Part the Veils of the Past

Authors tend to think of background stories as a one-time event. You want to cover how the heroine’s father was never around, so you tell a story about missing the opening night of her high school musical. Problem solved, check Dad off the to-do list. Yet you can be more flexible, employing strategies that enable background to become dynamic in its own right.

One very effective technique is breaking up a skein of background information into increasingly larger parts. With this method you are employing background in the fashion of an unfolding mystery. At first the reader knows only a little, and as the book goes on, he learns more and more. The first background piece can be short, setting up as a single sentence early on that intrigues the reader. For instance, the hero thinks: “He never figured out what Kelly found so repellent that she would divorce him.” That’s it. The reader reads that line, and the wheels start turning. What the heck was that all about? I want to find out more about that.

In another thirty pages you drop the next piece, a paragraph this time: “Kelly only wanted the good life. She couldn’t understand why he was so lacking in ambition. He supposed it stemmed from their different backgrounds. He grew up pretty well off—not rich but his father had a good job, his parents never fought about money, and they lived in a nice suburb. Kelly came from Revere, one of those northern Massachusetts towns that time spat out long ago. In college the difference was charming, like Ryan and Ali in Love Story. By thirty it had become more of a horror story. That’s when she first started dressing like a porn star.”

Then a plot event—Kelly shows up in his life again—can tip off the main back story, the one in which the character suffered trauma. We learn the full sad saga of how Kelly fished after young executive types, embarrassing the hero repeatedly at parties, and finally ended up with a fast-talking salesman who held the hero underwater in the surf until he nearly drowned—while everyone laughed their heads off at him. Then she remarried, had three delightful children, and drives around in a BMW 325i, while our hero is groveling for dimes.

When parceled out this way, the back story can generate a good deal of emotional power all its own. That’s because you’re employing a standard storytelling technique—whetting our appetite with a glimpse, sharing a little more of the secret, then delivering the full juicy goods. You’ve also created a plot progression of a form. Even though the background information is static, because it already happened, the way in which it is told is dynamic.

Exercise: Review the background pieces you have in your story. Is any one of them crucial to understanding the protagonist? Now consider the possibility of breaking it into stages, showing the reader more and more. Could you break what you already have into such pieces? If not, think about what the crucial element is. Could you write a new background pieces that employs the step-by-step strategy?

“A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise. Because that is how life is—full of surprises.”
—Isaac Bashevis Singer

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Resurrecting from the Past

If you are writing a sequel, your first concern is to escape from the clutches of the first book. You can do that by being deliberate about your outlining the second book. Forget about being organic. If you plunge in, thinking the characters will guide you through, you will likely find that your story is noodling right along the same grooves you pursued last time. Set down clear lines you want the new story to follow first.

One primary objective is devising a way to foment new tension between your established characters. Let’s say that sexual tension between Jack and Amy built nicely during the first book. Yet once they become a pair by the end, where do you go from there? As the old writing dictum goes, you either have to build up or tear down a relationship. The one thing it can’t do is remain on a plateau all book long. So you better start creating some problems if you want Jack and Amy to keep entertaining the reader. The reasons that a couple has problems are many: infidelity, undue jealousy, money, and/or divergent interests among them. Which type of problem would lead their plot line in a distinctly different direction from the first book?

You should consider other sources of friction as well. Perhaps Amy’s father hated Jack, but by the end of the book has come to respect him. What is going to replace that agent of friction? Unless you have a new concern for her father, you might want to relegate him to a minor character in the second book.

When you are outlining the next book, take one important step. Create new major characters right from the start. Write sketches about them, just as you (hopefully) did for your major characters in book one. When you set out a preliminary order of scenes, make sure the new characters are heavily involved with the ones being carried over. That way you’ll avoid any scenes that mainly explicate the past. Once you’ve created a run of 10 or so scenes, you’ll have a good start to a fresh book.

Exercise: Draw up an initial plot chart with three columns. The headings should be: Chapter, Main Characters (in that chapter), and Scene Synopsis. For the Synopsis, try to write 5-6 sentences, laying out the plot points in some detail. You can see right away the advantages of sketching out in brief what you’d like to pursue, and with which characters. You’re moving beyond the hazy one-line comments in your outline. You can also see at a glance whether you’re replicating relationships or plot ideas from the past.

“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 @ 2019, John Paine


The Problem with I

Journalists justifiably feel proud when they venture out and capture a good story. That news would not have reached the light of day without them. It takes a special type of person to do that, and they know it. I have never met a reporter who lacked self-confidence.

Excelling at a short form does not, however, guarantee success at book length. The studious hiding behind the stage curtain—merely the microphone at the interview, folks—is harder to accomplish over a long span of pages. The author may be swayed toward injecting personal opinions on the proceedings. After all, they know the real low-down on this creep, and that simply isn’t emerging in the tale they’re telling.

Worst of all is a reporter becoming the center of the story. Because they were granted exclusive access to luminary X, they fall into the delusion that the narrative should be governed by their relationship to X. The story starts when they meet X. The affection or disaffection that marked the relationship becomes an integral part of the tale. The steps along the way become tinted by the reporter’s interpretation of whether that scoundrel X was lying or not.

In the meantime, the reader’s is kept at arm’s length from the subject—uh, the person whose picture on the cover caused us to pick up the book in the first place. Such vital elements as chronology can be subverted to the author’s chronology with X. The selection of victims can be limited to the author’s personal knowledge of victims, often because of laziness to do the research required to fill out a proper list. Lowest of all are the frequent tangents in which the all-knowing author relates examples from their own career of reporting to supplement the events X experienced.

At this point self-confidence has fully descended to arrogance. The author has committed the worst excesses of using a first-person narration. Far from being a microphone, the reporter becomes the story. That doesn’t even serve the author well, since such a manuscript may be summarily rejected by a publisher.

Experience in journalism applies to the long form as well. If you are to step out from behind the curtain, a wave now and then to the audience will suffice. They are, after all, interested in what is happening onstage.

Exercise: Review the manuscript and stop every time you see the word “I.” In that case, would it be better for the narration to remain neutral? A fact is a fact, whether you are telling it or not. Then go beyond that. Is your opinion about the matter necessary? Do the facts speak for themselves? You will find, by pruning 80% of such personal interpolations, that the story gains much more authority than you could ever provide.

“We are the recorders and reporters of facts—not the judges of the behaviors we describe.”
—Alfred Kinsey

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Different Voices

Your characters suffer from a universal limitation. They all spring from inside you. They tend to sound alike, because you’re the one who is thinking up all the things they are saying. This muddle is exacerbated by the fact that dialogue, while easy to write, is usually the least distinctive element of your narrative. Why is that? In dialogue you need to capture the cadence of the way people speak. Otherwise, conversations can sound artificial, labored. What people say, on paper, usually sounds like what a lot of people might say.

So, how do you make your characters speak in unique ways? As with other elements of building a compelling character, your difficulty probably stems from the fact that you are writing about them from the outside. They’re all sound like you because you are dictating—the puppet master—how they should talk.

Dialogue needs to be spoken from the inside. Once you grasp that simple principle, separating out voices becomes one more function of creating vivid personalities. Let’s take the example of a boy and girl that have fallen in love in New York City. What are the most outstanding characteristics of the boyfriend? First, let’s say he hails from Ohio. As any Easterner can tell you, people from the Midwest are so nice. He’s lived in New York for three years. Now ask yourself: what are the sorts of things you would talk about when you’ve lived there for (only) three years?

Now let’s consider the girlfriend. She’s from Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, streetwise but shy. What is her frame of reference? She’s lived in New York all her life, so she’s going to complain about all its irritations. That’s how being cooped up in a city feels. Maybe add in that her conversations are sprinkled with scientific references, because that’s what she studied in school. Maybe she can’t wait for the Science section in the Times to come out on Tuesday.

Are these two characters going to talk differently? They will if you keep in mind, as you begin every conversation between them, where they’re coming from. Once you get a feel for operating from inside their head, your characters are going to talk to you first—in their own voice. Then just write down what they say.

Exercise: The most straightforward difference between two characters is: one’s an extrovert and the other’s an introvert. How do extroverts talk? You can start with the premise that they do their thinking out loud. They’ll do a lot of announcing. An introvert will tend to stumble more aloud. They will blurt out something, then have to correct themselves halfway through, or want to correct themselves because they are thoughtful enough to desire the right nuance. Try it: listen to people talk, and you’ll see the difference right away.

“Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.”
—Samuel Johnson

Copyright @2019, John Paine


Proof of Concept

When I ask a nonfiction author to back up what he asserts, the first option that comes to my mind is a quotation from an expert in the field. That’s a good way to confirm that what I’m reading has a basis in fact. If such a statement appears in a clinical case study that provides hard numbers, all the better.

