Plucking and Choosing

As a person who worked for years with a sharp pencil, I tend to trust my instincts more than word-processing aids, but that is only a personal preference. Tools such as Find can be a godsend for a careful author. I have a mental clicker that keeps track of common mistakes such as overused words and expressions. Yet an author may have a harder time seeing these. Certain ways of phrasing a sentence may put you in your wheelhouse for expressing a new idea. I totally agree with the basic idea. For example, an author may use “quite” and “rather” qualifiers because they help prompt a sentence that is provocative and interesting. After you’re done, just remember to take out the “quite” or “rather.” You’ll find that everything else still sparkles.

I run the Find function on occasion, when my intuition tells me that too much repetition is at play, and I sometimes have been shocked by the results. I knew characters were doing a certain amount of staring at each other, but 148 times? A person could get eyestrain from that.

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

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

Exercise: If while reviewing your manuscript, you feel a tic that you’ve seen that usage before, stop. You have, almost for sure. Type the word or phrase into your Find window and see how many times it is used throughout the manuscript. You’ll likely gulp at the number. Then spend a few minutes looking up synonyms. Start jumping through the search and adding fresh vocabulary for each usage.

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

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Genres Past

Many a debut author is confused when, after writing a novel, they are asked by a literary agent what its genre is. Their knowledge of genres has been formed most likely by seeing different sections in a bookstore: Fiction, Mystery, Science Fiction, etc. When they consider the question, common answers are: “Can’t it belong in the general fiction category?” or “It is a combination of genres.”

It is heartening that a person writing a novel thinks that books are free from—elevated above, might be the better term—the world of marketing, but that’s not how publishers think. They have marketing departments, and the head of that department may give the decisive nay vote in deciding whether or not to buy a book. That’s because publishers are not writers. They manufacture books that are placed on a shelf, virtual or not. That’s why the question of which shelf is crucial.

A more knowledgeable author may realize to which genre the book belongs. This writer knows that the book is a thriller, say. Yet the marketing questions do not stop there. The next question is: what type of thriller? Is it a military thriller? A legal thriller? A police procedural? Skipping past the author’s further confusion about a more specific label, they must realize the possible stop signs.

That’s because these subgenres go through fads. For example, legal thrillers were all the rage 20 years ago. An author may write that type of book because they enjoyed reading that genre back when it was popular. That doesn’t mean it is now. To an agent, that label is passé. The subgenre may very well come back into fashion, since they do run in cycles. They often are kick-started by a raging best-seller in the subgenre. But do you want to wait until then?

You are better off investigating what is popular now. Unless your book takes place entirely inside a courtroom, to keep using that example, it probably can be called a “crime drama.” You may find that some agents are looking for thrillers featuring a serial murderer—do you have one?

You can also tailor the book to shade it more toward the brand you have adopted. To continue with the legal thriller, could you cut down the number of courtroom scenes and write a few more for the lead detective pursuing the case? The expenditure of a few weeks may result in a product that you can take to the people who want to hear: I know how to sell my book.

Exercise: To find out what is popular, look in the bookstore or on Amazon and see what is selling. Read the blurbs on the back cover of the book and see what a marketing writer thinks will appeal to the reading public. They aren’t subtle. An hour spent sitting on the carpet in front of a bookcase can improve your understanding wonderfully.

“I think of myself as a bad writer with big ideas, but I'd rather be that than a big writer with bad ideas.”
―Michael Moorcock

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Your Y Joints

When a nonfiction writer assembles chapters, the gathered material can be placed within broad groupings. Yet the juxtaposition of two diverse subjects can be jarring. For instance, a history of cataract diagnosis does not logically lead into intracapsular cataract extraction, an older surgical procedure. Often what happens is that an inexperienced author thinks, “Oh, I’ll just put a boldface heading between sections.” And what often happens? You end up with a chapter that has 15-20 headings. Many times a section consists of only a single paragraph, because that’s all the material you have on that topic. The problem is, headings don’t make a chapter’s progress logical by themselves.

