Letter Perfect

The process of learning how to write effectively takes place on so many levels that an author may pay less attention to the lowest rung on the ladder, typos. Part of my function while line editing is cleaning up after authors. I don’t mind, but I do find this neglectful attitude to be very curious. This author, like all readers, would be offended by typos in a printed book. Yet when they don an author’s cap, it’s somehow okay to take the chance that someone else, with no stake in the book, will find all the errors for them.

You should be aware that typos are the number one reason manuscripts are rejected. The reasoning goes: if the author doesn’t care enough to clean up their typos, the larger elements of the story will be sloppy as well. It's just another ego trip. Publishing professionals see plenty of that, even with authors who are meticulous.

Becoming a good writer means mastering your trade. Master carpenters, for example, always check their measurements twice before cutting. It’s stupid, really: they know they marked that board at 16-5/8”. But they make sure, every time, because once the board is sawn, they have lost money if they marked it wrong. Your manuscript submission can be regarded in the same light. You put all that effort into writing a great story, so why would you want it to be rejected for trivial mistakes?

There is a rule of thumb at a publishing house. A sloppy manuscript leads to a sloppy copy edit leads to a sloppy proofread. When the finished book comes out, readers write to complain about all the typos.

Sometimes authors tell me, “Well, I used spell check.” That is a good first step, one I take myself at the end of every line edit. But computer spell-check programs are only looking for misspelled words. If it sees a word that is spelled correctly, even though used incorrectly (e.g., your for you’re), it lets the error go. Lets is a word, even though the most common usage is let’s.

You know most of this stuff. You’re being arrogant and lazy, not to mention childish, to expect someone else to correct your mistakes. Don’t plead ignorance because you weren’t paying attention in sixth grade. You’re an adult now. So start acting like the professional writer you want to be.

Exercise: If you’re unsure about spelling or punctuation, you merely have to go online and check. Gaining mastery over the most widespread errors doesn’t take long at all. What you’ll also find is that by checking yourself, you’ll gain more desire to use more interesting words. You’re digging in. You want control over every word you write. Your readers will thank you for your diligence.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls
and looks like work.” 
—Thomas A. Edison

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Leading with Lodestones

How to organize a lifetime full of memories is a frequent stumbling block for an author trying to write a memoir. You likely have a wealth of stories that you know will entertain a reader. Even if you are more disciplined and want to organize the stories around a theme, such as autism, setting the stories in the right order may become an increasing challenge as you write. For example, you do think that semi-criminal episode at age eight is telling, but you aren’t sure any readers are going to care about the antics of an eight-year-old.

The limitation most memoirists face is that they do not think in any other order except chronological. I discovered this problem with a writer recently during an initial phone call to learn more about her manuscript. As we kept talking, she started telling me about some terrific stories that her subject experienced when he was an adult. So far, though, she had only written up to when he was in high school, and she was starting to doubt that readers would want to plow through all the child-related material.

She had the right idea. The beginning of a memoir has to grab the reader by the lapels and say, “You have to read this book.” That must be your first consideration in terms of organizing the material. If you proceed chronologically, you are placing material that least interests an adult—child's play, in essence—first. As a reader I may never get to those intriguing adult stories.

Instead, start by writing out your most powerful stories. These are the ones you feels most passionately about. Now you can organize your memoir around your strongest chapters. Start with when, say, you were were living in a dumpster as the first chapter. After that you might jump back to age eight with the idea of telling the reader how you ended up in that dumpster. After a chapter of that, you can jump ahead to a second interesting adult story. And so on.  Chronology is employed, yes, but the function of the childhood material is to fill out our knowledge of what happened in adulthood.

Why does this method work? If you lead off a book with material you know is unique and fresh, you’ll find that your other material, which may be more ordinary, takes on a different aspect because it is supporting the unique material. Put another way, your unique material creates a prism through which the more ordinary material can be viewed. Theme—those interesting stories—now governs chronology in your organizational approach.

Exercise: Try taking a later chapter in the memoir and placing it up front. Write down a summary of what happens in that chapter. With that summary in mind, now read through the childhood material. Do you see early-developmental issues that would support that new first chapter? Pick out only that material for the following chapter, and leave the other eight-year-old anecdotes aside for later use—to support another adult idea.

