The Blows of Pride

One of the first lessons a novelist learns is that the protagonist should face a series of obstacles. It is telling that so many react to that dictum by creating a series of external obstacles, resembling warriors in a video game to a greater or lesser degree. Even authors with a more literary bent will utilize characters embodying a social theme that oppresses from without. Less common are explorations of what drives a person to fail. Perhaps failure feels too tragic, and people write to feel good about themselves.

Failure comes in all sorts of varieties—because humans are so good at it—so I’ll focus here on it as a facet of divorce. A breakup is painful in direct proportion to its former promise. While a lucky half of all couples sail through life without it, I think most people have experienced the pain, either directly or as children. The pain of separation is sharp and bitter, and the bitterness never goes away, even if it dulls over time. 

Pride comes before a fall, and that is where failure can play a dynamic role in fiction. Pride can be built up through a series of scenes that show the keyed-on partners as proud to be married, whether that relates to their partner’s status or as parent of praised children. It can also be cultivated through the arguments of the spouses. Marriage is a series of compromises, and when one or both members in a couple refuses to bend, pride of belonging in one’s parental family is frequently the cause. So the parents can be brought into the novel to show what sparks such loyalty. Inherent in all of these interactions, of course, is the failure of the character to realize how blind their loyalty is.

The differences between a couple may be truly irreconcilable, but adding a tragic flaw is more dramatic. That doesn’t include such tawdry factors as workaholism. A tragic flaw stems from a more titanic goodness than that. Identifying what that is and then building the marriage scenes around it shows the poisonous root of the dissolution.

Equally as gripping are the waves of explanations a character makes, in private and to others, after the marriage falls apart. How does an author modulate the complaints to lay bare their shrillness? Does the character learn from the experience, or do they go on in life placing all the blame on the partner? A person can be consumed by bitterness just as easily as by joy. Where does that leave them at the end of the story, on the lonely rock they claim?

Exercise: You can use supporting characters to great effect. A mother’s dislike for her daughter-in-law is an obvious choice, but what about the friend that encourages the character’s growing dissatisfaction? When the divorce is final, what can the friend do to remedy the pain? Or, if the partner left for a new love, how does the newbie stack up against who was lost?

“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.” —Truman Capote

Copyright @ 2024 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Breaking the Law

One of the major goals in plotting a novel is righting a wrong. The nature of the wrong comes in many guises, and the steps toward remediating it may be as complicated as an author can concoct. Underneath all of the machinations, though, lies the principle of fairness. The meek shall inherit the earth writ large. 

Aiding the author’s efforts is the moral code that readers bring to a book. One salient truth that has emerged amid the decline of religious belief is that social norms and peer pressure exert a powerful ethical force. You need look no further than the acceptance of mask wearing during the epidemic: a lot of it was driven by what the people around us were doing.

That is why a character committing a crime has different levels of impact. If the person is a known villain, each new murder may not juice up the tension more. The exact opposite could happen, because the crimes become numbing. An act of evil committed by a good person, by contrast, can inject a tidal wave of uneasiness into the proceedings. 

At its base is the worry of getting caught, which we have all felt when committing a petty larceny of some sort. Never mind the shame. A life can be ruined by exposure, depending on the severity of the crime, and if we have come to identify with the character, it feels like our life that may be ruined. Or at the very least, our enjoyment of following that character.

The good character that commits a crime becomes charged with danger. That makes them more alluring, because we read books in part in order to dare to do things vicariously that we would not attempt in our real, boring life. The attraction to what has turned wild is combined with the character’s other qualities, the good side that assures us that the criminal behavior can be rectified.

Attention also needs to be paid to when is the crime committed. If it occurs early on, the book’s calculus is changed for the remaining hundreds of pages. First off, without enough circumstances forcing characters to commit a crime, the reader wonders how good they really are. Can I trust this person can, or wants to, turn things around? If the crime is committed later, it may be that the character has to fight back against the evil that has sprung up around them. Second, the character is on the run, so to speak, from that moment on, and is the book ready to free them from the familiar bounds of their loved ones or friends? Being a fugitive has plenty of tension, but how many near escapes can they undergo before the plot gambit becomes tiresome?

Exercise: When choosing a crime, try to pick one that suits the character. A likable person who tends to be devious may even earn laughs if they embezzle company funds. Or you can use contrast. A mild-mannered person who commits a horrific murder truly shocks us. You’re not writing for automatons; use their moral boundaries to your storytelling advantage.

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine 


Studying Details

When you read a well-written novel, you frequently encounter descriptions that arrest your attention by their penetration. The word picture makes you “see” the object so clearly. You wonder how they do that. When you look at your own writing, you find a belabored description you have written and sigh. It takes so long to get through all the words you have larded on that the picture feels turgid rather than vivid.

You may not be observing enough. Let’s consider where you are when you feel the need to describe something. You’re sitting at your desk, most likely. Can you observe the item in question from your desk? You struggle for long minutes, even an entire writing session, searching for what feels just beyond your mental grasp.