The solution to joining up two topics is a paragraph that encompasses both subjects. If you think of your narrative as a journey, you can signal to the reader when you’re about to turn left. If you remember your wooden train tracks as a child, this device could be called a Y section. That’s because the best junction is a transition paragraph between the topics.

The key is to find an overarching idea that includes both of the topics. For instance, the first sentence of the Y paragraph might summarize your section on cataract diagnosis. The second sentence might draw back the “camera lens” to tell the reader that finally ophthalmologists discovered a way to do something about what they were observing. A third sentence might describe the cataract film (diagnosis) and how it might be shattered (surgery). The final sentence might then introduce the idea of intracapsular cataract extraction. Now you’re on a new topic, and it all happened in one natural flow. 

You can do the same with two headings that are close to each other. Expand the first heading into a complete sentence. Now do the same for the second heading. Those become the first and last sentences in your Y paragraph. Now write a few sentences that will bridge the first and last sentences, and voilà—the headings disappear.

Exercise: Pick out a chapter and look for boldface subheadings. You should shoot for only five or so sections per chapter. How much material follows a heading? A paragraph? Two paragraphs? You should shoot for two pages, minimum, for a section. That will discipline you to create larger sections.

“Pay no attention to what the critics say; there has never been set up a statue in honor of a critic.” 
—Jean Sibelius

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


A Step Deeper

Authors don’t think in terms of stuffing their novel full of details, but that is the end result. Descriptions set the stage in different scenes. Background information, short and long, enhance characterization. Given the multiplicity of scenes and characters, all those details add up. More important, the quality of the details can create larger flows that either sharpen or dull the overall reading experience.

How do you make sure, amid the sheer volume of details, that your reader stays alert? A favorite word of mine is the often misspelled “pique,” as in piquing someone’s interest. What stimulates a reader? In my experience it is complexity. For instance, a complex character holds the reader’s interest more than a cardboard cutout. When applied to a detail, this multilayered approach derives from how long an author stays on that one point.

Let’s look at a single example to see how this process works. Imagine a corporate lobby in a city skyscraper that is filled with Frank Stella sculptures. Anyone who knows Stella immediately thinks of garish colors and weirdly cut pieces superimposed on each other. Okay, you could write that. That does describe his artwork. But let’s dig deeper.

How does a character walking into that lobby feel? The first thought might be about the corporation that picked the art. Is it trying to make a statement about how sophisticated it is? Or the thought might be directed at why interesting art was placed in such a sterile setting, with all the smartly dressed people rushing in a timely fashion. The artwork might be perceived as intimidating, since the character is nervous about what awaits on the 14th floor above. In all of these cases the physical appearance of the object is given a sub-layer of a character’s reactions to the object.

A more difficult feat is using a metaphor to describe an object. George Orwell’s comment “Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket” makes no pretense of literal accuracy. Instead, a detail is likened to another idea that describes it obliquely. These parallels, if truly apt, are famously the best ones of all.

What matters is how much time an author spends revolving the concept, turning it this way and that to gauge how to reveal its essence. Even a more pedestrian “The faded billboards indicated the fortunes of the town” still has the ability to make a reader stop for a click to consider the deeper meaning. When you fill up an entire manuscript with riches created by your trying harder, you don’t have to wonder why readers remember it.

Exercise: Review the manuscript looking only for descriptions. Have you put enough time into making each one stand out, even if only a little? A “dingy” white picket fence tells the reader more than just a “white picket fence.” When you add details that indicate personality, the reader benefits from what you infer.

“A hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running.”
—Groucho Marx

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Prattling On

Whatever character or plot decisions that are made during the course of writing a novel, an author can always count on the fact that the story will be filled with details. These can be personal, which emerge frequently in dialogue-driven stories. They can be descriptive for those who are either clear-sighted or given to metaphors. Yet the very profusion of possibilities raises a question: how do you recognize which details should be included?

