I see the pattern over and over again. A debut novel imparts: what a character says, does (such as “turn” or “stare”), and occasionally what she thinks about something that has just happened. In other words, all of the writing is taking place on the surface. You know your character is literally going through the motions. You want to go deeper. You want to write out those wonderful strings of thoughts as in those novels you love to read. So why can’t you?

As a writer, this question bedeviled me for years. I would try to get into a flow. I would blank out every single thought in my head so that I could concentrate. The string wouldn’t last for long, though, maybe a paragraph, and when I edited the piece later, half of it would come out because the stuff was so ordinary.

Yet after I began editing, the answer came to me. I would ask authors to elaborate on a point in order to fill out a character, and what I got back was often only a few precise sentences. The author would get to the point I requested and knock it out. Okay, problem solved, let’s move on. Yet what was he supposed to be moving on to? Two sentences didn’t let me inside the character. In other words, he was so busy moving on to the next accomplishment, he hadn’t fully inhabited the space that he could have brought to life.

If you want to create a thought string, you need to concentrate, sure. Yet you can also compile all of the relevant data that informs that thought string. Let’s say you’re a girl on the docks of New York City in 1850 and you see a magnificent clipper ship approaching from the tip of Manhattan. What, pray tell, does a clipper ship look like? Get those facts in hand first. You should know the different parts of the boat, at least as much as that girl knows. Now let’s consider the time of day. Have you ever watched a yacht on a sparkling summer afternoon? How did that make you feel? How about on a day with gathering storm clouds? Were you worried for the skipper? Did you think he was reckless being out there?

Now let’s look at another aspect. In that era what did a clipper ship represent? It was a great boat that traveled to all different ports in the world. What ports would that girl like to visit? What does she know about those ports, and how does she imagine she would fit in to those scenes? Does she want to be set free?

You see, the problem isn’t concentrating as much as you’re not amassing the facts in which to be immersed. You can do that. And the more you do, the more fluent you will become in running off a wonderful skein.

Exercise: Review your manuscript and look for interesting spots where you could elaborate. Write down your initial impressions of the object. Now dig deeper. Research that object; find out the facts beyond your first impressions. Try to list 10 different facts. Now write down different tangents that could develop from these facts, related to your chosen characters. Now start to write, with all those facts in your head that you can grab at will.

“Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” 
—E. L. Doctorow

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Not Just Along for the Ride

As the plot engine of many novels, a protagonist that is too fun runs the risk of undermining the seriousness of the unfolding events. If everything is a farce, the book is condemned to being no more than a quick read. While an author can let the froth die down gradually until the all-out climax sequence, the hero who was so engaging before may come to feel like the typical do-gooder by the end.

Since fun is a prime ingredient of entertainment, how can an author divorce it from a main character? One way is to assign the hijinks to a sidekick. This device is as old as Don Quixote and as durable. This arrangement serves many dramatic purposes. The hero gets someone to whom to express a wide array of emotions as the novel unfolds. They get a foil by which to reflect how far they are straying from common moral ground. Best of all, the interactions form a basis for a relationship whereby the reader learns to understand and even anticipate how both will react to each other.

Numbered among the advantages specific to a joke-laden relationship is that when a buddy is providing the humor, the hero can participate or not, depending on what the situation calls for. When the two are chatting during the downtime before the next dramatic episode, the hero can loosen up and serve as a humorous counterpart. On the flip side, a smart aleck can crack wise even when bullets are flying, but the hero has to save lives.

The freedom of a sidekick to make jokes whatever the occasion serves another useful story purpose as well. It can keep an ironic edge to the plot’s developments, making them seem more credible. If the hero pulls off a stupendous feat, the commentary afterward by the buddy can provide a context in which the incredible becomes plausible. A few follow-up jokes about the feat, scattered in the next few scenes, can then make the incredible seem normal. They can laugh about it, right?

The benefits on the character-development side are also manifold. Chief among them is the insight the sidekick has into the hero’s background, showing a side that can be lost in the vigorous pursuit of a plot goal. We would never know, for instance, how much the hero hates soggy Cheerios at breakfast time. Oh, finicky, okay, I didn’t know that. Or, how no one can walk through the hero’s bedroom because of all the laundry strewn at will. The sidekick is just having some fun, but we’re doing more than just smiling.

Exercise: If you have surrounded your main character with an assortment of friends or comrades, comb the manuscript for the direct interactions. Could you assign a solid core of them to one person? That is, the one replaces the sundry. Once you have narrowed down your choice, now you can concentrate on developing the buddy as a full-fledged character as well.

“When your buddy tells you a movie is good, that's worth 2,000 commercials.”
—Tucker Max

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Can’t Say No

A parade of negative voices marches through our lives every day. Whether we have neglected to fix the leaking refrigerator, or forgotten to call the gutter service yet again, we are always after ourselves to be better. So it is not surprising that lurking on the underside of every sentence you write is a negative opinion of that sentence.

You have probably experienced the strange progression of beliefs we all entertain about our own work. At first you’re convinced the sentence you just wrote is pure genius, the best thing you ever composed. The next day, while editing, it seems more pedestrian, and a flicker of doubt appears: How did I think that was so great? A month later, while reading over a chapter, possibly because you’re in a negative head anyway, you see the sentence and feel the urge to strike it out altogether.

The same duality that allows perfectly harmless members of society to create the most vile serial killers in their thrillers also operates in this very small, private sphere. In finest Shakespearean style, our greatest strength, volatility, is also the source of our greatest weakness. I suppose writers should be glad that the only destruction they wreak is on their poor, defenseless words. I have, in fact, often evinced the opinion to friends that if everyone became creative, violence in society would cease. The volcanic eruptions we all feel would merely loop back on ourselves.

You must remain cognizant, however, that when you write, you are creating that feedback loop. The same voice that urges you to get up every morning at an ungodly hour can also turn on you and say, “You fool, give up. You can’t write.” You cannot give in to thoughts created at the low ebb of your subconscious cycle. They are going to happen.

Creativity is atavistic to a certain extent, but you are a member of a highly evolved civilization in which you are trying to participate as a writer, one of the highest achievements any person can attain. So don’t do it. Don’t permit wholesale destruction of what you yourself have created. Just wait for the next time you revisit that sentence.

Exercise: Not everything an author writes is gold, however. When you feel doubt about what you’ve written, go granular. Examine a single sentence and ask yourself what you don’t like about it. Using the same words, try to invert the structure. That construction, such as placing an adjective first in the sentence, will probably look flowery and affected, but now ask yourself: have I made the right choice for that adjective? Could you convert the adjective into the verb? By the time you are finished resolving that small puzzle, the black cloud that descended over you earlier may have parted to allow light to shine through.

“Writing is an act of creativity. You do it because it opens a wellspring of thoughts and feelings inside you that you didn’t know you were capable of expressing so well.”         
—Albert Einstein

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Uncoupling Your Strengths

The composition of sentences follows a rhythm that is individual to every writer. Each one of us has a way we like to tell a story. Some authors prefer to employ short, simple sentences. Others find that they achieve the best results when a subordinate clause or two flows off from the main sentence stem. What I try to achieve as an editor is a mixture of the two. While a complex or compound sentence offers more variety of structure, making the reading experience more textured, it can also have the unfortunate effect of muddying the impact of simpler components contained within it.

Why is that? Reading is an accretive process. We do not tend to linger on a single sentence. Instead, that sentence leads to another, and it is wrapped up inside a paragraph that leads to another, and on we go through a series of pages before we look up and notice the water glass on the nightstand. The contents of each sentence is flavored by what comes before, and its influence spills onto the next sentence.

A writer can get caught up in this never ceasing flow of words. If he is given naturally to complex sentence structures, he may be loath to simplify his sentences because all the parts do seem to hang together. As someone who is constantly breaking sentences apart and reconstructing them, I know this problem acutely. That’s the way I write myself. Yet I realize that a complex sentence is less forceful. An arabesque structure is fine for description. It tends to undercut the power of action, however. A simple declarative sentence punches home its point. You should not be sacrificing the import of your words in favor of style.

Even worse results can be achieved during the editing process. An author may notice that she has too many simple sentences in a row. Subject-verb, subject-verb: how monotonous. So she throws in an “and,” links up two sentences with a comma, and presto: a more varied sentence rhythm. Or she adds a participial phrase to start the sentence: “Putting her iPhone away in her purse, she pulled the red emergency brake cord.” Why do that, muddying a dramatic piece of action with a common, boring thing we all do? Again, there is no point in augmenting rhythm if you’re sacrificing power.

You might want to pay more attention to what you are writing, each sentence at a time. If you tend to write complex sentences, take a look at the clauses. Could that excellent choice of a participle become an active verb? Would two simple sentences help break up the density of a complex paragraph? That’s the sort of rhythmic question that ends up mattering to the reader.

