Staying on Track

Many authors belong to a book group, for a number of reasons. One is a love for reading books, which often predates writing, but another is to listen to others’ reactions to a book that you all read. Emerging from the bubble of your take on a book can be an enlightening experience, sometimes a rude awakening. You want to know how different people felt, though, because a number of issues that are raised are germane to what you’re writing.

A common problem of a book discussion is wandering onto topics unrelated to the book at hand. Most people don’t understand how characters and themes are related, for one example. They only know whether they liked the main character. So once the motley assortment of opinions are raised, the talk may veer into an aspect that several people noticed, such as antisocial behavior. A book club member will discuss an example of an individual they know personally, often to highly humorous effect. That can lead to other personal stories.

Another common reason for drifting off the path is related to theme. A novel may cover a juvenile delinquent, say, and a member starts to discuss what they know about jails and recidivism (criminals returning to prison). That can lead to a form of competition about what members know about the jail experience, often engaged in by males in the group. Pretty soon ten minutes have gone by, and half of the group has their chin in their hand, bored by spouted knowledge they already basically knew.

As an author, you can research topics you don’t know, and you’ll find out much more accurate information that what someone recalls off the top of their head. What you can’t do is find out how others are reacting to a book if you’re not talking about the book. So it behooves you to keep the group trained on the main goal. 

The best way is to be prepared before the group meets. Draw up a list of questions about different aspects of the book. These lists are easy to find. You can look up, in the back of many books, the publisher’s suggested questions for book groups. You can look up online what other groups have asked about the book. Sparks Note and the like contain similar ideas. 

A group discussion is going to stray—that’s almost guaranteed. Yet you can cut it short, without being a jerk, by casually asking the next question on your list. It is likely that a bored member will respond with alacrity, bringing everyone back in line. Fewer ego rants = more provocative opinions for authors.

Exercise: You don’t have to be passive about creating lists. As you’re reading proposed questions, think about your reaction—and what you’d like to know about how others reacted. When you do that, you can tailor the list of questions to address what you’d like to know about issues related to your book.

“The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all.” 

—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Alignment of Beads

A smart author provides multiple suspects in a mystery so that the reader can enjoy guessing whodunit. Not only do you need to keep three or so suspects revolving in the reader's mind, you need to allot increasing importance to each of their clues. In other words, they cannot merely show up, although that is a useful practice. It also entails planting the clues in such a way that they add progressively toward the book’s climax.

That formula seems easy enough to follow. After all, you already have a list of clues that you have dreamed up. Let’s say that Henry was involved in an illicit real estate deal with the murder victim, Shawn. The question is, once we know that, where will he go from there? Are you going to provide some numbers related to the deal? Does learning about that lead to a construction-related person who is sinister? In other words, a clue not only has an intrinsic value in and of itself. It also forms part of a continuum of clues. The more the book goes on, the more you have to raise the stakes of the game. Clues nearer to the climax need to count for more, because in this realm you are playing a game of Top That. For example, after Henry’s revelation of chicanery you insert a lesser clue, that Henry does not have an alibi for several hours during the night of the murder. How is the reader going to react? They’re probably going to feel let down, because an alibi for the time of murder is one of the most common issues in mysteries. 

That is why a good mystery is so heavily plotted. I commonly tell authors that scenes in a plot line are like ever larger beads on a string. Let’s say you are assigning five clues to to each major suspect. You need to devise five clues that build from the first bead. Not only that, but you have at least three strings, a total of fifteen beads. Plus, you don’t want a clue for suspect #1 to be minor relative to the clues given to suspect #2 in the previous chapter. The net result would be that we are less interested in #1, because her clue wasn’t so hot. You do that several times, and #1 is becoming a long shot in the race, so you better have a pretty good twist to explain what she didn’t match up during the course of the building clues. 

The difficulty of adjusting these increasingly heavier beads explains why family relations so often plays a leading role in mysteries. You do not have to work as hard to explain why a wife was embittered by her cheating husband. A son’s caustic views of his mother may set up a pattern in which a minor clue suddenly makes him look very suspicious. The clues may be more minor, but they intrinsically possess more emotional weight. So if you are fiendishly devising how your mystery is going to bedevil readers, you might want to throw a close relationship to relieve your burden.

Exercise: Create a chart with multiple columns. Two vertical columns apiece are assigned to each major suspect, one narrow and one wide. In the narrow column you are going to insert the number of the chapter in which a clue falls, and in the wide column you are going to briefly specify which clue is being used. The horizontal columns are your timeline for the book. Enter each clue you have for a character where you think it should go. That way you’ll be able to see (1) the intervals between the clues for each character; (2) if each clue for that one character builds from the last one; and (3) how the progressive weight of clues matches up among the characters.

