What Is the Right Level?

The world of nonfiction covers a vast array of writing styles. On the popular end, the can-do book is filled with “we” and “you,” encouraging the reader to sign on board. On the academic end, the prose is filled with subject-specific jargon, since those who don’t understand it aren’t the audience anyway. With the general trend toward simplification of prose, odd mixtures of styles crop up more frequently. Is this movement a freeing or lowering of standards?

The grammatical term at work here is “level of diction.” An author determines how formal their language will be. The decision is based on the reading audience. A how-to book tries to be colloquial. By using terms that everyone employs, the text makes the reader feel included among all the sufferers from whatever problem the book is tackling. Imprecision in language is entirely the point.

This level is inappropriate for an author who wishes scholarly acclaim. I’ll leave academic journals and other discipline-specific matter aside, using as the limit of formality those books published by distinguished mainstream publishers such as Basic and Free Press. These books still have footnotes, employ quotations from other authors, and make sophisticated arguments that the average Joe will not be able to follow.

Falling in between these two camps are a number of books that want both: popular appeal and serious subject matter. The authors by and large are highly intelligent, professors or doctors or the like. They apparently have rubbed shoulders with Joes only in passing on subways, because their writing veers oddly between concise and slang. The effect is jarring and, during the process of enduring pages of such swings, eventually counterproductive. I still may not understand the argument, and the loose language erodes my faith that the author has fully researched the truth.

A serious topic does not need the language of the street to embrace a wider reading public. If you have any doubt, read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. These two were some of the most intelligent people to walk the planet, but you understand every one of their points. Simplicity is a virtue, but elegant simplicity is the product of hard work.

Colloquial language is very often lazy writing. The author thinks to “dumb down” the prose, assuming the popular reader doesn’t mind vague expressions and clich├ęs. But extra verbiage and shortcuts waste everyone’s time. If you want to get down with the masses, how about starting with some sympathy for what they do not know?

Exercise: When you are reviewing the manuscript, look carefully for loose prose. Stop each time and ask yourself: is there a more precise yet still simple way to make the point? What this practice will teach you is that you have to substitute three and four times before you reach the word or expression fraught with the sort of tension that makes readers want to understand more.

“He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense.”
—Joseph Conrad

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Sentence Fragments

You know what you learned in grammar class: don’t use sentence fragments. According to that dictum, the only fragment allowed is an imperative sentence. In writing a novel, the subject becomes far more complex. Sentence fragments help create emphasis, in the same manner as exclamation points. After a run of complete sentences, no matter how much you have varied the structure of each one, a fragment stands out, drawing attention to what you are writing.

With the modern simplification of sentence structure, I would argue that the fragment plays a larger role. Because your options these days are more limited, a sentence fragment can be another tool in your arsenal. Combined with that is a parallel development. Prose is more colloquial these days. As a result writing has become an extension of the way we speak—and we speak in sentence fragments all the time.

Yet I don’t think the grammar teacher of yore was all wrong. A reader does need to ride on a flow of words. We are trying to get from one end of the book to the other, after all. A fragment is a broken sentence, so we have to stop a moment to provide context (what is missing). Too many interruptions tend to grate on the reader’s nerves after a while.

So, what is the best way to use them? My own preference is ride along a wave for a while, allowing the full sentences to create strong forward momentum. Then a sentence fragment slips in, and I think, that’s the narrator talking to me, creating emphasis. Of course, this general idea does not preclude using a string of fragments in a row, or having a section that is more dominated by sentence fragments. I’m just thinking in terms of how I’m going to sail through the page.

Occasional use of fragments roughly corresponds to how often a character comments on the storytelling. Even in the first-person narrative voice, she has to drive the story forward with plot events. She has to supply descriptive details to ground us in her fictional world. The more dominant the character’s thoughts, the more a fragment is employed as a tool. Just remember that too many fragments may make the reading experience a bumpy ride.

