A Day at the Zoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Adding on Layers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Before the Adulation

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Resurrecting from the Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Too Much Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


The Art of Coupling

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


Bolder Strokes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.