Those writers you admire are more focused on observing than you are. Writing for them is all-consuming: everything they experience could fit in their book. Sure, they’re brilliant. But they are also observing all the time. Whereas you—you’re missing the description of the sunlight because you’re complaining it’s too bright. You’re doing what people do: experience their lives interactively. But writers are weird. They’re the guys staring at you from a cubicle in the library.

I’m not advocating that you cultivate your weirdness. Yet you can be on the lookout. Let’s take the kitchen as one locale that every reader will recognize. A kitchen isn’t a place for writing. It’s for cooking or eating or gassing about the day you just had. But what if you took the time to look at common items more closely? Instead of nearly breaking your wrist to open that tomato jar so you can dump it in the sauce pan to get dinner done, just hold the jar in your hand first. Is it heavy? Have you ever considered that tomato sauce jars are heavy? As opposed to what other items you cook with?

The first thoughts you have will not be profound. You see “Ragu” on the label, and you know that’s too banal to fit your book. Stop focusing so hard. Stop trying to wrest meaning from the thing. Just hold it, let your mind drift, the same way you do when you’re at your desk writing. What associations do you have with tomato sauce? Did your mother cook spaghetti, and what are your stray memories of what she said while cooking? Or your kids, sitting at the kitchen table, irritable because they’re hungry? The more you dwell in your thoughts, the more your subconscious is bent from its habitual frenzy to revolve, in loops, around those associations. Now you can write something down.

Exercise: This post has been in large part an exercise, so I’ll add one more thought. You can be a little weird too. You can ask your spouse to watch the pot while you write down what you’re thinking. Do it right on the spot. Be an observer and then race to put it on the page.

“Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.” —Marcus Aurelius

Copyright @ 2024 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Checking It Twice

The prospect of editing your manuscript is unwelcome, and the process is arduous. Nonetheless, you do it because either you or someone you respect has identified aspects of the book that are less compelling. You may have too much interior monologue, for example, on the part of your point-of-view character(s). You may have nonfiction-based content, such as a current social debate, that seems repetitious. Whatever you settle on, you have guidelines that tell you what to look for as you are editing the work.

The process that most authors follow is one of trimming. You keep shaving, shaving, shaving—sentence by sentence, sometimes throwing out whole paragraphs or a few pages, depending on how deep the rabbit hole is. You find a ton of stuff that is pretty good, and you don’t really want to cut it. You may remember how great you felt about it when it first burst forth from the pen. So that stays.

This process of accretion—little bit here, little bit there—is undoubtedly helpful in terms of how well the book reads when you finish. If you cut 10 percent of any story, the good stuff will stand out more when the dross is removed. The larger objectives, however, tend to be obscured by this approach. What did the person in the writing group really say? What was the literary agent’s real objection?

You can forget that the real objective is to produce a book on a higher plane. While you’re cutting a lot of interior monologue, you also have to consider what might be better interior monologue. You have a grasp of your characters by now. If you look at each plot turn, could you catalogue, step by step, more deeply how they’re feeling? That is, maybe the objection to too much thinking may be because it was too slight or too event-oriented to allow us to know the character better. Skating on the surface can become tiring for a reader—who wants to be the character, inside.

The same is true of that current debate you lectured about. Maybe the problem isn’t cutting down all the dialogue about, say, the January 6th attack on the Capitol. Maybe it’s the talk itself. Talk is cheap. What would happen if you cut it all? Instead you introduce a new character, a friend who infiltrated security and hoisted a brewski inside the hallowed halls? They brag about it to your protagonist. You follow a series of subplot scenes in which the FBI comes knocking. In each scene, you keep telling us: how does the protagonist feel about the friend?

Exercise: When you draw any conclusions yourself, or receive any comments, ask yourself: what is the objection? Is it too much junk, or is the way I’m going about it? You may be discursing when you should make your characters act. Consider completely different alternatives. Sketch them out. Write a few scenes in that new direction. Now what do you think?

“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” —Ansel Adams

Copyright @ 2024 John Paine. All rights reserved.




The Wrong Cap

With the growth of the young adult market, more and more adult novelists are trying their hand at the game. The logic behind the decision is straightforward. The YA market holds the promise of sales, while the adult market seems to have a foreclosed sign hung on it these days. Plus, anyone who has completed the arduous journey of writing an adult novel can surely write one for kids, right? Aren’t they, like, half as long?

I could write a post about first studying your market, but here I’ll focus on a common problem I encounter within the texts I edit. It stems from the natural impulse of an adult to instruct those of more tender years. This desire is combined with the freedom that writing gives its practitioner. Hey, why not me? I’ll show them instruction can be fun.

The writer sets off on the self-appointed mission. The standard relationships between characters are built, only a teenager (in YA) is the protagonist. A theme is chosen to guide the realationship toward a turning point. We start at Point A and end at Point Z. Let’s take the example of a historical novel set during the Revolutionary War. Uncle Bertram will show nephew Elias why fighting representatives of the colonies’ government was a good idea.

A step-by-step process takes place, the way any plot line is developed. In this case, Uncle Bertram is at Elias’s elbow, pointing out at one step perhaps why British soldiers alienated farmers by stealing all their animals. How the Hessians were both fearsome and light-fingered toward all possessions in sight. Elias is a teenager, though, and he won’t be convinced easily—because we all know teenagers don’t listen to adults. The result can be dialogue passages dropped in every 20 pages that turn the huge ship slowly around. 

