Error Free

As a freelance editor, I see manuscripts in all stages of undress. That’s because I can enter the writing process even before an author has completed the outline, depending on what sort of help is requested. I will notice misspellings or the like and ignore them. The book is still in a preliminary phase. My tolerance during a full manuscript edit, however, is different.

Typos and basic mistakes of grammar indicate a lack of seriousness toward the craft. Characterization can be gifted, the plot can be exciting, but raw talent isn’t enough. Having vague notions of becoming a great American novelist is a common sentiment during all of those hours spent alone. Yet it’s also like being a Little Leaguer who believes he will grow up to be the next Babe Ruth.

I see manuscripts that are littered with dozens of mistakes, sometimes on a single page, and I always wonder, “Does the author not realize these are mistakes?” Perhaps she thinks the editor, or someone at the publishing house that buys her book, will clean up after her, like Mom used to. Getting out the protean emotions, that’s what’s important.

The fourth hexagram in the I Ching, the classic Chinese book of oracles, is “Youthful Folly.” Back when I was a young writer, given to mysticism, I used to roll that hexagram all the time. The Chinese sage that wrote that book knew me better than I knew myself.

The reason I bring that up is because literary agents and editors are, by and large, mature readers. They see manuscripts all the time in which the writing not only shines, but no typos can be found for pages at a stretch. That’s when I, personally, know the writer is committed to her craft. I know in addition that I, the reader, am the beneficiary of all that hard work, and I like her better for that reason too.

An author breaks down sweeping ideas into granular text all the time. The process of learning correct grammar and spelling follows much the same path. At the ground-eye level, a dictionary is always in your dock. The Chicago Manual of Style, or the equivalent, is always on a nearby shelf. When you develop the habit of constantly looking up prose, even when you’re pretty sure you’re right, you are immersing yourself in all the possible means of expression. Whether a root stem ends in –ing or –tion starts to really matter to you. You’re getting in up to your elbows in words.

Exercise: What you don’t know about grammar and spelling can seem so sprawling, you may be daunted. That’s why many writers start with Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. It’s a thin book, and its pages are filled with so many common topics, you’ll feel immediately comfortable. You can’t lose by following the precepts of one of the greatest New Yorker editors of all time.

“It is a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word.”
― Andrew Jackson

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Ordinary Amid the Extreme

Writing a thriller leads to constant attempts to inject mystery and/or suspense. A scheme of opposites is devised at the beginning, and those forces are then set in motion. Because the author has likely read many other thrillers, he knows that his story has to be extraordinary in its own way: plot stakes, setting, tech devices, and so on. What happens, though, when the characters enacting this drama seem cartoonish: good for action but too robotic?

In the journey to unknown heights, the author can forget that warmth in a character stems from her interactions with other characters. Not only that, but the feelings a character has must be shared by readers, at least in a vicarious sense. More to the point, they must be understood: oh, that’s how I would feel.

Locking the reader in requires a strategy at odds with grand designs. The character must, no matter what amazing thing he is doing, sally forth through each moment of it as though he will barely manage to come out intact on the other side. That’s what people do. When you don’t know what is going on, you wing it. You are the same jasper, trying to handle a new situation.

How does this two-level strategy operate in practical terms? You pick out familiar relationships and have the heroine interact with those characters as though they’re riding to the grocery store. A mother who has just been interviewed by the police about a crime she didn’t commit will still call her children when she returns to her motel room. She is not going to shriek in dismay to her kids. She’ll ask if they did their homework.

Don’t mistake me: I don’t want to be bored. You’d better bring it in terms of excitement. Yet you need silence in order to build a crescendo, and a thriller oscillates in the same way. You want outsized characters in bizarre situations, but you need the milk of human interaction to fully engage the reader. So you neglect at your peril characters who perform the function of making the lead character fully rounded.

That is why you encounter hard-bitten heroes who make sardonic wisecracks. That’s why women warriors have sisters with babies. Without such touchstones the character may become as alien to the reader as the situations. Then we’re no longer participating; we’re not inside the hero’s head. We’re just waiting, metaphorically, to click off the show.

Exercise: Pick out one or two characters with whom the lead character interacts like you would in a normal situation. Alongside your grand schemes, allot a plot skein of 7-10 scenes in which the characters have a more standard problem: what to do about the nanny, how to get the husband to stop drinking, etc. Then drop them into the book after peaks of suspense, a temporary lull in the storm.

“Many people—when they think about North Korea and the dictatorship, or the military or nuclear weapons, nuclear missiles, those things—tend to forget ordinary citizens are living there.”
—Lee Hyeon-seo

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


True to Your Purposes

A nonfiction author can encounter a stumbling block when trying to prove that the book’s methods work. This is the lack of real-life examples. When you consider the different components that make up a single method, the reason why quickly becomes apparent. If you are writing a job-hunt book, for example, you may find that you don’t know any mothers personally who have reentered the work force by starting their own company. You don’t like the idea of making up such a person, even though you know they exist. So what do you do?

