The Emphasis of Periods

When an author chooses a stripped-down writing style, short sentences will follow. Such a style largely imitates the cadence of speech, and we use short sentences in our conversations all the time. Sometimes they are exclamatory, such as “Here we are.” Sometimes they are used to drive home a point: “You see?” Sometimes we use them instinctively because we know that varying sentence rhythms makes what we’re saying more interesting.

While an author may make a conscious choice to write simply, most of the time the style is employed because the author does not know how to write any other way. Such an author either is having a hard enough time just getting words down on a page. Or, they are writing quickly, grabbing the spare minutes they have and/or trying to meet a deadline. It is a style seen frequently in commercial fiction, since the authors engaged in it either are writing a first book or trying to fulfill a contract demanding that books be produced.

The problem with a simple style is the lack of options in expressing yourself. Unless you are a polished writer like Cormac McCarthy, fitting words together in new contexts, you are confined to the same old idioms. A character may shrug a lot, not because they have Tourette’s syndrome, but because the author wants a minor piece of physical business to break a long string of dialogue and “shrug” usefully conveys a variety of meanings.

It is not surprising that such an author fears repetition—“Oh, I just grabbed for ‘shrug’ again”—and so attempts to introduce novelty by using unorthodox strategies. Most common among them are run-on sentences. “Lee shrugged, he went to fetch the rifle.” Both sentences, considered by themselves, are pedestrian. Jammed together, well, the reader hasn’t seen that look before.

I dislike purists of all stripes, and so, as an editor, I’ll try to lean the author’s way. If the two sentences are related in subject matter, I may let the run-on sentence slide. “She turned, she knew she had to reach the door.” Okay, it’s wrong, but it’s not jarring. One sentence could be considered the continuation of the other.

Where the sloppiness falls apart is the conjunction of two dissimilar pieces of action (or intent). “She snorted, she knew she had to reach the door.” Now, that requires surgery. What does one have to do with the other? You can’t even leave the “She snorted” by itself; you have to add words, even if only “rudely” or some such. Better yet, focus on a truly interesting way to expand the sentence.

Exercise: One of the most common run-on constructions involves dialogue. “She turned, “I know you’re out there.” The physical act of turning has nothing to do with engaging the vocal cords, the last I checked. In so many of these cases, I delete the action entirely. Let the remark speak for itself.

“The wrong word is like a lie jammed inside the story.”
—Grace Paley

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


What Use Are Children?

In adult fiction, the appearance of any character under the age of 12 ushers in a special set of problems. To start, it is hard for them to control a point of view because a kid’s perception of the world is confined to the limited amount they know. Such immaturity can be charming—and even compelling in the hands of an excellent writer—but it is hard to take cute affirmations seriously. I too once wanted to play baseball in the major leagues, and look where that road went—perverted by the world of books!

Their lack of what adults would consider common sense curtails their ability to impact a plot. In the crudest terms, it is hard to believe a child would cynically mow down a villain, or even conceive of why that would be a good idea. A child is a poor choice for any romantic involvement. Most adults in a room will not take the advice of a child about what to do next. The old adage about being seen but not heard applies here, but in this case it’s impacting where your story can go. 

A third limitation extends beyond the mind into the practical world of getting things done. A child cannot drive a car, arrange for a business lunch, or make an assignation. They cannot slip payoffs, organize sophisticated conspiracies, or any other of a dozen interesting plot turns. You might derive tension from the fear that a child will bungle the job, but that begs the question of: why did the adult think it was a smart plan in the first place?

The best use for a child is often as a victim. The same helplessness that hinders their ability to direct a plot works in their favor when it comes to sympathy. Readers understand that children are at the mercy of an evil adult, since that happens all too often in real life. “Go to your room!” is only a benign expression of this total power. Thoughts of a child lost in the woods, or stowed away in an attic, are among the primal fears that a parent has.

A child alone as a protagonist is a bad idea, but pairing up an older child with an adult, on the other hand, can provide some real zest to a novel. If you imagine a wisecracking pubescent from Southern California, you can immediately see the sort of flavor that could be added. The adult is still on hand to drive the plot forward.

Exercise: Review your manuscript for any action involving a child. Is the kid causing the action, or is the event acting on them? If it is the former, make sure the child can really carry that dramatic weight. If the premise seems phony, see if you can either make the child’s success an accident, or add an adult to the proceedings.

“Adults are just outdated children.”
  —Dr. Seuss

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Daily Journal

I frequently enjoin writers to write every day. That practice maintains the vital whispering link between you and your book. Yet every writer has days when he wakes up feeling flat and empty. The mere thought of leaping into your made-up world brings on an irrational resistance. No, just N-O. I don’t feel like it today.

That’s where maintaining a journal can come in handy. Writing about what happened to you the day before isn’t hard. Or, you can remember a past moment of humiliation, maybe a month ago, vividly enough. Or, you may have seen a stark image, say, how low the embankment wall of the Boston Public Garden pond is when it is drained in the winter. That is the beauty of a journal. You’re not on task when you write in it. You’re not worried that the crappy way you’re writing today is going to be seen by anyone. Best of all, you may find that some of the personal material is serviceable for your book if you just reshaded it to fit.