Exercise: Review a portion of your manuscript, examining solely sentence structure. If you are prone to writing full sentences, look for points of emphasis. Could you add a sentence fragment to pull the reader inside the character more? You may find that writing one fragment leads to writing several in a row. If you are prone to writing in fragments, on the other hand, be honest with yourself. How long can you read jagged prose without becoming fatigued by having to supply what is missing? How many of those fragments could be converted into full sentences, retaining only those that truly create emphasis?

“Every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great or original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished.”
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Why Speed Matters

When I started working in publishing, I had a nebulous melange of dreams about great books mingled with a knowledge of what books sell, similar to the rest of the reading population. That speaks to the power of artistry, that even after reading so many works of schlock along the way to getting a college education, I still held onto such prosaic notions as every novel needs depth. Yet shortly into my first tenure an editor who would become a mentor put it to me straight: “John, pacing is everything.”

I laughed, of course, wanting to be in the know but thinking to myself, “What a terrible way to think about books.” As it turns out, though, they were right, at least in terms of commercial novels. Or, to qualify its truth further, in terms of novels that don’t possess much depth anyway. That is not meant cruelly. It just so happens that writing a rich book is extremely difficult, and so many authors don’t meet that mark, because they are still learning how to write.

When I read submissions, I use an internal balance scale to measure what the book has to offer. How complex are the characters? How much do I feel I am standing in their shoes as the plot events unfold? How deep are their reflections about those events, and about life in general? How much of the narrative is focused on physical action—that is, the stuff that most writers write about?

Based on the overall assessment, I will repeat my mentor’s famous words with more or less emphasis. If an author is trying to write a thriller, I don’t want to stop for 20 pages of intellectual discussion. I want another murder pretty soon. The faster we get to it, the better. In lieu of constant carnage, I want to feel a character’s fearful anticipation, their stark worry, their terror of the consequences—whatever can drive suspense forward. At the end of every chapter, I want to experience a plot turn that makes me turn the page.

The baleful result of dreaminess about what moves a reader is a swampland between vigorous action and the writer’s principles about writing. If you want to write a best-seller, you have to put the pedal to the metal. If that feels like prostitution to you, I’m afraid there are plenty of other writers out there who like cash and fame. Their novels contain 80 percent dialogue. Their plots careen on the edge of nonstop mayhem. They know that pacing sells.

Exercise: Work backward from the end of each chapter. What is the event that will make the reader turn the page? Once you write down what it is, ask yourself how the chapter is building up to it. Any intellectual stuff, stick it at the beginning of the chapter—before you start ramping up the tension toward the end of the chapter. And keep it short, so we’re not waiting too long.

“If everything seems under control, you're not going fast enough.”
― Mario Andretti

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Problem with Politics

To your possible disappointment, but more likely relief, this post does not concern which pigs should apportion the slop. Rather, it addresses the earnest writing outcomes about this national pastime. Any author who believes that the emotions engendered by yelling at a TV reporter can propel a novel in the same fashion is sadly deluded. As Tom Clancy observed, “Fiction has to make sense,” whereas politics doesn’t, at least to one half of the population at any given time.

Journalists who turn to fiction are the most common practitioners of the political novel. Many times they have covered the Beltway and are privy to the dealings of its insiders. Since they don’t know how to write a novel, they tend to fall back on what they know: inside dope that makes headlines. How is it, though, that the unending conflicts between, say, the House Speaker and the President—so entertaining in real life—seem oddly mawkish in a story?

The lack of morality can’t be the reason. In real life, voters are outraged because their moral principles are so often flouted by elected officials. As for fiction, morality is one of the guiding principles of drama. So where is the disconnect?

A novel forms its own universe. An author picks certain characters to embody certain qualities, and then designs a plot that, through the author’s chosen conflicts, reveals the right and wrong ways to live. Yet depending on the author’s lodestones, those ways can be wildly divergent. What matters is the moral compass of the lead character(s). That is the logic that determines what is right or wrong.

