Only What Sparkles

How do you make large-scales cuts in a nonfiction manuscript? Let's use an example a memoir I edited to demonstrate several tools that you may find useful. The manuscript tells of growing up on a Midwestern farm in a bygone era. The author, knowing that mid-century techniques in agriculture are as foreign to modern-day city dwellers as aquatic life on Mars, listed such practices as seeding, cultivating, and threshing crops as well as farm animals and related topics such as a rural schoolhouse. All of these topics had nuggets of intriguing information, but in the aggregate the manuscript ran to 600 double-spaced pages. A quick check on Amazon showed me that most similar books are barely 300 pages long—or about 400 double-spaced pages. I know that’s about as much as I would want to read.

How do you cut 200 pages? That’s a third of the book. The first place to look is: what are you offering that’s new? In other words, it’s easy to get caught up in cataloguing everything you know about a subject. How much of that information, though, is common knowledge? For instance, the farm memoirist engages my interest when he tells how to collect eggs in a bucket without breaking them, but when he spends several pages on wooden trains, I start yawning. I know all I ever want to know about wooden trains. That’s not unique. You have to regard what you’ve written with a cold eye. Nice that you were involved personally, but are you really telling us something we didn’t know?

A second place to look is: focused writing. If you spend a few pages on a mini tractor that Mom used in the garden, I’ll read it with enjoyment. If you spend a few pages mentioning all of the families you can see from the farm, barely spending a paragraph apiece on each, hardly covering more than their names, what earthly good will that do the reader? The art of storytelling governs the level of interest in nonfiction as well as fiction. If you take the time to delve into details that we can grab onto, we’ll want to find out what happened. If you’re rolling out a list, merely for the sake of pointing out facts, our eyes are going to glaze over. We want the stuff that sparkles in your account. Luckily, that’s easy for you to find. It is the material that you yourself find intriguing.

“The writer who cannot sometimes throw away a thought about which another man would have written dissertations, without worry whether or not the reader will find it, will never become a great writer.”
—Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

Copyright 2019, John Paine


Watching and Waiting

Most novelists realize the importance of keeping the protagonist continually in front of the reader. Since most novels are written in the third-person narrative voice, the danger of your star disappearing among the multitude of characters and plots requires deft planning. Having the lead appear every other chapter might be considered a minimum of the attention that needs to be paid.

Since the main plot revolves around the main character, he will take control of the novel after a certain point. Yet a plot takes awhile to develop, and in the early going its urgency is not as compelling. As the different sides, both good and evil, raise their stakes, an author may be forgiven for deeming this beginning segment an ideal time to make the character truly unique.

Yet the push and pull between character and plot is not easy to control. If a subsidiary character needs to establish a plot stake, in order for the protagonist to later react to it, that supporting character is doing something interesting. Killing someone the star cares for is a common early ploy. What, however, is the star doing in her next chapter that can command equal attention from the reader?

This problem becomes more pronounced when a plot line is wholly divorced from the protagonist’s. Any novel requiring the hero to take a journey will likely contain such a plot. What if the reader becomes more interested in the plot gaining steam in Shanghai as opposed to the star’s roosting grounds in San Francisco?

An additional complication is the well-known fact that evil acts are more interesting than those of the good. The malefactor may dazzle to such an extent early on that the reader longs for his return, even after the hero is seen to make progress. This places your protagonist in the awkward role of trying to wrest control of her own novel from a character who clearly deserves to be punished.

Unless you are writing a literary novel, the only solution is giving the lead character the best thought-out plot planning. Let’s say the hero, in order to establish his character, learns early on his sister was abused by her husband. The steps he takes to rectify the situation determines how interested the reader will be. If, for example, in the scene right after the villain commits a murder, the hero confronts the husband, I’ll be interested in seeing the repercussions. If, on the other hand, the scene consists of the hero’s wringing his hands at his kitchen table, I’ll award the point to the villain. You’re in charge. Make sure your plotting matches your desire for a deeper portrayal.

Exercise: You can chart the developments of your different plot lines. Review each scene and write a 1-2 sentence description of the plot advance that was achieved. Look for corresponding weights. A murder, for example, requires a major counterbalance. A villain’s threat, on the other hand, might be answered by the hero’s hand wringing.

