One of the sins that will elicit rejection of a manuscript submission is a narrative technique known as “head hopping.” This occurs when an author is writing in the third-person voice, and within the same scene the point of view switches from one character to another. Writers may understandably be confused. When you use the third-person voice, that allows you to write from multiple points of view, right? What’s more, there are plenty of famous novels in which such switches occur. So why is it okay for those writers and not me?

One distinction is the difference between a truly omniscient voice and an approach known as third-person limited. In the former, the author retains the right to narrate certain material from a point of view that transcends what any one character could know. In the latter, scenes are written from a certain slant, usually that of the protagonist. Just as in a first-person narrative, the reader is privy to that character’s thoughts, opinions, and the like.

This is the way most inexperienced authors write. They realize that plot events alone do not make a reader care enough about a story. In their stumbling-forward fashion they try to add depth to the characters, and one of the easiest ways to achieve that is adopting a limited point of view. The problem for them is that when they jump from one character’s mind to another, they are passing from third-person limited into an omniscient narrative.

In simple terms, the violation stems from the reader’s involvement in the character. When they are plucked out of that point of view, the effect is disorienting. You were telling the reader to identify with the character, and switching points of view creates a feeling of distance.

So why are those famous writers allowed to pull it off? The key difference is the intensity of the narrative attack all the way through. A skilled writer not only records what I call surface thoughts—a character’s reaction to a plot event that is happening or just happened—but an entire train of thoughts based on the character’s long history and their intimate feelings about an entire world they are experiencing. Before a sentence is written, the author has created in their own mind a full range of contingencies. That can include, on one hand, knowledge of a family’s history dating back to the Russian Pale in the 1880s, or the acts of prejudice endured by a black community in one specific locale. The authors do their homework, in other words, so that what is written rings true all the way down to the character’s bones.

Exercise: If you are still learning how to write, do not make the mistake of pulling back to the safe shores of the omniscient voice. That will only increase the distance between you and your characters. You should force yourself to write each scene from only one point of view. That way you will begin to plumb the depths of the authors you admire.

“Though leaves are many, the root is one.”
—William Butler Yeats

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Breaking the Law

One of the major goals in plotting a novel is righting a wrong. The nature of the wrong comes in many guises, and the steps toward remediating it may be as complicated as an author can concoct. Underneath all of the machinations, though, lies the principle of fairness. The meek shall inherit the earth writ large.

Aiding the author’s efforts is the moral code that readers bring to a book. One salient truth that has emerged amid the decline of religious belief is that social norms and peer pressure exert a powerful ethical force. You need look no further than the acceptance of mask wearing in our maverick culture: a lot of it is driven by what the people around us are doing.

That is why a character committing a crime has different levels of impact. If the person is a known villain, each new murder may not juice up the tension more. The exact opposite could happen, because the crimes become numbing. An act of evil committed by a good person, by contrast, can inject a tidal wave of uneasiness into the proceedings.

At its base is the worry of getting caught, which we have all felt when committing a petty larceny of some sort. Never mind the shame. A life can be ruined by exposure, depending on the severity of the crime, and if we have come to identify with the character, it is our life that may be ruined. Or at the very least, our enjoyment of following that character.

The good character that commits a crime becomes charged with danger. That makes them more alluring, because we read books in part in order to dare to do things vicariously that we would not attempt in our real, boring life. The attraction to what has turned wild is combined with the character’s other qualities, the good side that assures us that the criminal behavior can be rectified.

Attention needs to be paid to when is the crime committed. If it occurs early on, the book’s calculus is changed for the remaining hundreds of pages. First off, without enough circumstances forcing characters to commit a crime, the reader wonders how good they really are. Can I trust this person can, or wants to, turn things around? If the crime is committed later, it may be that the character has to fight back against the evil that has sprung up around them. Second, the character is on the run, so to speak, from that moment on, and is the book ready to free them from the familiar bounds of their loved ones or friends? Being a fugitive has plenty of tension, but how many near escapes can they undergo before the plot gambit becomes tiresome?

Exercise: When choosing a crime, try to pick one that suits the character. A likable person who tends to be devious may even earn laughs if they embezzle company funds. Or you can use contrast. A mild-mannered person who commits a horrific murder truly shocks us.

“One way to make sure crime doesn't pay would be to let the government run it.”
—Ronald Reagan

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Replenish, Not Recap

Over the years I have edited dozens of true-crime narratives, and since certain issues crop up repeatedly, I’d like to address one of them here. This is the assumption that a courtroom trial provides a stirring climax to all that has gone before. The logic behind this premise is hard to fault. A courtroom does provide a setting in which lawyers can produce strong conflict and surprising turns.