It is also true that received wisdom is not nearly as compelling as hard-won wisdom—that is, what the character endures during the course of the book. While their milieu may be instructive in some minor fashion, the wisdom far more often comes through the conflicts with other characters. To survive, politicians must manipulate the vote count—but where is the drama in the conflict with faceless masses?

That is why politics is an unsatisfactory source of drama. Once the moral imperative is directed at a crowd, it is diffused by its lack of a true target. To succeed, a president needs to develop a relationship with chosen targets in order to engender any more than skin-deep interest. It is true I dislike how my tax dollars are wasted, but reading about it in a story puts me instantly to sleep.

Exercise: At the start of writing a political novel, first pick out the characters, not the situation. How can you build core relationships between a few chosen cast members that will tap into the emotions that we all feel toward people that we grow close to? When one character violates the moral pact that he shares with one other character, now you have moral failing that counts.

“Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.”
—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Paddling Against the Stream

You can regard a novel in terms of rhythms that are created in the ever changing interplay between character and plot. That’s because these elements create different tides in a novel. Present events in a plot push a story into its future, the part we don’t know. Yet a background story is designed to fill out character, and it exerts a pull in the opposite direction. That’s because the events have already occurred. For this discussion I'll leave out a back story in a mystery that reveals all in the end.

If you think in terms of story rhythm, background stories create retrograde motion—because they push the book into the past. Depending on how much strong pacing plays a role in your novel, you need to be careful about where such pieces are placed. A back story placed right in the middle of a dramatic sequence, for instance, means you are pitting two story elements against each other—and the result usually is reader impatience to get on with the action.

Getting up a good head of steam in the present will make the reader more receptive to pursuing the byways of the past. For that reason, background pieces often function best when following a strong action scene, which creates strong forward momentum. The background then falls in the lee of the wind, so to speak, when the reader wants to take a breather anyway. Thinking of this technique in musical terms is helpful, since any composer knows that a crescendo rises out of silence.

When judged according to rhythm, you can make better decisions as well about how long a background piece should be in any given case. If the piece is a paragraph long, say 5-7 lines, that can fit in all but the most energized sequences. If you double that length, say to a half page, now you have to be more careful. That sort of piece probably will function best early in the chapter following a strong forward push in the plot. And what about pieces that are longer—a page or two or even a chapter? You most likely need to have provided a truly disturbing story twist, one that leaves the reader shaken. So you let the reader relax, slip into your alternate current, take them on a new ride. When the back story is over, they're ready for more propulsion.

Exercise: Look through your draft merely for background pieces. Place each in a chart that lists: which character it describes, what page(s) it’s on, how long it is (in lines, if you like), and a brief synopsis of what in the past the story covers. Now look at what immediately precedes the background piece. Has the reader been pushed forward by the ongoing plot? How strong is that push? The stronger it is, the longer the back story you can insert.

“We are inclined to believe those whom we do not know because they have never deceived us.”
—Samuel Johnson

 Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Thinking Ahead

If you are interested in writing a series, you should be aware of how a publisher thinks. A publishing house is a business first and foremost, and one of their traditional terms is “building an author’s platform.” What does that mean?

If a publisher buys your first novel, they already have a pretty good idea of how many copies of that book they want to distribute nationwide. So that initial distribution is your initial platform: X number of copies sold. For a second book, the publisher assumes that a percentage of the readers who bought the first book will buy the second. On top of that, you will gain additional readers. That’s because you now have two books on the bookshelf. As a former manager of a bookstore, I can assure you that the presence of more than one novel by the same author strongly encourages sales. In other words, your platform will expand with the second book, with the third book, and so on.

That is why so many books by an author feature the same protagonist. Readers want to read the next Jack Reacher book by Lee Childs, just for one example. His latest book is building on the platform started back with the first Jack Reacher book. If your creative well is deep enough that you can produce multiple original  books with the same hero, at some point a publisher may decide to make the big plunge. A huge publicity campaign is started with the aim of putting you on the New York Times best-seller list. Now you’re gold, even if the later books in the series are not so hot. As readers, we know all too well about clunkers like that.