Just from this telescoped overview you can see why the young reader’s eyes are slowly closing. Any teacher could tell you that kids like novels filled with action—lots of it. That is why so many successful YA writers have teaching experience. 

Another good reason for avoiding instructive passages stems from a principle that governs all novels: show, don’t tell. Let’s position the teenager in the novel as the son of a farmer, and one of the animals slaughtered is Bessie, the teen’s favorite horse. In this case you need only tell us how they feel. We can figure out for ourselves that British soldiers were bastards. You are asking the reader to  participate, and that process starts at a very early age. 

Exercise: Review the manuscript for discussions on the same topic that are progressive. Highlight them and then read them in isolation from the rest of the book. Do they start to seem numbing? Then look at the incident that precipitated the discussion. Could you add in the teenager’s thoughts at the time the stuff is going down? Afterward, you can probably cut the discussion.

“The wages of pedantry is pain.” —Carroll O'Connor

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine




Left Hand, Right Hand

An author has a desire to finish a book. This compulsion—to produce a story that others will want to read—underlies each step of the way. One morning a new scene is started and, depending on how fast the author writes, the goal is set: finish this scene tomorrow, or by the end of the week. That’s done. Let’s move on to the next. And so on and thenceforth.

While progress is made, the task of telling the story in a memorable way is left for later. Once the first draft is done, I’ll go back and edit. Otherwise, I’ll never finish this thing. 

That begs the question: what makes storytelling memorable? The narrator’s voice. Are you really going to leave the immense task of retelling the entire story to the end of a draft? More to the point, do you really think you will alter that much of what you’ve already written to fit that new conception? 

You might be better off trying a technique similar to that you, or your child, used while learning to play the piano. It is called “hands apart.” For the next week until your next lesson, you play the notes assigned to the right hand all the way through a piece. You practice only that hand. Then you play the notes for the left hand. Only after you have learned the separate lines do you try to combine hands and play the piece as written.

Every scene can be considered a song. The plot moves from Point A to Point B. Your right hand carries the melody, or the plot line. Your left hand carries the point-of-view character, or what underpins the tune. If you write out a first draft of a scene, you’re mainly focused on plot—getting out of your head what happens that moves the book closer to its finish. The characters are like stage actors performing their duties. That is what you will find feels flat when you read it over later.

Rather than wait till the end of a draft, you can write a second draft of the scene right after the first. Your left hand, in this analogy. You pick out your point of view. You go through the scene with a single question in mind: how does the character perceive what’s happening? You add in notes that reframe each one of those points. Then you rewrite the scene , adding in all of the opinions or wry asides or manic thoughts you know that character possesses. Voila, the two hands come together, and now you have a distinctive scene.

Even better, when you start using that practice, you will find, as the draft goes on, that you are writing scenes more from that point of view from the very start. When you write that second draft, you have less to do. And by the time you reach the climax sequence, it will be heavily charged—first time around.

“You write to become immortal, or because the piano happens to be open, or you’ve looked into a pair of beautiful eyes.” —Robert Schumann

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine



Political discourse these days is filled with charges of tribalism, as though our citizens have degenerated from a 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 leads many 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: interesting, 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 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 @ 2024, John Paine


Comparing Drafts

As an editor, I frequently review the evolving stages of an author’s manuscript. Yet I don’t need to read every word of the manuscript multiple times. I already have notes taken during a previous draft about scenes that haven’t changed. For that reason I use a Microsoft Word function called Compare Documents. It asks which two files I’d like to compare, and once they are selected, it produces a third file that shows only the changes made from one draft to the next. I should note that other word-processing programs may have similar functions.

Since many authors are unaware of this tool, I’d like to point out how useful it can be for you as you are working through successive drafts. After all, the process of revision usually takes place over a long period of time, and you can forget what you did a while ago. If you are making a key change for a character on page 300, say, and you know you already made a change in an earlier scene, you can spend fruitless minutes looking for that change, in order to make the two align. With Compare Docs, though, you can skim through the text, looking only for the highlighted (track-changed) material.

Using the function also helps clarify what types of changes you have made in the draft. You can be under the impression that you changed a ton of stuff in a scene, but it still doesn’t seem to work the way you had planned. That may be because the changes you made were picayune, or they didn’t address the basic problem you wanted to address. By using Compare Docs, you can review what in fact you did—and see if the changes hit the intended target.

One other aspect that may prove very helpful is: do you like the changes you made? I don’t want to return to the days of writing out drafts longhand, but I do miss being able to see exactly what I changed. The line was crossed out, and I wrote in words above the line. I would say that half the time, I decide to keep the original. With Compare Docs, all of the changes are highlighted. You can compare the two, and maybe decide that the first stroke was the right one.

“I can't write five words but that I can change seven.” —Dorothy Parker

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine


Merely Strange

A good author knows that the outer limits, both of personality and of society, must be probed in order to make a novel original. Some writers come to this voyage of discovery more naturally, because that is where their own lives are spent. They may live in the world of the arts, where the unusual is expected, or conversely, on the midnight shift, where the losers in ordinary life can be found.

