When It Pours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Swapping In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


What Is Sardonic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


A Thread, Not a Patch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Find Out Where They Start

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2020 @ John Paine. All rights reserved.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Unexpected Allies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Do the Math

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Mindless Loops, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved



The Mindless Loops, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(To be continued.)

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Moving Beyond Literal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Studying Details

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Marcus Aurelius

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.



Teen Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Puzzle Assortment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—George Orwell

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Out with the Old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Problem with Safe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Selling a Seller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Winston Churchill

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Pick and Choose

When authors think of how to lay out their novel, the most common structural technique chosen is chronology. That is the way the story appears to them: it starts here, goes through these obstacles, and culminates at this logical high point of past events. A skilled novelist may operate that way, but because they immerse the reader in whichever character’s head they choose, they know that as long as the reader is content following a narrative string, the structure can feature events out of order.

In this regard it is useful to study the configuration of Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry. While linear time is followed to a large degree, emphasis is placed on what part of the lead character’s past should be revealed for the purpose of dramatic emphasis. The fact that he is only 33 when he leaves his young family and careens through back alleys in Spain is not revealed until well into the novel, after many plot events present and past have already been put forth. The author wishes to show at that point in the novel how truly damaged the character is. As the reader you already know so much and you’re left wondering: really, you gave up everything you had going for you at age 33? It helps to explain his present existential torpor by a quantum leap.

You can employ discontinuity for dramatic effect for other characters as well. How do they fit into the hero’s life? What are the signal events of their association? Which one really slays the protagonist? When you start thinking in terms of emotional valence, the timing of a revelation becomes a matter of when dropping the trapdoor will cast everything that has come before in a stark new light.

An important consideration is how the developmental arc is progressing in the present-day plot. If that plot line is somewhat static, as more modern plots are, then your arrangement of past events becomes an equivalent or even more dynamic force driving our understanding of the lead character. In this setup, a good deal of development can be placed earlier in the book, establishing a status quo that past events then can enhance or dismantle step by step. You choose when to deliver a telling blow—it just may not belong in the present.

Exercise: If you have already written a draft in chronological order, you can chop it up. Start by composing a chart of the plot events and then assign dramatic value to each one. The ones that hit the hardest may not be the later ones. In that case, bend your narrative so that the revelation, say, that the protagonist accidentally killed his father as a child stands on the height of all of the other material you have built beforehand. 

“The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” 

—Oscar Wilde

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.



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 clich├ęd 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.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.