The Groundplan

Most Americans who emerge from college think they know it all. That brashness stems partly from the natural exuberance of youth and partly from the general excellence of our institutions of higher education. I often find, however, a strange gap in that all-encompassing knowledge: an ignorance of basic grammar rules. That cause might be attributed to another dominant American trait: the desire to rebel. Grammar belongs to the hoary old days of junior high; it tries to confine your freedom of expression. Rules are made to be broken, right?

Throughout my twenties, when I was primarily a writer, I paid not the slightest attention to grammar. I knew all that stuff—because I basically knew everything. The very word conjured up the image of an older English teacher who walked with a slight stoop and had a comical formality in her elocution. I wasn’t like that. I was blazing new frontiers. I should add that I have since worked with authors who are much older but still retain the same vague loathing for those days of main stems and subordinate clauses.

Like a chameleon, we all change our skin to suit new circumstances. When I first joined publishing, I became a copy editor. That is the person below an editor, tasked with correcting a manuscript’s spelling and punctuation, primarily. Many authors hate these creatures. Alice Kahn famously remarked, “It is wonderful that our society can find a place for the criminally literal-minded.” While I have certainly seen extreme pettifogging, on more occasions than I would like to count, when I had to review the work of freelance copy editors, I was surprised by how often I agreed with them. 

What happened to my youthful dreams of freedom? Absolutely nothing. What I came to realize was that grammar rules are ever mutable. Although they can be applied rigidly, they were (and are) developed in the first place as a means to enable people to communicate effectively with others. Why should you use active verbs? Because they most effectively propel your sentence forward. Why should you avoid adverbs? Because you should first examine the sentence to see if you can employ a stronger active verb. All of these tiny calculations, which I make as a matter of course as I’m line editing, are a wonderful aid in trying to help writers get the maximum force out of every sentence. In the case of grammar, knowledge truly will set you free.

Exercise: How well do you know your grammar? When was the last time you looked at a grammar book? When was the last time you looked at Strunk and White? Rather than regarding grammar as a set of rules, you can take their principles as a roadmap as you become more fluent in your writing. Sure, rules are made to be broken, but you should know what they are first. What you may find is that you’ve been following many of the “rules” of grammar all along.

“Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’. Otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”
—C. S. Lewis

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


How Serious Are You?

When I talk to an author about his manuscript,  he often will apologize for the type of book he’s writing. I don’t know why he feels he has to do that with me, since my website is dominated by commercial titles. My response to that author reflects a belief that I’ve felt for most of my career.

I don’t think writers set out to write a “literary book.” Every manuscript stems from an author’s concerted effort, and how gifted she is, and how educated she is, and how hard she works at her craft, determine where her book will be ranked along a spectrum. I have read plenty of books that are labeled “literary,” only to be disappointed by the author’s lack of vision. Yes, each sentence is precisely crafted, sparkling like a diamond, but the characters are fairly ordinary and their developmental arcs fairly low. What, exactly, am I supposed to be appreciating as someone who reads only “those types of books”?

My annoyance with cultural pretension extends to different books by the same writer. We all know that only one or a few books form the pinnacle of an author’s career. So what does that mean about the other works? For example, I love a few of Richard Ford's novels, but I found others to be disappointing. They did not change my opinion of his literary merits, because I, like most readers, know that an author will not write a masterpiece every time. Wouldn’t I have been better off reading a highly entertaining thriller rather than a literary writer who has been hitting the sauce too much these days?

Naturally, I like to edit books that are better written. My reading in my spare time is dominated by literary lights. Yet I firmly believe that writing is individual. If your book is reaching a certain audience, if your readers gain enjoyment or knowledge from what you’ve penned, what is wrong with that? Why are you worried about the clown who can so casually sit in judgment on that? Ask him how many books he has written.

The fact that you’ve gotten up all those mornings, kicked yourself during all those sessions to try harder, should be applauded. Forget about inhabiting some mythical literary heaven. Do what you can and enjoy yourself.

“We are always more anxious to be distinguished for a talent which we do not possess than to be praised for the fifteen which we do possess.”
—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Floating Icebergs

Because a novel is such a lengthy enterprise, it can agglomerate many stories, large and small. Most of the time these elements are background narratives and flashbacks. Each leads away from the main plot hopefully in a seamless fashion, inviting us down side alleys where we can explore one character or topic in greater detail. When we return to the main road, we can more richly appreciate what happens next.

