Drunk in Fiction

Despite the reputation of writers as prodigious drinkers, this post is not written to encourage more of that behavior. Instead, it is targeted toward the use of liquor as a means to further drama in a novel. The reason that intoxication—of any variety, including drugs—works effectively is the impaired perception that is produced. Anyone who has driven home at night and seen double lines on the road understands this phenomenon. Which one is the real one?

The tension of lessened clarity is heightened because of a reader’s expectation that a lead character will get into trouble. That’s why we read fiction, right? To follow someone who dares to do what we cannot. Once Sarah tosses down a double at a party and then demands another, we are expecting the powderkeg to explode. We know she is going to insult somebody, go on a rant that will get her fired, etc. The author put that drink in her hand, and the author better pay up.

In the hands of a master, a drunken sequence can run on for pages. The drunken night that Dmitri of The Brothers Karamazov careens through is one of the most harrowing memories of my reading career. Likewise with the Consul in Under the Volcano: we cringe because we know a gringo shouldn’t be getting so plastered in a squalid Mexican cantina. In these books the authors merged their brilliant penetration in character portrayal with the blurring effects of alcohol.

The state of being out of control can be extended in other directions. Authors commonly deprive a lead character of sleep for days on end as the climax of a book approaches. In their state of exhaustion they may well make a mistake. If a malicious character slips LSD in the heroine’s coffee, we worry when she gets behind the wheel of a car and goes on a real trip.

For a novice author, liquor and its euphoric comrades can be used in several ways. The first is forcing you to place a character in more extreme situations. Face it, life is dull, and you shouldn’t be writing about real life. You need to push the needle into the red. You may find that a drunken character allows you to knock down walls that were hemming in your imagination.

Second, in order to create that altered state for the reader, you have to penetrate the character’s thoughts. Drunken people make mistakes in judgment. You have to put those mistakes down on paper for the reader to realize how drunk the character is. As a result, you’re knocking down a wall between you and the character.

Exercise: Read over the manuscript with an eye out for scenes that drag. You may need a scene in order to advance the plot, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun in the process. Pull out the beer bong, and have someone force the character to have a go. Come on, get wild.

“When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading.”
—Henny Youngman

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Music Impressions

Overcoming loss of memories presents a significant challenge for authors. If you are stuck, unable to think of details associated with a time past, take a gander at your music playlist. Trying to access relevant memories sometimes springs from an act as simple as playing the right song.

For most of us, listening to music is associated with our youth. A soundtrack of popular music, no matter which era, was playing during our teenage years, and we tend to identify closely with that music. That defined our clan, so to speak. That tribal power is shown when we get up and dance at a reunion, no matter how ridiculous we may look. For an author’s purposes, youth also happens to be the time when most people venture into unexpected places.

An old song can instantly conjure up a specific place you were when you used to love it. For instance, I can access a wide assortment of locations around my hometown, based on driving during teenage years. Each of those speak to us in different ways, because we have associations with those places that extend far beyond the speaker delivering the sound. I can see what the dashboard of the car looked like, who was sitting in the passenger seat, how crowded the backseat of the car used to get. Beyond that, what about the open places outside that teenagers frequent before they are allowed to congregate in bars? What were the conversations held while lying on the grass under the stars? What longings were expressed?

While a song is only the starting point for such explorations, think of all the different songs you used to listen to. Each one can spawn a memory of an incident long buried in your mind. You may remember an odd flavor, maybe of a time when you weren’t acting like yourself at all. The music moved you. All of those sparks provide a richness of experience that you can use in your stories.

Among that panoply of memories, the most important for an author is how music allows you to remember your interactions with another person. Your past friends or lovers or relatives provide a rich lode from which you can pick out cast members for your story. What about that kooky girl who used to float in and out of your group of friends? What did she wear? What do people wear that makes them look kooky? You can extend such explorations in many directions, given the right musical prompt.

Exercise: When you listen to a song, one specific memory will usually pop into your mind right away. Hold onto that impression. Let your mind wander from that thought to other factors that surrounded it at that time. Whatever spills out, let it run in its direction. All of that train of thought is potential gold. Then write out the string as fast as you can, before your hand closes off the bright glow in your mind.

