Seeding Clues

An author may write a book containing mystery elements without intending to focus primarily on the protagonist solving clues. The desire may trend more toward exploring the characters or to creating the atmosphere of a locale. This main pursuit may become so extensive that the book’s suspects and clues are strewn in a sporadic fashion. That may not prove to be the best strategy if the climax of the book features the typical mystery showdown. The reader had no chance to guess whodunit, so how could they have known the story would end this way?

Let’s say the writer comes to that realization only after writing a first draft. Now what are they supposed to do? They have an entire novel that works pretty well the way it is. Does the edifice have to be torn apart in order to create new plot threads whereby the reader can guess?

No, and here’s why. The story already contains a wealth of rich characters, and any character can be a suspect if viewed a certain way. What can be changed to alter the protagonist’s perception?

The first is hidden biographical information. Of course, the reason it is hidden right now is because you haven’t thought of it yet. So you take an unlikable character, and on page 100, say, your hero finds out he served in the special forces in Iraq. Or, since many of us commit minor crimes during adolescence, we find out she was busted for assaulting a police officer during a protest. If you have decided that you will feature primarily three suspects, give one of them a chilling past.

The second is a link to an unsavory activity. The most common is to drugs. This is a wide sphere, ranging from the pothead down the hall in your college dormitory to a ruthless killer for a Mexican drug cartel. Yet association with any aspect of it casts suspicion, because it is (largely) illegal. You could also choose largely innocent trades such as gun sales, casinos, or company finances, including the financial books of a country store.

Once you have decided on a list of clues, you can then insert them in existing scenes. In a gossip session that dwells on an unwitting maverick in a garden club, you drop in an unsavory link. Oh, you didn’t know that about her? Or you insert a “helpful” neighbor who sidles over to say what he personally “witnessed” the night of the crime. Pretty soon you have dotted the manuscript with hooks on which a reader can hang a case.

Exercise: The impulse when making such an insertion is to drop in a sentence. Yet that usually isn’t enough. The clue feels gratuitous, or the reader doesn’t grasp the import because it is so minor in the mise en scène you’ve created otherwise. In general, when you have mentions that are off-topic, you will find that 2-3 sentences will blend in more naturally.

“I like villains because there's something so attractive about a committed person—they have a plan, an ideology, no matter how twisted. They're motivated.”          —Russell Crowe

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


What Was and What Is Now

When a manuscript grows into a sprawling behemoth, the place to begin cutting is often the beginning. Perhaps not the first chapter, which tends to be worked and reworked laboriously, despite the glaring problem that looms beyond (it’s way too long!). Past that, in the early going, a dispassionate eye will find plot ventures that are not absolutely necessary.

When you examine the book-making process, that can tell you a lot about what contributes to the story’s climax. An author deems where a likely starting point should be. A large portion of outline notes drawn up beforehand form the basis of the early going. Expanding them into the actual scenes takes a chunk of pages. That is augmented by the author’s explorations into what really makes the characters tick and how they interact. The characters’ interactions begin to form a pattern, and they bend the novel to suit their evolving personalities. All along the way the gleam in the eye about what you really wanted to write takes firmer shape. Months go by as you work out how the novel must proceed until page 500, 600, 700 appear in the bottom right-hand corner of the page.

What has gone so horribly wrong? If you review only the second half of the novel, your conclusion may well be: not much. You did follow the directions that had become so clear by then. Plus, the scenes are genuinely exciting, taut, or compelling, and you’re not just fooling yourself. The banging around in a dark room may have taken awhile, but the door to your sunny future opened at last.

Now return to the first half. That’s where the path was not so certain. Given what you know about which characters and which plot lines turn out to be gold, how does this early material seem? Since this part of a novel often is filled with background stories, for instance, you might examine each one and ask: is its length commensurate with the importance of the character? Is a back story even needed at all? 

You might outline the sequencing of chapters. Do you find that a character who turned out to be minor has a lot of early scenes—because you thought they would be major when you started off? You should trim that section, shaving down those appearances and/or the length of the appearances. That’s not just for the sake of cutting. You also are streamlining your plot lines, so that readers are following the characters that will pay off later.

If you are given to writing dialogue, examine each one for relevance. Are the conversations aligned with the plot overall? Do you have minor (who were once thought major) characters having extended conversations? Maybe you cut a page of one of them and insert a two-sentence narrative summary of what is said. In other words, once you know the end game, you can edit accordingly.

“Authors who moan with praise for their editors always seem to reek slightly of the Stockholm syndrome.”  ― Christopher Hitchens

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Blows of Pride

One of the first lessons a novelist learns is that the protagonist should face a series of obstacles. It is telling that so many react to that dictum by creating a series of external obstacles, resembling warriors in a video game to a greater or lesser degree. Even authors with a more literary bent will utilize characters embodying a social theme that oppresses from without. Less common are explorations of what drives a person to fail. Perhaps failure feels too tragic, and most people write to feel good about themselves.

Failure comes in all sorts of varieties—because humans are so good at it—so I’ll focus here on it as a facet of divorce. A breakup is painful in direct proportion to its former promise. While a lucky half of all couples sail through life without it, I think most people have experienced the pain, either directly or as children or as witnesses. The pain of separation is sharp and bitter, and the bitterness never goes away, even if it dulls over time. 

Pride comes before a fall, and that is where failure can play a dynamic role in fiction. Pride can be built up through a series of scenes that show the keyed-on partner as proud to be married, whether that relates to their partner’s status or as parent of praised children. It can also be cultivated through the arguments of the spouses. Marriage is a series of compromises, and when one or both members in a couple refuses to bend, pride of belonging in one’s parental family is frequently the cause. So the parents can be brought into the novel to show what sparks such loyalty. Inherent in all of these interactions, of course, is the failure of the character to realize how blind their loyalty is.

The differences between a couple may be truly irreconcilable, but adding a tragic flaw is more dramatic. That doesn’t include such tawdry factors as workaholism. A tragic flaw stems from a more titanic goodness than that. Identifying what that is and then building the marriage scenes around it shows the poisonous root of the dissolution.

Equally as gripping are the waves of explanations a character makes, in private and to others, after the marriage falls apart. How does an author modulate the complaints to lay bare their shrillness? Does the character learn from the experience, or do they go on in life placing all the blame on the partner? A person can be consumed by bitterness just as easily as by joy. Where does that leave them at the end of the story, on the lonely rock they claim?

Exercise: You can use supporting characters to great effect. A mother’s dislike for her daughter-in-law is an obvious choice, but what about the friend that encourages the character’s growing dissatisfaction? When the divorce is final, what can the friend do to remedy the pain? Or, if the partner left for a new love, how does the newbie stack up against who was lost?

“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.”  —Truman Capote

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Tainted Memories, Part 2

In the previous post I discussed ways of delving deeper into the factors underpinning a background story. Recapturing it moment by moment from inside a character's mind reaps greater benefits than a catalogue of events. The same principle can be applied in the long range as well. What causes a character to think of that memory?

To examine this question, let’s look at how that process often works in fiction. A present-day event comes up, and afterward the character states the age-old source of their reaction to the event. The handoff from present to past may be as abrupt as inserting a line-space break (two returns on the keyboard) and launching directly into the flashback.

A more effective method is identifying the long-range patterns (you can call them neuroses) that lead to the memory. The same in-depth approach is used. You take the present-day event and ask: why am I raising this point about the character? You chose the event deliberately, so you must know. Just write out the reason as a note to yourself. To use the running example: “Elena explodes because her father yelled at her all the time when she was growing up.”

Now make that into a mental loop for the character. You can consider first the direct links to the past. What is the present status of the father in her life? How did his relationship with her mother change over time? How does that affect Elena’s visits home? What has Elena told a friend or lover about how it impacted her? When you start to consider the issue in the long run, you can start telling a summary narrative about life-long traumatic effects.

Now turn the prism away from the past. Elena is certainly aware that her explosions aren’t normal. When has she exploded before and, more important, with which major characters in the novel? While in the midst of her yelling, how is she processing the reaction of the person under fire? That isn’t the same as dear old dad’s reaction. How does she feel about being wrong—with that person, considering their relationship? Has a past explosion changed the relationship? What were her practical consequences, such as going to a therapist for help? After all, most people want to avoid the shame that follows such an event.

Finally, consider how this loop changes over the course of the novel. If Elena’s explosions dig her into a deeper and deeper hole, that neurosis is going to break her. By contrast, if someone else helps her get over it, how does her thinking about the loop  change step by step? You can insert other background stories, new ones that she can hold onto—her new image of herself—and become healed.

Exercise: Don’t forget that you can color memories to suit the character’s perspective. In a dark mood, you recall your own memories differently, adding a nasty snap to the other person’s motives. If you start off a character arc with negatively charged memories and end with ones that are more even-handed, the character’s very manner of recollection creates an emotional swell toward hope.

“I want to keep my dreams, even bad ones, because without them, I might have nothing all night long."  —Joseph Heller

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Tainted Memories, Part 1

The process of immersion into a character has many different aspects. One basic technique is learning to think about how a character would react to a plot event. Another low-lying fruit is putting a character’s thoughts into italic type, creating inner dialogue. A third useful tool is creating background stories, so you understand better how a character would react in any given situation. You can take a further step and charge such back stories so they become those really terrific ones you read in good books.