Writing is a burrowing type of experience in general, and so it is not surprising to see such tangential forays expand and expand . . . and expand. In order to tell about a character’s past effectively, space is needed to provide the context in which the experience can be fully understood. For the neophyte writer, such ventures can turn into sinkholes. In pursuit of the one limited goal, the rest of the novel molders in neglect.

The problem is exacerbated by two factors. The first is the type of writing being employed. If an author writes at a level where most of a character’s focus is external—on what is happening—an exploration of background becomes just another action scene, only occurring in the past. Showing a character trait in action takes longer than showing it through the narrative voice. An entire sequence has to be set up in order to show the character’s reactions. So a demonstration of PTSD in Iraq might take 40 pages.

The second factor is the urgency demanded by the present-day plot. If a novel relies on suspense to generate momentum, time spent away from building the main plot results in a flattening of the suspense. Whatever happened before the segue loses its potency as the pages pass, until it is a dull roar when the author returns to the main story. The interpolation can be particularly wounding if it is placed later on. If you spend 100 pages in the past (Part 4, say), the reader will be starting from zero as you ramp up the sequence leading to the climax.

When you have several large chunks of such material, you have to ask yourself: is the character at the heart of the enterprise worth all the effort? If the hero is a martial arts expert whose skills play an integral role in the drama, a look backward to China and temples with upturned-corner roofs might well be rewarding for the reader. If the unfortunate soldier with PTSD is a minor character, you probably should keep it in a separate computer file.

Exercise: When making the deliberation, keep in mind that you likely will be writing another book. The soldier’s story might be perfect if they became an important character in a future book. The calculus is always: how much length vs. how much importance. Think of it this way: with the new book, you already have a 40-page head start.

“You drown not by falling into a river, but by staying submerged in it.”
—Paulo Coelho

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Divine Preposition

A preposition is used so naturally that we often don’t stop to reflect on how it can best impact a sentence. The words tumble out on the page, and if the sentence has the right cadence, we check it off: okay, that one is good. Because a prepositional phrase is so flexible, we tend to forget that it has only two uses: as an adjective or adverb. That places it well down the list in terms of its power to drive a sentence.

That’s why stringing together a bunch of prepositional phrases weakens your prose. I commonly see sentences with three or four prepositional phrases in a row, often encumbered further with adjectives and adverbs. Here’s an elaboration of the sentence above: “A preposition must be placed well down the list of parts of speech in terms of its power to drive a sentence.” Near the beginning of the sentence is the poor verb, place, which is then weighed down with phrase after phrase. The effect is like a skimming stone that finally sinks into the water. Please, give me another verb!

Another misuse I see often stems from the author’s not understanding that a prepositional phrase is both an adjective and an adverb. Here’s an example: “Tall, muscled and with a booming voice, he called out to us.” That construction intuitively feels clunky because of the lack of parallel construction: tall and muscled are single words. The real problem, though, is that with a booming voice functions as an adverb. It shouldn’t be in that string at all. Try this: “Tall, muscled, he called out to us in a booming voice.”  Now the prepositional phrase is clearly modifying the verb.

You might also want to consider where it is placed in terms of its power to set the table for what follows. I usually correct this in if/then sentences. Here’s an illustration: “She came immediately to the basement after a call from Stephanie.” That construction doesn’t feel right, especially the immediately. Immediately because of what? The if condition is buried at the end of the sentence. So it needs to move up front: “After a call from Stephanie, she came immediately to the basement.”

The basic problem is that a prepositional phrase is so useful, our eyes glide right over it. Just about every sentence in this post contains one, and I didn’t even notice. Yet they can gum up sentences when they’re not placed correctly, so make sure that string of words isn’t sapping the power of the verb.

Example: One egregious mistake that has become commonplace in business writing is placing the subject of the sentence in a prepositional phrase. “This version allows for James to pursue . . .” Please, think about which words should be in the prepositional phrase. Could James assume his right position? “In this version, James could pursue . . .”