The concept extends only so far, however. What if you have an open-and-shut case in which the only outcome held in suspense is whether the accused receives the death sentence or not? No matter how much the defense lawyer blusters, we as readers know from the outset that the culprit will be found guilty. If the book prolongs the coverage of a lost cause, the likely outcome is reader irritation.

You have to consider how the different phases of the book stack up against each other. Presumably the criminal’s spree and the law enforcement efforts to catch him produced a great deal of excitement. If the trial consists largely of rehashing the events of the spree, you are committing a grave sin: writing secondhand narrative about what the reader has already experienced firsthand. The result is boredom.

How do you avoid this? Think in terms of fresh territory. The events of the crime can be summarized quickly at the trial. All you focus on is the new material that is brought up in court. For one possibility, a creative defense lawyer can produce inventive means to protect her client. The most common tactic is hiring an expert witness whose testimony can be used to create doubt in the jurors’ minds or to mitigate the sentence. A psychological analysis, for example, can produce mental factors that point to impaired judgment at the time of committing the crime(s). Readers tend to dislike expert witnesses, particularly since many are academic in their approach and arrogant when confronted during cross-examination.

Now you have the reader rooting against this witness—and that’s the sort of emotional engagement you want. If you jump from island to island of new material during the course of a trial, you will produce a building climax. Your reader will not put down the book long before the sentence is pronounced, even if we all know what it is. 

Exercise: The mind of a criminal is often impervious to external study. In this case the key question the reader wants to know—why did he do it?—cannot be  answered. Let’s say you have no confession, no diary, no comments by nearest and dearest. If you have psychological testimony during the trial, though, you can employ that—not at the trial, but while the felon is engaged in creating mayhem—what he’s thinking as he acts. Just pick out the relevant pieces of testimony and move it forward in the book. The reader may not know exactly why he did it, but at least you have provided some indicators.

“The essence of drama is that man cannot walk away from the consequences of his own deeds.”
—Harold Hayes

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Bracket Both Ends

As the most flexible mark of punctuation, the comma is the one used most variably. Some authors like lots of them, not only for strict grammar purposes but for frequent emphasis as well. Some writers seem to hate them, as many readers left adrift in a roving sentence can attest. One aspect of them is misused by authors of all stripes. That is the failure to put commas at both ends of a word or phrase that is not a necessary part of a sentence.

The most common mistake occurs with appositives. In simplest form they are two nouns that serve the same function in a sentence. An example is “the writer Colson Whitehead.” The error occurs when one of the nouns is nonrestrictive. That term also seems frightening until you consider what it means. A restrictive word or clause means that it is necessary to understanding the sentence. We wouldn’t know what writer you are referring to until you add Colson Whitehead. But a nonrestrictive word or clause is merely an addition. “My mother, Claudine, didn’t like mysteries.” I have only one mother, so I must bracket off her name, front and back, because the sentence could just as easily read: “My mother didn’t like mysteries.”

When the purview is expanded to clauses, the neglect of starting and ending commas can cause reader to blunder through a sentence. “The arbor, where the trees form a corridor of leaning timbers, like the nave of a cathedral, is one of the charming views at Monticello.” Let’s take out the comma after “arbor” and see what happens. “The arbor where the trees form a corridor of leaning timbers, like the nave of a cathedral, is one of the charming views at Monticello.” The meaning of the sentence has changed, because now the phrase “where the trees form a corridor of leaning timbers” is restrictive. We are instructed to seek out that arbor. But what if we already know the arbor being referenced, because it was identified in the previous sentence? Now you are confusing the reader, because they are left to wonder if the two arbors in the two sentences are the same. You must bracket both ends. I know the arbor, and yes, what a delightful added attraction to it.

Grammar is very straightforward. You follow the rules so that everyone is on the same page. People understand what the heck you are talking about. And your editor can sleep at nights, knowing that clarity has prevailed.

Exercise: If you are confused, ask yourself two questions. First, is the word or phrase necessary to complete the sentence? If not, you probably should think about commas. Second, is the word or phrase necessary to identify the object in question? If it is, you don’t need a comma.