In this post I’ll cover dialogue, since that constitutes more than half the text of most commercial novels. When does the natural flow of words—sounding right to the ear—spill over into nattering? Any writer knows that, especially on a day when you’re tired, entire pages can be spun out of a conversation between two characters. Such practice echoes real life. Just think of your average phone call to your mother. Does anyone escape without talking about minutia for at least twenty minutes?

Let’s stop right there for a moment. From such a phone call you already know what was wheat and what was chaff. You called your mother for a specific reason, say to check on Thanksgiving arrangements. You didn’t need to learn about her latest stomach ailment, or what that nasty Nancy Ross at the theater said to her, or the fact that your stepfather will be carving the turkey, the way he does every year. You knew, going in to the call, that you would endure nineteen minutes of an older person needing to talk in order to gain the one minute that will determine your plans in late November.

When you review your dialogue passages, you can use the same filter. Start off by asking: what am I trying to accomplish during this conversation? How will the words spoken advance either the plot or your characterization? You do want a natural flow, because otherwise the dialogue will be stilted. Yet how much, really, is needed to set that base?

One handy tool is employing narrative summary as bridges during dialogue. If the natural flow starts to yammer, you can end the quoted material and condense the filler to a sentence or two. The narrative portion moves the reader from topic A to topic B without expending all the time it takes for a conversation to naturally bend in that direction. An example might be: “They kept on exchanging pleasantries until Gilbert got around to what he really wanted to say.” Then you jump to the next good part.

Exercise: One tactic that works less well is indirect quotes. While this sort of work can compress text material, it also can come to feel like remote-control storytelling. Are they talking or aren’t they? If you feel you should summarize, try for a single sentence in length to do that job. That’s the level of an executive summary, not a secondhand, passive narrative.

“Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about themselves, and small people talk about others.”
― John C. Maxwell

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Forces Without

Political discourse these days is filled with charges of tribalism, as though our citizens have degenerated from some golden era of inclusion. But of course, as any publishing professional could tell you, Americans have always been xenophobic. That’s why the overwhelming majority of novels feature American characters engaged in strife right here in the U.S.A.

This favoritism can lead authors to think that in order to claim new ground in their books, they must venture overseas and bring back knowledge gleaned from other lands. Most of these forays end up in Europe, and the novels that are successful tend to take place in lands using Romance languages—or, places with values common to the U.S. Try to set it in Poland, though, or Romania, and you run into a common buzzsaw: quirky, but not like us. Russia is the exception in this realm, but only because their foreign ways align with our perception of evil ways.

This desire to feature the exotic goes much further in foreign-based historical novels. The pedagogic impulse in this genre is doubled by having to explain the archaic mores of people who don’t share our traditions. This is why, I think, the genre of fantasy has such appeal. If you convert foreigners into actual elves and dwarves, that helps explain why they do such queer things as slurp loudly and chop wooden blocks.

The exception to our prejudice is a novel set in Britain, with British characters. That’s because we share a common heritage with our fierce-faced overseas brethren. Plus, they speak the right language, even if wrongly. It’s close enough that the reader can feel caught up in the events and root for the right folks.

Writers hoping for commercial success can venture wherever they like, but they are advised to include at least one American among the top three players, preferably the protagonist. Allied with that character had better be another American, or a foreign analogue. That is, a wisecracking, hard-bitten companion who offsets the enthusiasm that most heroes possess in order to drive a plot forward.

That core cast then become a filter for information the author wishes to impart to readers. Interesting oddities, yes, but viewed as an American bumbling through the jungle would judge them. Through the lens of a perpetual teenager seeking a place to belong in our land.

Exercise: If you have already written a partial or full draft of a novel featuring solely foreigners, look at the core cast to see if any of your major characters could be converted into either a citizen of the U.S. or U.K. The choice is usually the character toward which you feel the most warmth. During the run-through of the next draft, tailor their mannerisms and speech to create a familiar spearhead into the alien world you wish to show the reader.

