Persuading readers of nonfiction that a book merits attention depends on its outreach. The least convincing narrative expresses only opinions of the author. That amounts to a thesis with no proof. Depending on the book, other personal opinions may be elicited, through a survey or through a client base. Quotations featuring research provided by experts represent another type of proof. A third variety consists of data provided by the government or polls. 

When each is considered by itself, it reveals shortcomings. Personal opinions may be limited by how much the people interviewed know. If a book has 10 chapters on different topics, an author’s interviewees or clients may range only as far as half or three-quarters of them. The remaining topics end up being filled in by a very limited number—to the point that they seem like the author's select club.

Quotations from experts are the most satisfying source. If the reader learns that professor so-and-so teaches at Harvard and the quote comes from a published book, that is impressive enough to be convincing. An interview with an expert can leave a similar glow of professionalism. The downside is that such statements may start to feel distant: pronouncements on the general state of affairs as seen from on high. 

This problem is exacerbated in the field of data. Statistics by their very nature are cold and gray. While 78% of the respondents may show a trend is likely true, too many of these citations can leave the reader wanting to meet just one of those 78% and find out a little more about why they feel that way. 

The most successful nonfiction books combine all three of these layers. In a typical example, an author may state a new observation, e.g., most people do not feel TikTok is racist. That can be followed by results of a survey run by Wired magazine or the like. An expert on social media then weighs in with a long quotation. Yet the deal isn’t sealed with the reader until several of the people actually making videos weigh on on the medium they are watching every day.

That’s because you need both a sense of sweep—everybody’s doing it, I tell you—and local actors that anchor the high-flown views to the ground. As a reader, I believe the data, respect the experts, but I want to meet people like me. That’s your perfect trifecta.

Exercise: Go through your manuscript and color-code the different types of examples. When you’re done, now review the manuscript quickly, looking for the colors. If you see that green—the personal examples—are missing for a stretch of pages, that is your signal to get more of those examples for that chapter.

“A bad book is the worse that it cannot repent. It has not been the devil's policy to keep the masses of mankind in ignorance; but finding that they will read, he is doing all in his power to poison their books.” —John Kenneth Galbraith

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Unexpected Allies

Authors given to writing plot-driven books can face the problem of inadequate characterization. Sure, the murders and explosions keep on coming, but who is the hero so successfully leaping all the hurdles? The personal interactions in such books are purposeful: either action is being planned or executed. While hints of personality emerge in such strongly paced scenes—the luck o’ the Irish detective or no-bullshit woman grunt—the human dynamos may feel mainly like industrious cogs in a machine. 

How can an action-oriented protagonist stand out from the teeming crowd of villain slayers? A hint can be taken from a common motive in such books: the need to revenge the murder of someone near and dear. “You killed my brother!” is personal. Readers like that hero more because they can imagine how they would feel. Yet unless the novel spends all its time looping back through the halcyon days with that brother, the sympathy dies out after a while. There is only so much juice that can be squeezed from someone who is six feet under on page 3.

You can give a hero a personal edge by providing a sidekick of sorts that accompanies the hero throughout the book. The most likely candidate is an intimate other (or who becomes intimate) or a child. The idea is that, even though the hero has to get coffee on the go, they will display personal facets in the exchange of coffee. 

Yet another prime source can be overlooked: a lifelong friendship. If our Irish Mick knew Joshua in the FBI from childhood, all of the interactions between them as they pursue righting the wrong are infused with their buddy-hood. Early on, you write out a few background passages, with maybe a flashback to a telling past episode between them, and now a relationship is established that the reader cares about—even as they slosh their coffee when their target suddenly takes off. 

You can also use ethnic bonds. Since so many action books these days are set in the Middle East, you can span continents in an international thriller. If you have a Jewish FBI agent who spent youthful years traveling to Israel, she could very well be old friends with a Mossad agent. In this age when youths travel frequently overseas, you can set up all sorts of linkages that tie a book together. 

The ease of working with a familiar figure helps to fill out a character. A shy person shows their true warmth when they greet an old friend. A hard-charging avenger shows a comic side when their friend pokes fun at their charging. Plus, if they are united in the quest, the book doesn’t have to slow down for touchy-feely sessions.

