As an editor, one of the more frequent roles I play is: referee of words. That is because seemingly every writer abides by strict grammar rules they have learned somewhere along the way. Given the wide variety of these “laws,” which often contradict each other, I have come to the conclusion that we are all storm-tossed refugees exiled from the faraway land of grammar class. We rely on our memory of those miserable days of main stems and dangling participles, and as we all know, memory is a fickle guide.

In these matters, a law of inverse proportions is at work. The less one knows about grammar, the more dear he holds his “rules” to his heart. The worst offender in this regard is the commentator within a writing group. I can’t tell you how many absurd theories I have heard coming from this mysterious oracle.

The next step up in the annals of ignorance is the writing class. In this case, you have to feel sorry for the teachers. They usually are drawn from the ranks of related citizenry. For instance, the first class I took was taught by a supervisor of a Northeast bookstore chain. She would be forced during class to arbitrate between students, knowing hardly more than they did. My advice to writing instructors is to refrain from ever commenting on grammar rules. She should know that her fledgling authors’ difficulties lie far deeper than that.

The confusion extends, by the way, all the way inside the ranks of a publishing house. Editors are broken into two camps: acquisitions editors and copy editors. At one time, the former ascended the company ladder from the latter. Yet that ceased to be true many years ago. The plain fact is, the two groups of editors fight each other all the time.  Acquisitions editors always want their authors to be happy, and copy editors always want the prose to follow “house rules,” usually drawn from a guide such as the Chicago Manual of Style. So even at a level that can be considered elite, we are all floundering, struggling to reach the promised land. And what is the name of that sainted country? I would vote for: Common Sense.

Exercise: The most curious of these “laws” concerns the usage of the much-aligned verb “to be.” Although I would counsel that a passive verb be avoided most of the time, you have to consider what you are trying to accomplish. Right there, in the very last sentence I wrote, is the word “are.” Yet that is not passive usage. The word “are” is a helper for the verb “try” in the progressive tense. Progressive means that the action is still going on. You can see, from just this one example, why the imperfect referee sometimes wants to tear his hair out.

“Devotees of grammatical studies have not been distinguished for any very remarkable felicities of expression.”
—Amos Bronson Alcott

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


A Need for Perspective

Writing a memoir can involve a number of different narrative approaches. Most good ones depend on the graceful wordplay of the writer. Yet even if you are not gifted, you can still captivate readers if you’ve had interesting experiences. The key is to recall scenes with enough vivid details that the reader feels like he is participating. A personable style, such as that of a blithe California commentator, can also go a long way toward encouraging this sort of intimacy.

Stringing together a series of focused vignettes can make for a riveting memoir. You just pick all the highlights of your life. The problem with merely lining up well-recalled scenes, however, is that a reader can become lost along the way. Say, you are describing a decline into teenage alcoholism. After a while you run the risk that all of the scenes of stumbling and laughter will start to seem the same. The memoir will feel like it is spinning its wheels. Even worse, the reader may start to become disgusted with you because the debauchery is so relentless.

A little perspective is in order. Since people begin life in a state of innocence, that return to the garden can always be hoped for. In practical terms, you might want to use representatives from a more wholesome period to provide perspective. Let’s say you were a straight A student in school until your parents split up. Your friends were your fellow smart classmates. Dumber kids looked up to you. If you take the time to sprinkle in encounters with these members of your former set once you start drinking, the reader has a benchmark to gauge how much you are declining.

That is the key. You don’t want to return to the garden too soon, because that would be boring. You need to keep pushing along the road you’ve staked out. So you create perspective, usually by featuring other people that are established in your life. One good choice is your mother. Where was she when all this drinking was going on? What did she do to try to stop it? Did those efforts become increasingly desperate and, in the end, hopeless?

By means of perspective, you create progression. You start at step A and proceed downward to step Z. You insert paragraphs or passages of perspective so that the reader not only enjoys participating in the well-drawn scenes but also knows where you are along your road.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye for where each vignette stops. You have to create a bridge to the next scene anyway, and that gives you an opportunity to pull away the camera lens and provide an overview: This is where I stand now. One gap in particular where such inserts can be placed is when you are jumping a significant period of time between scenes.