When writing one book, an author usually has at least a hazy notion of other books she’d like to write. She may have sketched out the plot, or the main characters she’d like to feature. Before that process goes too far, she should ask herself: would I be interested in converting this idea so that it features the heroine of my present manuscript? If the novel is strongly plot-driven, you need to consider why you need to switch the driver of that plot. You may not be writing a mystery or a sci fi series. Yet if you like your main character now, why shouldn’t you stick with him?

Exercise: This post in no way is suggesting that books in a series be linked plot-wise. Book 1 should have a beginning, middle, and a definite end, even if the story is part of a trilogy. If a reader starts reading Book 2 and it feels like the same-same with Book 1, that book is going back up on the shelf. The challenge of writing a series is creating distinctive plots for each book. What remains the same, luckily, is the core cast of characters that you’ve grown to know so well.

“The original Hobbit was never intended to have a sequel—Bilbo ‘remained very happy to the end of his days and those were extraordinarily long’: a sentence I find an almost insuperable obstacle to a satisfactory link.”
—J. R. R. Tolkien

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


A Need for Perspective

Writing a memoir can involve a number of different narrative approaches. Most good ones depend on the graceful wordplay of the writer. Yet even if you are not gifted, you can still captivate readers if you’ve had interesting experiences. The key is to recall scenes with enough vivid details that the reader feels like he is participating. A personable style, such as that of a blithe California commentator, can also go a long way toward encouraging this sort of intimacy.

Stringing together a series of focused vignettes can make for a riveting memoir. You just pick all the highlights of your life. The problem with merely lining up well-recalled scenes, however, is that a reader can become lost along the way. Say, you are describing a decline into teenage alcoholism. After a while you run the risk that all of the scenes of stumbling and laughter will start to seem the same. The memoir will feel like it is spinning its wheels. Even worse, the reader may start to become disgusted with you because the debauchery is so relentless.

A little perspective is in order. Since people begin life in a state of innocence, that return to the garden can always be hoped for. In practical terms, you might want to use representatives from a more wholesome period to provide perspective. Let’s say you were a straight A student in school until your parents split up. Your friends were your fellow smart classmates. Dumber kids looked up to you. If you take the time to sprinkle in encounters with these members of your former set once you start drinking, the reader has a benchmark to gauge how much you are declining.

That is the key. You don’t want to return to the garden too soon, because that would be boring. You need to keep pushing along the road you’ve staked out. So you create perspective, usually by featuring other people that are established in your life. One good choice is your mother. Where was she when all this drinking was going on? What did she do to try to stop it? Did those efforts become increasingly desperate and, in the end, hopeless?

By means of perspective, you create progression. You start at step A and proceed downward to step Z. You insert paragraphs or passages of perspective so that the reader not only enjoys participating in the well-drawn scenes but also knows where you are along your road.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye for where each vignette stops. You have to create a bridge to the next scene anyway, and that gives you an opportunity to pull away the camera lens and provide an overview: This is where I stand now. One gap in particular where such inserts can be placed is when you are jumping a significant period of time between scenes.

“Don’t worry if people don’t recognize your merits; worry that you may not recognize theirs.”
― Confucius

Copyright 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Not All Glitters in Tech

Americans worship wealth, and the large majority track the exploits of their favorite stars—good or bad, true or made up. The same avidity for reading such chronicles extends to people’s taste in fiction. A long parade of best-selling authors have written about the pomp and perils of the fabulously wealthy. A change in focus from books featuring techie code to books featuring techie riches was, therefore, only a matter of time.

By now everybody this side of a log cabin knows that becoming a techie means striking it rich. We may bemoan our utter lack of ability to understand math, but we envy those who do possess it. With the expansion of the internet has come a new wave of tech personnel who are not weird and arrogant, but helpful and smiling and, well, normal. They may code their way to a Maserati, but then, so can people in plenty of other fields.