To start, consider the most primitive model. Say you want to explore why Elena reacts so explosively whenever anyone raises their voice to her. You think about it and you decide it was dear old dad, who yelled at everyone in the household after he’d downed enough beers. You decide to recall one night in particular that was harrowing for Elena. The story unspools, you crank out a page, and it looks, well, definitely okay.

The reason it isn’t more is because many attempts at such stories are “factual” retellings. By that I mean that you are trying to faithfully recall what happened. You place Elena in the house, perhaps in the upstairs hallway. You catalogue the father’s drinking, then his coming upstairs, and the abuse of his daughter. All vivid and yet it feels like an action/adventure scene.

You’re not digging deep enough. You might want to consider: If Elena was old enough to suffer meaningful trauma, she was independent enough to have a fully realized life outside that event. She might have desires to protect her mother, or actually have done so in the past. She might have just emerged from her brothers’ bedroom, and Alfie was teasing her about the nerd with the huge schnozzola who follows her around. “Everywhere, Elena!” When she sees all the empties lined up on the coffee table in front of the TV, she already knows what’s what. She’s been through some variant of this scenario before, and she has feelings—fear maybe, but also extreme annoyance because of fucking Alfie and here’s the king of her crappy household getting wasted again. Now what happens when Daddy lashes into her?

To make any background story fully involving, you need to think through all of the predicate circumstances at that very moment. You’re not just reaching back into the past. You want to get inside her when it happens, and the only way to do that is to know what is going on with everyone around her. How old her parents were, the state of their marriage, the states of their jobs. How old her siblings were, who ranked highest with the parents, in school, and Elena’s standing with them. That’s when the magic really happens.

Exercise: Try to write the memory the first time only in terms of what your key character experiences. The father’s drunkenness, for example, is then viewed only through her eyes. See if you can attach an opinion she has about every single step of the incident. You can always pare them back later. You’ll find that key facts emerge as something mentioned in passing. That’s a mark of immersion.

“It is not length of life, but depth of life.”  —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Flogging the Beast

Revision is a vital part of writing, and multiple drafts are required for most writers. Five, six, seven drafts go by, with changes mostly minor but sometimes including major shifts that correspond to your evolving sense of the story you really want to tell. Changes can also be driven from outside forces, such as a round of rejections by literary agents. Sometimes the mere prospect of being rejected can drive an author to the keyboard.

At some point, you have to ask yourself: should I move on to that next book I mean to write? I have gently counseled some more obsessive authors to choose that tack, and there is a common reason why. It stems not from any observations about picayune issues such as sentence flow. Rather, they derive from a higher realm, one known as concept.

What if the story you want so urgently to tell has been already been told numerous times? That happens a lot to older authors. They want to report on the exciting times of their youth, and through the gauzy screen of memory certain tropes will stand out. For the great generation it is often World War II. For the sixties generation, it might be sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. The notion that many other authors have plowed the same ground somehow does not occur to them. Writing is a (good) expression of egotism, after all.

You need to assess the work at that highest level. Forget about all the passages you have written. If you’ve worked on them seven times, they are likely the best you will ever get them. Forget about rearranging the order of chapters. You probably have balanced the plot lines by now. And you won’t materially affect a reader’s overall impression of the book by moving up an exciting scene to the prologue.

The most futile step you can take is endlessly adding more scenes or resculpting old scenes in a significant way. Yes, the change is important at an incremental level. Yes, the book is getting better. But unless you can honestly say that your take on an old subject is radically different, you’re just moving piles of sand on the same old stretch of beach.

The myth of the writer burrowed in some book-lined cave whose book will only be published after death very seldom comes true. It’s incredibly likely that you are not that person. It is better to think in practical terms. What was that great idea you had for the next book? Why don’t you spend a few mornings working out some rough details of that? You never know. The next book you write might turn out to be the one you really were meant to write. Don’t pound your head against a wall. Write because you enjoy it.

“Dusting is a good example of the futility of trying to put things right. As soon as you dust, the fact of your next dusting has already been established.”  —George Carlin

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.



Authors tend to think of a character trait as a set element in a personality rather than a force that helps to propel a novel. Yet a story usually demands that a character trait remains ongoing, leading toward an end later in the novel. A young woman, for example, is so wildly rebellious that she breaks something important to her in the climax. Her character arc demands development toward that point.

While a very good author might be able to convey that progress through interior thoughts, the lesser lights among us might want to employ their other characters to assist in that aim. In particular, a pattern that is seen frequently in novels is using two supporting characters: one a comrade and one an opponent. I propose this in the crudest terms, since many shades of both types have been chosen. In addition, a protagonist may have several of both, as long as they are maintained on a continual basis throughout the story.

Why so few? The simple answer is dispersion. You can build a stronger bond with one lover or one friend. You can focus hatred better on one opponent. That principle can be expanded outward to a limited extent. The rebel above—call her Lindsey—might have two friends who are very much unalike, but both play signal roles in daring Lindsey to wilder efforts. Lindsey might not only hate her mother but her father too. 

Past that, though, what do you get? If Lindsey has three or four friends in her gang, now you have to apportion enough space for each of them to matter to the reader. The same holds for the opposition. Sure, the principal sucks too, not to mention the creepy English teacher, but how well does Lindsey know either of them compared to the ’rents? 

Character interactions can build in an ongoing way throughout a novel. This continual accretion allows you to show how a character trait plays out in how many different directions, including those unexpected, as you want. For Lindsey, rebellion may score telling points about the rotten hypocrisy of those in education, while at the same time her hectoring scares away any potential romantic partner. In order to accomplish the latter aim, you insert a character or two who are attracted to her vibrancy. How does that create friction with Lindsey and her friend(s)? How does she react to her parents’ support of the swain, even if she admits in her private moments that they are well meaning?

In every instance, tension is created by interactions with known quantities. The more the reader gets to know them, the more you can offer different types of scenarios to add complexity to the trait. Now Lindsey is ripe for a turning point.

Exercise: If you have written background stories for a character, examine them with an eye toward making them active. Does Lindsey, for instance, have to be a little girl when such-and-such happened? You may find that a chauvinist uncle is far more useful when her mother starts scolding him for being a pig.

“I have sporadic OCD cleaning moments around the house. But then I get lazy and I'm cured. It's a very inconsistent personality trait.” —Chris Hemsworth

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Oblique Angle

Authors who want to write a mystery or a thriller cannot start from a blank sheet and let the story wend where it will. Nor can they decide in midstream that actually what they want to write (or what they hear will sell) is a thriller. That’s because these genres rely on deceiving the reader at key steps along the way. You will do a poor job of that if you don’t know the trapdoors yourself before you come upon them.

The idea of devising a grand scheme can seem well nigh impossible until you grasp a vital starting point. A main character only knows the information you provide. The protagonist can be placed within a larger scheme that is hidden from them at the beginning. Forget about characterization at this stage. Anyone can be duped if they are swept off their feet by unexpected events. 

One straightforward scheme involves romantic partners. That makes a protagonist—let’s call her Paula—inclined to believe in the one she loves. While the gender doesn’t matter, we’ll give Paula a husband, Rick, since that is the typical arrangement. Also give Rick a lover, Geraldine, with whom he’s having an affair. 

The next step is: leave Paula out of your thinking entirely. What is going on in that affair? You want a unique arrangement, because you’re trying to use fresh elements that readers haven’t seen. At the same time, you can use age-old developments. One partner in an affair commonly comes to want more than just sex out of the relationship. Disrupting the marriage, with whatever combination of resistance by one lover you devise, then becomes an imperative very early in the book. 

Paula is made aware that something is untoward, whether through an attempted murder on her or a murder of one of the affair’s lovers or someone who learns of the lovers. This last point is important, because the only way you can create a series of trapdoors is through new information that is revealed to Paula. An affair, to extend this example, does not occur in a vacuum. Other people have seen the lovers. A colleague at Rick’s job could divulge info to Paula. Geraldine’s husband could make contact with Paula. The detectives investigating the murder could reveal to Paula past financial transactions involving Rick through their uncovering of evidence. That’s not to mention his unsavory childhood years, quite different from the story that Paula has believed for so many years.

When you populate the landscape around Paula with people that know only their angle of the truth, you can then assign what she learns to each of those characters. The ones who have more skin in the game will appear more often. Now deception doesn’t seem so impossible, does it?

Exercise: An important factor is the agenda of the characters who impart information. Slanting the truth is to the advantage of a person who needs to hide from Paula. You can break down that “truth” into a series of revelations that then are parceled out in a series of scenes. The true agenda is revealed when you decide to finish off that character.

“I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you.”  ― Friedrich Nietzsche

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Which Do You Choose?

When, for whatever reason, you have to make large cuts in a manuscript, the question is: what goes and what stays? I will immediately dismiss the idea that you can lop off a sentence here and there to get to your target. You need entire scenes. How do you tell which scenes are more important than others?