Exercise: You should avoid the use of the word “and” when the components of your compound sentence are strong as individual sentences. Did you use a good verb? Make it distinctive by letting it command a simple sentence. Did you put in the “and” to link up two pedestrian sentences? Maybe you should spruce up your word choices in each of the sentences. That way you’ll have not one but two story units that have a little bang in them.

“He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas of any man I ever met.”
 —Abraham Lincoln

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


When Ordinary Is Depressing

“Life is a beach” T-shirts did not become popular because our lives are so uplifting. We read books to escape our daily regimen of gruel. Yet authors may feel that they should be writing about real life. That’s what all the great novelists do. Why should I strive for any less? runs this view.

Lack of talent is the obvious answer, but lack of depth is the real culprit. Let’s look at what most authors can achieve in order to point out why striving for strange and extraordinary is usually the better objective. We’ll start with a character’s comments on the quotidian. As we all know, our lives are filled with encounters with people we consider stupid. Such meetings provide the fodder for many a dinnertime anecdote. So why don’t they work as well in novels?

In short, they are so ordinary. While readers may realize that they have experienced a similar fate, that recognition also brings about a feeling of disappointment that the author has not supplied a more entertaining experience. Compounding this problem is the addition of other comments about jerks, pages upon pages of them. That’s what real life is like, right? All of them suckers. As these add up, the feeling of negativity grows as well, weighing down the novel.

A second feature of narration that covers the surface of daily life encompasses the many details that bring these encounters to fuller life. While these may be precisely drawn, resulting in true insights—hey, I’ve done that—the results remain on the level of illuminating the ordinary. The reader may think: that incident in a big-box store has happened to me too, but then I promptly forgot it because it wasn’t worth remembering.

Worst of all is the lack of imagination the lead character shows when surrounded by banality. A middle-aged manager may keep condemning his ogling office buddy, but his own marriage is so boring, he barely has sex. A bank clerk may disparage a colleague that wears gobs of makeup, but she still can’t find a man who is attracted to her mousy looks. Why do I need to know more about these people?

What an exploration of malls and backyard barbeques fails to realize is what makes a novel great in the first place: the narrator’s point of view. Good writers know life sucks, and that’s why they create protagonists that are themselves extraordinary and grotesque. Only from that bizarre viewpoint can life be examined. The interest in reading such a book is what the character takes away from experiences that would typically produce ennui. Better yet, how the character intervenes embarrassingly into an event, upsetting the expected tedium.

Exercise: Use the ordinary as a jumping-off point. Your job as a writer is to take readers where they haven’t been before. Set up the cardinal points that govern the protagonist’s life—and then devise how to set them on their ear. This process can consist of action and/or thoughts, but above all, be original.

“I would never write about anyone who is not at the end of his rope.”
—Stanley Elkin

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Attaching Emotional Value

Authors cannot always count on snappy dialogue to mask flat prose. The writing style of the modern era is marked by simple prose, for the most part. Yet if you are not clever in making adroit juxtapositions of words, how do you rise above the pedestrian grinding out of word pictures?

The first and all-important step is, as the author, moving closer to the character narrating the scene. Forget about all stage directions, moving the character from here to there. That reduces the point-of-view character to an object in your mind: the one out there, walking or skipping or dancing or whatever motion you devise—as seen from the outside.

If you are the one doing the walking, you’re not thinking about it. Unless you have suffered a bodily injury, you just walk—oh yeah, my legs are moving. Once that’s a given, you then rise to the level of intent. What is the objective you’re trying to reach by walking? How are you walking—in a threatening manner or ambling to waste time? In other words, by focusing on intention, you are adding value to the physical movement. By walking my character wants to accomplish . . . that.

Action performed by the character is complemented by action around the character. An object is neutral until the point-of-view voice gives an opinion about it. An army barracks might be impressive to one narrator, depressing to another. Nor does the character have to describe it in those terms. By assuming a reader understands the point of view—“It’s not surprising such a depressing place would lead to . . .”—the opinion is baked into a statement about something else.

That level of chattiness in turn leads to thoughts not so closely connected to a physical object. The object can be a jumping-off point for a paragraph describing a memory of an object like the one at hand. A battered canteen could lead to remarks about a father who could never let go of his war days. An oak tree could lead to a rant about a neighbor’s oak tree back home that brings squirrels to her lawn every fall. A pincushion could set off a rumination on how sewing has become a relic of the past when new pants can be bought so cheaply at Old Navy.

Merger with a character occurs on many different levels. You take the step of putting on the character’s clothes and declaring, “This is what X thinks about that.” Then watch your prose probe all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies.

Exercise: Examine your story for each neutral description. Could you infuse it with a character-derived value? Not all descriptions are important enough to do that, but you’d be surprised by how many are ripe for a humorous observation or point of irritation. Just stop and be the character—and then write.

“Persuasion is achieved by the speaker's personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible.”

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Riven Apart

Many authors have experienced the phenomenon of not quite being in control of their own book. You may write notes before you start a scene, but by the time it’s completed, your main character didn’t do the assigned tasks. Your hand (your subconscious, really) just didn’t go in the “right” direction. Writing teachers say it’s the character telling you what to do.

On a small scale, such misdirection can lead with happy results. You can find out qualities about your characters that you didn’t know they had. What happens, though, when the plot takes a left turn? You were writing one book—set in present-day Oakland, say—and you become interested in the mother of a main character who has her own story to tell about a ranch in Idaho. So the cast of lead characters troupes up there and the climax is a white-water heart-stopper on the Snake River.

Such a novel might be called a tale of two books.. The first half is set in the Bay Area and the second in the wilds. If you can maintain two or three main characters throughout, that does provide some continuity from one half to the other. Yet think of all the relationships that you set up in Oakland. And how about all the later emphasis placed on the Idaho mom, whom the reader didn’t meet for the first 200 pages? How much should a reader be expected to invest in her?

Unless you want to save one of the two halves for another book, you have to stitch them together. In a novel, stitching equals coverage of characters. In order to make the mother more important all along, maybe she could visit Oakland early on, showing that earthy personality in the mean city, and maybe she swings back through before returning to Idaho. Better yet, maybe she alludes to, or the character feels she has, a mystery that requires going to Idaho to solve.

You can reverse the process as well. You have the hero pay a visit to Idaho on an unrelated matter early on. Now the setting you will use later appears hundreds of pages earlier. If we met dear ol’ mom in Oakland, now we can see her in her natural element. Then the stage is set without having to make all of the introductions to the new locale when the book gets to it.

Exercise: Review what happens in the first half with the events in the second. Are there common threads that you could use as through lines for the entire book? Besides a mystery, there might be a love interest, a talisman, a hobby. When you use the same objective in different settings, you bind the book together.

“The novel I am constantly writing is always the same one, and it might be described as a variously sliced-up or torn-apart book of myself.”
—Robert Walser

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Fulfilling Expectations

An author setting out in a new genre like fantasy can be delighted by the riches that it offers. Many authors dream of writing a tale populated by dragons, snarling or friendly. Hero worship, depending on the author being emulated, can be an instructive practice for a beginning writer. My own first (unpublished) novel was a fantasy, and its hero bore perhaps a slavish resemblance to Bilbo Baggins.

I mention that because I also brought an unfortunate ignorance to the writing experience. The Hobbit was about the only fantasy I had ever read, since my literary tastes back then ran more toward Heart of Darkness. Devising unexpected surprises for the reader—a boulder that contains a door!—was terrific fun to write. It was not until later, when I began to edit fantasies, that I realized the cardinal errors I had made.

The gambits I had employed were too timid for the genre. While I was being quasi-realistic about how such things could possibly happen, a Michael Moorcock was making giant leaps in credulity. The attitude of such a writer is: screw you if you don’t want to go along for the ride. You’re not my audience.

The cautious approach shows its rear end to the reader right away. That’s because, feeling that throwing up unbelievable stuff in the reader’s face will cause them to put the book down, the author does not introduce standard genre elements early. A hundred pages can pass before there is any whiff of magic. The writer may instead present copious research into the mythology from which the fantasy is drawn, such as ancient Ireland. The thought is: I’ll get the reader primed for the fantastic stuff that’s coming next.

The problem is, readers of the genre are hoping that stuff happens on page 1. If they have to wait too long before any cool stuff happens, that book is going back on the shelf. Why is that book called a fantasy? they wonder.

That error is compounded by not adding more magic consistently. If you have read the other books in the genre, you’d know that you’d better come up with fresh ideas. Dragons are so passé, even comic ones. The other authors in the genre have produced X and Y and Z; what do you got to top that?

Exercise: Before you even start, amass pages upon pages of details of what the world you are creating looks like. You should know 100 magic twists and where they’re located. If you’re borrowing a basic concept from someone else, how can you recast it to make it your own? You should already be able to walk through your kingdom—from the inside of the character—before writing the first line.

“All cartoon characters and fables must be exaggeration, caricatures. It is the very nature of fantasy and fable.”
—Walt Disney

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Switching Up

The narrative approach to writing a novel varies according to how much a character influences the interpretation of events. On one end of the spectrum lies the action-oriented tale, in which too much introspection gets in the way of the unfolding plot. On the other is the character-driven book, in which action is the occasional byproduct of thoughts. (I’ll leave aside experimental approaches in this discussion.)