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.”
—Herman Melville

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Art of the Fiction Outline

The stages of submitting and then publishing a book entail long delays. This problem cannot be helped, for book publishing moves at a glacial speed. As an author you can fret about the fact that your literary agent or editor never seems to get back to you, but you’re just wasting your time. Unless you’re famous, they’re not changing for you. Instead, you should do something productive, like starting on the next book.

You can turn your impatience into an economic advantage if you write an outline for the next book. Depending on your situation, you could try to sell the finished manuscript and the outline in a two-book deal. Or, you can use the outline as a way to land a new book contract.

To become a selling tool, an outline must be long enough. I recommend a length of at least 15-20 pages. That way an agent or editor truly can judge the book’s merits. Like a synopsis, it is written out in paragraph form. You can assume that you will need a paragraph to summarize each scene (or chapter), depending on whether a plot advance is achieved during its course. That’s because plot is one of the two main ingredients in an outline. Each paragraph should have the scene’s point-of-view character leading their plot thread to the next step. You can attach the minor characters to these unfolding threads.

That suggestion indicates the other key ingredient of an outline: the relationships between characters. You want to stress over the course of the outline how these relationships develop. The obstacles in a romantic partnership, the steps leading toward further antagonism between enemies, the reasons a buddyhood is created—all of these are needed to make the outline emotionally charged. Even in outline form, you are trying to sway the reader’s emotions.

You don’t need all the nuances, of either character or plot. If a relationship between a major and minor character contains no progression, just mention it in passing. The same is true of plot; you don’t need to detail every clever nuance involved in a sting. Keep on a high plane, conscious that you need to keep moving on to the next paragraph.

That’s why it’s a good idea to avoid dialogue. Once you descend to that level of detail, you’re writing out the rough draft of the novel. You don’t want to show a rough draft to any book professional. Plus, that’s not the point of an outline, which is merely a vehicle for selling the unwritten book. If you stick to narrative summary, you’ll get through each point at a speed that someone who has read hundreds of outlines will appreciate.

Exercise: An outline is not a book report. You are still a storyteller, only in capsule form. Each paragraph should be a building block of some sort, either providing an interesting clue or an alarming turn in a relationship. You can’t supply all the shading, but your sketch should be intriguing to follow.

“There's no money in poetry, but then there's no poetry in money either.”
—Robert Graves

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Slain by Bullet Points

A ubiquitous feature of business books is a list of summarized points. Each one is a takeaway from the previous text discussion, or a preview of the segment that immediately follows. The origin of this practice is the business presentation, held before an assemblage of clients and/or subordinates.

I have no problem with a summary. A businessperson does not have a lot of free time, and a handy digest can knock home the most important ideas. What I do find objectionable is a long list. If a bulleted list is longer than 5-6 entries, my eyes start to glaze over. What is the problem here? Am I such a poor student, letting down my mentor?

The difficulty arises from the very nature of communication. A pithy phrase by itself can be a fine distillation of a larger idea. Yet an entire run of short phrases can start to read like slogans or an author’s notes to himself that he is too lazy to explain.  Worst of all, they may strike the reader as annoying pronouncements from on high. One hallmark of American education is a distrust of grandiloquence. In an actual business meeting, a presenter anticipates this instinctive reaction. That’s why each bullet point up on the screen is then explained orally. In other words, each pithy phrase is then given the larger context from which it sprang.

The same occurs in good writing. You have a kernel of a good idea that you then expand into a thematic paragraph. Let’s say: a visionary leader is always bursting with new ideas. That is the topic sentence of the paragraph, and you fill out the proposition with common types of ideas such leaders have. That paragraph may then be followed by a paragraph or a few about a specific leader who had a specific idea. By the time you’re done, I have grasped the point.

Besides the proof that such elaboration provides, buttressing the thematic point, such writing also serves a vital function that tends to be overlooked in business writing. At all times, no matter what field, you are telling a story. It just happens to be a true story. You hold the reader’s attention by taking the time to explain how you arrived at your conclusion.

If you’re writing an entire book, you’re going to be spending a lot of time explaining. So spare us the long lists. Put the entire PowerPoint presentation down on paper, only in a form that readers recognize. The bulleted point is the topic sentence, and the oral explanation, now written down, fills out the topic.

Exercise: Locate a long bulleted list in your manuscript. Check each point against the narrative that (usually) precedes it. How many of those points did you actually make in the last section? Unless the section is much longer than most, you probably only made 5-6 major points. Put down only those. Anything else is more minor, and you should move them into the preceding text.