“Every composer knows the anguish and despair occasioned by forgetting ideas which one had no time to write down.”
—Hector Berlioz

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Petting Zoo

Anyone who takes a walk in cold weather knows how much people love their dogs. Why else would the owners stand around freezing while the pooch sniffs a streetlight pole? The same love extends to cats, as can be witnessed in entire mystery series that have been based on those cuddly furballs. Their application in fiction goes beyond being popular with readers, though. It can also provide a fledgling author with a means of probing inside the heads of their lead characters.

One very useful trait of pets is their inability to talk. Beyond the obvious signals, such as the insistent staring to be fed, the owner must project feelings onto the pet. A dog is regarded as happy when it is smiling. A cat is regarded as content when it kneads its claws in the owner’s lap. For those authors who can only write physical descriptions—viewing their characters from the outside—such casual projections can be a boon.

Have you ever been around a pet? You probably could write down 10 characteristics of them off the top of your head. Little dogs like Jack Russell terriers bark incessantly. Persian cats are fussy eaters, among other charming traits. So you naturally assign them qualities, such as annoying and snippy. You do that because the animal can’t speak aloud and break the spell of your imaginings.

When you think about it, aren’t your characters like that? They don’t speak unless you assign a line to them. So to start, why don’t you give a character a pet and then assign qualities based on that relationship? We all know that pets’ personalities are shaped by their masters. If you have a vicious reprobate as a villain, what kind of dog does he own, and how does the dog react to other dogs? To humans? You know all this stuff. You’ve remarked on it a hundred times to a neighbor or friend. If you walk into a home and are greeted by fat monster cats who hiss at you, you know you’d better be nice to your hostess.

Then take the projection a step further. When your character stares, for instance, what is behind that? Stupefaction? A desire to intimidate? A desire to move past the idiotic thing the other character just said? Write that down as an aside in a conversation. Maybe write a few sentences explaining why the character tends to stare in those situations. It’s just like a dog: you’re giving it a human dimension, one the reader can connect with.

Exercise: Go to a dog park in your area and watch the owners interact with their pets and with other owners. Write down what you imagine is going through their minds. What do the dogs bring out in their masters? When you have filled up a few pages, take them home and read the list with your story in mind. Would any of those descriptions fit your characters?

“An animal's eyes have the power to speak a great language.”
—Martin Buber

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Mechanical Rewrite

As an editor, I often ask authors to write new material for their manuscript. I may suggest, for example, that a character needs a few extra scenes to remain vital later on. The quality of the responses varies tremendously. Some writers write freely to achieve the proposed aim. Others, though, write only limited material, as though a teacher had assigned a lesson and they are doing the minimum required to discharge an onerous burden.

Whenever an editor, or a colleague in a writing group, makes a suggestion, that doesn’t change one salient fact. It is still your book. You want all parts of the book to be equal in quality. If the new material isn’t as good as your original draft, the book is going to sag in those sections. It is true that writing inserts can feel less creative than the first blush of enthusiasm. So how do you overcome the feeling of writing by rote? You need to make the suggestion your own.

Let’s say the developmental note asks for a background story for Howard: one incident of his father’s verbal belittling. The example serves as the rule. You may have an example that jumps to mind right away. You know a perfect story, very possibly because you yourself were belittled as a child. Yet other times the response is not so immediate. The suggestion hits you in a vulnerable spot: yes, you did make up the verbal abuse because it seemed to fit Howard, but your own father was always supportive of your efforts. So you write a quarter page of an incident that lacks good details or emotions—because you really don’t know what to do.

Okay, so let’s stop right there. Remind yourself: whose book is this, anyway? The editor’s/writing friend’s or yours? If you think it’s a good idea, you need to show it. First off, do a global search for all other material related to the father. Read over what you’ve already written. Now think about Howard: what qualities of his show his lack of confidence? Think through these issues, then jot down a few points.

What you’re doing is synthesizing the suggestion so that when you come up with a creative response, it is your own, stemming from what you already know about your characters. You’ve set yourself a new puzzle, the same way you set yourself all those other puzzles while you were writing the first draft. And you knew how to solve them—according to your own feelings.