A spectrum means that a book can lie anywhere along the arc from one pole to the other. That means no one except the most steely-eyed critic can tell what proportion of each a book contains. A number of critics pooh-pooh commercial novels, but the good ones have extremely well-drawn characters leading the charge. Just read any novel by Stephen King, among many others, and tell me characters don’t matter to them.

Because narrative approach is so variable, less experienced writers can be forgiven for not knowing what side of the line they’re on. Does this scene feature  more action or character interpretation of the action? Many scenes seem to have both. So that leads to other thorny questions like: should I have dialogue in an introspective scene? When is a past memory so filtered by a character’s view of it that the narrative no longer shows the event but tells about it?

When faced with such imponderable subjects, the author’s approach may vary according to mood and circumstance. If the scene contains an act of violence, and you become angry while writing it—damn right there’s a pool of blood!—the tone may be more action-oriented than the preceding quiet scene. It may be that the approach varies because writing a novel takes most people such a long time. How you were writing about the characters six months ago may not be how you’re writing about them now.

When you review the draft after completing it, you may despair about the swings in the narrative. How do the good writers achieve such consistency in tone? One guideline that may prove helpful is asking yourself: what is the tide in my book building toward? If you want the book to remain fairly flat, the choice is easy. That points toward a character-driven novel. If you want, however, a dramatic turning point that changes the protagonist’s life forever, that poses a tougher question. The gauge then becomes: how much do external forces create the change?

If those forces involve murder or the like, and you write a number of action scenes that portray it, that’s not a character-driven novel. If the murder occurs amid a fugue of internal thoughts, the thoughts are getting in the way of the action. You just need to remain true to the tone you set earlier.

Exercise: Review the book scene by scene. At the end of each one, make a rough decision: internally told or externally focused. By the time you get to the halfway point in the book, you’ll be able to determine how you want to pursue the second half.

“I'd buy myself a cabin on the beach, I'd put some glue in my navel, and I'd stick a flag in there. Then I'd wait to see which way the wind was blowing.”
—Albert Camus

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Lightness of Strangers

Authors searching for a new way to create a unique character need look no further than someone who is disaffected from society. The nonconformist is willing to flout the rules. If pushed far enough, that character can drop out of society, eschewing the 9-to-5 in favor of noble poverty. For some, that opens the door for encountering the lower class, for whom nobility may be an entirely spurious term. So the hero can also make distinctions that way: unwashed but not unlovable.

While the character can remain in one place the entire novel, such a choice is more likely found on the road, turning the book into a journey novel. That rite of passage is routed through the underbelly of, let’s say, America, and that leads out West many times. Wide-open spaces, plenty of alone time for the maverick to think about how people in general are deplorable, or whatever the theme is.

The problem with a novel constructed this way, unless the author is able to write consistently well about the character’s thoughts, is that an isolated stranger ends up bouncing through a series of random encounters. He doesn’t know anybody; he doesn’t even like people. That creates a severe difficulty when we are a species that likes to congregate. No man is an island, if for no other reason that we measure ourselves against others. I’m a maverick precisely because I know what all those other jerks are doing—and I’m better than that.

The encounters with others prove to be superficial exercises. Even joining a gang of reprobates provides little warmth, because the newcomer is still an outsider on trial. The author is left with virtually only one choice: meeting another down-and-outer and falling in love. Such a bond, with neither character rooted, could bloom into a fragile gift, but the guy could just as likely go on a bender and the gal says, forget him.

If the romance road is not taken, the last remaining avenue is intermingling the skin-deep present with memories of the character’s past. That strategy has pitfalls of its own. For one, if the stories in the past are more involving, the reader won’t want to return to the aimless present. For another, we already know the outcome of all those memories: the drifter in the present. The worst possibility, however, is that the author may narrate the past stories more distantly, telling us in hindsight rather than showing us in the present. So the novel becomes more dominated by secondhand storytelling. It makes you long for the bounties of a tale set around the kitchen table.

Exercise: If you are finding the past more compelling than the present in your manuscript, see if you can devise ways to bring characters from the past, or their analogues, into the present during the second half of the book. At some point the present has to take over the reins in this construction, so you might as well lay the groundwork.

“The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”
—Oscar Wilde

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Emphasis of Periods

When an author chooses a stripped-down writing style, short sentences will follow. Such a style largely imitates the cadence of speech, and we use short sentences in our conversations all the time. Sometimes they are exclamatory, such as “Here we are.” Sometimes they are used to drive home a point: “You see?” Sometimes we use them instinctively because we know that varying sentence rhythms makes what we’re saying more interesting.

While an author may make a conscious choice to write simply, most of the time the style is employed because the author does not know how to write any other way. Such an author either is having a hard enough time just getting words down on a page. Or, they are writing quickly, grabbing the spare minutes they have and/or trying to meet a deadline. It is a style seen frequently in commercial fiction, since the authors engaged in it either are writing a first book or trying to fulfill a contract demanding that books be produced.

The problem with a simple style is the lack of options in expressing yourself. Unless you are a polished writer like Cormac McCarthy, fitting words together in new contexts, you are confined to the same old idioms. A character may shrug a lot, not because they have Tourette’s syndrome, but because the author wants a minor piece of physical business to break a long string of dialogue and “shrug” usefully conveys a variety of meanings.

It is not surprising that such an author fears repetition—“Oh, I just grabbed for ‘shrug’ again”—and so attempts to introduce novelty by using unorthodox strategies. Most common among them are run-on sentences. “Lee shrugged, he went to fetch the rifle.” Both sentences, considered by themselves, are pedestrian. Jammed together, well, the reader hasn’t seen that look before.

I dislike purists of all stripes, and so, as an editor, I’ll try to lean the author’s way. If the two sentences are related in subject matter, I may let the run-on sentence slide. “She turned, she knew she had to reach the door.” Okay, it’s wrong, but it’s not jarring. One sentence could be considered the continuation of the other.

Where the sloppiness falls apart is the conjunction of two dissimilar pieces of action (or intent). “She snorted, she knew she had to reach the door.” Now, that requires surgery. What does one have to do with the other? You can’t even leave the “She snorted” by itself; you have to add words, even if only “rudely” or some such. Better yet, focus on a truly interesting way to expand the sentence.

Exercise: One of the most common run-on constructions involves dialogue. “She turned, “I know you’re out there.” The physical act of turning has nothing to do with engaging the vocal cords, the last I checked. In so many of these cases, I delete the action entirely. Let the remark speak for itself.

“The wrong word is like a lie jammed inside the story.”
—Grace Paley

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


What Use Are Children?

In adult fiction, the appearance of any character under the age of 12 ushers in a special set of problems. To start, it is hard for them to control a point of view because a kid’s perception of the world is confined to the limited amount they know. Such immaturity can be charming—and even compelling in the hands of an excellent writer—but it is hard to take cute affirmations seriously. I too once wanted to play baseball in the major leagues, and look where that road went—perverted by the world of books!

Their lack of what adults would consider common sense curtails their ability to impact a plot. In the crudest terms, it is hard to believe a child would cynically mow down a villain, or even conceive of why that would be a good idea. A child is a poor choice for any romantic involvement. Most adults in a room will not take the advice of a child about what to do next. The old adage about being seen but not heard applies here, but in this case it’s impacting where your story can go. 

A third limitation extends beyond the mind into the practical world of getting things done. A child cannot drive a car, arrange for a business lunch, or make an assignation. They cannot slip payoffs, organize sophisticated conspiracies, or any other of a dozen interesting plot turns. You might derive tension from the fear that a child will bungle the job, but that begs the question of: why did the adult think it was a smart plan in the first place?

The best use for a child is often as a victim. The same helplessness that hinders their ability to direct a plot works in their favor when it comes to sympathy. Readers understand that children are at the mercy of an evil adult, since that happens all too often in real life. “Go to your room!” is only a benign expression of this total power. Thoughts of a child lost in the woods, or stowed away in an attic, are among the primal fears that a parent has.

A child alone as a protagonist is a bad idea, but pairing up an older child with an adult, on the other hand, can provide some real zest to a novel. If you imagine a wisecracking pubescent from Southern California, you can immediately see the sort of flavor that could be added. The adult is still on hand to drive the plot forward.

Exercise: Review your manuscript for any action involving a child. Is the kid causing the action, or is the event acting on them? If it is the former, make sure the child can really carry that dramatic weight. If the premise seems phony, see if you can either make the child’s success an accident, or add an adult to the proceedings.

“Adults are just outdated children.”
  —Dr. Seuss

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Daily Journal

I frequently enjoin writers to write every day. That practice maintains the vital whispering link between you and your book. Yet every writer has days when he wakes up feeling flat and empty. The mere thought of leaping into your made-up world brings on an irrational resistance. No, just N-O. I don’t feel like it today.