A useful overall guideline is: how much does a scene affect the main character? If you want to be a good editor of your work, you should learn to choose a prism that governs your attack. For me, the first and foremost prism is viewed through the protagonist. In this case, what is the role the hero plays in each scene?

You may be surprised when you make judgments based on that standard. I’ll use a historical novel as a model, since so many are sprawling. If your subject is the Tennessee campaign in the fall of 1864, you are probably covering a variety of hardships suffered by the Confederate army. How many of those hardships affect the lead character in any substantial way? How many of the arguments about poor grub does the hero take part in? What you’ll find, when you look carefully, is that your lead is basically a bystander in a number of scenes. So they may be the first to go. 

The second fertile area is trickier, but not by much. Using the same prism, ask: how important is the scene to the protagonist’s ultimate goals? Using the same example, if your hero is a soldier who unexpectedly is gobsmacked by a bitter hill-country belle, to the point that he will go back to look for her after the Battle of Nashville, that should govern your thinking about scenes outside that plot line. Are all those scenes of General John Bell Hood madly cursing his fate really needed? Does the 100-page sequence covering the Battle of Franklin really have to include all of the nuances? 

Finally, consider what the payoff is for each scene. That is, it should be a building block leading to some larger aim. If you have three scenes of soldiers hunting squirrels because they are starving, you should realize you get shock value out of a topic only once. So pick the best of the three and cut the other two. If you have five scenes of generals discussing battle tactics, pick two, or three, that actually have an effect on the protagonist in the field. You should be aware that planning meetings are the most boring in any novel. Focus on the grunt, and you’ll probably be okay.

Exercise: On the converse side, if you created a minor romance that doesn’t end up going anywhere, that should be first in line. What you want most of all are cuts of an entire character. Look at your subplots. Could one be excised from this book and become a plot line in your next one?

"Drama is life with the dull bits cut out."  —Alfred Hitchcock

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Narrative Tricks

An author writing a plot-driven book will rightfully claim that he does not have time for lengthy character explorations. They slow down the book’s pacing. Yet this approach also runs the risk of creating characters so ill-defined, they’re cartoon cutouts. The question for this author is: how do I create memorable characters in quick strokes? Here are a few tips:

First of all, your character has a memory. Let’s use a running example of an Ebola-like outbreak in a war-torn country in Africa. Let’s further posit that the protagonist is an American doctor trying to save patients. She arrives at a stricken village, and you provide a paragraph of description that fills in the harrowing details. All of this writing is exterior: that is, it could be described by anyone. So how do you make it an individual experience?

One way is to compare it to other outbreaks she has experienced. A doctor involved in infectious diseases usually is familiar with numerous types of these diseases. If she has served in other humanitarian crises, she would assess this one in terms of the previous ones. In other words, you’re using her memory to bind all of the sensory material in that descriptive paragraph to her.

Another trick is to put yourself in the character’s shoes at the moment she is experiencing action. Let’s say our doctor (we’ll switch to a man) steps out of his Jeep and approaches the door to what appears to be the village clinic. Again, you have a paragraph of description of approaching the closed door. Again, the writing is all exterior. How do you make it personal?

Ask the questions your character would ask. Start with: What does he fear is waiting on the other side of the closed door? That’s why you wrote all that descriptive stuff, isn’t it? You want to induce trepidation in the reader. So stick it inside the mind of the protagonist. Monkey see (the character), monkey do (the reader).

A third trick is to use description itself, only calibrated to the character. Let’s say the protagonist thinks she recognizes another doctor from back home, only he’s lying on one of the fetid clinic beds. You describe her first impressions, from a distance. Then, as she gets closer, she provides more pinpoint descriptions that she recognizes. All descriptions, but your character controls the focus.

Exercise: Here’s one more trick. If you have any emotional material at all, judge how impersonal it is. For example, when the woman doctor recognizes her friend:  “She experienced a rush of anxiety.” Do you mean: “She was terribly worried about him”? Try to use warmth in the emotional descriptions rather than accurately cataloging the state. You’re not using more words; you’re choosing the right words.

“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky 

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Leading Statements

Anyone familiar with TV or films knows the device that directors use to foreshadow an event. A single short shot of someone doing something in a locale out of sequence is sufficient to convey that the story will go in that direction. The idea has been copied by novelists, with varying degrees of success. 

Its least effective use is as a chapter-ending line. “They had no idea they were heading for catastrophe” is a typical example. It is a cheap trick that is reviled by most readers. The irritation is doubled when the line is placed at the end of a chapter in which nothing much happened. You can almost see the writer thinking, “Gosh, the chapter is so flat. Let’s throw in a zinger.” The correct solution, of course, is to rewrite the chapter so it does advance the drama.

The author is not wrong in one regard, though. A single sentence can set a reader’s mind whirring. If a detective tells their boss, “I sure wish the killer hadn’t wiped the hard drive,” the reader is immediately alerted. Hold it a second, computer techs can recover wiped hard drives. So then the direction has been signaled without its feeling cheap. In fact, a single sentence can be appended to the end of that chapter: “We’ll send this to the IT guys to find out what’s on that hard drive.” A single-sentence clue, a knock-on promise. 

This sort of linkage can be more effective when you place a single statement in two different plot lines. This might be deemed the call and response method. If in one chapter a Middle Eastern villain states that the method of attack will be a car bomb, you might then in a later chapter have a police chief remind their squad that enemy forces liked to use car bombs in Iraq. Now suspense has been created by mere juxtaposition.

The device works most effectively when the talk is shortly backed by action. Dramatic emphasis depends largely on length of coverage of a topic. So a single sentence runs the danger of being trampled in the reader’s memory by subsequent waves of better-covered events. You can let the sentence hang for a while, as a beckoning promise, but within a few chapters more meat should be provided. Actions speak louder than words. The police chief should be proven right, to however limited degree, by the Middle Eastern villain visiting, say, a pool equipment store to buy an ingredient for the promised bomb. A single-sentence clue, a payoff for the attention.

Exercise: With any plot-driven book, you can draw up a list of the points that you want to foreshadow. Then place the single lines in strategic locations: a few chapters beforehand, or a string of them at 30-page intervals. Choose scenes with the individuals involved and drop in the line as a natural segue from what they are already discussing. Unobtrusive hints can do wonders.

“The pleasure lies not in the cookies, but in the pattern the crumbs make when the cookies crumble.”  —Michael Korda

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


What Matters

In this fervid season of American politics, the temptation for a novelist is to capture that lightning in a bottle. Yet when I try to remember any political novel that matters, only a stray few, such as All the King’s Men, come to mind. Given all the Covid-laden shouting everywhere, how can that possibly be? 

The first, gigantic obstacle facing a writer is freshness. In our 24-hour news cycle, any American who would read a book already knows the issues. Nor do new wrinkles in these long-standing causes tend to develop. How long ago was Roe v. Wade? When characters spout off the arguments of the religious right, say, a novel reader’s interest immediately dims. Oh, right, that stuff. Aren’t I reading a novel to get away from that stuff? 

The second is politics’ inherent immorality. If a novel has to make sense of our world, how can that be reconciled with a group of individuals whose worth is measured by the opinions of others? Good luck creating a character whose moral fiber waxes and wanes with the circumstances. How much do you think the reader is going to care about that character? 

The third is the problem that fiction in general has in aping real life. The right to an abortion, to use that example, really matters to women. The course of their life may depend on it. Yet when that issue is raised in a novel, the plot inevitably depends on the personal nature of the decision. That’s because fiction is terrific at laying bare what is in our hearts. What a pregnant character tells her mother will impact me more deeply than what she argues, for all women, on a soapbox. 

In that observation lies the crux of the matter. Why does Robert Penn Warren’s novel succeed? One reason is the venality of Huey Long, to be sure. Far more energy is directed, however, in uncovering what makes him venal. That suggests that politics succeeds in novels only when it is made personal. You do have commercial outliers, such as The Manchurian Candidate, which succeed because the premise is so outrageous. The idea that a Soviet spy could become president actually is so wicked that a reader might care. For the great majority of novelists, though, the plotting tends to be more ordinary. My advice? Don’t go there. Turn on the TV and shout to your heart’s content.

Exercise: The core of a good political novel, as with any novel, is formed of a small cast of characters whose actions impinge on each other personally. If the president and his wife have a long-running battle that is featured every fifth scene, the reader will be moved because of the personal acrimony. When laying out a plot, start there: who really matters to whom?

“If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal.”  —Emma Goldman

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Creature of Habit

By now everyone is complaining about being cooped up during the Covid crisis, and the winter is only beginning. Yet one silver lining is the extra time people have to drag out that old manuscript from a desk drawer, literal or figurative. If entertainment cannot be found without, it can be uncovered within.

I have long been an advocate of writing daily, keeping a finger on the thrumming pulse of your creativity. In the past, with commutes of an hour and more, such a regimen was nearly impossible for those who work in an office. Only those willing to rise before dawn or to burn the midnight oil could keep up. 

That stricture no longer exists, however. That is, essentially, new free time if you want it to be. The problem is switching over from a more sporadic schedule of toiling for hours on the weekends to a daily grind. You have biorhythms and you may not feel like writing every day. 