“People, unprotected by their roles, become isolated in beauty and intellect and illness and confusion.”
—Richard Avedon

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Writing Promo Copy

When the last draft is edited and you’re ready for your manuscript to be published, your job as a writer changes. You are no longer engaged in communing with your characters, or drawing up instructions in a nonfiction piece. You have to move into the arena of persuasion. That is, you must persuade potential readers that they should give your book a try.

The copy you write may appear in your query letter, or your dedicated website, or your Amazon page. I point out these different venues to open your eyes to the scope of this endeavor. Ad copy is not a book report. Do you think the copy writers for a pharmaceutical firm read the clinical details of a drug’s trials before the FDA approves it? Of course not. That stuff is too deep in the weeds; nobody would understand it.

Writers of novels in particular don’t understand that someone on the outside has no idea what’s going on in your book. A similar error in judgment underestimates a reader’s depth of experience. A browser who plucks a romance off the shelf has in all likelihood read dozens of romances. That potential buyer is measuring your back-cover copy against the copy of all those other books they liked. Dark-haired hunk: check. Smart and saucy heroine: check. Even worse, a writer may not comprehend that the writer of copy for romance covers has likely written copy for dozens of books. Do you think they haven’t discovered a pattern that sells?

No matter what type of book you’ve written, one method is to start by drawing up a list of your highlights. What are the most interesting and unique aspects of your book? In a novel, that list usually consists of the protagonist’s obstacles. Create a progression of the best five, so that the last ends in a question: how can that problem ever be resolved? The reader will just have to open the book to find out.

For writers of nonfiction, unique is more important. What does your book offer that no other book does? If it is a program that should be followed, why is your program different? If it is a narrative, what elements will the reader find most exotic? List features like: lots of studies, lots of charts, lots of quizzes.

When you write from list to copy, you’ll find that your writing is different from the prose in your book. A highlight is not organic. Neither is ad copy. It is designed to sell your product to a customer who can pick from a range of products.

Exercise: Read the copy on the back cover or inside flap of a book that you think is like yours. Don’t read the content. Pick out, in each sentence, what the highlight is. The rest is verbiage built around the selling point. Now think about your book. If you took the gist of each sentence of the copy you’re reading, could you draw up your own highlights?

“Don't let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”
—John R. Wooden

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


What Is Shiny

Despite weightier claims about the advancement of civilization, novels are read because they are entertaining. That description is not limited to the usual genre fare of romances, mysteries, and the like. Even literary novels need to intrigue the reader—through the characters’ observations, asides, or complex situations. “Would the reader know that?” should be a motto every author posts on their bulletin board.

If an author goes on too long explaining stuff, such as tech, or autobiographical information, the entertainment aspect is dulled. Part of what makes books sparkle is their constant infusions of new ideas. Everywhere you turn, look, here’s another rabbit out of my hat. Betcha didn’t know that.

Lest the serious reader pooh-pooh any such notion, I’ll point out that literary novels tend to have the most infusions of new ideas. Not only is a factoid introduced, but wrapped around the novel fact is the writer’s implicit attitude toward the fact. Infusing the revelation, for example, of a town’s secret cemetery for African American victims of violence is the observation that violent perpetrators always hide their crimes.* Outward shock at the notion of a secret cemetery is combined with insight into an American tradition, making for a doubleheader. No extra words are expended, because the attitude is baked into the telling.

That is why a novice writer cannot settle for what lies within their grasp, however wide or long that may be. Paraphrasing from a history book produces what often reads like a bastardized internet article. What’s more, I as the reader didn’t seek out the topic; it was foisted on me. So if you’re going to natter on and on about your precious discovery (I won’t even go into autobiographical minutia), you will have to forgive me for skimming ahead.

Being a showman carries the connotations you confer on it. You could bring the razzle-dazzle of plot twists, or you could delve into a simple conflict—between a teenage bookworm and a delinquent—to glean new meanings. You take a fact peculiar to a region and a time period, and think, “The reader won’t know that.” But then you take the time to place the fact in the context of the character’s personal life—that is, their inner life. The search need not require fantastic concentration. You can start by thinking of an analogous fact in your own life. How do you feel about that? Then take the next step: how would I feel about the fact if it played a role in my life?

Exercise: Once you have discovered a cool period fact, start asking questions. How does the character feel about it? Who in their family has used it, and what was the occasion? Once you have set forth a micro narrative in your own mind, hopefully writing it down on paper, you can then distill it to its essence. Maybe Auntie didn’t like that bee salve because it stained the collar of the expensive gown she wore to Mama’s wedding.