“Life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim.”
—Bertrand Russell

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


From Inert to Propulsive

Everyone knows you need active verbs in your prose. The new take I have to offer is where to find these verbs within your present text. When I am line editing, I often grab words used as other parts of speech in a sentence and convert them into verbs. I am surprised, in fact, by how often a fine active verb is waiting right there to be plucked.

All writers face the same problem. Readers must traverse your written page, and you need vehicles that transport them forward. If a sentence is not propelled forward by a verb, all your brilliant word choices otherwise might as well be gilded bowling pins. They will stand like posts, inert, waiting for the electric clap of movement.

The most common obstacle to good writing is passive sentence construction. If a sentence starts with “There is” or “It is,” you immediately need to take a second look at it. The usage stems from the way we talk, because it serves as a way to lead into a new topic.

One useful trick is to look for the most distinctive word in a passive sentence. It can be a noun, adjective, or adverb. One common culprit is a word ending in –tion or –ment. Let’s take: “There is true enjoyment in humming on the way to work.” Simply strip off the suffix and make that the verb. “I have found I truly enjoy humming on the way to work.”

Another simple fix is eliminating the “there is” clause from a sentence and forcing yourself to supply an active verb. For example: “In the search material there is a number of such letters from other women similar to this one.” If the “there is” comes out, “material” must become a noun. Therefore you get: “The search material contains a number of such letters from other women similar to this one.” Such a change entails no profound spurt of creative energy. You’re merely making sure that the sentence is moving forward.

These micro decisions are not earth-shaking. When making each change, you don’t feel like you’ve made much of a difference. Yet in the aggregate, adding up dozens or even hundreds of such changes, you’ve ensured all those times that the reader makes progress in your narrative. So they appreciate all the more when you produce that metaphor or dazzling turn of phrase. They've come to expect it of such a careful writer.

Exercise: You should be on the constant lookout for the combination of “it is” and “that” in a sentence. For example: “It was at that moment that Lorraine realized she was in this all alone.” Cut out the three extra words and you get: “At that moment Lorraine realized she was in this all alone.” You’ve not only made the sentence more active, you’ve pruned extra verbiage as well.

“I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”
—Truman Capote

Copyright @ 2019 John Paine


Am I Really With You?

I was writing the other day about nonfiction writers getting carried away, and one of the reasons is using the word “we” too often. I’d like to explore that topic further, from the standpoint of a reader who might not want to be included in the author’s gang. I paid money for the book, right? It ‘s supposed to help me. I didn’t sign up to become part of a tribe.

The tactic originated as part of making speeches, I’m sure. When you’re up at a podium, you’re trying to sell an audience on your ideas. Your fervor will carry the day, and one way to win over the masses is including them as part of the cause, making them feel they are participating. This process can be likened to a school pep rally—for adults who should know better than to fork over an outrageous sum to attend the event.

In a book, this form of exhortation has a useful purpose. It makes the topics being discussed more immediate to the reader. Any book will cover a wide range of subjects, and a portion of them are universal. In a book about buying a house, we should all understand the importance of points when refinancing a mortgage. We all should know that Zillow derives an individual house’s price from the sales of houses in its neighborhood. “We” are truly all together when the topics cover all readers.

Authors make their mistake when they extend this nice effort to include people into areas that are specialized. If we are talking about real estate in Arizona, and I live in Massachusetts, I’m not part of the “we” that discusses the importance of water rights. It’s annoying for me to be roped into a discussion that is of remote interest at best. Worse, it distances such a reader from the book in general, because now I’m aware the author is just making a pitch.

This is a reason why examples are useful. If the author got out of their lazy armchair, where “we” is so easy and cozy, and delivers an example of the Fosters, who live in Tucson and found their stream poisoned by a new development, the reader now can participate in another fashion. I know this could happen to me, in another guise, since developers are universally unscrupulous. But I don’t feel irritated that I have only a vague idea what an arroyo is.

Exercise: Do a universal search of the word “we” in your manuscript. When you find each one, check the context in which it is being used. If you are making a claim that truly does embrace all of your readers, you can leave it alone. If you are addressing only a sector of the audience, see if you can replace it with language that acknowledges that portion of readers that are bystanders.

“Who cares about the clouds when we're together? Just sing a song and bring the sunny weather.”
—Dale Evans

Copyright @ 2019 John Paine


Idiom or Cliché?