“Mere literary talent is common; what is rare is endurance, the continuing desire to work hard at writing.” 
—Donald Hall

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Just in Time

The determination of when to reveal the secret of a character is a vital consideration in the mystery genre, but the placement affects all sorts of stories. The author who rushes to divulge all of the interesting info on a character early on may find they have nowhere to go later. That’s because character building functions in the same way as plot building.

As a novel is opened, a reader starts with a tabula rasa. The promotion copy on the back cover may have provided an inkling of what the major characters are up to, but the experience is quite different once they are plunged up to the waist in whatever drama wants to draw them in. Most books begin with several characters to keep track of, and they are engaged in activities that are must be followed, not to mention the narrator’s comments and thoughts about the proceedings. Do I, as the reader, need to know dark secrets at this juncture? Of course not. I’m just trying to figure out the lie of the land.

Nor do most authors have trouble keeping the reader entertained in the early going. The reader is getting to know the characters, judging which ones to like more. Whatever initial plot gambit got the ball rolling takes a number of pages to play out. As an author, you can count on running out a string of 40 pages at least before you need to take further steps in the drama. In many cases the plot’s construction pushes the initial premise past the midway point.

Now is the time to consider opening a trapdoor. The reader learns, for example,  that the protagonist, who has alluded darkly to a past spouse, was actually run out of town on suspicion they murdered the spouse. Oh, I didn’t know that. That changes what others were doing concerning the character, as well as the reader’s view of the character. We knew something was going to come of the grumbling (the author’s setup prior to revealing the secret), but not exactly what.

Several more secrets can be dropped in during the middle stretch of the novel, helping to avoid any mid-book slump. As long as each one is more serious, affecting to an increasing degree the landscape the reader thought they already knew, the secrets further the obstacles the lead characters face. Their past—or, their ultimate aim—colors how the plot will progress.

You can hold a few final twists for the very end, but usually the climax sequence, of 50-100 pages, is filled with enough active steps forward that secrets don’t need to be employed. You set up the markers, and then you throw them all together in the final chase. Then pull the rug out a last time.

Exercise: Secrets will be most effective if you know what they are before you compose page 1, or well before you reach a plot point. Draw up a list, attach them to a main character, and rank the darkest, most weighty secret at the bottom of the list. Now you can devise the plot so that each secret injects the story with new energy.

“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
—Benjamin Franklin

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.



One of the sins that will elicit rejection of a manuscript submission is a narrative technique known as “head hopping.” This occurs when an author is writing in the third-person voice, and within the same scene the point of view switches from one character to another. Writers may understandably be confused. When you use the third-person voice, that allows you to write from multiple points of view, right? What’s more, there are plenty of famous novels in which such switches occur. So why is it okay for those writers and not me?

One distinction is the difference between a truly omniscient voice and an approach known as third-person limited. In the former, the author retains the right to narrate certain material from a point of view that transcends what any one character could know. In the latter, scenes are written from a certain slant, usually that of the protagonist. Just as in a first-person narrative, the reader is privy to that character’s thoughts, opinions, and the like.

This is the way most inexperienced authors write. They realize that plot events alone do not make a reader care enough about a story. In their stumbling-forward fashion they try to add depth to the characters, and one of the easiest ways to achieve that is adopting a limited point of view. The problem for them is that when they jump from one character’s mind to another, they are passing from third-person limited into an omniscient narrative.

In simple terms, the violation stems from the reader’s involvement in the character. When they are plucked out of that point of view, the effect is disorienting. You were telling the reader to identify with the character, and switching points of view creates a feeling of distance.

So why are those famous writers allowed to pull it off? The key difference is the intensity of the narrative attack all the way through. A skilled writer not only records what I call surface thoughts—a character’s reaction to a plot event that is happening or just happened—but an entire train of thoughts based on the character’s long history and their intimate feelings about an entire world they are experiencing. Before a sentence is written, the author has created in their own mind a full range of contingencies. That can include, on one hand, knowledge of a family’s history dating back to the Russian Pale in the 1880s, or the acts of prejudice endured by a black community in one specific locale. The authors do their homework, in other words, so that what is written rings true all the way down to the character’s bones.

Exercise: If you are still learning how to write, do not make the mistake of pulling back to the safe shores of the omniscient voice. That will only increase the distance between you and your characters. You should force yourself to write each scene from only one point of view. That way you will begin to plumb the depths of the authors you admire.

“Though leaves are many, the root is one.”
—William Butler Yeats

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Breaking the Law

One of the major goals in plotting a novel is righting a wrong. The nature of the wrong comes in many guises, and the steps toward remediating it may be as complicated as an author can concoct. Underneath all of the machinations, though, lies the principle of fairness. The meek shall inherit the earth writ large.

Aiding the author’s efforts is the moral code that readers bring to a book. One salient truth that has emerged amid the decline of religious belief is that social norms and peer pressure exert a powerful ethical force. You need look no further than the acceptance of mask wearing in our maverick culture: a lot of it is driven by what the people around us are doing.