Therein lies the false belief you are telling yourself. You are not used to writing that way, and so you make an excuse based on habit. If you can show proof that storing up your subconscious juices until they bubble forth actually works, that would be fine. It even chimes with a nice ring of making logical sense. 

If we were all cauldrons, that is. The fact is, a habit is what you make. I used to smoke Lucky Strikes, but then I realized that wasn’t such a great habit. I also have written (nearly) every day for years, and I know very well how easy it is to lose a story thread after an absence, even of a few days during a weekend. 

Writers have to retrieve interesting bits and pieces from a mind that is always churning with mundane garbage. That is really what bubbles up: constant reviews of what you did and said yesterday. Setting aside a daily time period means locking yourself into a type of purity regime. That time is sacred because you have declared that is when you aren’t going to be ordinary. 

Forcing yourself to write every day has an added benefit: you’ll find the book is being finished faster. Someday the pall of Covid will lift, and then that new free time will be stolen away by your normal schedule. You’d better be done with the book by then.

Exercise: Dedicate a block of time at the same hour every day and put it on your calendar as a repeating event. I prefer early in the morning, because that’s when dreams edge onto being awake, but stretching the lunch break to include an extra hour works too. Grow protective of your new habit, and you’ll soon find that any family members will work around you—because they’re proud of your dedication too.

“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.” —Philip Roth

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


When Is Enough Enough?

When a reader finishes a published novel, there is a sense of completion, that the story has come full circle. The final page, with all that welcome white space that frees us for another book, signals: done. Yet for the person who penned the work, the end line is not so clear. The manuscript has probably been through a series of revisions, and every time numerous changes, if only word substitutions, clearly made the book better. So, for all of those who do not have a publisher’s deadline,  when do you declare finito?

For some authors, writing a gemlike solitaire is enough. Yet I raise the question because most authors I talk to say they are dreaming about their next book or have already started it. They are just waiting to put their present one to bed.

Unless you have hired an editor and believe you’re done when they’re done with the edit, the quandary of should I stay or should I go can linger. Here are a few signs you should move on.

The first is: you’re sick of the manuscript. You’ve been over and over it so many times that passages that once delighted you now seem like a homework assignment. In that frame of mind you’re not doing the book any good. Sure, you could hunt and peck for better verbs, but you still have to go through all the other text that seems just fine. While applying any time-efficiency ratio to writing is laughable (how many hours have you spent?), you may rightly feel that you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns.

A more ominous sign is when you start tearing apart large pieces because you’ve seized upon a new idea that seems promising. If you’re doing that after completing your first draft, you may well have justification. If you’ve completed a third or fourth draft, you have to pull on the reins. Familiarity breeds contempt, and authors can be self-sabotaging at a certain stage. Unless you really are (all your friends and relatives and fellow workers say so) a genius, you may be taking on a gigantic amount of work that won’t, in the end, make the book much better. 

A third sign is structural. You feel uneasy about the story and decide to adopt techniques you see in best-sellers. In one common example, you start creating short-short chapters and then rewriting to create suitable cliff hanger endings for the new material. Again, you’re creating a lot of new work for yourself. Remember, all that time you’re spending is time you could be devoting to the next book. Maybe that book, because of your hard-won experience, will be better.

Exercise: If you are undecided, think globally. Don’t become mired in each sentence as you’re reviewing. Read faster, taking in the material but sticking to a resolve not to change a thing. Read only a half hour at a time, to stay fresh. You’ll find that you are retaining the gist of the chapters, and that will tell you how far you’ve come.

“I do so hate finishing books. I would like to go on with them for years.”              —Beatrix Potter

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Evening Out

The process of revision is local just the way writing the first draft is. By that I mean an author tends to write one section at a time. That makes sense, if you think about the steps required in editing. First, while reading over the manuscript, the writer perceives a problem. A solution is devised, and then the writer searches for places in the manuscript to insert the solution. Said place is found and a new patch of a few pages appears. This identification and insertion process can occur in several other places. If you leave track changes (which shows where text has been changed) running, you can see these discrete spots. Is that really enough, however, to fully bend a story arc in a new direction? 

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say a terrorist wants to blow up the New York Stock Exchange with an ammonium nitrate bomb in the climax. While reviewing the first draft, an author might like the excitement—will Sergeant Fitzgerald thwart the dastardly villain?—but realize that the bomb is sprung on the reader all at once. How do you make an ammonium nitrate bomb in the first place? So a few new scenes are written in the villain’s basement, using its rusty square sink, and voilà! The villain is not only ambitious, he’s handy too.

Yet a further review of the revised manuscript shows an additional problem. The new patches are fine, but they seem to come full-blown out of nowhere. How did the villain go from grumbling at the government to handling bags of fertilizer? Why was that method chosen and what research into bomb making is done? What role does reading about past bombings play? Does the villain boast about the method to friends or as a manifesto online? 

All of the tendrils attached to a large block of text need to be considered, and more than that, further insertions that include them will help build story tension. They don’t need to be as lengthy as long as they appear regularly. You might insert into an early scene, for instance, the villain viewing an old photo of the Oklahoma City bombing and saying: Whoa, that’s what freaking fertilizer can do?

That is how a sturdy story arc is built: piece by piece all through the book. If you start small and then write increasingly longer passages, the mere length provides a building dramatic emphasis. Then readers really will be on the edge of their seat when the villain’s van turns onto Wall Street.

Exercise: New insertions can often be written independently of the existing text. Writing that way can be helpful in terms of maintaining continuity between each piece. Write out the fragmented story and then look for places to insert the blocks. You’ll usually find that only the beginning and ending of the piece has to be changed in order to align with what you already have.

“I write down portions, maybe fragments, and perhaps an imperfect view of what I'm hoping to write. Out of that, I keep trying to find exactly what I want.”          —James Salter

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Swallowing a Loss

From the grand mishmash of story threads that weave through a writer’s mind while writing a novel emerges a structure that channels these different impulses. While not every piece needs to correspond to the whole, the author needs to be wary of any tangent of significant length. That happens for various reasons, and a common one is: what is left over from a previous draft.

For the purpose of illustration, perhaps the thread metaphor should be colorized. I do that with plot charts during editing. Each major character is assigned a color so that, at a glance, I can tell when one of them has been neglected for a long time. You can also assign a color to certain character pairings: the protagonist-antagonist, protagonist-friend 1, protagonist-friend 2, etc. That way you can track how relationships build.

With such a tool in hand, you can better judge how pieces from an old draft have survived. Seeing the forest for the trees is important in this regard. If you decided after reading over a draft that you needed to add more scenes with a bereaved widow, you need to judge how episodic the new additions are. If she appears only after 40-, 60-, or 80-page gaps at a time, you know the reader isn’t going to care much about her grief. It hardly ever shows up in the book. That raises a knock-on question: what scenes still fill those blocks of text in between her appearances? 

The reason I am pointing this out is that, in my experience, authors are more willing to add new material than they are to cut existing stuff. Both are required if you’re trying to make a shift in a plot or character direction. Let’s say that the original judgment was: the story spends too much time on the widow’s life before her husband’s death. The scenes set in the past are too much of a drag on the present-day story. 

The new scenes of grief are written to push the book forward into the future. Yet if you make only faint-hearted attempts to pare down those past-marriage scenes, that remaining growth is choking out your new shoots. You have to clear more of the ground.

If you assign colors, you will see that very clearly. If the scenes with both wife and husband are red, how many of them still appear in your chart? The new scenes might be purple: the wife post-death with her daughter, say. Let’s add another decision you made: what happens between them will determine whether the wife kills herself in the ending. How well have you, the author, moved on?

Exercise: Vividness in storytelling counts. A full scene in the present contains dialogue, thoughts in the moment, etc. You can truncate those scenes you want to cut down by eliminating almost all dialogue and thoughts. Summarize them instead. Your scenes will be shorter, and they will have a more distant narrative tone.

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” —Colette

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


When It Pours

A writer is constantly hunting for details to fill up a book. Most people act upon their circumstances, while the writer must observe them in order to act: to put words on paper. Such observations often concern people’s interactions, but a full-colored novel contains details of a character’s surroundings. In a way, the lack of those details shows a person’s inclination to act, while writing remains a sideline. 

A common event in our lives that makes this point is rain. This weather phenomenon occurs frequently, and yet it appears usually as a contributing element of an action-based climax. Oh, how I hate the rain, and now I have to save lives in it! I am reminded of John Lennon’s mocking words about what people do when it rains: “They run and hide their heads/They might as well be dead.” 

If you are to be a writer, you can start by getting wet. That entails overcoming several good reasons why people run. The most basic is the dislike of having to shutter your eyes against the falling wetness. It is unpleasant to be forced to look downward. Yet people manage, by resorting to such devices as wearing a cap with a bill. Another complaint is getting your clothes wet. Yet people at ball games and playgrounds wear slickers and ponchos. To be honest, some of the times when I felt most free have come when I was totally soaked, beyond all hope of ever escaping the storm.

