How Serious Are You?

When I talk to an author about his manuscript, some will apologize for the type of novel he’s writing. I don’t know why he feels he has to do that with me, since my website is dominated by commercial titles. My response to that author reflects a belief that I’ve felt for most of my career.

I don’t think a “literary book” exists on some exalted plane. Every manuscript stems from an author’s concerted effort, and how gifted she is, and how hard she works at her craft, determines where her book will be ranked along a spectrum. Note the imagery of a spectrum. I have read plenty of books that are “literary,” only to be disappointed by the author’s lack of vision. Yes, each sentence is precisely crafted, sparkling like a diamond, but the characters are fairly ordinary and their developmental arcs fairly low. What, exactly, am I supposed to be appreciating as a superior reader, the one who reads only “those types of books”?

My annoyance with cultural pretension extends to different books by the same writer. We all know that only one or a few books form the pinnacle of an author’s career. So what does that mean about the other works? For example, I flat-out love John Updike’s stories, but I found several of his novels to be disappointing. They did not change my opinion of his literary merits one bit, because I, like most readers, know that an author will not hit the ball out of the park every time. Wouldn’t I have been better off reading a highly entertaining thriller rather than a literary writer who churns out a book a year?

Naturally, I like to edit books that are better written. My reading in my spare time is dominated by literary lights. Yet I firmly believe that writing is individual. If your book is reaching a certain audience, if your readers gain enjoyment or knowledge from what you’ve penned, what is wrong with that? Why are you worried about the clown who can so casually sit in judgment on that? Ask him how many books he has written.

The fact that you’ve gotten up all those mornings, kicked yourself during all those sessions to try harder, should be applauded, I say. Forget about inhabiting some mythical literary heaven. Do what you can, and you may find that you’re closer to the literary end of the scale than you think.

“We are always more anxious to be distinguished for a talent which we do not possess than to be praised for the fifteen which we do possess.”
—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Right at the Moment

Any advice for creating a strong narrative voice starts with: “Put your character’s feet on the ground.” That shift marks an important stage in an author’s journey from self to created self. If the distance between mind and pen were calibrated on an arc, you would find at one end the author directing his characters like marionettes and at the other a character speaking to the reader directly. That is, mental solely directed by author as opposed to mental solely directed by character.

For most authors, reaching the latter end of the spectrum remains an aspiration only. An intermediate stage—a scene described closely—can be achieved through craft, however. You just have to lay aside your strings and slip inside the inert puppet below.

For a running example, let’s take a general passage, obviously drawn from research notes: “She was determined to prepare her daughter as her successor in witchcraft. Since the teaching was transmitted orally, the process was laborious. Children like Karen required constant drills.” Who is controlling the narrative? Look above, at the grinning puppet master.

How is the character’s feet put on the ground? Start with one lesson in witchcraft, on one morning. Let’s make Karen the point-of-view character. That assumes a child’s perspective on the proceedings. That includes possible boredom, or joy, or “Yay, I did it!” That’s a little different take than “laborious.”

The lesson could be shown through dialogue, with her mother reciting a spell and the child stumbling to repeat it. A lack of writing implements indicates that the lesson is being given orally.  The mother might make the spell work, delighting both the child and the reader.

Note that when you put yourself inside a scene, the process does not have to be smooth. The mother could become cross with the child. It could be noon, after a long morning of repeating the spell endless times, and Karen is more interested in her upcoming peanut butter and jelly sandwich. In her tuning out her mother, her eye might be caught by the way the sunlight is gleaming off a metal bookend by the window, and in her transported state she makes her own kind of magic happen.

You cannot create action scenes for every part of the narrative, but a novel can consist largely of them. That’s because an author is willing to step aside and let the characters tell the story. How much mental activity you add in a further phase is up to you, but now it is placed in the service of the character.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for any passages that do not have a sharply delineated point of view. One way you can tell is by looking for a time element. When is the passage taking place? If it’s over a stretch of weeks or even years, you should make sure that the character, not you, is running the show.

“Randomness I love. And I still love just a holler right in the middle of an ongoing narrative. Pain or joy, ecstasy.”
—Barry Hannah

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Second Time Around

An author’s first novel often represents the union of several gleaming factors. The writing shows precision in word choices, because so much time has been spent evaluating each sentence. The characters have true depth, because stops and starts as the book develops winnows out those who are less compelling. Most important of all, the book has a good concept. A subject struck a nerve at the very beginning, and the fleshing out of that topic proves how solid it was.

Where authors can fall short is the selection of the sophomore effort. Part of the problem is fatigue. So much effort was expended on the first book that a writer finds that, like Atlas, supporting one world feels like quite enough. To start from scratch and spend hundreds of new hours is a daunting prospect. At least the first time around, you had no idea how long it would take.

