A Day at the Zoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Adding on Layers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Before the Adulation

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Resurrecting from the Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Too Much Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


The Art of Coupling

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Bolder Strokes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


The Overloaded Explanation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Different Assistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


General Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Concrete Conversion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Sleep for a Month on It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


The Pall That Spreads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @2020, John Paine


That First Blush

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine


Add the Warp to the Weave

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


You Know What I Think?

An effective novel usually has an engaging narrator, even if that consists of different characters narrating different scenes. One of the keys of getting inside a character’s head is giving their opinion—on everything. Opinions are not facts, but the person reading the story tends to accept them as facts, depending on how much they like the character narrating the scene.

When you start a scene, your first job is to sit back, close your eyes, and ask yourself: what sorts of opinions would the point-of-view character give? Let’s call her Alice. What is her personality? When you have that set in your mind, then ask yourself: how would those personality traits make her opinions entertaining for the reader? Don’t worry about realism. You want someone who is going to grab the reader’s interest. At the very least, imagine this: Alice is having a crummy day and here comes some damned nosy parker customer with all her questions. What opinions does she tell the reader about the nosy parker?

The next step is, make her opinions into clues. Usually, your POV character knows other main characters really well, so if something is off in what they say, how they look, Alice should give her opinions about their off-ness. Let’s assume that in a scene just before a character collapses from poisoning, several suspects come by to talk to him. Alice, standing at a distance, can’t hear what they’re saying, but she gives her opinions on what is being said by gauging the facial reactions of the suspects toward the about-to-die victim. You can pull the same trick after the collapse. Just have Alice watch the suspects’ faces as they stare at the fallen body.

Those opinions are clues—without any evidence needed at all. She doesn’t even need to know the suspects well, but then the clues won’t be accorded the same merit. You could float a wholly boneheaded opinion to cloud a plot point. If Alice doesn’t give too many of them, we’ll still like her.

Another wonderful aspect of opinions is their lack of basis in fact. If the POV character floats an opinion that another character then declares is wrong, one question that is raised in the reader’s mind is: am I being tricked? In other words, in a story that is hopefully full of duplicity, the very source of the storytelling comes under suspicion. Is the opinion supposed to be covering up wrongdoing? Can I trust this narrator anymore? The fact is, if Alice wasn’t so opinionated, she wouldn’t have gotten herself into this fix.

Exercise: Review a scene that you feel is flat: all dull facts. Your assignment is to add an opinion by the point-of-view character at every turn. Nothing but opinions, and you shouldn’t rest until he’s delivered at least 10 opinions in that scene. You can always cut some of them later, but even two new clues would help your deceitful cause.

“I have an idea, and I have a perpetrator, and I write the book along those lines, and when I get to the last chapter, I change the perpetrator so that if I can deceive myself, I can deceive the reader.”
—Ruth Rendell

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Here Is a Step Toward There

A first draft tends to emerge in chunks rather than as a seamlessly unfolding whole. That corresponds to the uncertainty an author experiences about what is supposed to come next in the story line. A lead character (or several) can pull the plot in the direction that feels most satisfying by that point in the novel, and the author obeys.

When reviewing the manuscript as part of the editing process, you need to keep above the sentence-by-sentence fray and ask yourself: is what I’ve written here leading toward the end point of this plot line? Take an example of a fragmented line, with chunks supporting the several directions. A young man is looking for love, but in his disappointment ends up at his older sister’s house, where a book-ending tragedy occurs. Two plot lines—looking for love and ties to a sibling.

Let’s further stipulate that at the beginning, the older sister already resides in the location where her brother will be going. Most of the way through the first draft, you realized that you would need to create a link, and so you devised a handful of letters written between them. Yet think about the weakness of the sister’s position. She exists only offstage, as someone penning letters. When her brother shows up, the reader doesn’t know what she looks like, how she interacts with him over a kitchen table, etc. The link is long-distance, like a voice on the phone.

If you want him to end up at his sister’s place, you might want to construct the early section of the plot so that the sister hasn’t moved out of the parental home yet. Brother and sister could talk to each other directly, with the sister possibly offering advice about his love interest. In her second live scene, she is driven out by a cruel father, say, after raising his hand one too many times.