“Don’t worry if people don’t recognize your merits; worry that you may not recognize theirs.”
― Confucius

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Sick of It

Drama depends on a protagonist driving a story forward. For that reason few books cover a part of life that fells the best of us. If any type of illness is covered, it is likely to be mental illness or similar topics such as alcoholism or drug use. The pounding headache, the upset stomach, the violent ejections of phlegm, these are banished to the sidelines as unpleasant lapses. Maybe that is a reflection of an author’s personally despising the lost hours lost to misery. Imagine: lying in bad, with the entire day awaiting, and your head is so clogged up, you just want to drink tonics and sleep.

Another reason may be that what happens inside you while ill falls in the same category of descriptions about mental states that many authors find so difficult to capture. If you can’t run off a string of interior monologue in general, how are you supposed to describe that strained feeling that seems to knit your eyebrows together? The revulsion of seeing your own blood on a Kleenex?

The lack of excitement engendered by staying home in bed seems to be a missed opportunity in other respects, however. The idea of blockage mirrors the obstacles we encounter in the course of our everyday lives. Illness is an analogue of life is a bitch, and that can lead to all sorts of explorations. The parallel of vomiting and moral turpitude is easy to draw, as is a migraine with guilt. The constriction of the lungs echoes the fear of expressing oneself in public, and coughing equates with futility in pursuing an aim.

Adding an interlude of sickness can be a way of revealing character. How does a noble warrior in any field handle the common cold? Is he helpless like a baby, glad to shed his mask for a few gasping days? Does she welcome the feelings because they justify her perpetual hypochondriac complaints? Is he annoyed because the illness interrupts his busy agenda? Does she welcome the chance to stay home with the kids, even if she is feeling lousy?

When regarded that way, as an impediment to whatever glory the character is trying to attain, it functions as a mechanism of opposition, and that is what any writer wants in a novel. What does the process of being laid low bring out in the character? As a reader, I’d be curious to find out.

Exercise: Illness can also be used as a tool in fomenting tension. A character who is falling in and out of antibiotic drowsiness is vulnerable. A person who cannot get out of bed is helpless before an attacker. In other words, any character who is not thinking straight creates an electric current of unsteadiness that keeps a reader on the edge of his seat.

“It is in moments of illness that we are compelled to recognize that we live not alone but chained to a creature of a different kingdom, whole worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body.”
—Marcel Proust

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Letting Air into Your Prose

The process of writing consists of thousands of micro decisions. The search for the bon mot can consume hours of agonized mental wrestling, muttered curses, hunts in a thesaurus, and hopefully end with a bolt out of the blue that feels just right. For those writers who like exactitude in their writing, this ongoing ordeal can lead, however, to tight, impenetrable prose. You can tighten the screws so much on a sentence-by-sentence basis that the reader is not allowed inside the story as a whole. 

For the concise at heart, how much air are you willing to let into your narrative? How approachable should it be? If you yourself are growing fatigued after you review a long paragraph—itself a hallmark of dense writing—you should consider several tradecraft techniques that make the prose less impenetrable. 

The first is consciously examining individual words. Look at a thesaurus-inspired choice such as “obdurate.”  While I love this word, it lies on a higher level of diction than synonyms like “tough” or “flinty.” Or, if you really want the word’s exact meaning, look at the rest of the sentence. Do you also have other high-toned words that a reader has to process? Maybe “obdurate” stays and those other words could become more common.

Another reason for too-tight prose is sentence construction. I’ll leave complex and compound sentences aside, and concentrate instead on the use of active (as opposed to passive) sentences. If you have ruthlessly eliminated “there is” and “it is” from your prose—which I definitely recommend in general—you might want to be more forgiving. You can torture a sentence just to avoid using “there is.” Rather than redlining every such clause, ask yourself: am I introducing a new setting, etc., that needs the sort of introduction that “there is” provides? You may find that occasional use of the passive sentence opens up the prose.

Finally, you can use narrative devices that let in air, especially dialogue. You can’t tighten up too much how people talk; you’ll know it sounds artificial, not to mention dated, like a Victorian novel. Sure, your intelligent characters could use a better vocabulary, but everyone except the New York literati is reduced to “you know” every once in a while.

Exercise: Rather than rigorously changing every cliché into an original (and possibly confusing) statement, write out an alternative on a provisional basis, to be read a week or so from now. When you check back, compare the two and make a decision then. You may find that a third choice springs out at you—and that’s the right choice.

“If the English language made any sense, lackadaisical would have something to do with a shortage of flowers.”
—Doug Larson

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


My Favorite Days

As baby boomers reach retirement age, many of them reflect on a life well lived—and decide that others would like to read about it. A seasoned perspective can be interesting, although the amount of wisdom gained with age does not increase by nearly as much as statues of historical figures might indicate. That’s why a memoir that careens from one golden memory to another can so easily fall by the wayside.

