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


Genres Past

Many a debut author is confused when, after writing a novel, they are asked by a literary agent what its genre is. Their knowledge of genres has been formed most likely by seeing different sections in a bookstore: Fiction, Mystery, Science Fiction, etc. When they consider the question, common answers are: “Can’t it belong in the general fiction category?” or “It is a combination of genres.”

It is heartening that a person writing a novel thinks that books are free from—elevated above, might be the better term—the world of marketing, but that’s not how publishers think. They have marketing departments, and the head of that department may give the decisive nay vote in deciding whether or not to buy a book. That’s because publishers are not writers. They manufacture books that are placed on a shelf, virtual or not. That’s why the question of which shelf is crucial.

A more knowledgeable author may realize to which genre the book belongs. This writer knows that the book is a thriller, say. Yet the marketing questions do not stop there. The next question is: what type of thriller? Is it a military thriller? A legal thriller? A police procedural? Skipping past the author’s further confusion about a more specific label, they must realize the possible stop signs.

That’s because these subgenres go through fads. For example, legal thrillers were all the rage 20 years ago. An author may write that type of book because they enjoyed reading that genre back when it was popular. That doesn’t mean it is now. To an agent, that label is passĂ©. The subgenre may very well come back into fashion, since they do run in cycles. They often are kick-started by a raging best-seller in the subgenre. But do you want to wait until then?

You are better off investigating what is popular now. Unless your book takes place entirely inside a courtroom, to keep using that example, it probably can be called a “crime drama.” You may find that some agents are looking for thrillers featuring a serial murderer—do you have one?

You can also tailor the book to shade it more toward the brand you have adopted. To continue with the legal thriller, could you cut down the number of courtroom scenes and write a few more for the lead detective pursuing the case? The expenditure of a few weeks may result in a product that you can take to the people who want to hear: I know how to sell my book.

Exercise: To find out what is popular, look in the bookstore or on Amazon and see what is selling. Read the blurbs on the back cover of the book and see what a marketing writer thinks will appeal to the reading public. They aren’t subtle. An hour spent sitting on the carpet in front of a bookcase can improve your understanding wonderfully.

“I think of myself as a bad writer with big ideas, but I'd rather be that than a big writer with bad ideas.”
―Michael Moorcock

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Your Y Joints

When a nonfiction writer assembles chapters, the gathered material can be placed within broad groupings. Yet the juxtaposition of two diverse subjects can be jarring. For instance, a history of cataract diagnosis does not logically lead into intracapsular cataract extraction, an older surgical procedure. Often what happens is that an inexperienced author thinks, “Oh, I’ll just put a boldface heading between sections.” And what often happens? You end up with a chapter that has 15-20 headings. Many times a section consists of only a single paragraph, because that’s all the material you have on that topic. The problem is, headings don’t make a chapter’s progress logical by themselves.

The solution to joining up two topics is a paragraph that encompasses both subjects. If you think of your narrative as a journey, you can signal to the reader when you’re about to turn left. If you remember your wooden train tracks as a child, this device could be called a Y section. That’s because the best junction is a transition paragraph between the topics.

The key is to find an overarching idea that includes both of the topics. For instance, the first sentence of the Y paragraph might summarize your section on cataract diagnosis. The second sentence might draw back the “camera lens” to tell the reader that finally ophthalmologists discovered a way to do something about what they were observing. A third sentence might describe the cataract film (diagnosis) and how it might be shattered (surgery). The final sentence might then introduce the idea of intracapsular cataract extraction. Now you’re on a new topic, and it all happened in one natural flow. 

You can do the same with two headings that are close to each other. Expand the first heading into a complete sentence. Now do the same for the second heading. Those become the first and last sentences in your Y paragraph. Now write a few sentences that will bridge the first and last sentences, and voilĂ —the headings disappear.

Exercise: Pick out a chapter and look for boldface subheadings. You should shoot for only five or so sections per chapter. How much material follows a heading? A paragraph? Two paragraphs? You should shoot for two pages, minimum, for a section. That will discipline you to create larger sections.

“Pay no attention to what the critics say; there has never been set up a statue in honor of a critic.” 
—Jean Sibelius

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


A Step Deeper

Authors don’t think in terms of stuffing their novel full of details, but that is the end result. Descriptions set the stage in different scenes. Background information, short and long, enhance characterization. Given the multiplicity of scenes and characters, all those details add up. More important, the quality of the details can create larger flows that either sharpen or dull the overall reading experience.

