Summing Up a Chapter

One of the keys of making the different pieces in a nonfiction manuscript—usually chapters—fit together is to link them. While you can stress certain themes of the book at multiple points, I am discussing the more straightforward work of adding a strong ending to each chapter. Here are a few pointers.

First of all, elevate. What does that mean? The chapter has been operating on a plane filled with specifics. Let’s say you’re writing about growing up on a farm in the 1950s. The chapter has covered the different steps involved in threshing oats. You’ve covered the machinery, the phases, and storage methods. In the next chapter you want to switch to an old-time schoolhouse.

At the end of the chapter, you don’t want to keep on listing specifics. If you do that, the reader naturally assumes that the chapter will continue. After all, that’s the plane on which you’ve been operating for the past 15 or so pages in the chapter. So you start the last paragraph (or two, if needed) by making a more global statement about threshing. “With the growing use of tractors, those days when all the neighbors would move from farm to farm would unfortunately come to an end.” You’ve risen above the fray, so to speak. You’re using a general term like “those days.” If you were filming a movie, you would be pulling back the camera lens for a group shot. If you write a few more sentences, operating on this higher level, the reader will feel the narrative distance you are creating.

You could write a 3-4 sentence paragraph that merely pulls away. If you are more clever, though, you will want to write an entire chapter bridge. Think about what a bridge does. It joins two segments of land. So one pier, so to speak, is anchored in the chapter you are finishing. The other rises from the chapter to come. Your sentences form the bridge.

If you use those 3-4 sentences to lead away from the completed chapter, you have partly crossed the bridge. If the next chapter discusses a rural schoolhouse, you then have to ask yourself: how do I get from here to there? Well, you were a child, and you went to school every day. So the threshing occurred when you were on summer break. So the bridge sentences to get the reader to school could run something like: “Once our winter food supplies were safely stored away, we had to switch from threshing’s demanding physical labor to work of another sort. Fall was coming, and that meant the start of another school year. In some ways, the work of learning was even more demanding.”

You’re still on that elevated plane. You’re about to delve into the specifics of your old school in the next chapter. When you think of a bridge, it too is elevated. All you’re doing is taking a longer view. If you think about it, that’s easy. The hard work is collecting all of those specifics.

“Any man who afflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood.”
 —H. L. Mencken

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Just the Right Word

I'll follow up on the post the other day by drilling down deeper into word choices. That's because our minds can be stuck in certain ruts, and we end up using the same words over and over again. I frequently consult a thesaurus because a manuscript I’m editing keeps employing certain common words over and over again. While freshness of story concept is an overarching attraction for a reader, freshness of vocabulary can be a subtler but ongoing source of satisfaction.

I have to admit, I love reviewing an entire horde of possible substitutes for a word. Each has its own shade of meaning. Among the greatest assets of the American Heritage Dictionary are its boxes that parse out, in a sentence apiece, how a list of similar words should be employed. For instance, “bombast” and “claptrap” seem to be roughly equivalent, but the dictionary points out the difference. “Bombast stresses inflation of style but does not always imply insubstantiality of thought,” whereas “Claptrap is insincere, empty speech or writing.” I think most good writers want to make sure that they are using the right shade of meaning.

You need to be careful. though. Often I encounter a word that is approximately correct, but stands out like a sore thumb because it is elevated so far beyond the writer’s usual level of diction. A look at one of Merriam-Webster’s Words of the Day on my homepage shows the wide divergence of common versus fancy. The word was “nimiety,” one that, despite my fair knowledge of vocabulary, had me stumped. It turned out to mean “excess, redundancy.” Synonyms supplied included “overkill,” “plethora,” “superfluity,” “surfeit,” “surplus,” and “preponderance.” If you are writing a thriller in which you have tough guys and molls, the words that will fit your level of diction are going to be “overkill” and “surplus.” A reader of the genre immediately grasps the meaning and moves on. If you are careful, you will find another word at the same level of diction—that  will work perfectly.

The other words would be good choices in a more literary work, although I’m still not sure about “nimiety,” unless you like to use three-dollar words that send readers scrambling for the dictionary. (I will note that, oddly enough, in the days when I used to write down every word I didn’t know, I found Henry Miller had the widest range of vocabulary words. Read Black Spring at your peril.)

Being a wordsmith means knowing your tools. If you are as boundlessly creative as the authors you admire, the bon mot will pop into your fertile brain. Yet if you find yourself annoyed that you’ve picked the same word once again, a thesaurus provides a means by which to free yourself from the rut you’re in. Just think: an entire paragraph of similar words, and maybe even several paragraphs. That can only be described as a pleasure to behold.

Exercise: One reason you are frustrated enough to consult a thesaurus may be that you’re trying too hard. You’re trying to jam that overused word into a sentence. Instead, review the possible synonyms with an open mind. You may discover that an alternate word that you like won’t fit into your existing sentence—but it would if you reconstructed the sentence around the synonym.

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Plucking and Choosing

Writing software tools such as Find can be a godsend for a careful author. As an editor I have a mental clicker that keeps track of overused words and expressions. Yet an author has a harder time seeing these, because the repetitions represent the way you spark the power to generate other words used in those sentences.  In other words, certain ways of phrasing a sentence puts you in your wheelhouse for expressing a new idea. So, an author should use “quite” and “rather” qualifiers if they help prompt a sentence that is provocative and interesting. After you’re done, you just take out the “quite” or “rather”—and everything else still sparkles.

I run the Find function when my intuition tells me that a word is being overused, and I sometimes have been shocked by the results. I knew characters were doing a certain amount of staring at each other, but 148 times? A person could get eye strain from that. That’s where another computer aid comes in.