Once you have liberated yourself from quotidian concerns, you’ll discover the details of how the rain alters your world. That is important, because you’re trying to find unique details for your book. Whether you’re describing raindrops on a spiderweb or a collapsed sand castle or a washout in a gully, you’re including striking images that break the norm. Different types of rain can produce different physical reactions, such as pain while being stung by hail.

The descriptions can expand into the metaphysical realm as well. The rain beating down can lead to feelings of oppression or gloom. Nothing’s going right for that character. A rivulet of rain running off the bill of said cap can express a parent’s frustration with their child’s madcap coach. Drinking in the rain, with the bottle in the sodden brown bag, can describe a character’s low ebb.

All sorts of ideas can come to you while standing out in the rain. You’re not thinking of your comfort. You’re thinking of your book. 

Exercise: The effects of rain can produce the sort of pinpoint details that lock the reader inside your made-up world. Raindrops are minute: to describe them, you have to look really hard. Rain too can produce odd-looking shapes that lend themselves to metaphors, like a sodden incline resembling an old man’s face. That is what will startle the reader into recognition.

“The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself.”          —Bertrand Russell

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Swapping In

The guessing game in fiction, especially in the mystery and thriller categories, proceeds through a series of twists. The impact of each one depends on the reader’s deepening involvement of the story, to be sure, but also on the amount of attention paid to targeted characters. That is hardly surprising, since the depth of characterization determines how much a reader cares about any character in any novel.

Many authors start out with only a dim notion of who will become the main characters. The story is usually more important, not least since it is often based on real-life events and the characters are only balloon figures filling out different known parts. The villain(s) emerges soon enough, if only to provide opposition in a given scene. More complications are inserted as the author becomes more immersed in the circumstances. Only by the end of the draft may it become apparent that all the suspects are obvious. Where are the twists, particularly the be-all ending twist? 

As an editor, I may suggest picking a character who, as written, is one of the leading good guys. That pick is based on two key considerations. First, the character must be important. Second, the character’s true motives must remain hidden. A leading good character fits these perfectly. If the protagonist has interacted frequently with the new chosen villain—say, a significant other—a lot of attention has been paid to them, increasing depth. The motives are hidden, of course, because you never wrote any in the first place.

As in so much in rewriting fiction, you can pick an end point and work backward. Your first task to write in new signals. After all, the reader must slap themselves in the forehead for not guessing correctly. You have to provide some basis for that. Examining the scenes already written can yield possible double entendres. You had the villain say something innocent, but in this new context, it could also point in your new direction. Or, you may create a double meaning by changing just a few words.

The present situations can also be converted to new uses. It might be that the former flame was kidnapped by the chief obvious villain. With a few changes, such as inserting a few articles of clothing that the hero finds in the villain’s house, the flame can become the chief villain’s lover. When the two show up in the climax both intending to kill the protagonist, no one can say they weren’t warned.

Exercise: The more obvious clues can be placed early on. If they are glancing enough, the reader then has hundreds of pages in which to forget them. The stage of getting to know you can be colored by, say, the protagonist’s romantic interest in the flame, and in that mix you drop a few clues that, in retrospect, the reader should definitely have seen.

“I don't mind a narrator who's self-deceiving, but the clues for their truth have to be there for the reader to see.”  —Sarah Pinborough 

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


What Is Sardonic

Criminal law is a good background if you want to become a novelist. These lawyers work in a field that probes crimes, especially murder, a rich source of storytelling tension. They deal with the seamy underbelly of society, both criminals and cops, which provide antisocial models for characters. They have to do a lot of reading and writing in their profession, and skill in writing is gained through the practice of writing. So why isn’t the world flooded with lawyer novelists?

I believe the answer, ironically, is judgment. Not so much in the usual equation of an author’s ego vs. talent, although lawyers as a rule have a mighty good opinion of themselves. I mean more in terms of sitting in judgment. After all, many lawyers aspire to be judges, to perch high on the bench and pronounce on the unfortunates that flow in and out of the courtroom.

That lofty distance can be married with a lawyer’s hard-bitten view of humanity. That produces a narrative that is sardonic in tone: can you believe someone would be so . . . ? This viewpoint can be humorous, often of the slight-smile category, and the story can ring with authenticity. So what is the drawback?

The culprit is the ironic distance. Such a perspective is to be expected from someone who long ago adopted a shell to protect themselves from the violence and indignities of the criminal life. Yet because a character is only as deep as the emotions the author inserts, that distance is a form of self-protection. Like a criminal client, a character remains “out there,” to be remarked upon. The author can hide their own passions from the reader.

You cannot become the next Michael Connelly without realizing that he creates terrific characters. The sardonic tone is voiced from within those characters. Passion is a better first stage for a writer. Devise a character willing to jump into the fray beyond all decorum or even decency you’ve ever seen in a courthouse. The polished veneer can be added after connecting with the animal inside. What an aspiring writer might find is they will penetrate that long-adopted shell to find their younger, passionate self. 

Exercise: When first scheming a plot, set all of your old experiences aside. That stuff can be realistic filler you insert later. Think of outrageous crimes, with braided leads that lead to a number of characters. Some are obvious early on to the reader, and some are deeply hidden. If you want to use your own past cases, you probably will need to turn the amp on them up to 10 and then keep shrieking.

“A lawyer is a person who writes a 10,000-word document and calls it a "brief."   —Franz Kafka

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


A Thread, Not a Patch

The revision of a novel can be viewed through a perspective that is short-sighted. The course of writing a first draft is an expansive process during which discoveries continually pop out. Revision, by contrast, is a more clinical stage. You have a body of work, with all its gnarly tendrils, and only vague notions of how to make it better. How you decide to reenter the story makes a crucial difference in whether the additions will fit in the whole seamlessly.

The first step is determining the dramatic weight of the change you want to make. Let’s say a beta reader comments that the central love affair goes too smoothly. Al and Joanie have sex on page 40 and then keep on having invigorating sex (yawn) for the rest of the book. All happy—mostly dull. So you decide: Al will have an affair. That will cause waves.

In real life, we know that there are two types of people: the ones who proceed cautiously and the ones who rush in. The latter better suits the temperament of an artist—the prize is to the bold! Yet a revision is a form of weighed improvisation. That is, you have to consider the long view as well as the immediate objective. 

We’ll continue with the example. Sure, you can sally forth and write a sex scene with Al and a third party, yet you should have already considered two larger calculations. Why, if the couple was so newly in love, would he have an affair in the first place? What sense does that make? Second, what are the long-term ramifications? Is Joanie really such a tool that she would take him back in the same chapter? 

The problem is, the revision is a patch. That approach works fine when the addition is minor. You might change Al from having “mousy brown hair” to “surfer-boy blond.” But you have to remember what the original criticism was: the romance is too smooth. That means the romance in all those chapters in which it is featured.

You need to stage a series of scenes. Al has to have a reason why an affair would appeal to him. Is it a drunken accident? Is he prone to thinking with his little head? What is the sex scene like, with that woman other than Joanie? How long does he hide it from her? How long does it take for her to forgive him? All of these questions contain tons of suspense—not so smooth now.

Exercise: When considering advice for revision, think of what the characters are like first. If Al was a playboy before meeting Joanie, he would regard an affair differently from a loner who hasn’t had a girlfriend since seventh grade. If Joanie is not so sure Al is “the one,” she would react differently from a woman expecting a ring any day now. After adjusting them to weather the affair, you may realize that you know both of them much better.

“Let the reader find that he cannot afford to omit any line of your writing because you have omitted every word that he can spare.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Find Out Where They Start

The process of discovering your major characters can be a hit-or-miss affair. Most authors start a manuscript with only the vaguest idea what the story will be about, much less who will populate it. More certainty is gained as the pages pile up. Realization dawns at a certain point: Okay, that is starting to look like Dad, or that side of Dad we didn’t like. With such a stumbling process, characters can look like eight shades of vanilla by the time the first draft is completed. Like Dad, but not doing justice to his vibrancy at all. 

When an author is first choosing major characters, “damaged” should be the first quality that comes to mind. The only good characters, the ones that have any hope of holding our interest all book long, are damaged. They might be alcoholic, like Sportcoat in James McBride’s Deacon King Kong, or lonely, like Hawkhill in Annie Proulx’s “On the Antler.” Such characters have an unpredictable edge because they violate society’s bounds. 

Once you have chosen someone who can keep the reader nervous, the next step is to develop a full background story about how they got that way. While some of this work may appear in the novel, most of it won’t. You’re trying to devise a frame of reference for the character. That way they can refer to something that happened 10 years ago as a given, mulled over many times, the way you yourself refer to signal past events in your own mind. Just an offhand sentence, or even a phrase, and the reader understands the terrible burden, or whatever, the character has been carrying all these years. Yet you cannot make that comment without knowing whence the reference came.

How do you choose the cardinal points that determine a background? You start with what went wrong in the character’s life. That’s how they got damaged. Whether you choose an abusive parent or childhood bullying, a love lost or a death, or a combination of such factors, you are probing for how a life can go off the rails. That’s because the only way to view life from an interesting angle is to have fallen off the path that guides us in our safe lives.

How long should the exercise go on? There really is no limit, but I would shoot for 20 pages at a minimum. That forces you to really dig. You got to get to 20, so that means you will dwell in that past long enough that you really get to know who’s carrying your torch.

