Who Asked You?

How many times should you should feature yourself in personal examples? While that depends on the type of nonfiction book you are writing, my usual advice is to avoid it as much as possible. There are several major reasons why.

The first has to do with breadth. The point of many examples is to illustrate how widespread a problem or solution is. If you are discussing the causes of elbow pain, for instance, a reader will be more impressed if you feature people of different ages, engaged in different activities, such as playing tennis, and occupations. That assures the reader that you are being comprehensive in your approach. If you use yourself, a reader is more inclined to think that your solution is home-brewed. Lucky it works for you, pal.

The second is self-indulgence. However altruistic a writer’s motives toward the enterprise overall, you cannot be blamed for telling stories you know intimately, and who do you know better than yourself? The excuses given for such stories run the gamut. If you are writing a history of your Army unit in Iraq, you might spin out a chapter on high school flame Daisy, who wrote a Dear John letter while you were overseas—then tell yourself that lots of others received Dear John letters as well. The fact of the matter is, however, that you wasted the reader’s time for 10 pages. Did I really need to know about the creaking hotel bed?

The most important is laziness. Going out to find examples, unless you have a busy practice or program, is hard work. I know because my field so often involves ghostwriting, and I’ll look up examples for authors when the text becomes too self-referential. It’s much easier to lean back in your chair and recall the time when...

Some books are better than others, and by far and away the main reason is that some authors stuff their books with research and/or examples. Amid examples about so many others, your own experiences can become highlights for the reader. When used occasionally, a story about, say, your fear prior to a specific battle can make the reader feel included in that inner turmoil. That is why personal examples often work well in an introduction, when you’re making a case for why the reader should bother to read the book in the first place. Feeling included is a good reason to keep reading.

Exercise: Comb the manuscript with an eye out for personal examples. Is each one really germane to the topic you are discussing just before the example? If not, do you have another example on file? Even if it does not segue directly from the previous topic, you may find it helps the book gain authority because you are citing yet another person who makes your case.

“We are apt to forget that children watch examples better than they listen to preaching.”
—Roy L. Smith

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Modern Mythic

Where do you find a hero in everyday life? I was reminded of this question while watching the Bill Moyers interviews with Joseph Campbell, revived on Netflix. Campbell’s books, along with Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols and James Frazier’s The Golden Bough, had a tremendous impact on me as a young writer. The idea of archetypes recurring throughout history was fascinating in concept. When transferred to your book, though, what practicality do these ideas have?

Boldness might be the most important consideration. Campbell’s formulation that a hero journeys until he ends up transformed in a version of hell might seem quaint at first, but it is in fact essential to the structure of novels. If your protagonist remains within the bounds that order his everyday life, the reader will quickly become bored. His restlessness, his desire to break free, lies at the heart of story tension. The tenet that nine out of ten people remain in their parents’ socioeconomic status tells you which one you should be writing about.

What are the bounds that hem in nine out of ten? That’s one of the beauties of fiction writing: they are what you say they are. A young woman defying the norms of her small town may commit an act, like kissing a boy while dancing at prom, that in another context would seem like small potatoes. The rules you create, though the strictures enforced by other characters, draw the lines that a heroine should not cross. 

The notion of a journey is also instructive. If your hero does not advance through a series of stages to whatever dragon awaits him in its cave, your story will have no momentum. Sneaking out to do drugs all night with friends is merely a stage of experimentation. Do it more than a few times, and the novel will reach a listless plateau. Whether that leads to drinking alone to excess or to leaving home for good doesn’t matter as long as the progression leads to more consequential acts. 

The climax in hell is the model that most authors follow. A trial must be undertaken in the climax sequence in order for the book to feel complete. The idea of inner transformation resulting from that event is not employed as often, and that often separates the novels you really remember from the ones that are only exciting at the time. The process of reading is a journey of its own, and the more the character changes in the end, the more we feel its impact.

Exercise: Reading old myths can be a tiresome experience, leaving you wondering what the point is. You might profit more from reading an interpretive guide like Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. The process you are engaged in as a writer is age-old. You may find models that better allow you to tap into that elemental force.

“We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
—Joseph Campbell

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Action and Actors

When a fledgling novelist’s reason for writing a book is working out a clever concept, the entangled linkage between plotting and characters can be overlooked. In this case the characters are chosen in order to advance the markers of the concept. I’ll pick one in the tech field as a running example: say, an app that administers shocks when someone is not telling the truth. How can that plot line run thin?

The protagonist is perhaps a psychologist who is sick of her patients lying to her. She enlists the help of a young developer to create a program for a smart watch. After successful initial trials, the device works all too well on a rich patient, who in couples therapy reveals how many affairs he’s had in the past five years. He sues, becoming the antagonist. Their appearance in court draws the attention of law enforcement officers, who for obvious reasons want a truth serum.

You could see this concept spinning out for a while. Yet by the time you reach page 150, you may find that the watch is functioning like a super power. Slap it on someone’s wrist, she tells a truthful anecdote, and move on. It works every time. Precisely because it works so well, boredom sets in. Oh, right, the President wasn’t telling the truth. How about that . . . yawn.