Accounts about freaks make for good storytelling, and such an author may grin as they write down an outlandish feat. Because a novel is a roomy abode, it can accommodate a panoply of misfit delights. The page count rises to the size of an actual book, and the writer can be forgiven for thinking that the end is in sight. Rollicking good yarns, all of them. Mix them up, making sure each major  character appears in a regular rotation, and the only question left is: who wants to publish this?

The problem with a collection of anecdotes, even exotic ones, is that the reading experience remains flat. That may accord with certain modern literary theories, but it can also be an excuse for a writer who has not yet learned how to write with true depth. In a hodgepodge, the only thread a reader follows is often chronology. Yet twenty years narrated at a distance may be less satisfying than a single day narrated intensely.  

Depth in writing requires winners and losers in the ranking of characters. Certain players appear more often, have a more complete life change. We’ll posit that the novel depicts a collection of roadies for a rock band. If Clarisse the sound mixer is a favorite of the author’s, she cannot be treated the same—i.e., given the same number of pages of coverage—as Chris the personal guitar tuner. Are Clarisse’s problems with her boyfriend, then husband, then estranged partner, more important than Chris’s heroin dabbling or not?

The odd and kooky tales become differentiated according to how important they are to the main characters. You don’t have to leave them out, but they cannot all be narrated with equal dramatic weight. If I don’t care about the character at the heart of the tale, his behavior will be merely bizarre. Maybe funny too, but the point is, his impact on the reader is less if he is only one among a collection of weirdos.

Exercise: When you are sorting through your war stories, divorce the real life models from the content. A story may have really happened to Elle, but if you want to feature Sarah more, it should be given to her. Life, in other words, is used in the employment of art. You may find, as a result, that Sarah’s reactions to what happens in that anecdote add texture to her character.

“One must be a little crazy to write a good novel.” —John Gardner

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine


The Endless Explanations

One of the advantages of the 1st-person narrative voice is the ability for a character to spill out thoughts and comments. The personal touches that this interior work adds can change pedestrian prose into a highly nuanced style. Since the narrator’s view of an event determines how the reader experiences it, you can make the most banal daily undertakings fresh and engaging. 

I am an advocate of the open-spigot approach when you are getting ideas out of your head onto the paper. When they remain whirling upstairs in your brain, their usefulness is compromised by the myriad other ideas you are planning to get into the story somewhere. They also can glow with a promise that often dims when set in the concrete of black type. So, get it down first in order to focus on what you actually have.

When you go back to edit, what you may find is a melange of striking thoughts—the keepers—and what I’ll call notes to yourself. Let’s take an extended example to illustrate. Say you want to capture the prickly interactions between a male teenager and his mother.  The barbs contained in the dialogue may have some sting, but you don’t want the exchange to sound like another show on Nickelodeon. So smart, and aren’t they from L.A.? You add commentary in between the lines of dialogue to define what makes this relationship different. In this case, maybe the boy’s father died a few years back.

During the editing, a primary objective should be to transform as much of the commentary into the dialogue as possible. That is, once you know the relationship, you can craft the lines of dialogue to make the ramifications of the father’s death implicit—both in what they say and how they react to statements. If the boy gave up sports to mind his younger siblings after school, that resentment frames what he says about his siblings when he talks to his mother. It frames how he reacts when she complains about never having a spare moment to herself. As you go through the manuscript, you can look at each sentence of narrative commentary on an issue and ask: “Can what he is saying assume they’re both aware of the issue?” Then you can delete the commentary.

When you winnow out such notes to yourself, what will remain are the more acute thoughts. He may make a sweeping remark to the reader that he knows he dares not say to his mother. He may vow to do something in the future. In this way the thoughts become just another dazzling means of attack.

Exercise: As you’re reviewing, separate out what happened in the past from the present. You can trim remarks about the past, for sure, but most of the notes to cut concern the present. That stuff is dynamic, which you should change it to become active.

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” —Anton Chekhov

Copyright @ 2024 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Framing the Issue

In our private thoughts we can dream up provocative ideas about our own lives that, later on, seem ideally suited for inserting in a novel. I’ll use one as a running example throughout this post. “Upon meeting new people, I seem to engender a common response. The person reacts like: I may be a loser, but I’m not so low that I need you as a friend.” 

On the face of it, that thought seems powerful. Oy, what a terrible thing to think about yourself. When inserted in a novel, put down in black and white, however, the thought may start to feel silly, especially after a few rounds of review. It’s so serious, so stark. You poor little worm, you. Rather than throwing it out, though, you may want to consider the context in which it appears.

The first option is to have the character make a joke out of it. He tells someone, “Sometimes, you know what I think? Upon meeting . . .” Now you’ve taken off the ponderous weight. The reader isn’t forced to feel solemn. Yet you’re still putting the character’s opinion out there. People can read between the lines. If you think that framing is too light, have the other character take it seriously. “Oh, Hal, you’re not that bad . . .”

A second possibility is attaching the notion to a character other than the one narrating the scene. That way the onus isn’t placed on the character that the reader is following—i.e., emotionally involved with. It’s some other poor sap. You can even reveal something about your main character by the way she reacts to the pronouncement. “You know, Hallie, I’m really getting sick of  . . .” 