“In writing you work toward a result you won’t see for years, and can’t be sure you’ll ever see. It takes stamina and self-mastery and faith.”
—Tobias Wolff

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Connecting the Outlier

A novel uses multiple plot lines for a number of purposes. A subplot might provide periodic breaks in the main plot’s momentum to keep a reader hanging in suspense at the end of chapters. It might contain a principal character whose influence becomes important later. However unaligned the plot lines are as the book develops, readers expect that they will converge at some point.

What happens, though, if one plot line seems irrelevant or, worse, less engaging than the other? The lead character of the plot line might be fully in command of its unfolding events. As the book develops, readers clearly see how it connects to the main story. Yet every time we turn to it, the reading feels like a chore. It’s just not as interesting.

One way to enhance it is obvious: change its plot events to become more exciting. Is that always the right course, though? If the events become too interesting, they will distract from the drive of the main plot. A better choice may be changing the main supporting character in the subplot. In most cases, you can’t change the main character, because they are playing a designated role. Often, that is the President or other leading light whose main purpose is to increase the stakes of the main plot. A supporting character does not have that burden, which makes their purpose more flexible.

The change in character offers many choices, depending on how you want to make the plot line merge with the main plot. What would most effectively accomplish the goal? A strong link to a character in the main plot, either on the good or villainous side. A go-between, if you will. For instance, Karen is not afraid to speak her mind to the President, but she also has an itch for Lee, the leader of the main plot, dating back to college. Even better, she is secretly working with Murgatroyd on their devilish designs.

Since such an addition means changing the purpose of the subplot’s chief supporting character, that will likely entail writing entirely new subplot scenes. But is that really a problem? The subplot is dull now. What you will find is that because you know how the new supporting character connects with the main plot, the direction of the subplot will change so that its interplay with the main plot is stronger. Now the reader turns to the subplot with a heightened awareness that somehow, pretty soon, its relevance to the main story will be revealed.

Exercise: It is important in choosing the right supporting character that they create conflict within the subplot. That is still where they will be spending the most time. You can alter the topics that are being fought over to tilt toward the main plot, however obliquely, or position the character—say, as a tech whiz when the main plot is tech-oriented—so the connection is implicit.

“All great artists draw from the same resource: the human heart, which tells us that we are all more alike than we are unalike.”
—Maya Angelou

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Persistence Pays Off

Writing is like music in the composer’s ability to use motifs to gain a cumulative effect. The same structure employed in a symphony—introducing an idea and then running through variations—can be employed by novelists. That is an important lesson to learn because writing is episodic by nature. A chunk of work gets done in a day, and an author moves on to the next chunk.

The way to use this tool is straightforward if you know what you are looking for. You can start by examining what your protagonist does over the course of the book. What are the major themes? Let’s say, for a running example, that a young man falls in love with a young woman. While his troth is true, he has competing traits that many of us have, among them inability to commit, alcohol or drug abuse, or a consuming desire to get ahead.

A character’s failure to get out of their own way is found in many novels. Yet you don’t have to be an exceptionally insightful writer in order to keep turning that prism in the light and finding new instances to mark the failure. You merely need to have the character reflect, as the novel’s events unfold, how the failure is playing out during the different stages.

Returning to our swain, let’s assume that a breakup in the relationship was caused by one night of excessive drinking. The hero now will spend the rest of the novel working his way back to his true love. Perhaps during one stage he swears off drinking, even if he falls off the wagon a time or two. He retains the reader’s sympathy because he’s at least trying. All the time he keeps thinking of getting her back. Yet when he returns to her house—knowing she won’t talk to him but he just wants to see her—she steps out of a car with another guy, maybe even his best friend. That sends him on a downward spiral. You record his feelings about her during that stage. Maybe he becomes so morose, he loses his job. Now his love for her has become poisoned by having too much time to think about her. He might go off on a bender and end up killing himself or nearly so. How is that young romance looking now?

You don’t have to plumb a character’s innermost soul if you’re halfway proficient at plotting. You just have to stay on task. In the swain’s case, his true love wasn’t a one-time deal back in the early pages of the book. Through progression, she becomes an embodiment of why he’s a failure.

Exercise: If you have already completed a draft, review it with an eye only for your protagonist’s top points. What are you stressing consistently? Once you see certain patterns, review the plot events. Could you line them up so that they tell a story in stages?