That’s where maintaining a journal can come in handy. Writing about what happened to you the day before isn’t hard. Or, you can remember a past moment of humiliation, maybe a month ago, vividly enough. Or, you may have seen a stark image, say, how low the embankment wall of the Boston Public Garden pond is when it is drained in the winter. That is the beauty of a journal. You’re not on task when you write in it. You’re not worried that the crappy way you’re writing today is going to be seen by anyone. Best of all, you may find that some of the personal material is serviceable for your book if you just reshaded it to fit.

The journal also provides a fall-back option that helps maintain your confidence. If you’re having a tough time getting started, at least you don’t have to quit in failure, which can bother you for the rest of the day. Maybe you can write about a funny thing that happened to your best friend in high school. Halfway through, you realize that the anecdote might be retailored to fit a character in your novel. As an added benefit, you have that relaxed, charming narrative voice as you related it to your journal.

A journal can be seductive, however. Maundering on about your day, such as the hurtful thing Jane said when she really doesn’t know Kim very well at all, can end up being a replacement for writing. Because a journal isn’t meant for public consumption, your prose can be unstructured. Your “characters” are not well defined—because you know them so well. They don’t have to be interesting, and there is nothing urgent about a chance meeting in the supermarket.

That’s why you want to keep your eye on the prize. Use the journal as a way to prime the pump. You might start by writing down an argument you had with your mother on the phone yesterday. Relive the intensity of those emotions. But keep in mind that a journal is supposed to be a collection of thoughts you are going to use in this story or in future stories. Even in the relaxed confines of private material, you are still trying to write about interesting topics.

Exercise: Set a limit on how long you will write about personal material, maybe 15-20 minutes. Then turn back to the novel and see if you feel any looser. Often the biggest hump on a blocked day is getting out the first sentence. Once your fingers are pumping, see if you can train them back on your greater purpose.

“Inspiration does exist, but it must find you working.”
—Pablo Picasso


When Adverbs Add Spice

Of all of the supposed villains pointed out in a writing class, adverbs rank at the top of the list. A verb is the strongest part of speech, runs the argument. You should be finding a strong active verb rather than relying on a modifier to do that job. That’s all great in principle, and as an editor I frequently cull adverbs from manuscripts. What might be the better question, though, is: when are adverbs useful for a writer?

Before outraged teachers and acolytes pick up their stones, I should point out that any distinctive word calls attention to itself. Given the context, you may want to use a verb that fits in better with your idiomatic prose. “He said” is meant to be merely an adjunct to what follows. “He declaimed” makes me start thinking of Cicero and auditoriums. A number of verbs that we use all the time—have, want, get, see—are bland and in most cases vague. Yet they are also very useful, because the purpose of the writing may not be to make the reader consider each verb as a new delectation to savor. It may be to sound idiomatic.

The analogue for this type of writing is speech. When a person is talking to her friend, she deliberately keeps her verbs bland so that her friend does not consider her a phony. You don’t say, “I coveted that leather handbag.” You say, “I really wanted that leather handbag.” That’s because the very act of speaking is an attempt to fit in with another.

You can write your entire novel at a high level of diction, but the tide is running against you, and has been ever since the decline of late 19th-century prose. If you are a master wordsmith who is willing to spend years refining every sentence to maintain your high standards, then go ahead and spurn all adverbs. If you, on the other hand, are like most poor slobs, trying to communicate with your reader, you may find that a sentence shorn of all adverbs may be a bland sentence.

Exercise: Variety is the spice of life. Do you have a string of sentences that all run subject-verb, subject-verb? One of the easiest ways to break up the rhythm is to add an adverb to start a sentence. “Luckily, he remembered a useful counting technique.” “Finally, the balky key turned in the lock.” In this case, the adverb is performing a function that a verb can’t match. It is being used as commentary on the entire sentence that follows. You can extend that logic to adverbs placed next to the verbs they modify. They may add a degree of specificity that you don’t want the verb to provide.

“All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary—it's just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences.”
—Somerset Maugham

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Being Accessible

Many nonfiction books are written by professionals in their field. During their career they may spend a lot of time on planes, and to while away all those stale hours they tend to read books about their profession. That’s why business books are frequently slim volumes: as long as a round trip. For those seat dwellers who once had writing ambitions, perhaps as a college student, a downsizing or retirement offers the opportunity to share the wisdom gained from their job experience.

Although they are not scholars, they are accustomed to the jargon they read, and the cant is repeated during convention speeches and the like. The words and expressions they use are like a tribal code: you have to be in (whatever group) to understand what the heck they’re talking about. Such words have a badge of sorts denoting their obfuscation. One tip-off is the suffix -ment or -tion.

As a translator for the unwashed hoi polloi, I as an editor flag such usages, asking for a clearer word. In reply, a surprising number of times the author will say: “Well, my audience understands what it means.” I hear that and I have to scratch my head. I reply with something like “Don’t you want everyone to read your book?” or “Don’t you want the largest possible audience for your book?” The light goes on; the author responds, “You know, you’re right.”

Do your readers a favor. Assume they are eager to learn but might feel overwhelmed by all the knowledge you have. They are having a hard enough time following your basic argument without encountering technical terms that may wipe out all worth of the entire sentence. When they encounter enough of these word sinkholes, they may decide, “This author is too smart for me,” and put the book down.

To me, the craziest part is that the term is usually just a fancy way of saying a term that the author doesn’t want to use too often. Other times, the author uses it to mask the fact that the sentence is pedestrian if the common term was used, such as mortgage refinance. Business books are filled with such “elevated” terminology—to hide the fact that a lot of business activities are plain dull.

Don’t be like that. Be the author who truly has interesting observations, expressed in plain language that shows the reader how dead right you are. Your repetition of common words doesn’t matter because the reader is constantly being swept up by your new ideas.

Exercise: Comb the manuscript for all industry terms. You’ll find them easily, because they often have four or more syllables. Also make sure that compound words, usually two, are not hard to understand. You’ll find, in cases where you used them in an otherwise banal sentence, that rewriting the sentence will really accomplish your goal of being fresh.

“I've come to learn there is a virtuous cycle to transparency and a very vicious cycle of obfuscation.”
—Jeff Weiner

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Inadequate for the Job

Every novel has an element of autobiography, if only because authors invest personal emotions in their characters. The investment can be more pronounced with inexperienced novelists who heed the dictum to write from the heart. Depending on the role, a character can benefit from having emotions the writer knows well. There is a but, however. But how well does the character lead the plot?

That is where the heart goes only so far. Unless you have the chops to write a literary novel, in which the plot can be secondary to a character’s ruminations, you are faced with the difficulty of creating simultaneously with those deeply felt characters a story that will entertain readers. For your level of writing, a novel about, say, your aunt’s slow decline into dementia may mean wearying hours for the reader.

Most writers understand that. Where I, as an editor, see the problem the most is in genre-driven vehicles such as suspense. A crime is committed and the main character, however obliquely, ends up solving it. Such a character has no investigative training or fighting skills or other talents that are interesting in such a pursuit. That’s because the author doesn’t, either.

That reliance on your own experience can lead to a wide variety of scenes featuring activities you yourself like to do. Depending on the age, that may lead to a subplot featuring a teenager playing in a rock band, or a plucky old lady piloting a motorboat. Not bad ideas, at least in brief. Not worth 15 subplot scenes, though, at least not while the criminal is still at large.

Why is that? That’s because plot stakes become more of a determining factor when the prose style is common. Place the search for a murderer on one side of the balance scale, and put riding down the river on the other. Which one will pull the reader more? Put another way, how much time can you afford to spend on the lesser objective while the greater one lies unattended?

Being true to yourself has now come in conflict with considering the desires of your readers. Maybe you are writing only for yourself and the hell with them. That is an entirely worthy attitude—if you are willing to spend the long years of writing struggles that a literary author undergoes. I don’t find that fanatical dedication in most authors, however. So that places the novel in a quasi zone: well-intentioned but middling. You need to weigh what truly is the heart of the book you’ve written.

Exercise: Just as characters and plot are balanced, so can be your approach to editing. You can count how many scenes are devoted to which plot line. When you are done, you can adjust the numbers. If you have 15 band scenes, for instance, could you cut five of them? You’re not giving up on the idea; you’re making it fit better within the overall scheme.

“If you don't want anyone to know anything about you, don't write anything.”
―Pete Townshend

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


When Does Passive Construction Work?

I devote a portion of every line edit to eliminating sentences that start with either “There is” or “It is.” Most of the time their usage stems from lazy thinking or the desire to quickly get material down on the page. I don’t take out all of them, though, so the question arises: why not? Why is one bad and one okay?

My first consideration is when the clause introduces a new idea, place, person, etc. For example, “It is inherent” starts off a number of sentences containing ideas, providing the condition in which the idea should be considered. You can try to find another way to fit in “inherent,” but the sentence is likely to be awkward. Another approach, such as  “There is, beyond the rise,” might introduce a new place to a reader. This is especially useful when a reader has been immersed in another topic, and you want to break away to fresh material. The passive clause serves as a signal to jump-shift.