There are two possible solutions. The first one is obvious to anyone who has journalistic training. You go up on the web or read source material in a publication in order to find such an example. You most likely are using quoted excerpts from other authors, anyway, and this becomes a longer block of quoted text. Just make sure the material is less than 500 words (the maximum under the fair-usage law) and you cite the bibliographical material. 

If you have written the type of book that uses quotations informally, and you don’t want footnotes, there is a variety of ways around them. One accepted method is placing all of the citations in a section in the back of the book called Endnotes. If you give the page number on which the quote appears, as well as a few words from the material to identify it, you then list the bibliographical information there. 

The second solution is directly addressing the reader. The key word in such an example is “you.” Let’s say an author has a seven-step process for mothers starting their own business. The author starts with the statement: “Let’s say you want to do this.” The reader is taken through the steps, with possible obstacles raised and requirements, such as permits, pointed out. By using the reader as the subject of the example, you involve her even more than if you used the example of another person.

Exercise: Read through the manuscript, looking for passages in which an example would help anchor the point you’re trying to make. In order to pick an example that fits, read the passage carefully and write out in one sentence what point you’re trying to make. You can then enter that sentence in the search window of a browser to find an appropriate example.

“If we steal thoughts from the moderns, it will be cried down as plagiarism; if from the ancients, it will be cried up as erudition.” 
—Charles Caleb Colton

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Dynamic vs. Static

A character running in place is primarily a plot issue. If a villain, for instance, issues yet another hissing threat to his captive, but doesn’t act upon it, the reader experiences two emotions: (1) annoyance because the plot line isn’t building and (2) boredom because of repetition.

More difficult to define is the power a lead character exerts over the course of a novel. She will be involved in a lot of plot events, no matter what. If she forces the issue on a number of those occasions, she is dynamic, right? The answer to that question balances on the fulcrum of plot versus character. If she entered the book a kung fu whiz and she leaves the book having chopped down worthy adversaries, she is the same person, unchanged by her journey. A reader hopes there will be a series, so she can do more of her kung fu magic.

The more enduring feat is changing the character’s outlook toward life. A prime example is one of my favorite characters: Bilbo Baggins. Here is a middle-class burgher, set in his ways, who ends up slaying a dragon. All along the way he is pinching himself: did I do that? This unathletic little shrimp ends up revered by his stern dwarf companions.

I choose this low-brow example to make the point that, even in an action-oriented genre, what this character does is not as important as how he changes inside. That’s why he is loved by readers, for his persistent bumbling his way through. Because Tolkien includes his internal changes, Bilbo rises above the crowd of deering-do meisters.

This difference can be used in any type of novel that has strong plotting. If a femme fatale only gloats after each hapless male has fallen to her wiles, she will remain slight. Okay, lure in #4 (yawn). If she starts to feel bad about what she’s doing as time goes on, however, now she would become interesting, particularly if there is one lover who makes her feel that way. She is not merely the puppet master; the tide of events she has set in motion pulls her off kilter as well.

An enactor with a single-minded purpose is easier to write. Wind him up and point him at a target. More difficult is thinking through the qualities inside that prevent him from marching straight. When you take that extra step, when doubt comes into play, you’re writing about conflicts we all wrestle with.

Exercise: Review the manuscript and write down the plot events in a list. Now write down how your chosen character affects those events. Is she doing the same thing every time? That tells you that the characterization is too thin. Step back and consider how she could be designed so that she’s having real problems with how things are going later on.

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.”
—Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Best Blinders

We live on a planet inhabited by billions of people, but we block out almost all of them as we proceed through our daily lives. So why don’t authors assume their characters do the same thing inside their imaginary worlds? Perhaps the reason is that authors are also creators of the worlds; they have a responsibility to care for all elements of their big garden (of anti-Eden, hopefully). In our real lives, we know the world is composed of massive agglomerations of past human mistakes, and we sensibly ignore as much of it as possible.

The reason for taking this skewed perspective on fiction is to spur a more blindered approach in crafting good characters. An entire world cataclysm may be happening around your chosen lead character, but what is she pursuing? Unless she is Wonder Woman, she is tending to the care of those immediately around her.

Let’s take as an example the terrible hurricane that afflicted Puerto Rico this past year. Are you, as the author, rushing from here to there to capture snippets of all the awful things that high winds and rain can wreak? Or are you focusing on one grandmother’s cottage in your hero’s backyard flattened by a ceiba tree?