Where can you turn, however, when you are advancing a concept for which little data has been amassed? Let’s say you want to claim that instant gratification is changing the way people think these days, using a wide swath of everyday tech. You seek out clinical research, maybe using Google Scholar, and you don’t come up with much. You can’t very well use a study in Helsinki testing 17 teenagers, and 10 of them salivated upon hearing the word “Nokia”—10 years ago. You’re not going to build a very strong book on such shaky premises.

One good option, if you are an expert in your field, is using cases from your own profession. Let’s say you are a psychologist who has treated numerous juveniles with poor impulse control. Depending on their criminal records and/or their releases for revealing doctor-client information, you could provide in-depth stories of, say, how texting led to bad instantaneous decisions. The same applies to a leader of a 12-step program or the like. These amount to private case studies, and a reader is persuaded because she can put herself in the person’s shoes.

An alternative might be called the volume approach. You don’t have experts to call upon, but you can use newspaper and website articles. You can also conduct a survey of people in the street. Given a standard list of questions, how impatient are they? In this option, you need to select from the widest variety of types possible. If you are only using geeks who live around Silicon Valley, most people reading the book will feel left out. If they are using apps that most people have never heard of, all those people will feel that your book doesn’t apply to them. I should point out, in our star-gazing culture, that including famous people’s opinions will help buttress your points.

Make no mistake, however, about the need to provide proofs. People won’t go along just because “you know.” You have to go out and collect the data, of whatever form you choose. If it is more anecdotal, that then becomes your approach—not number crunching but comfortable with your reader.

Exercise: When you are searching for data, don’t neglect material that doesn’t quite match what you’re looking for. People have exhibited poor impulse control, for example, since the beginning of time. Smoking a joint or joining a gang can also lead to bad decisions, so you may find ways to weave this more extraneous material into your discussions.

“Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.”
—Benjamin Franklin

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Protracted Ending

The impression left by a novel's ending is what readers remember after they put down the book. It influences how readily they will tell their friends that they liked it. A strong ending could well lead to buzz about your book.

Most authors understand the need to build to a climax. The 50-100 pages leading to the final showdown, or variation thereof, is the section of the manuscript I usually edit the least. By that point you know who your main characters are and where they’re going. But what you do after the climax? I often read manuscripts that maunder on for 20 or 30 or even 50 pages afterward. It’s like the author doesn’t know how to end the book. What is forgotten in these cases is: what is the reader feeling?

A quick look at the currents you are creating in the novel supplies the answer. If you build the story up to a titanic crest, what happens after it breaks? You can’t top your climax. More to the point, readers know you can’t top it, so they’re just waiting for you to let them go. This is particularly true with a physical book, in which they can clearly see how many pages are left. If the climax is reached and there are still 20 pages to go, they may rightly wonder: what could possibly be left that’s better than what I just read?

Once you’ve reached your high point in a novel, my advice is to get out of there fast. Reading is an immersive experience, and readers will continue to participate even if they don’t know why things have to be dragged out. All the while, however, the ensuing pages are diluting the climactic catharsis. Lesser material muddies the impact of better material. Why are we lingering, twiddling our thumbs, because you don’t have the good sense to consider what we’re feeling?

If you have any loose threads, tie them up in an epilogue. You should be able to accomplish even multiple tasks within 5-7 pages. We can exhale, enjoy the camaraderie of friends or lovers, find out about those loose ends, and we’re done. Good climax and the author has the sense to let us go. Now I can’t wait to tell my friends about this great book I’ve just read.

Exercise: Go to the end of your manuscript and locate the climactic scene. How many pages did you write after that scene ends? How many chapters did you write? If you’ve written more than one, consider the effect on the reader. Every chapter is a story unit. If your next chapter isn’t as compelling as the climax chapter, the reader is going to wonder why you thought that chapter should be included. Try to combine everything in one unit and tie all the threads up at once.

“Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.”
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Wooden Train

The prepositional phrase can function as a rhythmic device. Because it usually contains a preposition and an article, such as “of the,” the little words help to make the sentence bounce along, if that is the effect you’re going for. Placing two phrases back to back can double that rat-a-tat-tat, especially when you place dense, long words at the front and back ends of a sentence. “The coarse wool on the nape of her neck sprang out wildly from its bun.”

The skipping cadence, however, does not change the fact that a prepositional phrase is a modifier, and not an efficient one at that. An adjective or adverb gets the job done in only one word. So when you adopt a style laden with strings of these phrases, you can find sentences often sagging. “Of the” just doesn’t have much locomotive power. They merely get us to the object of the phrase, and that itself depends, as in leaning, on the word the phrase is modifying.

So when I see a string like “The ball bounced off the wall on the side toward the front,” I feel the skipping has slowed to a trudge. All the the’s are clogging up the sentence. In this case I’m inclined toward clean: “The ball bounced off the side wall toward the front” conveys the same meaning with less words. The ball’s bouncing becomes more animated as a result.

One pernicious use of a prepositional phrase is gussying up an ordinary sentence. Here’s an example: “The wood grain on the board closest to me ended at a hole in the table once occupied by a knot.” This is a large expenditure of words to describe a common feature on a piece of furniture. That sentence could just as well read: “The grain on the board closest to me ended at a hollow knot hole.” Not much happening in the first place, so why drag it out?

Exercise: Review the manuscript solely for prepositional phrases, especially ones used back-to-back. Do you have compelling words, especially active verbs, at either end, driving the phrases forward? If not, weigh out whether an adjective or adverb could do the descriptive work. Some searching might turn up a word that adds more vibrancy—while being more economical.

“From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”
―Winston S. Churchill

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Left Hand, Right Hand

An author has a desire to finish a book. This compulsion—to produce a story that others will want to read—underlies each step of the way. One morning a new scene is started and, depending on how fast the author writes, the goal is set: finish this scene tomorrow, or by the end of the week. That’s done. Let’s move on to the next. And so on and thenceforth.

While progress is made, the task of telling the story in a memorable way is left for later. Once the first draft is done, I’ll go back and edit. Otherwise, I’ll never finish this thing.

That begs the question: what makes storytelling memorable? The narrator’s voice. Are you really going to leave the immense task of retelling the entire story to the end of a draft? More to the point, do you really think you will alter that much of what you’ve already written to fit that new conception?

You might be better off trying a technique similar to that you, or your child, used while learning to play the piano. It is called “hands apart.” For the next week until your next lesson, you play the notes assigned to the right hand all the way through a piece. You practice only that hand. Then you play the notes for the left hand. Only after you have learned the separate lines do you try to combine hands and play the piece as written.

Every scene can be considered a song. The plot moves from Point A to Point B. Your right hand carries the melody, or the plot line. Your left hand carries the point-of-view character, or what underpins the tune. If you write out a first draft of a scene, you’re mainly focused on plot—getting out of your head what happens that moves the book closer to its finish. The characters are like stage actors performing their duties. That is what you will find feels flat when you read it over later.

Rather than wait till the end of a draft, you can write a second draft of the scene right after the first. Your left hand, in this analogy. You pick out your point of view. You go through the scene with a single question in mind: how does the character perceive what’s happening? You add in notes that reframe each one of those points. Then you rewrite the scene, adding in all of the opinions or wry asides or manic thoughts you know that character possesses. Voila, the two hands come together, and now you have a distinctive scene.

Even better, when you start using that practice, you will find, as the draft goes on, that you are writing scenes more from that point of view from the very start. When you write that second draft, you have less to do. And by the time you reach the climax sequence, it will be heavily charged—first time around.

“You write to become immortal, or because the piano happens to be open, or you’ve looked into a pair of beautiful eyes.”
—Robert Schumann

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Defined by Consumption

When authors ask me what they can do to make a protagonist more well rounded, their intention is largely focused on the track that is already laid. If Ben is a bruiser who is nice only to cats, the author wants to know what else can develop his charisma. Their sights are trained just a notch higher than abs and deltoids; maybe I should explain how he picks up cats?

You may want to let your thinking run in a different direction. Many authors don’t like to waste time, but I often advocate exercises that do precisely that. If you want a better-rounded character, you have to pull them out of the plot. That’s because the plot wants to define the character. You know what has to happen, so the character is bent toward that aim.

The fixation on time is risible, anyway, because we all know how much time we waste when writing. A dozen trips to reheat a cup of coffee is hardly a mark of efficiency, among the other excuses not to keep the butt planted in the chair. So why not explore what the hero would do in ordinary life?

Not too ordinary, of course. You always want tension among your characters, even in a sketch. How about a high-stakes purchase, like buying a new couch? You know that’s going to run upward of a thousand dollars. That sort of money makes partners tense and irritable. As a bonus, you get to throw an oily salesperson in the mix.

Okay, we know Ben can hurl couches to the other end of the showroom, but what colors does he like? Does he like claw feet and lots of metal studs—the old-fashioned look—or is he into modern? Does he like sectionals? Would he argue for a sofa bed?