If you feel you have the writing chops, a third option is to double-down. You surround that statement with a number of other self-deprecating thoughts the character has. When a stark idea is couched within fictional “facts,” such as the character narrating the events that led to being dumped by the love of his life, you’ve greased the skids in that direction. Now the thought is a final thump! That guy has got it bad. The sentiment rings true because you took the care to support it.

Exercise: As with so many other facets of writing, you should experiment with your approach. Try all three of the options and see which one strikes you as the most genuine. By way of analogy, think of the statement as a topic sentence in a paragraph (although you may run longer than that). How are you going to build the supplemental sentences around the nugget you really want? 

“A serious writer is not to be confounded with a solemn writer. A serious writer may be a hawk or a buzzard or even a popinjay, but a solemn writer is always a bloody owl.” —Ernest Hemingway

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine


Pushing for Stupid

Aspiring authors come to a writing session with the goal of greatness. Some wish to pen eloquent strands of prose. Others wish to emulate bestselling writers they enjoy. Whether the aim is high- or low-brow, the dream shining in their mind is the same. If I write well enough, readers will love me.

After finishing a chapter, or a first draft, that writer may become distressed if the words written don’t ring true. A high-flown description of a beloved beach doesn’t seem to work with the dead body found in the dunes. Or, the narrative prose doesn’t seem to match with the more pedestrian dialogue passages. You decide that the tone needs to be made more consistent. You work harder during the revision so that everything sparkles. Yet the revised draft may feel like merely a gilded version of the same uneven enterprise.

The question to ask yourself is: where are these strenuous efforts taking place? Presumably in the silence of a lonely room. Even if you prefer showing off at Starbucks, you need to block out what others are saying. And that turn inward may be precisely the problem.

The inattention to the way real people stumble through their lives was brought home to me while reading George Saunders’ Pastoralia. The characters that fill these short stories are nearly incoherent. Their dialogue is inexpressive, and their thinking runs in ruts that show the most limited of horizons. That is the human race: Cro-Magnon at heart, and the smartest try to advance civilization. 

Don’t leave out the messy parts. Unless you’re creating a utopia, you’re better off listening to what is said in Starbucks. Actually, that’s highfalutin itself. Eavesdrop in the supermarket aisle or hardware store. Read the responses to online articles. People are not shy about spouting off their versions of the truth. You just are not capturing what they say. You’re holed up in your figurative cabin in the woods, trying to imitate what real life is like.

Oddly, common parlance has a cadence that can propel your writing. The characters that you want to fill out themes can be more varied when you consider real-life models. When you’re not melding toward unity, variety can be the spice that fills your novel.

Exercise: Because dialogue tends to be opaque, not saying what the person is feeling, trying to sketch a type can easily lead to a stereotype. To counteract that, try to flip the coin and find the person’s possible sorrows. They don’t have to be deep. Being ugly as a teenager can leave scars that affect someone’s behavior for the rest of their life. Put the type on that balancing point.

“People are much deeper than stereotypes. That's the first place our minds go. Then you get to know them and you hear their stories, and you say, ‘I'd have never guessed.’” —Carson Kressley

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine



The Mythical Reader

The reading public has been dragged into all sorts of discussions about how to make a book better. An author can claim to know their readers better than an agent, or editor, or publisher—who all then watch the book sink like a stone once released to such readers. More commonly, the process works the other way around: an author is advised by said publishing professionals what will sell a book to readers—and often the book still sinks like a stone. 

By contrast, in my editing practice I have found that “the reader” is a very useful tool in enjoining an author to push themselves to greater efforts. That’s because an author is encased in a cocoon during the writing process. The made-up world gains definition in the author’s mind; characters start to develop beyond names on a page. That’s all fine, but the size of the cocoon is determined by both the writer’s ability and experience. When the author emerges from the gauzy sac, they often find that the reading public doesn’t care much for their butterfly. 

I use the paradigm of “the reader” to inculcate better efforts. That’s because so many authors in my earlier years would respond to my suggestions as though I was speaking only for myself. I have had more than one author respond to my suggestions (balloons in the right-hand margin) with their own balloons—and not a single changed word on the page. They seem to think I inhabit my own cocoon, barking out my personal opinions as I poke my head out of my little hole to communicate with them. 

That’s because criticism hurts. Writing is deeply personal. When I talk to an author for the first time, I hear so often: “You can say anything about the book you like. I want you to be honest with me.” Being the wily psychologist than any adviser must be in order to survive, I thereby take away the opposite meaning: this writer must be handled delicately.

“The reader” has become the megaphone I use to shatter the illusion. Rather than “I don’t understand why,” I write, “The reader may not understand why . . .” a character performs or reacts to a plot event. Same point, but without the threat of a personal attack. Better yet, it helps to break through the writer’s self-absorption. They may think they don’t want to please anyone, that they’re just writing for themselves. But as the merest child sitting on their parent’s lap could tell you, writing is the art of touching someone.