The second category includes idiomatic expressions. The way we speak can be lazy, or colloquial, and if you try to make the sentence active, it just sounds wrong to our mental ear. “There is a rumor going around” is an example. You can almost hear the delight of the gossip about to spill the juicy news. Sure, you can mess with the sentence, put “A rumor” first—the way you should invert most passive sentences—but it sounds forced. For this reason dialogue is an area where particular care should be taken before making the sentence active.

The third is rhythm. Let’s revisit “There is, beyond the rise” from this perspective. You may find, while writing, that a compact sentence needs more air, so to speak. The material is too tightly packed for the subject you’re writing about. So you throw in a passive clause to open it up. In addition, you may realize that the way an entire run of sentences has been going, you want a few extra words to make the sentence fit in. This process is loosely akin to a poet’s finding extra words to fit a meter.

This intangible need points out a larger issue in writing. Don’t be bound by rules promulgated by teachers, coaches, or colleagues. Every word and expression in the English language has a purpose, and you should grab what you want. Just don’t make the rest of us suffer because you’re so lazy.

Exercise: When you come upon “there is” or “it is” in your text, switch the sentence around, on paper or in your head. The subject of the sentence usually follows the passive clause. An active verb should also be obvious, even if it is presently a participle. Then study both sentences. Did you really make an improvement? Maybe you should chuck the sentence altogether and write a new one that’s better.

“There is such a thing as the poetry of a mistake, and when you say, "Mistakes were made," you deprive an action of its poetry, and you sound like a weasel.”
—Charles Baxter

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Size at Conception

If you have never written a book before, you may be surprised by how many words they eat up. An industry standard for number of words on a double-spaced manuscript page is 250. Simple math then tells you that in order to write a scant 200 pages, you need 50,000 words. You also have to figure that a double-spaced manuscript page will shrink when it is transformed into a book page. You can assume a ratio of manuscript to book pages as 3:2 for long manuscripts, and 4:3 for slim ones. Now let’s stop and apply that to 200 pages. That means your book is going to be 150 pages. That’s a skinny book: its spine will be barely wide enough for the title to be seen on a book shelf.

You may object that in this day of Kindle Shorts, the spine width of a physical book doesn’t matter. I am a fan of ebooks, so don’t get me wrong, but you have to ask yourself: is all I ever wanted from my dream an electronic book? Every author I have worked with has expressed a desire to eventually see the book come out in physical form.

Nonfiction is the realm in which length is usually the problem. Publishers and most readers have  suffered through books that really needed to be only 50 pages long, and the later chapters are filled with rewording of the same points over and over. Those are the ones where I personally stop reading each word by Chapter 5 or so, and then skim the later chapters to see if there actually is anything new. You’d be surprised, incidentally, by how many academic books suffer from this same problem of filler.

This problem can be addressed at the conception. You can judge how long each chapter will be by writing a paragraph outline for each topic within the chapter. Let’s say you believe each chapter can be 20 pages long. So you need a minimum of 10 chapters. If you had 15 chapters, though, you’d have a 300-page book. Or, if you increased the length of each chapter to 25 pages, you’d have 250 pages. The numbers don’t lie, so be honest with yourself and ask: Do I need to add more points?

Exercise: Let’s say you have a program for the best way to exercise. You deliver an opening pitch to potential clients that wows them every time. You have to realize, however, that the pitch may only amount to 30-40 pages of text. You better start thinking about the other components in the program. Could you recruit the physical therapist some clients need to include the exercises she uses with athletes? That’s a chapter. With aging baby boomers? That’s a chapter. Do you have a diet regimen for overweight clients putting too much pressure on their joints? That’s a chapter . . . and so on.

“Books are never finished. They are merely abandoned.”
—Oscar Wilde

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Sheen of Exotica

The draw of faraway places lures many readers to open the front cover of a book. The remote land of the Lapps—the reindeer herders—might spark curiosity in anyone with fond memories of Christmas. A novel featuring the Chechen revolt might stir the feelings of anyone who once hated the Evil Empire. No matter what the foreign culture, a writer with knowledge of it can use the thought “I’d like to find out more about that” as an enticement.

At first blush, the prospect seems so rich. If an author has personal experience with such natives, that can form the foundation for all sorts of explorations into cultural mores. The odd food these people enjoy for breakfast is only one of the fascinating facts that can be meticulously researched, filling reams of pages. “Ew!” you can almost hear the gleeful writer murmur when coming upon such a morsel.

Deeper penetration can lead to a cast of characters who emblemize the different qualities of the exotic tribe. A common pairing is a chieftain who cherishes age-old traditions facing rebellion by his cellphone-obsessed son, or the like. Scenes are drawn up using these totemic types who, after all, aren’t all that different from the rest of us.

At some point this endeavor will reach a point of reckoning. The author steps back and reads everything that has been written so far. For some reason the drama seems pallid. One suspicion that arises is: “I don’t know these people well enough, because I’m not connecting with them.” Or, “This feels like a kitchen table drama, only with exotic cereal.” The writer can react in numerous ways, and a typical pick for fledgling writers is to inject more suspense. A burning issue is inserted in order to raise the level of passion.

That fork in the road might very well produce handsome results. More often, however, it leads to a muddle. Research gets in the way of a thriller-like pace, as does all the pleasant exchanges among villagers that explicate how they are exotic. Moreover, the aims of the two novelistic pursuits are at odds. One will have to be deemphasized to advance the other.

Beyond these story concerns lies the real answer. The author must still cultivate a core cast of main characters. That’s when the magic of the reader’s involvement happens, and it is the only way to sustain the reader’s interest all the way through the book. The writer must imbibe all those cultural trappings so deeply that they form the way his main characters think.

Exercise: Facts gain more sway when they are personalized. Rather than regarding an aspect of culture as dressing for a scene, consider whether it could be internalized by a main character. Take a dream catcher, for a very basic example: what if the heroine was obsessed with a myth about them? That’s the only way they’ll rise above an object placed on a shelf.

“What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home.”
―Alain de Botton

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Looping Thread

In a memoir, the foremost conundrum many authors face is the scope of the work. An interesting life can be likened to a wide-ranging tale, taking place over a period of decades. Although the events when told individually can be fascinating, the way they are lined up can make the narrative as a whole feel disorganized. It can seem like a collection of greatest hits from a career.

The main reason is chronology. Organizing a book strictly by dates poses difficulties because any person’s life is filled with so many disparate incidents. While your life may be extraordinary, that does not mean that the book will move readers. You need to provide more guidance along the way that informs the reader why you have chosen to relate such incidents.

A useful analogy is a thread running through a sewing machine. It has to be wound up, back, around, looping around this post, through that eyehole, etc., in a crazy configuration that requires a manual to follow. A reader can regard a memoir the same way. A given chapter might jump from a hiking incident to a spiritual subject and then onto a topic such as local politics. When chapters are organized in this fashion, it is easy for the reader to lose the logic of the narrative thread. What the heck did the one have to do with the next?

Start by regarding every chapter as a story unit. It has a beginning, middle, and end. It contains an opening topic paragraph, thematic bridges between each section, and a concluding paragraph. Before starting a chapter, ask yourself: what would the topic paragraph be? Through this process you will find two valuable components to any chapter: which incidents belong together, plus the thematic material that links them.

Then you can group like with like. A dramatic rescue might be linked with one that happens several years later. You don’t want to bend chronology too far, but remember, readers want to go where you are leading them. If you provide thematic material that bridges two incidents, the gap in timing is less important. Related to this technique is what might be called cause and effect. In this case, a hiking incident might be followed by a spiritual message that relates to the hiking incident. With such chapters, asking yourself what the topic paragraph is becomes straightforward. You set up a precipitating incident that then is resolved. You start off a chapter knowing that the middle will lead to the end.

Exercise: As you learned in English class long ago, a topic paragraph consists of a series of sentences that summarize the material that will be covered in a chapter (or, a paper, back in those days). Review your scenes and summarize their import in a single sentence. Put each one down on a list. Then you can review the list and pick out which incidents belong together.

“A great deal of talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage.”
—Sidney Smith

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


In or About

When is a narrative summary sufficient to relay information from a character’s past, and when should a flashback be employed? The question turns to some degree on the sort of novel you are writing. In a literary work, plotting tends to be less linear. In a genre novel, by contrast, the forward momentum of the main plot contributes far more to the entertainment value of the story. Since a flashback itself is a plot element, it stands to reason that the more of them you have, the less forward momentum you generate in the present-day plot.

However, as in so many other considerations in writing, narrative summary may not be the best vehicle for conveying all past plot events. That’s because the summary by its very nature is more distant storytelling. It also, because it sketches the reactions of the characters involved, can verge into telling, not showing, what they are like. Put that way, you can see why talking about characters is less effective than putting them into an active scene to show what they’re like.

