The Mythical Reader

The reading public has been dragged into all sorts of discussions about how to make a book better. An author can claim to know their readers better than an agent, or editor, or publisher—who all then watch the book sink like a stone once released to such readers. More commonly, the process works the other way around: an author is advised by said publishing professionals what will sell a book to readers—and often the book still sinks like a stone.

By contrast, in my editing practice I have found that “the reader” is a very useful tool in enjoining an author to push themselves to greater efforts. That’s because an author is encased in a cocoon during the writing process. The made-up world gains definition in the author’s mind; characters start to develop beyond names on a page. That’s all fine, but the size of the cocoon is determined by both the writer’s ability and experience. When the author emerges from the gauzy sac, they often find that the reading public doesn’t care much for their butterfly.

I use the paradigm of “the reader” to inculcate better efforts. That’s because so many authors in my earlier years would respond to my suggestions as though I was speaking only for myself. I have had more than one author respond to my suggestions (balloons in the right-hand margin) with their own balloons—and not a single changed word on the page. They seem to think I inhabit my own cocoon, barking out my personal opinions as I poke my head out of my little hole to communicate with them.

That’s because criticism hurts. Writing is deeply personal. When I talk to an author for the first time, I hear so often: “You can say anything about the book you like. I want you to be honest with me.” Being the wily psychologist that any adviser must be in order to survive, I thereby take away the opposite meaning: this writer must be handled delicately.

“The reader” became the megaphone I use to shatter the illusion. Rather than “I don’t understand why,” I write,“The reader may not understand why . . .” a character performs or reacts to a plot event. Same point, but without the threat of a personal attack. Better yet, it helps to break through the writer’s self-absorption. They may think they don’t want to please anyone, that they’re just writing for themselves. But as the merest child sitting on their parent’s lap could tell you, writing is the art of touching someone.

Exercise: As you review the draft, keep asking yourself one question: would the reader I imagine would like my book understand why this is happening? If you’re not sure, you probably need to make the point clearer. Don’t worry about pellucid prose. Make sure, even if the reader has to work harder, that the point can be grasped.

“What is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men. That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care.”
—William Blake

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Invitation to Participate

As an editor, I have to search for ways to motivate authors to bring their characters fully to life. In the early stages of an edit I will try different tactics. On a large scale, I might suggest composing character sketches. On a granular level, I might edit one scene with a dozen prompts that say: What is the character feeling now? Authors have varying abilities to respond with anything that truly reveals character. So sometimes the editorial prism itself has to be altered in order to produce results. Here is one method that works.

Most authors understand that a unified point of view in the narration can produce greater personal depth. Simply being with a character more allows a reader to get to know them better. An author can use that principle to apportion how often a character rules the point of view in a scene. If a lead character does not control the point of view of a scene he is in, the scene can be rewritten to use his POV. If you do that for even a half dozen scenes, the reader is going to see things his way more often. 

A narrative that contains indirect quotations most likely indicates that the author is standing outside her own story. Unless your protagonist clearly has a distinctive voice, indirect quotes should be changed to dialogue. The immediacy can draw a reader to a character. The words are not cloaked any longer by the author reporting on the scene. They are given directly, the way words emerge from within all of us. As a plus, a reader can often imagine that she would say the same thing in that situation. I cannot tell you how many times a scene that seemed dead became sparked with personality after making this basic change.

Another technique is derived from the direct-dialogue principle. Words do not need to be spoken aloud to evince character. If a character has a thought that is almost exactly what he would say—“I wish that guy would go to hell”—you have penetrated inside the character’s mind. Many authors like to put these “quoted” thoughts in italic type, to set them off from the omniscient narration. The reader grasps the meaning, with the added benefit that he feels he is an insider as the action is occurring. Once an author becomes comfortable with this technique, the story can become filled with thoughts. Even better, the author can start to devise unspoken worries prior to a plot event that drive anticipation of what will happen.

Exercise: Review the text with a single goal in mind: I am going to invite the reader into the story. When you see a sentence that strikes you as bland, or too neutral, your first thought should be the lead character in the scene. Could I convey the idea through her point of view? The plot point is supposed to matter to her, not you.

“People know things and have a remarkable capacity to act in their individual immediate interests all the time.”
—Ta-Nehisi Coates

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Groundplan

Most Americans who emerge from college think they know it all. That brashness stems partly from the natural exuberance of youth and partly from the general excellence of our institutions of higher education. I often find, however, a strange gap in that all-encompassing knowledge: an ignorance of basic grammar rules. That cause might be attributed to another dominant American trait: the desire to rebel. Grammar belongs to the hoary old days of junior high; it tries to confine your freedom of expression. Rules are made to be broken, right?

Throughout my twenties, when I was primarily a writer, I paid not the slightest attention to grammar. I knew all that stuff—because I basically knew everything. The very word conjured up the image of an older English teacher who walked with a slight stoop and had a comical formality in her elocution. I wasn’t like that. I was blazing new frontiers. I should add that I have since worked with authors who are much older but still retain the same vague loathing for those days of main stems and subordinate clauses.

Like a chameleon, we all change our skin to suit new circumstances. When I first joined publishing, I became a copy editor. That is the person below an editor, tasked with correcting a manuscript’s spelling and punctuation, primarily. Many authors hate these creatures. Alice Kahn famously remarked, “It is wonderful that our society can find a place for the criminally literal-minded.” While I have certainly seen extreme pettifogging, on more occasions than I would like to count, when I had to review the work of freelance copy editors, I was surprised by how often I agreed with them. 

What happened to my youthful dreams of freedom? Absolutely nothing. What I came to realize was that grammar rules are ever mutable. Although they can be applied rigidly, they were (and are) developed in the first place as a means to enable people to communicate effectively with others. Why should you use active verbs? Because they most effectively propel your sentence forward. Why should you avoid adverbs? Because you should first examine the sentence to see if you can employ a stronger active verb. All of these tiny calculations, which I make as a matter of course as I’m line editing, are a wonderful aid in trying to help writers get the maximum force out of every sentence. In the case of grammar, knowledge truly will set you free.

Exercise: How well do you know your grammar? When was the last time you looked at a grammar book? When was the last time you looked at Strunk and White? Rather than regarding grammar as a set of rules, you can take their principles as a roadmap as you become more fluent in your writing. Sure, rules are made to be broken, but you should know what they are first. What you may find is that you’ve been following many of the “rules” of grammar all along.

“Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’. Otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”
—C. S. Lewis

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


How Serious Are You?

When I talk to an author about his manuscript,  he often will apologize for the type of book he’s writing. I don’t know why he feels he has to do that with me, since my website is dominated by commercial titles. My response to that author reflects a belief that I’ve felt for most of my career.

I don’t think writers set out to write a “literary book.” Every manuscript stems from an author’s concerted effort, and how gifted she is, and how educated she is, and how hard she works at her craft, determine where her book will be ranked along a spectrum. I have read plenty of books that are labeled “literary,” only to be disappointed by the author’s lack of vision. Yes, each sentence is precisely crafted, sparkling like a diamond, but the characters are fairly ordinary and their developmental arcs fairly low. What, exactly, am I supposed to be appreciating as someone who reads only “those types of books”?

My annoyance with cultural pretension extends to different books by the same writer. We all know that only one or a few books form the pinnacle of an author’s career. So what does that mean about the other works? For example, I love a few of Richard Ford's novels, but I found others to be disappointing. They did not change my opinion of his literary merits, because I, like most readers, know that an author will not write a masterpiece every time. Wouldn’t I have been better off reading a highly entertaining thriller rather than a literary writer who has been hitting the sauce too much these days?

Naturally, I like to edit books that are better written. My reading in my spare time is dominated by literary lights. Yet I firmly believe that writing is individual. If your book is reaching a certain audience, if your readers gain enjoyment or knowledge from what you’ve penned, what is wrong with that? Why are you worried about the clown who can so casually sit in judgment on that? Ask him how many books he has written.

The fact that you’ve gotten up all those mornings, kicked yourself during all those sessions to try harder, should be applauded. Forget about inhabiting some mythical literary heaven. Do what you can and enjoy yourself.

“We are always more anxious to be distinguished for a talent which we do not possess than to be praised for the fifteen which we do possess.”
—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Floating Icebergs

Because a novel is such a lengthy enterprise, it can agglomerate many stories, large and small. Most of the time these elements are background narratives and flashbacks. Each leads away from the main plot hopefully in a seamless fashion, inviting us down side alleys where we can explore one character or topic in greater detail. When we return to the main road, we can more richly appreciate what happens next.

Writing is a burrowing type of experience in general, and so it is not surprising to see such tangential forays expand and expand . . . and expand. In order to tell about a character’s past effectively, space is needed to provide the context in which the experience can be fully understood. For the neophyte writer, such ventures can turn into sinkholes. In pursuit of the one limited goal, the rest of the novel molders in neglect.

