Be Careful What You Want

When the reason for writing a novel is to relive old times, an author is warned that fiction has demands that go beyond spinning fine yarns. Such a project usually begins with vignettes that are droll or interesting because of the unusual circumstances of an occupation. These pieces can run three or four or five pages. The collection of them grows over time until some critical mass of pages is achieved in the author’s mind. Maybe 100 pages, or 200? The length is starting to resemble the length of novels they’ve read—or at least seen in venues such as the airport Hudson News stands.

When the budding author asks around about how to go about pull their collection together into a real novel, a common piece of advice is to hire an editor. I have called upon occasionally in these situations, and I dispense roughly the same advice.

The first is to look beyond the individual scenes and seize upon a thread that will run all the way to the end of the book. What is the end goal for the main character (usually the author thinly disguised)? How can the scenes be lined up in service of that goal? More important, what scenes have nothing to do with that goal? This is the tricky part, because many authors don’t like to discard what they’ve already written. But if you’re writing about a major swindle on the rodeo circuit, some of the dozen scenes you’ve written about, say, obstreperous broncos may have to be axed. How many times will a reader read about someone being dumped before thinking, “Isn’t this like the last bucking bronco scene I read?”

The next vital consideration is the longevity of your characters. “Long” in this case refers to how long they last in the novel. If plucky Jane appears in two scenes and you have 40 of them, her quirks will be drowned among the plethora of other personalities. Such a cameo appearance also hampers the process of readers identifying with her. If she is to be used in any weighty plot business, such as being murdered, the catharsis you gain revolves around how much readers care about the character.

Attention to creating a circle of major characters can also limit the feeling of listlessness that comes over a reader while reading an episodic novel. In too many scenes a new character appears, and readers don’t know how they fit into the main plot. Even characters who reappear occasionally don’t help, because they’ve been gone so long, they obviously don’t matter. Real life may be stranger than fiction, but for the most part, it’s merely more scattered.

Exercise: When examining characters in disparate scenes, see if you can gang them up into a single character. You know that you are writing about a half dozen different cowboys, for example, but couldn’t they be combined in one Cowboy? Better yet, you can pick the most colorful of the lot, and use that person repeatedly.

“Goals transform a random walk into a chase."
—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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