How do you determine which device to use? Several parameters can be considered. The first is length of a flashback. If you are worried that they will slow up the main story too much, can you relate a key moment from a character’s past without unspooling an entire scene? For instance, a half page isn’t long; many narrative summaries run that length. Could you construct a series of flashbacks that involve the same time period, place, or key characters? That way you wouldn’t need to set up the circumstances each time. Merely by cueing the reader with a lead sentence—oh, right, that crucial semester freshman year—you could tell a number of shorter snippets, maybe with past events connected to each other.

The second guideline is: importance of the event to the present-day character. The more impact a past event has, the more you should lean toward covering it in a live scene. That plunges the reader directly into the circumstances that affected the character so powerfully—making them hit the reader head-on. Again, a full-length scene can be broken up into sequential pieces, like a mystery lure in which you find out the full truth piece by piece.

The last consideration is: where is it in the book? You usually will provide the background setup for characters within the first third. That is where narrative summary can most easily fall into the error of telling about characters rather than showing—because the reader doesn’t know them very well and that info has to be filled in. When you’re in this part of the book, a full-length flashback or even a couple is not going to slow down a plot that hasn’t yet revved up that much momentum anyway. It also forces you to be strategic: how can you devise a scene that shows as much as possible what the character is like?

“Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.”
—Willa Cather

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Head of a Pin

One task that besets a debut author is: how can I make my novel different? Writing outstanding characters is hard work, developed over the course of long hours of trial and error. Devising a devilishly twisty plot requires its own load of head scratching, figuring how to plan what chess piece moves when. Writing clear descriptions provides an outlet for those gifted in creating word pictures. If, after all these avenues are tried and found wanting, for lack of the author’s time and/or skill, how can the book be given its own flavor?

For the deep thinkers among us, the answer is to give the lead character a philosophy in life. This attempt is different from writing from inside the head of a character, because the narrative style still remains more distant. Rather, the character, while still engaged in the book’s main plot, pursues detours that prompt more profound opinions.

I have no objection to philosophy in novels. One of my favorite authors is Thomas Mann, and one of my favorite characters is Pierre Bezukhov of War and Peace. Who can ever forget his musings during the Battle of Borodino? When I think of it, I still believe Tolstoy’s theory of history—from the bottom up—is correct.

Attempting such a difficult course, however, is rarely a good idea for a debut novelist. The main reason is the context in which such thoughts are placed. Most beginning writers are just trying to get an entertaining story down on paper. They wrestle with how to make the protagonist interesting. They advance the plot via steps that seem to fit the overall design, even when the characters make it go in unexpected directions. These are practical, and usually low-level, decisions. Harriet is determined to leave her old life behind . . . and so she attracts madcap Dennis . . . and she’ll kill the mobster Guido by mistake . . . oh, and I want to reflect on how a variant of the Mob has existed throughout history.

Therein lies the problem. The fledgling author is juggling different imperatives. Character and plot are extremely important, so they have to be tackled. Philosophy, on the other hand, means to tell us how a life is lived. That’s deep and all-pervasive. Occasional ruminations prompted by plot events, or places the character happens to be, can sound like armchair quarterbacking. Worse, they can slow down a book that otherwise seems pretty gripping. You might be better off letting us judge your character by what she can do.

Exercise: If you have pieces of philosophy scattered among the manuscript, take a look at each of them in isolation. What is each one saying? Can you think of a way that your lead character could carry out that piece of philosophy in action? Can you make the plot events line up so they show the different facets of the life problem that must be resolved?

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”
—Albert Camus

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Only What Sparkles

How do you make large-scales cuts in a nonfiction manuscript? Let's use an example a memoir I edited to demonstrate several tools that you may find useful. The manuscript tells of growing up on a Midwestern farm in a bygone era. The author, knowing that mid-century techniques in agriculture are as foreign to modern-day city dwellers as aquatic life on Mars, listed such practices as seeding, cultivating, and threshing crops as well as farm animals and related topics such as a rural schoolhouse. All of these topics had nuggets of intriguing information, but in the aggregate the manuscript ran to 600 double-spaced pages. A quick check on Amazon showed me that most similar books are barely 300 pages long—or about 400 double-spaced pages. I know that’s about as much as I would want to read.

How do you cut 200 pages? That’s a third of the book. The first place to look is: what are you offering that’s new? In other words, it’s easy to get caught up in cataloguing everything you know about a subject. How much of that information, though, is common knowledge? For instance, the farm memoirist engages my interest when he tells how to collect eggs in a bucket without breaking them, but when he spends several pages on wooden trains, I start yawning. I know all I ever want to know about wooden trains. That’s not unique. You have to regard what you’ve written with a cold eye. Nice that you were involved personally, but are you really telling us something we didn’t know?

A second place to look is: focused writing. If you spend a few pages on a mini tractor that Mom used in the garden, I’ll read it with enjoyment. If you spend a few pages mentioning all of the families you can see from the farm, barely spending a paragraph apiece on each, hardly covering more than their names, what earthly good will that do the reader? The art of storytelling governs the level of interest in nonfiction as well as fiction. If you take the time to delve into details that we can grab onto, we’ll want to find out what happened. If you’re rolling out a list, merely for the sake of pointing out facts, our eyes are going to glaze over. We want the stuff that sparkles in your account. Luckily, that’s easy for you to find. It is the material that you yourself find intriguing.

“The writer who cannot sometimes throw away a thought about which another man would have written dissertations, without worry whether or not the reader will find it, will never become a great writer.”
—Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

Copyright 2019, John Paine


Watching and Waiting

Most novelists realize the importance of keeping the protagonist continually in front of the reader. Since most novels are written in the third-person narrative voice, the danger of your star disappearing among the multitude of characters and plots requires deft planning. Having the lead appear every other chapter might be considered a minimum of the attention that needs to be paid.

Since the main plot revolves around the main character, he will take control of the novel after a certain point. Yet a plot takes awhile to develop, and in the early going its urgency is not as compelling. As the different sides, both good and evil, raise their stakes, an author may be forgiven for deeming this beginning segment an ideal time to make the character truly unique.

Yet the push and pull between character and plot is not easy to control. If a subsidiary character needs to establish a plot stake, in order for the protagonist to later react to it, that supporting character is doing something interesting. Killing someone the star cares for is a common early ploy. What, however, is the star doing in her next chapter that can command equal attention from the reader?

This problem becomes more pronounced when a plot line is wholly divorced from the protagonist’s. Any novel requiring the hero to take a journey will likely contain such a plot. What if the reader becomes more interested in the plot gaining steam in Shanghai as opposed to the star’s roosting grounds in San Francisco?

An additional complication is the well-known fact that evil acts are more interesting than those of the good. The malefactor may dazzle to such an extent early on that the reader longs for his return, even after the hero is seen to make progress. This places your protagonist in the awkward role of trying to wrest control of her own novel from a character who clearly deserves to be punished.

Unless you are writing a literary novel, the only solution is giving the lead character the best thought-out plot planning. Let’s say the hero, in order to establish his character, learns early on his sister was abused by her husband. The steps he takes to rectify the situation determines how interested the reader will be. If, for example, in the scene right after the villain commits a murder, the hero confronts the husband, I’ll be interested in seeing the repercussions. If, on the other hand, the scene consists of the hero’s wringing his hands at his kitchen table, I’ll award the point to the villain. You’re in charge. Make sure your plotting matches your desire for a deeper portrayal.

Exercise: You can chart the developments of your different plot lines. Review each scene and write a 1-2 sentence description of the plot advance that was achieved. Look for corresponding weights. A murder, for example, requires a major counterbalance. A villain’s threat, on the other hand, might be answered by the hero’s hand wringing.

“Life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim.”
—Bertrand Russell

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


From Inert to Propulsive

Everyone knows you need active verbs in your prose. The new take I have to offer is where to find these verbs within your present text. When I am line editing, I often grab words used as other parts of speech in a sentence and convert them into verbs. I am surprised, in fact, by how often a fine active verb is waiting right there to be plucked.

All writers face the same problem. Readers must traverse your written page, and you need vehicles that transport them forward. If a sentence is not propelled forward by a verb, all your brilliant word choices otherwise might as well be gilded bowling pins. They will stand like posts, inert, waiting for the electric clap of movement.

The most common obstacle to good writing is passive sentence construction. If a sentence starts with “There is” or “It is,” you immediately need to take a second look at it. The usage stems from the way we talk, because it serves as a way to lead into a new topic.

One useful trick is to look for the most distinctive word in a passive sentence. It can be a noun, adjective, or adverb. One common culprit is a word ending in –tion or –ment. Let’s take: “There is true enjoyment in humming on the way to work.” Simply strip off the suffix and make that the verb. “I have found I truly enjoy humming on the way to work.”

Another simple fix is eliminating the “there is” clause from a sentence and forcing yourself to supply an active verb. For example: “In the search material there is a number of such letters from other women similar to this one.” If the “there is” comes out, “material” must become a noun. Therefore you get: “The search material contains a number of such letters from other women similar to this one.” Such a change entails no profound spurt of creative energy. You’re merely making sure that the sentence is moving forward.

