Lacking Philosophy

An interesting question came out of a book club last week: what is the difference between commercial, mid-list, and literary fiction? The basic premise is easy enough to explain. The more the book is concerned with exterior events, the more commercial it is. That’s why a good thriller, for instance, contains lots of plot twists. The more the narrator’s thoughts predominate, the more literary it is.

Yet a deeper question underlies the distinction: should you try to be literary just because those are the types of novels you enjoy reading? I tend to sound a note of caution on this subject, for several reasons. The first is any person’s ability to make deeper sense of our existence. Such thinking goes beyond an older person’s accumulation, over a lifetime of experiences, of knowledge about how the world works. I am older, and I don’t believe I have ever elicited someone dropping their jaw about a profound remark I’ve made. Most forms of wisdom are practical, not of the sort that makes you remember a novel.

The second reason is also commonplace: a writer’s belief that they are special and thus have special things to tell the rest of us. I see this with virtually every lawyer-cum-writer I have ever read, to give an example of this cocksure quality. The fact is, success makes a person regard the world as their oyster—when that success may be based on an entirely plebeian advantage, such as selling buttons with a new number of holes. Using a novel as a soapbox does not mean it achieves more depth, but merely self-satisfaction.

A third addresses a quality that most writers would give their eye teeth for. That is the ability to write limpid prose. We all love to read books whose words flow effortlessly, that contain terrific metaphors and juxtapositions. I always think of John Updike in this regard: how could his every sentence have such clarity? In this province of authors lies most literary lights. They flat-out have more talent purely at writing, whether taught or bred in the bone. Yet many of these authors write mostly second-rate books. The mill churns as a career winds on, and shallow books like Updike’s Brazil are the outcome. Perfect pitch but where’s the soul?

Many young writers bemoan their lack of true hardship in their childhoods, and as trite as that reasoning is—just write if you’re going to do the damned thing—it contains a kernel of truth. Many good writers are deranged. They are damaged human beings. The ability to go beyond and find a truth that truly shocks us requires the journey. How did you get so whacked out you went there? That willingness to discover belongs mainly to what the I Ching hexagram would call: Youthful Folly. It’s no wonder that writers become alcoholics. They spend the rest of their lives trying to recapture the brilliance of a world they could still mold.

“It was one of those evenings when men feel that truth, goodness and beauty are one. In the morning, when they commit their discovery to paper, when others read it written there, it looks wholly ridiculous.”
—Aldous Huxley

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Picking a Pursuit

You have finished the first draft. You started off the novel with an idea, and as the grand notion became grounded on the page, characters with personalities you recognized sprang forth and engaged in a series of scenes that led in sometimes surprising directions. As you read it over, though, you find that a scene that seemed so terrific when you were in the weeds of it seems a little dull and clich├ęd now. The formless idea did take a shape, but what exactly do you have?

Agents and editors are going to ask you. Does it belong in a category, such as mystery, romance, or science fiction? If not, can you name two authors or books that would help them position the book in the general fiction market? A manuscript “written in the spirit of” is a very common phrase in a query letter. Books are not marketed exactly like categories of cereal in a supermarket, but without some direction to a reader as to what they’re purchasing, how is a publisher supposed to sell your book?

Luckily for authors who do not wish to be typecast, the pursuits of the different genres are based on a deeper storytelling truth. Any novel benefits from adding mystery. Any novel benefits from adding a romance. I’m not as sure about science fiction/fantasy, but elements of the genre have been added to quite a few books with success.

Rather than bemoaning a publisher’s desire for books that fit marketing slots, you might want to ask yourself: what, practically, can I do to make my book better? Here’s a tip. After I finish reading a manuscript, I often tell an author: you know, that Selena character. I know she isn’t in many scenes, but every time she shows up, she really sparkles. That is, when I see an author connecting to a character with such electricity, I say, “Give me more of that.”

You can employ the same method. As you’re reading your draft, what scenes crackle for you? Which characters give you that burn inside—I nailed that? You’re not a dope. You wrote an entire book. You can tell what you’re doing better. You just haven’t, because of some vague feeling that you don’t want to disturb the grand construct already written, decided to act upon that knowledge. Why not? You’re the one that is finding that you don’t know what you’ve got.