Exercise: When you stop worrying so much about how to respond to a suggestion, you can relax and let your mind drift. You may find, for instance, that you remember a story a friend told you a long time ago about her father’s constant comments. Maybe that is related to the night she finally erupted at him. There it is, a nice half-page back story, and it fits Howard very well.

“Thought is only a flash between two long nights, but this flash is everything.”
—Henri PoincarĂ©

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Filthy Lucre

What motivates authors to write can vary greatly. An Iowa MFA grad has their sights set on no less than the stars in the literary firmament. A grifter seeks to make money from a profession in which no skills are required. While the former needs no goad to spur them to hours of agonized labor, the latter strike me as coming at the enterprise all wrong. And not for the reasons you might think.

No matter what the outcome, the process remains the same. Many hours spent alone in front of a white wall. The commercially minded author seeks to lower that input of time to the minimum possible, because that maximizes the return. The results of such lightning-fast writing are not hard to guess. Lots of dialogue, lots of action, lots of typos. You can almost draw a cartoon balloon containing the author’s dreams of the future movie made for TV.

Such a glib attempt at writing is doomed to failure. It is caused by a woeful misunderstanding of how gifted and hardworking supposed hack bestselling writers are. Even given the time spent touring and other marketing demands for their books, these authors turn out a book every year. They retain their readers year after year. Now, how many of us can say that?

While the strengths of such writers vary, what doesn’t change is the sheer immersion a reader feels after opening such a book. Like all good writers, commercial writers are weird. They live their lives through characters they weave out of thin air. Even as an editor I know what that’s like. I have spent my life involved in dramas that leave me woefully unprepared for cocktail party repartee.

What does it take to create such a fictional world? Lots of psychological insight, lots of details, lots of perfectly fine scenes cast into oblivion. Writing is the hardest thing you will ever do, so why would anyone think it is an easy road to riches? Plus, I haven’t discussed yet what lies at the end of all those lonely hours. Skeptical literary agents and editors in New York who have seen everything under the sun. How much does it take to impress them? Probably not fodder scribbled on a plane tray.

To be the best, as in any profession, you have to serve an apprenticeship. You have to learn what doesn’t work just to get to the level of writing something people might find interesting. And you have to keep on doing that for 300-400 pages. It’s a labor of love, no matter how you splice it.

“People are lazy, and they want their fast food via the television.”
—Dean Winters

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Leading at the Top

When faced with an undifferentiated mass of material in a nonfiction manuscript, a writer can become confused about the best way to organize it. In a marketing book, for example, you might have pages upon pages on the subject of branding. They include not only your useful ideas but plenty of examples of the ideas being put into practice. You know vaguely that all of the material would fit in a chapter, but where is the beginning, middle, and end?

Harking back to the days of English class is a good place to start. There you were taught about topic paragraphs. If you remember, the teacher instructed you to summarize the main points of a paper in a sentence apiece. How that basic principle could be applied in a book seems unclear at first, since it is a far more sprawling enterprise.

Or is it? Most books are broken into chapters, and each chapter is broken into sections, led by boldface headings. A section is roughly five pages long. Now, I ask you, how long were many of the papers you had to write for school? About five pages?

That’s where you start. Review the chapter and separate the material into associated lumps. A section of a chapter on branding might consist of points related to the idea of distinguishing what sets a product apart. Look over that smaller chunk with the idea that you are going to list 4-5 selling points related to distinction of a brand. Write them out. Then place them all together in one paragraph and rewrite so that one sentence leads to the next one. There is your topic paragraph. Not only that, but the process works in reverse. You now know how to line up the material in that section. The progression makes logical sense—because you had to make the sentences in the topic paragraph follow each logically.

Once you have compiled each of the 4-5 sections that make up the chapter, you can extend the use of the topic paragraph to encompass the entire chapter. You take each of your subheadings, in boldface, and expand them into a sentence. Put them together into a paragraph, and repeat the process of linking up the sentences so that they flow together smoothly. You may have to move sentences around to make that work. Once you are done, then place the sections of the chapter in the order of the sentences in the topic paragraph. See? You’re the most organized person on the planet.

