Out with the Old

Revising a manuscript on a large scale involves calculations that can reach back to the very inception of the project. What is the story you’re trying to tell? Why do you think it is unique enough to attract a reader’s interest? Such basic questions are obscured by the volume of words you’ve already produced. Or, the fresh ideas you had after reading over the manuscript peter out as you wrestle with all the intricacies you created in each chapter.

What frequently happens during a revision is that you add minutia. A sentence here or there that fits in the interstices of the tightly knit scene you’ve already written. Those sentences are loaded with the new dramatic emphasis you want to add, but they are still merely sentences. How many sentences have you written in the entire manuscript? Now count up what you’ve added. Do you think that tiny proportion is going to mean that much?

When I read a manuscript for the first time, I stop at the end of every scene and write a sentence or so about what happened. I also write down what I’m feeling about the manuscript at that point. For instance, a note on page 50 might read: “The book still has no plot.” This shorthand approach serves as a checklist for me when I finish the book. Like anyone else, I end a book with only overarching impressions that swirl as nebulous matter in my head. Nebulous is rendered concrete by reviewing the notes—that is, breaking the ineffable into pieces.

That is the plane on which a large revision should begin. Not in the weeds of each chapter. Forget a single chapter for now. Look at your notes and check them for how a plot direction is unfolding. Let’s say Mitzi is attracted to Harold. What are the steps you’ve written? How do they build toward love? If the steps don’t appear in your notes, you have to ask yourself: am I being too subtle? Is the reader going to care if it’s so subtle? 

You’ll have to comb through the chapters and find out what you did to create a building progression. Add whatever you wrote to the notes (or create a new chart devoted only to that progression). When you’re finished, now look at the notes. Have you really made a dent on the reader?

When you edit that way, you don’t get entangled in your prose. You have placed the interface of your notes between you and the story. You’re on a level above the prose, where sweeping changes can be made. 

Exercise: Readers respond to actions a character takes. When you write revised pieces of scenes or entire scenes, start with the notes, not the manuscript. Yes, when you finish writing, you will have to make the old and new mesh. What you’ll find, because now you’re trying to fit in good bits of the old scene to the new scene, is that you can more readily throw out what you didn’t like. 

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”  —Elmore Leonard

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Problem with Safe

Carl Jung once said, “A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them,” and in no endeavor does that apply more than writing. As an independent editor, I review many manuscripts. I have different categories for them—limited writing, sloppy writing, formulaic writing—but the most disheartening is safe writing. Lest anyone think I’m being judgmental, I’ll relate a comment my best friend once told me about my own writing: “You’ll never be good until you let yourself go.” A few years after that, I gave up writing and became an editor.

I have long thought the three main ingredients of writing are talent, heart, and stamina. The first is vitally important, for two people can write about the same subject with wildly different impacts. I have been blessed to witness so many elegant turns of phrase, even in books that were mainly pedestrian. Yet clarity and/or deftness is more akin to sleight of hand than penetration. A financed education alone can yield pearls from swine. 

Heart is a more elusive driver of prose. Childhood poverty, whether caused by want or mayhem, and frequently both, has often proven the dictum about a rich man and the needle’s eye to heaven. The bereft among us have a stronger desire to shake off their demons. Yet unbridled passion is no predictor of writing greatness, since it is more likely evinced in motorcycle revs than art. Nor does letting go necessarily confer an entwined wreath, or heroin would be a writing elixir.

Neither of the two qualities above means much without persevering through the many hours spent alone with words. No one is chaining you to your desk, and if you don’t write for a week, no one will notice. Self-discipline is a great quality to have, but over the long run I believe the compulsion to write is fed by the heart. If you don’t have a need to communicate to others through writing, you may write one book and then find the second one just won’t come.