These micro decisions are not earth-shaking. When making each change, you don’t feel like you’ve made much of a difference. Yet in the aggregate, adding up dozens or even hundreds of such changes, you’ve ensured all those times that the reader makes progress in your narrative. So they appreciate all the more when you produce that metaphor or dazzling turn of phrase. They've come to expect it of such a careful writer.

Exercise: You should be on the constant lookout for the combination of “it is” and “that” in a sentence. For example: “It was at that moment that Lorraine realized she was in this all alone.” Cut out the three extra words and you get: “At that moment Lorraine realized she was in this all alone.” You’ve not only made the sentence more active, you’ve pruned extra verbiage as well.

“I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”
—Truman Capote

Copyright @ 2019 John Paine


Am I Really With You?

I was writing the other day about nonfiction writers getting carried away, and one of the reasons is using the word “we” too often. I’d like to explore that topic further, from the standpoint of a reader who might not want to be included in the author’s gang. I paid money for the book, right? It ‘s supposed to help me. I didn’t sign up to become part of a tribe.

The tactic originated as part of making speeches, I’m sure. When you’re up at a podium, you’re trying to sell an audience on your ideas. Your fervor will carry the day, and one way to win over the masses is including them as part of the cause, making them feel they are participating. This process can be likened to a school pep rally—for adults who should know better than to fork over an outrageous sum to attend the event.

In a book, this form of exhortation has a useful purpose. It makes the topics being discussed more immediate to the reader. Any book will cover a wide range of subjects, and a portion of them are universal. In a book about buying a house, we should all understand the importance of points when refinancing a mortgage. We all should know that Zillow derives an individual house’s price from the sales of houses in its neighborhood. “We” are truly all together when the topics cover all readers.

Authors make their mistake when they extend this nice effort to include people into areas that are specialized. If we are talking about real estate in Arizona, and I live in Massachusetts, I’m not part of the “we” that discusses the importance of water rights. It’s annoying for me to be roped into a discussion that is of remote interest at best. Worse, it distances such a reader from the book in general, because now I’m aware the author is just making a pitch.

This is a reason why examples are useful. If the author got out of their lazy armchair, where “we” is so easy and cozy, and delivers an example of the Fosters, who live in Tucson and found their stream poisoned by a new development, the reader now can participate in another fashion. I know this could happen to me, in another guise, since developers are universally unscrupulous. But I don’t feel irritated that I have only a vague idea what an arroyo is.

Exercise: Do a universal search of the word “we” in your manuscript. When you find each one, check the context in which it is being used. If you are making a claim that truly does embrace all of your readers, you can leave it alone. If you are addressing only a sector of the audience, see if you can replace it with language that acknowledges that portion of readers that are bystanders.

“Who cares about the clouds when we're together? Just sing a song and bring the sunny weather.”
—Dale Evans

Copyright @ 2019 John Paine


Idiom or Cliché?

We use clichés all the time when we’re speaking. They are a form of shorthand for an idea that might need to be explained. Anyone knows what “the ball is in your court” means, even if they don’t play tennis. Clichés can also be used as humor, since the idea that a cliché conveys can be used as a clever association or an ironic counterpart. In other words, the reason that clichés persist, despite our common scorn, is because they are useful.

Unfortunately, they can also be a lazy form of writing. I see them often employed in manuscripts that are written in haste. You are writing, trying to get ideas out, and a cliché springs to mind. They are easy to grab, mentally, and they may very well convey what you mean. Depending on the writer, they may actually be more succinctly phrased than the surrounding material. Their kernel-like clarity is why they were retained in common speech originally.

Yet a cliché is also a borrowed piece of text. To me, that is the greatest sin. If you look at the quotation that ends this post, you’ll see exactly what I mean. You are trying to express yourself. You and no one else. You know about all those other books on all those shelves, and you are carving out a new legacy. So why would you want to clutter up your prose with the ideas of someone else?

One other factor to consider is the fatigue a reader experiences. The weariness felt from encountering the familiar enervates your prose. The reader experiences a subtle reaction: oh, a cliché. That’s sort of boring. You add up enough of them, and the reader comes to feel that your book isn’t special or original at all. You’re always taking shortcuts.

Before this becomes a blanket condemnation, the way you expected an editor would go, we should return to the idea of idioms used in speech. You do want your dialogue to be natural, and people do use clichés a lot. If you were to turn a common phrase into some tortured construction just to avoid using a cliché, it would sound artificial. If you are selective enough, a cliché will subside in usage to its proper place: a minor, idiomatic tool in your arsenal.

Exercise: Comb your latest draft for clichés. Where are they being used? Unless the point of view voice is so chatty that the narrative seems but an extension of dialogue, you might want to limit them to dialogue. Even then, could one character be more given to using them? How about someone very smart but so unoriginal that their intelligence only extends to spouting a wider variety of clichés?

“Originality does not consist in saying what no one has ever said before, but in saying exactly what you think yourself.”
—James F. Stephan

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine



The author of many a business book is a huckster. That is not meant as a smear, necessarily. The art of cajoling a customer to think a certain way is as old as the U.S. of A. The days of quacks and nostrums and snake oil have long passed, but the replacements rely on the seller adopting the same ruses. Persuasion remains a mixture of conviction and logic twisted to make the sale.

What all business writers have in common is that they read other business books. An editor in the field will see the same terms used over and over. Part of the reason is the desire to speak the reader’s language. Partly, the author desires to ensure the reader’s comfort by referencing well-known business authors (“how do you go from good to great?”) The main cause, though, is laziness, an idea spouted off the top of the head and channeled through a funnel larded with buzz words.

Caution needs to be observed for several reasons. The first is that, in trying to get over on the reader, an author can be carried away by the hectoring style. The keys get pounded, and short paragraph after short paragraph burst forth. The words “we” or “you” become the subject of every sentence. Come on, you know I’m right! is the gist of this style. What may be left out of such a torrent is any substance. The author gets so carried away, they forget to build the backing behind the assertion. The reader’s eyes glaze over, because we have read this sort of stuff so many times.

That ties in with the second danger: repetition. When conversing on a topic, there are only so many variants when you are writing material that is not grounded by specifics. This method of making grand claims is similar to the bullshitting you did on college papers when you had to stretch one page of substance to the required five pages. But guess what? Readers are not being paid to read it; they put the book in the webbing of a plane seat, never to be retrieved again.

Making general points, even in a sloganeering way, is fine for a first draft. You do need to set down the general parameters you want to explore. You are being sabotaged by your own ego, however, if you think that is good enough. If you read Good to Great, you know it is crammed full of statistics. That’s why it’s a great book, not because Jim Collins can deliver a good line of cant.

Exercise: During your review, mark all the places in the manuscript where you make a sweeping statement without following with an interesting fact. That’s your job in the second draft: hunting and gathering an passel of material that no other business book has. The latest stats by the Department of Labor suffices as just one example. See if you can do better than the empty college paper written as a callow youth.

“Our major obligation is not to mistake slogans for solutions.”
—Edward R. Murrow

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Meaning of Sweep

A nonfiction book that features a series of stories tied together by a central theme has a similar structure to a collection of essays. A typical format features a story per chapter, and the chapter length is determined by how many interesting facets the subject has. Since the subjects can be disparate, an author has a harder time answering a major question a publisher has: what is the book’s narrative arc?

A writer can try to include thematic statements throughout the chapters. Let’s say the overall topic of the book is: entrepreneurs who never finished school. The book contains such fascinating examples as Steve Jobs and Richard Branson. The chapters follow the same basic format: a chronology of their chafing in school, their early struggles, and on to the glorious success that gains them inclusion in the book. All along the way, the ties that bind are sprinkled in. If the author is clever, the personages can be arranged from lower to most famous, thus describing a rising arc.

One of the problems with this approach is repetition. The author is so conscious of the book’s overriding theme that it is pounded into the reader’s head in all the various forms that the author can invent to hide the fact it’s the same thing. In the previous example, that might be: rebellion against conformity is a hallmark of genius. It’s a nice thought on page 2; it’s a migraine headache by page 222.

Another is the wear and tear of having to learn the setup each new time. Everybody’s life takes different turns, and so the particulars need to be included in order for the reader to understand the obstacles that are overcome. The problem here is discontinuity. In effect, we are introduced to a new stranger in each chapter, and after a while, meeting so many new people can become numbing. Imagine reader with chin propped up by hand, thinking: His father was a deadbeat dad too, huh?

One factor that also has a tendency to creep up on the reader after a while is negativity. Usually in such books there is an overarching villain. In the above example, it is the education system. Negative comments about any subject cast a pall over the whole, and they become tiresome in the long run. Yes, school failed that one guy, but how about all of the Harvard Ph.D.’s who run the world?