Exercise: A real-life model can serve you in good stead with such a character. You can write fluidly about exchanges with a person you know inside-out. You don’t have to explain when you instantly know how that person will react. You use your built-in knowledge to write characters with built-in traits.

“There’s not a word yet for old friends who’ve just met.”  —Jim Henson

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Do the Math

Many older authors, more likely male, decide to write novels because they have experience in an interesting field. The promise and then execution of infusing past experiences with characters filled with the author’s thoughts is exciting and satisfying. When I read the scenes, I can feel the actors brimming with brio or malice or calm collectedness, at least temporarily, before I am whisked away to another experience. 

It has always surprised me that an author who is obviously intelligent can read novels dominated by a single character, and yet when they write, their book’s energies are dispersed among a cast of dozens. While real life does demand multiple players, the author ignores the fact that each character in a novel has a possible emotional valence for the reader. When too many players are thrown at the reader, you can end up with too many functionaries that the reader does not care about. 

How many functionaries do you have? You can run the numbers and find out. Start off by assigning a number to each character who plays an active role in a scene. Although you can have group scenes, you’ll usually find that a maximum of three characters are featured. Then put those numbers in a chart with five columns. One is for the characters, by their numbers. The second tracks how many scenes a character appears in. You can use hash marks in groups of five. The third is a wider column that charts the number of pages that elapse in between each appearance by a character. By way of illustration, that column might look like: 15, 20, 22, 34, etc. Fourth, another wide column that charts the number of pages for each scene in which a character appears. That is, count how long the scenes are: 5, 7, 8, 5, etc. Finally, a skinny column in which you add up the total pages for each character.

This exercise in story structure can reveal interesting insights. First, how many characters in total did you count? When you consider that a reader will identify strongly with only 7-8 characters, how many do you have? If you have 25-50 characters, how thin are you spreading yourself? Worse, if you have several dozen point-of-view characters, how much do you think the reader is going to care about any of them?

Now look at the gaps between scenes. If a character is gone too long, the reader tends to forget about them. I’ll use a rough rule of thumb regarding a reader’s attention span. I would allow a gap of no more than 20-25 pages for a protagonist, 30-35 pages for a main character, and no more than 40-50 pages for a minor character who will play a key role later in the book. Do any alarming numbers jump out at you?

Finally, look at the total number of pages in the fifth column. Does your lead character clearly have a larger number than all the rest? How many characters have roughly the same number of pages? Remember, you want only 6-7 (excluding the protagonist). Do you have dozens? How much sympathy or antipathy does the reader have to dole out for each?

“When you have mastered numbers, you will in fact no longer be reading numbers, any more than you read words when reading books. You will be reading meanings.”  —W. E. B. Du Bois

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Mindless Loops, Part 2

This post continues from the last one, on how to better capture in writing the thought loops that run through the mind every day. Picking up from where it left off, I would suggest that you look at your two versions of the same loop. One failure in characterization is presenting only one way of thinking. It’s like the protagonist is a wind-up toy and marches in only one direction. Yet most people go back and forth on any decision, depending on their mood.

You can mix it up. You can take a sentence from one version and place it in the other. How does that affect the loop? If you have to make adjustments to make it fit, do the changes more accurately match the way you felt? In other words, either the dark or sunny version may feel just right. But if they feel insufficient, maybe you need most of one but the other would provide a nice counterbalance. 

You can also insert the dark version in the full manuscript and then put the light version a few pages later. At eight a.m. Maggie was so sure she had screwed up, but as the day passes without alarm, she concocts a second version of the events. You would, though, want to cut down the second passage, since you don’t want too much repetition. 

Now think of a topic in the novel and use the same technique. Same blend of facts and opinions. What has changed is the more exaggerated (hopefully) crisis and/or your more extreme (hopefully) character giving the opinions. If you keep in mind what you know about the character’s point of view and personality, those substitute for the way you reacted to your crisis. For example, the fictional Maggie is nervous about going to the party and sneaks a couple of shots of Absolut before going. Then she enthusiastically downs the host’s “killer” punch and ends up spilling the third glass all down the front of Sharon’s ruffled silk blouse. How is Maggie going to explain that to herself in retrospect?

