the rear. (You still can’t believe you missed seeing that light pole.) We use lies to protect ourselves, among other reasons. So, how come your characters never lie?

The reason I raise the question stems from a preliminary phase I frequently use during a developmental edit. I like authors to write out suggested new material before I get started with the full edit. Many times that process involves asking for new clues, since all sorts of books benefit from mystery tension. You would think, if a character is in any way associated with a crime, he would have a good reason to lie. That’s a lot more serious than a fender bender. Yet time after time, the author has the character blurt out some truth that will wreck what’s already in the manuscript.

Let’s rewind: we all lie. If a character lies, no doubt for good reasons, think about all the delicious possibilities that open up from it. The character has to keep track of the lie. She may worry about having lied, scolding herself for ending up in a false position. She might have to pile more lies on top of that lie, drawing further disbelief and/or suspicion (both from another character and the reader). At some point, of your choosing, the truth has to emerge. The character ends up being shamed or even damned. In other words, false pretenses create tension. That’s what you want in your story.

As the author, you know what the truth is. You also know that withholding information from the reader until a chosen moment is good storytelling. So why aren’t you using an activity that would serve your purposes?

Exercise: When you realize a character needs to play a bigger role, consider having him lie about a key point. That lie has repercussions, and you can plot out each stage of them. How many times is the truth nearly revealed? What happens if another character knows about the lie? How does the lying character compound the problem? When you consider these successive waves, you should be eager to drop a lie into your pond.

“It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”
—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Misplaced Confidence

Among the legions of authors who wish to be published are those who have retired. They welcome their hard-earned days of leisure as a chance to finally write that novel that’s been kicking around in their heads all these years. Yet they face a special challenge precisely because of their past accomplishments: the same confidence that made them successful.

People who appreciate literature know that most great novels are written before the age of 40. That is because youth’s wonder at discovering how the world works is combined with the desperate passion to be someone they’re not. An older person may have read good books ad nauseam, but that surfeit of knowledge does not produce the wisdom to write great books. I have read entire manuscripts in which the characters engage in a series of meetings. I have read novels in which the author’s political persuasions are enacted in fake life. This is the drawback to knowing so much.

More to the point, it shows a self-indulgent lassitude toward what might interest other readers. It is possible for a retiree to write an original novel like Harriett Doerr’s Stones for Ibarra, but it requires humility and hard work. The question isn’t What can readers learn from me? but What have I learned from other books? If you don’t bother to read books in the genre you’re writing, it can be safely concluded that your readers know more about what should be in your book than you do.

That is the fulcrum around which a writer’s efforts should revolve. What would a reader think? We all know, for instance, that meetings are boring, so if you want to have one in your book, it’d better be the most interesting meeting ever, with the wildest participants. That’s the only way to entertain your readers.

The question governs not only the imagining and the writing out of a scene. It comes into play even more in the revision stage. Now that you have a string of scenes, which ones truly rivet your attention? Those are the only ones you should keep. If you find you’re not as interested, for example, in the long phone call needed to set up a good scene, forget about the realism of the call, which you know from long experience. Simply summarize the gist of it in a paragraph and place it at the beginning of the good scene.

Writing is a lot more difficult than a job, no matter how many hours a week you put into it. I don’t know if you should don a robe and cowl, but that’s the right spirit entering into a writing session. Write about what you don’t know. Write about what has always fascinated you, what has lain beyond your grasp.

“The cleverest of all, in my opinion, is the man who calls himself a fool at least once a month.”
—Fyodor Dostoevsky

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Means to an End

The writing of a first draft is an unfolding journey filled with wonderful uncertainty. Even if you have an outline, the characters often don’t go where you thought they would. Their needs in turn can influence how the book unfolds.

Once you have completed the first draft, the process is different. Now you know how the book turns out. Not only does each plot thread have an end point, each character arc has an end point. As you start a revised draft, you can combine these two results to accentuate the progress of both. While rewriting involves a great deal of sentence-by-sentence checking for sentence rhythm, fresh vocabulary, and the like, you can be a craftsperson on a higher plane as well. You can use the concept of end points to strengthen the novel’s overall architecture.