The problem is exacerbated by two factors. The first is the type of writing being employed. If an author writes at a level where most of a character’s focus is external—on what is happening—an exploration of background becomes just another action scene, only occurring in the past. Showing a character trait in action takes longer than showing it through the narrative voice. An entire sequence has to be set up in order to show the character’s reactions. So a demonstration of PTSD in Iraq might take 40 pages.

The second factor is the urgency demanded by the present-day plot. If a novel relies on suspense to generate momentum, time spent away from building the main plot results in a flattening of the suspense. Whatever happened before the segue loses its potency as the pages pass, until it is a dull roar when the author returns to the main story. The interpolation can be particularly wounding if it is placed later on. If you spend 100 pages in the past (Part 4, say), the reader will be starting from zero as you ramp up the sequence leading to the climax.

When you have several large chunks of such material, you have to ask yourself: is the character at the heart of the enterprise worth all the effort? If the hero is a martial arts expert whose skills play an integral role in the drama, a look backward to China and temples with upturned-corner roofs might well be rewarding for the reader. If the unfortunate soldier with PTSD is a minor character, you probably should keep it in a separate computer file.

Exercise: When making the deliberation, keep in mind that you likely will be writing another book. The soldier’s story might be perfect if they became an important character in a future book. The calculus is always: how much length vs. how much importance. Think of it this way: with the new book, you already have a 40-page head start.

“You drown not by falling into a river, but by staying submerged in it.”
—Paulo Coelho

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Divine Preposition

A preposition is used so naturally that we often don’t stop to reflect on how it can best impact a sentence. The words tumble out on the page, and if the sentence has the right cadence, we check it off: okay, that one is good. Because a prepositional phrase is so flexible, we tend to forget that it has only two uses: as an adjective or adverb. That places it well down the list in terms of its power to drive a sentence.

That’s why stringing together a bunch of prepositional phrases weakens your prose. I commonly see sentences with three or four prepositional phrases in a row, often encumbered further with adjectives and adverbs. Here’s an elaboration of the sentence above: “A preposition must be placed well down the list of parts of speech in terms of its power to drive a sentence.” Near the beginning of the sentence is the poor verb, place, which is then weighed down with phrase after phrase. The effect is like a skimming stone that finally sinks into the water. Please, give me another verb!

Another misuse I see often stems from the author’s not understanding that a prepositional phrase is both an adjective and an adverb. Here’s an example: “Tall, muscled and with a booming voice, he called out to us.” That construction intuitively feels clunky because of the lack of parallel construction: tall and muscled are single words. The real problem, though, is that with a booming voice functions as an adverb. It shouldn’t be in that string at all. Try this: “Tall, muscled, he called out to us in a booming voice.”  Now the prepositional phrase is clearly modifying the verb.

You might also want to consider where it is placed in terms of its power to set the table for what follows. I usually correct this in if/then sentences. Here’s an illustration: “She came immediately to the basement after a call from Stephanie.” That construction doesn’t feel right, especially the immediately. Immediately because of what? The if condition is buried at the end of the sentence. So it needs to move up front: “After a call from Stephanie, she came immediately to the basement.”

The basic problem is that a prepositional phrase is so useful, our eyes glide right over it. Just about every sentence in this post contains one, and I didn’t even notice. Yet they can gum up sentences when they’re not placed correctly, so make sure that string of words isn’t sapping the power of the verb.

Example: One egregious mistake that has become commonplace in business writing is placing the subject of the sentence in a prepositional phrase. “This version allows for James to pursue . . .” Please, think about which words should be in the prepositional phrase. Could James assume his right position? “In this version, James could pursue . . .”

“In writing you work toward a result you won’t see for years, and can’t be sure you’ll ever see. It takes stamina and self-mastery and faith.”
—Tobias Wolff

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Connecting the Outlier

A novel uses multiple plot lines for a number of purposes. A subplot might provide periodic breaks in the main plot’s momentum to keep a reader hanging in suspense at the end of chapters. It might contain a principal character whose influence becomes important later. However unaligned the plot lines are as the book develops, readers expect that they will converge at some point.

What happens, though, if one plot line seems irrelevant or, worse, less engaging than the other? The lead character of the plot line might be fully in command of its unfolding events. As the book develops, readers clearly see how it connects to the main story. Yet every time we turn to it, the reading feels like a chore. It’s just not as interesting.

One way to enhance it is obvious: change its plot events to become more exciting. Is that always the right course, though? If the events become too interesting, they will distract from the drive of the main plot. A better choice may be changing the main supporting character in the subplot. In most cases, you can’t change the main character, because they are playing a designated role. Often, that is the President or other leading light whose main purpose is to increase the stakes of the main plot. A supporting character does not have that burden, which makes their purpose more flexible.

The change in character offers many choices, depending on how you want to make the plot line merge with the main plot. What would most effectively accomplish the goal? A strong link to a character in the main plot, either on the good or villainous side. A go-between, if you will. For instance, Karen is not afraid to speak her mind to the President, but she also has an itch for Lee, the leader of the main plot, dating back to college. Even better, she is secretly working with Murgatroyd on their devilish designs.

Since such an addition means changing the purpose of the subplot’s chief supporting character, that will likely entail writing entirely new subplot scenes. But is that really a problem? The subplot is dull now. What you will find is that because you know how the new supporting character connects with the main plot, the direction of the subplot will change so that its interplay with the main plot is stronger. Now the reader turns to the subplot with a heightened awareness that somehow, pretty soon, its relevance to the main story will be revealed.

Exercise: It is important in choosing the right supporting character that they create conflict within the subplot. That is still where they will be spending the most time. You can alter the topics that are being fought over to tilt toward the main plot, however obliquely, or position the character—say, as a tech whiz when the main plot is tech-oriented—so the connection is implicit.

“All great artists draw from the same resource: the human heart, which tells us that we are all more alike than we are unalike.”
—Maya Angelou

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Persistence Pays Off

Writing is like music in the composer’s ability to use motifs to gain a cumulative effect. The same structure employed in a symphony—introducing an idea and then running through variations—can be employed by novelists. That is an important lesson to learn because writing is episodic by nature. A chunk of work gets done in a day, and an author moves on to the next chunk.

The way to use this tool is straightforward if you know what you are looking for. You can start by examining what your protagonist does over the course of the book. What are the major themes? Let’s say, for a running example, that a young man falls in love with a young woman. While his troth is true, he has competing traits that many of us have, among them inability to commit, alcohol or drug abuse, or a consuming desire to get ahead.

A character’s failure to get out of their own way is found in many novels. Yet you don’t have to be an exceptionally insightful writer in order to keep turning that prism in the light and finding new instances to mark the failure. You merely need to have the character reflect, as the novel’s events unfold, how the failure is playing out during the different stages.

Returning to our swain, let’s assume that a breakup in the relationship was caused by one night of excessive drinking. The hero now will spend the rest of the novel working his way back to his true love. Perhaps during one stage he swears off drinking, even if he falls off the wagon a time or two. He retains the reader’s sympathy because he’s at least trying. All the time he keeps thinking of getting her back. Yet when he returns to her house—knowing she won’t talk to him but he just wants to see her—she steps out of a car with another guy, maybe even his best friend. That sends him on a downward spiral. You record his feelings about her during that stage. Maybe he becomes so morose, he loses his job. Now his love for her has become poisoned by having too much time to think about her. He might go off on a bender and end up killing himself or nearly so. How is that young romance looking now?

You don’t have to plumb a character’s innermost soul if you’re halfway proficient at plotting. You just have to stay on task. In the swain’s case, his true love wasn’t a one-time deal back in the early pages of the book. Through progression, she becomes an embodiment of why he’s a failure.

Exercise: If you have already completed a draft, review it with an eye only for your protagonist’s top points. What are you stressing consistently? Once you see certain patterns, review the plot events. Could you line them up so that they tell a story in stages?

“If there were only one truth, you couldn't paint a hundred canvases on the same theme.”
—Pablo Picasso

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Beauty of Bridges

In nonfiction writing, an individual topic may spill out seamlessly. You know the content, the order in which the constituent pieces will go, and examples that prove the point. Yet when that stream of words plays out, you have only so many words, or pages of words. It’s time to move on to the next topic.

The process is repeated, emerging in some rough order and filled out as much as your research allows. While a topic may be strongly related to the one that preceded it, that isn’t often the case. If you have a lot of topics, as is the case in almost all book-length works, the writing can start to seem choppy. Yet the topics—or blocks of words—are not enough to fill out a chapter. So another type of separation besides a chapter break is needed.

One common solution is a subheading, the boldfaced words that in a phrase summarize the topic that follows. Yet this break is fairly pronounced. It is a road sign, saying “Turn this way.” If you use too many subheadings in a chapter, the reading will be even more choppy.

If you have similarity with topics, or if the topics are aspects of the chapter’s overall subject, you may find that a text bridge does an admirable job of linking up topics. The bridge can be as short as a sentence, but readers don’t mind transitions that are a short paragraph or longer, depending on how dissimilar the topics are. You don’t want to fill the book with fluff, but bridges can be informative at the same time they accomplish their main duty.