You write both a negative and positive version, as before. The positives might be harder to find in this instance, but because Maggie is a more extreme “person,” you can use the crisis to delineate why she has gone so far off the rails. In trying to do so, you may well discover along the way what the character should think about such a topic. You are always engaged in a project of discovery about what makes a character tick. So when you evaluate both versions, which one do you like better? Or, you can mix them to produce those qualities that feel right.

Exercise: You don’t have to compose a thought loop all at once. Rising out of bed on all those nights, I found that I retained only a few sentences clearly. Yet if I read it early the next morning, more of it would come back. Past a certain point I wasn’t sure if I even did have that thought skein. But it didn’t matter, because I had written out one that rang true.

“If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I'm neurotic as hell.” —Sylvia Plath

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved



The Mindless Loops, Part 1

Writers who want to narrate a story more from a character’s point of view often face a blank wall inside their minds. How, they ask, can I know what a fictional entity is thinking? They don’t think like me, because that would be too boring. This core difficulty seems insurmountable, and yet writing that way is one of a writer’s most important marks of progress.

One method is to pick apart how people think. A habit we all share is brooding about a topic that is bothering us. While this pattern is less noticed during the day, when frequent interruptions cut the sessions short, anyone who has lain awake at night, unable to sleep, experiences the phenomenon full-blown.

By way of a demonstration, let’s take a gaffe at a party. Shame sears most deeply in our consciousness, and that is what will come first to mind in retrospect. Maggie, say, remembers what she said to Sharon, the look on her face, the reactions of those immediately surrounding—whether these are known or not. What impact will the gaffe have? Will Sharon tell others? Why did I tell her, of all people? The list of neurotic possibilities can spiral outward, and the loop can start up all over again, only with supplied variations. The paradigm shifts—Sharon has no reason to tell anyone, it really wasn’t that big a deal, and on and on—until we look at the clock and realize an hour has passed and we still can’t fall asleep.  

The subjects change day by day, because we brood mainly about what is fresh in our mind. They also remain trivial, for the most part, because we don’t do anything consequential on most days. Same old routines, same old thoughts. We even relive old loops when, for instance, our mother calls and starts banging away on us about why she should fire her landscaper—and it’s somehow our fault.

A writer’s first step in the process is recording a loop. That is not as difficult as it seems, because our thoughts tend to be statements of fact—from our point of view at the time. You can write out a paragraph about the gaffe (to use that example), listing where it happened, what you said and what was the reason for saying it, the look on Sharon’s face, and what you fear will happen. 

Now turn to the positive view. In a new paragraph you write not the dark, awful reason you said what you did, but the version in which you are justified, where Sharon would understand you are right. You re-interpret the look on her face. You put a positive spin on what she might do with your gaffe, if she does anything at all. Why, really, should she bother?

The difference between the two paragraphs lies entirely in your deliberate spin on the incident. That’s how people think. They recall what happened through a filter. In this case, you have deliberately applied the one you want.

(To be continued.)

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Moving Beyond Literal

A desire to elevate ourselves beyond the plane of the ordinary is a major reason that we read novels. Depending on the author, the precision applied to making characters and plot events outsized extends to the prose. A well-wrought narrative focuses mainly on laying out the unusual world of the scene’s point-of-view character, but that picture is marred if the physical descriptions are pedestrian. We expect, given the level of talent, that they will sparkle as well.  

A useful tool in that regard is a metaphor. Rather than torturing the prose to capture an exact word picture, an analogous element is inserted. In modern literature, authors have moved beyond the poesy of yore, such as one of my  favorites: “What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” Today’s prose is more stripped down, which means that metaphors have to be more precise. 

For most writers, not just of the aspirational variety, the jump from the went-there, did-that level of descriptions can be mystifying. How do those guys write such great stuff? Part of the reason is that they fuse seemingly unalike elements. Let’s take the sense of smell, a criminally underused tool in fiction. How does adding smell to a description work? Here is Jennifer Egan in A Visit from the Goon Squad, describing a black leather couch: “Its cushions sighed out the most delicious smell of leather.”