Exercise: As you review the draft, keep asking yourself one question: would the reader I imagine would like my book understand why this is happening? If you’re not sure, you probably need to make the point clearer. Don’t worry about pellucid prose. Make sure, even if the reader has to work harder, that the point can be grasped.

“What is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men. That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care.” —William Blake

Copyright @ 2024 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Lack of Attention

The days when family members would each curl up with a book for the evening seems as quaint as a Currier and Ives print. Broadcast technology, especially the ever expanding channels on television, provide the modern family with fodder that better suits the brain-dead torpor we often feel at the end of the day. The change in medium, however, does not alter the imperative to tell an entertaining story. 

Television scriptwriting has affected novel writing in so many ways. Reliance on dialogue, ultra-short scenes, and a narrative voice that follows the cadence of speech are only the most common among them. Yet the novel maintains its advantage of telling a more thorough, involving story, and all the artful jump-cuts in the world cannot mask that. 

In terms of intelligent television, many believe it reaches its apogee in the grand sweeps of British history. The costume dramas of Victoria and their ilk return us to a comforting world in which important personages all knew each other. Amid the swirling plot lines of these soap operas, however, still lies the imperative: how do we deliver the beginning, middle, and end of this week’s main story? 

This is where the diffracted attention span caused by a chopped and spun screenplay can plague both media. A viewer or reader can start wondering why a lead character keeps defending the villain of the day. Because the visual arts can dazzle our eyes in a variety of scenes, that technique can substitute for plot development. Luckily for TV, the thin ruse needs to maintained for only an hour, and then viewers will have a week to forget how dull the episode was.

A novel cannot rely on the same cold comfort. If the same stuff keeps happening over and over, the reader falls asleep. Oh my God, will he kiss her already? This is a reason why the movie version of a story is so much simpler. When I can look out over the stunning canyons of Utah, I don't need the riders of the purple sage to show up just yet. 

It is fitting that a number of authors I work with are writing both a novel and its screenplay simultaneously. When the work of filling up book pages with enough interesting material becomes too hard, they turn to the screenplay. Dialogue trips off the fingers nicely. The screenplay is written more quickly. The only problem lies at the end, when the writer finds that Hollywood is even more of a bastion to assail than New York.

Exercise: For every description of character or scenery, you can dig in deeper to find aspects about the issue that the reader doesn't know. If a character is defending a known villain, what does that indicate about the character? In the art of manipulation, for one idea, lies all sorts of fascinating scenarios that can be explored.

"I don’t think screenplay writing is the same as writing—I mean, I think it’s blueprinting." —Robert Altman

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine


Longing for a Relationship

The title of this post might make you think it’s going to be about romance novels. While I have edited or copyedited dozens of them, I am more interested in pointing out one of their key facets to other kinds of novelists. That is the romance author’s focus on a unique type of idealized relationship.

Sure, we all laugh at bodice rippers and the like, but you should consider another point. Romance novels remain the best-selling genre category. That means the average romance reader reads one after another. Romance writers know this—and they try to make the core of each novel different. The more original they are, the better they sell. 

You may not be writing a romance, but you should be aware of the power of unusual relationships. The obvious reasons are: the power of love in general and the tension generated by our desire to see a couple come together. What I see in a number of novels that feature a romance as a side issue is: the author’s disinterest. They may be uncomfortable writing about feelings, or more likely sex, and the relationship is the most plodding imaginable. It’s like picking outfits from a closet: sexy type, hidden-riches type, clinging type . . . yaw-w-wn.

Even if it’s a sideshow, you owe the reader some dazzle. To start, you need to dream about a relationship that would interest you personally. What attributes turn you on? What attributes, maybe of a parent’s, excite or repel you? Isn’t that where all that Freudian stuff comes from? Once you make a short list of these qualities, you then need to embroider them. A character might have a streak of purple hair, but she also has an entire attitude that goes along with it. What can you draw from people you know that helps define that attitude? Be outrageous. Remember, you’re trying to entertain the reader.

That’s what romance authors struggle with all the time. How can I make the stud more than just buff? So look at your partners. What do you got? Why in the world would I possibly be interested in the relationship in your book?

Exercise: You may want to read a romance novel to see how the lead characters are defined. Rebelliousness is a large part of what makes someone sexy. How do your partners defy the norm of their world? If one is more staid, what lives inside him that would make him want to participate in the craziness of the other?

“The desire to get married is a basic and primal instinct in women. It’s followed by another basic and primal instinct: the desire to be single again.” —Nora Ephron

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine


Weighted at the Back End

Where is the best place to put a background story? Part of the answer depends on the role that discoveries play in a novel. In a mystery, for example, the denouement may be a background story that explains the hidden link of the murderer to the victim. For the purposes of this post, I’ll refine the question to: what is the best place for a background story about a character?

One prevalent style front-loads the information. That is, as soon as a new character is introduced, a mini-bio of a half page or more immediately ensues. This style, like a pop-up window with an explanation, is used commonly in such genres as thrillers. While sometimes they are not intrusive, I generally dislike them for two reasons. First, they often clog up the momentum of an action-oriented scene. Second, and more important, as a reader I don’t know if I want to pay so much attention to a character I’ve barely met. 

