I see the pattern over and over again. A debut novel imparts: what a character says, does (such as “turn” or “stare”), and occasionally what she thinks about something that has just happened. In other words, all of the writing is taking place on the surface. You know your character is literally going through the motions. You want to go deeper. You want to write out those wonderful strings of thoughts as in those novels you love to read. So why can’t you?

As a writer, this question bedeviled me for years. I would try to get into a flow. I would blank out every single thought in my head so that I could concentrate. The string wouldn’t last for long, though, maybe a paragraph, and when I edited the piece later, half of it would come out because the stuff was so ordinary.

Yet after I began editing, the answer came to me. I would ask authors to elaborate on a point in order to fill out a character, and what I got back was often only a few precise sentences. The author would get to the point I requested and knock it out. Okay, problem solved, let’s move on. Yet what was he supposed to be moving on to? Two sentences didn’t let me inside the character. In other words, he was so busy moving on to the next accomplishment, he hadn’t fully inhabited the space that he could have brought to life.

If you want to create a thought string, you need to concentrate, sure. Yet you can also compile all of the relevant data that informs that thought string. Let’s say you’re a girl on the docks of New York City in 1850 and you see a magnificent clipper ship approaching from the tip of Manhattan. What, pray tell, does a clipper ship look like? Get those facts in hand first. You should know the different parts of the boat, at least as much as that girl knows. Now let’s consider the time of day. Have you ever watched a yacht on a sparkling summer afternoon? How did that make you feel? How about on a day with gathering storm clouds? Were you worried for the skipper? Did you think he was reckless being out there?

Now let’s look at another aspect. In that era what did a clipper ship represent? It was a great boat that traveled to all different ports in the world. What ports would that girl like to visit? What does she know about those ports, and how does she imagine she would fit in to those scenes? Does she want to be set free?

You see, the problem isn’t concentrating as much as you’re not amassing the facts in which to be immersed. You can do that. And the more you do, the more fluent you will become in running off a wonderful skein.

Exercise: Review your manuscript and look for interesting spots where you could elaborate. Write down your initial impressions of the object. Now dig deeper. Research that object; find out the facts beyond your first impressions. Try to list 10 different facts. Now write down different tangents that could develop from these facts, related to your chosen characters. Now start to write, with all those facts in your head that you can grab at will.

“Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” 
—E. L. Doctorow

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Not Just Along for the Ride

As the plot engine of many novels, a protagonist that is too fun runs the risk of undermining the seriousness of the unfolding events. If everything is a farce, the book is condemned to being no more than a quick read. While an author can let the froth die down gradually until the all-out climax sequence, the hero who was so engaging before may come to feel like the typical do-gooder by the end.

Since fun is a prime ingredient of entertainment, how can an author divorce it from a main character? One way is to assign the hijinks to a sidekick. This device is as old as Don Quixote and as durable. This arrangement serves many dramatic purposes. The hero gets someone to whom to express a wide array of emotions as the novel unfolds. They get a foil by which to reflect how far they are straying from common moral ground. Best of all, the interactions form a basis for a relationship whereby the reader learns to understand and even anticipate how both will react to each other.

Numbered among the advantages specific to a joke-laden relationship is that when a buddy is providing the humor, the hero can participate or not, depending on what the situation calls for. When the two are chatting during the downtime before the next dramatic episode, the hero can loosen up and serve as a humorous counterpart. On the flip side, a smart aleck can crack wise even when bullets are flying, but the hero has to save lives.

The freedom of a sidekick to make jokes whatever the occasion serves another useful story purpose as well. It can keep an ironic edge to the plot’s developments, making them seem more credible. If the hero pulls off a stupendous feat, the commentary afterward by the buddy can provide a context in which the incredible becomes plausible. A few follow-up jokes about the feat, scattered in the next few scenes, can then make the incredible seem normal. They can laugh about it, right?