“I am a galley slave to pen and ink.”
—Honore de Balzac

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Part the Veils of the Past

Authors tend to think of background stories as a one-time event. You want to cover how the heroine’s father was never around, so you tell a story about missing the opening night of her high school musical. Problem solved, check Dad off the to-do list. Yet you can be more flexible, employing strategies that enable background to become dynamic in its own right.

One very effective technique is breaking up a skein of background information into increasingly larger parts. With this method you are employing background in the fashion of an unfolding mystery. At first the reader knows only a little, and as the book goes on, he learns more and more. The first background piece can be short, setting up as a single sentence early on that intrigues the reader. For instance, the hero thinks: “He never figured out what Kelly found so repellent that she would divorce him.” That’s it. The reader reads that line, and the wheels start turning. What the heck was that all about? I want to find out more about that.

In another thirty pages you drop the next piece, a paragraph this time: “Kelly only wanted the good life. She couldn’t understand why he was so lacking in ambition. He supposed it stemmed from their different backgrounds. He grew up pretty well off—not rich but his father had a good job, his parents never fought about money, and they lived in a nice suburb. Kelly came from Revere, one of those northern Massachusetts towns that time spat out long ago. In college the difference was charming, like Ryan and Ali in Love Story. By thirty it had become more of a horror story. That’s when she first started dressing like a porn star.”

Then a plot event—Kelly shows up in his life again—can tip off the main back story, the one in which the character suffered trauma. We learn the full sad saga of how Kelly fished after young executive types, embarrassing the hero repeatedly at parties, and finally ended up with a fast-talking salesman who held the hero underwater in the surf until he nearly drowned—while everyone laughed their heads off at him. Then she remarried, had three delightful children, and drives around in a BMW 325i, while our hero is groveling for dimes.

When parceled out this way, the back story can generate a good deal of emotional power all its own. That’s because you’re employing a standard storytelling technique—whetting our appetite with a glimpse, sharing a little more of the secret, then delivering the full juicy goods. You’ve also created a plot progression of a form. Even though the background information is static, because it already happened, the way in which it is told is dynamic.

Exercise: Review the background pieces you have in your story. Is any one of them crucial to understanding the protagonist? Now consider the possibility of breaking it into stages, showing the reader more and more. Could you break what you already have into such pieces? If not, think about what the crucial element is. Could you write a new background pieces that employs the step-by-step strategy?

“A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise. Because that is how life is—full of surprises.”
—Isaac Bashevis Singer

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Resurrecting from the Past

If you are writing a sequel, your first concern is to escape from the clutches of the first book. You can do that by being deliberate about your outlining the second book. Forget about being organic. If you plunge in, thinking the characters will guide you through, you will likely find that your story is noodling right along the same grooves you pursued last time. Set down clear lines you want the new story to follow first.

One primary objective is devising a way to foment new tension between your established characters. Let’s say that sexual tension between Jack and Amy built nicely during the first book. Yet once they become a pair by the end, where do you go from there? As the old writing dictum goes, you either have to build up or tear down a relationship. The one thing it can’t do is remain on a plateau all book long. So you better start creating some problems if you want Jack and Amy to keep entertaining the reader. The reasons that a couple has problems are many: infidelity, undue jealousy, money, and/or divergent interests among them. Which type of problem would lead their plot line in a distinctly different direction from the first book?

You should consider other sources of friction as well. Perhaps Amy’s father hated Jack, but by the end of the book has come to respect him. What is going to replace that agent of friction? Unless you have a new concern for her father, you might want to relegate him to a minor character in the second book.

When you are outlining the next book, take one important step. Create new major characters right from the start. Write sketches about them, just as you (hopefully) did for your major characters in book one. When you set out a preliminary order of scenes, make sure the new characters are heavily involved with the ones being carried over. That way you’ll avoid any scenes that mainly explicate the past. Once you’ve created a run of 10 or so scenes, you’ll have a good start to a fresh book.

Exercise: Draw up an initial plot chart with three columns. The headings should be: Chapter, Main Characters (in that chapter), and Scene Synopsis. For the Synopsis, try to write 5-6 sentences, laying out the plot points in some detail. You can see right away the advantages of sketching out in brief what you’d like to pursue, and with which characters. You’re moving beyond the hazy one-line comments in your outline. You can also see at a glance whether you’re replicating relationships or plot ideas from the past.

