Proof of Concept

When I ask a nonfiction author to back up what he asserts, the first option that comes to my mind is a quotation from an expert in the field. That’s a good way to confirm that what I’m reading has a basis in fact. If such a statement appears in a clinical case study that provides hard numbers, all the better.

Where can you turn, however, when you are advancing a concept for which little data has been amassed? Let’s say you want to claim that instant gratification is changing the way people think these days, using a wide swath of everyday tech. You seek out clinical research, maybe using Google Scholar, and you don’t come up with much. You can’t very well use a study in Helsinki testing 17 teenagers, and 10 of them salivated upon hearing the word “Nokia”—10 years ago. You’re not going to build a very strong book on such shaky premises.

One good option, if you are an expert in your field, is using cases from your own profession. Let’s say you are a psychologist who has treated numerous juveniles with poor impulse control. Depending on their criminal records and/or their releases for revealing doctor-client information, you could provide in-depth stories of, say, how texting led to bad instantaneous decisions. The same applies to a leader of a 12-step program or the like. These amount to private case studies, and a reader is persuaded because she can put herself in the person’s shoes.

An alternative might be called the volume approach. You don’t have experts to call upon, but you can use newspaper and website articles. You can also conduct a survey of people in the street. Given a standard list of questions, how impatient are they? In this option, you need to select from the widest variety of types possible. If you are only using geeks who live around Silicon Valley, most people reading the book will feel left out. If they are using apps that most people have never heard of, all those people will feel that your book doesn’t apply to them. I should point out, in our star-gazing culture, that including famous people’s opinions will help buttress your points.

Make no mistake, however, about the need to provide proofs. People won’t go along just because “you know.” You have to go out and collect the data, of whatever form you choose. If it is more anecdotal, that then becomes your approach—not number crunching but comfortable with your reader.

Exercise: When you are searching for data, don’t neglect material that doesn’t quite match what you’re looking for. People have exhibited poor impulse control, for example, since the beginning of time. Smoking a joint or joining a gang can also lead to bad decisions, so you may find ways to weave this more extraneous material into your discussions.

“Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.”
—Benjamin Franklin

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Protracted Ending

The impression left by a novel's ending is what readers remember after they put down the book. It influences how readily they will tell their friends that they liked it. A strong ending could well lead to buzz about your book.

Most authors understand the need to build to a climax. The 50-100 pages leading to the final showdown, or variation thereof, is the section of the manuscript I usually edit the least. By that point you know who your main characters are and where they’re going. But what you do after the climax? I often read manuscripts that maunder on for 20 or 30 or even 50 pages afterward. It’s like the author doesn’t know how to end the book. What is forgotten in these cases is: what is the reader feeling?

A quick look at the currents you are creating in the novel supplies the answer. If you build the story up to a titanic crest, what happens after it breaks? You can’t top your climax. More to the point, readers know you can’t top it, so they’re just waiting for you to let them go. This is particularly true with a physical book, in which they can clearly see how many pages are left. If the climax is reached and there are still 20 pages to go, they may rightly wonder: what could possibly be left that’s better than what I just read?

Once you’ve reached your high point in a novel, my advice is to get out of there fast. Reading is an immersive experience, and readers will continue to participate even if they don’t know why things have to be dragged out. All the while, however, the ensuing pages are diluting the climactic catharsis. Lesser material muddies the impact of better material. Why are we lingering, twiddling our thumbs, because you don’t have the good sense to consider what we’re feeling?

If you have any loose threads, tie them up in an epilogue. You should be able to accomplish even multiple tasks within 5-7 pages. We can exhale, enjoy the camaraderie of friends or lovers, find out about those loose ends, and we’re done. Good climax and the author has the sense to let us go. Now I can’t wait to tell my friends about this great book I’ve just read.

Exercise: Go to the end of your manuscript and locate the climactic scene. How many pages did you write after that scene ends? How many chapters did you write? If you’ve written more than one, consider the effect on the reader. Every chapter is a story unit. If your next chapter isn’t as compelling as the climax chapter, the reader is going to wonder why you thought that chapter should be included. Try to combine everything in one unit and tie all the threads up at once.

“Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.”
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Wooden Train

The prepositional phrase can function as a rhythmic device. Because it usually contains a preposition and an article, such as “of the,” the little words help to make the sentence bounce along, if that is the effect you’re going for. Placing two phrases back to back can double that rat-a-tat-tat, especially when you place dense, long words at the front and back ends of a sentence. “The coarse wool on the nape of her neck sprang out wildly from its bun.”

The skipping cadence, however, does not change the fact that a prepositional phrase is a modifier, and not an efficient one at that. An adjective or adverb gets the job done in only one word. So when you adopt a style laden with strings of these phrases, you can find sentences often sagging. “Of the” just doesn’t have much locomotive power. They merely get us to the object of the phrase, and that itself depends, as in leaning, on the word the phrase is modifying.