The benefits on the character-development side are also manifold. Chief among them is the insight the sidekick has into the hero’s background, showing a side that can be lost in the vigorous pursuit of a plot goal. We would never know, for instance, how much the hero hates soggy Cheerios at breakfast time. Oh, finicky, okay, I didn’t know that. Or, how no one can walk through the hero’s bedroom because of all the laundry strewn at will. The sidekick is just having some fun, but we’re doing more than just smiling.

Exercise: If you have surrounded your main character with an assortment of friends or comrades, comb the manuscript for the direct interactions. Could you assign a solid core of them to one person? That is, the one replaces the sundry. Once you have narrowed down your choice, now you can concentrate on developing the buddy as a full-fledged character as well.

“When your buddy tells you a movie is good, that's worth 2,000 commercials.”
—Tucker Max

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Can’t Say No

A parade of negative voices marches through our lives every day. Whether we have neglected to fix the leaking refrigerator, or forgotten to call the gutter service yet again, we are always after ourselves to be better. So it is not surprising that lurking on the underside of every sentence you write is a negative opinion of that sentence.

You have probably experienced the strange progression of beliefs we all entertain about our own work. At first you’re convinced the sentence you just wrote is pure genius, the best thing you ever composed. The next day, while editing, it seems more pedestrian, and a flicker of doubt appears: How did I think that was so great? A month later, while reading over a chapter, possibly because you’re in a negative head anyway, you see the sentence and feel the urge to strike it out altogether.

The same duality that allows perfectly harmless members of society to create the most vile serial killers in their thrillers also operates in this very small, private sphere. In finest Shakespearean style, our greatest strength, volatility, is also the source of our greatest weakness. I suppose writers should be glad that the only destruction they wreak is on their poor, defenseless words. I have, in fact, often evinced the opinion to friends that if everyone became creative, violence in society would cease. The volcanic eruptions we all feel would merely loop back on ourselves.

You must remain cognizant, however, that when you write, you are creating that feedback loop. The same voice that urges you to get up every morning at an ungodly hour can also turn on you and say, “You fool, give up. You can’t write.” You cannot give in to thoughts created at the low ebb of your subconscious cycle. They are going to happen.

Creativity is atavistic to a certain extent, but you are a member of a highly evolved civilization in which you are trying to participate as a writer, one of the highest achievements any person can attain. So don’t do it. Don’t permit wholesale destruction of what you yourself have created. Just wait for the next time you revisit that sentence.

Exercise: Not everything an author writes is gold, however. When you feel doubt about what you’ve written, go granular. Examine a single sentence and ask yourself what you don’t like about it. Using the same words, try to invert the structure. That construction, such as placing an adjective first in the sentence, will probably look flowery and affected, but now ask yourself: have I made the right choice for that adjective? Could you convert the adjective into the verb? By the time you are finished resolving that small puzzle, the black cloud that descended over you earlier may have parted to allow light to shine through.

“Writing is an act of creativity. You do it because it opens a wellspring of thoughts and feelings inside you that you didn’t know you were capable of expressing so well.”         
—Albert Einstein

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Uncoupling Your Strengths

The composition of sentences follows a rhythm that is individual to every writer. Each one of us has a way we like to tell a story. Some authors prefer to employ short, simple sentences. Others find that they achieve the best results when a subordinate clause or two flows off from the main sentence stem. What I try to achieve as an editor is a mixture of the two. While a complex or compound sentence offers more variety of structure, making the reading experience more textured, it can also have the unfortunate effect of muddying the impact of simpler components contained within it.

Why is that? Reading is an accretive process. We do not tend to linger on a single sentence. Instead, that sentence leads to another, and it is wrapped up inside a paragraph that leads to another, and on we go through a series of pages before we look up and notice the water glass on the nightstand. The contents of each sentence is flavored by what comes before, and its influence spills onto the next sentence.