Now you have established a basis for what then would become a long-distance relationship. Readers follow the letters with interest, because they have “met” the sister. She could continue to comment on the young man’s lover. You could join the plot lines further by the boy realizing that his abusive father’s legacy is influencing how he acts toward his lover. By being conscious of the higher plane that plot development occupies (as opposed to sentence-by-sentence stitching), you have set up the sister so that when she finally shows up in person again, she is a vital force.

Exercise: You achieve the higher plane of plotting by a deliberate plan. After you read each scene, write down in a sentence or two what the scene was about. When you’re finished, consult the list of summary notes. Use the list as you are connecting the chunks. That way you will be able to see the forest for the trees.

“You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”
—Steve Jobs

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


All the Build-up

A writer’s determination to concentrate on the page at hand results in torrents or dribbles of words, depending on the writing session. The erratic flow stems from the ability to tap into the subconscious. We all know that the impulses of the id defy logic, which helps to explain why authors need to edit their text. What we thought was gold at the moment of madly typing may turn out to be the dross of a not-so-good writing day.

Now let’s pair this well-known phenomenon with the momentous task of filling hundreds of pages. The writer’s confidence in striking gold tends to produce spurts of text. A eureka-like impulse can lead, after mulling over the idea, to a decision to turn the novel in that direction, however briefly. For instance, to help explain why a normal businessperson would investigate a murder, you decide to include a background story on the bullying of a younger sister.

The story emerges into view, and the writer sets off, hiking stick in hand, to explore it in sufficient details to make the point ring true. What was conceived of as a paragraph, or maybe two, mushrooms into a page or two. It is needed, you judge, because it just took that long to explain the motivations and the circumstances of how the bullying occurred.

At a later point, however, you read over that chapter. You’re more distant from the heat of writing, and you feel a discomfort that the chapter has bogged down so much. You look at the background story and realize it’s too long—but now you’re stuck. It does explain why the protagonist would go to such extraordinary lengths for vengeance. You wrote a tight background piece—no fluff, the thing moves at a good narrative summary pace. You can’t see a way to trim it any more than it already is.

You are at the second stage of regulating the impulses of the id. You thought you had tamed them while writing the piece. Yet you have to consider the number of words needed to set up a plot point. You can gauge whether to keep a point by examining how many are needed to set it up. Ask the question: is the impact of the point worth all the words?

You are exercising, on a larger scale, the judgment you used to make the hundreds of smaller cuts you’ve already made. If the piece sticks out for too long, considering the purpose it serves, it has to be excised. You made a bigger mistake, that’s all.

Exercise: You can accomplish the same purpose by other means. If you made a larger decision—oh, it’s the sister who should be killed—you wouldn’t need the long back story. Or, you write a scene in the present in which she is bullied—with the hero actively trying to help. Now it’s not a drag on the story at all.

“The main engagement of the writer is towards truthfulness; therefore he must keep his mind and his judgement free.”
—Gabrielle Roy

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


When Different Isn’t Good

The pastime of reading can leave a scrambled impression of what books are trying to accomplish. With some novels, clear demarcations are sometimes hard to draw, even for publishing professionals. For example, I used to manage a bookstore, and when a carton of new books arrived, the question would arise: in which bookcase should this book be placed? Failing all else, it went in the omnibus Fiction case. Even then, though, the book Venus on the Half Shell, written under the pseudonym Kilgore Trout, seemed to belong in the science fiction case rather than with the rest of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels.

Most inexperienced writers do not belong to the same pedigree. The melange of impressions left by all the books they’ve read can result in the desire to bend genres. They are tired of the same old formulas and decide to write their own version of fiction-busting In Cold Blood. They pick a subject close to their heart, and off they go.

Intent, however, is only a starting point. Having a firm knowledge of the genre you mean to break is next on the list. In this way melding different categories of literature resembles satire. You must know how the game goes before you create a variant based on it that will produce laughter. If you don’t know how an Agatha Christie mystery works, for example, your book will be perceived by readers merely as a bad mystery. They don’t get the jokes because you don’t know the tropes.