That’s because a bridge involves pulling back the camera lens of narration. Topic A and Topic B are specific, and you’re trying to find common ground between them. If you are writing about war, say, a nighttime encounter with an Afghani in an elevator might precede a sudden explosion the next dawn that draws out the troops. They are not similar in subject matter, so you look for like features at a higher level. An author might write a bridge like “The anxiety about unexpected terror was unending.”

You can also make all the bridges in a chapter pick up a common theme. Each time you turn to a new topic, the same thought is echoed. To extend the war example, the theme might be: all sorts of shadows lurked in that city. Each time you write about a new incident, you introduce it with thematic material. The reader is anchored by the repeated motif, and off you go.

Exercise: To solidify a bridge, you can review Topic A and Topic B to see if you can plant any echoes of the higher-level concern you have included in the bridge. That can include the same or closely related words, such as “unexpectedly” or terms like “I was nervous.” The reader remembers the hint, and that helps make the reading experience seamless.

“We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”   
—Isaac Newton

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


How Far Does Compassion Go?

They say real life is stranger than fiction, but that isn’t true most of the time. Novels are filled with events that are larger than life. In conjunction with these entertaining scenarios is the heightened reaction by the reader, because the author has curated the takeaways from all the factors involved in the affairs. This refinement process is a given, part of the unspoken compact between writer and reader.

It is also the reason the real-life events don’t have the same sort of emotional impact in a novel. A wrongful accusation of murder, for example, is an outrage to our moral sense. To a certain extent that flush of feeling is the same whether you read about it in a news report or a novel. Yet only in exceptional cases does a reader remain engaged in the real-life event. It is all too easily replaced by the next day’s outrages.

A similar process will happen in a novel if an author uses the wrong tools. To extend the example, what are the repercussions of the accusations? As the ripples spread outward, the power of the original event becomes diffused. Let’s say the novel starts to cover the political ramifications, placing the accused in that context. Then the novel may turn into a tale of those in power against those who aren’t. The accused person in this case may end up being a sideshow—oh, isn’t that just too bad?

Male authors are usually the ones who don’t understand that fictionalizing real events must go beyond animating puppets about whom biographical information is known. I know the mind-set well: I love researching topics, imagining what so-and-so must have been like. Yet I have also learned that curiosity about exploring a topic does not translate into a riveting tale about it. A tale takes concentrated effort of a novelist’s craft.

The advantage of a novel is its ability to telescope the reader’s concern. Within a public case resides a private drama that led to the incident. A novel does not have to be deterministic in order to lay out a background in which the perpetrator inevitably reached their terrible decision. Within that background are usually only a few telling memories that echo in the character’s mind over and over. Only a few people tower in their thoughts. Extending that idea toward the near past, just before the book opened, the character has only a few others that mean so much, the relationship is charged.

Exercise: In research usually a few dominant personalities emerged around the person being highlighted. If there is a historical record of abuse, say, that can be dramatized. Yet because so many private relationships have left no mark, you can make up what you want those relationships to be. If you craft them the right way, they will build all during the novel.

“The intelligence of that creature known as a crowd is the square root of the number of people in it.”
―Terry Pratchett

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


What Is the Right Level?

The world of nonfiction covers a vast array of writing styles. On the popular end, the can-do book is filled with “we” and “you,” encouraging the reader to sign on board. On the academic end, the prose is filled with subject-specific jargon, since those who don’t understand it aren’t the audience anyway. With the general trend toward simplification of prose, odd mixtures of styles crop up more frequently. Is this movement a freeing or lowering of standards?

The grammatical term at work here is “level of diction.” An author determines how formal their language will be. The decision is based on the reading audience. A how-to book tries to be colloquial. By using terms that everyone employs, the text makes the reader feel included among all the sufferers from whatever problem the book is tackling. Imprecision in language is entirely the point.

This level is inappropriate for an author who wishes scholarly acclaim. I’ll leave academic journals and other discipline-specific matter aside, using as the limit of formality those books published by distinguished mainstream publishers such as Basic and Free Press. These books still have footnotes, employ quotations from other authors, and make sophisticated arguments that the average Joe will not be able to follow.

Falling in between these two camps are a number of books that want both: popular appeal and serious subject matter. The authors by and large are highly intelligent, professors or doctors or the like. They apparently have rubbed shoulders with Joes only in passing on subways, because their writing veers oddly between concise and slang. The effect is jarring and, during the process of enduring pages of such swings, eventually counterproductive. I still may not understand the argument, and the loose language erodes my faith that the author has fully researched the truth.

A serious topic does not need the language of the street to embrace a wider reading public. If you have any doubt, read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. These two were some of the most intelligent people to walk the planet, but you understand every one of their points. Simplicity is a virtue, but elegant simplicity is the product of hard work.

Colloquial language is very often lazy writing. The author thinks to “dumb down” the prose, assuming the popular reader doesn’t mind vague expressions and clichés. But extra verbiage and shortcuts waste everyone’s time. If you want to get down with the masses, how about starting with some sympathy for what they do not know?

Exercise: When you are reviewing the manuscript, look carefully for loose prose. Stop each time and ask yourself: is there a more precise yet still simple way to make the point? What this practice will teach you is that you have to substitute three and four times before you reach the word or expression fraught with the sort of tension that makes readers want to understand more.

“He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense.”
—Joseph Conrad

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Sentence Fragments

You know what you learned in grammar class: don’t use sentence fragments. According to that dictum, the only fragment allowed is an imperative sentence. In writing a novel, the subject becomes far more complex. Sentence fragments help create emphasis, in the same manner as exclamation points. After a run of complete sentences, no matter how much you have varied the structure of each one, a fragment stands out, drawing attention to what you are writing.

With the modern simplification of sentence structure, I would argue that the fragment plays a larger role. Because your options these days are more limited, a sentence fragment can be another tool in your arsenal. Combined with that is a parallel development. Prose is more colloquial these days. As a result writing has become an extension of the way we speak—and we speak in sentence fragments all the time.

Yet I don’t think the grammar teacher of yore was all wrong. A reader does need to ride on a flow of words. We are trying to get from one end of the book to the other, after all. A fragment is a broken sentence, so we have to stop a moment to provide context (what is missing). Too many interruptions tend to grate on the reader’s nerves after a while.

So, what is the best way to use them? My own preference is ride along a wave for a while, allowing the full sentences to create strong forward momentum. Then a sentence fragment slips in, and I think, that’s the narrator talking to me, creating emphasis. Of course, this general idea does not preclude using a string of fragments in a row, or having a section that is more dominated by sentence fragments. I’m just thinking in terms of how I’m going to sail through the page.

Occasional use of fragments roughly corresponds to how often a character comments on the storytelling. Even in the first-person narrative voice, she has to drive the story forward with plot events. She has to supply descriptive details to ground us in her fictional world. The more dominant the character’s thoughts, the more a fragment is employed as a tool. Just remember that too many fragments may make the reading experience a bumpy ride.

Exercise: Review a portion of your manuscript, examining solely sentence structure. If you are prone to writing full sentences, look for points of emphasis. Could you add a sentence fragment to pull the reader inside the character more? You may find that writing one fragment leads to writing several in a row. If you are prone to writing in fragments, on the other hand, be honest with yourself. How long can you read jagged prose without becoming fatigued by having to supply what is missing? How many of those fragments could be converted into full sentences, retaining only those that truly create emphasis?

“Every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great or original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished.”
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Why Speed Matters

When I started working in publishing, I had a nebulous melange of dreams about great books mingled with a knowledge of what books sell, similar to the rest of the reading population. That speaks to the power of artistry, that even after reading so many works of schlock along the way to getting a college education, I still held onto such prosaic notions as every novel needs depth. Yet shortly into my first tenure an editor who would become a mentor put it to me straight: “John, pacing is everything.”

I laughed, of course, wanting to be in the know but thinking to myself, “What a terrible way to think about books.” As it turns out, though, they were right, at least in terms of commercial novels. Or, to qualify its truth further, in terms of novels that don’t possess much depth anyway. That is not meant cruelly. It just so happens that writing a rich book is extremely difficult, and so many authors don’t meet that mark, because they are still learning how to write.

When I read submissions, I use an internal balance scale to measure what the book has to offer. How complex are the characters? How much do I feel I am standing in their shoes as the plot events unfold? How deep are their reflections about those events, and about life in general? How much of the narrative is focused on physical action—that is, the stuff that most writers write about?

Based on the overall assessment, I will repeat my mentor’s famous words with more or less emphasis. If an author is trying to write a thriller, I don’t want to stop for 20 pages of intellectual discussion. I want another murder pretty soon. The faster we get to it, the better. In lieu of constant carnage, I want to feel a character’s fearful anticipation, their stark worry, their terror of the consequences—whatever can drive suspense forward. At the end of every chapter, I want to experience a plot turn that makes me turn the page.