The concept is, at its base, intellectual. The aspects of the whiz-bang discovery are mechanistic. Worst of all, the characters don’t have any glue holding them together. They are silos performing their separate functions. The reason the plot runs dry is it lacks the milk of human kindness—i.e., emotions in general.

Concept without characters leads to a dead end. While the pyrotechnics are fine, you have merely a caper novel if the events are not helping to build character arcs. That’s why it’s important, at an early stage to consider how a core cast—let’s say five people—might be set up early on in order to create conflicts that keep the novel going. 

If you want the truth watch to cause moral issues for the psychologist’s wife, for instance, you should consider how the partners worked together before it is developed. Then you’ll see ways in which their problems can be exacerbated by the watch. What if the psychologist herself ended up admitting unpleasant truths? If the reader has gotten to know her well, she’s the one we want to find out about more than anyone else.

Exercise: Look over your draft (more likely, partial draft) with an eye out for opposites. If the tech developer is remote and nerdy, devise a character who is fun and bubbly that he initially disdained but grows to like. Does the bubbly one see obvious problems if everyone wore the watch? Now put that into play.

“What we now call ‘finance’ is, I hold, an intellectual perversion of what began as warm human love.” 
—Robert Graves

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Pushing for Stupid

Aspiring authors come to a writing session with the goal of greatness. Some wish to pen eloquent strands of prose. Others wish to emulate bestselling writers they enjoy. Whether the aim is high- or low-brow, the dream shining in their mind is the same. If I write well enough, readers will love me.

After finishing a chapter, or a first draft, that writer may become distressed if the words don’t ring true. A high-flown description of a beloved beach doesn’t seem to work with the dead body found in the dunes. Or, the narrative prose doesn’t seem to match with the more pedestrian dialogue passages. You decide that the tone needs to be made more consistent. You work harder during the revision so that everything sparkles. Yet by the end, the revised draft may feel like merely a gilded version of the same uneven enterprise.

The question to ask yourself is: where are these strenuous efforts taking place? Presumably in the silence of a lonely room. Even if you prefer showing off at Starbucks, you need to block out what others are saying. And that turn inward may be precisely the problem.

The inattention to the way real people stumble through their lives was brought home to me while reading George Saunders’ Pastoralia. The characters that fill these short stories are nearly incoherent. Their dialogue is inexpressive, and their thinking runs in ruts that show the most limited of horizons. That is the human race: Cro-Magnon at heart, and the smartest try to advance civilization. 

Don’t leave out the messy parts. Unless you’re creating a utopia, you’re better off listening to what is said in Starbucks. Actually, that’s highfalutin itself. Eavesdrop in the supermarket aisle or hardware store. If you can stand it, read the responses to articles online, such as about politics or cooking. People are not shy about spouting off their versions of the truth. You just are not capturing what they say. You’re holed up in your figurative cabin in the woods, trying to imitate what real life is like.

Oddly, common parlance has a cadence that can propel your writing. The characters that you want to fill out themes can be more textured when you consider real-life models. When you’re not melding toward unity, variety can be the spice that fills your novel.

Exercise: Because dialogue tends to be opaque, not saying what the person is feeling, trying to sketch a type can easily lead to a stereotype. To counteract that, try to flip the coin and find the person’s possible sorrows. They don’t have to be deep. Being ugly as a teenager can leave scars that affect someone’s behavior for the rest of his life. Put the type on that balancing point.

“People are much deeper than stereotypes. That's the first place our minds go. Then you get to know them and you hear their stories, and you say, ‘I'd have never guessed.’”
—Carson Kressley

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine



Use Place Holders

Writing entails the assemblage of a vast amount of interesting tidbits. That’s why this is the rare post that addresses both fiction and nonfiction. In both fields you are tasked with providing nuggets that the reader doesn’t know. After all, if you have nothing new to add to your field, why are you writing?

A key sector of interesting pieces consists of research into a topic featured in the book. For a novel highlighted by the Battle of Trenton, for example, I compiled reams of facts about colonial farming, since the main characters lived on a nearby farm. Whether these bits lie in a desk drawer or in an electronic file, you may remember one that you know is appropriate for the passage you’re writing, but not exactly where it is. So you go hunting for it, flicking through hundreds of other facts. By the time you finally find the right one, the flow you were feeling when you started may have dissipated.

In the ranking of writing imperatives, I would place flow near the top. Feeling the Muse is hard for most of us, and when you connect with that mysterious current, you want to keep it going for as long as you can. In fiction, that is the way you can best commune with your lead characters, since so much of effective storytelling consists of a deeply felt narrative point of view. A research bit, by contrast, ranks as a nice-to-have, not need-to-have in most cases. If you are constantly breaking your flow to look up minutia, you are abdicating your responsibility to produce a story that envelops the reader.

As for nonfiction, the main objective of flow is thematic structure. You want to set out in order the topics you wish to cover in a chapter. If you are writing about hearing loss, for example, a chapter might consist of different types of aids you can purchase. You might have a Siemens booklet explaining facets of bone conduction, but one factoid from it is not as important as laying out the overall reasons why a reader might consider using this method.

