You Know What I Think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Here Is a Step Toward There

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


All the Build-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


When Different Isn’t Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


The Wrong Cap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine




Causes Interrupted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Cut Yourself Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


The One-Legged Stool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Delivering the Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.