The Overloaded Explanation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Different Assistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


General Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Concrete Conversion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Sleep for a Month on It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


The Pall That Spreads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @2020, John Paine


That First Blush

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine


Add the Warp to the Weave

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine
Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.