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

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.