The baleful result of dreaminess about what moves a reader is a swampland between vigorous action and the writer’s principles about writing. If you want to write a best-seller, you have to put the pedal to the metal. If that feels like prostitution to you, I’m afraid there are plenty of other writers out there who like cash and fame. Their novels contain 80 percent dialogue. Their plots careen on the edge of nonstop mayhem. They know that pacing sells.

Exercise: Work backward from the end of each chapter. What is the event that will make the reader turn the page? Once you write down what it is, ask yourself how the chapter is building up to it. Any intellectual stuff, stick it at the beginning of the chapter—before you start ramping up the tension toward the end of the chapter. And keep it short, so we’re not waiting too long.

“If everything seems under control, you're not going fast enough.”
― Mario Andretti

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Problem with Politics

To your possible disappointment, but more likely relief, this post does not concern which pigs should apportion the slop. Rather, it addresses the earnest writing outcomes about this national pastime. Any author who believes that the emotions engendered by yelling at a TV reporter can propel a novel in the same fashion is sadly deluded. As Tom Clancy observed, “Fiction has to make sense,” whereas politics doesn’t, at least to one half of the population at any given time.

Journalists who turn to fiction are the most common practitioners of the political novel. Many times they have covered the Beltway and are privy to the dealings of its insiders. Since they don’t know how to write a novel, they tend to fall back on what they know: inside dope that makes headlines. How is it, though, that the unending conflicts between, say, the House Speaker and the President—so entertaining in real life—seem oddly mawkish in a story?

The lack of morality can’t be the reason. In real life, voters are outraged because their moral principles are so often flouted by elected officials. As for fiction, morality is one of the guiding principles of drama. So where is the disconnect?

A novel forms its own universe. An author picks certain characters to embody certain qualities, and then designs a plot that, through the author’s chosen conflicts, reveals the right and wrong ways to live. Yet depending on the author’s lodestones, those ways can be wildly divergent. What matters is the moral compass of the lead character(s). That is the logic that determines what is right or wrong.

It is also true that received wisdom is not nearly as compelling as hard-won wisdom—that is, what the character endures during the course of the book. While their milieu may be instructive in some minor fashion, the wisdom far more often comes through the conflicts with other characters. To survive, politicians must manipulate the vote count—but where is the drama in the conflict with faceless masses?

That is why politics is an unsatisfactory source of drama. Once the moral imperative is directed at a crowd, it is diffused by its lack of a true target. To succeed, a president needs to develop a relationship with chosen targets in order to engender any more than skin-deep interest. It is true I dislike how my tax dollars are wasted, but reading about it in a story puts me instantly to sleep.

Exercise: At the start of writing a political novel, first pick out the characters, not the situation. How can you build core relationships between a few chosen cast members that will tap into the emotions that we all feel toward people that we grow close to? When one character violates the moral pact that he shares with one other character, now you have moral failing that counts.

“Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.”
—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Paddling Against the Stream

You can regard a novel in terms of rhythms that are created in the ever changing interplay between character and plot. That’s because these elements create different tides in a novel. Present events in a plot push a story into its future, the part we don’t know. Yet a background story is designed to fill out character, and it exerts a pull in the opposite direction. That’s because the events have already occurred. For this discussion I'll leave out a back story in a mystery that reveals all in the end.

If you think in terms of story rhythm, background stories create retrograde motion—because they push the book into the past. Depending on how much strong pacing plays a role in your novel, you need to be careful about where such pieces are placed. A back story placed right in the middle of a dramatic sequence, for instance, means you are pitting two story elements against each other—and the result usually is reader impatience to get on with the action.

Getting up a good head of steam in the present will make the reader more receptive to pursuing the byways of the past. For that reason, background pieces often function best when following a strong action scene, which creates strong forward momentum. The background then falls in the lee of the wind, so to speak, when the reader wants to take a breather anyway. Thinking of this technique in musical terms is helpful, since any composer knows that a crescendo rises out of silence.

When judged according to rhythm, you can make better decisions as well about how long a background piece should be in any given case. If the piece is a paragraph long, say 5-7 lines, that can fit in all but the most energized sequences. If you double that length, say to a half page, now you have to be more careful. That sort of piece probably will function best early in the chapter following a strong forward push in the plot. And what about pieces that are longer—a page or two or even a chapter? You most likely need to have provided a truly disturbing story twist, one that leaves the reader shaken. So you let the reader relax, slip into your alternate current, take them on a new ride. When the back story is over, they're ready for more propulsion.

Exercise: Look through your draft merely for background pieces. Place each in a chart that lists: which character it describes, what page(s) it’s on, how long it is (in lines, if you like), and a brief synopsis of what in the past the story covers. Now look at what immediately precedes the background piece. Has the reader been pushed forward by the ongoing plot? How strong is that push? The stronger it is, the longer the back story you can insert.

“We are inclined to believe those whom we do not know because they have never deceived us.”
—Samuel Johnson

 Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Thinking Ahead

If you are interested in writing a series, you should be aware of how a publisher thinks. A publishing house is a business first and foremost, and one of their traditional terms is “building an author’s platform.” What does that mean?

If a publisher buys your first novel, they already have a pretty good idea of how many copies of that book they want to distribute nationwide. So that initial distribution is your initial platform: X number of copies sold. For a second book, the publisher assumes that a percentage of the readers who bought the first book will buy the second. On top of that, you will gain additional readers. That’s because you now have two books on the bookshelf. As a former manager of a bookstore, I can assure you that the presence of more than one novel by the same author strongly encourages sales. In other words, your platform will expand with the second book, with the third book, and so on.

That is why so many books by an author feature the same protagonist. Readers want to read the next Jack Reacher book by Lee Childs, just for one example. His latest book is building on the platform started back with the first Jack Reacher book. If your creative well is deep enough that you can produce multiple original  books with the same hero, at some point a publisher may decide to make the big plunge. A huge publicity campaign is started with the aim of putting you on the New York Times best-seller list. Now you’re gold, even if the later books in the series are not so hot. As readers, we know all too well about clunkers like that.

When writing one book, an author usually has at least a hazy notion of other books she’d like to write. She may have sketched out the plot, or the main characters she’d like to feature. Before that process goes too far, she should ask herself: would I be interested in converting this idea so that it features the heroine of my present manuscript? If the novel is strongly plot-driven, you need to consider why you need to switch the driver of that plot. You may not be writing a mystery or a sci fi series. Yet if you like your main character now, why shouldn’t you stick with him?

Exercise: This post in no way is suggesting that books in a series be linked plot-wise. Book 1 should have a beginning, middle, and a definite end, even if the story is part of a trilogy. If a reader starts reading Book 2 and it feels like the same-same with Book 1, that book is going back up on the shelf. The challenge of writing a series is creating distinctive plots for each book. What remains the same, luckily, is the core cast of characters that you’ve grown to know so well.

“The original Hobbit was never intended to have a sequel—Bilbo ‘remained very happy to the end of his days and those were extraordinarily long’: a sentence I find an almost insuperable obstacle to a satisfactory link.”
—J. R. R. Tolkien

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


A Need for Perspective

Writing a memoir can involve a number of different narrative approaches. Most good ones depend on the graceful wordplay of the writer. Yet even if you are not gifted, you can still captivate readers if you’ve had interesting experiences. The key is to recall scenes with enough vivid details that the reader feels like he is participating. A personable style, such as that of a blithe California commentator, can also go a long way toward encouraging this sort of intimacy.

Stringing together a series of focused vignettes can make for a riveting memoir. You just pick all the highlights of your life. The problem with merely lining up well-recalled scenes, however, is that a reader can become lost along the way. Say, you are describing a decline into teenage alcoholism. After a while you run the risk that all of the scenes of stumbling and laughter will start to seem the same. The memoir will feel like it is spinning its wheels. Even worse, the reader may start to become disgusted with you because the debauchery is so relentless.

A little perspective is in order. Since people begin life in a state of innocence, that return to the garden can always be hoped for. In practical terms, you might want to use representatives from a more wholesome period to provide perspective. Let’s say you were a straight A student in school until your parents split up. Your friends were your fellow smart classmates. Dumber kids looked up to you. If you take the time to sprinkle in encounters with these members of your former set once you start drinking, the reader has a benchmark to gauge how much you are declining.

That is the key. You don’t want to return to the garden too soon, because that would be boring. You need to keep pushing along the road you’ve staked out. So you create perspective, usually by featuring other people that are established in your life. One good choice is your mother. Where was she when all this drinking was going on? What did she do to try to stop it? Did those efforts become increasingly desperate and, in the end, hopeless?

By means of perspective, you create progression. You start at step A and proceed downward to step Z. You insert paragraphs or passages of perspective so that the reader not only enjoys participating in the well-drawn scenes but also knows where you are along your road.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye for where each vignette stops. You have to create a bridge to the next scene anyway, and that gives you an opportunity to pull away the camera lens and provide an overview: This is where I stand now. One gap in particular where such inserts can be placed is when you are jumping a significant period of time between scenes.