“One of the most difficult things for any artist to do is create a world that looks both completely alien yet real and possible.”
—Jim Lee

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine



In the course of writing a long manuscript, an author can be pardoned for occasionally going back to the same well. A number of times the same or similar choice reflects the writer’s bent, or outlook on such matters. We try to be consistent in our everyday routines, so why not within the pages of a book?

In fiction, variety is the spice of life. That’s because a reader doesn’t want to have the same experiences, but a constantly unfolding series of new ones. Reading the same stuff over and over is boring, no matter how exciting the event. If Bilbo in The Hobbit, for instance, disappeared the same way time after time, he would lose that ingenuous quality that makes him so endearing.

One plot event in particular can start to feel the same: a murder in a mystery novel. When the killer’s M.O. is established, such as slashing a person’s neck, the investigating characters have to go through the same procedure with the corpses. Same smell in the cold morgue, same wisecracks from the medical examiner about chickens, etc. Even a second murder committed the same way can have a reader reaching for the sleeping pills.

What a waste. A murder is such a terrific tool for an author. If a book-opening murder is followed shortly by a second one, which is a tried-and-true method, why do the slayings have to be alike? Most killers are not trained assassins, which affords an author the chance for experimentation. This time when the murderous urge came on . . . If you are really clever, the second murder can be committed by someone else entirely.

If the murders do have to be similar, as in a serial murder case, you have to devise how to vary other aspects of the crimes. You can plot out how the conclusions that the investigators draw from each one are different. You can go the sequential route, in which each murder adds something else to the knowledge a detective has about the killer. Any aspects of a crime scene that have been covered in an earlier scene, skim over that stuff with passing remarks.

Drawing differences is easier when personalities are more flamboyant. Realistically, good detectives are predictable, but those aren’t the ones readers like. The one that can take a counterintuitive approach poses a puzzle to a reader: how can that inference be supported? If you think about it, that was Sherlock Holmes’s “method”: keep Dr. Watson guessing about his inscrutable remarks. Why should you settle for any less?

Exercise: Because similar scenes can be separated by numerous pages, you may not be aware of your tics. You can be more exacting. Separate out those scenes and read them in isolation, back-to-back (-to-back). What do you spot is similar? While you’re changing those out, keep asking yourself: could this new element play a long-range role in the developing mystery?

“The essence of the beautiful is unity in variety.”
—W. Somerset Maugham

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Be Careful What You Want

When the reason for writing a novel is to relive old times, an author is warned that fiction has demands that go beyond spinning fine yarns. Such a project usually begins with vignettes that are droll or interesting because of the unusual circumstances of an occupation. These pieces can run three or four or five pages. The collection of them grows over time until some critical mass of pages is achieved in the author’s mind. Maybe 100 pages, or 200? The length is starting to resemble the length of novels they’ve read—or at least seen in venues such as the airport Hudson News stands.

When the budding author asks around about how to go about pull their collection together into a real novel, a common piece of advice is to hire an editor. I have called upon occasionally in these situations, and I dispense roughly the same advice.

The first is to look beyond the individual scenes and seize upon a thread that will run all the way to the end of the book. What is the end goal for the main character (usually the author thinly disguised)? How can the scenes be lined up in service of that goal? More important, what scenes have nothing to do with that goal? This is the tricky part, because many authors don’t like to discard what they’ve already written. But if you’re writing about a major swindle on the rodeo circuit, some of the dozen scenes you’ve written about, say, obstreperous broncos may have to be axed. How many times will a reader read about someone being dumped before thinking, “Isn’t this like the last bucking bronco scene I read?”

The next vital consideration is the longevity of your characters. “Long” in this case refers to how long they last in the novel. If plucky Jane appears in two scenes and you have 40 of them, her quirks will be drowned among the plethora of other personalities. Such a cameo appearance also hampers the process of readers identifying with her. If she is to be used in any weighty plot business, such as being murdered, the catharsis you gain revolves around how much readers care about the character.