That is why a character committing a crime has different levels of impact. If the person is a known villain, each new murder may not juice up the tension more. The exact opposite could happen, because the crimes become numbing. An act of evil committed by a good person, by contrast, can inject a tidal wave of uneasiness into the proceedings.

At its base is the worry of getting caught, which we have all felt when committing a petty larceny of some sort. Never mind the shame. A life can be ruined by exposure, depending on the severity of the crime, and if we have come to identify with the character, it is our life that may be ruined. Or at the very least, our enjoyment of following that character.

The good character that commits a crime becomes charged with danger. That makes them more alluring, because we read books in part in order to dare to do things vicariously that we would not attempt in our real, boring life. The attraction to what has turned wild is combined with the character’s other qualities, the good side that assures us that the criminal behavior can be rectified.

Attention needs to be paid to when is the crime committed. If it occurs early on, the book’s calculus is changed for the remaining hundreds of pages. First off, without enough circumstances forcing characters to commit a crime, the reader wonders how good they really are. Can I trust this person can, or wants to, turn things around? If the crime is committed later, it may be that the character has to fight back against the evil that has sprung up around them. Second, the character is on the run, so to speak, from that moment on, and is the book ready to free them from the familiar bounds of their loved ones or friends? Being a fugitive has plenty of tension, but how many near escapes can they undergo before the plot gambit becomes tiresome?

Exercise: When choosing a crime, try to pick one that suits the character. A likable person who tends to be devious may even earn laughs if they embezzle company funds. Or you can use contrast. A mild-mannered person who commits a horrific murder truly shocks us.

“One way to make sure crime doesn't pay would be to let the government run it.”
—Ronald Reagan

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Replenish, Not Recap

Over the years I have edited dozens of true-crime narratives, and since certain issues crop up repeatedly, I’d like to address one of them here. This is the assumption that a courtroom trial provides a stirring climax to all that has gone before. The logic behind this premise is hard to fault. A courtroom does provide a setting in which lawyers can produce strong conflict and surprising turns.

The concept extends only so far, however. What if you have an open-and-shut case in which the only outcome held in suspense is whether the accused receives the death sentence or not? No matter how much the defense lawyer blusters, we as readers know from the outset that the culprit will be found guilty. If the book prolongs the coverage of a lost cause, the likely outcome is reader irritation.

You have to consider how the different phases of the book stack up against each other. Presumably the criminal’s spree and the law enforcement efforts to catch him produced a great deal of excitement. If the trial consists largely of rehashing the events of the spree, you are committing a grave sin: writing secondhand narrative about what the reader has already experienced firsthand. The result is boredom.

How do you avoid this? Think in terms of fresh territory. The events of the crime can be summarized quickly at the trial. All you focus on is the new material that is brought up in court. For one possibility, a creative defense lawyer can produce inventive means to protect her client. The most common tactic is hiring an expert witness whose testimony can be used to create doubt in the jurors’ minds or to mitigate the sentence. A psychological analysis, for example, can produce mental factors that point to impaired judgment at the time of committing the crime(s). Readers tend to dislike expert witnesses, particularly since many are academic in their approach and arrogant when confronted during cross-examination.

Now you have the reader rooting against this witness—and that’s the sort of emotional engagement you want. If you jump from island to island of new material during the course of a trial, you will produce a building climax. Your reader will not put down the book long before the sentence is pronounced, even if we all know what it is. 

Exercise: The mind of a criminal is often impervious to external study. In this case the key question the reader wants to know—why did he do it?—cannot be  answered. Let’s say you have no confession, no diary, no comments by nearest and dearest. If you have psychological testimony during the trial, though, you can employ that—not at the trial, but while the felon is engaged in creating mayhem—what he’s thinking as he acts. Just pick out the relevant pieces of testimony and move it forward in the book. The reader may not know exactly why he did it, but at least you have provided some indicators.

“The essence of drama is that man cannot walk away from the consequences of his own deeds.”
—Harold Hayes

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Bracket Both Ends

As the most flexible mark of punctuation, the comma is the one used most variably. Some authors like lots of them, not only for strict grammar purposes but for frequent emphasis as well. Some writers seem to hate them, as many readers left adrift in a roving sentence can attest. One aspect of them is misused by authors of all stripes. That is the failure to put commas at both ends of a word or phrase that is not a necessary part of a sentence.

The most common mistake occurs with appositives. In simplest form they are two nouns that serve the same function in a sentence. An example is “the writer Colson Whitehead.” The error occurs when one of the nouns is nonrestrictive. That term also seems frightening until you consider what it means. A restrictive word or clause means that it is necessary to understanding the sentence. We wouldn’t know what writer you are referring to until you add Colson Whitehead. But a nonrestrictive word or clause is merely an addition. “My mother, Claudine, didn’t like mysteries.” I have only one mother, so I must bracket off her name, front and back, because the sentence could just as easily read: “My mother didn’t like mysteries.”