The new frontier, with its gala launches and sparkling shows, does not differ in substance, however, from plenty of other rich-people events. The guy in the tux with the trophy wife is still likely a variant of a boring banker. Bragging about baubles and vacations dates back to Jesus throwing tables around temples. In another word, the song is the same.

Authors who expect a novel set in fabulous tech circumstances to be somehow different are fooling themselves. Being able to explain how some piece of tech works is nice, but it is instruction nonetheless. Business of any stripe is still dull fare in fiction, and readers still don’t care much if a character achieves status and money at the book’s end. How about the girl? Who died in this story, anyway? Such age-old concerns still quicken our hearts like no other.

The shift of tech workers toward normalcy is heartening, but the rest of us have not changed our rules. A maverick in fiction had still better be sexy and dashing in order to attract readers. All the trappings society confers to the winners cannot mask the workaholic grinder. We will continue to read novels to escape people like that.

Anyone who writes about the new frontier in success needs to start characters who matter. I’m all for exotic, and the new world of tech has plenty of that. But how do you make a character exotic and still stir the hearts of readers? That’s the pivot point.

Exercise: Rather than gain, think first in terms of what your lead characters have to lose. The threat of loss produces evil. Even the desire not to lose one’s present standing produces evil. Now deal your lead character a terrible blow just before the book opens. Let them scratch and crawl their way to success. I can cheer for someone like that.

“The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.”
—Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Copyright 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Happy Medium

The most difficult task I have when helping authors put together a chapter outline section for a nonfiction proposal is trying to tell them how it works. A proposal is an unusual beast, designed only for publishing insiders. They know what they want to see, but how is the poor author supposed to know? On every proposal I edit, I spend the most time on the summaries of what each chapter is going to contain. So what is the magic secret here? How do you write an effective chapter summary that will help sell the book?

A good way to start the explanation is by marking extremes. On the one end, you can draw up a bulleted list of the main points the chapter is going to cover. The problem with such a brief format is that, when stated so baldly, a bulleted-list entry can seem like a point that is featured in a dozen other books. You need to provide more information about your unique approach to that topic, and that usually requires several more sentences, if not a paragraph, to support it.

On the other end is the full chapter itself. That also is not wanted, because the very word “summary” demands brevity. You need to distill 20-30 pages into a single page or two. Faced with such a task, many authors tend to clutch up. They feel they cannot write in their usual style, which many times is conversational. So they write out stilted points that are only a mawkish rendition of the chapter, no more attractive than a shrunken head.

Try for something in the middle. You take the entries on your bulleted list and then add a few sentences from the chapter to support each one, defining how it is your own. In other words, you are employing the same rhythm when you were writing the chapter, only picking out snippets that are the chapter’s main selling points. For example, the bulleted list reads: “The five food groups for the plant-based body.” So you expand on that and make it: “To help you see how you can eat more healthy food, I provide the 5 Food Groups of a plant-based diet.  Whole foods deliver whole nutrition, unlike their processed food counterparts, and that includes antioxidants and phytochemicals—critical to good health.”

The bulleted-list entry is flat, somewhat annoying because the reader has no idea what the five groups are. In the second version, we still don’t know what the groups are, but we do connect with the author’s obvious expertise and caring about the readers’ health. In this format, an author’s style is not compromised by the need to make a point quickly and move on.

Exercise: If you have already written the book, review it only for your main points. You’ll usually have 4–5 lead topics per chapter. Isolate the paragraphs in which these points are first brought up. This usually is the topic sentence for the paragraph it governs. Then review the sentences that immediately follow that sentence. You’ll find that, taken as a small group, these few sentences outline everything else that follows in the next section. Copy those sentences and paste them in your outline file. If you do this 4–5 times, you have a solid foundation for that chapter’s summary.

“There's no such thing as writer's block. That was invented by people in California who couldn't write.”
—Terry Pratchett

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.