A writer can get caught up in this never ceasing flow of words. If he is given naturally to complex sentence structures, he may be loath to simplify his sentences because all the parts do seem to hang together. As someone who is constantly breaking sentences apart and reconstructing them, I know this problem acutely. That’s the way I write myself. Yet I realize that a complex sentence is less forceful. An arabesque structure is fine for description. It tends to undercut the power of action, however. A simple declarative sentence punches home its point. You should not be sacrificing the import of your words in favor of style.

Even worse results can be achieved during the editing process. An author may notice that she has too many simple sentences in a row. Subject-verb, subject-verb: how monotonous. So she throws in an “and,” links up two sentences with a comma, and presto: a more varied sentence rhythm. Or she adds a participial phrase to start the sentence: “Putting her iPhone away in her purse, she pulled the red emergency brake cord.” Why do that, muddying a dramatic piece of action with a common, boring thing we all do? Again, there is no point in augmenting rhythm if you’re sacrificing power.

You might want to pay more attention to what you are writing, each sentence at a time. If you tend to write complex sentences, take a look at the clauses. Could that excellent choice of a participle become an active verb? Would two simple sentences help break up the density of a complex paragraph? That’s the sort of rhythmic question that ends up mattering to the reader.

Exercise: You should avoid the use of the word “and” when the components of your compound sentence are strong as individual sentences. Did you use a good verb? Make it distinctive by letting it command a simple sentence. Did you put in the “and” to link up two pedestrian sentences? Maybe you should spruce up your word choices in each of the sentences. That way you’ll have not one but two story units that have a little bang in them.

“He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas of any man I ever met.”
 —Abraham Lincoln

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


When Ordinary Is Depressing

“Life is a beach” T-shirts did not become popular because our lives are so uplifting. We read books to escape our daily regimen of gruel. Yet authors may feel that they should be writing about real life. That’s what all the great novelists do. Why should I strive for any less? runs this view.

Lack of talent is the obvious answer, but lack of depth is the real culprit. Let’s look at what most authors can achieve in order to point out why striving for strange and extraordinary is usually the better objective. We’ll start with a character’s comments on the quotidian. As we all know, our lives are filled with encounters with people we consider stupid. Such meetings provide the fodder for many a dinnertime anecdote. So why don’t they work as well in novels?

In short, they are so ordinary. While readers may realize that they have experienced a similar fate, that recognition also brings about a feeling of disappointment that the author has not supplied a more entertaining experience. Compounding this problem is the addition of other comments about jerks, pages upon pages of them. That’s what real life is like, right? All of them suckers. As these add up, the feeling of negativity grows as well, weighing down the novel.

A second feature of narration that covers the surface of daily life encompasses the many details that bring these encounters to fuller life. While these may be precisely drawn, resulting in true insights—hey, I’ve done that—the results remain on the level of illuminating the ordinary. The reader may think: that incident in a big-box store has happened to me too, but then I promptly forgot it because it wasn’t worth remembering.

Worst of all is the lack of imagination the lead character shows when surrounded by banality. A middle-aged manager may keep condemning his ogling office buddy, but his own marriage is so boring, he barely has sex. A bank clerk may disparage a colleague that wears gobs of makeup, but she still can’t find a man who is attracted to her mousy looks. Why do I need to know more about these people?

What an exploration of malls and backyard barbeques fails to realize is what makes a novel great in the first place: the narrator’s point of view. Good writers know life sucks, and that’s why they create protagonists that are themselves extraordinary and grotesque. Only from that bizarre viewpoint can life be examined. The interest in reading such a book is what the character takes away from experiences that would typically produce ennui. Better yet, how the character intervenes embarrassingly into an event, upsetting the expected tedium.

Exercise: Use the ordinary as a jumping-off point. Your job as a writer is to take readers where they haven’t been before. Set up the cardinal points that govern the protagonist’s life—and then devise how to set them on their ear. This process can consist of action and/or thoughts, but above all, be original.

“I would never write about anyone who is not at the end of his rope.”
—Stanley Elkin

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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