The journal also provides a fall-back option that helps maintain your confidence. If you’re having a tough time getting started, at least you don’t have to quit in failure, which can bother you for the rest of the day. Maybe you can write about a funny thing that happened to your best friend in high school. Halfway through, you realize that the anecdote might be retailored to fit a character in your novel. As an added benefit, you have that relaxed, charming narrative voice as you related it to your journal.

A journal can be seductive, however. Maundering on about your day, such as the hurtful thing Jane said when she really doesn’t know Kim very well at all, can end up being a replacement for writing. Because a journal isn’t meant for public consumption, your prose can be unstructured. Your “characters” are not well defined—because you know them so well. They don’t have to be interesting, and there is nothing urgent about a chance meeting in the supermarket.

That’s why you want to keep your eye on the prize. Use the journal as a way to prime the pump. You might start by writing down an argument you had with your mother on the phone yesterday. Relive the intensity of those emotions. But keep in mind that a journal is supposed to be a collection of thoughts you are going to use in this story or in future stories. Even in the relaxed confines of private material, you are still trying to write about interesting topics.

Exercise: Set a limit on how long you will write about personal material, maybe 15-20 minutes. Then turn back to the novel and see if you feel any looser. Often the biggest hump on a blocked day is getting out the first sentence. Once your fingers are pumping, see if you can train them back on your greater purpose.

“Inspiration does exist, but it must find you working.”
—Pablo Picasso


When Adverbs Add Spice

Of all of the supposed villains pointed out in a writing class, adverbs rank at the top of the list. A verb is the strongest part of speech, runs the argument. You should be finding a strong active verb rather than relying on a modifier to do that job. That’s all great in principle, and as an editor I frequently cull adverbs from manuscripts. What might be the better question, though, is: when are adverbs useful for a writer?

Before outraged teachers and acolytes pick up their stones, I should point out that any distinctive word calls attention to itself. Given the context, you may want to use a verb that fits in better with your idiomatic prose. “He said” is meant to be merely an adjunct to what follows. “He declaimed” makes me start thinking of Cicero and auditoriums. A number of verbs that we use all the time—have, want, get, see—are bland and in most cases vague. Yet they are also very useful, because the purpose of the writing may not be to make the reader consider each verb as a new delectation to savor. It may be to sound idiomatic.

The analogue for this type of writing is speech. When a person is talking to her friend, she deliberately keeps her verbs bland so that her friend does not consider her a phony. You don’t say, “I coveted that leather handbag.” You say, “I really wanted that leather handbag.” That’s because the very act of speaking is an attempt to fit in with another.

You can write your entire novel at a high level of diction, but the tide is running against you, and has been ever since the decline of late 19th-century prose. If you are a master wordsmith who is willing to spend years refining every sentence to maintain your high standards, then go ahead and spurn all adverbs. If you, on the other hand, are like most poor slobs, trying to communicate with your reader, you may find that a sentence shorn of all adverbs may be a bland sentence.

Exercise: Variety is the spice of life. Do you have a string of sentences that all run subject-verb, subject-verb? One of the easiest ways to break up the rhythm is to add an adverb to start a sentence. “Luckily, he remembered a useful counting technique.” “Finally, the balky key turned in the lock.” In this case, the adverb is performing a function that a verb can’t match. It is being used as commentary on the entire sentence that follows. You can extend that logic to adverbs placed next to the verbs they modify. They may add a degree of specificity that you don’t want the verb to provide.

“All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary—it's just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences.”
—Somerset Maugham

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Being Accessible

Many nonfiction books are written by professionals in their field. During their career they may spend a lot of time on planes, and to while away all those stale hours they tend to read books about their profession. That’s why business books are frequently slim volumes: as long as a round trip. For those seat dwellers who once had writing ambitions, perhaps as a college student, a downsizing or retirement offers the opportunity to share the wisdom gained from their job experience.

Although they are not scholars, they are accustomed to the jargon they read, and the cant is repeated during convention speeches and the like. The words and expressions they use are like a tribal code: you have to be in (whatever group) to understand what the heck they’re talking about. Such words have a badge of sorts denoting their obfuscation. One tip-off is the suffix -ment or -tion.

As a translator for the unwashed hoi polloi, I as an editor flag such usages, asking for a clearer word. In reply, a surprising number of times the author will say: “Well, my audience understands what it means.” I hear that and I have to scratch my head. I reply with something like “Don’t you want everyone to read your book?” or “Don’t you want the largest possible audience for your book?” The light goes on; the author responds, “You know, you’re right.”

Do your readers a favor. Assume they are eager to learn but might feel overwhelmed by all the knowledge you have. They are having a hard enough time following your basic argument without encountering technical terms that may wipe out all worth of the entire sentence. When they encounter enough of these word sinkholes, they may decide, “This author is too smart for me,” and put the book down.

To me, the craziest part is that the term is usually just a fancy way of saying a term that the author doesn’t want to use too often. Other times, the author uses it to mask the fact that the sentence is pedestrian if the common term was used, such as mortgage refinance. Business books are filled with such “elevated” terminology—to hide the fact that a lot of business activities are plain dull.