When the purview is expanded to clauses, the neglect of starting and ending commas can cause reader to blunder through a sentence. “The arbor, where the trees form a corridor of leaning timbers, like the nave of a cathedral, is one of the charming views at Monticello.” Let’s take out the comma after “arbor” and see what happens. “The arbor where the trees form a corridor of leaning timbers, like the nave of a cathedral, is one of the charming views at Monticello.” The meaning of the sentence has changed, because now the phrase “where the trees form a corridor of leaning timbers” is restrictive. We are instructed to seek out that arbor. But what if we already know the arbor being referenced, because it was identified in the previous sentence? Now you are confusing the reader, because they are left to wonder if the two arbors in the two sentences are the same. You must bracket both ends. I know the arbor, and yes, what a delightful added attraction to it.

Grammar is very straightforward. You follow the rules so that everyone is on the same page. People understand what the heck you are talking about. And your editor can sleep at nights, knowing that clarity has prevailed.

Exercise: If you are confused, ask yourself two questions. First, is the word or phrase necessary to complete the sentence? If not, you probably should think about commas. Second, is the word or phrase necessary to identify the object in question? If it is, you don’t need a comma.

“People, unprotected by their roles, become isolated in beauty and intellect and illness and confusion.”
—Richard Avedon

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Writing Promo Copy

When the last draft is edited and you’re ready for your manuscript to be published, your job as a writer changes. You are no longer engaged in communing with your characters, or drawing up instructions in a nonfiction piece. You have to move into the arena of persuasion. That is, you must persuade potential readers that they should give your book a try.

The copy you write may appear in your query letter, or your dedicated website, or your Amazon page. I point out these different venues to open your eyes to the scope of this endeavor. Ad copy is not a book report. Do you think the copy writers for a pharmaceutical firm read the clinical details of a drug’s trials before the FDA approves it? Of course not. That stuff is too deep in the weeds; nobody would understand it.

Writers of novels in particular don’t understand that someone on the outside has no idea what’s going on in your book. A similar error in judgment underestimates a reader’s depth of experience. A browser who plucks a romance off the shelf has in all likelihood read dozens of romances. That potential buyer is measuring your back-cover copy against the copy of all those other books they liked. Dark-haired hunk: check. Smart and saucy heroine: check. Even worse, a writer may not comprehend that the writer of copy for romance covers has likely written copy for dozens of books. Do you think they haven’t discovered a pattern that sells?

No matter what type of book you’ve written, one method is to start by drawing up a list of your highlights. What are the most interesting and unique aspects of your book? In a novel, that list usually consists of the protagonist’s obstacles. Create a progression of the best five, so that the last ends in a question: how can that problem ever be resolved? The reader will just have to open the book to find out.

For writers of nonfiction, unique is more important. What does your book offer that no other book does? If it is a program that should be followed, why is your program different? If it is a narrative, what elements will the reader find most exotic? List features like: lots of studies, lots of charts, lots of quizzes.

When you write from list to copy, you’ll find that your writing is different from the prose in your book. A highlight is not organic. Neither is ad copy. It is designed to sell your product to a customer who can pick from a range of products.

Exercise: Read the copy on the back cover or inside flap of a book that you think is like yours. Don’t read the content. Pick out, in each sentence, what the highlight is. The rest is verbiage built around the selling point. Now think about your book. If you took the gist of each sentence of the copy you’re reading, could you draw up your own highlights?

“Don't let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”
—John R. Wooden

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


What Is Shiny

Despite weightier claims about the advancement of civilization, novels are read because they are entertaining. That description is not limited to the usual genre fare of romances, mysteries, and the like. Even literary novels need to intrigue the reader—through the characters’ observations, asides, or complex situations. “Would the reader know that?” should be a motto every author posts on their bulletin board.

If an author goes on too long explaining stuff, such as tech, or autobiographical information, the entertainment aspect is dulled. Part of what makes books sparkle is their constant infusions of new ideas. Everywhere you turn, look, here’s another rabbit out of my hat. Betcha didn’t know that.

Lest the serious reader pooh-pooh any such notion, I’ll point out that literary novels tend to have the most infusions of new ideas. Not only is a factoid introduced, but wrapped around the novel fact is the writer’s implicit attitude toward the fact. Infusing the revelation, for example, of a town’s secret cemetery for African American victims of violence is the observation that violent perpetrators always hide their crimes.* Outward shock at the notion of a secret cemetery is combined with insight into an American tradition, making for a doubleheader. No extra words are expended, because the attitude is baked into the telling.