Beyond taste, place him with a significant other. What does Ben do when they suggest an alternative? If the partner really presses the point sharply? How does he act if the salesperson is standing right next to them? Is Ben a far-sighted kind of guy—knowing that how he acts will have consequences that will last as long as the couch remains in the house—or is he impulsive? And what is his attitude when the salesperson adds helpful hints?

Best of all, you as the author can identify with such a purchase. You know how you felt, so you can plug that into the character. Your being able to identify gives the character the greatest complexity of all.

Exercise: A sketch is only as useful as you make it. As you are writing it, think of what the protagonist has done inside the book already. When you are finished, review the manuscript with the ideas of applying the takeaways that emerged from the sketch. That way all but the couch enters the book.

“The complexity of things—the things within things—just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.”
— Alice Munro

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Progress Interrupted

Many authors write in the time they can spare from their job. The urge to write is tempered by the knowledge that the rent must be paid, May’s quotas have to be met, and the kids’ math should be checked. Amid all of the conflicting demands of everyday adult life, the time squirreled away with the laptop can be fleeting.

This scarcity is accompanied by another obstacle: the desire to write when you have time to write. Just about everything you do in ordinary life is easier than writing. When the time you allotted during the week ends up being missed, the urge is frustrated until the weekend—and then you feel blank on Saturday morning. When a few weeks elapse because of interruptions beyond your control, you can lose the thread of the story altogether.

That is the point at which weeks can turn into months. If you really want to write, you cannot let that happen. For most writers, no one cares if you write a book or not. You yourself have alternate sources from which to derive satisfaction. A book is such a long slog, so why strap on the harness when you know you have to keep plowing for days on end?

These excuses are usually not formulated aloud, or even in the echo chamber of your mind. Writing operates in the realm of feelings, vague and blundering, swinging widely as the mood strikes. No calendar marked out with red blocks of time can change that.

What you can do, however, is check in. That means assigning times during the week when you read notes, or the last chapter you’ve written, or research a topic you want in the book. In other words, it’s a halfway step. You’re not saying you’ll sit down to write. You are merely keeping touch with the live wire that drove you to start writing in the first place.

Going easy on yourself this way allows you to break down the immense wall you sense when you don’t feel like diving into the story. You’re operating on a lesser level, merely reacting to what you’re already done. What this practice does, however, is to keep your hand near the keyboard. When you do that, you’ll be writing a lot more often.

Exercise: If you are sick to death of your book, go ahead and take a break. Let it sit for a month. Before you do, though, set a date on your calendar when you’re going to check in. Just to review things for a few hours. Then set up a return date for the week after that, and the week after that. You don’t have to start writing again. But you will force your subconscious to keep revolving the story ideas—until you gain clarity on how to reframe the book.

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”
—Terry Pratchett

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Following a Link

Searching for the telling detail is a practice that writers too often neglect. We all know that a truly enjoyable novel is filled to the brim with interesting tidbits. We marvel at how much the author knows, especially since many of the nuggets seem tossed off. Oh, by the way, did you know about . . . ? So when I encounter a manuscript almost devoid of details, I find it less fulfilling.

The reasons for the lack of details are not hard to fathom. An author may be writing at a white-hot speed, feeling the adrenaline that comes with a strong connection to the Muse that day. That type of writing focuses mainly on plot, and hopefully the characters are contributing flavors as well. The details are items to be filled in later.

Another reason is the sheer volume of details in these top-notch books. An author can be understandably daunted by how many they have to hunt for. You mean, I have to come up with something good every step of the way? What do you think I am, an encyclopedia?

To a large extent, the number of details you provide is a function of time. That is meant in the business sense of time equals money. The ability to tap resources has been augmented tremendously by the rise of the Internet, which has opened vistas in every conceivable direction. Search engines have improved AI capacity to provide useful leads to whatever is typed in the search window. So you don’t have any excuses for not tracking a subject down to a fruitful depth.

However, such a search, for merely one topic, can take a half hour or an hour or more. I have gotten lost in interesting research and looked up to find half of Saturday morning is gone. For one tidbit about pyramids, say. Who has the time for that?

The answer does depend on how committed you are, of course, and what time horizons you have set for finishing the book. Yet you have more time in your day than you might think. I, for instance, like to read about sports while eating breakfast—but when writing, I will open a library book with my handy-dandy weight bar lying across the right pages. Another prime opportunity is the evening, when so many of us are ensconced on a couch watching banal TV shows. You are depleted of energy from a busy day, for sure, but how much energy is required to click on links? You make the time—because hunting down details is just another facet of your love of writing.

Exercise: How far do you have to plumb before a detail becomes unique? I would advise you bring a character to mind as soon as you are struck by curiosity about a topic. Try to imagine how the character would handle the curious piece or the thoughts entertained about it. That bite-sized aspect of the topic is probably the right level.

“When you're curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.”
—Walt Disney

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Reader’s Right to Choose

When writing a self-help book, an author engages in the art of persuasion. Direct address, using the word “you” over and over, helps in this process, since it addresses the reader as though they are sitting across from the author. That style also accords with the author’s usual style, since so many self-help books are filled with instructions written down rather than given orally in a training program of whatever sort.

What works well spoken aloud does not always translate to words down on paper. There are several reasons for this problem. First, written words do not carry the same intonation that a teacher can use to soften what may come off as a command, not to mention an easy smile as it is said. A second issue is repetition. Whereas a repeated instruction functions well live, since call-and-response is so much a part of human interaction, the same command can be annoying when it is read too many times.

The most important reason stems from the difference between a live interaction and the reading experience. If you choose to join a class, usually paying money for the service, you don’t mind so much being hectored. That’s what you’re there for: to improve a flaw you know you have. A person reading in the quiet of a room has a different level of commitment. First, the money expended is a fraction of that for a class. That’s not to mention that the book was chosen from an entire bookshelf of similar titles. If the reader grows weary of your book, there’s always another book on self-improvement.

Beyond these limitations lies a third: the right to choose. A reader is engaged mentally with a book. That means their mind more actively responds to the words. Part of that engagement may tip in an affirmative direction, but part may also challenge what is being read. It’s not a social interaction, where being cowed works—it’s for your own good. Rather, it’s a private meeting of minds. You may be granted the license of being an authority, but if the teacher is too mean, the book is closed.

This is why I caution authors against using commands such as: “Yes, do it now.” “Pick up a pencil and do the exercise. Now.” That sort of approach leads to repetition of the commands after every exercise. The command starts to feel sharp, angry, and the reader may not think the exercise was that great anyway. You have denied readers the right to think for themselves.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for any imperative sentences. Each time ask yourself: in the neutrality of the printed page, is this coming off right? Do I sound like a jerk? If you’re really struggling to separate yourself from the writing, have a friend read it and see how they react.

“Your position never gives you the right to command. It only imposes on you the duty of so living your life that others can receive your orders without being humiliated.”
—Dag Hammarskjold

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Drunk in Fiction

Despite the reputation of writers as prodigious drinkers, this post is not written to encourage more of that behavior. Instead, it is targeted toward the use of liquor as a means to further drama in a novel. The reason that intoxication—of any variety, including drugs—works effectively is the impaired perception that is produced. Anyone who has driven home at night and seen double lines on the road understands this phenomenon. Which one is the real one?

The tension of lessened clarity is heightened because of a reader’s expectation that a lead character will get into trouble. That’s why we read fiction, right? To follow someone who dares to do what we cannot. Once Sarah tosses down a double at a party and then demands another, we are expecting the powderkeg to explode. We know she is going to insult somebody, go on a rant that will get her fired, etc. The author put that drink in her hand, and the author better pay up.

In the hands of a master, a drunken sequence can run on for pages. The drunken night that Dmitri of The Brothers Karamazov careens through is one of the most harrowing memories of my reading career. Likewise with the Consul in Under the Volcano: we cringe because we know a gringo shouldn’t be getting so plastered in a squalid Mexican cantina. In these books the authors merged their brilliant penetration in character portrayal with the blurring effects of alcohol.

The state of being out of control can be extended in other directions. Authors commonly deprive a lead character of sleep for days on end as the climax of a book approaches. In their state of exhaustion they may well make a mistake. If a malicious character slips LSD in the heroine’s coffee, we worry when she gets behind the wheel of a car and goes on a real trip.

For a novice author, liquor and its euphoric comrades can be used in several ways. The first is forcing you to place a character in more extreme situations. Face it, life is dull, and you shouldn’t be writing about real life. You need to push the needle into the red. You may find that a drunken character allows you to knock down walls that were hemming in your imagination.

Second, in order to create that altered state for the reader, you have to penetrate the character’s thoughts. Drunken people make mistakes in judgment. You have to put those mistakes down on paper for the reader to realize how drunk the character is. As a result, you’re knocking down a wall between you and the character.

Exercise: Read over the manuscript with an eye out for scenes that drag. You may need a scene in order to advance the plot, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun in the process. Pull out the beer bong, and have someone force the character to have a go. Come on, get wild.