How willing are you to face dark swings of your heart that may alienate your lover, your family, your co-workers? Can you honestly say you have so much writing talent that taking the plunge is worth it? And consider this: most writers ride on tides of greatness. They may produce only one book that stirs the hearts of readers and critics. Yet if you turn away from chaos, even that one book is out of reach.

Exercise: For this post, I will label this as: Advice. If you want to make a go, give it five years. That happens most commonly with people who have just graduated from college. Only after such a long stretch of time, while watching everyone you know start making progress with their careers, will you be able to make an honest assessment. Are you linking up with your soul or your ego?

“Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.”  —William S. Burroughs

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Selling a Seller

The beginning section of a nonfiction proposal is called an Overview.* Its function is to attract an acquisitions editor’s interest in a book. If the Overview does not do that job, they may not bother to read the other sections. They review hundreds of proposals a year, after all, and their time is valuable.

A number of authors I have edited regard this opening section as a descriptive exercise. They provide details from their chosen field, such as cardiology, as a way to show off their knowledge. Or, they give these details to show that the general public is interested in what they plan to write about in the book. This professional insider’s meandering can go on for pages, as the different topics of interest are displayed in what the author feels is a warm, welcoming style.

Now let’s return to that acquisitions editor. Most of the time, they specialize in a particular field of nonfiction. It is very likely that they know a great deal about cardiology, say. They may have taken pre-med courses in college. What they want to know is: why is your book a valuable addition to the field?

Journalists know that they have to grab a reader’s attention with the lead paragraph. That’s the same way you should approach the Overview. Assume that the editor has no patience. The first paragraph can be descriptive, setting the stage, but you better put forth a selling point for your book before the paragraph ends. The next paragraph had better contain a second selling point and hopefully a couple. What is new and different about your book? Why should I read your book rather than the already published books on the same subject?

If you have achieved a degree of fame, or have written other books, you should blazon your credentials on that first page. The editor needs to know that you are an expert in your subject. If you are a chiropractor, you can’t call yourself a doctor—because they will know right away. They are actively looking for your creds, because down the road, the reader will too. If you’re not an M.D., why should I listen to your medical advice?

Before you reach the bottom of the page, you should have made your pitch. You can go on for another few pages. You can give a paragraph-by-paragraph summary of the chapters’ main points. But first the battle must be won on page 1. You list your best selling points in the hope the editor will bother to turn the page. 

Exercise: Draw up a list of points that you know no other trade book contains. Hopefully, they are new and exciting. Pick the best of the lot and organize your opening page around them. If you are a doctor, don’t assume that editors are mewling children like your patients. They are on top of their game, and in this case that game is: proposals.

“No crime is so great as daring to excel.”

—Winston Churchill

*A proposal can also start with a brief section called a Concept Statement, and the Overview follows.

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Pick and Choose

When authors think of how to lay out their novel, the most common structural technique chosen is chronology. That is the way the story appears to them: it starts here, goes through these obstacles, and culminates at this logical high point of past events. A skilled novelist may operate that way, but because they immerse the reader in whichever character’s head they choose, they know that as long as the reader is content following a narrative string, the structure can feature events out of order.

In this regard it is useful to study the configuration of Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry. While linear time is followed to a large degree, emphasis is placed on what part of the lead character’s past should be revealed for the purpose of dramatic emphasis. The fact that he is only 33 when he leaves his young family and careens through back alleys in Spain is not revealed until well into the novel, after many plot events present and past have already been put forth. The author wishes to show at that point in the novel how truly damaged the character is. As the reader you already know so much and you’re left wondering: really, you gave up everything you had going for you at age 33? It helps to explain his present existential torpor by a quantum leap.

You can employ discontinuity for dramatic effect for other characters as well. How do they fit into the hero’s life? What are the signal events of their association? Which one really slays the protagonist? When you start thinking in terms of emotional valence, the timing of a revelation becomes a matter of when dropping the trapdoor will cast everything that has come before in a stark new light.