Juxtaposed to the weariness is your knowledge that you are a much better writer. In the latter stages of revision for the first book you likely found that the words you composed flowed out of your head faster. You were using certain techniques, like converting the most interesting word in a sentence into an active verb. So you want to put all that hard-earned training to work.

A first impulse with many writers is to pen a sequel. After all, you know the characters of the first book so well. Yet this is where so many writing journeys fall short. The concept for the second book may come to seem pallid compared to the first. Ten, twenty, maybe fifty pages into the new book, you find yourself losing interest. It just isn’t grabbing you, pulling you onward, the same as the first one.

That’s why, no matter which concept you choose, the first consideration needs to be how excited you are by it. Better writing skills employed on a less compelling central idea is a pointless exercise. You might as well perform black belt moves on a mannequin. 

How do you find good concepts? While some authors are bursting with great ideas—when will I find the time to write them all out?—most of us have to be more patient. You can move the process along by staying mentally sharp when you read news articles. Would that disaster in Dallas fit with the core characters you have in mind? Like many other gifts of the Muse, that ever elusive minx, you may find that by actively seeking, the perfect idea blindsides you unexpectedly.

Exercise: Context can provide the basic shape in which to fit the concept. Draw up a few pages of notes about 3-4 main characters you’d like to explore (whether from past books or not). In particular, what sorts of relationships between them would you like to develop? Now you have laid the tinder that can be sparked.

“Creativity and insight almost always involve an experience of acute pattern recognition: the eureka moment in which we perceive the interconnection between disparate concepts or ideas to reveal something new.”
—Jason Silva

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Importance of Being Ernestine

The axiom “It’s a man’s world” is losing its potency these days. Nowhere does this observation apply more than in the world of book publishing. Two-thirds of all fiction readers are women, and that dominance is reflected in publishing employment as well. If you submit a manuscript, the chances that one of the three people involved in approving the sale—editor, editor-in-chief, and publisher—will be a woman is very good.

What does that mean to a male writer of commercial fiction? A novel set in the locker room, the barracks, or the executive suite has less of a chance of selling if it doesn’t feature a prominent woman character. This seems dumb, because everyone knows that the sexes regularly segregate themselves in their activities. Guys don’t want to discuss hairdos. Gals are bored by sports stats. It’s, like, biological, right?

I am inclined to agree, but I also think it doesn’t matter. You might as well tilt against windmills or rail against the sun setting. Times have changed, and the day of the boys club novel has run its course. Women’s novels by and large have always included a healthy amount of thinking about men, and the same is becoming more prevalent on the other side of the divide. I’m not talking about giving the wives more lines of dialogue; rather, I’d advise you to think in terms of a female lead.

The next consideration is: what do women like to read? As romance, perennially the best-selling genre, shows, they like to read about relationships. Not necessarily sex, but it doesn’t hurt to have some sexual intrigue, as in any novel. Women also like characters that are better defined, and this work can be done through the relationships they have with others. In an action-oriented book, that means pairing the male lead with his counterpart in a way that their interactions build over the course of the story.

You can also keep them separate, running dual plot lines. A novel is a large vehicle, capable of carrying multiple plots. If the male lead is attractive enough, though, you probably want to pair them at some point. Keep in mind that many of the characters, in a genre like military thrillers, will be men in both plot lines. The point is to focus the reader’s attention on how they are interacting with her, the way you would with any plot lead. In other words, your novelistic considerations don’t change, and the book will be fuller as a result.

Exercise: If you are worried you cannot portray a woman in any depth, pick out an interesting woman in your own life. Identify her three most salient traits, and write down a list of examples of how she shows that trait. Now look at the plot outline. Can you meld the two lists so that her personality fits into the plot?

“Man does not control his own fate. The women in his life do that for him.” 
—Groucho Marx

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine



The Language That We Use

Every person over the age of 25 is haunted by a specter that looms larger with the passing years. We become out of touch with the hip idioms used by a younger generation. Even worse, we become unable to say them. I cringe when I hear a 50-year-old using “rad,” for instance. It just doesn’t sound right coming out of the mouth of an older person.

A similar problem besets an author writing a contemporary novel. The world of complete sentences, of distinctive adjectives, and a host of more formal elements of a bygone era has been replaced by a style that is closer to the spoken word. I should note the careful decision making of modern masters has not changed a bit. If anything, the cadence of today’s literature rings more true than ever.

I raise this issue because most authors are not aware of how important word choices are. They tend to write in the style they were brought up with. Heck, they are pleased merely to be getting their thoughts down on paper. Yet the tastes of their readers has been changed by the more modern books that they read. I am reading The Sellout, for instance, and as much as I enjoy Paul Beatty, he does not write like Richard Wright.

