The Trembling Limb

People who thumb their nose at grammar seem to forget one of the most entertaining exercises, at least in my mind, in all of primary education. This was the drawing of the sentence tree. I will not deny that the instruction was rammed down our throats, usually by a kindly older woman with a remorseless heart. Yet I was intrigued by the sticks that had to be drawn to different clauses. Which words attached to which sticks?

These days, as an editor, what my mind retains foremost is the slanted line. That was drawn from the main stem of the sentence to a subordinate clause. In today’s prose, the elaborate arabesques of the Victorian era have mostly been stripped down to a leaner, more direct style of writing. In any given sentence, the chances the writer will compose more than one subordinate clause from a main stem is slight. “Approaching the woods, we veered off on a faintly marked path.” A subordinate clause is mainly used these days to vary the rhythm of the sentences. Even a three-sentence run of subject-verb, subject-verb can be tiresome.

In the process the participle (-ing) has become a more important part of speech. With some frequency I see authors spitting out participles as though they were just another tool in the arsenal, equivalent in force to an active verb. Yet that isn’t true. I know because the slanted line in the sentence tree tells me so. A participial phrase is a limb off the main trunk. Its use as a modifier means it is relegated to the function of an adjective or adverb, and that’s further down the list than a verb or even a noun.

That’s why, when you are choosing what to emphasize in a sentence, a participle should be your second choice. While “approaching” is useful in the sentence above, it occupies only a supporting role to “veered.” The active verb does the hardest work of the sentence, implying the random, winding nature of forest paths in general, not to mention a certain element of danger, since we live in a world of sidewalks and dotted lines on roads. What if the sentence read: “We approached the woods, veering off onto a faintly marked path.” Now the path is a secondary element; the boring part—getting to the woods—occupies the prime real estate. So the sentence tree isn’t just a hoary relic. After you write a sentence, you might want to think of those slanted lines of yore.

Exercise: As you review your manuscript, keep an eye out for participles. When you find one, cross-check it with the main verb of the sentence. Which is stronger? Which more forcefully carries the main action of the sentence forward? What happens many times is that you sense the need to vary sentence structure automatically, and what you originally intended to be the main verb in yet another subject-verb sentence ends up as a participle. Why don’t you try flipping clauses, making the subordinate into the main clause and vice versa?

“Easy writing makes hard reading.”
—Ernest Hemingway

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


One Sojourn Too Many

Everyone has favorite vocabulary words, and “dilly-dally” is one of mine. Besides enjoying the acerbic British wit behind its origin, I have found it applies to certain manuscripts I edit. That is not to say the author intends for the reader to wait around until her indulgence is played out, but the overall effect is the same. This problem occurs especially in novels that involve travel.  While we all enjoy being on the road to somewhere new, you are advised to keep an eye out for the effect a journey can have on your plotting. Another interesting word might be kept in mind: “unmoored.”

A foreign locale by its very nature involves elements of a travelogue: descriptions of exotica, impressions of the travelers, etc. Because the author has usually gone to that place, he wants to evoke what he found special about it for the reader, somewhat like a photo slideshow for the folks back home. The danger of such a stopover in a novel is also analogous to boring said folks with too many photos.

When viewed structurally, any scene functions best when it builds from previous material in a plot line. Therein lies the danger of placing a dramatic episode on the way to somewhere else. Usually a novel builds up its original base of conflict in a particular locale, let’s say London. The protagonist emerges from whatever background surroundings have been created, and she encounters new forces in the City that necessitate her travels. Yet look what happens the moment she walks up that gangway. She is leaving behind the theater of former conflicts.

As a reader, I was enjoying those conflicts, and I had already formed allegiances for and against known quantities that the protagonist was facing. Once the character is traveling, she generally is encountering new, foreign faces, people I don’t know. Although a new enemy may have a startling scimitar, I still don’t really care that much what happens—because I don’t know the guy. A part of me is secretly hoping we get back to England, so I can root against that guy I know I really hate. That weirdo with the scimitar? What was his weird name again?

The problem of being left adrift can be resolved by bringing along a crew on the travels. The job can be accomplished with only one companion, because the protagonist’s progress still can be measured against this constant benchmark. Adding several more could provide some variety, in the way that a mirror can be turned to capture different facets of a face.

Exercise: If you really need to tell us about Sri Lanka, consider the structure of the tale at that point. Could the villain have a reason to shadow the main character to this new locale? If the protagonist has a treasure, or clues to find a treasure, you can build upon the strengths of the relationships developed back home.

“Facts are the enemy of truth.”
—Miguel de Cervantes

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Grounding the Theory Bird

Many nonfiction authors have a wealth of experience and wish to share their hard-won wisdom, on subjects such as health or business. These books can be filled with extraordinary ideas and insights—and yet they seem so theoretical. It’s as though the author were stationed on a helicopter and shouting to the masses below as he whizzes by.