A far worse hodgepodge results from literally imitating Capote. I believe Dante would place in the lowest level of hell the “instructive novel.” That is, the author amasses tons of nonfiction research and lards their scenes with factoids. The reader ends up learning far more about, say, apiarists (beekeepers) than was ever desired. I can take only so many smokers before I myself am deathly calmed. Or, to use another example I’ve seen more than once, does the writer really think that readers know nothing about Jewish religious traditions?

The result of such instruction is the same as in the classroom of yore: utter boredom. I imagine that one of the things they teach in teachers colleges is how to keep their subjects lively and entertaining. Then too, consider the pursuit. If you are going to history class, you know you’ll be learning history. Far better that than expecting to read a mystery and finding history lessons.

Exercise: The rule to follow with any research longer than a sentence is: put it into action. If your characters can act upon the factoids in a way that furthers the drama, keep them. If they are shoved in there because you are playing teacher for a day, get rid of them. You’ll find you lose three-quarters of the research, and the reader will bless you for it.

“My alma mater is the Chicago Public Library. I got what little educational foundation I got in the third-floor reading room, under the tutelage of a Coca-Cola sign.”
—David Mamet

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


The Wrong Cap

With the growth of the young adult market, more and more adult novelists are trying their hand at the game. The logic behind the decision is straightforward. The YA market holds the promise of sales, while the adult market seems to have a foreclosed sign hung on it these days. Plus, anyone who has completed the arduous journey of writing an adult novel can surely write one for kids, right? Aren’t they, like, half as long?

I could write a post about first studying your market, but here I’ll focus on a common problem I encounter within the texts I edit. It stems from the natural impulse of an adult to instruct those of more tender years. This desire is combined with the freedom that writing gives its practitioner. Hey, why not me? I’ll show them instruction can be fun.

The writer sets off on the self-appointed mission. The standard relationships between characters are built, only a teenager (in YA) is the protagonist. A theme is chosen to guide the relationship toward a turning point. We start at Point A and end at Point Z. Let’s take the example of a historical novel set during the Revolutionary War. Uncle Bertram will show nephew Elias why fighting representatives of the colonies’ government was a good idea.

A step-by-step process takes place, the way any plot line is developed. In this case, Uncle Bertram is at Elias’s elbow, pointing out at one step perhaps why British soldiers alienated farmers by stealing all their animals. How the Hessians were both fearsome and light-fingered toward all possessions in sight. Elias is a teenager, though, and he won’t be convinced easily—because we all know teenagers don’t listen to adults. The result can be dialogue passages dropped in every 20 pages that turn the huge ship slowly around.

Just from this telescoped overview you can see why the young reader’s eyes are slowly closing. Any teacher could tell you that kids like novels filled with action—lots of it. That is why so many successful YA writers have teaching experience.

Another good reason for avoiding instructive passages stems from a principle that governs all novels: show, don’t tell. Let’s position the teenager in the novel as the son of a farmer, and one of the animals slaughtered is Bessie, the teen’s favorite horse. In this case you need only tell us how he feels. We can figure out for ourselves that British soldiers were bastards. You are asking the reader to  participate, and that process starts at a very early age.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for discussions on the same topic that are progressive. Highlight them and then read them in isolation from the rest of the book. Do they start to seem numbing? Then look at the incident that precipitated the discussion. Could you add in the teenager’s thoughts at the time the stuff is going down? Afterward, you can probably cut the discussion.

“The wages of pedantry is pain.”
—Carroll O'Connor

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine




Causes Interrupted

Writing a novel takes a long time, and sometimes authors decide they need to take a break. Getting sick of your own words happens to every writer, so this is not surprising. The pause that is taken varies from a few days or weeks to months. The latter occurs more frequently to authors who have a full-time job and write in their spare time. Life gets away from all of us.

During a long hiatus, a writer can lose their place in the story. When they finally return, they can be inspired to begin anew because a new idea comes to mind—just the sort of element that will inject new life into the beast that had grown so tiresome. The author skims what has already been written and plunges in.