Compressing a life into a nonfiction book equals the difficulty of shrinking a fictional life into a novel. Forget about the limitation of how much can be packed into 300 pages. The imperative really consists of finding a way to tell a story that is cohesive over that span. That’s why many published memoirs focus on a particular subject, such as a street in Vienna between the two world wars. The narrow compass limits the equivalent of funny anecdotes told at a party.

Finding a central theme will not suffice by itself, however. That’s because memoirs proceed as a function of time, and that presents plenty of opportunities to digress along the way. Introducing a new person into the story might bring to mind the party-filled boarding house where the author was living at the time. Off we go for a page or two as the author recalls the chief raconteur of the house.

By itself, the story might be very droll, but when the author continues to head down side alleys that glow with memory, the reader becomes distracted, losing the story thread. The enterprise is revealed for what it is: a sounding board for an old gas bag. The only way to elevate that type of memoir is by having an incredible number of exceptional incidents.

Once a focus is obtained, the element of wisdom gained comes into play. Success in the genre depends on stellar writing. After all, anyone can look back on highlights in their past. Since so many incidents are common to a wide range of people, the writing depends on unusual circumstances, to be sure, but also how the writer comments upon the event. If an older man tries in vain to sell his children’s wooden swing set, for example, what commentary he makes about the futile effort—how young parents view swing sets, among others—can make all the difference in the reader’s enjoyment. The more widespread the insight, the more readers feel included, warmed in the author’s grasp.

Exercise: If you have already written a fair amount of sprawling material, take a step back from the individual pieces and ask yourself: what do I really know, based on what my life has entailed? If it is Western-Eastern business relationships, for example, how could I present those incidents in a way that would shed light on the larger picture of how Western and Eastern mores have influenced each other?

“There is in me an anarchy and frightful disorder. Creating makes me die a thousand deaths, because it means making order, and my entire being rebels against order. But without it I would die, scattered to the winds.”
—Albert Camus

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Bearing Down on Verbs

Most writers know that they need to use active rather than passive sentence structure. “I aced the exam” is more forceful than “The exam was aced by me.” What I often find, however, is that the choice of active verb can also be less forceful because of its broad nature.

Walk, fall, say are but a few examples of verbs that encompass a variety of more precise verbs. One can walk, but also amble, stroll, meander, trudge, or plod. Each of these achieves a finer level of definition. They also bring a reader a little further inside your fictional world because the activity is more specialized, and thus evocative. “Larry crumbled” creates a different sensation from “Larry toppled.”

Another signal advantage of more precision is that you avoid repetition. The human beast moves in only so many ways, and usage of the same word over and over can lead to reader fatigue. A thesaurus is at any writer’s fingertips, and I avail myself of it continually as I’m editing. Yes, I do know many standard synonyms, but even those can become tired. Plus, I often find a terrific word—fairly standard, not exotic—that was just outside my mind’s grasp. In the example of fall above, I wouldn’t immediately think of “keel over.” By using more precise verbs, you are also keeping your language fresh for the reader.

Specialized verbs can, however, seem precious. If Georgia constantly “declaims,” the reader may wish she’d avoid speaking altogether. People just don’t declaim much in real life. Using three-dollar words all the time can become ridiculous, a parody of what you’re trying to achieve. So you do have to make a decision about how unusual a verb is. In any given list of a dozen synonyms for a verb, I will identify half of them as words in common usage, a few more on the fringe, and the rest exotic.

While you can try to employ better verbs at the very conception, you should be aware that such precision can stymie an author’s creative flow. You should get out whatever you’re thinking, even if the verb is common. For instance, if the original idea for a sentence stems from a desire to describe gingerbread trim on a Victorian porch, by all means put that down on the page. You will be going back to edit yourself anyway, so make more deliberate verb choices then.

Exercise: Run a global search for a verb with a broad meaning. Find out, first, how many times you’ve used it. Then draw up a list of possible synonyms, maybe a dozen or more. Go back to the broad verb you’ve highlighted and substitute from your list as you go through the manuscript. Try to determine how exotic you can go, given the context. By the time you’re done, you may have swapped out that broad verb 30 times.

 “To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man.”