Don’t be like that. Be the author who truly has interesting observations, expressed in plain language that shows the reader how dead right you are. Your repetition of common words doesn’t matter because the reader is constantly being swept up by your new ideas.

Exercise: Comb the manuscript for all industry terms. You’ll find them easily, because they often have four or more syllables. Also make sure that compound words, usually two, are not hard to understand. You’ll find, in cases where you used them in an otherwise banal sentence, that rewriting the sentence will really accomplish your goal of being fresh.

“I've come to learn there is a virtuous cycle to transparency and a very vicious cycle of obfuscation.”
—Jeff Weiner

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Inadequate for the Job

Every novel has an element of autobiography, if only because authors invest personal emotions in their characters. The investment can be more pronounced with inexperienced novelists who heed the dictum to write from the heart. Depending on the role, a character can benefit from having emotions the writer knows well. There is a but, however. But how well does the character lead the plot?

That is where the heart goes only so far. Unless you have the chops to write a literary novel, in which the plot can be secondary to a character’s ruminations, you are faced with the difficulty of creating simultaneously with those deeply felt characters a story that will entertain readers. For your level of writing, a novel about, say, your aunt’s slow decline into dementia may mean wearying hours for the reader.

Most writers understand that. Where I, as an editor, see the problem the most is in genre-driven vehicles such as suspense. A crime is committed and the main character, however obliquely, ends up solving it. Such a character has no investigative training or fighting skills or other talents that are interesting in such a pursuit. That’s because the author doesn’t, either.

That reliance on your own experience can lead to a wide variety of scenes featuring activities you yourself like to do. Depending on the age, that may lead to a subplot featuring a teenager playing in a rock band, or a plucky old lady piloting a motorboat. Not bad ideas, at least in brief. Not worth 15 subplot scenes, though, at least not while the criminal is still at large.

Why is that? That’s because plot stakes become more of a determining factor when the prose style is common. Place the search for a murderer on one side of the balance scale, and put riding down the river on the other. Which one will pull the reader more? Put another way, how much time can you afford to spend on the lesser objective while the greater one lies unattended?

Being true to yourself has now come in conflict with considering the desires of your readers. Maybe you are writing only for yourself and the hell with them. That is an entirely worthy attitude—if you are willing to spend the long years of writing struggles that a literary author undergoes. I don’t find that fanatical dedication in most authors, however. So that places the novel in a quasi zone: well-intentioned but middling. You need to weigh what truly is the heart of the book you’ve written.

Exercise: Just as characters and plot are balanced, so can be your approach to editing. You can count how many scenes are devoted to which plot line. When you are done, you can adjust the numbers. If you have 15 band scenes, for instance, could you cut five of them? You’re not giving up on the idea; you’re making it fit better within the overall scheme.

“If you don't want anyone to know anything about you, don't write anything.”
―Pete Townshend

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


When Does Passive Construction Work?

I devote a portion of every line edit to eliminating sentences that start with either “There is” or “It is.” Most of the time their usage stems from lazy thinking or the desire to quickly get material down on the page. I don’t take out all of them, though, so the question arises: why not? Why is one bad and one okay?

My first consideration is when the clause introduces a new idea, place, person, etc. For example, “It is inherent” starts off a number of sentences containing ideas, providing the condition in which the idea should be considered. You can try to find another way to fit in “inherent,” but the sentence is likely to be awkward. Another approach, such as  “There is, beyond the rise,” might introduce a new place to a reader. This is especially useful when a reader has been immersed in another topic, and you want to break away to fresh material. The passive clause serves as a signal to jump-shift.

The second category includes idiomatic expressions. The way we speak can be lazy, or colloquial, and if you try to make the sentence active, it just sounds wrong to our mental ear. “There is a rumor going around” is an example. You can almost hear the delight of the gossip about to spill the juicy news. Sure, you can mess with the sentence, put “A rumor” first—the way you should invert most passive sentences—but it sounds forced. For this reason dialogue is an area where particular care should be taken before making the sentence active.

The third is rhythm. Let’s revisit “There is, beyond the rise” from this perspective. You may find, while writing, that a compact sentence needs more air, so to speak. The material is too tightly packed for the subject you’re writing about. So you throw in a passive clause to open it up. In addition, you may realize that the way an entire run of sentences has been going, you want a few extra words to make the sentence fit in. This process is loosely akin to a poet’s finding extra words to fit a meter.

This intangible need points out a larger issue in writing. Don’t be bound by rules promulgated by teachers, coaches, or colleagues. Every word and expression in the English language has a purpose, and you should grab what you want. Just don’t make the rest of us suffer because you’re so lazy.

Exercise: When you come upon “there is” or “it is” in your text, switch the sentence around, on paper or in your head. The subject of the sentence usually follows the passive clause. An active verb should also be obvious, even if it is presently a participle. Then study both sentences. Did you really make an improvement? Maybe you should chuck the sentence altogether and write a new one that’s better.

“There is such a thing as the poetry of a mistake, and when you say, "Mistakes were made," you deprive an action of its poetry, and you sound like a weasel.”
—Charles Baxter

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.