“Don’t worry if people don’t recognize your merits; worry that you may not recognize theirs.”
― Confucius

Copyright 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Not All Glitters in Tech

Americans worship wealth, and the large majority track the exploits of their favorite stars—good or bad, true or made up. The same avidity for reading such chronicles extends to people’s taste in fiction. A long parade of best-selling authors have written about the pomp and perils of the fabulously wealthy. A change in focus from books featuring techie code to books featuring techie riches was, therefore, only a matter of time.

By now everybody this side of a log cabin knows that becoming a techie means striking it rich. We may bemoan our utter lack of ability to understand math, but we envy those who do possess it. With the expansion of the internet has come a new wave of tech personnel who are not weird and arrogant, but helpful and smiling and, well, normal. They may code their way to a Maserati, but then, so can people in plenty of other fields.

The new frontier, with its gala launches and sparkling shows, does not differ in substance, however, from plenty of other rich-people events. The guy in the tux with the trophy wife is still likely a variant of a boring banker. Bragging about baubles and vacations dates back to Jesus throwing tables around temples. In another word, the song is the same.

Authors who expect a novel set in fabulous tech circumstances to be somehow different are fooling themselves. Being able to explain how some piece of tech works is nice, but it is instruction nonetheless. Business of any stripe is still dull fare in fiction, and readers still don’t care much if a character achieves status and money at the book’s end. How about the girl? Who died in this story, anyway? Such age-old concerns still quicken our hearts like no other.

The shift of tech workers toward normalcy is heartening, but the rest of us have not changed our rules. A maverick in fiction had still better be sexy and dashing in order to attract readers. All the trappings society confers to the winners cannot mask the workaholic grinder. We will continue to read novels to escape people like that.

Anyone who writes about the new frontier in success needs to start characters who matter. I’m all for exotic, and the new world of tech has plenty of that. But how do you make a character exotic and still stir the hearts of readers? That’s the pivot point.

Exercise: Rather than gain, think first in terms of what your lead characters have to lose. The threat of loss produces evil. Even the desire not to lose one’s present standing produces evil. Now deal your lead character a terrible blow just before the book opens. Let them scratch and crawl their way to success. I can cheer for someone like that.

“The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.”
—Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Copyright 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Happy Medium

The most difficult task I have when helping authors put together a chapter outline section for a nonfiction proposal is trying to tell them how it works. A proposal is an unusual beast, designed only for publishing insiders. They know what they want to see, but how is the poor author supposed to know? On every proposal I edit, I spend the most time on the summaries of what each chapter is going to contain. So what is the magic secret here? How do you write an effective chapter summary that will help sell the book?

A good way to start the explanation is by marking extremes. On the one end, you can draw up a bulleted list of the main points the chapter is going to cover. The problem with such a brief format is that, when stated so baldly, a bulleted-list entry can seem like a point that is featured in a dozen other books. You need to provide more information about your unique approach to that topic, and that usually requires several more sentences, if not a paragraph, to support it.

On the other end is the full chapter itself. That also is not wanted, because the very word “summary” demands brevity. You need to distill 20-30 pages into a single page or two. Faced with such a task, many authors tend to clutch up. They feel they cannot write in their usual style, which many times is conversational. So they write out stilted points that are only a mawkish rendition of the chapter, no more attractive than a shrunken head.

Try for something in the middle. You take the entries on your bulleted list and then add a few sentences from the chapter to support each one, defining how it is your own. In other words, you are employing the same rhythm when you were writing the chapter, only picking out snippets that are the chapter’s main selling points. For example, the bulleted list reads: “The five food groups for the plant-based body.” So you expand on that and make it: “To help you see how you can eat more healthy food, I provide the 5 Food Groups of a plant-based diet.  Whole foods deliver whole nutrition, unlike their processed food counterparts, and that includes antioxidants and phytochemicals—critical to good health.”

The bulleted-list entry is flat, somewhat annoying because the reader has no idea what the five groups are. In the second version, we still don’t know what the groups are, but we do connect with the author’s obvious expertise and caring about the readers’ health. In this format, an author’s style is not compromised by the need to make a point quickly and move on.

Exercise: If you have already written the book, review it only for your main points. You’ll usually have 4–5 lead topics per chapter. Isolate the paragraphs in which these points are first brought up. This usually is the topic sentence for the paragraph it governs. Then review the sentences that immediately follow that sentence. You’ll find that, taken as a small group, these few sentences outline everything else that follows in the next section. Copy those sentences and paste them in your outline file. If you do this 4–5 times, you have a solid foundation for that chapter’s summary.

“There's no such thing as writer's block. That was invented by people in California who couldn't write.”
—Terry Pratchett

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


A Day at the Zoo

Monsters in fiction are as old as the first campfire around which stories were told. Human beings may no longer be puny creatures who venerate oak trees, but the terror of being so small in a world—and now universe—so vast has never left us. The same readers who regard goblins and pookies as whimsical relics of a credulous past still want to buy the next Harry Potter book. Awe is as instinctive to us as eating.

The introduction of monsters into a novel, however, lays traps for the unwary. The difficulty stems from the core thrust of fiction, to tell a story about people. As readers get to know a character’s qualities, we can find a place in the story to occupy. We can root for the hero, or find their thoughts intriguing. The fictional concept may be amazing. But before obstacles can be strewn in the path, first we must have a character worthy of following.

This central tenet is why novels that are filled with hordes, no matter how terrifying their appearance, or how distressing the results of their gnashing teeth, can become numbing after the first blush. Creatures do not have personalities. They merely snarl and lurch. I am scared by a menacing watch dog, but I also find its relentless hostility tiresome. Come on, what did I do to you? The dog can’t tell me, and neither can a fiendish mob.

Such books rely on the reactions of characters who are trying to avoid being overwhelmed. Such a plot driver is familiar to readers of military thrillers, in which heroes struggle against a mainly faceless enemy. We care about the one character, or core cast of characters, whose qualities are known to us. The urgency of the threat is communicated by how dire that one character’s circumstances are. Or, we realize the gravity by how the pressure of the situation is changing the character’s personality.

When an author adds what I call the “buddy element,” the possibilities multiply. If two friends start off the book as a wisecracking duo, smart and funny in a typically American adolescent way, the story has a gauge by which to measure the growing threat. If one of the friends changes the relationship, such as panicking or abandoning the partner, that is the change that affects readers emotionally, more than all the warts in the world.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with a focus solely on the main characters that started the book. If you have a strong relationship, chart scene by scene how that is progressing. Are you, for instance, isolating them later on, due to the exigencies of the plot? As a result you are robbing the book of one of its early sources of power. Can you find a way that they can rejoin, at least for the climax sequence?

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche

Copyright 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Adding on Layers

Many novels start off as family explorations, often of a revered elderly relative whose life fascinates the author. The life events emerge first, of the as-told-to variety or the author’s imagining of what the event must have been like. Because such remembrances can be inspired in part out of a love for an immigrant’s native land, the author can also draw upon their own visits to the mother country.

Writing in this fashion can result in a narrative that is very distant in tone. The author need merely open a novel on their bookshelf to realize that their own stories are nowhere near as vivid. How can a book meant as an homage turn into a riveting tale? You probably have seen books or the like in which transparent plastic sheets are laid upon each other to create a multicolored map or diagram. That same process can be applied to writing.

The first step I always advise is: insert dialogue. The chief problem for any neophyte author is focus. How do you plant the reader in one place, at one time, talking to characters captured at that one moment? Dialogue is easy to write, and it has the added benefit of moving only at the speed of the spoken word. A conversation takes up a finite amount of time.

Second, where is the event taking place? This step is fraught with more imprecision, because it depends on how much effort the author is willing to invest in ferreting out telling details of the setting. A bar is a bar is a bar, anywhere in the world, unless you define how that one bar is different. This is an area where the old editorial adage “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” applies in spades. I can’t tell you how many fruitless notes I’ve written to enjoin authors to provide distinctive details. Don’t be lazy on this score. Where, really, do you have to get to that is more important than capturing the ambiance of your grandfather’s Dublin tavern? Myself, I would want to take a trip to Dublin.

The final step is the hardest, because it requires a degree of concentration that defines the art of novel writing. That is illuminating a handful of characters who are doing the talking in that one place. You can start by writing several pages apiece about what each character is like. That will give them at least some definition. Then look at the timing of the scene. How old are they? How old are their children or significant others? How are those relationships doing at that one point in time? So, when your grandmother asks for that one big favor that will change her life, how receptive is the character she is talking to?

Exercise: The task of creating satisfying characters can spin on forever. No novel is ever truly finished for that very reason. A good practice is to draw up notes before every scene for each major character in the scene. Where are they in terms of what has already happened in the book? Where are they in their life cycle? When you nail down these commonsense points, you’re well on your way.

“Nothing is more consuming, or more illogical, than the desire for remembrance.”
—Ellen Glasgow

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Before the Adulation

While writing, we all slip into moments of fantasy, imagining what will happen after the manuscript is published. The publisher will throw a fancy New York party peopled with distinguished editors and literary agents. People will line up out the door of a bookstore in a faraway city, and one woman will positively gush about how much she liked the book, so much so that you’re embarrassed sitting at your desk. You remember that Ken Follett has his own island off the French coast and imagine: I guess I could live like that.