I use a dashboard thesaurus often, flicking the screen over to study possible alternatives. After all, I’m in the business of keeping the vocabulary in a manuscript fresh. On occasion I find that none of the synonyms really will work, but nine times out of ten I spy another word at the same level of diction that I know very well—and will work perfectly.

You can also run a global search on trickier items of redundancy. One phrase I look for often is “as if” or “as though.” This sort of sentence construction has valuable uses, but when I see it repeatedly, I usually feel that the prose in general is getting snarled in complex sentences. Again, writing depends on how an author thinks. If you naturally compose complex sentences, using “as though” is a natural extension of unspooling a thought. Many readers, especially nowadays, don’t think that way, however. What I tend to do is delete "as though" and separate the sentence into two.

What I really wish for—if Santa visits the world of computer editing—is a search function that would identify how many participial phrases are used in a manuscript. Many such phrases are stronger when they become an independent sentence. But if you try to look up “ing “ you will be frustrated. The suffix is used too often for other purposes. If robots can clean my house, how come they can’t look for a comma followed by a participle?

Exercise: If while reviewing your manuscript, you feel a tic that you’ve seen that usage before, stop. You have, almost for sure. Type the word or phrase into your Find window and see how many times it is used throughout the manuscript. You’ll likely gulp at the number. Then spend a few minutes looking up synonyms, not only for that word but for similar words. Start jumping through the search and adding fresh vocabulary.

“I have written—often several times—every word I have ever published.”
—Vladimir Nabokov

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Selective Engineering

When you edit a manuscript based on another person's advice, you may be surprised by how much impact a limited amount of rework has on the problem being addressed. Any author will be cheered by this news, because it accords with a natural law of writing. Advice given is sweeping; the writer’s response is grudging. It works that way because the author is the one who has to plow through the practical steps of making the changes.

As an editor, I know more than I want to about the depressing variety of author  responses to criticism. Some authors change a sentence here and there and ta-da! That kind of editing is too limited. Others rewrite and add hundreds of pages—toward a grand design that bears little resemblance to the advice.

You want to be strategic. How large is the issue being addressed? That tells you how many changes you should make. If, for example, someone remarks that he didn’t get to know the protagonist’s boyfriend well enough to care when he breaks off the book-long relationship, that’s pretty large. You would want to shoot for a minimum of five places in the manuscript where the relationship is augmented. Two of those might consist of new scenes entirely. In the end, how much are you really adding? Maybe 15-20 pages? Yet when the coverage is expanded in five separate locations, we get to understand the arc of the relationship much better. Now the break-up has an emotional payoff.

The advice may address a slighter issue, and your response should be commensurate. If a hero regularly meets with buds at a bar, the reader might complain that all the friends are an undifferentiated mass. So you pick out two—one loud and one sensitive maybe—and add coverage for them in those scenes. You cut down (or give the lines of lesser players to one of the two you picked) on the others, and you’re done. How many bar scenes are there, anyway?

You may decide that the change suggested will require too much work to be worth the effort. Let’s say a street kid ends up being adopted. You’re advised to make the child older, because a girl at age six functions essentially as a go-go doll. Pick me! Yet as you review the scenes in which she appears, you realize you’d have to rewrite all of them to make her 12, not to mention devising different plot outcomes because of her added sophistication. You have to ask yourself: how central is she to the drama? Is the story really about the adopting couple?

Exercise: With any change, first review the scenes in which the targeted characters appear. Only those scenes, lifted out from all the rest. Study the dynamics within that limited purview. Now start writing the new material or pruning the old. You can always figure out how the new work ties in with the rest of the book later.

“When you stand alone and sell yourself, you can't please everyone. But when you're different, you can last. “
—Don Rickles

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Out of Fashion

Popular interest in many subjects waxes and wanes in cycles, and the publishing industry follows suit. I raise this point because I sometimes receive submissions that, however well executed, I know will be a tough sell simply because of the genre. Yes, it is possible that a publisher will buy a drug-runner thriller these days, but the odds are long. That was so 90s.

One primary reason that authors embark on book-long quests in vain is because that is the sort of book they once enjoyed. A child can get wrapped up in the westerns written by Zane Gray, and when the time comes to write that first novel, the fondness for the days of frontier justice can resurface. Countless hours can be spent reliving the glory of horsemen riding up and down prairies. At the end of all that effort, though, you find what you knew all along—that is, if you frequent bookstores. No one reads westerns these days.

That is not to say that legal thrillers or bodice rippers are verboten. You just need to realize that you have to go beyond what authors were spinning out when that market was hot. An analogy can be drawn to rock ‘n’ roll: I might enjoy listening to a song that re-creates 80s pop, but I’m still going to feel that it sounds dated. Slavish imitation doesn’t work in any era.

You might think in terms of a hybrid. That was the origin of a hugely successful wave: the werewolf romance. Science fiction is employed liberally in dystopian novels. Mixing genres does pose a marketing risk—because publishing professionals want a label they can sell—but if you emphasize one above the other, the approach can be regarded as fresh.

You can also set out to write the finest in genre. Larry McMurtry’s sprawling Lonesome Dove not only was twice the length of the typical western, but it wove in a timeless romance. Patrick O’Brian raised the naval saga game with a high level of technical expertise. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall soars head and shoulders above most historical dramas. In other words, if you are willing to put in the hard work, the book will shine in the way any well-wrought novel stands out.

Exercise: The first step toward excellence is knowing what is ordinary. In any field, you should assess the competition to see what niche you can create for yourself. Can you add regional cooking recipes to your mystery, for example? Or, go the titanic route: make the book so colossal, so chock-filled with story elements, it will become a monument of its kind.

“Style is the perfection of a point of view.”
—Richard Eberhart

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.