So when I see a string like “The ball bounced off the wall on the side toward the front,” I feel the skipping has slowed to a trudge. All the the’s are clogging up the sentence. In this case I’m inclined toward clean: “The ball bounced off the side wall toward the front” conveys the same meaning with less words. The ball’s bouncing becomes more animated as a result.

One pernicious use of a prepositional phrase is gussying up an ordinary sentence. Here’s an example: “The wood grain on the board closest to me ended at a hole in the table once occupied by a knot.” This is a large expenditure of words to describe a common feature on a piece of furniture. That sentence could just as well read: “The grain on the board closest to me ended at a hollow knot hole.” Not much happening in the first place, so why drag it out?

Exercise: Review the manuscript solely for prepositional phrases, especially ones used back-to-back. Do you have compelling words, especially active verbs, at either end, driving the phrases forward? If not, weigh out whether an adjective or adverb could do the descriptive work. Some searching might turn up a word that adds more vibrancy—while being more economical.

“From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”
―Winston S. Churchill

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Left Hand, Right Hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Defined by Consumption

When authors ask me what they can do to make a protagonist more well rounded, their intention is largely focused on the track that is already laid. If Ben is a bruiser who is nice only to cats, the author wants to know what else can develop his charisma. Their sights are trained just a notch higher than abs and deltoids; maybe I should explain how he picks up cats?

You may want to let your thinking run in a different direction. Many authors don’t like to waste time, but I often advocate exercises that do precisely that. If you want a better-rounded character, you have to pull them out of the plot. That’s because the plot wants to define the character. You know what has to happen, so the character is bent toward that aim.

The fixation on time is risible, anyway, because we all know how much time we waste when writing. A dozen trips to reheat a cup of coffee is hardly a mark of efficiency, among the other excuses not to keep the butt planted in the chair. So why not explore what the hero would do in ordinary life?

Not too ordinary, of course. You always want tension among your characters, even in a sketch. How about a high-stakes purchase, like buying a new couch? You know that’s going to run upward of a thousand dollars. That sort of money makes partners tense and irritable. As a bonus, you get to throw an oily salesperson in the mix.

Okay, we know Ben can hurl couches to the other end of the showroom, but what colors does he like? Does he like claw feet and lots of metal studs—the old-fashioned look—or is he into modern? Does he like sectionals? Would he argue for a sofa bed?

Beyond taste, place him with a significant other. What does Ben do when they suggest an alternative? If the partner really presses the point sharply? How does he act if the salesperson is standing right next to them? Is Ben a far-sighted kind of guy—knowing that how he acts will have consequences that will last as long as the couch remains in the house—or is he impulsive? And what is his attitude when the salesperson adds helpful hints?

Best of all, you as the author can identify with such a purchase. You know how you felt, so you can plug that into the character. Your being able to identify gives the character the greatest complexity of all.

Exercise: A sketch is only as useful as you make it. As you are writing it, think of what the protagonist has done inside the book already. When you are finished, review the manuscript with the ideas of applying the takeaways that emerged from the sketch. That way all but the couch enters the book.

“The complexity of things—the things within things—just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.”
— Alice Munro

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Progress Interrupted

Many authors write in the time they can spare from their job. The urge to write is tempered by the knowledge that the rent must be paid, May’s quotas have to be met, and the kids’ math should be checked. Amid all of the conflicting demands of everyday adult life, the time squirreled away with the laptop can be fleeting.

This scarcity is accompanied by another obstacle: the desire to write when you have time to write. Just about everything you do in ordinary life is easier than writing. When the time you allotted during the week ends up being missed, the urge is frustrated until the weekend—and then you feel blank on Saturday morning. When a few weeks elapse because of interruptions beyond your control, you can lose the thread of the story altogether.

That is the point at which weeks can turn into months. If you really want to write, you cannot let that happen. For most writers, no one cares if you write a book or not. You yourself have alternate sources from which to derive satisfaction. A book is such a long slog, so why strap on the harness when you know you have to keep plowing for days on end?

These excuses are usually not formulated aloud, or even in the echo chamber of your mind. Writing operates in the realm of feelings, vague and blundering, swinging widely as the mood strikes. No calendar marked out with red blocks of time can change that.

What you can do, however, is check in. That means assigning times during the week when you read notes, or the last chapter you’ve written, or research a topic you want in the book. In other words, it’s a halfway step. You’re not saying you’ll sit down to write. You are merely keeping touch with the live wire that drove you to start writing in the first place.