“If there were only one truth, you couldn't paint a hundred canvases on the same theme.”
—Pablo Picasso

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Beauty of Bridges

In nonfiction writing, an individual topic may spill out seamlessly. You know the content, the order in which the constituent pieces will go, and examples that prove the point. Yet when that stream of words plays out, you have only so many words, or pages of words. It’s time to move on to the next topic.

The process is repeated, emerging in some rough order and filled out as much as your research allows. While a topic may be strongly related to the one that preceded it, that isn’t often the case. If you have a lot of topics, as is the case in almost all book-length works, the writing can start to seem choppy. Yet the topics—or blocks of words—are not enough to fill out a chapter. So another type of separation besides a chapter break is needed.

One common solution is a subheading, the boldfaced words that in a phrase summarize the topic that follows. Yet this break is fairly pronounced. It is a road sign, saying “Turn this way.” If you use too many subheadings in a chapter, the reading will be even more choppy.

If you have similarity with topics, or if the topics are aspects of the chapter’s overall subject, you may find that a text bridge does an admirable job of linking up topics. The bridge can be as short as a sentence, but readers don’t mind transitions that are a short paragraph or longer, depending on how dissimilar the topics are. You don’t want to fill the book with fluff, but bridges can be informative at the same time they accomplish their main duty.

That’s because a bridge involves pulling back the camera lens of narration. Topic A and Topic B are specific, and you’re trying to find common ground between them. If you are writing about war, say, a nighttime encounter with an Afghani in an elevator might precede a sudden explosion the next dawn that draws out the troops. They are not similar in subject matter, so you look for like features at a higher level. An author might write a bridge like “The anxiety about unexpected terror was unending.”

You can also make all the bridges in a chapter pick up a common theme. Each time you turn to a new topic, the same thought is echoed. To extend the war example, the theme might be: all sorts of shadows lurked in that city. Each time you write about a new incident, you introduce it with thematic material. The reader is anchored by the repeated motif, and off you go.

Exercise: To solidify a bridge, you can review Topic A and Topic B to see if you can plant any echoes of the higher-level concern you have included in the bridge. That can include the same or closely related words, such as “unexpectedly” or terms like “I was nervous.” The reader remembers the hint, and that helps make the reading experience seamless.

“We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”   
—Isaac Newton

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


How Far Does Compassion Go?

They say real life is stranger than fiction, but that isn’t true most of the time. Novels are filled with events that are larger than life. In conjunction with these entertaining scenarios is the heightened reaction by the reader, because the author has curated the takeaways from all the factors involved in the affairs. This refinement process is a given, part of the unspoken compact between writer and reader.

It is also the reason the real-life events don’t have the same sort of emotional impact in a novel. A wrongful accusation of murder, for example, is an outrage to our moral sense. To a certain extent that flush of feeling is the same whether you read about it in a news report or a novel. Yet only in exceptional cases does a reader remain engaged in the real-life event. It is all too easily replaced by the next day’s outrages.

A similar process will happen in a novel if an author uses the wrong tools. To extend the example, what are the repercussions of the accusations? As the ripples spread outward, the power of the original event becomes diffused. Let’s say the novel starts to cover the political ramifications, placing the accused in that context. Then the novel may turn into a tale of those in power against those who aren’t. The accused person in this case may end up being a sideshow—oh, isn’t that just too bad?

Male authors are usually the ones who don’t understand that fictionalizing real events must go beyond animating puppets about whom biographical information is known. I know the mind-set well: I love researching topics, imagining what so-and-so must have been like. Yet I have also learned that curiosity about exploring a topic does not translate into a riveting tale about it. A tale takes concentrated effort of a novelist’s craft.

The advantage of a novel is its ability to telescope the reader’s concern. Within a public case resides a private drama that led to the incident. A novel does not have to be deterministic in order to lay out a background in which the perpetrator inevitably reached their terrible decision. Within that background are usually only a few telling memories that echo in the character’s mind over and over. Only a few people tower in their thoughts. Extending that idea toward the near past, just before the book opened, the character has only a few others that mean so much, the relationship is charged.

Exercise: In research usually a few dominant personalities emerged around the person being highlighted. If there is a historical record of abuse, say, that can be dramatized. Yet because so many private relationships have left no mark, you can make up what you want those relationships to be. If you craft them the right way, they will build all during the novel.

“The intelligence of that creature known as a crowd is the square root of the number of people in it.”
―Terry Pratchett

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.