“For every minute spent in organizing, an hour is earned.”
—Benjamin Franklin

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


My Brother’s Keeper

When I read a manuscript in which the plot is humdrum, the characters complacent, I am moved to ask the author: What is a novel really? In many ways it is an exploration of evil. The protagonist encounters evil opposition and strives to make wrongs right by the end of the book. Luckily for the variety of stories, evil takes many forms, including the besetting sins that a lead character must overcome.

Starting with this conception leads to creating story tension. In any relationship, one partner has designs on the other. For example, a sibling rivalry contains tension because of the competing desires. Even if you want both characters to be basically good, the tension stems from the hidden agendas they have: that is, their deception is evil. When that notion is paired with the commonsense observation that a novel requires exaggeration in order to be interesting, either the deception must be large-scale or the circumstances must be dire. That is why sibling rivalry is more gripping when a parent is on their deathbed. Of course, to my mind a combination of both would work best: a black sheep standing with Abel by their mother’s hospital bed.

That naturally leads to the notion that you can create tension by making one character more honest than the other. If a protagonist is basically good, then that means every other character is more sinful by comparison. Why is the lover, for example, deceiving the hero? Is that deception a major or minor concern in your plotting? What is the secret that the lover is trying to hide? Usually you want a character to work at uncovering evil, because then the discovery is truly earned and thus more satisfying. So you can work both sides of the equation step by step: the lover hiding and the hero gradually finding.

Yet you also don’t want the heroine to be Pollyanna. Usually, the protagonist of a book has evil qualities that she has to overcome. The flaw could be as simple as being impetuous, getting her into trouble. But if she has no flaws, she is dull. Everyone has things they don't like about themselves. That's human nature. We all know we have evil inside us. So why make the heroine so lily white? You as the author will become more interested in the character if you create some flaws for her. So now it becomes a matter of relative evil. Which do you want to feature, and which will dominate the proceedings? In sum, as Dostoevsky knew so well, evil is interesting.

Exercise: Review each scene in the manuscript solely for its evil content. Write down in a sentence the evil act committed. Once you are finished, examine the list with the thought: evil equates to interest. Do you have scenes in which the characters are merely gabbing? Could you bring deception into play that would make the conversations more pointed?

“False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.”

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Keeping Pace

Writing is an endeavor prone to mood swings. This is hardly surprising when you consider that you’re engaged in tapping into your subconscious. One morning you wake up and your head feels clear, like you could see for miles. Another day you wake up and feel fog crowding in around your eyes.

These up-and-down swings occur on a longer cycle as well. You may miss an entire weekend because you’re away, and all that next week you remain AWOL. You’re just not feeling the usual urge. Or, the evening you plan to get back into the story, your brother calls about Thanksgiving plans. By the time you hang up, you have barely a half hour left before going to bed.

A more pernicious effect on writing can occur from external forces. Your job goes through a demanding phase. You wake up early to get an early train to get to work early, because you know a backlogged pile is waiting on your desk. Depending on how long the rush period at work is, you can find you haven’t written in several weeks, maybe even more. If you had been in a groove, settling down every day with the story, you’re left facing the ruins of that happy stretch.

These lulls separate those for whom writing is an avocation from those for whom it is a vocation. But that’s okay. You don’t want to give up your day job to chase a unicorn. What you can do is make a promise to yourself that you will take advantage of the good swings.

A book is like a huge boulder you are rolling. The more your shoulder stays in contact with it, the harder you push when you are rolling it, and the more progress you will make. You have to think ahead, deciding to dedicate the next block of time you will have free to writing. If that means both mornings of the next weekend, put it down on your calendar on Wednesday night. Two long blocks of red—9:00 to 12:00 (red for passion, your passion). Intent counts. That’s what keeps those gaps in the range of days, not weeks.

Exercise: Don’t make promises you won’t keep, though. If you put down Sat-Sun 9:00-12:00 for every weekend on a repeat cycle, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to miss some of those dates. You’ll start clicking off that block before you even reach the weekend, and that will become a habit. Focus on this week, not on months of vague promises. We know what that analogy is: a New Year's resolution.

“Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.”   
—Jane Yolen

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.