We use clichés all the time when we’re speaking. They are a form of shorthand for an idea that might need to be explained. Anyone knows what “the ball is in your court” means, even if they don’t play tennis. Clichés can also be used as humor, since the idea that a cliché conveys can be used as a clever association or an ironic counterpart. In other words, the reason that clichés persist, despite our common scorn, is because they are useful.

Unfortunately, they can also be a lazy form of writing. I see them often employed in manuscripts that are written in haste. You are writing, trying to get ideas out, and a cliché springs to mind. They are easy to grab, mentally, and they may very well convey what you mean. Depending on the writer, they may actually be more succinctly phrased than the surrounding material. Their kernel-like clarity is why they were retained in common speech originally.

Yet a cliché is also a borrowed piece of text. To me, that is the greatest sin. If you look at the quotation that ends this post, you’ll see exactly what I mean. You are trying to express yourself. You and no one else. You know about all those other books on all those shelves, and you are carving out a new legacy. So why would you want to clutter up your prose with the ideas of someone else?

One other factor to consider is the fatigue a reader experiences. The weariness felt from encountering the familiar enervates your prose. The reader experiences a subtle reaction: oh, a cliché. That’s sort of boring. You add up enough of them, and the reader comes to feel that your book isn’t special or original at all. You’re always taking shortcuts.

Before this becomes a blanket condemnation, the way you expected an editor would go, we should return to the idea of idioms used in speech. You do want your dialogue to be natural, and people do use clichés a lot. If you were to turn a common phrase into some tortured construction just to avoid using a cliché, it would sound artificial. If you are selective enough, a cliché will subside in usage to its proper place: a minor, idiomatic tool in your arsenal.

Exercise: Comb your latest draft for clichés. Where are they being used? Unless the point of view voice is so chatty that the narrative seems but an extension of dialogue, you might want to limit them to dialogue. Even then, could one character be more given to using them? How about someone very smart but so unoriginal that their intelligence only extends to spouting a wider variety of clichés?

“Originality does not consist in saying what no one has ever said before, but in saying exactly what you think yourself.”
—James F. Stephan

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine



The author of many a business book is a huckster. That is not meant as a smear, necessarily. The art of cajoling a customer to think a certain way is as old as the U.S. of A. The days of quacks and nostrums and snake oil have long passed, but the replacements rely on the seller adopting the same ruses. Persuasion remains a mixture of conviction and logic twisted to make the sale.

What all business writers have in common is that they read other business books. An editor in the field will see the same terms used over and over. Part of the reason is the desire to speak the reader’s language. Partly, the author desires to ensure the reader’s comfort by referencing well-known business authors (“how do you go from good to great?”) The main cause, though, is laziness, an idea spouted off the top of the head and channeled through a funnel larded with buzz words.

Caution needs to be observed for several reasons. The first is that, in trying to get over on the reader, an author can be carried away by the hectoring style. The keys get pounded, and short paragraph after short paragraph burst forth. The words “we” or “you” become the subject of every sentence. Come on, you know I’m right! is the gist of this style. What may be left out of such a torrent is any substance. The author gets so carried away, they forget to build the backing behind the assertion. The reader’s eyes glaze over, because we have read this sort of stuff so many times.

That ties in with the second danger: repetition. When conversing on a topic, there are only so many variants when you are writing material that is not grounded by specifics. This method of making grand claims is similar to the bullshitting you did on college papers when you had to stretch one page of substance to the required five pages. But guess what? Readers are not being paid to read it; they put the book in the webbing of a plane seat, never to be retrieved again.

Making general points, even in a sloganeering way, is fine for a first draft. You do need to set down the general parameters you want to explore. You are being sabotaged by your own ego, however, if you think that is good enough. If you read Good to Great, you know it is crammed full of statistics. That’s why it’s a great book, not because Jim Collins can deliver a good line of cant.

Exercise: During your review, mark all the places in the manuscript where you make a sweeping statement without following with an interesting fact. That’s your job in the second draft: hunting and gathering an passel of material that no other business book has. The latest stats by the Department of Labor suffices as just one example. See if you can do better than the empty college paper written as a callow youth.