The key to this technique is to start at the end point. How does a character end up? Then work your way back from there to determine how you want him to build in all of the scenes leading up to that end point. This backward-looking technique allows you to check his progress at each step along the way.

You need to identify in which scenes the character makes an impact (as opposed to just being in the background or being talked about). Let’s say the total is 15 scenes. Using the alphabet, that means you work back from Scene O through N, M, L, etc., until you reach Scene A. Draw up a chart in which you start at the bottom. Then write a sentence or two that summarizes what the character does in that scene.

Could you, knowing the end point, make the character more forceful? Sly? Distracting? By the end of this process, you can extend beyond even the start of the novel. You can set up status quo ante factors (i.e., before the book begins) in such a way that dovetail with your new plot aims for the character. You can handle that. You’ve broken down your sprawling character arc into 15 manageable pieces. What is that character doing step by step? Can you make her steps more effective?

Exercise: Being an editor, I love charts, but how exactly do you draw one up? The key is creating meaningful column headings. Start at the left and make a skinny column titled “Ch” (for Chapter). Next to that create a column wide enough to encompass how many “Pages” (e.g., 342-50) a scene takes. The third column in this chart is a very wide one called “Synopsis.” Write down in a sentence or so what the character does in the scene. Now you have, in a brief, easy-to-review form, an outline of how the character develops.

“Half my life is an act of revision.”
—John Irving

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Closing the Distance

The line between what a character is thinking and general narrative exposition is a thin one. That’s why it is crossed so frequently by an author still learning why their creations act the way they do. Many times they write what feels more like a report on the thoughts rather than what a character is actually thinking. Here are five tips to help separate what you want the character to think from thoughts that a reader feels are genuine.

First, examine how you write dialogue. Are your conversational passages direct and effective? If so, start by using quotation marks to bracket off thoughts. That way they will clearly be marked as separate from the narrative. Even better, you will tend to simplify the thoughts the way you do your dialogue, making them more fraught with true emotions. When you’re done, many times you can merely remove the quotation marks, and there they are: direct thoughts.

Second, also related to writing dialogue, try writing all of the thoughts in the present tense. Since most prose is written in the past tense, you’ll create a distinction right away. You’ll also find that the thoughts become more immediate, because that is one of the qualities of the present tense. Once you’re done, you can decide whether you want to convert them back into the past tense.

The third trick is writing all thoughts in the first-person voice. As with the previous two, you’re using an alternate method of style that sets the thoughts apart. The I-voice also adds much more immediacy, since that is one of the hallmarks of that type of narration. After you’re done, some of the first-person thoughts may well stay that way, maybe set in italics, but you can also convert others back to the omniscient voice when you review the work.

The fourth addresses a textual method rather than one of style. The gist of it is: don’t name the emotion. Here is an example: “He was feeling sad because she left him.”  That is you commenting on his thoughts. You’re naming his emotions. Instead, look at the emotion and then get inside it. What, in particular, makes him sad? Being alone? Not going out Friday night? Or, what things did she do that made him happy?

Finally, don’t plan. Emotions are forthright, and any future thinking takes the lines of: this is what I’m going to do to you. Take a look at: “She would discover how to best assuage his anger. She would win his favor by helping his son in school.” Now, I ask you: Who thinks like that? The author is reporting on what he wants the character to think. You have to close the distance and have the thought yourself. Get personal. Let go and be the character.

“I am a spy in the house of me. I report back from the front lines of the battle that is me. I am somewhat nonplused by the event that is my life. “
—Carrie Fisher

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


In the Interstices

An author wishing to develop unique characters can choose from a wide variety of methods. I’ll discuss one that works in a plot-driven drama here, since that best suits the abilities of so many fledgling authors. It involves a way to insert background information on characters, since the forces that have shaped their lives before the book starts helps to set them apart.

The first step is to draw up notes for a character. They are placed in a separate file, filling up as many pages as you like. Keep in mind, though, that you won’t be using that much of the material as background passages in the text. In a plot-driven book you don’t have much down time. With this method you allude to things that have happened, only occasionally spelling out the whole story. But you need to know the story yourself in the first place in order to drop hints about it.