Attention to creating a circle of major characters can also limit the feeling of listlessness that comes over a reader while reading an episodic novel. In too many scenes a new character appears, and readers don’t know how they fit into the main plot. Even characters who reappear occasionally don’t help, because they’ve been gone so long, they obviously don’t matter. Real life may be stranger than fiction, but for the most part, it’s merely more scattered.

Exercise: When examining characters in disparate scenes, see if you can gang them up into a single character. You know that you are writing about a half dozen different cowboys, for example, but couldn’t they be combined in one Cowboy? Better yet, you can pick the most colorful of the lot, and use that person repeatedly.

“Goals transform a random walk into a chase."
—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


A Different Walk of Life

If your long career has recently ended in retirement, you may have the desire to write a book about your experiences, but you don’t know how to get started. The difference between writing business reports and a full-length book can seem enormous. So today’s post has a few commonsense guidelines designed to help translate wishes into horses.

The first is to realize that writing does not operate on an eight-hour work cycle. Sure, a novelist like Joseph Conrad had his wife lock him in his study every morning and afternoon, but Conrad also happens to be one of the greatest writers of all time. For your purposes, I would advise a less lofty goal. Start off by choosing a one-hour block at a set time. That seems more manageable, doesn’t it? The key is to pick the same hour-long block every day, in the same location. If you don’t shoot for every day, you won’t develop the right writing muscles, and eventually the project will drift off again into dreamland. If you can go longer than an hour on an inspired day, that’s a bonus.

Second, don’t try to write the book in order. Organization is a major reason that neophyte writers fear such a long project. Or, even if you get started, a major reason that you stumble coming out of the gate. Forget about everything you learned at the office. A book has so many pieces that you can spend hours at a time on any single one of them. So why are you worried about the whole before you have anything to put in order?

Instead, start off by picking the low-hanging fruit first. Draw up a short list of the things you want to write about the most. The top of the list probably will include amusing or illustrative stories that you’ve been telling others for years. Don’t you think that your readers will be just as entertained? Perhaps you developed a special technique that later proved to be an industry standard; write about its genesis. If what burns in your mind is a fight you had with your younger bullheaded new boss, write about that—and why you were right.

Third, write with your reader in mind. That helps tremendously in keeping you focused. What are the points that you want a reader to take away from your book? By focusing on those, you’ll include only the really interesting stuff.  Stick to the riveting gossip, the tales that make people belly laugh. Pretty soon those pages will be adding up—and you’ll be enjoying your new avocation.

Exercise: Refrain from editing, except for typos, at first. Your capacity for criticism is harshest when it is directed at yourself. You’re not one of the greats yet, so don’t worry about it. You’re just trying to tell your stories in your unique way. Wait until you’re written 25 or 50 pages, and then go back to edit.

“I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there.”
—Richard Feynman

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Remote and Untouched

What is a first-person peripheral narrator, and what are the drawbacks of that approach? This type of narrator tells the story in the I-voice, but as a witness of the main character’s story. The first-person voice is just as intimate as when the narrator is telling his own story. Up-close observations fly off the keyboard. Jokes, ironic remarks, and thoughts come more easily when the author writes directly to the reader.  

Yet an immediate narrative voice does not guarantee penetration into the characters. Quite the contrary can be true with an observer. The ease of writing in this voice can delude an author into believing that she is creating depth when she is only adding lacquer to the veneer. That’s because an observer can all too easily be passive. The narrative approach can become a shield behind which the author hides while she remains at arm’s length from the catharsis being experienced by others.

I see this problem mainly with inexperienced authors who write historical fiction. Because the author may feel more comfortable doing research, he remains at a safe distance as he is reanimating history. It’s the same distance between the modern researcher and the long-ago events he is studying. Because he is merely an observer, he remains behind his “camera” as he tells stories about the people he’s read about.

Here is a useful corrective. Skillful writers use this voice to create what is known as the “unreliable narrator.” The character relating the events injects her prejudices against others, such as jealousy, as part of the storytelling. Yet stop right there and think about what is required to be unreliable. The author must get inside the observer’s head in order to create that distorted prism. The very uncertainty the reader feels about the narrator stems from the depth of penetration.

