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 passĂ©. 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 voilĂ —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

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.