That is why a novice writer cannot settle for what lies within their grasp, however wide or long that may be. Paraphrasing from a history book produces what often reads like a bastardized internet article. What’s more, I as the reader didn’t seek out the topic; it was foisted on me. So if you’re going to natter on and on about your precious discovery (I won’t even go into autobiographical minutia), you will have to forgive me for skimming ahead.

Being a showman carries the connotations you confer on it. You could bring the razzle-dazzle of plot twists, or you could delve into a simple conflict—between a teenage bookworm and a delinquent—to glean new meanings. You take a fact peculiar to a region and a time period, and think, “The reader won’t know that.” But then you take the time to place the fact in the context of the character’s personal life—that is, their inner life. The search need not require fantastic concentration. You can start by thinking of an analogous fact in your own life. How do you feel about that? Then take the next step: how would I feel about the fact if it played a role in my life?

Exercise: Once you have discovered a cool period fact, start asking questions. How does the character feel about it? Who in their family has used it, and what was the occasion? Once you have set forth a micro narrative in your own mind, hopefully writing it down on paper, you can then distill it to its essence. Maybe Auntie didn’t like that bee salve because it stained the collar of the expensive gown she wore to Mama’s wedding.

“When hope is not pinned wriggling onto a shiny image or expectation, it sometimes floats forth and opens.”
—Anne Lamott

*The root idea for the example can be found in Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Boys.

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Story Arc

Video clips that show highway traffic in fast motion approximate the way our lives go. We take in more and thirst for more sensations. When you think that the human being is bombarded by millions of atomic particles thrown off by the expanding universe every second, it is a wonder we live in such a linear civilization. I don’t know if most people are taming chaos, but it is easy to see how the analogy is drawn.

The task of the writer is to make sense out of this frantic activity. Most of us keep a constant lookout for the novel event, something we have not experienced ad nauseam. We court danger, depending on our appetite, and danger infrequently comes to us, in a fall, a highway accident, or a death. These occasions are the ones we deem worthy of recording.

One person’s idea of what is entertaining depends to a large degree on their ability to write about an event in a fresh way. That is why some memoirs rise above the rest. An author probes a subject that might strike most as tedious, and mines new insights that make us see it in an entirely new way. The more acute the perspective, the more banal a topic can be.

The great majority of writers do not possess this talent, which is why structure of the memoir becomes more valuable. A rambling assemblage of fond memories becomes wearying by its very length. What is the point? the reader starts to ask. That is one reason so many memoirs end up being fictionalized—in order to place the memories within a story’s progression. Because this happened, it led to that....

Rather than chronology, which is linear but also useless in terms of organizing like material, an author might ask: what is the point of this block of events in my life? That question can be raised every 20-25 pages. Okay, that stuff happened: what is, in business parlance, the take-away? When regarded in this light, the most basic template might be based on significant rites of passage: graduation from high school and college, marriage, birth of first child, first mortgage, etc. 

When a series of events is corralled in this fashion, you can line up the events as building blocks toward that signal change. You’ll find it affects your interpretation of the smaller events—because you know where they are leading. Rather than an undifferentiated parade, you have a pilgrim’s progress.

Exercise: If you have already written reams of material, start by throwing out chronology. Look at the different events with an eye toward their thematic content: e.g., mischievous deeds leading to what outcome, romantic encounters leading to what right choice, etc.? The reader doesn’t care about looping back in time, so why are you writing in a straight line?

“To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.”
—Emily Dickinson

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Keeping Track

Finishing a draft of a novel is a time to celebrate, but it can also be a point at which to reevaluate. A read-through of the book is done, and certain plot threads that might have winked at the edge of your consciousness emerge in clearer relief. You realize, for instance, that your two lead characters don’t have the sexual chemistry you had intended. They’re so serious about their feats of derring-do, or separated for such a long stretch of the book, that any initial feints in that direction wither because of neglect.

Let's say the verdict is to rectify the problem. To illustrate, I’ll continue with the example of added sexual frisson. Yes, more sizzle, you decide. You calibrate the amount you want: sexy but no full-blown sex scenes, no pledges of troth. Just lots of little encounters that show a deepening interest to explore what might lie between the sheets at a later date.

That resolve is at the top of your mind as you start the revision process. Through the first 30 or 40 pages you see a few places to add some juice. But then life gets in the way, so to speak. As you peruse each page, looking for places to improve, you inevitably find sentences that need to be spruced up. Or, you realize a clue needs more follow-up, and you jump ahead to the relevant scenes to add that element. The freaking manuscript is so huge, and there are so many problems. You become the manic artist dabbing all over the place. And guess what? You stop finding places to add sexual tension.

Rather than resign yourself to the fact that it just isn’t working out, because your characters are busy people, you can become systematic. You wanted minor arousal, right? The mechanics of inserting like material is not difficult when you single out that objective and then apply elbow grease.