All of that is very pleasant, but what happens if you fall short? Maybe you can’t sell the manuscript to a publisher. You might not even land an agent. You decide to go indie, but a mere smattering of research will reveal the daunting truth: selling a book is hard work. Maybe you only sell enough copies to pay off your expenses in producing the ebook.

Was it all a waste of time? To borrow a phrase, I would say, a thousand times, no. You still spent all of those countless hours immersed in a dream of your own making. You stretched yourself to create interesting characters, interesting plot turns. I’ll be honest, I’m always disappointed when I reach the end of a manuscript. My interest in it declines sharply after that. Because the excitement really lies in riding the edge of the wave, keeping it going. You can write for the world, but you already know that the world will most likely shrug.

When writing gets in your blood, the routine becomes a source of, in Eastern terms, bliss. I put it in that peculiar way because the practice of writing is like the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. As a writer, your moments of triumph are going to be very few. Virtually everything you do is part of an ongoing process. It’s the hum, so to speak. When you open yourself up to tap into that current, you find that you—the person, not the writer—are enriched.

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
― Ernest Hemingway

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Resurrecting from the Past

If you plan to write a sequel, you must escape the clutches of the first book. You can do that by being deliberate about outlining the second book. Forget about being organic. If you plunge in, thinking the characters will guide you through, you will likely find that your story is noodling right along the same grooves you pursued last time. Set down clear lines you want the new story to follow first.

You first have to devise a way to foment new tension between your established characters. Let’s say that the sexual tension between Jack and Amy built nicely during the first book. Yet once they become a pair by the end, where do you go from there? As the old dictum goes, you either have to build up or tear down a relationship. The one thing it can’t do is remain on a plateau all book long. So you better start creating some problems if you want Jack and Amy to keep entertaining the reader. The reasons that a couple has problems are many: infidelity, undue jealousy, money, and/or divergent interests among them. Which type of problem would lead their plot line in a distinctly different direction from the first book?

You should also consider other sources of friction as well. Perhaps Amy’s father hated Jack, but by the end of the book has come to respect him. What is going to replace that point of tension? Unless you have a new concern for her father, you might want to consider relegating him to a minor character.

When you are outlining the next book, take one important step. Create new major characters right from the start. Write sketches about them, just as you (hopefully) did for your major characters in book one. When you set out a preliminary order of scenes, make sure the new characters are heavily involved with the ones being carried over. That way you’ll avoid any scenes that mainly explicate the past. Once you’ve created a run of 10 or so scenes, you’ll have a good start to a fresh book.

Exercise: Draw up an initial plot chart. Create columns for: chapter number, main characters in the chapter, and a brief synopsis of what happens in the chapter. When you lay out in brief what you’d like to pursue, and with which characters, you’re moving beyond the hazy one-line comments in your mind. You are setting down clear objectives, with named characters. You can also see at a glance whether you’re replicating relationships or plot ideas from the past.

“If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor.”
—Edgar Rice Burroughs

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Too Much Information

Memoir writing by its nature encourages a reflective author to make personal revelations. More than any other nonfiction genre, the memoir depends on a writer’s precision to make the stories satisfying, and part of that stems from searching within yourself for the thoughts that filtered each experience. Yet that sensitivity does not lessen the need for having compelling subject matter or an interesting life.

When editing a memoir by a naturalist, I suggested in a series of notes that he tell us more about his personal growth over the course of his career. I felt that readers would want to know what someone traveling alone for months to different habitats felt like when he wasn’t collecting specimens. He had different companions for each trip, and I asked him to show us what living out in the wild was like during off hours.

Since his personal side was so severely curtailed in the draft I saw, I did not expect the torrents of writing that filled out the revised draft. With all the right intentions, the author divulged his private affairs in a variety of contexts, both at home and abroad. While he was as entertaining as ever, I was reminded of the phrase: “Be careful what you wish for.”

I had intended that we be shown only glimpses into a private realm. When you write too much about your personal life, you may imperil what is unique about your accomplishments by lading on material that is typical. After all, drinking too many beers in the high desert isn’t much different from drinking in a generic Irish pub. Readers don’t need to know that you’re an ordinary Joe.

Quite the opposite is true. When an author takes us to a new realm, or a brilliantly conceived realm, a form of hero worship begins. We all need heroes. A reader identifies with your experiences vicariously, placing herself in your shoes as you show the wonders of the worlds you have discovered.

By all means, tell us more about your cabin mate from Belgium. Just remember that we also have met people from abroad, and that isn’t why we picked up the book. You can tell a droll anecdote in a half page. That’s about as long as your reader will want to tarry before getting back to all those unique discoveries you have made.

Exercise: If you have interesting life experiences, you reveal quite a lot of your personality merely through telling these tales. Sprinkle in personal details here, there, and everywhere. If you take a paragraph to describe your beaten-up backpack, for instance, that adds a personal element that we can grasp. A paragraph about a friend can be told while you’re on your way to your next unique adventure.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
― Ernest Hemingway

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


The Art of Coupling

Amid the swirling rhythms of a writer’s sentences, many different combinations may work, given the specific context. As an editor I have very few fixed rules because I know that effective expression trumps every other consideration. I do find that certain couplings work less successfully than others, and a frequent unfortunate pairing occurs when not enough attention is paid to the verbs being used.

One key fault line occurs between sentences driven by verbs with dissimilar functions. A verb that describes an abstract conclusion, for instance, performs a different function than one that describes a form of action. Let’s take an example: “That moment changed his life as he stared at the lifeless bodies, and Edgar’s bloodstained knife, and he knew he had to tell someone.” A change in one’s life has nothing to do with staring. The two verbs are on different planes. The sentence, as edited, removes the coupling: “That moment changed his life. As he stared at the lifeless bodies, and Edgar’s bloodstained knife, he knew he had to tell someone.” Now the passage reads fine, because each verb is driving a separate sentence.

The same is true of a verb that describes a form of cognition as opposed to one that describes a form of action. “Miriam knew she was right as she pulled a cigarette out of her pocket, while keeping her eyes on the road.” Knowing she’s right has nothing to do with pulling out a cigarette. But see what happens when the coupling is detached: “Miriam knew she was right. She told herself that as, keeping her eyes on the road, she pulled a cigarette out of her pocket.”

Even when you have verbs that serve similar purposes, you may find that decoupling allows each to stand out in greater clarity. Here’s an example of a muddy reflection: “Something gnawed at him and he knew there was an answer, but couldn’t get his mind to focus on it.” In this case, the problem is caused by forcing different types of cognition to coexist in the same sentence.  Gnawing and knowing are both ongoing states, but they work against each other. As edited, the distinction is easily revealed: “Something gnawed at him. He knew there was an answer, but couldn’t get his mind to focus on it.” You’re not losing much complexity in sentence structure. You’re just making sure your verbs work in harmonious linkage.

Exercise: As you review the manuscript, take a close look at the verbs you’re using in compound or complex sentences. Does one verb lead to the other within the same sentence? If not, experiment with breaking them apart. What happens when they are broken into two separate sentences? If you still don’t like the way they read, you may be using the wrong verbs.

“Try as hard as we may for perfection, the net result of our labors is an amazing variety of imperfectness. We are surprised at our own versatility in being able to fail in so many different ways.”
—Samuel McChord Crothers

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Bolder Strokes

Clifton Fadiman once remarked, “The adjective is the banana peel of the parts of speech.” While I don’t have the temerity to make sweeping statements of that sort, I do cull quite a few adjectives during the course of any edit. Here are three primary areas in which my pencil (virtual these days) crosses them out.

The first is straightforward. When an adjective describes a strong noun, it usually can be jettisoned. If a book’s proceedings “descend into a cataclysmic maelstrom,” you need to stop and ask yourself: how much is “cataclysmic” really adding to “maelstrom,” which in itself is an expressive noun? I would strike out the adjective.

A second common area is the sentence with compound adjectives. If she had “an invigorating, refreshing swim,” I as a reader ask myself: what’s the difference between “invigorating” and “refreshing”? I guess they are slight variants, but is that worth the extra verbiage? (I will note, if you’re using double adjectives to vary sentence structure within a paragraph, that change in rhythm may very well be worth the additional word.) A similar example uses a conjunction: “She spoke in a softer and gentler voice.” Excuse me, but when most people’s voices become softer, they become gentler as well, don’t they? Again, are you splitting hairs? In most cases, I would advise you pick one and move on.

The third frequent mistake I see is using an adjective to garnish a cliché. If Sid “took his precise measure,” you’re merely disguising your laziness. The cliché popped into your mind, followed by the thought “That’s a cliché. Aw, throw in ‘precise,’ that’s better anyway.” Wrong, absolutely the wrong way to go about it. The problem is the cliché. Get rid of it and start over.

I should point out that this example falls into another camp as well: conflating two common phrases. A person “takes his measure” and he also makes “precise measurements.”  The two don’t belong together, except in your temporarily muddled mind. Gain clarity, and move on to a truly original idea.