Exercise: Seeing the forest for the trees is a universal problem for authors. Yet you don’t have to “know” absolutely what needs to be done. As you review the manuscript , use a system of impressions. If you really like a scene, mark that “like.” If you’re not so sure, mark “maybe help.” If you’re not satisfied, mark “help.” When you’re done, look over the list. In which plot line, or attached to which character, do you see the most likes? Start writing more scenes to make what you’re doing well better.

“If you have a pre-conceived idea of the world, you edit information. When it leads you down a certain road, you don't challenge your own beliefs.”
—David Icke

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


How Do You Make an Impact?

When you consider the wide range of book types, you can’t be surprised that the modulations among characters and plotting and narration is so complex. When I read a novel by a literary author, I get caught up in the point of view—what the narrator is thinking—above all else. While narrative voice is vital to any novel, a genre or mid-list novel relies much less on it and more on what is happening outside the narrator’s head.

Once that is granted, the question then becomes: how does an author with less concentration—that inner voice—achieve the same level of satisfaction? I’ll leave out the obvious answer: tons of twists and exciting plot events. That’s because many authors don’t want to want to write a slam, bam, thank you ma’am book. They want meaning out of their characters.

This search for a middle ground came to mind because I recently read a mid-list book about South Africa, The Power of One. It must be autobiographical because the story jumps from one boyhood episode, however long, to another. If you chopped up its 500 pages into 80-page segments, you get the idea.

I found myself drawn to the longest section, in the middle, in which the boy develops several deep relationships, one with a professor and one with a black prisoner. I felt the book clicked on all cylinders. Yet then the book shifted to prep school, in a separate location, and ended up with a year of work, in another location still, before the boy enters college. I liked those parts okay, but I was reminded how much I liked the middle segment when the professor dies and the boy returns home for the funeral.

Why did I like that part so much? It had more continuity. Because the narrative focus is external—on events beyond the boy’s skin—what moved me was the depth of the relationships he built. The professor was like a father, and the author devoted a lot of time to building up his bond with the boy. The same with the black prisoner: he teaches the hero how to box, to stay cool amidst violence. With both the boy forms loyalties that exceed those with any others in those other parts.

What would have made me like that book more? More professor, more black prisoner. If those relationships could have been extended further, I would have enjoyed feeling those bonds to a greater degree. So maybe that’s the grail of the middle ground: focus on external  bonds when you can’t muster enough internal thoughts.

Exercise: Examine your draft with an eye toward the book’s major relationships. How many pages are you devoting to each one? How long, in terms of the book’s length, do they last? If one peters out (i.e., you’re not covering it live), what major relationship replaces it? Is that as compelling as the one you dropped?

“Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.”
—Helen Keller

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Busy, Busy

One camp of writers likes to pour out their words in a torrent. This style is not due to speed. Rather, these authors like to cram a lot of words into every sentence. I won’t guess the cause, such as loving their late 19th-century British literature course, but I do know the impulse adds a lot of verbiage. In numerous cases, more words seem to be added merely because a sentence doesn’t feel full enough.

The noodling is most apparent in cases where a phrase is gratuitous. Let’s take: “She decided she’d better get going. She opened up the suite’s door and stepped into the hallway.” Everyone knows you have to open a door to reach a hallway. In this case, we know that she is leaving. So “opened up the suite’s door and” can be skipped. It’s short and quick, I know, but all we need to know is: “She stepped into the hallway.”

Or look at a qualifying phrase that makes only apparent sense. “Trying to make good use of his time, Harold pulled his digital camera out of his fanny pack.” Isn’t it a common assumption that anyone tries to make the best use of their time?  Why is “Trying to make good use of his time” needed at all?

One type of addition involves clarification of material that in most cases is obvious. Let’s take the sentence: “With the proper dose, these pills will take the edge off.” That seems fine, until you consider that most readers assume that the proper dose is the amount a character will take. Don’t most of us read the label and take that dose? So it’s better to cut “With the proper dose.” Or look at: “She decided to stand up from the floor.” If the character is already indoors, what else would she be sitting on? There is no need for “from the floor.”

Or take even a two-word case:“He needed to earn the higher income from work that a big city provides.” As far as I’m aware, most people don’t move to big cities to earn income from any other source, like a trust fund. Most income is derived from work, so “from work” is not needed. Sure, it’s only two words, but when you add up sentence after sentence laden with them, that’s a lot of reading time wasted.

Exercise: A common villain in this puppet show involves a lead character’s eyes. For example, “He watched Kate as she rounded the corner.” You don’t need the character to watch unless they will immediately thereafter perform an act as a consequence of watching. If the character is the scene’s point of view, we assume he is watching. It’s just “Kate rounded the corner.”