Start by looking solely at the scenes where the couple is together. Instead of getting caught up in the building sweep of the scenes’ events, look for the quiet moments, the spaces in between the action. Drop in a sentence or two. Often these interstices are found toward the beginning of a scene, before the latest plot development has everyone scrambling.

You can be even more effective if you devise beforehand how you are going to escalate the sexual tension. You know how the game goes, get to first base, then to second base, etc. That principle applies even on a lesser level. First he is caught looking. Then they bump in a tight space. Write out a list of them, raising the ante each time, including the drunken spontaneous kiss. Now go hunting.

Exercise: Since most of this post has been an exercise, I’ll add one further step. Once you add an insertion, stop to think to yourself: what has changed because of this step? Your guy isn’t going to keep getting caught looking, unless you want him to be a creep. Where does he go from there?

“There is a fine line between serendipity and stalking.”
—David Coleman

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All right reserved.


Lacking Philosophy

An interesting question came out of a book club last week: what is the difference between commercial, mid-list, and literary fiction? The basic premise is easy enough to explain. The more the book is concerned with exterior events, the more commercial it is. That’s why a good thriller, for instance, contains lots of plot twists. The more the narrator’s thoughts predominate, the more literary it is.

Yet a deeper question underlies the distinction: should you try to be literary just because those are the types of novels you enjoy reading? I tend to sound a note of caution on this subject, for several reasons. The first is any person’s ability to make deeper sense of our existence. Such thinking goes beyond an older person’s accumulation, over a lifetime of experiences, of knowledge about how the world works. I am older, and I don’t believe I have ever elicited someone dropping their jaw about a profound remark I’ve made. Most forms of wisdom are practical, not of the sort that makes you remember a novel.

The second reason is also commonplace: a writer’s belief that they are special and thus have special things to tell the rest of us. I see this with virtually every lawyer-cum-writer I have ever read, to give an example of this cocksure quality. The fact is, success makes a person regard the world as their oyster—when that success may be based on an entirely plebeian advantage, such as selling buttons with a new number of holes. Using a novel as a soapbox does not mean it achieves more depth, but merely self-satisfaction.

A third addresses a quality that most writers would give their eye teeth for. That is the ability to write limpid prose. We all love to read books whose words flow effortlessly, that contain terrific metaphors and juxtapositions. I always think of John Updike in this regard: how could his every sentence have such clarity? In this province of authors lies most literary lights. They flat-out have more talent purely at writing, whether taught or bred in the bone. Yet many of these authors write mostly second-rate books. The mill churns as a career winds on, and shallow books like Updike’s Brazil are the outcome. Perfect pitch but where’s the soul?

Many young writers bemoan their lack of true hardship in their childhoods, and as trite as that reasoning is—just write if you’re going to do the damned thing—it contains a kernel of truth. Many good writers are deranged. They are damaged human beings. The ability to go beyond and find a truth that truly shocks us requires the journey. How did you get so whacked out you went there? That willingness to discover belongs mainly to what the I Ching hexagram would call: Youthful Folly. It’s no wonder that writers become alcoholics. They spend the rest of their lives trying to recapture the brilliance of a world they could still mold.

“It was one of those evenings when men feel that truth, goodness and beauty are one. In the morning, when they commit their discovery to paper, when others read it written there, it looks wholly ridiculous.”
—Aldous Huxley

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Picking a Pursuit

You have finished the first draft. You started off the novel with an idea, and as the grand notion became grounded on the page, characters with personalities you recognized sprang forth and engaged in a series of scenes that led in sometimes surprising directions. As you read it over, though, you find that a scene that seemed so terrific when you were in the weeds of it seems a little dull and clichéd now. The formless idea did take a shape, but what exactly do you have?

Agents and editors are going to ask you. Does it belong in a category, such as mystery, romance, or science fiction? If not, can you name two authors or books that would help them position the book in the general fiction market? A manuscript “written in the spirit of” is a very common phrase in a query letter. Books are not marketed exactly like categories of cereal in a supermarket, but without some direction to a reader as to what they’re purchasing, how is a publisher supposed to sell your book?

Luckily for authors who do not wish to be typecast, the pursuits of the different genres are based on a deeper storytelling truth. Any novel benefits from adding mystery. Any novel benefits from adding a romance. I’m not as sure about science fiction/fantasy, but elements of the genre have been added to quite a few books with success.

Rather than bemoaning a publisher’s desire for books that fit marketing slots, you might want to ask yourself: what, practically, can I do to make my book better? Here’s a tip. After I finish reading a manuscript, I often tell an author: you know, that Selena character. I know she isn’t in many scenes, but every time she shows up, she really sparkles. That is, when I see an author connecting to a character with such electricity, I say, “Give me more of that.”

You can employ the same method. As you’re reading your draft, what scenes crackle for you? Which characters give you that burn inside—I nailed that? You’re not a dope. You wrote an entire book. You can tell what you’re doing better. You just haven’t, because of some vague feeling that you don’t want to disturb the grand construct already written, decided to act upon that knowledge. Why not? You’re the one that is finding that you don’t know what you’ve got.