“When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading.”
—Henny Youngman

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Music Impressions

Overcoming loss of memories presents a significant challenge for authors. If you are stuck, unable to think of details associated with a time past, take a gander at your music playlist. Trying to access relevant memories sometimes springs from an act as simple as playing the right song.

For most of us, listening to music is associated with our youth. A soundtrack of popular music, no matter which era, was playing during our teenage years, and we tend to identify closely with that music. That defined our clan, so to speak. That tribal power is shown when we get up and dance at a reunion, no matter how ridiculous we may look. For an author’s purposes, youth also happens to be the time when most people venture into unexpected places.

An old song can instantly conjure up a specific place you were when you used to love it. For instance, I can access a wide assortment of locations around my hometown, based on driving during teenage years. Each of those speak to us in different ways, because we have associations with those places that extend far beyond the speaker delivering the sound. I can see what the dashboard of the car looked like, who was sitting in the passenger seat, how crowded the backseat of the car used to get. Beyond that, what about the open places outside that teenagers frequent before they are allowed to congregate in bars? What were the conversations held while lying on the grass under the stars? What longings were expressed?

While a song is only the starting point for such explorations, think of all the different songs you used to listen to. Each one can spawn a memory of an incident long buried in your mind. You may remember an odd flavor, maybe of a time when you weren’t acting like yourself at all. The music moved you. All of those sparks provide a richness of experience that you can use in your stories.

Among that panoply of memories, the most important for an author is how music allows you to remember your interactions with another person. Your past friends or lovers or relatives provide a rich lode from which you can pick out cast members for your story. What about that kooky girl who used to float in and out of your group of friends? What did she wear? What do people wear that makes them look kooky? You can extend such explorations in many directions, given the right musical prompt.

Exercise: When you listen to a song, one specific memory will usually pop into your mind right away. Hold onto that impression. Let your mind wander from that thought to other factors that surrounded it at that time. Whatever spills out, let it run in its direction. All of that train of thought is potential gold. Then write out the string as fast as you can, before your hand closes off the bright glow in your mind.

“Every composer knows the anguish and despair occasioned by forgetting ideas which one had no time to write down.”
—Hector Berlioz

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Petting Zoo

Anyone who takes a walk in cold weather knows how much people love their dogs. Why else would the owners stand around freezing while the pooch sniffs a streetlight pole? The same love extends to cats, as can be witnessed in entire mystery series that have been based on those cuddly furballs. Their application in fiction goes beyond being popular with readers, though. It can also provide a fledgling author with a means of probing inside the heads of their lead characters.

One very useful trait of pets is their inability to talk. Beyond the obvious signals, such as the insistent staring to be fed, the owner must project feelings onto the pet. A dog is regarded as happy when it is smiling. A cat is regarded as content when it kneads its claws in the owner’s lap. For those authors who can only write physical descriptions—viewing their characters from the outside—such casual projections can be a boon.

Have you ever been around a pet? You probably could write down 10 characteristics of them off the top of your head. Little dogs like Jack Russell terriers bark incessantly. Persian cats are fussy eaters, among other charming traits. So you naturally assign them qualities, such as annoying and snippy. You do that because the animal can’t speak aloud and break the spell of your imaginings.

When you think about it, aren’t your characters like that? They don’t speak unless you assign a line to them. So to start, why don’t you give a character a pet and then assign qualities based on that relationship? We all know that pets’ personalities are shaped by their masters. If you have a vicious reprobate as a villain, what kind of dog does he own, and how does the dog react to other dogs? To humans? You know all this stuff. You’ve remarked on it a hundred times to a neighbor or friend. If you walk into a home and are greeted by fat monster cats who hiss at you, you know you’d better be nice to your hostess.

Then take the projection a step further. When your character stares, for instance, what is behind that? Stupefaction? A desire to intimidate? A desire to move past the idiotic thing the other character just said? Write that down as an aside in a conversation. Maybe write a few sentences explaining why the character tends to stare in those situations. It’s just like a dog: you’re giving it a human dimension, one the reader can connect with.

Exercise: Go to a dog park in your area and watch the owners interact with their pets and with other owners. Write down what you imagine is going through their minds. What do the dogs bring out in their masters? When you have filled up a few pages, take them home and read the list with your story in mind. Would any of those descriptions fit your characters?

“An animal's eyes have the power to speak a great language.”
—Martin Buber

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Mechanical Rewrite

As an editor, I often ask authors to write new material for their manuscript. I may suggest, for example, that a character needs a few extra scenes to remain vital later on. The quality of the responses varies tremendously. Some writers write freely to achieve the proposed aim. Others, though, write only limited material, as though a teacher had assigned a lesson and they are doing the minimum required to discharge an onerous burden.

Whenever an editor, or a colleague in a writing group, makes a suggestion, that doesn’t change one salient fact. It is still your book. You want all parts of the book to be equal in quality. If the new material isn’t as good as your original draft, the book is going to sag in those sections. It is true that writing inserts can feel less creative than the first blush of enthusiasm. So how do you overcome the feeling of writing by rote? You need to make the suggestion your own.

Let’s say the developmental note asks for a background story for Howard: one incident of his father’s verbal belittling. The example serves as the rule. You may have an example that jumps to mind right away. You know a perfect story, very possibly because you yourself were belittled as a child. Yet other times the response is not so immediate. The suggestion hits you in a vulnerable spot: yes, you did make up the verbal abuse because it seemed to fit Howard, but your own father was always supportive of your efforts. So you write a quarter page of an incident that lacks good details or emotions—because you really don’t know what to do.

Okay, so let’s stop right there. Remind yourself: whose book is this, anyway? The editor’s/writing friend’s or yours? If you think it’s a good idea, you need to show it. First off, do a global search for all other material related to the father. Read over what you’ve already written. Now think about Howard: what qualities of his show his lack of confidence? Think through these issues, then jot down a few points.

What you’re doing is synthesizing the suggestion so that when you come up with a creative response, it is your own, stemming from what you already know about your characters. You’ve set yourself a new puzzle, the same way you set yourself all those other puzzles while you were writing the first draft. And you knew how to solve them—according to your own feelings.

Exercise: When you stop worrying so much about how to respond to a suggestion, you can relax and let your mind drift. You may find, for instance, that you remember a story a friend told you a long time ago about her father’s constant comments. Maybe that is related to the night she finally erupted at him. There it is, a nice half-page back story, and it fits Howard very well.

“Thought is only a flash between two long nights, but this flash is everything.”
—Henri PoincarĂ©

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Filthy Lucre

What motivates authors to write can vary greatly. An Iowa MFA grad has their sights set on no less than the stars in the literary firmament. A grifter seeks to make money from a profession in which no skills are required. While the former needs no goad to spur them to hours of agonized labor, the latter strike me as coming at the enterprise all wrong. And not for the reasons you might think.

No matter what the outcome, the process remains the same. Many hours spent alone in front of a white wall. The commercially minded author seeks to lower that input of time to the minimum possible, because that maximizes the return. The results of such lightning-fast writing are not hard to guess. Lots of dialogue, lots of action, lots of typos. You can almost draw a cartoon balloon containing the author’s dreams of the future movie made for TV.

Such a glib attempt at writing is doomed to failure. It is caused by a woeful misunderstanding of how gifted and hardworking supposed hack bestselling writers are. Even given the time spent touring and other marketing demands for their books, these authors turn out a book every year. They retain their readers year after year. Now, how many of us can say that?

While the strengths of such writers vary, what doesn’t change is the sheer immersion a reader feels after opening such a book. Like all good writers, commercial writers are weird. They live their lives through characters they weave out of thin air. Even as an editor I know what that’s like. I have spent my life involved in dramas that leave me woefully unprepared for cocktail party repartee.

What does it take to create such a fictional world? Lots of psychological insight, lots of details, lots of perfectly fine scenes cast into oblivion. Writing is the hardest thing you will ever do, so why would anyone think it is an easy road to riches? Plus, I haven’t discussed yet what lies at the end of all those lonely hours. Skeptical literary agents and editors in New York who have seen everything under the sun. How much does it take to impress them? Probably not fodder scribbled on a plane tray.

To be the best, as in any profession, you have to serve an apprenticeship. You have to learn what doesn’t work just to get to the level of writing something people might find interesting. And you have to keep on doing that for 300-400 pages. It’s a labor of love, no matter how you splice it.

“People are lazy, and they want their fast food via the television.”
—Dean Winters

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Leading at the Top

When faced with an undifferentiated mass of material in a nonfiction manuscript, a writer can become confused about the best way to organize it. In a marketing book, for example, you might have pages upon pages on the subject of branding. They include not only your useful ideas but plenty of examples of the ideas being put into practice. You know vaguely that all of the material would fit in a chapter, but where is the beginning, middle, and end?