The problem with ideas, as stirring as they are, is that they can come to feel like abstract principles the writer is spouting off, expecting us to believe everything she says. Ideas need to be grounded. The best way to do that is to provide real-life examples of the principles. For instance, an author may tell me how easy it is to switch away from eating wheat—go gluten-free!—but I’m still daunted by the prospect. Really, no wheat? Yet if she then features a story about Ken from Fresno, who bought a loaf of quinoa and flax bread and found it just as filling, my thinking starts to shift. I could be like Ken, I guess, the next time I go to Trader Joe's. All the author’s high-flown arguments about what our Paleolithic ancestors ate is interesting, but I wasn’t going to budge until I met Ken.

That’s why most news articles start with a solitary person. As readers, we can identify with one victim of a hurricane. If the article then goes on to tell us that 39 died and 200 were left homeless, we are still thinking about that one person. One tragedy multiplied by 39, actually by 239. A good nonfiction book uses the same technique. Globalization is just a phrase until Thomas Friedman tells us about one IT entrepreneur in Bangalore. A reader can put herself in the shoes of one person—oh, so that’s how the offshoring of IT works.

I instruct most nonfiction authors to follow a simple principle: theory, example. Set up the overarching principle, then provide a human being who exemplifies the principle. The best part is, examples are easy to write. Most authors can think of dozens of examples. If you critically examine a nonfiction book, you will see how often this happens. We fly high and then we are grounded. That keeps the prose real. We are all lowly creatures of the earth, after all, so don’t let your intellect exceed our grasp.

Exercise:  Pick out a chapter from your unfinished manuscript. Start reading it merely for the principles you are setting forth. Watch particularly for two principles stated back to back. Admit it, are your eyes starting to glaze over, because you’re drifting away from the text? You need an anchor. Think of an example, one paragraph long, and drop it in. When you read it back over, do you feel the new connection with the prose?

“We do not write because we want to; we write because we have to.”
— W. Somerset Maugham

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Automatic

Although the English language does not have the richness of touted others, it does contain a profusion of words that convey a variant of the act of speaking. One can “aver,” “declaim,” “insist,” “protest,” or “thunder.” In particular genres of fiction, such as historical romance, heroines lustily engage in employing all shades of these words. Unfortunately for them, even the authors they are trying to invoke, especially poor Jane Austen, never used these words so industriously.

The reason is simple: such colorful words call attention to themselves. More to the point, they compete for the reader’s attention with what the character just said. At the end of a sentence, am I remembering “We’ll see about that” or “she riposted”? Humble reader that I am, I’d be struggling with “riposted.” What does that mean, again? I ask myself, feeling the specter of the looming dunce cap. What is worse, if such descriptors are used regularly, the reader starts feeling bounced between what is said and how it is said. “I really can’t comment on what is a private matter”—by mid-sentence I’m looking ahead: how did she say that? The end result is a good deal of fatigue and possibly disgust because what everyone is saying isn’t all that interesting, anyway.

The word “say” is what I call an automatic. It exists, like the word “the,” in order to perform a necessary function in a sentence. It identifies the reason that words are put inside quotation marks. Most of the time, we’re interested in what is being said, not how it is being said. Every once in a while, using such a word helps the reader. For instance, “demand” is different from “allow,” and we need to know that because the words spoken might be taken several ways. I would advise, however, that such usage occur infrequently. I actually believe that an adverb (dreaded though they are) used in conjunction with “said” can often feel more natural, and thus expressive.

Exercise: Review a passage of dialogue and see which words are used to describe what is being spoken. If an active verb other than “said” is used often, see if you can change the words being spoken to convey what that verb means. You’ll find that your dialogue becomes less pedestrian because you’re not relying on these identifying tags to do the work.

“Few realise that English poetry is rather like the British constitution, surrounded by pompous precedents and reverences.”
—Austin Clarke

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Strung Together

A compound sentence can take on the qualities of a three-dollar word when it becomes predominant in an author’s style. Sentence length by itself doesn’t matter all that much (I used 21 words in the first sentence). As an editor, I object only when the piling on of phrase after phrase confuses the reader. Plus, the type of author given to such sentence structure tends to eschew the use of commas. The ideal, I suppose, is use long, unfettered strands to achieve a rolling sweep of words.

A pertinent question for any writer is how hard she wants to make the reader work. If her attitude is that she writes for herself and the reader had better admire the brilliance, she needs to be a brilliant writer, not only with words but arresting insights as well. That is, the challenge to the reader is rewarded by the hard work of the author.

Most writing, however, operates at a more pedestrian level. The excessive length in that case seems designed to lend an air of grandeur to common vocabulary words describing ordinary thoughts. The challenge to connect all of the clauses is the same for the reader, but the payoff for such effort is harder to discern. The lack of commas, which often provide a reader a break, can make the procession resemble a long march. So it is not surprising that readers can fall in exhaustion to the wayside.

