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


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.