Right there, “a truly original idea” is an example of when you need a modifier. That’s because “idea” is imprecise in nature, and it needs enhancement in order to reach a more delineated shade of meaning. That noun in your sentence is waving its hand at you, telling you it needs a little helper.

Exercise: Choosing strong nouns is secondary in importance only to choosing strong verbs. One way to do that is to examine the adjective you’re using. If it is striking, could you turn it into the noun? To use the example above, “cataclysm” might a better alternative to a more ordinary noun such as “riot.” Your word choice may have been right all along; you just put it in the wrong position in the sentence.

“If you need three adjectives to describe something, then you've probably chosen the wrong something.”
—Roger Rosenblatt

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


The Overloaded Explanation

In a civilization that increasingly progresses through scientific advances, a person who easily assimilates a body of knowledge in a scientific field can experience difficulties when he then tries to explain what he is writing about to a layperson. Twenty-first century, please meet the cave dweller. Perhaps the less scientifically gifted among us aren’t that bad, but the experience of explaining science terms can be a struggle. While many times this problem arises in nonfiction writing, any thriller writer who would like to emulate Michael Crichton is in the same boat. How do you smoothly lay out a process in which a term like NK-kB is easily understood?

The first thing to understand is that non-scientific minds really don’t get it, no matter how nice you are. I have edited (read: translated) dozens of science-based books, and I still feel a wall rise up in my mind when I see a term I don’t immediately recognize. You know, like the doors in the underground labs of James Bond movies? Sealed off, like that, knowing I belong in the stupid room. Now, could we try that again?

What I do as an editor dumbing down science is maintain consistency in approach. It is not enough to explain what the endothelium is in a blood vessel. You have to keep reminding the reader that it is a thin lining. Don’t then assume the reader will understand the adjectival form. I may have vaguely grasped how the endothelium is injured by junk food, but if you then casually throw in “endothelial dysfunction,” my mind freezes up. Couldn’t that be “injury to the endothelium”? If you keep the number of terms limited, we can sail on that shaky raft.

The same principle hold for multiple scientific terms in the same sentence. The lay reader may understand each of the terms, because you have explained each one individually, but that does not mean we will understand an entire conglomeration of them. For example, I tremble at a sentence like: “Formed from the amino acid L-arginine, oxygen and enzymes, nitric oxide is produced in both the endothelium and the smooth muscle cells to regulate the tone of smooth muscle within the artery.” I don’t really understand what amino acids are, what role oxygen plays, how enzymes work in this case, and nitric oxide conjures up memories of being terrible in chem lab. So try to keep it simple. If you use only one or a few terms per sentence, the reader won’t quit.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for scientific terms. As you spot each one, imagine that you are reading it aloud to a five-year-old child. Is the kid going to understand it? If not, add a phrase that explains it. If the word isn’t needed to understand the gist of the sentence, don’t bother. The word falls into the category of any three-dollar word that only interested readers will look up in the dictionary.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
—Benjamin Disraeli

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Different Assistance

Getting a writing session started is a never ending challenge. One method I use stems from the advances in technology. At first blush, a Siri-type program seems like absolutely the wrong first step in settling down to write. Making noise is a good way to burrow within your mind? Yet I have found that dictation can serve a valuable purpose in the daily struggle to get under way.

My original intention was to record my editing notes while reading a manuscript for the first time. Yet I found that using Siri has led to more extended purposes as well, such as recording notes for an editorial letter. You will notice that these usages are all in the realm of note taking. I am the sort of person who is intimidated by expressing emotions into a microphone. Note taking has the advantage of being a bloodless sport—I’m merely discussing the prose at one remove.

Think of the advantages, however, if you break through what is, after all, an artificial barrier. In the days of yore, stories were passed down orally through entire generations. Many authors still recite their prose aloud, both in private to check a passage’s flow and, to everyone’s benefit, at public readings. Even in the privacy of my study, I have frequently found myself mumbling lines of dialogue aloud and then writing them down.

For our purposes here, I’ll confine the suggestion to use dictation to the limited aim of starting the writing session. If you are blocked in the hush of a dark morning, trapped in the sludge of unconscious thoughts that do not want to be ordered to your benefit, why not break free of that mire by making notes to yourself about what you’d like to do? Once you begin, the process of dictation comes to feel more natural. You do not feel as self-conscious about that weird voice invading the space of your silence.

Dictation becomes another tool in your ongoing assault to reach your creativity. And because the words are appearing on the page, you may realize, while reading what you’ve spoken, that you can correct it to create a more precise version of what you really wanted. Once you have edited one sentence to your liking, you may discover: the light is green. You’re on your way for the day.

Exercise: My use of the method was greatly increased by buying a headset. That way I didn’t have to contort my body to speak into my computer’s microphone. Again, feeling a band of wire across the top of your head may feel off-putting at first, but with more frequent use, the distraction factor lessens. To be honest, when I have it on, I feel more obligated to get down to work. And how hard, really, is it to take off a headset once you are rolling?

“Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness.”
—Pablo Picasso

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


General Information

When the term “fledgling writer” is used, the mind’s eye conjures up a fresh-eyed college graduate ready to conquer the literary world. Yet that designation fits a retiree fresh from the working world as well. In the latter case, all of the energy stored up from college lies dormant during a career, until the prospect of free days without end leads back to that wellspring.

In the mash of feelings about literature—an aspiration and/or admiration shared by a wide body of the public—opinions about what constitutes a good story can meld with a lifetime of related experiences. I once talked to someone, for instance, who equated writing a human resources manual with writing a novel. While this is an extreme example, I commonly come across novels packed with material that seems bereft of true soul.

If the process of learning how to write can be likened to approaching a tiger, it is not surprising that inexperienced authors fall back on old standbys as they forge their uncertain way forward. A former banker, for instance, might portray a young character who approaches a mentor with questions about what banking really is, or what constitutes a good loan. A former journalist might go on for pages about the inside doings around the nation’s Capitol—without any character required at all. Meanwhile, the tiger is still growling.

That’s because wrestling with the tiger means exposing tender feelings that most people spend their careers hiding. A primal yell will not be well received in a quarterly meeting, even when the boss deserves to be drawn and quartered. All of that suppression, the sucking up to get ahead, leaves a heavy imprint that is not erased merely because boss and employee move on to Florida. Humans are reflexive animals, after all, and after years of training we too sit up and beg.

A writer fresh out of college tends to err on the side of expressing too much spirit, unbridled by the needs of the characters. The mature adult suffers the opposite problem. They must start first with a lead character. The central question is: what makes the character tick? Forget about the surroundings, the life lessons. Who is this person, and why would anyone else care about what they do?

Older writers have a tremendous advantage: they know all sorts of character types. When the writing starts from inside one single character, the rules of banking are instantly replaced by: the fear of making a terrible loan. One aide in the Capitol has just stepped way over the line. Start there.

Exercise: An inexperienced author too often conflates the desires of the lead character with their own desires. That leads to writing about external circumstances. Instead, spend a week writing about life experiences of the character that have nothing to do with your experiences—and why the character would do such crazy things.

“You don't think anyone who lives an ordinary life has plenty of trouble and torment to write about?”
—David Shields

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Concrete Conversion

Writing a novel entails a process of continually filling out details. These can be character thoughts, plot events, or descriptions, to name the largest categories. A vital aspect of this constant elaboration takes place during the revision phase. It consists of nailing down points that were vague during the initial rush of words. A general description about the heart of autumn, for instance, turns into a flurry of leaves stirred by a passing car. The better writer is engaged in an unending hunt for particulars.

Correcting for further clarity is an aim of most writers during the editing phase. Clunky lines are thrown out. Pieces of dialogue you thought were clear the first time have to be modulated to make sure they have the intended meaning. Much of this sort of work is instinctive; you read and react. Yet what I am talking about is a granular approach. Are you getting the most out of every sentence?

A comment about a character, such as “He was given to boasting at parties” can lead to a hunt through the book for a party you know the character attended. Yet he doesn’t boast there. So what does that comment mean? You need to add in a quarter page, perhaps before the main business he needs to accomplish at the party begins, in which he boasts. Then delete the vague comment.

The process can help tremendously when furthering a plot objective. An unanswered question about a character often produces plot tension, and the more sharply the issue is drawn, the more impact it has on the reader. You may have positioned Annie, for example, as showing up several times at crime scenes. Yet when you examine each one more carefully, you notice that you did not assign her any specific business that would cast true doubt. So, in each of those scenes you add a strange bruise on her cheek, or unseemly flirting with a detective, or taking selfies with the victim in the background.

The search for exactitude extends to the narration. So many first drafts have a neutral point of view—because the author is trying to figure out what is going on as the scene unfolds. Yet upon revision the storyteller can take firmer control. Maybe he adds, after describing the flurry of leaves, how dead leaves make him positively ill. The door opens to an anecdote about a mother’s collection of pressed leaves, which the narrator’s older sister swept up while the family settled the estate.