Modern prose style emphasizes originality of approach. The Victorian era of layered, dense prose worked wonderfully in an era before film. In the 21st century, the authors I admire employ fairly short sentences, but the words are charged by the point of view, or the acuity of description, or the penetration beyond conventional ideas. The reader’s enjoyment derives from riding along on the book’s journey with a remarkable commentator. Life is shown to be strange and exhilarating, after all.

The next time you are tempted to compose a complicated sentence, stop and take a look at the core thought that governs it. Is it charged with value, whether of emotion, insight, or originality? If not, maybe a better approach is to step off that lofty authorial plane and dig down into what you’d really like to tell the reader.

Exercise: Knowing the grammatical rules of comma usage can help an author  tremendously. If the two full sentences you are joining with a conjunction express quite different ideas, you are muddying their distinction by lumping them together in a single flow. Maybe they should be broken into two sentences. If you want a smooth segue with opposing ideas, maybe the second half should start a new paragraph entirely.

“Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.”
—E. B. White

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Information Dump

When your novel features a world that is vastly different from our own, you have to supply enough details to show how people in that realm operate. This imperative appears most often in the historical and sci fi/fantasy genres, where old or new cultural norms represent a large portion of the book’s appeal. Inserting such explanations works well if you have an entire book in which to scatter them. What happens, though, when the main character(s) has to enter a new world, say, halfway through the book?

This problem appears most often in novels featuring a journey. While it’s fun to voyage to new lands, you also have to tell the reader how the joint runs. What were the people like in Atlantis? Who was fighting who in 19th century Ceylon? Once you get started on a flight of fancy, you soon find that it must contain enough complexity to make it feel satisfying enough to the reader to bother going there.

Not only does that add up to a lot of information, but you need to place most of it when you first cross that land’s threshold. That way the reader understands how different it is, or what the stakes are in this strange place. As a result the book slows down. A new character or two becomes a mouthpiece telling the newcomer everything that’s going on. The reader is overloaded with a new cache of information. None of that bodes well for a story.

What can you do? One good idea is to break up the background dump into smaller chunks. This can be done in several ways. The first is to front-load material before the character ever gets to the world. For example, a gray-haired exile from that destination could, upon learning where the character is going, tell a story about his former land. When a page or so is dropped in here and there, a good deal of background can be pre-told.

Second, you can determine which material needs to appear as soon as the new world appears. Maybe the reader only has to know right away that the Klingons and Metastis have been at war for hundreds of years. The stuff about the Klingon emperor can wait for another 30 pages, until the character reaches the palace. That way the reader can put her feet solidly on the ground, enjoy the view, but the pacing does not slow down.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for any long blocks of expository dialogue. Past a certain length, this device can strike a reader as artificial. Determine what needs to be said, because the main character interacts vocally with it, and what could be turned into narrative. All you have to is change it to indirect speech: She went on to relate how . . .

“When we first broke into that forbidden box in the other dimension, we knew we had discovered something as surprising and powerful as the New World when Columbus came stumbling onto it.”
—Ken Kesey

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


How Long Is a Reader’s Memory?

In a novel with a dominant main plot, the ending may be seen from a long way off. A sense of inevitability starts to mount until the lack of anticipation becomes draining, and the book becomes put-downable. Part of the craft of writing is keeping the reader confused, off balance, so that its turns, and especially the ending, cannot be predicted.

The best way to create variety is to create multiple plot lines. When a reader finishes a chapter featuring plot line 1, she becomes diverted onto line 2, or 3, which may or may not have anything to do with plot line 1. Because the main plot line will still contain the most scenes, you might consider an arrangement in which the subplot is compartmentalized into 8-10 scenes during the course of the book. So the first step is to sketch out how the plot line will build from one scene to the next. Write a paragraph that summarizes what each scene is about.

Then you need to become a manager. That’s right. Your reader’s enjoyment depends on how well you alternate between a main plot and a subplot. Let’s say you want to write eight scenes in the subplot. How many pages do you have in the manuscript? Let’s say you have written 400 pages. You know you want to start and end with the main plot, so that’s two more units. Then do the math. If 400 is divided by 10, you should insert a subplot scene every 40 pages.

Yet you have another consideration. It’s important that you keep subplot characters on the reader’s radar screen enough that he does not forget them. Is 40 pages too long to keep these characters vital in the reader’s mind? I think the maximum number is closer to 30, so you might want to think in terms of 30-40 pages.

Last, numbers count when you’re considering length of scenes as well. If you run out a skein of main plot scenes for 33 pages and then drop in a 3-page subplot scene, is that long enough for the reader to care less about what is happening in the subplot? Think about it: 33 to 3. I’m not sure why I should be bothering with the people in those 3-page scenes. Why don’t you shoot for 6-7 pages per scene, long enough for your subplot guys to matter each time?