The imperative to front-load information about a character affects more literary endeavors as well. The first 50 or so pages can be clogged up with background stories. The plot cannot gain any forward momentum because the story keeps on being dragged into the past. I get it. A great deal happened to the character before page 1. Yet so many background stories so early begs the question: why did you start the book where you did? Maybe it should have started earlier in the character’s life.

Now let’s flip over the script: front to back. Some authors keep on dropping in back stories all through the book. I’m not talking about pieces that bear on the developing plot. These are random stories, like the memory of a girl’s first horse. The problem here is that the plot usually has gained enough momentum in its later stages that the plot events are building steadily upon the plot events that have already occurred. The train is moving too fast, in other words, to stop the story dead in its tracks for an unrelated story.

So where is the best place? The answer is a variant of show, don’t tell. In this case it is show, then tell. In other words, the character should perform some interesting plot business first. Then we’ll want to know more about that interesting person. The monkey charms us and then we’ll want to learn about its terrible story of being abducted from Cameroon. 

Exercise: To put a number on it, the sweet spot for most background stories ranges from roughly page 50 through the first third of the book. That way the plot gets under way. You firmly establish why the reader should be interested in the story told within these pages. Yet the background work fills out portraits at a time when you are still setting up the characters we’ll be following all book long.

“Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous.” —H. P. Lovecraft

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine


Not Clumping Too Close

An author trying to write a novel that is more driven by characters than plot can make the mistake of believing that no planning is needed at all. Why should you bother, since you want the characters to tell you what they want? While I’m all for the idea in principle, in practice it can lead to early scenes that seem shallow, because you haven’t gotten to know the characters very well yet.

A better strategy may be setting guide posts out ahead of the writing. Let’s take, for example, a three-way love affair in which a man, call him Len, knows that Marge is a better marriage candidate, but he is fascinated by Sybil, who is much more fun. When you follow your nose, you may find that individual scenes sparkle: Len showing different sides of himself with both women. Yet when you reach a crucial plot point—he makes a decision about getting engaged—you find it hard to believe that Len, who’s been having so much fun with Sybil, would throw her over just because Marge is a more sensible choice. That makes Len boring, not to mention calculating. 

How is this situation rectified? Working backward, you can always write new Len-Sybil scenes. In them you can show how Sybil likes to have fun with other men, and although Len never sees anything overt, the jealousy leads him to make a choice for Marge. Still a calculation, but a reader could see why he’s gunshy.

Yet going back to insert scenes has knock-on effects. In building toward that one plot point, you may find the new scenes impinge on other points. So you have to read through the draft looking to alter those. You could have saved yourself the trouble if you had asked a plot question before you started: what would make Len choose Marge? You could quickly reach the same conclusion and then plot out the initial scenes with that basic objective in mind. 

What about listening to your characters? The fact is, when you start a draft, you don’t know the characters. You make them up as you go. Once you reach a critical mass of scenes, then they’ll start talking to you. You’re not sacrificing anything, because all they were at the beginning was nether matter.

Exercise: Even when you set out a long-range plot point, that doesn’t mean you’re bound to it. What Len, for example, feels before making the decision does not govern how he feels afterward, when he sees the reactions of both women. Or, it may be that he is confident he made the right choice at first and, over time, comes to regret it. By then your listening to your characters could take you in all sorts of directions.

“I tried to discover, in the rumor of forests and waves, words that other men could not hear, and I pricked up my ears to listen to the revelation of their harmony.”  ―Gustave Flaubert

Copyright @ 2024 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Keeping Your Balance

An author either starts with or accumulates a storehouse of information about their major characters. This can consist of sketched character notes early in the process, as you are feeling your way forward, or data gleaned from research into a particular profession. It is piled up, in an ancillary file, waiting to be unloaded into the manuscript. This holds true whether you wrote the notes months ago or during the last week, as you saw the need arise.

How much is used at any given time depends on how busy your character is. If a detective, to use a basic example, is tracking down clues for two linked murders—interviewing witnesses, sending material to a crime lab, etc.—you’re probably not going to stop for two pages to discuss her hyperactive father, even though you know it is crucial to understanding her ultra-calm personality. 

Now let’s flip to the other side of the ledger: the killer. He has already done his dirty deeds. He has to wait for the detective to make some progress before he reacts to her threat. So now is a great time to dump in those two pages of his mother and her adroit iron. Actually, since he has to spend maybe 100 pages for the detective to catch up, all of his early scenes might be background- or milieu-heavy. 

What is the effect on the reader? It’s like reading two books: one action-based, one rich with lore. The detective is kicking ass, while the increasingly boring murderer is sitting on his thumbs. On the other hand, the detective looks slight compared to the densely portrayed villain. She’s a hard worker but sort of a lightweight, you know?

The problem is the imbalance in plotting. A setup was arranged at the beginning whereby one force in the good-evil equation has already accomplished their initial plot business.  You want the reader to know what a horrible man he is—and hey, here are all these notes you wrote on him. I’ll also point out, by the way, the effect of placing the detective’s notes later in the book. She’ll still be running second-best to the richly portrayed villain—because you told the reader his characterization was so important, he should get his full coverage first. 

