Around the Bush to Brilliance

The rapid technological advances of our age are only the most prominent products of a results-oriented culture. We are all caught up in its tumult, infected by what we see rushing past us. When you have only your regular job to do, or regular texts to take care of, the frenetic pace is fun. 

Yet when you are trying to write, the clamor that invites you to do, do, do—don’t be bored!—can have an adverse effect. If you sit down for a writing session and you can’t produce, disgruntlement sets in. You are sitting in front of your screen, and the words seem like meaningless scribbles that might as well be cuneiform for all the connection you feel to them. 

You try to start, and you stop. After ten minutes you actually get down a sentence, feeling a burst of inspiration, but then you feel as arid afterward as you did before you managed that pitiful dribble. Your feelings of frustration are understandable. You have put aside the precious time, and nothing is happening. If these stale sessions occur too often, you will follow the pain and pleasure principle. If writing is so self-defeating, I won’t do it. Weeks may go by before you return to the keyboard. That novel is never going to be finished.

What is the problem? You are trying to force the issue. You need to permit yourself to meander. Sometimes the way through is not full-steam ahead. You might have to waste time to make time. Of that hour you allotted for writing today, you may have to spend the first 35 minutes feeling unable to get started. Then you feel something gel inside and you knock out a page or two in the last 25 minutes. 

You have to follow a rule: You cannot move from your chair until the time you set for yourself is up. Because you can’t escape, you have to devise techniques to muddle through. You wait out your frustration, in other words. You can’t call up brilliance on demand, but you can wait for the Muse to come knocking.

Exercise: Rather than staring at the page you planned to write, allow your mind to wander where it will. While you are focused on one thing, you usually will find that stray pieces related to the story pop into your head. You’d meant to research a minor point, for example, or you know you took research notes that you’ll use later in the chapter. Forget about what you planned to write. Get busy looking up that research bit. Write a sentence or paragraph on that point and paste it into the chapter. That’s progress. Even better, it may be what gets your writing session going that day.

“’Keeping busy’ is the remedy for all the ills in America. It's also the means by which the creative impulse is destroyed.”  ― Joyce Carol Oates

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Aligning Boxcars

Boxcars are mechanical, books are works of art. How could the concept of the one possibly be applied to the other? As a way to begin, I’ll explain that I am using a boxcar as a metaphor for a plot line. This is true in the sense that any plot has a set number of scenes that take up a certain number of pages. If you bothered to count, you would see that your main plot is always the longest boxcar. 

Why is this concept helpful in the slightest? You can use it when you review a draft and sense that characters who were important earlier in the story seem to be forgotten later on. That might not be a problem, if the character was useful only at that stage in the protagonist’s life, or at that phase in the plot. But really, wouldn’t you prefer if all of your plot lines converged during the climax sequence to accumulate the greatest impact?

The key is examining your time line. You might call it scheduling the boxcars, although now I feel I’m verging on Ringo Starr and Thomas the Tank Engine. When you parse out when major events in a plot line occur, you may find that you were merely focused on those events at a given point during your months of writing the book. Further, the crisis might have occurred in real life to your brother, say, when you were 12 years old. You are trapping yourself in a time continuum, and that’s stupid. In a novel, you can make up any time sequence you like.

Why couldn’t the crisis occur when the protagonist is 16, when the large bulk of the novel’s events are taking place? You take the scenes you’ve written and insert them in between main plot scenes. Usually, you want a rhythm in your plot lines—breaking away from one and leaving the reader hanging for a chapter. So the brother scenes allow you that periodic break. Your boxcars—you knew that was coming back in—are now running in parallel, and you’re accumulating the power that derives from the tension contained in each one of them.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for each of your main characters, and write down in a chart the pages on which they appear, in an active way.  Once you are finished, study those numbers. Do you see groupings, which represent when they are important to the book? If you need the character as a force in the climax sequence, could some circumstances be changed so that the grouping slides back further in the book?

“There is nothing permanent except change.” —Heraclitus

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Passing Ships

A novel has been likened to a journey, and that entails at least the main character starting at Point A and moving to Point Z by the end. Along with movement comes progression, or building. That’s because a reader’s identification with a character deepens the more times they appear, and if the character isn’t developing in tandem, the reader starts to lose interest. If no one is going anywhere, why am I reading this book?

Most authors readily grasp the notion of an arc, but their attention can be focused on the protagonist to the exclusion of others. In large part, that occurs because the author identifies most with the hero. Often the hero is the author at a younger age. While a singular focus can yield many riches, it can cause a problem with your supporting characters.

I rank such characters in an upper circle, and most authors can only probe a half dozen to any significant depth—that is, making them stand out to the reader. To achieve that stature, they must appear multiple times during the course of the book. Here is where the problem comes in. They may represent a fixed entity that serves as an ongoing source of conflict with the protagonist. This is particularly true of adult characters in a realistic drama. Let’s face it: how much do people change past the age of 30?

So what’s the problem? As the novel develops, the arguments and commentary that your protagonist engages in with a character that is static will after a while also become static. They fight about the same basic stuff. The protagonist’s thoughts about the character are the same. How could it be otherwise when that supporting character is fixed in their plot purpose?

To correct that, you need to devise the novel’s structure so that person is also progressing. If the character is a stay-at-home mom, for example, why isn’t she getting on with her life? If the protagonist is old enough to retain the reader’s interest, at least an adolescent, is the mother really happy to be stuck at home while the kids fly the coop? More to the point, how interesting is that character to the reader? If the mother also is on the move—taking a job, for example—then the child has new reasons to argue, new resentments to stew over. That’s all I want: new explosions.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye on only one supporting character. For each active scene they have, or interior monologue about them, write a quick summary of what it’s about. Do you start seeing that later scenes are only an elaboration on what happened earlier? Don’t change the subject of the scene. Change the position of the character so that they are developing too.

“Once you do away with the idea of people as fixed, static entities, then you see that people can change, and there is hope.” —bell hooks

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.