Harking back to the days of English class is a good place to start. There you were taught about topic paragraphs. If you remember, the teacher instructed you to summarize the main points of a paper in a sentence apiece. How that basic principle could be applied in a book seems unclear at first, since it is a far more sprawling enterprise.

Or is it? Most books are broken into chapters, and each chapter is broken into sections, led by boldface headings. A section is roughly five pages long. Now, I ask you, how long were many of the papers you had to write for school? About five pages?

That’s where you start. Review the chapter and separate the material into associated lumps. A section of a chapter on branding might consist of points related to the idea of distinguishing what sets a product apart. Look over that smaller chunk with the idea that you are going to list 4-5 selling points related to distinction of a brand. Write them out. Then place them all together in one paragraph and rewrite so that one sentence leads to the next one. There is your topic paragraph. Not only that, but the process works in reverse. You now know how to line up the material in that section. The progression makes logical sense—because you had to make the sentences in the topic paragraph follow each logically.

Once you have compiled each of the 4-5 sections that make up the chapter, you can extend the use of the topic paragraph to encompass the entire chapter. You take each of your subheadings, in boldface, and expand them into a sentence. Put them together into a paragraph, and repeat the process of linking up the sentences so that they flow together smoothly. You may have to move sentences around to make that work. Once you are done, then place the sections of the chapter in the order of the sentences in the topic paragraph. See? You’re the most organized person on the planet.

“For every minute spent in organizing, an hour is earned.”
—Benjamin Franklin

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


My Brother’s Keeper

When I read a manuscript in which the plot is humdrum, the characters complacent, I am moved to ask the author: What is a novel really? In many ways it is an exploration of evil. The protagonist encounters evil opposition and strives to make wrongs right by the end of the book. Luckily for the variety of stories, evil takes many forms, including the besetting sins that a lead character must overcome.

Starting with this conception leads to creating story tension. In any relationship, one partner has designs on the other. For example, a sibling rivalry contains tension because of the competing desires. Even if you want both characters to be basically good, the tension stems from the hidden agendas they have: that is, their deception is evil. When that notion is paired with the commonsense observation that a novel requires exaggeration in order to be interesting, either the deception must be large-scale or the circumstances must be dire. That is why sibling rivalry is more gripping when a parent is on their deathbed. Of course, to my mind a combination of both would work best: a black sheep standing with Abel by their mother’s hospital bed.

That naturally leads to the notion that you can create tension by making one character more honest than the other. If a protagonist is basically good, then that means every other character is more sinful by comparison. Why is the lover, for example, deceiving the hero? Is that deception a major or minor concern in your plotting? What is the secret that the lover is trying to hide? Usually you want a character to work at uncovering evil, because then the discovery is truly earned and thus more satisfying. So you can work both sides of the equation step by step: the lover hiding and the hero gradually finding.

Yet you also don’t want the heroine to be Pollyanna. Usually, the protagonist of a book has evil qualities that she has to overcome. The flaw could be as simple as being impetuous, getting her into trouble. But if she has no flaws, she is dull. Everyone has things they don't like about themselves. That's human nature. We all know we have evil inside us. So why make the heroine so lily white? You as the author will become more interested in the character if you create some flaws for her. So now it becomes a matter of relative evil. Which do you want to feature, and which will dominate the proceedings? In sum, as Dostoevsky knew so well, evil is interesting.

Exercise: Review each scene in the manuscript solely for its evil content. Write down in a sentence the evil act committed. Once you are finished, examine the list with the thought: evil equates to interest. Do you have scenes in which the characters are merely gabbing? Could you bring deception into play that would make the conversations more pointed?

“False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.”

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Keeping Pace

Writing is an endeavor prone to mood swings. This is hardly surprising when you consider that you’re engaged in tapping into your subconscious. One morning you wake up and your head feels clear, like you could see for miles. Another day you wake up and feel fog crowding in around your eyes.

These up-and-down swings occur on a longer cycle as well. You may miss an entire weekend because you’re away, and all that next week you remain AWOL. You’re just not feeling the usual urge. Or, the evening you plan to get back into the story, your brother calls about Thanksgiving plans. By the time you hang up, you have barely a half hour left before going to bed.

A more pernicious effect on writing can occur from external forces. Your job goes through a demanding phase. You wake up early to get an early train to get to work early, because you know a backlogged pile is waiting on your desk. Depending on how long the rush period at work is, you can find you haven’t written in several weeks, maybe even more. If you had been in a groove, settling down every day with the story, you’re left facing the ruins of that happy stretch.

These lulls separate those for whom writing is an avocation from those for whom it is a vocation. But that’s okay. You don’t want to give up your day job to chase a unicorn. What you can do is make a promise to yourself that you will take advantage of the good swings.

A book is like a huge boulder you are rolling. The more your shoulder stays in contact with it, the harder you push when you are rolling it, and the more progress you will make. You have to think ahead, deciding to dedicate the next block of time you will have free to writing. If that means both mornings of the next weekend, put it down on your calendar on Wednesday night. Two long blocks of red—9:00 to 12:00 (red for passion, your passion). Intent counts. That’s what keeps those gaps in the range of days, not weeks.

Exercise: Don’t make promises you won’t keep, though. If you put down Sat-Sun 9:00-12:00 for every weekend on a repeat cycle, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to miss some of those dates. You’ll start clicking off that block before you even reach the weekend, and that will become a habit. Focus on this week, not on months of vague promises. We know what that analogy is: a New Year's resolution.

“Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.”   
—Jane Yolen

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Lack of Attention

The days when family members would each curl up with a book for the evening seems as quaint as a Currier and Ives print. Broadcast technology, especially the ever expanding channels on television, provide the modern family with fodder that better suits the brain-dead torpor we often feel at the end of the day. The change in medium, however, does not alter the imperative to tell an entertaining story.

Television scriptwriting has affected novel writing in so many ways. Reliance on dialogue, ultra-short scenes, and a narrative voice that follows the cadence of speech are only the most common among them. Yet the novel maintains its advantage of telling a more thorough, involving story, and all the artful jump-cuts in the world cannot mask that.

In terms of intelligent television, many believe it reaches its apogee in the grand sweeps of British history. The costume dramas of Victoria and its ilk return us to a comforting world in which important personages all knew each other. Amid the swirling plot lines of these soap operas, however, still lies the imperative: how do we deliver the beginning, middle, and end of this week’s main story?

This is where the diffracted attention span caused by a chopped and spun screenplay can plague both media. A viewer or reader can start wondering why a lead character keeps defending the villain of the day. Because the visual arts can dazzle our eyes in a variety of scenes, that technique can substitute for plot development. Luckily for TV, a thin ruse needs to be maintained for only an hour, and then viewers will have a week to forget how dull the episode was.

A novel cannot rely on the same cold comfort. If the same stuff keeps happening over and over, the reader falls asleep. Oh my God, will he kiss her already? This is a reason why the movie version of a story is so much simpler. When I can look out over the stunning canyons of Utah, I don't need the riders of the purple sage to show up just yet.

It is fitting that a number of authors I work with are writing both a novel and its screenplay simultaneously. When the work of filling up book pages with enough interesting material becomes too hard, they turn to the screenplay. Dialogue trips off the fingers nicely. The screenplay is written more quickly. The only problem lies at the end, when the writer finds that Hollywood is even more of a bastion to assail than New York.

Exercise: For every description of character or scenery, you can dig in deeper to find aspects about the issue that the reader doesn't know. If a character is defending a known villain, what does that indicate about the character? In the art of manipulation, for one idea, lies all sorts of fascinating scenarios that can be explored.

"I don’t think screenplay writing is the same as writing—I mean, I think it’s blueprinting."
—Robert Altman


Removing the Screen

A novice writer, trying so hard to inhabit a character, will describe a piece of action taking place as seen by the character. The problem is, if you are truly inside your character’s head, everything is seen by her. Describing the act of seeing is a screen. Here’s an example: “When she looked up, she saw that he was easily making his way down, but when he landed, his foot slipped on a wet rock and he lurched forward.” On one level the narrative makes sense. If a character is contemplating her navel, and her attention is diverted by a more distant sight, she needs to look up. In addition, “she” controls the scene’s point-of-view, so she would be witnessing his clumsiness.

During the course of an edit, however, I usually take out all references to sight. It is possible that a character is so engrossed in something that she needs to physically turn her head to look up. Yet most of the time it is just lazy writing. More descriptive would be a phrase describing where the man is before he starts climbing down: a rocky bluff, a grassy dune, etc.

In particular, the phrase “she saw that” is hardly ever needed. If you’re inside the character, the point of view is assumed. A better strategy is to let the other character signal their presence first. Here is that sentence again, without the screens: “He called to her from the top of the rocky bluff. He easily made his way down, but when he landed, his foot slipped on a wet rock and he lurched forward.” She still is watching, but the actions of the other character are more immediate. The screen has been removed.