An important consideration is how the developmental arc is progressing in the present-day plot. If that plot line is somewhat static, as more modern plots are, then your arrangement of past events becomes an equivalent or even more dynamic force driving our understanding of the lead character. In this setup, a good deal of development can be placed earlier in the book, establishing a status quo that past events then can enhance or dismantle step by step. You choose when to deliver a telling blow—it just may not belong in the present.

Exercise: If you have already written a draft in chronological order, you can chop it up. Start by composing a chart of the plot events and then assign dramatic value to each one. The ones that hit the hardest may not be the later ones. In that case, bend your narrative so that the revelation, say, that the protagonist accidentally killed his father as a child stands on the height of all of the other material you have built beforehand. 

“The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” 

—Oscar Wilde

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.



Staying on Track

Many authors belong to a book group, for a number of reasons. One is a love for reading books, which often predates writing, but another is to listen to others’ reactions to a book that you all read. Emerging from the bubble of your take on a book can be an enlightening experience, sometimes a rude awakening. You want to know how different people felt, though, because a number of issues that are raised are germane to what you’re writing.

A common problem of a book discussion is wandering onto topics unrelated to the book at hand. Most people don’t understand how characters and themes are related, for one example. They only know whether they liked the main character. So once the motley assortment of opinions are raised, the talk may veer into an aspect that several people noticed, such as antisocial behavior. A book club member will discuss an example of an individual they know personally, often to highly humorous effect. That can lead to other personal stories.

Another common reason for drifting off the path is related to theme. A novel may cover a juvenile delinquent, say, and a member starts to discuss what they know about jails and recidivism (criminals returning to prison). That can lead to a form of competition about what members know about the jail experience, often engaged in by males in the group. Pretty soon ten minutes have gone by, and half of the group has their chin in their hand, bored by spouted knowledge they already basically knew.

As an author, you can research topics you don’t know, and you’ll find out much more accurate information that what someone recalls off the top of their head. What you can’t do is find out how others are reacting to a book if you’re not talking about the book. So it behooves you to keep the group trained on the main goal. 

The best way is to be prepared before the group meets. Draw up a list of questions about different aspects of the book. These lists are easy to find. You can look up, in the back of many books, the publisher’s suggested questions for book groups. You can look up online what other groups have asked about the book. Sparks Note and the like contain similar ideas. 

A group discussion is going to stray—that’s almost guaranteed. Yet you can cut it short, without being a jerk, by casually asking the next question on your list. It is likely that a bored member will respond with alacrity, bringing everyone back in line. Fewer ego rants = more provocative opinions for authors.

Exercise: You don’t have to be passive about creating lists. As you’re reading proposed questions, think about your reaction—and what you’d like to know about how others reacted. When you do that, you can tailor the list of questions to address what you’d like to know about issues related to your book.

“The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all.” 

—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Alignment of Beads

A smart author provides multiple suspects in a mystery so that the reader can enjoy guessing whodunit. Not only do you need to keep three or so suspects revolving in the reader's mind, you need to allot increasing importance to each of their clues. In other words, they cannot merely show up, although that is a useful practice. It also entails planting the clues in such a way that they add progressively toward the book’s climax.

That formula seems easy enough to follow. After all, you already have a list of clues that you have dreamed up. Let’s say that Henry was involved in an illicit real estate deal with the murder victim, Shawn. The question is, once we know that, where will he go from there? Are you going to provide some numbers related to the deal? Does learning about that lead to a construction-related person who is sinister? In other words, a clue not only has an intrinsic value in and of itself. It also forms part of a continuum of clues. The more the book goes on, the more you have to raise the stakes of the game. Clues nearer to the climax need to count for more, because in this realm you are playing a game of Top That. For example, after Henry’s revelation of chicanery you insert a lesser clue, that Henry does not have an alibi for several hours during the night of the murder. How is the reader going to react? They’re probably going to feel let down, because an alibi for the time of murder is one of the most common issues in mysteries. 