“If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor.”
—Edgar Rice Burroughs

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Problem with I

Journalists justifiably feel proud when they venture out and capture a good story. That news would not have reached the light of day without them. It takes a special type of person to do that, and they know it. I have never met a reporter who lacked self-confidence.

Excelling at a short form does not, however, guarantee success at book length. The studious hiding behind the stage curtain—merely the microphone at the interview, folks—is harder to accomplish over a long span of pages. The author may be swayed toward injecting personal opinions on the proceedings. After all, they know the real low-down on this creep, and that simply isn’t emerging in the tale they’re telling.

Worst of all is a reporter becoming the center of the story. Because they were granted exclusive access to luminary X, they fall into the delusion that the narrative should be governed by their relationship to X. The story starts when they meet X. The affection or disaffection that marked the relationship becomes an integral part of the tale. The steps along the way become tinted by the reporter’s interpretation of whether that scoundrel X was lying or not.

In the meantime, the reader’s is kept at arm’s length from the subject—uh, the person whose picture on the cover caused us to pick up the book in the first place. Such vital elements as chronology can be subverted to the author’s chronology with X. The selection of victims can be limited to the author’s personal knowledge of victims, often because of laziness to do the research required to fill out a proper list. Lowest of all are the frequent tangents in which the all-knowing author relates examples from their own career of reporting to supplement the events X experienced.

At this point self-confidence has fully descended to arrogance. The author has committed the worst excesses of using a first-person narration. Far from being a microphone, the reporter becomes the story. That doesn’t even serve the author well, since such a manuscript may be summarily rejected by a publisher.

Experience in journalism applies to the long form as well. If you are to step out from behind the curtain, a wave now and then to the audience will suffice. They are, after all, interested in what is happening onstage.

Exercise: Review the manuscript and stop every time you see the word “I.” In that case, would it be better for the narration to remain neutral? A fact is a fact, whether you are telling it or not. Then go beyond that. Is your opinion about the matter necessary? Do the facts speak for themselves? You will find, by pruning 80% of such personal interpolations, that the story gains much more authority than you could ever provide.

“We are the recorders and reporters of facts—not the judges of the behaviors we describe.”
—Alfred Kinsey

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Different Voices

Your characters suffer from a universal limitation. They all spring from inside you. They tend to sound alike, because you’re the one who is thinking up all the things they are saying. This muddle is exacerbated by the fact that dialogue, while easy to write, is usually the least distinctive element of your narrative. Why is that? In dialogue you need to capture the cadence of the way people speak. Otherwise, conversations can sound artificial, labored. What people say, on paper, usually sounds like what a lot of people might say.

So, how do you make your characters speak in unique ways? As with other elements of building a compelling character, your difficulty probably stems from the fact that you are writing about them from the outside. They’re all sound like you because you are dictating—the puppet master—how they should talk.

Dialogue needs to be spoken from the inside. Once you grasp that simple principle, separating out voices becomes one more function of creating vivid personalities. Let’s take the example of a boy and girl that have fallen in love in New York City. What are the most outstanding characteristics of the boyfriend? First, let’s say he hails from Ohio. As any Easterner can tell you, people from the Midwest are so nice. He’s lived in New York for three years. Now ask yourself: what are the sorts of things you would talk about when you’ve lived there for (only) three years?

Now let’s consider the girlfriend. She’s from Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, streetwise but shy. What is her frame of reference? She’s lived in New York all her life, so she’s going to complain about all its irritations. That’s how being cooped up in a city feels. Maybe add in that her conversations are sprinkled with scientific references, because that’s what she studied in school. Maybe she can’t wait for the Science section in the Times to come out on Tuesday.

Are these two characters going to talk differently? They will if you keep in mind, as you begin every conversation between them, where they’re coming from. Once you get a feel for operating from inside their head, your characters are going to talk to you first—in their own voice. Then just write down what they say.

Exercise: The most straightforward difference between two characters is: one’s an extrovert and the other’s an introvert. How do extroverts talk? You can start with the premise that they do their thinking out loud. They’ll do a lot of announcing. An introvert will tend to stumble more aloud. They will blurt out something, then have to correct themselves halfway through, or want to correct themselves because they are thoughtful enough to desire the right nuance. Try it: listen to people talk, and you’ll see the difference right away.

“Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.”
—Samuel Johnson

Copyright @2019, John Paine

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.