Exercise: An important part of this exploration is gleaning possible supporting characters that will play an active role in the book. To return to Sportcoat as an example, his wife, Hettie, is a constant presence in his life even though she is dead. The story is ingeniously designed so that the only way he can lay her ghost to rest is to stop drinking. So background work isn’t just the past; it may cast looming shadows over the present.

“Childhood is the fiery furnace in which we are melted down to essentials and that essential shaped for good.”   —Katherine Anne Porter

Copyright 2020 @ John Paine. All rights reserved.



Persuading readers of nonfiction that a book merits attention depends on its outreach. The least convincing narrative expresses only opinions of the author. That amounts to a thesis with no proof. Depending on the book, other personal opinions may be elicited, through a survey or through a client base. Quotations featuring research provided by experts represent another type of proof. A third variety consists of data provided by the government or polls. 

When each is considered by itself, it reveals shortcomings. Personal opinions may be limited by how much the people interviewed know. If a book has 10 chapters on different topics, an author’s interviewees or clients may range only as far as half or three-quarters of them. The remaining topics end up being filled in by a very limited number—to the point that they seem like the author's select club.

Quotations from experts are the most satisfying source. If the reader learns that professor so-and-so teaches at Harvard and the quote comes from a published book, that is impressive enough to be convincing. An interview with an expert can leave a similar glow of professionalism. The downside is that such statements may start to feel distant: pronouncements on the general state of affairs as seen from on high. 

This problem is exacerbated in the field of data. Statistics by their very nature are cold and gray. While 78% of the respondents may show a trend is likely true, too many of these citations can leave the reader wanting to meet just one of those 78% and find out a little more about why they feel that way. 

The most successful nonfiction books combine all three of these layers. In a typical example, an author may state a new observation, e.g., most people do not feel TikTok is racist. That can be followed by results of a survey run by Wired magazine or the like. An expert on social media then weighs in with a long quotation. Yet the deal isn’t sealed with the reader until several of the people actually making videos weigh on on the medium they are watching every day.

That’s because you need both a sense of sweep—everybody’s doing it, I tell you—and local actors that anchor the high-flown views to the ground. As a reader, I believe the data, respect the experts, but I want to meet people like me. That’s your perfect trifecta.

Exercise: Go through your manuscript and color-code the different types of examples. When you’re done, now review the manuscript quickly, looking for the colors. If you see that green—the personal examples—are missing for a stretch of pages, that is your signal to get more of those examples for that chapter.

“A bad book is the worse that it cannot repent. It has not been the devil's policy to keep the masses of mankind in ignorance; but finding that they will read, he is doing all in his power to poison their books.” —John Kenneth Galbraith

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Unexpected Allies

Authors given to writing plot-driven books can face the problem of inadequate characterization. Sure, the murders and explosions keep on coming, but who is the hero so successfully leaping all the hurdles? The personal interactions in such books are purposeful: either action is being planned or executed. While hints of personality emerge in such strongly paced scenes—the luck o’ the Irish detective or no-bullshit woman grunt—the human dynamos may feel mainly like industrious cogs in a machine. 

How can an action-oriented protagonist stand out from the teeming crowd of villain slayers? A hint can be taken from a common motive in such books: the need to revenge the murder of someone near and dear. “You killed my brother!” is personal. Readers like that hero more because they can imagine how they would feel. Yet unless the novel spends all its time looping back through the halcyon days with that brother, the sympathy dies out after a while. There is only so much juice that can be squeezed from someone who is six feet under on page 3.

You can give a hero a personal edge by providing a sidekick of sorts that accompanies the hero throughout the book. The most likely candidate is an intimate other (or who becomes intimate) or a child. The idea is that, even though the hero has to get coffee on the go, they will display personal facets in the exchange of coffee. 

Yet another prime source can be overlooked: a lifelong friendship. If our Irish Mick knew Joshua in the FBI from childhood, all of the interactions between them as they pursue righting the wrong are infused with their buddy-hood. Early on, you write out a few background passages, with maybe a flashback to a telling past episode between them, and now a relationship is established that the reader cares about—even as they slosh their coffee when their target suddenly takes off. 

You can also use ethnic bonds. Since so many action books these days are set in the Middle East, you can span continents in an international thriller. If you have a Jewish FBI agent who spent youthful years traveling to Israel, she could very well be old friends with a Mossad agent. In this age when youths travel frequently overseas, you can set up all sorts of linkages that tie a book together. 

The ease of working with a familiar figure helps to fill out a character. A shy person shows their true warmth when they greet an old friend. A hard-charging avenger shows a comic side when their friend pokes fun at their charging. Plus, if they are united in the quest, the book doesn’t have to slow down for touchy-feely sessions.

Exercise: A real-life model can serve you in good stead with such a character. You can write fluidly about exchanges with a person you know inside-out. You don’t have to explain when you instantly know how that person will react. You use your built-in knowledge to write characters with built-in traits.

“There’s not a word yet for old friends who’ve just met.”  —Jim Henson

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Do the Math

Many older authors, more likely male, decide to write novels because they have experience in an interesting field. The promise and then execution of infusing past experiences with characters filled with the author’s thoughts is exciting and satisfying. When I read the scenes, I can feel the actors brimming with brio or malice or calm collectedness, at least temporarily, before I am whisked away to another experience. 

It has always surprised me that an author who is obviously intelligent can read novels dominated by a single character, and yet when they write, their book’s energies are dispersed among a cast of dozens. While real life does demand multiple players, the author ignores the fact that each character in a novel has a possible emotional valence for the reader. When too many players are thrown at the reader, you can end up with too many functionaries that the reader does not care about. 

How many functionaries do you have? You can run the numbers and find out. Start off by assigning a number to each character who plays an active role in a scene. Although you can have group scenes, you’ll usually find that a maximum of three characters are featured. Then put those numbers in a chart with five columns. One is for the characters, by their numbers. The second tracks how many scenes a character appears in. You can use hash marks in groups of five. The third is a wider column that charts the number of pages that elapse in between each appearance by a character. By way of illustration, that column might look like: 15, 20, 22, 34, etc. Fourth, another wide column that charts the number of pages for each scene in which a character appears. That is, count how long the scenes are: 5, 7, 8, 5, etc. Finally, a skinny column in which you add up the total pages for each character.

This exercise in story structure can reveal interesting insights. First, how many characters in total did you count? When you consider that a reader will identify strongly with only 7-8 characters, how many do you have? If you have 25-50 characters, how thin are you spreading yourself? Worse, if you have several dozen point-of-view characters, how much do you think the reader is going to care about any of them?

Now look at the gaps between scenes. If a character is gone too long, the reader tends to forget about them. I’ll use a rough rule of thumb regarding a reader’s attention span. I would allow a gap of no more than 20-25 pages for a protagonist, 30-35 pages for a main character, and no more than 40-50 pages for a minor character who will play a key role later in the book. Do any alarming numbers jump out at you?

Finally, look at the total number of pages in the fifth column. Does your lead character clearly have a larger number than all the rest? How many characters have roughly the same number of pages? Remember, you want only 6-7 (excluding the protagonist). Do you have dozens? How much sympathy or antipathy does the reader have to dole out for each?

“When you have mastered numbers, you will in fact no longer be reading numbers, any more than you read words when reading books. You will be reading meanings.”  —W. E. B. Du Bois

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Mindless Loops, Part 2

This post continues from the last one, on how to better capture in writing the thought loops that run through the mind every day. Picking up from where it left off, I would suggest that you look at your two versions of the same loop. One failure in characterization is presenting only one way of thinking. It’s like the protagonist is a wind-up toy and marches in only one direction. Yet most people go back and forth on any decision, depending on their mood.

You can mix it up. You can take a sentence from one version and place it in the other. How does that affect the loop? If you have to make adjustments to make it fit, do the changes more accurately match the way you felt? In other words, either the dark or sunny version may feel just right. But if they feel insufficient, maybe you need most of one but the other would provide a nice counterbalance. 

You can also insert the dark version in the full manuscript and then put the light version a few pages later. At eight a.m. Maggie was so sure she had screwed up, but as the day passes without alarm, she concocts a second version of the events. You would, though, want to cut down the second passage, since you don’t want too much repetition. 

Now think of a topic in the novel and use the same technique. Same blend of facts and opinions. What has changed is the more exaggerated (hopefully) crisis and/or your more extreme (hopefully) character giving the opinions. If you keep in mind what you know about the character’s point of view and personality, those substitute for the way you reacted to your crisis. For example, the fictional Maggie is nervous about going to the party and sneaks a couple of shots of Absolut before going. Then she enthusiastically downs the host’s “killer” punch and ends up spilling the third glass all down the front of Sharon’s ruffled silk blouse. How is Maggie going to explain that to herself in retrospect?

You write both a negative and positive version, as before. The positives might be harder to find in this instance, but because Maggie is a more extreme “person,” you can use the crisis to delineate why she has gone so far off the rails. In trying to do so, you may well discover along the way what the character should think about such a topic. You are always engaged in a project of discovery about what makes a character tick. So when you evaluate both versions, which one do you like better? Or, you can mix them to produce those qualities that feel right.