Put like that, the answer seems obvious. So why is it that so many novels spend so much time metaphorically rushing from here to there? Everyone knows the warning, “Don’t spread yourself too thin,” but that applies to characters as well. All of the characters are thin because they are only inhabitants of a large construct. As opposed to: they are the only reason for creating the construct.

One person, looking outward at a world that seems determined to mess up her day. That is a useful place to start a novel. In the case of a hurricane, to extend that example, what does the character know about hurricanes before it strikes? Some old tale from the fall of ’39, no doubt, told by her grandmother. Write that scene. Maybe more current news of storms during the age of global warming, related by her husband, who knows incidental facts about everything. How does she react to that, given she realizes her husband is a know-it-all? Of course, anyone who has ever experienced a hurricane knows that it creates havoc beyond your worst imaginings. What pieces of it does she see? How does she deal with those she loves that have been ruined in the aftermath? Now, as a reader, I’m riveted by what’s happening in that little corner of the world.

Exercise: If you find your novel has sprawled outward to cover too many characters and events, stop and count to five. You will allow yourself to cover only five points of view of the events. Now, choose who you like the best. Double the number of his scenes. Pretty soon you’ll be narrating true human drama.

“I'll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you'll come to understand that you're connected with everything.”
—Alan Watts

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Funny in Black and White

Since writing is a different form of communication from conversation, its strengths and drawbacks have to be considered accordingly. On the plus side, writing enables a reader to peek inside a character’s head to see what he is thinking, which adds more depth than merely the spoken words. On the minus side, writing strips away much of the facial and vocal enhancements of the person speaking. Trying to describe, for instance, how a character screws up her face to describe her utterly horrible blind date would take so many words, the story would lose its thread.

In no area is this loss more marked than in trying to write humorous prose. A funny line down on paper can be read multiple ways if the reader is not cued by a jokester’s physical embellishments. One of the worst interpretations is that the character is stupid. We read in the hopes of discovering entertaining characters, not dopes. One depressing outcome of reading an entire scene in which you didn’t realize the character was supposed to be funny is that you hope that character never shows up in the novel again.

Woe betide the inexperienced author who sets out to make the protagonist funny. In real life, we all know that a joke told by one person can be hilarious, but told by a bumbler (or, worse, hyena) can be a painful exercise in patience. Same words, but the timing, the facial expressions, the guttural inflections, provide a world of difference. Good luck inserting any of those three qualities, except in the broadest form, onto the written page.

By contrast, humor in skillful hands can be a great joy. Novelists from Mark Twain to Saul Bellow to T. Coraghessan Boyle have led readers into the curious side alleys of America, finding all sorts of odd creatures and customs. Yet they employ an entirely different narrative strategy. They operate on the level below the spoken word, for the most part. In revealing what the narrator is thinking—in fact, providing a running commentary on everything that occurs in the novel—they are working in that realm from which writing draws its greatest strength. We often find, as readers, that the narrator is expressing exactly what we know we have thought ourselves in a similar circumstance. This experience is so striking, it is close to magic. So if you want to express your ribald side, get below the surface. That’s where your readers want to reside anyway.

Exercise: As you are reviewing the material, be honest with yourself. Are you getting the jokes? Do you see how they’re falling flat because you have not provided enough context to cue the reader? Better yet, see if you can find ways to make the narrator of the scene assume a certain posture so that the entire scene can be imbued by a humorous point of view.

“Humor is just another defense against the universe.”
— Mel Brooks

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Lesson Planner

An author who is interested in history or politics may bring that preference to the novel he is writing. For such an author, starting with research and then inserting it into the story is a natural progression. Yet among the handful of lines that an author should not cross, the most grievous is the one separating storytelling from pedagogy. An author may decide to take it upon himself to teach the reader along the way. Entire pages can be written that are little more than regurgitated history fodder. The material has little to do with the characters inhabiting the novel, and all to do with the author’s yearning to leave the world a more educated place.

This claim to a higher ground can be exacerbated by the author’s desire to use the research to settle political scores. It may seem jarring to find a former president, for instance, held out as a cautionary example to the novel’s occupant of the Oval Office, but that is because the author’s mission extends beyond figments of her imagination. Education and ideology, as any propagandist knows, are easily entwined.

When I discuss such manuscripts with their authors, I usually find that their main concern is creating fuller characters. So their heart is in the right place. The problem they have encountered is that cutting and pasting research is easier than exploring another’s mind. Even easier is spinning out what you’ve wanted for years to tell that damn liberal/conservative bugaboo in your imagination.

The situation might be likened to the enjoyment of a picture book you place on your coffee table. As you view the full-color photos of colonial Virginia mansions, for instance, you imagine what it would be like if you lived back then. Much harder is to imagine what filled the brutish, short lives of the actual inhabitants.