Then you look for material in the text that would serve, in stage parlance, as cues. If a hero had a strict father, for instance, a similar figure like a military superior might cause the hero to curse that strictness under his breath. Keep in mind, the reader has never met the father, doesn’t really know anything about him, but by the time the character has cursed military strictures for the third or fourth time, now we’re curious. What did happen when the hero was growing up?

Then you pop a story that illustrates in full the allusions the character has been making. This could include the father’s imposing hard labor, like chopping wood all day long during a freezing winter. In that story you flesh out the hints you have been dropping, and if the story is awful enough, you have a “payoff” for the intrigue you have been mounting.

This method suffices for minor character building, but keep in mind that the events that take place during the course of the book still have the most impact. Once you have shown the protagonist’s instability, because she has been traumatized by an issue in the past, you then have to put her in danger because she cannot control her irrational reactions. You just assign the father figure, say, to a character that she actively combats. Then your background pieces will bear full fruit.

Exercise: Identify three main traits that your lead character(s) possesses. Write out in a separate file at least three traumatic incidents in his childhood that highlight how the character was molded in those ways. Then scheme toward the future. What present-day incidents could you devise that are logical outcomes of those traits?

“One can never produce anything as terrible and impressive as one can awesomely hint about.”
—H. P. Lovecraft

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Art of the Fiction Outline

The stages of submitting and then publishing a book entail long delays. This problem cannot be helped, for book publishing moves at a glacial speed. As an author you can fret about the fact that your literary agent or editor never seems to get back to you, but you’re just wasting your time. Unless you’re famous, they’re not changing for you. Instead, you should do something productive, like starting on the next book.

You can turn your impatience into an economic advantage if you write an outline for the next book. Depending on your situation, you could try to sell the finished manuscript and the outline in a two-book deal. Or, you can use the outline as a way to land a new book contract.

To become a selling tool, an outline must be long enough. I recommend a length of 15-20 pages. That way an agent or editor truly can judge the book’s merits. Like a synopsis, it is written out in paragraph form. You can assume that you will need a paragraph to summarize each scene (or chapter), depending on whether a plot advance is achieved during its course. That’s because plot is one of the two main ingredients in an outline. Each paragraph should have the scene’s point-of-view character leading his or her plot thread to the next step. You can attach the minor characters to these unfolding threads.

That suggestion indicates the other key ingredient of an outline: the relationships between characters. You want to stress over the course of the outline how these relationships develop. The obstacles in a romantic partnership, the steps leading toward further antagonism between enemies, the reasons a buddyhood is created—all of these are needed to make the outline emotionally charged. Even in outline form, you are trying to sway the reader’s emotions.

You don’t need all the nuances, of either character or plot. If a relationship between a major and minor character contains no progression, just mention it in passing. The same is true of plot; you don’t need to detail every clever nuance involved in a sting. Keep on a high plane, conscious that you need to keep moving on to the next paragraph.

That’s why it’s a good idea to avoid dialogue. Once you descend to that level of detail, you’re writing out the rough draft of the novel. You don’t want to show a rough draft to any book professional. Plus, that’s not the point of an outline, which is merely a vehicle for selling the unwritten book. If you stick to narrative summary, you’ll get through each point at a speed that someone who has read hundreds of outlines will appreciate.

Exercise: An outline is not a book report. You are still a storyteller, only in capsule form. Each paragraph should be a building block of some sort, either providing an interesting clue or an alarming turn in a relationship. You can’t supply all the shading, but your sketch should be intriguing to follow.

“There's no money in poetry, but then there's no poetry in money either.”
—Robert Graves

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Writing about What Matters

How much a book impacts its readers depends on its aims. A literary novel such as Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, a favorite of mine, is so delicately written that the plot events hardly matter. Most fledgling writers, however, do not write with such precision, and they must adjust accordingly. Depending on how many plot events fill the novel, they may go to the opposite extreme, fulfilling a thriller’s demand for a looming global catastrophe.