You could go further than that. Like any other major character, the observer can be changed by the novel’s events. Rather than being a passive observer, the peripheral narrator in this scenario cannot escape the swirling vortex of the story she’s telling. Now the first-person narrative really is immediate—because you’re inside the story.

Exercise: If you are writing a historical novel, don’t settle for tired facsimiles as your characters. If you want to re-imagine history, start with the notion that your observer must be outrageous. After all, to tell the story in the first place, he has to accompany the protagonist on his journey of extremes. Once you have decided on the qualities of the lead character, pick out equally distinctive qualities for the observer—and bake them into the telling.

“Without heroes we're all plain people and don't know how far we can go.”
― Bernard Malamud

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


What Do They Hear?

Hearing is implicit in so many forms of communication that it is taken for granted. Yet using sound cues can spark up your prose, from simple verb usage all the way to evocative descriptions. I will point out some common ways that you can turn this sense to your advantage.

The easiest method is related to dialogue. While I’m not a big fan of substituting other words for the verb “say,” their occasional use can highlight the aural quality of what is being said. A statement that is “whispered” connotes either a desire for secrecy or an outcome of shyness, among other possibilities. That statement is much different if it is “shouted.” The tenor of the statement changes as well if it is “announced,” “muttered,” or “pointed out.” I am a strong believer in economy of words, and you cannot exercise more precision by selecting the right verb at times when you want emphasis.

Another fruitful area lies in the realm of fear. We all hear sounds that are distant enough that their import remains in doubt. That can, depending on how fragile the situation is, stir fears about what is about to happen. The same holds true for sounds that are strange to us. Hearing an industrial noise in a forest is strangely out of context, for example. The crunch of a boot when a character is hiding can be threatening. One very effective technique is the unexpected sound. The heroine can be running through an interior monologue of what might happen when a bluejay breaks out squawking nearby. For these purposes, what is heard can be more scary than what is seen.

One sphere where sounds can be valuable additions relates to a character’s interior state. What he hears can be a cue that either reflects his mood or contrasts with it. The eruption of a jackhammer or the screeching of subway wheels going around a curve can accentuate his hatred of his urban commute. For that same city dweller, the sounds in a forest—the sibilance of the wind, the burble of a stream—can be inserted during a sequence when they are feeling anything but calm. In these cases, the sounds are inserted accents that can serve as gauges to how the character is feeling at that point in the book. Precisely because they are off the point, in narrative terms, they provide a way to create further depth.

Exercise: Take your pocket notebook or cell phone with you on an expedition to record sounds. Merely by walking around, you’ll be amazed at the variety that you take for granted every day. Record them, with an eye toward where they might fit in your story. In particular, try to imagine how that sound could be used if you took it completely out of its present context.

"An essential element for good writing is a good ear: One must listen to the sound of one's own prose."
—Barbara Tuchman

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Letter Perfect

The process of learning how to write effectively takes place on so many levels that an author may pay less attention to the lowest rung on the ladder, typos. Part of my function while line editing is cleaning up after authors. I don’t mind, but I do find this neglectful attitude to be very curious. This author, like all readers, would be offended by typos in a printed book. Yet when they don an author’s cap, it’s somehow okay to take the chance that someone else, with no stake in the book, will find all the errors for them.

You should be aware that typos are the number one reason manuscripts are rejected. The reasoning goes: if the author doesn’t care enough to clean up their typos, the larger elements of the story will be sloppy as well. It's just another ego trip. Publishing professionals see plenty of that, even with authors who are meticulous.

Becoming a good writer means mastering your trade. Master carpenters, for example, always check their measurements twice before cutting. It’s stupid, really: they know they marked that board at 16-5/8”. But they make sure, every time, because once the board is sawn, they have lost money if they marked it wrong. Your manuscript submission can be regarded in the same light. You put all that effort into writing a great story, so why would you want it to be rejected for trivial mistakes?