By the time the revision—or more likely, multiple revisions—is completed, the novel is stuffed full of details. The clumsy lunges of the first draft have been replaced with unceasing slashes of a sure sword.

Exercise: During a revision, always be aware that any object can be magnified to greater specificity. A “bottle of wine” has a color, or comes from a region, or sparkles in the light when it is poured. The more impact you want it to have, the more vivid it should appear.

“Concrete is heavy; iron is hard but the grass will prevail.”   
—Edward Abbey

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Sleep for a Month on It

Writing any book takes a long time. I occasionally edit authors who write at white-hot speed, but the number is not great and neither are the books. There is a reason why, with so many authors, their first book is their best. With no deadline to meet, the writing can span months, revolving through numerous iterations, each of which adds a new layer of complexity. What is not as apparent in this involved process is how long a section may lie fallow before you turn your attention back to it. That gap in time can also be a tool in producing the best results.

The process of writing goes through three broad stages: research and notes; bursts of new creation; and editing. If the process takes several years, let’s say, then Chapter 5 may not be revisited for months on end. When you return to it, you read almost as you are coming upon the prose for the first time. Yes, you recognize the general drift for the characters and plot, but the individual sentences, all the tiny steps of getting from beginning to end, are a source of surprised delight—and, if you’re serious, consternation.

Let’s focus on that third stage, editing, because it is so often in conflict with the second, writing new material.  That’s because most authors face an ongoing problem of feeling blocked. You wake up on the wrong side of the bed for writing, and no matter how much you try to fight through it, you continue to feel listless. So you decide to edit what you’ve already written. After all, you set aside the time. You might as well get something done. And who knows? After a time the muse may finally come knocking.

That’s fine as an expedient. One day sucks, okay, write that off. But what do you do when the blockage malaise extends over several days, as it so often does, or even a week and more? You have to try harder, of course. No one cares if you never write a book, or another book. You’re the one who likes to tap into the flow of creativity.

You must push yourself to write new material every time out. If you set aside an hour and the pen only flows for the last 20 minutes—well, the pen flowed, didn’t it? What you can’t do is settle into a routine of editing yourself. A book takes long enough to write. When do you think you’ll ever finish if you don’t make a little progress every session?

Exercise: When you’re editing, don’t worry about getting everything exactly right. You’re only thinking everything’s right at that point in time. A writer is never satisfied. So put Chapter 5 aside. Sleep for a month on it, then come back. You’ll find more niggling things that need to be fixed. But during that month, if you force yourself to keep pushing ahead, you’ll have left that chapter far behind.

“A book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.”
—Franz Kafka

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


The Pall That Spreads

Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes in publishing knows how insanely jealous an author can be of other authors. The art of writing is upheld by self-confidence, and depending on how much recognition a writer has received, that can be a fragile edifice. Nowhere is this fact more true than with a nonfiction author, most of whom have never written a book before.

Since almost all nonfiction books are sold in the form of a proposal, I see the impulse to lash out at other writers in the section of the proposal known as Competition. The reason for the section is that acquisitions editors want to know what the market is for the book you’re writing. You typically provide a list of 5-7 titles that are similar to yours. For each title, I tell an author to write a few sentences about the basic premise of the other book, then a few sentences of how his book is different and better.

An author usually has no problem with the second part. She knows why her book is better than anything currently on the bookshelves. Yet that first part can draw out all sorts of demons. Rather than a neutral summary of the other book’s selling points, the savage critic launches into a long paragraph listing the other book’s faults. And, oh yeah, a sentence about her own book at the very end.

Besides missing the point of the exercise, the author has made a fatal mistake for another reason. Casting negativity on any subject makes the reader feel more negative toward the writing as a whole. If you are making negative comments, you may be perceived as a negative person. If an editor buys your book, that means he has to work with you. And no one likes to work with people that are negative.

You also should consider your audience for another reason. An editor tends to specialize in a field of nonfiction. So it may be that the book you’re so heartily cutting to shreds is one that the editor signed up. She may, in fact, love that book, and she has pleasant memories of working with that author. Now you come along with your dripping sword, so sure you’re right. I’ve got news for you. If you stress what’s positive about your book, we’ll be more inclined to jump on your bandwagon.

Exercise: For a Competition entry, first consider how it relates to your book. You do want to summarize in a few sentences what the book is about, but you can slant that summary in order to set up how your book is different. Say you’ve written a book about developments in solar energy, and you’re comparing it to a title that covers a lot of the same ground. You can be positive about it—and then point out that a number of the book’s findings are out of date by now.

“I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones.”
—John Cage

Copyright @2020, John Paine


That First Blush

The genesis of a new story is one of the most refreshing interludes in a career of writing. A new idea comes to you. It concerns a topic that stirs your fancy. You know you could write about it with passion, because certain elements—on the broadest of thematic levels—speak to you. You start writing notes, and the idea seems even stronger once you’ve laid down a few basic parameters. Pretty soon, if you have any experience, you are thinking of the lead character, or several possible candidates for that role. That too speaks to you. Perhaps this time you decide you are going to bare your soul. All in all, at the end of the writing session, you are beaming inside with happiness. This one, you know, is going to be great.

Before you go too far, however, let’s consider a practical point. A great idea without a great central character isn’t going to take you too far toward the goal of being published. That’s because a publisher wants a unique product above all. If that sounds crass, welcome to the way trade publishing really works. A publisher is thinking in terms of the copy that fills the inside flap of a hardcover, the back cover of a paperback, or the subject box of an ebook listing. Inside a publishing house, an important voice in the decision to buy a manuscript is the marketing department. So many manuscripts are rejected at that stage.

Let’s return to the glorious freshness of the new idea. Ask yourself at a very early stage: what characteristics does my main character possess that are unique? That requires, at the least, you think through their situation in life. Single? Married? With children and how many? What about the parents, perhaps with problems that still plague the main character during the course of the novel? Do you have any background stories about their upbringing that has an impact on how they act during the course of the novel? See if you can write 20 pages just on what this person is doing before the novel starts. Above all, what is distinctive about all this stuff? What sets your character apart from all of the hundreds of other main characters that you’ve loved reading about?

The reason I caution you to start thinking this way from the very beginning is that the peculiarities of the protagonist can have a strong influence on how you shape the novel. You can use three or four prime ingredients that make your character special as a way to give your novel a flavor that no other novel has. Your new book is special because the character running the show is all your own.

Exercise: From form comes action. Once you have decided on several defining characteristics, think about the possible outcomes of such a trait. Then exaggerate those outcomes to the very outer edge of believability. If the character likes to appease others, because her parents fought constantly when she was a child, think of the absolute worst situation in which his appeasement could place her. See if you can design that sequence so that she has to wallow in that position for as long as possible. Now the character can show how distinctive she is.

“Find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning, just follow him or her all day.” 
—Ray Bradbury

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine


Add the Warp to the Weave

Many neophyte authors are aware of the journalistic maxim of being impartial. The writer should not editorialize. Yet this dictum can be taken too far, to the point that the neutral voice is a boring voice. If you are just laying out facts in an assembly line, the reading experience will feel industrial as well. The narrative can start to read like a hodgepodge of collected information—which, of course, is exactly what it was before you started putting the pieces together.

Authors need authority in their narrative voice. Certain writers have no problem adopting a strong voice. If you’ve ever read any books on marketing, you’ll see immediately what I mean. These people are born salesmen, and their books are meant to persuade a reader to adopt their advice. Authors in other fields don’t have to go quite so far, because such forcefulness may undermine the seriousness of your prose. But the sales approach does engage a reader. Given that writing is by its very nature a manipulative art, you can put yourself forward more.

You need above all else to take control of your narrative. How an author writes sets them apart in any field. You need only think of a figure like Malcolm Gladwell to realize this is true. When you seize command, the book comes to life. You should not be content merely to be a gatherer of data, letting your material speak for itself. In between all of those nuggets needs to run a narrative thread that is all your own. Point up to the reader the importance of a fact. Don’t be afraid to be ironic or wry at appropriate moments.

As you gain confidence in stitching together one research nugget to another, you’ll see certain themes that you wanted to include all along start to emerge on the paper. You can then judge how that section you’re writing fits into the whole. The price of a telephone line in 1910, for instance, becomes an issue for the man who could not afford a phone and his wife dies before medical help can arrive. You have to be bold enough to grab the reins of control and steer the reader in the directions you want her to go. The reader will be pleased to go along for the ride.

Exercise:  A significant step in taking command of your narrative starts with the first paragraph in a chapter. If you remember your grammar class, that is known as a topic paragraph. Think about the four or five basic areas you want to cover in the chapter. Distill each area down to a sentence, or two if needed. Once you challenge yourself, you’ll be surprised by how easy it is. Pretty soon you’ll string together those sentences—and there you have it, a governing logic for the entire chapter to come.

“Imagination grows by exercise, and contrary to popular belief, is more powerful in the mature than in the young.” 
—W. Somerset Maugham

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine
Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.