The vast spectrum of choices between these two poles leads to great confusion. How many plot events, would you say, indicate an action-oriented book? How can you tell if the prose style is distinctive enough to obviate plot imperatives? If you fall short either way, you end up with the dreaded midlist book: sorta but not really worth the time spent reading it.

Narrative voice is highly linked to a lead character’s bent for introspection, and that provides a useful guideline. How many times does your protagonist natter on about a thought skein that lasts at least a paragraph? I’ll exclude from this list any thought related to the immediate action around it. How often do you go for a deep dive into observations the character has? If they occur more than a dozen times, you should head in the literary direction. You obviously have a facility for that type of writing.

For most authors, though, what happens to the characters far outweighs the meaningful comments the protagonist makes. This holds true even if the narration is skillfully wrought. Say, you tell anecdotes that various cabbies in the LaGuardia Airport taxi pool relate, replete with patois. Yet without supplying any underlying meaning, they are merely entertaining bits. A smattering of low-level plot events, in other words. Your approach is working against what lifts a plot-driven book to its heights: strong organization of events around major characters.

No one should be blamed for trying to infuse meaning into a novel. An author spends so much time alone, wrestling with matters that are so much more stirring than the morning traffic report. Yet if what moves you inside is not being transmitted by pen to paper, you cannot make the mistake of assuming the reader knows you are filled with such lofty ideas. If Cam is hunting down the crew that mowed down the rebels, that is the realm of can-do. Write about the interesting ways in which revenge can be exacted.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for lulls between the action. These often occur at the beginning of a chapter. If you want to add meaning, think not about what just happened at the end of the last chapter. Retrace a course back through the endings of multiple chapters involving that character, maybe 5-6. What long-range observations can you make about them as a group?

“Time flows in the same way for all human beings; every human being flows through time in a different way.”
—Yasunari Kawabata

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Tell Us about Yourself

The mixture of smarts, literary talent, and ego is a dangerous one. An intelligent author realizes that his novel must stake out new ground. He chooses a unique subject and employs his talent to write about it well. He also knows that a good writer stays close to the truth, and that appeals to his ego. Yet the end result of all of these sterling positives may well be a disaster of a book.

What can go wrong? For starters, consider the length of a novel. A minimum effort needs to total 250 double-spaced manuscript pages. That’s a lot of pages to fill up. You can write a smattering of personal stories about your unique topic—say, abalone diving—and still have a hard time getting anywhere near that length. The circle of people participating must expand, and they too are given stories. As a result, somewhere along the way the protagonist may be lost in the proceedings.

A second obstacle is a smart author’s bent toward self-correction. She is not satisfied with just any sentence; it has to be a terrific sentence. She knows that the books she likes have a distinct narrative voice, so she imbues her story with the same. Yet the end result may be a flashy exercise of wordplay with few deeply felt emotions.

Perhaps the most negative factor is the desire to be unique. This is where self-regard can be so destructive. In fashioning prose that is smart and snappy, about a topic that hasn’t been explored, an author can end up trying to reinvent the wheel. Oh no, they can’t just fall in love. They have to banter wittily. They must pursue other affairs—achieving togetherness via repulsion to others. Of course, what is the reader thinking? It runs something like: Are they really in love at all?

How can a smart writer can make his book different? All intellectual deliberations aside, consider this question first. What have you discovered about life and how can you formulate those observations in ways that shine a new light on everyday behavior? People fall in love, for example, but why is it so hard to stay in love? Success is the same vanishing chimera it always was. Such common pursuits barely change from generation to generation. So you can describe all the helter-skelter activities of your unique topic, but they will be merely distractions until you tell us what they mean to you.

Exercise: Review your manuscript looking for through lines. By that I mean activities that happen to a small core of characters, hopefully centered on the protagonist. How many different characters are helming a funny or outrageous story? Is your heroine merely an observer in many of them? That should tell you that you’re avoiding your main enterprise: writing a book-long exploration from the heart.

“The real meaning of enlightenment is to gaze with undimmed eyes on all darkness.” 
—Nikos Kazantzakis

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.