Exercise: Seeing the forest for the trees is a universal problem for authors. Yet you don’t have to “know” absolutely what needs to be done. As you review the manuscript , use a system of impressions. If you really like a scene, mark that “like.” If you’re not so sure, mark “maybe help.” If you’re not satisfied, mark “help.” When you’re done, look over the list. In which plot line, or attached to which character, do you see the most likes? Start writing more scenes to make what you’re doing well better.

“If you have a pre-conceived idea of the world, you edit information. When it leads you down a certain road, you don't challenge your own beliefs.”
—David Icke

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


How Do You Make an Impact?

When you consider the wide range of book types, you can’t be surprised that the modulations among characters and plotting and narration is so complex. When I read a novel by a literary author, I get caught up in the point of view—what the narrator is thinking—above all else. While narrative voice is vital to any novel, a genre or mid-list novel relies much less on it and more on what is happening outside the narrator’s head.

Once that is granted, the question then becomes: how does an author with less concentration—that inner voice—achieve the same level of satisfaction? I’ll leave out the obvious answer: tons of twists and exciting plot events. That’s because many authors don’t want to want to write a slam, bam, thank you ma’am book. They want meaning out of their characters.

This search for a middle ground came to mind because I recently read a mid-list book about South Africa, The Power of One. It must be autobiographical because the story jumps from one boyhood episode, however long, to another. If you chopped up its 500 pages into 80-page segments, you get the idea.

I found myself drawn to the longest section, in the middle, in which the boy develops several deep relationships, one with a professor and one with a black prisoner. I felt the book clicked on all cylinders. Yet then the book shifted to prep school, in a separate location, and ended up with a year of work, in another location still, before the boy enters college. I liked those parts okay, but I was reminded how much I liked the middle segment when the professor dies and the boy returns home for the funeral.

Why did I like that part so much? It had more continuity. Because the narrative focus is external—on events beyond the boy’s skin—what moved me was the depth of the relationships he built. The professor was like a father, and the author devoted a lot of time to building up his bond with the boy. The same with the black prisoner: he teaches the hero how to box, to stay cool amidst violence. With both the boy forms loyalties that exceed those with any others in those other parts.

What would have made me like that book more? More professor, more black prisoner. If those relationships could have been extended further, I would have enjoyed feeling those bonds to a greater degree. So maybe that’s the grail of the middle ground: focus on external  bonds when you can’t muster enough internal thoughts.

Exercise: Examine your draft with an eye toward the book’s major relationships. How many pages are you devoting to each one? How long, in terms of the book’s length, do they last? If one peters out (i.e., you’re not covering it live), what major relationship replaces it? Is that as compelling as the one you dropped?

“Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.”
—Helen Keller

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Busy, Busy

One camp of writers likes to pour out their words in a torrent. This style is not due to speed. Rather, these authors like to cram a lot of words into every sentence. I won’t guess the cause, such as loving their late 19th-century British literature course, but I do know the impulse adds a lot of verbiage. In numerous cases, more words seem to be added merely because a sentence doesn’t feel full enough.

The noodling is most apparent in cases where a phrase is gratuitous. Let’s take: “She decided she’d better get going. She opened up the suite’s door and stepped into the hallway.” Everyone knows you have to open a door to reach a hallway. In this case, we know that she is leaving. So “opened up the suite’s door and” can be skipped. It’s short and quick, I know, but all we need to know is: “She stepped into the hallway.”

Or look at a qualifying phrase that makes only apparent sense. “Trying to make good use of his time, Harold pulled his digital camera out of his fanny pack.” Isn’t it a common assumption that anyone tries to make the best use of their time?  Why is “Trying to make good use of his time” needed at all?

One type of addition involves clarification of material that in most cases is obvious. Let’s take the sentence: “With the proper dose, these pills will take the edge off.” That seems fine, until you consider that most readers assume that the proper dose is the amount a character will take. Don’t most of us read the label and take that dose? So it’s better to cut “With the proper dose.” Or look at: “She decided to stand up from the floor.” If the character is already indoors, what else would she be sitting on? There is no need for “from the floor.”

Or take even a two-word case:“He needed to earn the higher income from work that a big city provides.” As far as I’m aware, most people don’t move to big cities to earn income from any other source, like a trust fund. Most income is derived from work, so “from work” is not needed. Sure, it’s only two words, but when you add up sentence after sentence laden with them, that’s a lot of reading time wasted.

Exercise: A common villain in this puppet show involves a lead character’s eyes. For example, “He watched Kate as she rounded the corner.” You don’t need the character to watch unless they will immediately thereafter perform an act as a consequence of watching. If the character is the scene’s point of view, we assume he is watching. It’s just “Kate rounded the corner.”