How do you make sure, amid the sheer volume of details, that your reader stays alert? A favorite word of mine is the often misspelled “pique,” as in piquing someone’s interest. What stimulates a reader? In my experience it is complexity. For instance, a complex character holds the reader’s interest more than a cardboard cutout. When applied to a detail, this multilayered approach derives from how long an author stays on that one point.

Let’s look at a single example to see how this process works. Imagine a corporate lobby in a city skyscraper that is filled with Frank Stella sculptures. Anyone who knows Stella immediately thinks of garish colors and weirdly cut pieces superimposed on each other. Okay, you could write that. That does describe his artwork. But let’s dig deeper.

How does a character walking into that lobby feel? The first thought might be about the corporation that picked the art. Is it trying to make a statement about how sophisticated it is? Or the thought might be directed at why interesting art was placed in such a sterile setting, with all the smartly dressed people rushing in a timely fashion. The artwork might be perceived as intimidating, since the character is nervous about what awaits on the 14th floor above. In all of these cases the physical appearance of the object is given a sub-layer of a character’s reactions to the object.

A more difficult feat is using a metaphor to describe an object. George Orwell’s comment “Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket” makes no pretense of literal accuracy. Instead, a detail is likened to another idea that describes it obliquely. These parallels, if truly apt, are famously the best ones of all.

What matters is how much time an author spends revolving the concept, turning it this way and that to gauge how to reveal its essence. Even a more pedestrian “The faded billboards indicated the fortunes of the town” still has the ability to make a reader stop for a click to consider the deeper meaning. When you fill up an entire manuscript with riches created by your trying harder, you don’t have to wonder why readers remember it.

Exercise: Review the manuscript looking only for descriptions. Have you put enough time into making each one stand out, even if only a little? A “dingy” white picket fence tells the reader more than just a “white picket fence.” When you add details that indicate personality, the reader benefits from what you infer.

“A hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running.”
—Groucho Marx

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Prattling On

Whatever character or plot decisions that are made during the course of writing a novel, an author can always count on the fact that the story will be filled with details. These can be personal, which emerge frequently in dialogue-driven stories. They can be descriptive for those who are either clear-sighted or given to metaphors. Yet the very profusion of possibilities raises a question: how do you recognize which details should be included?

In this post I’ll cover dialogue, since that constitutes more than half the text of most commercial novels. When does the natural flow of words—sounding right to the ear—spill over into nattering? Any writer knows that, especially on a day when you’re tired, entire pages can be spun out of a conversation between two characters. Such practice echoes real life. Just think of your average phone call to your mother. Does anyone escape without talking about minutia for at least twenty minutes?

Let’s stop right there for a moment. From such a phone call you already know what was wheat and what was chaff. You called your mother for a specific reason, say to check on Thanksgiving arrangements. You didn’t need to learn about her latest stomach ailment, or what that nasty Nancy Ross at the theater said to her, or the fact that your stepfather will be carving the turkey, the way he does every year. You knew, going in to the call, that you would endure nineteen minutes of an older person needing to talk in order to gain the one minute that will determine your plans in late November.

When you review your dialogue passages, you can use the same filter. Start off by asking: what am I trying to accomplish during this conversation? How will the words spoken advance either the plot or your characterization? You do want a natural flow, because otherwise the dialogue will be stilted. Yet how much, really, is needed to set that base?

One handy tool is employing narrative summary as bridges during dialogue. If the natural flow starts to yammer, you can end the quoted material and condense the filler to a sentence or two. The narrative portion moves the reader from topic A to topic B without expending all the time it takes for a conversation to naturally bend in that direction. An example might be: “They kept on exchanging pleasantries until Gilbert got around to what he really wanted to say.” Then you jump to the next good part.

Exercise: One tactic that works less well is indirect quotes. While this sort of work can compress text material, it also can come to feel like remote-control storytelling. Are they talking or aren’t they? If you feel you should summarize, try for a single sentence in length to do that job. That’s the level of an executive summary, not a secondhand, passive narrative.

“Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about themselves, and small people talk about others.”
― John C. Maxwell

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.