To avoid hunting and pecking during a writing session, you can use place holders. In parentheses you indicate the nature of the item you need to look up. Then move on. I know that may wrankle that obsessive drive to make everything perfect, but you’re going to edit the draft at some point—so it isn’t perfect, anyway. That is a small trade-off for chopping short a magnificent waterfall of words you had going that day.

Exercise: Everyone has good and bad writing days. Use your bad days to hunt and peck. You can’t find the Muse to save your life, so do something useful. Comb through your notes for accurate descriptions, etc. In the process, you may come across tidbits that would help the story in other places.

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”
—Zora Neale Hurston

 Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Can’t Say No

A parade of negative voices marches through our lives every day. Whether we have neglected to fix the leaking refrigerator, or forgotten to call the gutter service yet again, we are always after ourselves to be better. So it is not surprising that lurking on the underside of every sentence you write is a negative opinion of that sentence.

You have probably experienced the strange progression of beliefs we all entertain about our own work. At first you’re convinced the sentence you just wrote is pure genius, the best thing you ever composed. The next day, while editing, it seems more pedestrian, and a flicker of doubt appears: How did I think that was so great? A month later, while reading over a chapter, possibly because you’re in a negative head anyway, you see the sentence and feel the urge to strike it out altogether.

The same duality that allows perfectly harmless members of society to create the most vile serial killers in their thrillers also operates in this very small, private sphere. In finest Shakespearean style, our greatest strength, volatility, is also the source of our greatest weakness. I suppose writers should be glad that the only destruction they wreak is on their poor, defenseless words. I have, in fact, often evinced the opinion to friends that if everyone became creative, violence in society would cease. The volcanic eruptions we all feel would merely loop back on ourselves.

You must remain cognizant, however, that when you write, you are creating that feedback loop. The same voice that urges you to get up every morning at an ungodly hour can also turn on you and say, “You fool, give up. You can’t write.” You cannot give in to thoughts created at the low ebb of your subconscious cycle. They are going to happen.

Creativity is atavistic to a certain extent, but you are a member of a highly evolved civilization in which you are trying to participate as a writer, one of the highest achievements any person can attain. So don’t do it. Don’t permit wholesale destruction of what you yourself have created. Just wait for the next time you revisit that sentence.

Exercise: Having made this plea, I am aware that not everything an author writes is gold. When you feel doubt about what you’ve written, go granular. Examine a single sentence and ask yourself what you don’t like about it. Using the same words, try to invert the structure. That construction, such as placing an adjective first in the sentence, will probably look flowery and affected, but now ask yourself: have I made the right choice for that adjective? Or, is the adjective fine but the verb is inert? Could you convert the adjective into the verb? By the time you are finished resolving that small puzzle, the black cloud that descended over you earlier may have parted to allow light to shine through.

“Writing is an act of creativity. You do it because it opens a wellspring of thoughts and feelings inside you that you didn’t know you were capable of expressing so well.”        
—Albert Einstein

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Diminished Thump

Dramatic compression of time means running a building series of scenes within a tight time frame. This device helps to add urgency to any plot line, but it especially should be watched with subplots. Because the scenes in a minor plot don’t appear as frequently—every 25 pages, say—what is driving their tension may become attenuated as the book goes on.

Let’s take an example to see how this works: an adulterous affair. We’ll further suppose that it starts where so many do: at an out-of-town gathering in which too much drinking occurs. Someone with a roving eye, dancing too close, soft porn, and the reader is excited. This plot line sounds promising.

When the affair continues, the frequency of the two partners’ trysts becomes a factor. The heat of the sex scenes itself will fade as the book goes on—unless the author is really good at writing sex scenes. In most hands, though, an author faces the age-old problem of going to the same well too often. A plot line should build, not lose its potency.

Besides steamy sex, the other main draw of such a plot is: will a spouse find out? Different baselines can produce the same suspenseful result. Will one of the steamy duo threaten to tell all? Or, are they sure they haven’t been seen together in public? Affecting all of these is frequency of usage. If Georgia threatens to blab the next week after the convention, that is a pressing concern for Bob. But a month later, when she threatens again, the matter has less power. During the 25 pages between the two subplot scenes, hopefully a lot of other stuff has been happening. Time itself is burying the issue.

Plus, the more a stratagem such as a threat is repeated, the less interest a reader has. Months may go by, and while doom is still looming over the partner’s head, he’s gone on to participate in an outstanding number of plot events, and he may be outstanding in them. So now the reader doesn’t really care if Georgia drops the bomb. Bob may well have won our hearts in other regards, so his wife has to forgive him—or she’s the jerk.

Bob has had time to redeem himself with the reader. In other words, your main plot has subverted the aims of the subplot. Out of sight, out of mind.

Exercise: To resolve this problem, you can always compress the time frame of the subplot. Maybe it takes up a third of the book. If you want to keep it running, though, attach the characters’ interests to elements of the main plot. Georgia might start visiting the playground where Bob’s son plays every afternoon, for instance. The subplot’s tentacles are extended onto current interests the reader has, and like a parasite it too remains vital.

“O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive!”
—Sir Walter Scott

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.