Exercise: You don’t have to compose a thought loop all at once. Rising out of bed on all those nights, I found that I retained only a few sentences clearly. Yet if I read it early the next morning, more of it would come back. Past a certain point I wasn’t sure if I even did have that thought skein. But it didn’t matter, because I had written out one that rang true.

“If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I'm neurotic as hell.” —Sylvia Plath

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved



The Mindless Loops, Part 1

Writers who want to narrate a story more from a character’s point of view often face a blank wall inside their minds. How, they ask, can I know what a fictional entity is thinking? They don’t think like me, because that would be too boring. This core difficulty seems insurmountable, and yet writing that way is one of a writer’s most important marks of progress.

One method is to pick apart how people think. A habit we all share is brooding about a topic that is bothering us. While this pattern is less noticed during the day, when frequent interruptions cut the sessions short, anyone who has lain awake at night, unable to sleep, experiences the phenomenon full-blown.

By way of a demonstration, let’s take a gaffe at a party. Shame sears most deeply in our consciousness, and that is what will come first to mind in retrospect. Maggie, say, remembers what she said to Sharon, the look on her face, the reactions of those immediately surrounding—whether these are known or not. What impact will the gaffe have? Will Sharon tell others? Why did I tell her, of all people? The list of neurotic possibilities can spiral outward, and the loop can start up all over again, only with supplied variations. The paradigm shifts—Sharon has no reason to tell anyone, it really wasn’t that big a deal, and on and on—until we look at the clock and realize an hour has passed and we still can’t fall asleep.  

The subjects change day by day, because we brood mainly about what is fresh in our mind. They also remain trivial, for the most part, because we don’t do anything consequential on most days. Same old routines, same old thoughts. We even relive old loops when, for instance, our mother calls and starts banging away on us about why she should fire her landscaper—and it’s somehow our fault.

A writer’s first step in the process is recording a loop. That is not as difficult as it seems, because our thoughts tend to be statements of fact—from our point of view at the time. You can write out a paragraph about the gaffe (to use that example), listing where it happened, what you said and what was the reason for saying it, the look on Sharon’s face, and what you fear will happen. 

Now turn to the positive view. In a new paragraph you write not the dark, awful reason you said what you did, but the version in which you are justified, where Sharon would understand you are right. You re-interpret the look on her face. You put a positive spin on what she might do with your gaffe, if she does anything at all. Why, really, should she bother?

The difference between the two paragraphs lies entirely in your deliberate spin on the incident. That’s how people think. They recall what happened through a filter. In this case, you have deliberately applied the one you want.

(To be continued.)

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Moving Beyond Literal

A desire to elevate ourselves beyond the plane of the ordinary is a major reason that we read novels. Depending on the author, the precision applied to making characters and plot events outsized extends to the prose. A well-wrought narrative focuses mainly on laying out the unusual world of the scene’s point-of-view character, but that picture is marred if the physical descriptions are pedestrian. We expect, given the level of talent, that they will sparkle as well.  

A useful tool in that regard is a metaphor. Rather than torturing the prose to capture an exact word picture, an analogous element is inserted. In modern literature, authors have moved beyond the poesy of yore, such as one of my  favorites: “What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” Today’s prose is more stripped down, which means that metaphors have to be more precise. 

For most writers, not just of the aspirational variety, the jump from the went-there, did-that level of descriptions can be mystifying. How do those guys write such great stuff? Part of the reason is that they fuse seemingly unalike elements. Let’s take the sense of smell, a criminally underused tool in fiction. How does adding smell to a description work? Here is Jennifer Egan in A Visit from the Goon Squad, describing a black leather couch: “Its cushions sighed out the most delicious smell of leather.”

The reader grasps the sensation instantly. Cushions do sigh when you sit down, and leather does smell nice. Yet it is the combination of the two that produces the striking effect. You can also use smell in a wider context, truly metaphorical. James McBride in Deacon King Kong writes, “Drugs were a damn stinking fish, the smell of it taking over everything.” Here a vice that ruins so many urban communities is given a new twist, because we all know how noxious fish can smell. 

You can also choose to mix different types of paradigms, the physical and spiritual. You pick an adjective that describes the physical object and ask yourself, how could I apply that to an idea? An example is provided by the brilliant stylist Kevin Barry in Night Boat to Tangier: “It was the most perfect orange he had ever seen. It glowed like new love.”

It is also useful to think in terms of extending a metaphor. The parallel you have drawn may not be as striking in its simplest form as it would be if you keep running with the idea. Here is one by Anthony Doerr in All the Light We Cannot See: “A ghastly creeping terror rises from a place beyond thoughts. Some innermost trapdoor she must leap upon immediately and lean against with all her weight and padlock shut.” This example is outstanding no matter which way it is viewed, but the author seized the idea once it sprang forth and kept expanding it.

Exercise: More than other types of writing, you need to let a metaphor sit until you fully embrace it as final copy. Many ideas that seem fabulous when you jump out of bed at one a.m. become dulled in the morning light. Read it the next day, then the next week. Don’t be satisfied until you next read over the entire draft.

“There are metaphors more real than the people who walk in the street."               —Fernando Pessoa

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Studying Details

When you read a well-written novel, you frequently encounter descriptions that arrest your attention by their penetration. The word picture makes you “see” the object so clearly. You wonder how they do that. When you look at your own writing, you find a belabored description you have written and sigh. It takes so long to get through all the words you have larded on that the picture feels turgid rather than vivid.

You may not be observing enough. Let’s consider where you are when you feel the need to describe something. You’re sitting at your desk, most likely. Can you observe the item in question from your desk? You struggle for long minutes, even an entire writing session, searching for what feels just beyond your mental grasp.

Those writers you admire are more focused on observing than you are. Writing for them is all-consuming: everything they experience could fit in their book. Sure, they’re brilliant. But they are also observing all the time. Whereas you—you’re missing the description of the sunlight because you’re complaining it’s too bright. You’re doing what people do: experience their lives interactively. But writers are weird. They’re the guys staring at you from a cubicle in the library.

I’m not advocating that you cultivate your weirdness. Yet you can be on the lookout. Let’s take the kitchen as one locale that every reader will recognize. A kitchen isn’t a place for writing. It’s for cooking or eating or gassing about the day you just had. But what if you took the time to look at common items more closely? Instead of nearly breaking your wrist to open that tomato jar so you can dump it in the sauce pan to get dinner done, just hold the jar in your hand first. Is it heavy? Have you ever considered that tomato sauce jars are heavy? As opposed to what other items you cook with?

The first thoughts you have will not be profound. You see “Ragu” on the label, and you know that’s too banal to fit your book. Stop focusing so hard. Stop trying to wrest meaning from the thing. Just hold it, let your mind drift, the same way you do when you’re at your desk writing. What associations do you have with tomato sauce? Did your mother cook spaghetti, and what are your stray memories of what she said while cooking? Or your kids, sitting at the kitchen table, irritable because they’re hungry? The more you dwell in your thoughts, the more your subconscious is bent from its habitual frenzy to revolve, in loops, around those associations. Now you can write something down.

Exercise: This post has been in large part an exercise, so I’ll add one more thought. You can be a little weird too. You can ask your spouse to watch the pot while you write down what you’re thinking. Do it right on the spot. Be an observer and then race to put it on the page.

“Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.”

—Marcus Aurelius

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.



Teen Spirit

An individual embarking on a first novel can feel tugged toward writing young adult fiction. Among various reasons, the fledgling writer may feel inadequate to the task of producing a thought-provoking adult work. They may be a parent who always enjoyed the books their kids read. Or, they may like the fact that young adult novels are shorter and take less time to write. 

I have been asked: what is the difference between adult and young adult fiction? While there is no hard and fast rule, the book should feature a young protagonist. If you think about readers’ preferences on the whole, the reason why is obvious. Men tend to like to read books about men. Women like to read about women. So why would a teenager want to read about some old fart? That, of course, includes anyone over the age of 30. An older character can function as a mentor, or an antagonistic parent type, but that is a supporting, not leading, role.

When you try to picture what you were like as a teenager, the scope of the novel becomes clearer. Teens by and large are worried about their status among their peers, so the novel’s concerns need to reflect it, to whatever degree you like. Putting wisdom in their mouths is inviting scorn from other teen characters. A good many adolescent conversations revolve around why X or Y is such a loser. I should add that if you don’t feel you know the current lingo, as well as a culture that includes cell phones and social media, don’t write a novel set in an earlier era with that era’s lingo. What teenager wants to know about how old fogies used to talk back when dinosaurs roamed the world (e.g., the sixties)?

Another factor that falls on one side of the line or the other includes plot activities. If you write a mystery, and the clues are set up in treasure hunt fashion—what does the arrow running up and to the right of the circle mean?—you should ask yourself: who likes treasure hunts? Children. Teenagers are a lot closer to children than adults, so it would fit better in a young adult novel. Conversely, teen readers might wish that the nice adult man and woman in supporting roles will fall in love, but they don’t want any sex scenes with that couple. That’s gross. They should close the door.