Exercise: The tricky part comes in when you have more than one subplot. You still want a maximum of 30 pages of separation. If the main plot is A, and the two subplots are B and C, you might aim for an alternation pattern that roughly runs: A-B, A-C, A-B, A-C, etc.

“If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor.”
—Edgar Rice Burroughs

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Getting Familiar

The transition from narrating what a character does to what a character thinks is transformational for a writer.  Neophyte authors usually start from the outside, as though their main character is merely someone who does more walking and talking than others. Breaking through the barrier to interior work can be done in various ways. One is to allow a character to judge a situation on his own terms.

How does this work? Let’s say two characters are vying to solve a puzzle leading to a family heirloom emerald necklace worth millions of dollars. Laura comes upon Elmore, in the dead of night, pulling a secret lever opening a hidden wall in the library. If you as the author don’t put thoughts in Laura’s head, you’re missing out on half of the dramatic impact the scene contains.

So you personalize her reactions. Think from her perspective. First of all, what is the object worth to her in plot terms? Tell it her way, such as: “She had to stop him. She wouldn’t permit millions to be stolen from under her nose.” When you narrate plot advances that way, the words become charged. What happens matters to the character.

Now sit back and take a longer view. She’s been looking for that necklace for 100 pages, say. She feels like it is hers already, because of all that effort.  So you write that way: “She felt the pistol resting in her bathrobe pocket. That’s how far she would go to protect the necklace. Her necklace.” Again, all you’re doing is telling the reader about plot events, but the version becomes charged by relating how she feels about them.

You can also get personal by having a character disparage another. People say unkind things about others all the time, and that helps the reader feel like he is included in an inside joke. In the running example above, you could insert something like: “A scratch on the lock told her it had been recently jimmied. By Elmore. She should have known a snoop like that would find the treasure.”

Finally—and I can’t believe authors neglect this—you tell the reader how the character feels about a plot object. That tells the reader how she should feel about it: direct transference. What happens when Laura finally holds the necklace in her hands? “She gulped at the glorious sight. It was all she could have ever imagined.”

The plot proceedings haven’t changed. Only the viewpoint has. Each step of the way becomes charged emotionally. Now the reader cares what happens.

Exercise: Review a scene and highlight every sentence that is told neutrally—i.e., there is no assigned point of view for the statement. Now go back and examine each one. Sometimes you can’t apply a point of view—e.g., the moon is full no matter who looks at it. But you’d be surprised by how many times you can give the statement to a character.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”
—Harper Lee

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Letting Go

Expression in any art form depends on a combination of factors, among them talent and freedom from social norms. The first is more important, of course, because anyone can become a fall-down drunk. Yet time after time I encounter manuscripts in which the storytelling is fine, but the characters’ thoughts feel a little same-same, the insights are focused on the plot, and the overall story arc isn’t as exciting as promised. Because writing is such a sprawling enterprise, it is hard to define why such impressions creep up on the reader. The impact of the writing, though, is clear enough: the reader doesn’t want to read another book by that author.

On a regular basis we hear about some new scandalous act perpetrated by a Hollywood actor, and we scratch our heads, wondering why somebody would do something so stupid. Yet we don’t connect that with our society’s reverence for the down-and-out genius. The fact is that those actors lacked self-control long before they had the money to splash the headlines.

Writers tend to be very private people. Why else would they squirrel themselves away in a book-lined room for hours? That’s not normal. So, you see, already they are displaying aberrant behavior. The problem for most of them is that they don’t unlink their minds from the quotidian flow of everyday life. Even in solitude they are still bound by a desire to fit in when they leave that room.

A good friend once made an observation that has rung like a bell throughout the years. When I was a penniless writer, he said: “John, you’ll never be great, because you can’t let go.” He meant that I wasn’t willing to go out and make a fool of myself, and that’s what was needed to break through my self-imposed limits.

I am not advocating that writers become a plague upon society. I just am pointing out that a reason that you may be dissatisfied with your writing stems from the blockage on ideas that you impose upon yourself. Clarity comes from obstacles removed, as any guru could tell you. Once you are willing to become unhinged, you are able to view society from the outside. Then you can bring back to the reader what you’ve found.

Exercise: The next time you sit down to write, break free of what you have been doing. If you have been writing in the safe third-person voice, change to the more naked first-person. If you have been penning skillful repartee, have one of your characters bring down her fist and splinter the table. Rather than a character living comfortably on unknown funds, have him wonder where he is going to scrape up his next meal. Go beyond yourself. When you focus on narrating what you wouldn’t dare try, you’re crossing the boundary into exciting fiction.

“The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes.”
—Andre Gide

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.