“All that we know is nothing, we are merely crammed wastepaper baskets, unless we are in touch with that which laughs at all our knowing.”
—D. H. Lawrence

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Now and Then

When I am editing a manuscript, the most common correction I make by far is deleting or moving a comma. That’s because it is such a handy, flexible piece of punctuation. Although it has a number of strictly grammatical functions, such as setting off an appositive (“When I met Myles, the curator of the museum, I was told . . .”), it also can be used for emphasis. Some authors prefer using a lot of them, making the prose quite regimented, while others avoid them on principle, often to the reader’s cost. Comma usage can be altered by fads, such as the current one of placing a comma after the word “but.” (This curious construction, separating a conjunction from the phrase it is introducing, makes no sense at all.)

Some commas serve an idiomatic purpose, to echo the way we speak, and today I’m going to discuss two examples of this usage: now and then. These two adverbs that connote time have also been swept up in a comma fad. I frequently find a comma following them these days, even though an adverb usually is not bracketed off from the word it modifies. The common sense behind this principle is exemplified when you strip a sentence down to its simplest form: “I want to go now.” You wouldn’t think of writing that sentence: “I want to go, now.” You are merely expressing a desire to leave.

The confusion was created in the first place, I believe, by these adverbs’ alternate use as an interjection. That is an added word in a sentence that doesn’t fit within its structure; the most common of them is “well.” “Well, I never thought that would happen.” You can use “now” the same way. “Now, I never thought that would happen.” In this case, the word doesn’t fit in the sentence. You’re not saying that the person is thinking now. It’s an idiomatic expression, so it needs to be separated off.

The same with “then.” “So, you want to do that, then?” The word has nothing to do with when the action is performed. It’s just an expression, in this case indicating doubt about whether the statement being made is actually correct. Crazily, I come across manuscripts in which the usage is reversed. When “now” is used as an interjection, it does not have a comma; when used as a temporal adverb, it does have a comma. Whatever happened to that dusty grammar book?

Exercise: When an adverb begins a sentence, it often is bracketed off by a comma. “Practically, he knew the exercise was useless.” Yet that doesn’t apply to “now” and “then,” for the same reason a comma shouldn’t be used when they are placed elsewhere in a sentence. When you add the comma, you are making now or then an interjection.

“I just want to live happily ever after, every now and then.”
—Jimmy Buffett

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.



The playing of music has a valuable principle that more authors might want to adopt. That is the way notes are built toward a resolution. The development can be as simple as playing a discordant chord before a major chord, and can be as complex as devising entire movements within a symphony. Governing all of the flows of the emerging notes is the idea that they are leading to a goal.

Writing has the same objective, no matter how many interesting asides and digressions a novel contains. What do you want from a scene, or a chapter, or a part? I read so many scenes whose objective seems to be capturing what really happened that day in high school, or happened to a friend that day. While the writing may be descriptive, or sharp-eyed, or funny, I can be left wondering: underlying this barrage of words, what is the point? Why did you take me here?

The confluence of story with what I’ll call “fictional reporting” becomes more evident when set pieces are lined up in a row. As an editor, I take notes at the end of every scene. What, in a sentence or two, happened? Part of the reason is so I have a diagram for future use. But the practice also allows me to see where the narrative becomes distracted.

Not all incidents have to be linear. The pleasure in reading is derived in part from the reader inferring from the writing what is meant. Yet when the narrative becomes unbalanced—too many disparate scenes, not enough plot progress—the reader can lose the thread. Again, looking at music it is easy to see why a bout of improvisation leads, after a certain number of measures, back to the song’s theme. If it didn’t, a jazz tune, say, would spiral into a number of disconnected ideas that trail off to . . . silence.

One other factor to consider when planning a book’s sequence is how impregnable words already written can be. That is, once you have a draft written, you naturally look for the goodness in what you’ve composed. You’re less inclined to make changes because, at the sentence-by-sentence level at which you’re reading, the flow seems to work.

You’re better off composing notes to outline basically what you mean to have happen in the next chapter. Before you write them, you’re better off reviewing the last chapter to make sure you know what you’re building from. Then bouts of discontinuous narrative will be bound by what can reasonably be expected to happen next.

Exercise: After you have written 50 pages, go back to the beginning of that section and read it through. Part of the problem is the fact that you’re not reviewing in long enough blocks to see the larger ebbs and flows. That way you can make a number of mid-course corrections—or decide on new directions.

“If music be the food of love, play on.”
—William Shakespeare

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Mythical Reader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Invitation to Participate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Groundplan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


How Serious Are You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Floating Icebergs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Divine Preposition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Connecting the Outlier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Persistence Pays Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Beauty of Bridges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


How Far Does Compassion Go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


What Is the Right Level?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Sentence Fragments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Why Speed Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Problem with Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Paddling Against the Stream

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Thinking Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.