That is why a good mystery is so heavily plotted. I commonly tell authors that scenes in a plot line are like ever larger beads on a string. Let’s say you are assigning five clues to to each major suspect. You need to devise five clues that build from the first bead. Not only that, but you have at least three strings, a total of fifteen beads. Plus, you don’t want a clue for suspect #1 to be minor relative to the clues given to suspect #2 in the previous chapter. The net result would be that we are less interested in #1, because her clue wasn’t so hot. You do that several times, and #1 is becoming a long shot in the race, so you better have a pretty good twist to explain what she didn’t match up during the course of the building clues. 

The difficulty of adjusting these increasingly heavier beads explains why family relations so often plays a leading role in mysteries. You do not have to work as hard to explain why a wife was embittered by her cheating husband. A son’s caustic views of his mother may set up a pattern in which a minor clue suddenly makes him look very suspicious. The clues may be more minor, but they intrinsically possess more emotional weight. So if you are fiendishly devising how your mystery is going to bedevil readers, you might want to throw a close relationship to relieve your burden.

Exercise: Create a chart with multiple columns. Two vertical columns apiece are assigned to each major suspect, one narrow and one wide. In the narrow column you are going to insert the number of the chapter in which a clue falls, and in the wide column you are going to briefly specify which clue is being used. The horizontal columns are your timeline for the book. Enter each clue you have for a character where you think it should go. That way you’ll be able to see (1) the intervals between the clues for each character; (2) if each clue for that one character builds from the last one; and (3) how the progressive weight of clues matches up among the characters.

“Mere literary talent is common; what is rare is endurance, the continuing desire to work hard at writing.” 
—Donald Hall

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Just in Time

The determination of when to reveal the secret of a character is a vital consideration in the mystery genre, but the placement affects all sorts of stories. The author who rushes to divulge all of the interesting info on a character early on may find they have nowhere to go later. That’s because character building functions in the same way as plot building.

As a novel is opened, a reader starts with a tabula rasa. The promotion copy on the back cover may have provided an inkling of what the major characters are up to, but the experience is quite different once they are plunged up to the waist in whatever drama wants to draw them in. Most books begin with several characters to keep track of, and they are engaged in activities that are must be followed, not to mention the narrator’s comments and thoughts about the proceedings. Do I, as the reader, need to know dark secrets at this juncture? Of course not. I’m just trying to figure out the lie of the land.

Nor do most authors have trouble keeping the reader entertained in the early going. The reader is getting to know the characters, judging which ones to like more. Whatever initial plot gambit got the ball rolling takes a number of pages to play out. As an author, you can count on running out a string of 40 pages at least before you need to take further steps in the drama. In many cases the plot’s construction pushes the initial premise past the midway point.

Now is the time to consider opening a trapdoor. The reader learns, for example,  that the protagonist, who has alluded darkly to a past spouse, was actually run out of town on suspicion they murdered the spouse. Oh, I didn’t know that. That changes what others were doing concerning the character, as well as the reader’s view of the character. We knew something was going to come of the grumbling (the author’s setup prior to revealing the secret), but not exactly what.

Several more secrets can be dropped in during the middle stretch of the novel, helping to avoid any mid-book slump. As long as each one is more serious, affecting to an increasing degree the landscape the reader thought they already knew, the secrets further the obstacles the lead characters face. Their past—or, their ultimate aim—colors how the plot will progress.

You can hold a few final twists for the very end, but usually the climax sequence, of 50-100 pages, is filled with enough active steps forward that secrets don’t need to be employed. You set up the markers, and then you throw them all together in the final chase. Then pull the rug out a last time.

Exercise: Secrets will be most effective if you know what they are before you compose page 1, or well before you reach a plot point. Draw up a list, attach them to a main character, and rank the darkest, most weighty secret at the bottom of the list. Now you can devise the plot so that each secret injects the story with new energy.

“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
—Benjamin Franklin

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.