Exercise: The only remedy is reducing the silo nature of the chapters. If you can pick stories that are similar, these can be grouped in a part (Part 1, Part 2, etc.). That gives you the ability to pick themes that are more limited. More important, it allows you to turn to new themes later on, making the book’s turns more fresh to the reader overall. You have the introduction and epilogue to tie everything together, anyway.

“We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
—Joan Didion

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Paying Paul

Amid the ebullience of finishing a novel, after a seemingly endless number of drafts, an author can become caught up in the idea of writing a sequel. They may have been told that the key ingredient is carrying the central core of cast members over to the new book. High among them, maybe the #2 character, is the villain. Wouldn’t it be nice . . . ? thinks the author.

The factors arguing for a resumed battle between protagonist and antagonist are pretty clear. You have built up the villain into a memorable character, allotting almost as much space as to the hero. In addition, in order to drive the book’s suspense, the two characters may have operated in separate spheres, as heroes often spend the entire book trying to identify and then locate the villain. So now that the villain is a known quantity, they could spend the entire book feinting and counter-feinting, just a barrel full of monkeys to spring on the reader. Best of all, you know both of them so well, the second book will nearly write itself.

While there are certainly series in which an overarching villain is continued from book to book, they usually are not the heavies in any one of those books. Instead, it is the kingpin’s henchman who gets down in the trenches and dukes it out with the hero. That arrangement seems to indicate that the reader is getting gypped, but that’s not true.

The reason why is: coverage. The person who keeps showing up is the one whom the reader will learn to hate. That is one of the governing principles of story logic. You control which characters will induce emotion from the reader. Aunt Millie might be a terrifying ax murderer, but if she rarely appears in the book’s pages, we’re not going to pay her much attention.

Now let’s consider the question in terms of math. Say you have allotted, out of a 400-page manuscript, 200 pages to the hero’s scenes and 125 pages to the villain’s.  By a simple number count, you can see that more than three-quarters of the book has been devoted to one or the other. If the hero is to match up with a titanic foe—needed for a thrilling climax—are you going to feature some also-ran from the other 75 pages? No. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. You can’t save the primary villain for the next book, because that is the only struggle that will satisfy readers of the first book.

Exercise: Series writers commonly use the same types over and over. Examine the scenes in which your villain appears. Write down notes pertaining to physical descriptions, type of personality, and background. Now imagine that same person in your sequel, only strip out the descriptions and background. Replace those elements with new ones. You have a new villain.

“The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.”
—Alfred Hitchcock

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


In Absentia

One of the obstacles that many authors attempting to write a mystery face is their lack of knowledge of law enforcement procedures. That stops them from making the most logical choice for a protagonist: a detective. Instead, they write about a “civilian,” in police parlance, who is driven to uncover clues, usually apart from or in opposition to the detectives assigned to the case. Maintaining that drive despite encountering factors that would make most people decide they are in over their head is one of the necessary tricks that must be accomplished.

What happens when the civilian decides not to investigate, in any formal sense? The cops do their job, but the civilian employs other resources to provide valuable knowledge. To me, this approach is two steps removed: not a cop and not a civilian investigating clues or suspects. An armchair quarterback, in less kind terms.

Leaving aside the question of whether such a novel can be considered a mystery, I’ll point out the main difficulty of this remote approach. What does the protagonist bring to the drama? Solving the crime is a plot pursuit. If the main character is doing that in a by-the-way fashion, what other business is occupying most of their time? Let’s turn the prism slightly and ask: is what they’re doing as interesting as solving the crime?

One reason that mysteries are so popular is because death is a powerful lure in fiction. The reasons for killing are fun for readers to uncover. If your protagonist has a hands-off approach, they must have a plot line with its own overarching end point that pulls readers along. Falling in love is one obvious example. Love is second only to death in terms of attracting a reading audience.

Depending on the strength of this plot line, you now face another issue. Why should the reader care about the murder case, since the lead actor in that plot line is a secondary character. Do I feel the same satisfaction when Detective Wilson turns up a clue? A secondary character doesn’t show up as often as the protagonist, and so my allegiance is that much more removed. I may even have a jaundiced view of the detective, since many readers don’t like cops much in real life.

The worse option is that the protagonist’s plot line is not as interesting. Since many writers regard themselves as utterly fascinating creatures, they make the mistake of thinking readers will feel the same. Too much high tea in suburbia, and you may induce the sleep of the dead. 

Exercise: At the outset of the project, ask yourself if you really want to write a mystery. If you do, get out of your armchair and do the work needed to acquire knowledge of the subject. There are many police officers, etc., who have written extremely useful books about their profession. Ignorance is only an excuse for laziness.

“The past is an old armchair in the attic, the present an ominous ticking sound, and the future is anybody's guess.”
—James Thurber

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Connecting Plot Runs

The transcontinental railroad resembles a novel in that it was built in segments. A stretch of the rails would be completed, and the crew would move on to the next. Because novels take so long for most writers to complete, a stretch can consist of a run of chapters, and you still have a half dozen more stretches to build.

Using the organic method—or making it up as you go along—you can find yourself left with disparate pieces by the time a draft is completed. You may have directed the protagonist to pursue certain plot aims during one stretch and then inserted a subplot later on that has nothing to do with what you wrote earlier. At the time you wrote the subplot, you didn’t really remember that earlier part. You wrote that months ago.

This approach is the opposite of the grand scheme used by experienced authors in genres such as mystery. In those novels every plot point, every character appearance, fits into an intricately connected puzzle. While such a construction can feel formulaic, there is no doubt that the reader feels satisfied by the linkages.

The same process can be reverse-engineered after a draft is completed. You may realize, for instance, that a crime drama has an appealing lead detective who drops out of the book during the last 100 pages. That’s because a court case takes center stage during that stretch. While you were writing the courtroom drama, it seemed so gripping. But in hindsight, looking at all of the parts of the novel in one sweep, you realize that the sacrifice of the character isn’t worth the gain.

All is not lost. A draft is a mutable instrument. You made up the whole story anyway, so you can make up replacement parts. You can write more scenes for the detective, to use that example. Maybe three more scenes, with gaps of 20 pages between scenes. That ensures the character will remain vivid in the reader’s mind until the end.

The more difficult step for many writers is sacrificing their babies. You also need to take out three scenes of the courtroom drama, because even with additional scenes, the detective’s presence still will be overshadowed by the tremendous emphasis, measured in page count, you have placed on winning in court. So you look for procedural matters like an in-camera conference, for witnesses that say in court things the reader already knows, etc. You correct course by being willing to cut that stuff—because you’re now taking the long view.

Exercise: How do you measure proportion? Run a Find search for a major character. You’ll find the name frequently during a certain stretch of pages, so keep looking. When a long gap appears, write down the number of pages in between. How long do they appear in this new section? Keep counting those gaps. Then ask yourself: do I want this character to make more of an impact?

“What art is, in reality, is this missing link, not the links which exist. It's not what you see that is art; art is the gap.”
—Marcel Duchamp

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


A Selling Synopsis

Submitting your manuscript to a literary agent or publisher involves steps that are different from writing a novel. I’ll leave aside the query letter in this post to focus on the synopsis. The length requested is usually a page. That leaves an author with a daunting question: how do I boil down hundreds of pages so succinctly?

My first piece of advice is: don’t worry about reducing the document to a page on your first try. Give yourself latitude to summarize points at a length that feels shrunk down from the book’s text. You can start by reviewing each chapter and jotting down sentences that boil down its action into a few sentences. (No dialogue: you’re way too far in the weeds if you include dialogue.) Through this process you might find you have distilled the material down to 5-10 pages.

Now take a break, preferably overnight or a few days. You want to view the new material after gaining some distance from it. Why? Because distance is what you’re aiming for in an outline. My whole book, in a page. After the respite, now read the outline as though it is its own story. You’re on a higher plane. What do you want to discard this time?

The winnowing process now can sift out items that relate to subplots or happen to minor characters. You don’t have space for all that stuff, even though it might be great material in the full-length book. If you’re having trouble deciding what is integral to the main plot, rank your major characters on a scale of one through five. Anything that happens to a character below #2 is a likely candidate for cuts. As you plow through those 5-10 pages, you’re crossing out lines that will likely bring you down to 2-3 pages. Sleeping on that overnight can provide a valuable break that allows you to approach the final step with fresh eyes.

During your next round, turn your concern to the protagonist. If you concentrate on what happens to the main character, as well as the relationships revolving around that fulcrum, you’ll find that the novel can be reduced to its true bare bones. While a synopsis should be factual in tone, you can follow the arc of the main love interest with a few deft sentences spaced apart on the page. You can outline the major twists and the hero’s/villain’s reactions to them. You may find that you can reduce a paragraph to a single sentence because all you care about is the protagonist. You do that often enough, and you’re down to a page.

Exercise: An outline is all tell, no show. So get that dictum out of your head. Telling allows you to compress text. Telling is also a sign that the author is narrating from a remote distance. Bad for novel writing, but excellent for summaries.

“I try to leave out the parts people skip.”
— Elmore Leonard

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


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

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.