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


The Easy Way Out

When an author is learning to write, certain forms of prose come more easily than others. Dialogue might be likened to a baby’s first steps, since almost all writers can record the cadence of spoken words. Toddling right after that is the narrative summary. While it is used in a variety of ways, the most common is recapitulating an event in the past.

Why does this device come so naturally? It corresponds to the distance a beginning writer feels to his work. The hardest task in writing is concentrating so hard, the words seem to flow from the mind of the character narrating a scene. A neophyte author might achieve short bursts of such intensity, such as during a scene when a character is furious, but for the most part the character performs more like a child’s stick drawing. Move X here and have him stare. Move Y there and have her nod . . .

A narrative summary is a way to escape that mawkish stuff. An author can launch into a passage that tells in hindsight how a mother reacts when her daughter dyes her hair purple. The thoughts the mother has can be inserted to personalize the narrative point of view. The framework is perfect for using pithy words to describe a character’s personality traits—“She knew Annie, always so quiet, would not respond well to shouted imprecations.”

Don’t ever doubt that the narrative summary is an extremely useful tool in storytelling. You can handle minor matters in capsule form. Annie’s pink hair might be only a footnote in a tale about meth addiction. Yet the summary form itself can be addicting. I have read entire manuscripts that consist largely of narrative summaries. I can sense the author thinking: Why not keep using what is coming out of my hand so well?

That is where the dictum show, don’t tell comes into play. The reason an author should try to make his major points through active scenes is that a reader can participate. You can show what happens when quiet Annie is ridiculed by her mother. Even better, you can reveal personality attributes of the mother at the same time. In other words, the filters are removed.

The occasional thoughts used to flavor a narrative summary with a character’s point of view turn into an ongoing flow of thoughts the character has while pushing the story forward. Readers are allowed to take away from the text what they will. The text truly unspools because you’re not holding it in your tight little hand.

Exercise: Review the manuscript looking for narrative summaries. When you encounter one, ask yourself: how important is this incident for the novel? Take those you think are striking and see if you can transform them into a full scene. See if you can change the timing of the scene so it occurs as the story is unfolding.

“The past is not simply the past, but a prism through which the subject filters his own changing self-image.”
—Doris Kearns Goodwin

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.