“All that we know is nothing, we are merely crammed wastepaper baskets, unless we are in touch with that which laughs at all our knowing.”
—D. H. Lawrence

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Now and Then

When I am editing a manuscript, the most common correction I make by far is deleting or moving a comma. That’s because it is such a handy, flexible piece of punctuation. Although it has a number of strictly grammatical functions, such as setting off an appositive (“When I met Myles, the curator of the museum, I was told . . .”), it also can be used for emphasis. Some authors prefer using a lot of them, making the prose quite regimented, while others avoid them on principle, often to the reader’s cost. Comma usage can be altered by fads, such as the current one of placing a comma after the word “but.” (This curious construction, separating a conjunction from the phrase it is introducing, makes no sense at all.)

Some commas serve an idiomatic purpose, to echo the way we speak, and today I’m going to discuss two examples of this usage: now and then. These two adverbs that connote time have also been swept up in a comma fad. I frequently find a comma following them these days, even though an adverb usually is not bracketed off from the word it modifies. The common sense behind this principle is exemplified when you strip a sentence down to its simplest form: “I want to go now.” You wouldn’t think of writing that sentence: “I want to go, now.” You are merely expressing a desire to leave.

The confusion was created in the first place, I believe, by these adverbs’ alternate use as an interjection. That is an added word in a sentence that doesn’t fit within its structure; the most common of them is “well.” “Well, I never thought that would happen.” You can use “now” the same way. “Now, I never thought that would happen.” In this case, the word doesn’t fit in the sentence. You’re not saying that the person is thinking now. It’s an idiomatic expression, so it needs to be separated off.

The same with “then.” “So, you want to do that, then?” The word has nothing to do with when the action is performed. It’s just an expression, in this case indicating doubt about whether the statement being made is actually correct. Crazily, I come across manuscripts in which the usage is reversed. When “now” is used as an interjection, it does not have a comma; when used as a temporal adverb, it does have a comma. Whatever happened to that dusty grammar book?

Exercise: When an adverb begins a sentence, it often is bracketed off by a comma. “Practically, he knew the exercise was useless.” Yet that doesn’t apply to “now” and “then,” for the same reason a comma shouldn’t be used when they are placed elsewhere in a sentence. When you add the comma, you are making now or then an interjection.

“I just want to live happily ever after, every now and then.”
—Jimmy Buffett

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.



The playing of music has a valuable principle that more authors might want to adopt. That is the way notes are built toward a resolution. The development can be as simple as playing a discordant chord before a major chord, and can be as complex as devising entire movements within a symphony. Governing all of the flows of the emerging notes is the idea that they are leading to a goal.

Writing has the same objective, no matter how many interesting asides and digressions a novel contains. What do you want from a scene, or a chapter, or a part? I read so many scenes whose objective seems to be capturing what really happened that day in high school, or happened to a friend that day. While the writing may be descriptive, or sharp-eyed, or funny, I can be left wondering: underlying this barrage of words, what is the point? Why did you take me here?

The confluence of story with what I’ll call “fictional reporting” becomes more evident when set pieces are lined up in a row. As an editor, I take notes at the end of every scene. What, in a sentence or two, happened? Part of the reason is so I have a diagram for future use. But the practice also allows me to see where the narrative becomes distracted.

Not all incidents have to be linear. The pleasure in reading is derived in part from the reader inferring from the writing what is meant. Yet when the narrative becomes unbalanced—too many disparate scenes, not enough plot progress—the reader can lose the thread. Again, looking at music it is easy to see why a bout of improvisation leads, after a certain number of measures, back to the song’s theme. If it didn’t, a jazz tune, say, would spiral into a number of disconnected ideas that trail off to . . . silence.

One other factor to consider when planning a book’s sequence is how impregnable words already written can be. That is, once you have a draft written, you naturally look for the goodness in what you’ve composed. You’re less inclined to make changes because, at the sentence-by-sentence level at which you’re reading, the flow seems to work.

You’re better off composing notes to outline basically what you mean to have happen in the next chapter. Before you write them, you’re better off reviewing the last chapter to make sure you know what you’re building from. Then bouts of discontinuous narrative will be bound by what can reasonably be expected to happen next.

Exercise: After you have written 50 pages, go back to the beginning of that section and read it through. Part of the problem is the fact that you’re not reviewing in long enough blocks to see the larger ebbs and flows. That way you can make a number of mid-course corrections—or decide on new directions.