Although it can be tedious to read what you’ve already done, it is imperative for story continuity. When you stop writing for a while, you have to make sure you read carefully which plot threads you have been pursuing before. Otherwise, the new outburst of words may pull the reader in an unexpected, and possibly unwelcome, direction.

If I as a reader have been pursuing a romance for 100 pages, I’m not inclined to head off in a totally new direction, such what happens when the hero’s brother murders someone. It doesn’t matter if the romance is not at an exciting point when the break occurs. Any plot line has segments that alternate between strongly pushing forward and then laying back for a while.

Everything is relative, and proportion counts in a novel. If the new outburst runs for five pages, I will welcome it as a tangential subplot that is meant to interrupt the tide of the romance. If it is 20 pages, I will start to feel adrift. I may not really know the brother. I may not know the victim at all. So I’m supposed to drop everything and head off to who knows where?

Besides the confusion engendered, a second drawback is the way that new outburst undercuts the tension of what you already have been building. Any plot line that lies fallow for 20 pages is going to lose its tension. With each page it is being relegated ever further into the past. When we return, it feels like stale news. Oh, right, the romance—along with the niggling question: why does the author think it’s so uninteresting that it can be neglected for so long?

Exercise: Any plot line can be chopped into pieces as long as you like. When you realize that a segment has been going on too long, see if you can find a breaking point in the middle. After all, a novel switches between plot lines frequently. Maybe what you wrote in one burst could be broken apart into more manageable parcels—and the original plot line can retain its momentum.

“I lost the plot for a while then. And I lost the subplot, the script, the soundtrack, the intermission, my popcorn, the credits, and the exit sign.”
—Nick Hornby

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Cut Yourself Off

Historical novels consist of thousands of details, and when you come to the end of a draft and realize you need to cut it down—sometimes by ten of thousands of words—the question is: which details should go? One productive method involves the dictum: show, don’t tell. While this principle applies universally in fiction, the writer of a historical novel can be especially guilty of violating it—because so much has to be explained just to make the time period feel authentic.

A question that helps narrow down any given point is: does the material belong to the present? No matter what time period is chosen, a novel always has a present setting. Background material occurs in the past, as in all novels. Yet because a historical novel is set entirely in the past, its background and present information can be more tightly interwoven. For example, a character remarks, “Alexander Hamilton won’t approve of that.” Then the narrative explains the context in which the remark must be judged: not only the circumstances around the issue but the way Hamilton felt about it prior to the time of the remark.

To accomplish these twin aims, a writer ends up with two paragraphs, at a minimum. Yet you can cut them down by a simple determination: which of the two, the issue or Hamilton’s feeling about it, is more important. If it’s a well-known issue, such as the need for a national bank, you don’t have to explain much. The reader of a historical novel probably already knows a number of factors, including the establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913. Yet Hamilton was so far ahead of his time, and the explanation of his passion is the core material to keep.

On the other hand, if it’s a minor issue, such as a law case he handled, that paragraph might be dropped in favor of a simple reply to the remark: “You know how much he hates customs officials.” Nuff said, because the story really doesn’t have to slow down for your nugget about how he handled such and such customs case in 1802 or whenever.

You can extend that logic to multiple paragraphs about the same topic. You might have several on how much George Washington valued Hamilton as his wartime aide. Just ask yourself: which of the incidents you’ve listed is the most telling? Pick that one and brush off the other(s) with a single remark. Even if you haven’t made the point as fully as you thought was needed, leave some of the issue allusive and move on.

Exercise: An easy target for cuts is an extended conversation about a topic. Rather than following the dialogue as it wends its way from one historical point to the next, a bridge that often takes awhile, cut the talk short. Insert a single narrative sentence that summarizes the bridge. In all likelihood, you will cut 10 lines to one.

“I don't mind a little praise as long as it's fulsome.”
―Adlai E. Stevenson

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


The One-Legged Stool

A novel has to hit so many marks in order to grab a reader’s interest. It must have good characters involved in an unusual plot that is narrated from a striking point of view. For the author, another imperative also holds: it must hold their interest while writing the book. Among various aims, that may mean developing a distinctive prose style, one that isn’t like all the other stuff out there.