How do you create better characters? You focus on them, first and foremost. You set all the research aside and construct a step-by-step outline of each of your major characters. How are they going to mess with each other? What dirty laundry about each of them are you going to expose? It’s time to get off your high horse and come spill the gossip that you know readers will enjoy.

Exercise: An outline of a character should always draw lines that intersect with other characters. Readers are interested in clashes. Sure, list the person’s main attributes, but then find another character with opposite attributes. Outline a series of scenes in which the two characters interact over one shared goal. It can be a historical goal. But now you’re approaching it from the right direction—bottom up, not top down.

“In order to keep anything cultural, logical, or ideological, you have to reinvent the reality of it.” 
—Ani DiFranco

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Bubbling with Enthusiasm

A bookstore customer wishing to buy a self-help book has certain criteria. The book must have in-depth information on the subject at hand, and that is either supplied or supplemented by authoritative quotations from experts in the field. In providing the reams of material required to fill out a book, an author forgets at her peril the whole point of the exercise: providing help.

To a certain extent, creating enthusiam is a vital element of the self-help genre. People tend to be set in their ways, and they buy a book precisely as a boost to get off their ass. Showing how others have achieved success is a way to motivate the reader to do the same. Sprinkling genuine stars into the mix is a solid plus, since star power induces imitation.

Past a certain extent, though, it doesn’t matter how many stars you trot out onto the pages. A reverse reaction can set in if the reader is left only admiring the feats of others. Stars, for example, are so far above the reader that he cannot be blamed for thinking: if only I had the money, fame, (fill out the blank), I could do that too—but I don’t. I’m just a regular schlump looking for help. 

That is one reason why publishers seek authors who already have a program that has been proven to help its clients. Unlike a book, which is a passive instrument of instruction, a guru of whatever sort must actively prove her worth. Examples are used partially as incentives, but they also show people who have worked out their problems according to the program’s guidelines. Those practical lessons provide the true grit underlying all the glitter.

At all times you should keep in mind a single question that a reader has: “What’s in it for me?” All of the examples must be laid on a grid that is your program. If you are advocating aerobic exercise in a chapter, for instance, start with why a reader should do it, provide a few example of success others achieved because of it—but then tell the reader what he should do. Lay out the program step for that chapter. Of course, you can reverse the order—laying out the step and then providing examples of others’ success. 

When you build a self-help book that way, step by step, you’ll also find that the examples can be distributed in a logical fashion. Oh, that example models walking, so it goes in the aerobic exercise chapter. The examples are put at the service of your helping the reader.

Exercise: You can use a shortcut if your book is mainly informational. Insert text boxes throughout the manuscript that provide instructions for the reader. They not only stand out, because they are special text elements, but they keep reminding the reader that she personally can profit from the information you are giving.

“So many self-help ideas are like meringue—you take a big bite, and there's nothing there.” 
—Deborah Norville

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine



Interval Training

A consideration in ranking your characters is: how often do they appear? This might seem to be an obvious point, but I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I’ve edited in which a character pops up out of nowhere after a mighty long siesta to play a key role in an important story event. As a reader, I react with surprise, if not indignation. I’d pretty much forgotten that character, and now he’s supposed to be crucial?

When I raise this point, many authors become confused. How could you forget Minnie? I love Minnie. What they don’t understand is that the characters are in competition with each other for the reader’s attention. Once we start to become immersed in the story arc of one character, the others recede into the background. You need to keep rotating the characters so they all stay as fresh and vital in our minds. The longer a character sits on the sidelines, the less we care about her.

Here’s where simple arithmetic can stand you in good stead. Start with the useful concept of “interval.” How long has it been since that character last appeared? I don’t mean just in the background of a scene, but in an active way. This point applies especially to your protagonist. You don’t want him sitting on the sidelines for hardly any intervals at all. If he’s not connected to the main plot for several chapters, you better reconfigure the book so he is. When a character lies fallow, the reader is going to assume that the character doesn’t matter as much—because the author obviously doesn’t think he’s important.

The more important the character, the smaller the interval should be. If she’s a major supporting character, she should not be absent for more than 30 pages at a time. If the character is more minor, maybe a 40-50 page lapse will be fine. That’s about how long the reader’s attention span lasts.

Exercise: Draw up a chart with three columns. At the top write the name of the character. Above the far left column, write “Ch” for the chapter number and then list them. Above the second, write “Pages,” and in each cell write the page numbers of that chapter (e.g., 23-28). In the third, write “Interval,” and then list how long it’s been since Character X has done anything active in the book. You may surprise yourself. If the interval is very long, try to find a place at your chosen interval limit during that long gap and give that character something useful to do. If need be, substitute that character for another one already in a scene.

“The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play. I say to myself, if a big name were playing this part, and if he found that after a strong first act he had practically nothing to do in the second act, he would walk out.”        
—P. G. Wodehouse

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.