Copyright @ John Paine, 2018


You Can Know Me by My Friends

I keep track of what’s going on in the books I edit. I create a separate file called “X reading notes,” and I enter a synopsis for every scene plus any comments. At the top of the file I list character names as they are introduced, mainly as a handy source of reference for the editorial letter that follows. Hopefully, as a character gains more prominence, he will be accompanied by family member, such as “w. Maria, s. Samuel, d. Isabella, f. Mort,” as well as friends and acquaintances. Such a grouping tends to single out the leaders of your pack.

In other words, the character list serves a schematic purpose. Like all readers, I enter a novel wondering which characters I should follow. You can set apart your main characters by posting background blocks about them upon first appearance, but you can also employ more seamless ways of setting a character apart. Too often an author starts off a major character within an inward-looking bubble, imitating the experience of the writer all alone at her desk. On the contrary, the people we know in real life have claims on us. So identifying outer parameters can become your best ally. A half dozen women in the novel may have husbands or others, but only Leslie is given the distinction of a sister who plays “Happy” relentlessly. That’s a signal to the reader. Humor is also a good indicator: if Shirley is witty and we can tell she’s best friends with Leslie, we think more of Leslie.

What happens if you have an important character who by structural necessity cannot appear in the early going? That’s when you’re trying to set up your major players, so we have time to get to know them during the course of the book. One simple way to point up such a character is introducing him at the beginning of a chapter. That placement is an announcement of sorts. We’re fresh off a chapter break, and some new person is leading a scene’s charge. He’s receiving quite a lot of attention . . . and now he’s linking up with a character we know is important . . . hey, we should pay attention to that guy too.

Exercise: You know who your important characters are. Take a look at how they are first introduced. Do you have clunky background sections upon their first appearance, making the rest of the book stop for them? Look at those back stories and pick out any characters that might make an impact during the course of the book. Could the former husband still sit in his parked car across the street some nights, for instance? In other words, take what is past and make them put pressure on what’s happening right now.

“Many of the characters are fools and they're always playing tricks on me and treating me badly.”
― Jorge Luis Borges

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Making Character Discoveries

Many writers start a novel with a plot concept and a few character sketches. The characters are put in service of executing the demands of the unfolding plot. As they gain more definition, they move from enacting plot events to having  thoughts about said events. If those are the only thoughts they have, however, the novel had better feature an unending string of exciting events.

One method of deepening characterization derives its impetus from thinking about the plot. This is expanding the horizon first to thoughts about events that occurred much earlier in the book and then beyond. Let’s use a running example to see how this works.

The marriage of Henry and Eleanor breaks up shortly after the novel begins. Henry works late hours, and he’s tired of being nagged about it. A younger office associate sees midlife male with money, and Henry tumbles. As Eleanor reacts with outrage and vituperation, the thoughts of both partners are focused on the  successive sad steps of the divorce proceedings, guided by their hawk-eyed lawyers.

As a writer, this plotting can be entertaining at first, but at some point the black-robed process starts to feel dull. Isn't this how divorces always go? The only way to achieve differentiation is through making the characters more individual. One way to do that is asking: what particular problems were Henry and Eleanor having before the breakup? You return to page 20, and sure enough, you wrote: “When he got home Friday night, he found a Post-It on the refrigerator informing him that she had taken the kids for the weekend to her parents’. She had been doing that a lot lately.”

If you’re on page 200, and Henry wakes up, feeling worn out by his energetic honey baby—who’s already left for work, of course, to impress Henry—he might think back to that evening, standing alone at the fridge. He was angry then, but reflecting back, how does he feel now? Regret that he didn’t make more time for the kids perhaps? Renewed anger at his wife for never telling him she felt neglected? Irritation with his golden-sixties mother-in-law?

All of these thoughts have more depth because the reader too remembers his feelings at that time. They are part of Henry’s history. But you can go beyond that. Take the mother-in-law, for instance. Henry might compare her to his present good fortune. “At least honey baby’s parents lived in Idaho.” And how about his father-in-law, a beleaguered mouse that, thank God, Henry has never been like? You could go on in that vein for a few more sentences. The long-past thoughts, in other words, are a gateway for further discoveries about Henry.

Exercise: When you comb through the material you wrote early on to set up your characters, open a new file in which you can expand upon the “facts” you find. Each time you locate a character, sketch out anecdotes that show the qualities the lead character remembers. Does, for instance, the mother-in-law play Joni Mitchell constantly?

“Memory has always fascinated me. Think of it. You can recall at will your first day in high school, your first date, your first love.”
—Eric Kandel

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.