You can make the same implicit assumption for what a character thinks. The phrase “it seemed to her” is another one that I almost always delete. The entire book is filled with her thoughts, her opinions, etc. Everything that is narrated is the way it seems to her. Here’s an example, adding onto the beach example above: “It seemed to her that he should stop trying to please her so much.” If she is the point-of-view character, you don’t need the screen. “She really wished he would stop trying to please her so much” is more direct, allowing the reader to fully participate in her amusement and/or annoyance.

Exercise: Conducting a global search, key in any word related to sight, such as “look” or “see.” Judge whether the point-of-view character really needs to witness the event, or if it could just happen. Do the same with “seem.” This word rarely needs to be used in fiction. Everything is made up, so something is either real to the character or it isn’t.

“I’ve discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you.’”
—Saul Bellow

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Dragging the Cart

Where is the best place to put a background story? Part of the answer depends on the role that discoveries play in a novel. In a mystery, for example, the denouement may be a background story that explains the hidden link of the murderer to the victim. For the purposes of this post, I’ll refine the question to: what is the best place for a background story about a character?

One prevalent style front-loads the information. That is, as soon as a new character is introduced, a mini-bio of a half page or more immediately ensues. This style, like a pop-up window with an explanation, is used commonly in such genres as thrillers. While sometimes they are not intrusive, I generally dislike them for two reasons. First, they often clog up the momentum of an action-oriented scene. Second, and more important, as a reader I don’t know if I want to pay so much attention to a character I’ve barely met.

The imperative to front-load information about a character affects more literary endeavors as well. The first 50 or so pages are clogged up with background stories. The plot cannot gain any forward momentum because the story keeps on being dragged into the past. I get it. A great deal happened to the character before page 1. Yet so many background stories so early begs the question: why did you start the book where you did? Maybe it should have started earlier in the character’s life.

Now let’s flip over the script: front to back. Some authors keep on dropping in back stories all through the book. I’m not talking about pieces that bear on the developing plot. These are random stories, like the memory of a girl’s first horse. The problem here is that the plot usually has gained enough momentum in its later stages that the plot events are building steadily upon plot events that have already occurred. The train is moving too fast, in other words, to stop the story dead in its tracks for an unrelated story.

So where is the best place? The answer is a variant of show, don’t tell. In this case it is show, then tell. In other words, the character should perform some interesting plot business first. Then we’ll want to know more about that interesting person. The monkey charms us and then we’ll want to learn about its terrible story of being abducted from Cameroon.

Exercise: To put a number on it, the sweet spot for most background stories ranges from roughly page 50 through the first third of the book. That way the plot gets under way. You firmly establish why the reader should be interested in the story told within these pages. Yet the background work fills out portraits at a time when you are still setting up the characters we’ll be following all book long.

“Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous.”
—H. P. Lovecraft

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Art of Coupling

Amid the swirling rhythms of a writer’s sentences, many different combinations may work, given the specific context. As an editor I have very few fixed rules because I know that effective expression trumps every other consideration. I do find that certain couplings work less successfully than others. Among them, a frequent unfortunate pairing occurs when not enough attention is paid to the verbs being used.

One fault line occurs in sentences driven by verbs with dissimilar functions. A verb that describes an abstract conclusion, for instance, performs a different function than one that describes a form of action. Let’s take an example: “That moment changed his life as he stared at the lifeless bodies, and Edgar’s bloodstained knife, and he knew he had to tell someone.” A change in one’s life has nothing to do with staring. The two verbs are on different planes. The sentence, as edited, removes the coupling: “That moment changed his life. As he stared at the lifeless bodies, and Edgar’s bloodstained knife, he knew he had to tell someone.” Now the passage reads fine, because each verb is driving a separate sentence.

The same is true of a verb that describes a form of cognition as opposed to one that describes a form of action. “Miriam knew she was right as she pulled a cigarette out of her pocket, while keeping her eyes on the road.” Knowing she’s right has nothing to do with pulling out a cigarette. But see what happens when the coupling is detached: “Miriam knew she was right. She told herself that as, keeping her eyes on the road, she pulled a cigarette out of her pocket.”

Even when you have verbs that serve similar purposes, you may find that decoupling allows each to stand out in greater clarity. Here’s an example of a muddled reflection: “Something gnawed at him and he knew there was an answer, but couldn’t get his mind to focus on it.” In this case, the problem is caused by forcing different types of cognition to coexist in the same sentence.  Gnawing and knowing are both ongoing states, but they work against each other. As edited, the distinction is easily revealed: “Something gnawed at him. He knew there was an answer, but couldn’t get his mind to focus on it.” You’re not losing much complexity in sentence structure. You’re just making sure your verbs work in harmonious linkage.

Exercise: As you review the manuscript, take a close look at the verbs you’re using in compound or complex sentences. Does one verb lead to the other within the same sentence? If not, experiment with breaking them apart. What happens when they are broken into two separate sentences? If you still don’t like the way they read, you may be using the wrong verbs.

“Try as hard as we may for perfection, the net result of our labors is an amazing variety of imperfectness. We are surprised at our own versatility in being able to fail in so many different ways.”
—Samuel McChord Crothers

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Finding a Way to Hope

Gritty realism occupies an honored place in fiction. Most readers want to explore the outcomes of evil, even when the causes are institutional in our society. The actors in such a drama, who are often victims, are not nice people. They scrape and claw for what they get, and if that means hurling a plate at the dinner table, the reader will accept that behavior.

Protagonists in these stories are usually hard-bitten, a failure in the eyes of others, even their family. They keep offending those around them in their blind groping to get ahead. An author may nod in satisfaction because their deeds keep the tension level high. Will George fall off the wagon? Will Helen take that high-risk bet? You bet they will. That’s just being realistic.

In the hands of a skilled writer, such a portrait can succeed even if the character is odious. The mental state of the character is fully explored, and what is revealed can be unpalatable. Yet the saving grace of this in-depth approach is that the character explains why their world looks the way it does. Horrid choices are justified—i.e., the better alternatives are explored and discarded, sometimes with savage humor.

What happens through this constant process of mental sifting? Readers can see themselves in the character. You or I might never have considered murder, but the way the character explains why it is necessary, maybe it could be a good idea. The skilled author, in other words, appeals to the evil instincts in all of us.

That balance of the right and wrong course, unfortunately, does not exist in a more plot-driven book. The blind lurching forward occurs for reasons that remain opaque to the reader. Repeated misdeeds have the effect of alienating those of us who obey society’s rules. After all, those rules are designed, at least in part, to protect those people subject to a malefactor’s reign.

It is a hoary maxim that life is brutal and short. I don’t need to read a novel to realize that. I read in order to find reasons why my existence could possibly matter. You see, if I can better understand the nature of evil, I can go forth after putting down the book knowing more about how to correct that impulse in myself. Maybe George didn’t decide to take the path lying clearly before him, but I can.

Exercise: Review the novel with an eye out for evil deeds. Before each one occurs, look to see if the character has justified the step they’re taking. Why is evil preferable? What do you know about human nature that would make the reader agree with that choice? You may find, through this ongoing exploration, what makes your character unique.

“It is a man's own mind, not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil ways.”

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Leave the Personal Aside

In nonfiction books, following a narrative template of theory-example is a useful practice. You state your topic idea, such as a type of game that people play in business, and then provide a personal case, such as salesman Horace playing a game of manipulation. That method allows you to keep advancing onto new topics while grounding each point with illustrations the reader can easily grasp.

You have to beware, however, lest you rely too much on personal examples. You first have to consider what you’re trying to accomplish with your book. You are advancing points of an argument. You are saying that the way you advise the reader to think is better than the way they think now. In order to be convincing, you must be an expert. Whether that credential stems from a degree, a profession (such as medical), or long experience, you have to show that you know more about the subject than the reader. Otherwise, why should I believe you?

Here is an additional consideration. In order to gain the full scope of expertise, you want your examples to be wide-ranging. The more variety you introduce, the more your ideas apply across the spectrum. Every time, reader, in every place my ideas work.

Now let’s consider the personal examples. They tend to be local, such as within your family or one specialty within a profession. You are trying to be an expert, but citing examples from your own life can appear to be limited. Okay, the reader thinks, so that works for your family, but how about all the families that are unlike yours? How about all the businesses that are different from yours?

Start by taking yourself out of the proceedings. You need to adopt a neutral voice, like an expert observer. Use first names for the examples, so a reader can readily put herself in the person’s shoes, but merely tell their stories. The narrative distance will add authority to your writing. You might even employ this technique for the personal examples. For instance, does anything change about the point you’re making if your wife happens to be named Mary?

As for variety, consider the basic choices that will include as many readers as possible. Try to jump back and forth between the sexes. If you’re discussing family structure, portray intact families, divorced families, families with partners, etc. If you’re exemplifying business practices, let’s meet executives but also secretaries, salespeople, etc. That way readers will feel that you have gone out and fully explored the world that your book is covering.

