The Happy Medium

The most difficult task I have when helping authors put together a chapter outline section for a nonfiction proposal is trying to tell them how it works. A proposal is an unusual beast, designed only for publishing insiders. They know what they want to see, but how is the poor author supposed to know? On every proposal I edit, I spend the most time on the summaries of what each chapter is going to contain. So what is the magic secret here? How do you write an effective chapter summary that will help sell the book?

A good way to start the explanation is by marking extremes. On the one end, you can draw up a bulleted list of the main points the chapter is going to cover. The problem with such a brief format is that, when stated so baldly, a bulleted-list entry can seem like a point that is featured in a dozen other books. You need to provide more information about your unique approach to that topic, and that usually requires several more sentences, if not a paragraph, to support it.

On the other end is the full chapter itself. That also is not wanted, because the very word “summary” demands brevity. You need to distill 20-30 pages into a single page or two. Faced with such a task, many authors tend to clutch up. They feel they cannot write in their usual style, which many times is conversational. So they write out stilted points that are only a mawkish rendition of the chapter, no more attractive than a shrunken head.

Try for something in the middle. You take the entries on your bulleted list and then add a few sentences from the chapter to support each one, defining how it is your own. In other words, you are employing the same rhythm when you were writing the chapter, only picking out snippets that are the chapter’s main selling points. For example, the bulleted list reads: “The five food groups for the plant-based body.” So you expand on that and make it: “To help you see how you can eat more healthy food, I provide the 5 Food Groups of a plant-based diet.  Whole foods deliver whole nutrition, unlike their processed food counterparts, and that includes antioxidants and phytochemicals—critical to good health.”

The bulleted-list entry is flat, somewhat annoying because the reader has no idea what the five groups are. In the second version, we still don’t know what the groups are, but we do connect with the author’s obvious expertise and caring about the readers’ health. In this format, an author’s style is not compromised by the need to make a point quickly and move on.

Exercise: If you have already written the book, review it only for your main points. You’ll usually have 4–5 lead topics per chapter. Isolate the paragraphs in which these points are first brought up. This usually is the topic sentence for the paragraph it governs. Then review the sentences that immediately follow that sentence. You’ll find that, taken as a small group, these few sentences outline everything else that follows in the next section. Copy those sentences and paste them in your outline file. If you do this 4–5 times, you have a solid foundation for that chapter’s summary.

“There's no such thing as writer's block. That was invented by people in California who couldn't write.”
—Terry Pratchett

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


A Day at the Zoo

Monsters in fiction are as old as the first campfire around which stories were told. Human beings may no longer be puny creatures who venerate oak trees, but the terror of being so small in a world—and now universe—so vast has never left us. The same readers who regard goblins and pookies as whimsical relics of a credulous past still want to buy the next Harry Potter book. Awe is as instinctive to us as eating.

The introduction of monsters into a novel, however, lays traps for the unwary. The difficulty stems from the core thrust of fiction, to tell a story about people. As readers get to know a character’s qualities, we can find a place in the story to occupy. We can root for the hero, or find their thoughts intriguing. The fictional concept may be amazing. But before obstacles can be strewn in the path, first we must have a character worthy of following.

This central tenet is why novels that are filled with hordes, no matter how terrifying their appearance, or how distressing the results of their gnashing teeth, can become numbing after the first blush. Creatures do not have personalities. They merely snarl and lurch. I am scared by a menacing watch dog, but I also find its relentless hostility tiresome. Come on, what did I do to you? The dog can’t tell me, and neither can a fiendish mob.

Such books rely on the reactions of characters who are trying to avoid being overwhelmed. Such a plot driver is familiar to readers of military thrillers, in which heroes struggle against a mainly faceless enemy. We care about the one character, or core cast of characters, whose qualities are known to us. The urgency of the threat is communicated by how dire that one character’s circumstances are. Or, we realize the gravity by how the pressure of the situation is changing the character’s personality.

When an author adds what I call the “buddy element,” the possibilities multiply. If two friends start off the book as a wisecracking duo, smart and funny in a typically American adolescent way, the story has a gauge by which to measure the growing threat. If one of the friends changes the relationship, such as panicking or abandoning the partner, that is the change that affects readers emotionally, more than all the warts in the world.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with a focus solely on the main characters that started the book. If you have a strong relationship, chart scene by scene how that is progressing. Are you, for instance, isolating them later on, due to the exigencies of the plot? As a result you are robbing the book of one of its early sources of power. Can you find a way that they can rejoin, at least for the climax sequence?

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche

Copyright 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Adding on Layers

Many novels start off as family explorations, often of a revered elderly relative whose life fascinates the author. The life events emerge first, of the as-told-to variety or the author’s imagining of what the event must have been like. Because such remembrances can be inspired in part out of a love for an immigrant’s native land, the author can also draw upon their own visits to the mother country.

Writing in this fashion can result in a narrative that is very distant in tone. The author need merely open a novel on their bookshelf to realize that their own stories are nowhere near as vivid. How can a book meant as an homage turn into a riveting tale? You probably have seen books or the like in which transparent plastic sheets are laid upon each other to create a multicolored map or diagram. That same process can be applied to writing.

The first step I always advise is: insert dialogue. The chief problem for any neophyte author is focus. How do you plant the reader in one place, at one time, talking to characters captured at that one moment? Dialogue is easy to write, and it has the added benefit of moving only at the speed of the spoken word. A conversation takes up a finite amount of time.

Second, where is the event taking place? This step is fraught with more imprecision, because it depends on how much effort the author is willing to invest in ferreting out telling details of the setting. A bar is a bar is a bar, anywhere in the world, unless you define how that one bar is different. This is an area where the old editorial adage “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” applies in spades. I can’t tell you how many fruitless notes I’ve written to enjoin authors to provide distinctive details. Don’t be lazy on this score. Where, really, do you have to get to that is more important than capturing the ambiance of your grandfather’s Dublin tavern? Myself, I would want to take a trip to Dublin.

The final step is the hardest, because it requires a degree of concentration that defines the art of novel writing. That is illuminating a handful of characters who are doing the talking in that one place. You can start by writing several pages apiece about what each character is like. That will give them at least some definition. Then look at the timing of the scene. How old are they? How old are their children or significant others? How are those relationships doing at that one point in time? So, when your grandmother asks for that one big favor that will change her life, how receptive is the character she is talking to?

Exercise: The task of creating satisfying characters can spin on forever. No novel is ever truly finished for that very reason. A good practice is to draw up notes before every scene for each major character in the scene. Where are they in terms of what has already happened in the book? Where are they in their life cycle? When you nail down these commonsense points, you’re well on your way.

“Nothing is more consuming, or more illogical, than the desire for remembrance.”
—Ellen Glasgow

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.