You need to keep this in mind as you pen your ideas. If the language you’re using seems fussy or ornate to a reader, the very word choices impose a distance between her and the text. It takes on a sepia tint like an old photograph—quaint, but why didn’t people ever smile in those days? Even worse, a reader, after trying so many times to connect with the content, can grow bored with the formality.

Precision in word choice dictates that you assign the dated language to older characters. If you are an elderly writer, your protagonist is likely closer to your age anyway. Younger characters have their own idiom, which you have likely seen in popular media countless times. You just haven’t been in writing mode—i.e., writing down what they are when you come across them. If you’re really daunted by the task, you need merely visit an Instagram page of a younger person, and you’ll find slang galore.

That is the crux of the matter: how lazy are you? Are you willing to get out of your armchair to discover what they say? If not, you’d better hope that your marketing efforts find that older demographic.

Exercise: You can adopt a different tactic altogether. Your prose in general can be elevated above how anyone speaks. This happens most often when the narrative point of view is so far inside the main storyteller’s head that the dialogue is an extension of his thoughts. When all of your prose is crisp, readers want to engage on that higher plane.

“Adults are obsolete children.”
—Dr. Seuss

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Trolling for Ideas

One of the most fertile sources of ideas is, not surprisingly, other books. That’s because the acuity of a good writer often reminds you of thoughts you yourself have had before. I should pause to clarify terms. I am a staunch enemy of plagiarism, as is anyone engaged in the book industry and knows how hard writers struggle. The mining of ideas I am suggesting operates at a plane once removed.

Rather than copying the written words, you can jot down the concept that struck you. For example, let’s say you’re reading about a young man who, being awkward at parties himself, becomes jealous of his girlfriend for spending too much time enjoying the company of another man at a party. You realize that for your book, such an incident would be perfect for demonstrating the character’s overall decline into paranoia. What’s more, you are struck by how well the author captures not only the initial poisonous simmering at the party, but how the character thinks about it afterward. At a conceptual level, you see the technique employed, and that becomes a springboard for your original train of narration.

At a lower level, reading other books can remind you of details that you want to add to scenes. Again, don’t steal what is original, but use the book as you would any other source you research. If the author is writing about dogs, you can seize upon appurtenances that help fill out your possibly vague memory of when you owned a dog. You can convert items such as dirt smearing the dog’s red collar or dried hanks of fur where the dog has wallowed in mud into your own wording. Just as valuable, you may read something that sparks off in your mind a memory of how you felt about your dog at a certain time, perhaps the way you felt about the white hair that slowly ringed its muzzle as it aged.

Remember the reason you’re looking for ideas: to feed more ideas into your book. By the same token, I have deliberately rented movies merely to pick off details that relate to a setting, often in the past, that reside in the back of my mind and will not come to the forefront on its own. You are a hunter, so go gather for your book.

Exercise: Keep a pocket notebook or iPad at your side when you read your next novel. When you see a striking idea, stop and write, in your own words, how that idea would fit into what you have in your story. It may well be that what you write down has nothing to do with the book you're reading—but rather it sparked off a new idea.

“The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn't behave that way you would never do anything.”
—John Irving

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Just Chill

If time is at a premium for you, as it is for most people, you need a method that will allow you to enter the right frame of mind for writing as quickly as possible. The largest obstacle is not feeling dead-headed. It’s making your mind still enough to concentrate. A good way to do that is creating a transition zone between your ordinary routine and your writing sessions.

Back when I worked in a bookstore, I picked up a writing book that contained advice I have remembered ever since: “Try to make your mind completely blank for five minutes before you start writing.” I grasped the point immediately. I knew about the barrage of everyday junk I just can’t stop thinking about. Plus, I knew that blanking your mind is what you try to do when you meditate. I’d tried that during college, and I realized that a practice like that could also open the way to commune with a spirit like the Muse.

So you can try to meditate. I’m not talking about buying a big Indian pillow and dharma beads. I can’t even assume the proper meditation position, because my thigh muscles get in the way. I sit erectly, feet flat on the floor, back straight, in a chair. You can still draw deep breaths in and out through your nose, which is the main idea. If you focus on the very moment the breath enters and leaves your nostrils, your mind will close down.

Don’t worry about the thoughts that spring up unbidden, like a jack-in-the-box: “You have to do your laundry tonight.” There is no right or wrong about trying to be still, no reason to develop another neurosis. You were flooded with those thoughts before, remember, like a parade in an antic cartoon. So if you have a dozen or more of them during those five dark minutes, you’ve done pretty well, I’d say.

Exercise: I feel like a false prophet giving advice about meditation, but I do know one technique that has really worked for me. Put your hands in your lap and curl one inside the palm of the other. Hold them loosely, but as time goes on, try to maintain that curl. You’ll find it not only refocuses you, the touch of your fingers will help keep you calm.