There is a rule of thumb at a publishing house. A sloppy manuscript leads to a sloppy copy edit leads to a sloppy proofread. When the finished book comes out, readers write to complain about all the typos.

Sometimes authors tell me, “Well, I used spell check.” That is a good first step, one I take myself at the end of every line edit. But computer spell-check programs are only looking for misspelled words. If it sees a word that is spelled correctly, even though used incorrectly (e.g., your for you’re), it lets the error go. Lets is a word, even though the most common usage is let’s.

You know most of this stuff. You’re being arrogant and lazy, not to mention childish, to expect someone else to correct your mistakes. Don’t plead ignorance because you weren’t paying attention in sixth grade. You’re an adult now. So start acting like the professional writer you want to be.

Exercise: If you’re unsure about spelling or punctuation, you merely have to go online and check. Gaining mastery over the most widespread errors doesn’t take long at all. What you’ll also find is that by checking yourself, you’ll gain more desire to use more interesting words. You’re digging in. You want control over every word you write. Your readers will thank you for your diligence.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls
and looks like work.” 
—Thomas A. Edison

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Leading with Lodestones

How to organize a lifetime full of memories is a frequent stumbling block for an author trying to write a memoir. You likely have a wealth of stories that you know will entertain a reader. Even if you are more disciplined and want to organize the stories around a theme, such as autism, setting the stories in the right order may become an increasing challenge as you write. For example, you do think that semi-criminal episode at age eight is telling, but you aren’t sure any readers are going to care about the antics of an eight-year-old.

The limitation most memoirists face is that they do not think in any other order except chronological. I discovered this problem with a writer recently during an initial phone call to learn more about her manuscript. As we kept talking, she started telling me about some terrific stories that her subject experienced when he was an adult. So far, though, she had only written up to when he was in high school, and she was starting to doubt that readers would want to plow through all the child-related material.

She had the right idea. The beginning of a memoir has to grab the reader by the lapels and say, “You have to read this book.” That must be your first consideration in terms of organizing the material. If you proceed chronologically, you are placing material that least interests an adult—child's play, in essence—first. As a reader I may never get to those intriguing adult stories.

Instead, start by writing out your most powerful stories. These are the ones you feels most passionately about. Now you can organize your memoir around your strongest chapters. Start with when, say, you were were living in a dumpster as the first chapter. After that you might jump back to age eight with the idea of telling the reader how you ended up in that dumpster. After a chapter of that, you can jump ahead to a second interesting adult story. And so on.  Chronology is employed, yes, but the function of the childhood material is to fill out our knowledge of what happened in adulthood.

Why does this method work? If you lead off a book with material you know is unique and fresh, you’ll find that your other material, which may be more ordinary, takes on a different aspect because it is supporting the unique material. Put another way, your unique material creates a prism through which the more ordinary material can be viewed. Theme—those interesting stories—now governs chronology in your organizational approach.

Exercise: Try taking a later chapter in the memoir and placing it up front. Write down a summary of what happens in that chapter. With that summary in mind, now read through the childhood material. Do you see early-developmental issues that would support that new first chapter? Pick out only that material for the following chapter, and leave the other eight-year-old anecdotes aside for later use—to support another adult idea.

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.”
—Herman Melville

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Art of the Fiction Outline

The stages of submitting and then publishing a book entail long delays. This problem cannot be helped, for book publishing moves at a glacial speed. As an author you can fret about the fact that your literary agent or editor never seems to get back to you, but you’re just wasting your time. Unless you’re famous, they’re not changing for you. Instead, you should do something productive, like starting on the next book.

You can turn your impatience into an economic advantage if you write an outline for the next book. Depending on your situation, you could try to sell the finished manuscript and the outline in a two-book deal. Or, you can use the outline as a way to land a new book contract.