“Our major obligation is not to mistake slogans for solutions.”
—Edward R. Murrow

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Meaning of Sweep

A nonfiction book that features a series of stories tied together by a central theme has a similar structure to a collection of essays. A typical format features a story per chapter, and the chapter length is determined by how many interesting facets the subject has. Since the subjects can be disparate, an author has a harder time answering a major question a publisher has: what is the book’s narrative arc?

A writer can try to include thematic statements throughout the chapters. Let’s say the overall topic of the book is: entrepreneurs who never finished school. The book contains such fascinating examples as Steve Jobs and Richard Branson. The chapters follow the same basic format: a chronology of their chafing in school, their early struggles, and on to the glorious success that gains them inclusion in the book. All along the way, the ties that bind are sprinkled in. If the author is clever, the personages can be arranged from lower to most famous, thus describing a rising arc.

One of the problems with this approach is repetition. The author is so conscious of the book’s overriding theme that it is pounded into the reader’s head in all the various forms that the author can invent to hide the fact it’s the same thing. In the previous example, that might be: rebellion against conformity is a hallmark of genius. It’s a nice thought on page 2; it’s a migraine headache by page 222.

Another is the wear and tear of having to learn the setup each new time. Everybody’s life takes different turns, and so the particulars need to be included in order for the reader to understand the obstacles that are overcome. The problem here is discontinuity. In effect, we are introduced to a new stranger in each chapter, and after a while, meeting so many new people can become numbing. Imagine reader with chin propped up by hand, thinking: His father was a deadbeat dad too, huh?

One factor that also has a tendency to creep up on the reader after a while is negativity. Usually in such books there is an overarching villain. In the above example, it is the education system. Negative comments about any subject cast a pall over the whole, and they become tiresome in the long run. Yes, school failed that one guy, but how about all of the Harvard Ph.D.’s who run the world?

Exercise: The only remedy is reducing the silo nature of the chapters. If you can pick stories that are similar, these can be grouped in a part (Part 1, Part 2, etc.). That gives you the ability to pick themes that are more limited. More important, it allows you to turn to new themes later on, making the book’s turns more fresh to the reader overall. You have the introduction and epilogue to tie everything together, anyway.

“We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
—Joan Didion

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Paying Paul

Amid the ebullience of finishing a novel, after a seemingly endless number of drafts, an author can become caught up in the idea of writing a sequel. They may have been told that the key ingredient is carrying the central core of cast members over to the new book. High among them, maybe the #2 character, is the villain. Wouldn’t it be nice . . . ? thinks the author.

The factors arguing for a resumed battle between protagonist and antagonist are pretty clear. You have built up the villain into a memorable character, allotting almost as much space as to the hero. In addition, in order to drive the book’s suspense, the two characters may have operated in separate spheres, as heroes often spend the entire book trying to identify and then locate the villain. So now that the villain is a known quantity, they could spend the entire book feinting and counter-feinting, just a barrel full of monkeys to spring on the reader. Best of all, you know both of them so well, the second book will nearly write itself.

While there are certainly series in which an overarching villain is continued from book to book, they usually are not the heavies in any one of those books. Instead, it is the kingpin’s henchman who gets down in the trenches and dukes it out with the hero. That arrangement seems to indicate that the reader is getting gypped, but that’s not true.

The reason why is: coverage. The person who keeps showing up is the one whom the reader will learn to hate. That is one of the governing principles of story logic. You control which characters will induce emotion from the reader. Aunt Millie might be a terrifying ax murderer, but if she rarely appears in the book’s pages, we’re not going to pay her much attention.

Now let’s consider the question in terms of math. Say you have allotted, out of a 400-page manuscript, 200 pages to the hero’s scenes and 125 pages to the villain’s.  By a simple number count, you can see that more than three-quarters of the book has been devoted to one or the other. If the hero is to match up with a titanic foe—needed for a thrilling climax—are you going to feature some also-ran from the other 75 pages? No. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. You can’t save the primary villain for the next book, because that is the only struggle that will satisfy readers of the first book.

Exercise: Series writers commonly use the same types over and over. Examine the scenes in which your villain appears. Write down notes pertaining to physical descriptions, type of personality, and background. Now imagine that same person in your sequel, only strip out the descriptions and background. Replace those elements with new ones. You have a new villain.

“The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.”
—Alfred Hitchcock

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.