“If we really want to live, we'd better start at once to try.”
—W. H. Auden

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Tides of Sleep

The act of writing consists of summoning images from your subconscious. That’s why, when you’re concentrating hard to create a sentence, your eyes are often closed. You’re trying to block out the everyday nonsense. It is also why many writers prefer to write first thing after they wake up in the morning. You are no longer dreaming, but the embrace of sleep doesn’t let you go right away.

Yet a valuable part of the process also takes place at the other end of the sleep cycle. When you are fully engaged in writing, day in and day out, one of your best opportunities for fresh ideas can occur right before you fall asleep. Although you are tired, which is not a good state for writing at any length, you can mine valuable nuggets of prose. In particular, you can utilize the quasi-sleep state just before you fall off into dreamland.

That’s because the subconscious does not work according to application of will. It jumps around, making random connections between the different parts of your novel. You may be writing Chapter 7, but out of nowhere, while you’re lying there, springs a terrific solution for a problem in Chapter 2 that has long been bedeviling you. Or, the absolutely perfect way to express an image like a cloud formation may crystallize in your mind. If you get out of bed to write it down, you’ve locked down a nice piece for the book.

For those of you who suffer from insomnia, the rewards can be even greater. Let’s face it, if you wake up and you know you’re doomed to stay awake for the next hour, you might as well be thinking about your story. As long as you lie in bed, you’re not fully awake, and the same wandering process toward an unexpected solution can take place. From personal experience, I have found that semi-conscious exploration seldom leads to entire glowing passages. Yet it has frequently yielded a crystalline sentence or two. Or, you may realize a key connection between characters—Uncle Frank could have dropped by that night—that seems so obvious once you have thought of it.

Besides the gain of solid prose, you also achieve a deeper satisfaction. Even if you have a full-time job, you are committing yourself to a cycle of creativity. Your being is engaged in the mysterious process from which all art comes. You don’t have to give up your day job. You know who you are inside.

Exercise: If you have a partner, you should be prepared. You need to slide out of bed in a stealthy fashion (or reap the consequences). I always keep a pocket notebook and pen on my night table. Just be aware that writing in the dark can lead to very large words and oddly slanting lines when revealed by daylight.

“You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”
―Saul Bellow

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Ordinary Peeks Through

Many high concepts provide readers with a way to explore hot-button issues behind the headlines. This attribute of a novel resembles the vastly greater amount you can learn about a country from one of its writers as opposed to a travel guide. Only by placing a heroine within a situation can the reader learn up-close what that issue really means in human terms.

In the desire to bring the exotic down to earth, however, a writer runs the risk of making the sentence-by-sentence progress too mundane. I’ll pick a hot topic today, transgender relations, as a running illustration. If teenage Luke has always felt more like a Luca, a reader is intrigued by what he feels inside, the taunting of his classmates, maybe a bitter parent, a search for acceptance, among others. Judged from the outside, before you start any of these threads, the prospect is thrilling.

The journey through a novel, though, proceeds word by word. In the desire to establish a foundation of realism, an author can err on the side of too familiar. A teenage drama can easily veer into immature conversations that echo endless episodes on Nickelodeon. Those screenwriters know how a sixteen-year-old talks, or at least one with an attitude designed to prompt the laugh track.

Insouciance does not work as well in a medium that explores a character’s thoughts. Whether Luke makes the immense jump to become a woman could be, on the contrary, a heart-wrenching decision, for him and those around him. That source of gravity pulls the story up out of any ordinary moorings.

How does a writer avoid the pitfalls of the sitcom while also remaining believable? You use a method I’ll call hyper-realism. This has two primary components. First is your choice of the topics of conversations. If you avoid run-of-the-mill encounters by the school locker, for instance, and instead choose only those truly charged with tension, the dialogue will be elevated by the subject matter alone.

Second is the language spoken during those conversations. It needs to be more pointed, shorn of the usual patter that thinking off the top of your head produces. Once you have written out the dialogue the first time, look severely at the ordinary stretches. If you replace a back-and-forth exchange of six lines with a single narrative sentence, you’ll cut to the chase. The prose overall will match its concept—because you have consciously made it more angular all along.

Exercise: The loop between what is thought and what is said can also be shorter. Indeed, a novel can barely venture outside the protagonist’s thoughts to cover what is said. If you, during a review, encounter long stretches of dialogue, think about how that topic could be placed inside the heroine’s head. Could she subsume an exchange of conflicting views into warring thoughts of her own?

“There are no makeovers in my books. The ugly duckling does not become a beautiful swan. She becomes a confident duck able to take charge of her own life and problems.”
—Maeve Binchy

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.