Exercise: Try for variety in length of example as well. Think of the people you have known or observed, and write a quarter-page story about them. As you’re writing, you’ll find you need more space for some examples. Write a half-page about them. If you really need the space to explain the circumstances, you may require an entire page. The length alone can make the reader’s experience richer.

“The writer is important only by dint of the territory he colonizes.”
—Van Wyck Brooks

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


More Than an Angle

An author writing a plot-driven book usually braids multiple story lines. Each one launches from its individual starting point and pursues a track that eventually intersects with the different tracks. This junction may occur late in the novel, taking place as a titanic collision between the good and evil forces. In this extreme case it is easy to see why each plot line needs to be governed by an independent point of view.

A scheming author likes to float numerous pieces that don’t seem to connect at first. That increases the mystery quotient for the reader: why am I reading about this? Indeed, in a mystery the plot lines may correspond to the various suspects under the protagonist’s investigation. If each one tells their story from their vantage point, a Rashomon effect is achieved.

Let’s take a novel in which each of the first ten chapters is told from a different point of view. This technique works wonders in terms of presenting each side of a complicated plot concept. Some characters are nasty in tone, some are vain, some are good-meaning but futile, etc. You can almost hear the author say, “Nailed it!” at the end of each chapter.

While a novelist can be quite skilled in capsule characterization, framing each character in a distinctive fashion, acuity of vision cannot be mistaken for depth of reader involvement. What is the common reaction as the narrative point of view switches to the next slice on the roulette wheel? Readers keep looking for characters they have already met.

The desire to put their feet down in an imaginary world resembles the off-kilter blundering of any tourist in a strange land. It’s why McDonald’s is so popular overseas even for Americans who normally would never eat there. That sense of identification, prompted by the species’ need to belong, is a major reason that readers like to participate vicariously while following a story line.

By the time character #5, or 6, or 7, has taken the reins, disgruntlement can set in. Why do I keep meeting new people? the reader asks. Can we go back to Kitty? She was so smart and funny. And what about Kenny? Is he going to bull into another china shop?

Most novels can display as much variety as they like through a more limited number of narrators. I would put the top limit at four if the author wishes readers to engage fully. Even then I would pick a champion who runs 60 percent of the scenes through their filter. The more dishes are broken, the louder I’m cheering.

Exercise: The idea of appendages is a useful one when devising characters. Rather than owning a point of view, could a character be appended to one of the major characters, appearing as a foil? A great deal of the descriptions about the character, opinions the character has, etc., can be divulged by external means.

“Great perils have this beauty, that they bring to light the fraternity of strangers.”
—Victor Hugo

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Plea to the Lesser

In a mystery, let’s say you have your minimum of three possible suspects. Each has been introduced and each has been given a clue or two that draws the reader’s suspicion. Now what? How do you keep the suspects vital in the reader’s mind? You need to keep on turning up clues, but how is that accomplished with the persons who didn’t commit the crime?

One way of looking at the problem is to rank crimes on a scale. At the top is premeditated murder: a killing was planned and carried out. Scrolling down the list, we find such items as manslaughter, armed robbery, unarmed robbery, and trespassing. Now the scope of the lesser suspect’s motives has widened. Anyone who committed any sort of crime would fear exposure, and nothing draws law enforcement attention more than a homicide. Indeed, we all have secrets that, like rodents scurrying out of the light, we do not wish to be discovered.

Let’s take Rhonda, who was a good friend of the victim, call him Brian. Detective Mulligan learns that Rhonda’s fingerprints were all over Brian’s cell phone, among other items, which was lying on the night table in the bedroom where he was knifed. He later learns from phone records that Brian called her shortly before the murder. She might admit that, long ago, the two had casual sex—but it didn’t mean anything, to either of them. What the good detective doesn’t know yet is that Brian was also an inveterate photo hound; his cell phone was loaded with photos. And the reason Rhonda came into his room that night was to erase embarrassing photos he had taken of her flirting with her lover on the beach, ones her husband would not forgive.

This is but one instance of a wide variety of lesser crimes that can be employed. The same sequencing of clues can be employed as for the major crime, because any crime has clues attached to it. The person who committed the crime has the same reluctance to talk to police, the same fear of being found out. Yet because a mystery is a deliberate process of opening closet doors to find skeletons, a reader early in a book does not see what is lying in the dark. All you have to do is create trails—of phosphorescent stones, say—that lead to a sequence of doors you want the reader to open.

Exercise: Open a new file for Rhonda, or the equivalent in your book. Write down the reasons why she became a suspect in the first place and how she retains a place on the reader’s suspect board. Do those reasons remain compelling as the book goes on? If not, examine her relationship to the victim. Could a lesser crime be committed that entails blackmail or simply needs to be hidden from a nosy police officer’s flashlight? Now create a sequence of events that followed that crime, including the victim’s involvement. How could you devise a trail that keeps Rhonda looking awfully suspicious?

“You can't wait for inspiration.  You have to go after it with a club.” 
—Jack London

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Too Much Me

Many writers of nonfiction have scant training in the craft beyond work-related missives. That doesn’t mean that their writing is terrible, because plenty of the  manuscripts feature perfectly serviceable prose. How fancy do you need to get when you’re pitching, for instance, a new weight-loss program?

Their lack of journalistic training may be revealed in another key area, though. Reporters know not to insert themselves too much in their articles. The primary reason is the reader’s concern that a slant is being cast on what should be an impartial narrative. Even in our era of gross calumny in politics, we want to believe that the coverage is based on facts. When the word “I” appears too often, readers reasonably can doubt whether personal opinions are outweighing the facts.

A related reason comes from the grammar-class maxim not to use “I” in exposition. The fact that you are speaking directly to the reader calls attention to itself. That can detract from the information you are trying to relay. A more neutral form of expression keeps the reader trained on the facts.

What I find the largest problem, however, concerns the subject matter being covered. When the author was personally involved in the book’s subject—to use an extended example, let’s say a murder case—the tendency is to write down all of the memories related to it. That includes not only interactions with police officers, witnesses, and relatives of victims, but a great many peripheral incidents as well.

These are not limited to such items as an intense argument the author had with the main detective. The narrative can stray into unfounded suppositions by ambulance chasers who want to be involved in a notorious case. The author can record chilling dreams people had. The worst, from my standpoint, are the psychics. As a case grows cold, inevitably some flashily dressed seer steps forward with their outlandish predictions. Call it woo-woo worship.

Because the author is immersed in their recollections, they don’t realize the damage that such unfounded material has on their narrative. The truth factor is obvious. But I also resent that in having to read this stuff, the author is wasting my time. That underlying anger is then carried forward as the reader goes on, even if most of the subsequent material is factual. “Just the facts, ma’am,” should be graven in stone for such authors.

Exercise: Check your manuscript for personal anecdotes. Many times they are on point, and the reader appreciates the personal example. Yet if the story has little bearing on the matter at hand, or the book in general, you have to be strict with yourself. Cut it out, no matter how much it makes you chuckle.

“I have wandered all my life, and I have also traveled; the difference between the two being this, that we wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.”
—Hilaire Belloc

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Quest for Variety

When an author is writing a first draft, the repetition of favored words represents a desire to employ the force the word contains. At this stage language is not as important as getting the idea down on paper. Because writing proceeds linearly over an expanse of time, an author can forget that they felt the impulse to use a same word before, often multiple times.

When it comes time to review the first draft, however, a different imperative has to take hold. Keeping the reader entertained consists of efforts large and small. Not only slashing plot events but also individual word choices. Inserting a fresh vocabulary word 500 times can make a pronounced, if subtle, impact on the reading experience. No matter what level of diction you are writing on, you can find synonyms that fit within the prose.

Searching for a bon mot leads to another editing practice that will alter your customary means of expression. For instance, if you decide that “They moved to the door” should be replaced by “They marched to the door,” the connotation of “march” can lead to further changes in the sentence and possibly beyond. What is causing them to march as opposed to, say, amble or stroll? You might see that an earlier piece of dialogue might well inspire anger in the listener: hence march. So you fiddle with that earlier piece until it becomes toned up as well. A little more juice out of that bite of the story.

A good way to shake up norms is changing sentence structure. Writers also tend to write the same type of sentence, such as a main clause followed by a participial phrase. “They swept across the clearing, checking their back trail all the way across” is an example. You can add tension merely by chopping the sentence in half, since shorter sentences put the emphasis on active verbs. “They swept across the clearing. All the way across, they checked their back trail.”

My favorite way, as an editor, of varying habits is adopting a more forceful point of view. So many times authors write a passage as though they are looking down on a scene, trying to imagine how it unfolds. If you know theater, this approach is akin to “blocking”—that is, providing stage directions on where characters should go and when. When you blend exterior with interior, though, you get much better results. “They moved to the door” might become “They had to go to the door in order to find out what in the world was going on outside.”