Going easy on yourself this way allows you to break down the immense wall you sense when you don’t feel like diving into the story. You’re operating on a lesser level, merely reacting to what you’re already done. What this practice does, however, is to keep your hand near the keyboard. When you do that, you’ll be writing a lot more often.

Exercise: If you are sick to death of your book, go ahead and take a break. Let it sit for a month. Before you do, though, set a date on your calendar when you’re going to check in. Just to review things for a few hours. Then set up a return date for the week after that, and the week after that. You don’t have to start writing again. But you will force your subconscious to keep revolving the story ideas—until you gain clarity on how to reframe the book.

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

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Following a Link

Searching for the telling detail is a practice that writers too often neglect. We all know that a truly enjoyable novel is filled to the brim with interesting tidbits. We marvel at how much the author knows, especially since many of the nuggets seem tossed off. Oh, by the way, did you know about . . . ? So when I encounter a manuscript almost devoid of details, I find it less fulfilling.

The reasons for the lack of details are not hard to fathom. An author may be writing at a white-hot speed, feeling the adrenaline that comes with a strong connection to the Muse that day. That type of writing focuses mainly on plot, and hopefully the characters are contributing flavors as well. The details are items to be filled in later.

Another reason is the sheer volume of details in these top-notch books. An author can be understandably daunted by how many they have to hunt for. You mean, I have to come up with something good every step of the way? What do you think I am, an encyclopedia?

To a large extent, the number of details you provide is a function of time. That is meant in the business sense of time equals money. The ability to tap resources has been augmented tremendously by the rise of the Internet, which has opened vistas in every conceivable direction. Search engines have improved AI capacity to provide useful leads to whatever is typed in the search window. So you don’t have any excuses for not tracking a subject down to a fruitful depth.

However, such a search, for merely one topic, can take a half hour or an hour or more. I have gotten lost in interesting research and looked up to find half of Saturday morning is gone. For one tidbit about pyramids, say. Who has the time for that?

The answer does depend on how committed you are, of course, and what time horizons you have set for finishing the book. Yet you have more time in your day than you might think. I, for instance, like to read about sports while eating breakfast—but when writing, I will open a library book with my handy-dandy weight bar lying across the right pages. Another prime opportunity is the evening, when so many of us are ensconced on a couch watching banal TV shows. You are depleted of energy from a busy day, for sure, but how much energy is required to click on links? You make the time—because hunting down details is just another facet of your love of writing.

Exercise: How far do you have to plumb before a detail becomes unique? I would advise you bring a character to mind as soon as you are struck by curiosity about a topic. Try to imagine how the character would handle the curious piece or the thoughts entertained about it. That bite-sized aspect of the topic is probably the right level.

“When you're curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.”
—Walt Disney

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Reader’s Right to Choose

When writing a self-help book, an author engages in the art of persuasion. Direct address, using the word “you” over and over, helps in this process, since it addresses the reader as though they are sitting across from the author. That style also accords with the author’s usual style, since so many self-help books are filled with instructions written down rather than given orally in a training program of whatever sort.

What works well spoken aloud does not always translate to words down on paper. There are several reasons for this problem. First, written words do not carry the same intonation that a teacher can use to soften what may come off as a command, not to mention an easy smile as it is said. A second issue is repetition. Whereas a repeated instruction functions well live, since call-and-response is so much a part of human interaction, the same command can be annoying when it is read too many times.

The most important reason stems from the difference between a live interaction and the reading experience. If you choose to join a class, usually paying money for the service, you don’t mind so much being hectored. That’s what you’re there for: to improve a flaw you know you have. A person reading in the quiet of a room has a different level of commitment. First, the money expended is a fraction of that for a class. That’s not to mention that the book was chosen from an entire bookshelf of similar titles. If the reader grows weary of your book, there’s always another book on self-improvement.

Beyond these limitations lies a third: the right to choose. A reader is engaged mentally with a book. That means their mind more actively responds to the words. Part of that engagement may tip in an affirmative direction, but part may also challenge what is being read. It’s not a social interaction, where being cowed works—it’s for your own good. Rather, it’s a private meeting of minds. You may be granted the license of being an authority, but if the teacher is too mean, the book is closed.

This is why I caution authors against using commands such as: “Yes, do it now.” “Pick up a pencil and do the exercise. Now.” That sort of approach leads to repetition of the commands after every exercise. The command starts to feel sharp, angry, and the reader may not think the exercise was that great anyway. You have denied readers the right to think for themselves.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for any imperative sentences. Each time ask yourself: in the neutrality of the printed page, is this coming off right? Do I sound like a jerk? If you’re really struggling to separate yourself from the writing, have a friend read it and see how they react.

“Your position never gives you the right to command. It only imposes on you the duty of so living your life that others can receive your orders without being humiliated.”
—Dag Hammarskjold

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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