“When hope is not pinned wriggling onto a shiny image or expectation, it sometimes floats forth and opens.”
—Anne Lamott

*The root idea for the example can be found in Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Boys.

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Story Arc

Video clips that show highway traffic in fast motion approximate the way our lives go. We take in more and thirst for more sensations. When you think that the human being is bombarded by millions of atomic particles thrown off by the expanding universe every second, it is a wonder we live in such a linear civilization. I don’t know if most people are taming chaos, but it is easy to see how the analogy is drawn.

The task of the writer is to make sense out of this frantic activity. Most of us keep a constant lookout for the novel event, something we have not experienced ad nauseam. We court danger, depending on our appetite, and danger infrequently comes to us, in a fall, a highway accident, or a death. These occasions are the ones we deem worthy of recording.

One person’s idea of what is entertaining depends to a large degree on their ability to write about an event in a fresh way. That is why some memoirs rise above the rest. An author probes a subject that might strike most as tedious, and mines new insights that make us see it in an entirely new way. The more acute the perspective, the more banal a topic can be.

The great majority of writers do not possess this talent, which is why structure of the memoir becomes more valuable. A rambling assemblage of fond memories becomes wearying by its very length. What is the point? the reader starts to ask. That is one reason so many memoirs end up being fictionalized—in order to place the memories within a story’s progression. Because this happened, it led to that....

Rather than chronology, which is linear but also useless in terms of organizing like material, an author might ask: what is the point of this block of events in my life? That question can be raised every 20-25 pages. Okay, that stuff happened: what is, in business parlance, the take-away? When regarded in this light, the most basic template might be based on significant rites of passage: graduation from high school and college, marriage, birth of first child, first mortgage, etc. 

When a series of events is corralled in this fashion, you can line up the events as building blocks toward that signal change. You’ll find it affects your interpretation of the smaller events—because you know where they are leading. Rather than an undifferentiated parade, you have a pilgrim’s progress.

Exercise: If you have already written reams of material, start by throwing out chronology. Look at the different events with an eye toward their thematic content: e.g., mischievous deeds leading to what outcome, romantic encounters leading to what right choice, etc.? The reader doesn’t care about looping back in time, so why are you writing in a straight line?

“To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.”
—Emily Dickinson

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Keeping Track

Finishing a draft of a novel is a time to celebrate, but it can also be a point at which to reevaluate. A read-through of the book is done, and certain plot threads that might have winked at the edge of your consciousness emerge in clearer relief. You realize, for instance, that your two lead characters don’t have the sexual chemistry you had intended. They’re so serious about their feats of derring-do, or separated for such a long stretch of the book, that any initial feints in that direction wither because of neglect.

Let's say the verdict is to rectify the problem. To illustrate, I’ll continue with the example of added sexual frisson. Yes, more sizzle, you decide. You calibrate the amount you want: sexy but no full-blown sex scenes, no pledges of troth. Just lots of little encounters that show a deepening interest to explore what might lie between the sheets at a later date.

That resolve is at the top of your mind as you start the revision process. Through the first 30 or 40 pages you see a few places to add some juice. But then life gets in the way, so to speak. As you peruse each page, looking for places to improve, you inevitably find sentences that need to be spruced up. Or, you realize a clue needs more follow-up, and you jump ahead to the relevant scenes to add that element. The freaking manuscript is so huge, and there are so many problems. You become the manic artist dabbing all over the place. And guess what? You stop finding places to add sexual tension.

Rather than resign yourself to the fact that it just isn’t working out, because your characters are busy people, you can become systematic. You wanted minor arousal, right? The mechanics of inserting like material is not difficult when you single out that objective and then apply elbow grease.

Start by looking solely at the scenes where the couple is together. Instead of getting caught up in the building sweep of the scenes’ events, look for the quiet moments, the spaces in between the action. Drop in a sentence or two. Often these interstices are found toward the beginning of a scene, before the latest plot development has everyone scrambling.

You can be even more effective if you devise beforehand how you are going to escalate the sexual tension. You know how the game goes, get to first base, then to second base, etc. That principle applies even on a lesser level. First he is caught looking. Then they bump in a tight space. Write out a list of them, raising the ante each time, including the drunken spontaneous kiss. Now go hunting.

Exercise: Since most of this post has been an exercise, I’ll add one further step. Once you add an insertion, stop to think to yourself: what has changed because of this step? Your guy isn’t going to keep getting caught looking, unless you want him to be a creep. Where does he go from there?

“There is a fine line between serendipity and stalking.”
—David Coleman

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All right reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.