Exercise: Check the draft for habitual words. While you can use more common words more often, see if “said” can be converted to “replied,” “retorted,” and the like. You don’t want to go crazy; you’re just trying to see if more flavor will fit there. If making a word substitution doesn’t feel right, look at the sentence. Maybe that’s what's keeping the prose in lockstep.

“There is no time for cut-and-dried monotony.”
—Coco Chanel

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Do Historical Villains Suffer?

The fate of most antagonists in fiction is preordained. They suffer the punishment they deserve, traditionally at the hands of the protagonist. The damaged fabric of the world is repaired. What happens, however, to real-life villains that we know from history walked away from the mayhem they caused?

This question poses a challenge to a fledgling novelist who may be more adept at inserting research than exploring characters—which is where many novelists begin. The task of describing a satisfying character arc is complicated by the fact that villains are easy to write about. Evil is shunned in the real world, but in a novel it’s fun. It’s the main reason we’re reading. So as the writer catalogues one cynical real-life deed after another, they* believe a well-rounded character is emerging.

The problem, of course, is that life is flat. It’s nice to believe that the meek will inherit the earth, but the truth is, they will remain poor. That’s not satisfying, and the unrest caused by the moral indifference of reality is another reason we read novels. When viewed through that glass, the accumulation of evil deeds in a novel increasingly calls for restitution of some form.

History is hardly an infallible record, particularly when the chronicler attempts to assign psychological reasons for a personage’s behavior. Therein lies a novelist’s gateway to their own interpretation of what motivates an evildoer. Probing into such a psyche can yield how the malefactor justifies their actions. This occurs not only during self-examinations but, importantly, when they talk to others as well.

An author can create a companion character whose opinion the evildoer values. A daughter is a perfect example. For example, while wearing sheets with eye holes forms a brotherhood in the adult world, that same father wants his daughter’s esteem. He might be desperate to hide his involvement in the lynching of the father of his daughter’s black friend. Still an evil son of a bitch, but one with a conscience imposed on him by a relationship.

Exploring gaps in the historical record provides another benefit as well. It forces an author to dig deeper into the character. In uncharted waters, you have to put yourself on the line in order to come up with satisfying character motivations. Now the evil that we all have within has a chance to express itself on the page.

Exercise: Luckily for the fiction writer, no man is an island. Think about the people that the historical figure knows. Could one be chosen that appears at regular intervals, serving as a benchmark for the evildoer’s descent into hell? Maybe the world can be damned, but that one person: I can’t have that one think badly of me.

“The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”
—Tom Clancy

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

*When not specific, non-gender personal pronouns are used in this blog.


Get Your Blood Moving

I am a firm believer in the need for a transition period, of five or so minutes, between your everyday life and sitting down to write. You need to wipe out all of that mundane crap in order to concentrate. Here is an idea for authors whose primary problem is feeling sluggish.

Back in my college days, I developed an interest in Indian gurus, and the first prerequisite for an acolyte is learning how to meditate. I would like to tell you that this was the beginning of a remarkable career, filled with om chants longer than any Westerner in history. The fact is, however, that I was terrible at meditating. I couldn’t keep my thoughts still, no matter how hard I tried. Luckily, a benevolent, if exasperated, spiritual advisor showed me a series of physical exercises that each ended with a furious burst called “dragon’s breath.” Since I enjoyed playing sports, this approach was much more to my liking. The physical exercises closely resembled calisthenics.

I did eventually work out an adequate meditation technique that stilled my mind for writing. Yet on days when my thoughts were whirling like a manic ping-pong ball, I would instead employ this dragon’s breath practice. I developed a routine that consists of side-to-side stretches of the arms and legs, touching toes, and stomach crunches. What type of calisthenics you choose doesn’t matter. The point is, I decided to hold each position while I counted to ten. While I am  counting, the numbers block out all those random thoughts. On days when you find that your thoughts are quiescent, you can hold the stretch position without counting. You’ll know when the ten count ends, approximately, and the time doesn’t matter anyway. The purity of suspended motion, mind completely blank, often is the prelude to a very good writing session.

No matter which technique you use, learning to focus on nothingness is just like trying to focus on what your characters are thinking. After all, what are you trying to accomplish when you write? You’re trying to dig deeply into your thoughts. Everyday crap gets in the way of that journey. Although this spiritual technique ended up being directed at a more selfish purpose, you will find that concentration prior to writing is truly a path to bliss.

Exercise: Which types of stretches should you use? If you played sports in school, you probably can recall a set of warm-up exercises right off the top of your head. If not, the Internet is filled with exercises of every imaginable variety. You just have to type in the sort of movement that interests you. In the end, all you’re doing is calming your body in order to plumb your mind.

“Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.”
—Jane Yolen

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Reaction Fits the Action

Amid the sins an author fears—bland characters, bungled story lines, bad writing—the worst is: boredom. At the base of the worry is the knowledge that many writers’ lives are dull. You merely need to think how much time they spend in silence in front of a screen, and the reason for the gnawing anxiety is self-evident.

The response takes a variety of forms, and one of them is amping up what isn’t that exciting to begin with. This sin seems to stem from a conflict between an author trying to be realistic and their* trying to be entertaining. In this version, a modern-day Thor does not shoot lightning bolts but blows out a house’s electric box. The inhabitants still have a right to be startled. But if they are running around screaming in the dark for a protracted length of time, the reader is left wondering: why doesn’t someone go down and flip the circuit breakers back on?

That right there—the reader’s response—needs to be an author’s guide. Determining how they will respond is not difficult. Any writer knows that if they let a part of the manuscript sit for a while, possibly months, they will feel more neutral when they review it. If you sense that the reaction is out of bounds, you very likely are not alone.

The chief offenders in this regard are a character’s thoughts. While you can take some license—the character may be more unstable than normal individuals—you have to remember that the reader wants to participate vicariously in the story, and a character’s thoughts are one of the main avenues to do that. If the reader feels that the character is making much ado out of nothing, the bond between reader and character is frayed. When it happens enough times, the reader gives up on the character—and most likely the book.

That’s why you should try to keep the thoughts restricted to the gravity of the plot advance. If your character’s father has a history of yelling at the main character, she most likely is inured to it. Bye, Dad, I can’t talk to you right now. You would have to devise a novel circumstance, such as Mom lying in a heap on the kitchen floor, with Dad standing shell-shocked nearby, to engender true rage. In other words, change the plotting, not the reaction. Make the story more exciting, and the chorus will amplify the clamor.

Exercise: Comb through the manuscript, focusing only on characters’ reactions to events. Judge how well the dramatic weight of the one corresponds to the other. Earlier in a book, you want less dramatic material, so you can build to the better stuff later. In that case, modulate exuberant reactions. Later on, though, you may have to do the opposite: ramp up the action.

“To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.”
—Isaac Newton

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

*From now on in this blog, I will use the gender-neutral form.


Organizing Around Subheads

When compiling material for a nonfiction book, an author is faced with the unending dilemma of what to place where. Certain topics lead easily to decisions about what should be leading principles. Yet others are intermingled, and a topic might work well in multiple sections. Examples of cases have the same problem of relevance: what points should they best support?

Luckily for a confused writer, most nonfiction books feature subheadings, those bold-faced lines of type that start a new section. While they can be overused, you can commit to a flexible template that organizes material into solid blocks. If you establish as a goal that 2-3 pages of text must follow every subhead, you will likely end up with 4-5 headings for each chapter, which is about right.

In concrete terms, that means that every chapter heading is broken into 4-5 divisions, or aspects of that topic. If a chapter wishes to discuss discrimination in hiring practices, as an example, you might think in terms of subheads that cover those sectors that are vulnerable: African Americans, women, Latins, and maybe workers overseas. The sections on each may be of varying lengths, but now you have a manageable way to collate like material.

In the process of selecting the big topics for a chapter, you will eliminate the common problem of using the same material in different parts of the book. You still would have to make choices on issues that overlap, such as black women in the example above, but you can devise a sturdy rationale for splicing apart those aspects that apply to her as part of a minority and those caused by her being a woman. Your subheads tell you what aspect belongs where.

The powers of organizing by subheadings also helps you make decisions about where examples should go. If you have a story about Lauryn’s struggle to be recognized for her programming talents, given the chauvinist culture of Silicon Valley, you can sift through the details to decide what affected the biased opinion of her most: because she was black or she was a woman? You may even realize, if the story is long enough, that you can split the example in two and use the shorter pieces in both sections.

If you think of your material in terms of an army, all of it is at first made up of grunts. In picking your chapter titles, you are selecting generals. Your subheadings are your lieutenants. The squadrons form up under their leaders, and presto: your book unfolds logically.

Exercise: If you already have written a chapter without subheadings, you can often find them in the first sentence of a paragraph. You are already covering different subjects, so look for where the direction turns. Just shorten the topic sentence, make it bold, and lift it out of the text—as your new leader.

“Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.”
—Richard P. Feynman

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.