To become a selling tool, an outline must be long enough. I recommend a length of at least 15-20 pages. That way an agent or editor truly can judge the book’s merits. Like a synopsis, it is written out in paragraph form. You can assume that you will need a paragraph to summarize each scene (or chapter), depending on whether a plot advance is achieved during its course. That’s because plot is one of the two main ingredients in an outline. Each paragraph should have the scene’s point-of-view character leading their plot thread to the next step. You can attach the minor characters to these unfolding threads.

That suggestion indicates the other key ingredient of an outline: the relationships between characters. You want to stress over the course of the outline how these relationships develop. The obstacles in a romantic partnership, the steps leading toward further antagonism between enemies, the reasons a buddyhood is created—all of these are needed to make the outline emotionally charged. Even in outline form, you are trying to sway the reader’s emotions.

You don’t need all the nuances, of either character or plot. If a relationship between a major and minor character contains no progression, just mention it in passing. The same is true of plot; you don’t need to detail every clever nuance involved in a sting. Keep on a high plane, conscious that you need to keep moving on to the next paragraph.

That’s why it’s a good idea to avoid dialogue. Once you descend to that level of detail, you’re writing out the rough draft of the novel. You don’t want to show a rough draft to any book professional. Plus, that’s not the point of an outline, which is merely a vehicle for selling the unwritten book. If you stick to narrative summary, you’ll get through each point at a speed that someone who has read hundreds of outlines will appreciate.

Exercise: An outline is not a book report. You are still a storyteller, only in capsule form. Each paragraph should be a building block of some sort, either providing an interesting clue or an alarming turn in a relationship. You can’t supply all the shading, but your sketch should be intriguing to follow.

“There's no money in poetry, but then there's no poetry in money either.”
—Robert Graves

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Slain by Bullet Points

A ubiquitous feature of business books is a list of summarized points. Each one is a takeaway from the previous text discussion, or a preview of the segment that immediately follows. The origin of this practice is the business presentation, held before an assemblage of clients and/or subordinates.

I have no problem with a summary. A businessperson does not have a lot of free time, and a handy digest can knock home the most important ideas. What I do find objectionable is a long list. If a bulleted list is longer than 5-6 entries, my eyes start to glaze over. What is the problem here? Am I such a poor student, letting down my mentor?

The difficulty arises from the very nature of communication. A pithy phrase by itself can be a fine distillation of a larger idea. Yet an entire run of short phrases can start to read like slogans or an author’s notes to himself that he is too lazy to explain.  Worst of all, they may strike the reader as annoying pronouncements from on high. One hallmark of American education is a distrust of grandiloquence. In an actual business meeting, a presenter anticipates this instinctive reaction. That’s why each bullet point up on the screen is then explained orally. In other words, each pithy phrase is then given the larger context from which it sprang.

The same occurs in good writing. You have a kernel of a good idea that you then expand into a thematic paragraph. Let’s say: a visionary leader is always bursting with new ideas. That is the topic sentence of the paragraph, and you fill out the proposition with common types of ideas such leaders have. That paragraph may then be followed by a paragraph or a few about a specific leader who had a specific idea. By the time you’re done, I have grasped the point.

Besides the proof that such elaboration provides, buttressing the thematic point, such writing also serves a vital function that tends to be overlooked in business writing. At all times, no matter what field, you are telling a story. It just happens to be a true story. You hold the reader’s attention by taking the time to explain how you arrived at your conclusion.

If you’re writing an entire book, you’re going to be spending a lot of time explaining. So spare us the long lists. Put the entire PowerPoint presentation down on paper, only in a form that readers recognize. The bulleted point is the topic sentence, and the oral explanation, now written down, fills out the topic.

Exercise: Locate a long bulleted list in your manuscript. Check each point against the narrative that (usually) precedes it. How many of those points did you actually make in the last section? Unless the section is much longer than most, you probably only made 5-6 major points. Put down only those. Anything else is more minor, and you should move them into the preceding text.

“I am a galley slave to pen and ink.”
—Honore de Balzac

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


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

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.