“If music be the food of love, play on.”
—William Shakespeare

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Mythical Reader

The reading public has been dragged into all sorts of discussions about how to make a book better. An author can claim to know their readers better than an agent, or editor, or publisher—who all then watch the book sink like a stone once released to such readers. More commonly, the process works the other way around: an author is advised by said publishing professionals what will sell a book to readers—and often the book still sinks like a stone.

By contrast, in my editing practice I have found that “the reader” is a very useful tool in enjoining an author to push themselves to greater efforts. That’s because an author is encased in a cocoon during the writing process. The made-up world gains definition in the author’s mind; characters start to develop beyond names on a page. That’s all fine, but the size of the cocoon is determined by both the writer’s ability and experience. When the author emerges from the gauzy sac, they often find that the reading public doesn’t care much for their butterfly.

I use the paradigm of “the reader” to inculcate better efforts. That’s because so many authors in my earlier years would respond to my suggestions as though I was speaking only for myself. I have had more than one author respond to my suggestions (balloons in the right-hand margin) with their own balloons—and not a single changed word on the page. They seem to think I inhabit my own cocoon, barking out my personal opinions as I poke my head out of my little hole to communicate with them.

That’s because criticism hurts. Writing is deeply personal. When I talk to an author for the first time, I hear so often: “You can say anything about the book you like. I want you to be honest with me.” Being the wily psychologist that any adviser must be in order to survive, I thereby take away the opposite meaning: this writer must be handled delicately.

“The reader” became the megaphone I use to shatter the illusion. Rather than “I don’t understand why,” I write,“The reader may not understand why . . .” a character performs or reacts to a plot event. Same point, but without the threat of a personal attack. Better yet, it helps to break through the writer’s self-absorption. They may think they don’t want to please anyone, that they’re just writing for themselves. But as the merest child sitting on their parent’s lap could tell you, writing is the art of touching someone.

Exercise: As you review the draft, keep asking yourself one question: would the reader I imagine would like my book understand why this is happening? If you’re not sure, you probably need to make the point clearer. Don’t worry about pellucid prose. Make sure, even if the reader has to work harder, that the point can be grasped.

“What is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men. That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care.”
—William Blake

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Invitation to Participate

As an editor, I have to search for ways to motivate authors to bring their characters fully to life. In the early stages of an edit I will try different tactics. On a large scale, I might suggest composing character sketches. On a granular level, I might edit one scene with a dozen prompts that say: What is the character feeling now? Authors have varying abilities to respond with anything that truly reveals character. So sometimes the editorial prism itself has to be altered in order to produce results. Here is one method that works.

Most authors understand that a unified point of view in the narration can produce greater personal depth. Simply being with a character more allows a reader to get to know them better. An author can use that principle to apportion how often a character rules the point of view in a scene. If a lead character does not control the point of view of a scene he is in, the scene can be rewritten to use his POV. If you do that for even a half dozen scenes, the reader is going to see things his way more often. 

A narrative that contains indirect quotations most likely indicates that the author is standing outside her own story. Unless your protagonist clearly has a distinctive voice, indirect quotes should be changed to dialogue. The immediacy can draw a reader to a character. The words are not cloaked any longer by the author reporting on the scene. They are given directly, the way words emerge from within all of us. As a plus, a reader can often imagine that she would say the same thing in that situation. I cannot tell you how many times a scene that seemed dead became sparked with personality after making this basic change.

Another technique is derived from the direct-dialogue principle. Words do not need to be spoken aloud to evince character. If a character has a thought that is almost exactly what he would say—“I wish that guy would go to hell”—you have penetrated inside the character’s mind. Many authors like to put these “quoted” thoughts in italic type, to set them off from the omniscient narration. The reader grasps the meaning, with the added benefit that he feels he is an insider as the action is occurring. Once an author becomes comfortable with this technique, the story can become filled with thoughts. Even better, the author can start to devise unspoken worries prior to a plot event that drive anticipation of what will happen.

Exercise: Review the text with a single goal in mind: I am going to invite the reader into the story. When you see a sentence that strikes you as bland, or too neutral, your first thought should be the lead character in the scene. Could I convey the idea through her point of view? The plot point is supposed to matter to her, not you.

“People know things and have a remarkable capacity to act in their individual immediate interests all the time.”
—Ta-Nehisi Coates

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.