The solution is to run two levels of plotting. While the detective is busy with the past, the killer is moving on to new deeds. When you drop in information about one of them, you drop in info on the other. Action and info both in a chapter, keeping the dramatic weights evened out. 

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out only for background or research passages. For each character, write down the length of each one and on which page it appears. Your protagonist should get the most coverage earliest. That will signal to the reader who is dominant.

“Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” —Abraham Lincoln

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine


Cap the Gushing Well

Anyone with a modicum of experience in romantic attraction knows that devotion goes only so far. This is particularly true during the courtship phase of a relationship. If either party shows an inclination toward slavery to the other, the one being worshipped tends to edge away. This reluctance stems not so much from feeling unworthy of such adulation as the fact that faithfulness quickly becomes tiresome. 

I raise this point because in my profession, I am often exposed to a paradox. Most men I know in real life are akin to statues. You can say just about anything to them and they don’t flinch. That stoicism intrigues the opposite sex, who see mystery when most times it is a void. A guy just will not admit he has feelings, even to himself.

Now let’s look at books. I find myself frequently telling male authors not to make their romantic swains too steadfast. It’s a puzzling phenomenon, since I know how many books have been written about men’s inability to commit. I know guys are the reason we have the term “midlife crisis.” So I’m not sure why writing a novel brings out the tender side in my sex. 

Love at first sight may actually happen, but it is not interesting to read about. When I bring this to a male author’s attention, what tends to occur is the opposite of what I am advising. I use the word “fun” a lot: make the romance fun. You know, do a cartwheel on Fifth Avenue. Delight your new amour with your spontaneity and cheer. Yet the revised scene I get back is deathly serious. The author doubles down on the character’s fealty. Entire paragraphs are written about how incredibly sensitive the hero is—not like a statue at all. 

Do us all a favor. Develop a sense of humor. Lighten up. You’re in the business of entertainment. Rather than going inward, think of fun things your character can do outwardly. Have him buy ballet tickets on the spur of the moment. Have him suggest they go out for an ice cream cone. Heck, have him direct their walk past a local playground to watch all the little kids running around. But whatever you do, get him off his emoting ass.

Exercise: Guys are good at writing action scenes. If you know this is a strength of yours, pursue the course of romance this way. If a guy feels attracted to a gal, have him do something embarrassing to prove he isn’t. If he feels the gal is attracted to him, have him remark on it—and then write out her reaction. Don’t pine away for the reader’s benefit. We’re waiting for the fireworks.

“The only sin passion can commit is to be joyless.” —Dorothy L. Sayers

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine


Fresh Territory

I frequently liken a book to a new territory, with such analogies as the helicopter viewpoint, being anchored on the ground, and the like. Today I’d like to extend that metaphor into another realm: the work between the lines—of dialogue, that is. Most writers use physical business for this purpose, and it includes such descriptions as staring, nodding, and shrugging, to cite several of the most common fall-backs. An author that inserts such material has the right idea. Dialogue should be broken up in order to give the narrative more texture. Yet such attempts can be self-defeating in the long run if an author keeps hoeing the same rows.

I imagine that nothing annoys an editor, or a reader, more than repetitious physical biz. This sin is committed by an author who is writing too fast or can’t edit himself, or both. I suppose I am more fastidious about these matters than most, but I can’t believe they don’t pick up on the repetition when reading over the manuscript. One reason may be that we all perform according to certain habitual patterns, and for a writer a certain physical reaction just seems like what the character would do at that point. Another reason may be that the author believes certain repeated actions, such as cigarette smoking, define a specific character. The cumulative effect, however, is to try a reader’s patience. I actually used to smoke, but if I have to read twenty times about a character smoking, at some point I really wish that guy would get rid of his disgusting habit. 

Part of the joy of reading is pushing on into unknown territory. This notion encompasses a book’s concept, distinctive characters, unusual plot—but also simple word choices. Merely providing fresh vocabulary words can keep a reader entertained. Providing variations on a theme, such as scuffling a toe to imply anxiety, can alleviate the problem. Since so many authors are eye-centric, forcing yourself to insert any other sense-related activity can produce fruitful results.

After a certain point, though, you will exhaust the physical possibilities. You need to raise your sights one level above what a physical activity indicates about a character’s mental state. Instead, write directly about their mental state. For instance, “She could not believe he could lie so boldly.” Such a comment does not interrupt a dialogue passage unduly, but it sure tells us a lot about what she is really thinking about what is being said. You can go for an even higher plane: “She was so glad Peter showed up, because now she could hitch a ride out of this awful conversation.” The best part of this approach is that in these quick strokes, delivered between the lines of dialogue, we are learning more about the character. 

Exercise: The rise of the online, or dashboard, thesaurus makes providing fresh words easy. Yes, eight out of ten synonyms may be inappropriate for the level of diction you are employing, but several more may be down-to-earth enough (if that is the difficulty). This practice need not be done during the first burst of writing. Write the repetitious action, just to get it out so you can move on. I usually substitute fresh words during an editing pass, when I notice that a word or expression is being used too often. And if you can’t find the right synonym, why don’t you jettison the idea altogether and give that character a thought?

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

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine
Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.