Do some books straddle the line? Of course they do. Are you, the neophyte, experienced enough to know how to do that? Probably not. Choose your top five characters, and rank them, adult or teen, according to where you want to place your emphasis.

Exercise: The first step you should take is: know your market. Read bestselling young adult novels and see what they do. If you feel distaste while reading one, then you know that’s not the market for you. You are going to spend untold hours on the book, so you’d better like writing it.

“Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.” —Kurt Cobain

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Puzzle Assortment

I’ll pick up from the previous post to address another aspect of making large-scale changes during the revision of a novel. That concerns the practice of chopping up portions of the previous draft and realigning them in the new. The approach does have merits. If a piece is freed from being a link in a continuous narrative, you can shorten it until only the essential core of it is left, lopping off unneeded pages. Also, jumping back and forth in time is a well-established technique in fiction.

The art of mixing and matching is more difficult, though, than it seems. A primary reason, ironically, is continuity. When you first slotted the scene in the narrative, part of its power borrowed from what had happened before, at the very least in the scene that preceded it. You could build on what was fresh in the reader’s mind.

What happens when the piece appears out of nowhere—say, a flash from the past? Now readers have to reorient themselves. When is this scene taking place? Why am I switching away from the main story line to read it? The essence you pared it down to had better pack a punch, because it is standing on its lonesome. Consider too: the reader should feel that the scene fits in the proceedings, even if obliquely. So placement, and probably tailoring the scene to fit in that place, becomes a crucial consideration.

To explain why a past scene is being sprung on the reader, one solution is a cue provided in the present-day story. Henry stubs his toe on the edge of his bedroom door, and he remembers the last time he stubbed his toe: on that dark and rainy night when Natalie set her suitcase on the bed, etc. This device does work, but only to a very limited extent. When used more than a couple of times, the reader starts sighing. Here we go again, off down the author’s memory lane. Even worse is using the cue and following with several background scenes in a row. By the time you return, will readers remember where they were in the present-day plot line?

Finally, any odd assemblage of scenes will hamper a novel’s forward progress merely by their random nature. See, you know the context in which the scenes were originally written, but the reader doesn’t. All they see is one unexpected jump after another. You are obliged to make the disparate scenes fit a building pattern of their own. This can be done by lining up the past scenes in chronological order. You can also provide a thematic thread, such as a mother-daughter relationship. In this case, you can regard the past pieces as a subplot, whose scenes also appear occasionally.

Exercise: One solution is to gang up like scenes into discrete story units, or chapters. Rather than inserting nine puzzle pieces, why not create three chapters that are set entirely in the past? If you provide a strong clue at the end of a present-day chapter, you could start the first of these past chapters on the next page. Since readers understand patterns, you could drop in the other two without any preface at all.

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

—George Orwell

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Out with the Old

Revising a manuscript on a large scale involves calculations that can reach back to the very inception of the project. What is the story you’re trying to tell? Why do you think it is unique enough to attract a reader’s interest? Such basic questions are obscured by the volume of words you’ve already produced. Or, the fresh ideas you had after reading over the manuscript peter out as you wrestle with all the intricacies you created in each chapter.

What frequently happens during a revision is that you add minutia. A sentence here or there that fits in the interstices of the tightly knit scene you’ve already written. Those sentences are loaded with the new dramatic emphasis you want to add, but they are still merely sentences. How many sentences have you written in the entire manuscript? Now count up what you’ve added. Do you think that tiny proportion is going to mean that much?

When I read a manuscript for the first time, I stop at the end of every scene and write a sentence or so about what happened. I also write down what I’m feeling about the manuscript at that point. For instance, a note on page 50 might read: “The book still has no plot.” This shorthand approach serves as a checklist for me when I finish the book. Like anyone else, I end a book with only overarching impressions that swirl as nebulous matter in my head. Nebulous is rendered concrete by reviewing the notes—that is, breaking the ineffable into pieces.

That is the plane on which a large revision should begin. Not in the weeds of each chapter. Forget a single chapter for now. Look at your notes and check them for how a plot direction is unfolding. Let’s say Mitzi is attracted to Harold. What are the steps you’ve written? How do they build toward love? If the steps don’t appear in your notes, you have to ask yourself: am I being too subtle? Is the reader going to care if it’s so subtle? 

You’ll have to comb through the chapters and find out what you did to create a building progression. Add whatever you wrote to the notes (or create a new chart devoted only to that progression). When you’re finished, now look at the notes. Have you really made a dent on the reader?

When you edit that way, you don’t get entangled in your prose. You have placed the interface of your notes between you and the story. You’re on a level above the prose, where sweeping changes can be made. 

Exercise: Readers respond to actions a character takes. When you write revised pieces of scenes or entire scenes, start with the notes, not the manuscript. Yes, when you finish writing, you will have to make the old and new mesh. What you’ll find, because now you’re trying to fit in good bits of the old scene to the new scene, is that you can more readily throw out what you didn’t like. 

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”  —Elmore Leonard

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Problem with Safe

Carl Jung once said, “A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them,” and in no endeavor does that apply more than writing. As an independent editor, I review many manuscripts. I have different categories for them—limited writing, sloppy writing, formulaic writing—but the most disheartening is safe writing. Lest anyone think I’m being judgmental, I’ll relate a comment my best friend once told me about my own writing: “You’ll never be good until you let yourself go.” A few years after that, I gave up writing and became an editor.

I have long thought the three main ingredients of writing are talent, heart, and stamina. The first is vitally important, for two people can write about the same subject with wildly different impacts. I have been blessed to witness so many elegant turns of phrase, even in books that were mainly pedestrian. Yet clarity and/or deftness is more akin to sleight of hand than penetration. A financed education alone can yield pearls from swine. 

Heart is a more elusive driver of prose. Childhood poverty, whether caused by want or mayhem, and frequently both, has often proven the dictum about a rich man and the needle’s eye to heaven. The bereft among us have a stronger desire to shake off their demons. Yet unbridled passion is no predictor of writing greatness, since it is more likely evinced in motorcycle revs than art. Nor does letting go necessarily confer an entwined wreath, or heroin would be a writing elixir.

Neither of the two qualities above means much without persevering through the many hours spent alone with words. No one is chaining you to your desk, and if you don’t write for a week, no one will notice. Self-discipline is a great quality to have, but over the long run I believe the compulsion to write is fed by the heart. If you don’t have a need to communicate to others through writing, you may write one book and then find the second one just won’t come.

How willing are you to face dark swings of your heart that may alienate your lover, your family, your co-workers? Can you honestly say you have so much writing talent that taking the plunge is worth it? And consider this: most writers ride on tides of greatness. They may produce only one book that stirs the hearts of readers and critics. Yet if you turn away from chaos, even that one book is out of reach.

Exercise: For this post, I will label this as: Advice. If you want to make a go, give it five years. That happens most commonly with people who have just graduated from college. Only after such a long stretch of time, while watching everyone you know start making progress with their careers, will you be able to make an honest assessment. Are you linking up with your soul or your ego?

“Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.”  —William S. Burroughs

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Selling a Seller

The beginning section of a nonfiction proposal is called an Overview.* Its function is to attract an acquisitions editor’s interest in a book. If the Overview does not do that job, they may not bother to read the other sections. They review hundreds of proposals a year, after all, and their time is valuable.

A number of authors I have edited regard this opening section as a descriptive exercise. They provide details from their chosen field, such as cardiology, as a way to show off their knowledge. Or, they give these details to show that the general public is interested in what they plan to write about in the book. This professional insider’s meandering can go on for pages, as the different topics of interest are displayed in what the author feels is a warm, welcoming style.

Now let’s return to that acquisitions editor. Most of the time, they specialize in a particular field of nonfiction. It is very likely that they know a great deal about cardiology, say. They may have taken pre-med courses in college. What they want to know is: why is your book a valuable addition to the field?

Journalists know that they have to grab a reader’s attention with the lead paragraph. That’s the same way you should approach the Overview. Assume that the editor has no patience. The first paragraph can be descriptive, setting the stage, but you better put forth a selling point for your book before the paragraph ends. The next paragraph had better contain a second selling point and hopefully a couple. What is new and different about your book? Why should I read your book rather than the already published books on the same subject?

If you have achieved a degree of fame, or have written other books, you should blazon your credentials on that first page. The editor needs to know that you are an expert in your subject. If you are a chiropractor, you can’t call yourself a doctor—because they will know right away. They are actively looking for your creds, because down the road, the reader will too. If you’re not an M.D., why should I listen to your medical advice?

Before you reach the bottom of the page, you should have made your pitch. You can go on for another few pages. You can give a paragraph-by-paragraph summary of the chapters’ main points. But first the battle must be won on page 1. You list your best selling points in the hope the editor will bother to turn the page. 

Exercise: Draw up a list of points that you know no other trade book contains. Hopefully, they are new and exciting. Pick the best of the lot and organize your opening page around them. If you are a doctor, don’t assume that editors are mewling children like your patients. They are on top of their game, and in this case that game is: proposals.

“No crime is so great as daring to excel.”

—Winston Churchill

*A proposal can also start with a brief section called a Concept Statement, and the Overview follows.

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.