For most writers, a great deal of effort needs to be expended to make sure that every sentence has a crisp edge or uncommon turn of phrase. Tons of word substitutions, constant paring of unnecessary verbiage, copious attention paid to sentence rhythm. The multifaceted task can become so consuming, the effort may end up mirroring the isolation the author experiences while doing all this rewriting. That is, the story ends up tunneling inside the point of view of the lead character.

Why is that a problem? Doesn’t the reader want to be inside the head of the protagonist? Yes, this is very true. It is one of the three attainments—character, plot, narration—that marks a good book. But it’s only one of them.

Beware of a character that views the other characters and the plot events through a prism of the author’s polishing. In order to sustain the inner patter that keeps the narrative unique, a barrage of personal observations needs to be made. Yet the prism is still only a filtered lens, to borrow a stage term. Action still has to take place onstage in order to keep the reader’s interest.

In particular, an author’s observations, covering such a wide array of topics, can become scattered. Because the other characters exist outside the patter, they can start to seem pawns of the narrator’s designs. One problem I see is that the other characters don’t develop as the book goes on. They don’t show up on a regular basis, and therefore the reader never develops a relationship with them. If you don’t have building relationships in a novel, what do you have? A bunch of people I don’t care about, because I don’t know them.

The same exigency applies to plotting. If the initial plot premise doesn’t develop—hopefully spiral down into an abyss—the novel can start to feel slight. Much ado in the prose style about nothing. Love and death are not options; they are the very foundation of almost all novels. You ignore them at your peril.

Exercise: Mannered prose works well for descriptions, less strongly in building relationships. A reader doesn’t want the wheel to be reinvented to narrate passion. Does he love her or not? When you are editing, think twice about changing direct passages that relate to feelings. If the reader becomes confused about your intent, it’s hard to lay building blocks that go somewhere.

“People want poetry. They need poetry. They get it. They don't want fancy work.”
—Mary Oliver

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Delivering the Word

One of the hardest tasks an author faces is writing out the first draft of a scene. So many expectations whirl around in their mind, along with vague notions of what consequences from the previous scenes should play out in the next one. A writer can try to sketch out so much all at once that they are left with a blank page, defeated by the totality of what they haven’t written.

When this is the case, it is smarter to break down the process into stages. First of all, what needs to be accomplished in the scene? That is an issue of plotting, not character, in most cases. Luckily for an author, plot can be derived from notes drawn up beforehand. Rather than beating your breast about your purgatory of writer’s block, you can sketch out notes about what you want to have happen in the scene. Go ahead, write down a half page or whatever of basic objectives you have in mind.

Then decide which one of the notes you want to flesh out first. You may like to start at the beginning of a scene, but you don’t have to. You could write out the part that sticks out the most in your mind. Say, Rachel has to tell Jack what she found out. Where does she tell him? How does she go about broaching the subject, given the personalities and circumstances? What will he do with the information after she tells him? Questions like these are more important than where that patch of dialogue appears in the scene—because they determine what must come before and after that conversation.

Notice that already the whirling farrago of expectations and desires in your mind is becoming winnowed down into realistic terms you can plot out. Follow up this train of defined parameters by writing them out. If the scene features dialogue, for example, just write that. What does Rachel say to Jack? What does he say back? Nothing more than that. Do it knowing that you are leaving stuff out, like Rachel’s thoughts, that you include in every scene. You can come back later, like the next day when you are editing what you wrote. You don’t have to do everything all at once.

The dialogue, or whatever moves you strongly enough to write it down first, is your spear point. You use it to burst through the gauzy wall in your mind that is blocking you from transmuting thought into written words. Don’t bear the entire world of the scene on your shoulders. Think of the process, rather, as finding the end of a thread that you will keep unspooling.

Exercise: Once you have consulted your notes and decided which one to tackle, put that file aside. Don’t let the note constrict what you will write out in full. The note is just another shackle on your pen. Only after you have written out the full burst of your initial enthusiasm should you return to the note and see if you actually went in that direction. If you didn’t, who is going to know besides you?

“The best way in the world for breaking up a writer’s block is to write a lot.”
―John Gardner

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.