The reader grasps the sensation instantly. Cushions do sigh when you sit down, and leather does smell nice. Yet it is the combination of the two that produces the striking effect. You can also use smell in a wider context, truly metaphorical. James McBride in Deacon King Kong writes, “Drugs were a damn stinking fish, the smell of it taking over everything.” Here a vice that ruins so many urban communities is given a new twist, because we all know how noxious fish can smell. 

You can also choose to mix different types of paradigms, the physical and spiritual. You pick an adjective that describes the physical object and ask yourself, how could I apply that to an idea? An example is provided by the brilliant stylist Kevin Barry in Night Boat to Tangier: “It was the most perfect orange he had ever seen. It glowed like new love.”

It is also useful to think in terms of extending a metaphor. The parallel you have drawn may not be as striking in its simplest form as it would be if you keep running with the idea. Here is one by Anthony Doerr in All the Light We Cannot See: “A ghastly creeping terror rises from a place beyond thoughts. Some innermost trapdoor she must leap upon immediately and lean against with all her weight and padlock shut.” This example is outstanding no matter which way it is viewed, but the author seized the idea once it sprang forth and kept expanding it.

Exercise: More than other types of writing, you need to let a metaphor sit until you fully embrace it as final copy. Many ideas that seem fabulous when you jump out of bed at one a.m. become dulled in the morning light. Read it the next day, then the next week. Don’t be satisfied until you next read over the entire draft.

“There are metaphors more real than the people who walk in the street."               —Fernando Pessoa

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Studying Details

When you read a well-written novel, you frequently encounter descriptions that arrest your attention by their penetration. The word picture makes you “see” the object so clearly. You wonder how they do that. When you look at your own writing, you find a belabored description you have written and sigh. It takes so long to get through all the words you have larded on that the picture feels turgid rather than vivid.

You may not be observing enough. Let’s consider where you are when you feel the need to describe something. You’re sitting at your desk, most likely. Can you observe the item in question from your desk? You struggle for long minutes, even an entire writing session, searching for what feels just beyond your mental grasp.

Those writers you admire are more focused on observing than you are. Writing for them is all-consuming: everything they experience could fit in their book. Sure, they’re brilliant. But they are also observing all the time. Whereas you—you’re missing the description of the sunlight because you’re complaining it’s too bright. You’re doing what people do: experience their lives interactively. But writers are weird. They’re the guys staring at you from a cubicle in the library.

I’m not advocating that you cultivate your weirdness. Yet you can be on the lookout. Let’s take the kitchen as one locale that every reader will recognize. A kitchen isn’t a place for writing. It’s for cooking or eating or gassing about the day you just had. But what if you took the time to look at common items more closely? Instead of nearly breaking your wrist to open that tomato jar so you can dump it in the sauce pan to get dinner done, just hold the jar in your hand first. Is it heavy? Have you ever considered that tomato sauce jars are heavy? As opposed to what other items you cook with?

The first thoughts you have will not be profound. You see “Ragu” on the label, and you know that’s too banal to fit your book. Stop focusing so hard. Stop trying to wrest meaning from the thing. Just hold it, let your mind drift, the same way you do when you’re at your desk writing. What associations do you have with tomato sauce? Did your mother cook spaghetti, and what are your stray memories of what she said while cooking? Or your kids, sitting at the kitchen table, irritable because they’re hungry? The more you dwell in your thoughts, the more your subconscious is bent from its habitual frenzy to revolve, in loops, around those associations. Now you can write something down.

Exercise: This post has been in large part an exercise, so I’ll add one more thought. You can be a little weird too. You can ask your spouse to watch the pot while you write down what you’re thinking. Do it right on the spot. Be an observer and then race to put it on the page.

“Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.”

—Marcus Aurelius

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.



Teen Spirit

An individual embarking on a first novel can feel tugged toward writing young adult fiction. Among various reasons, the fledgling writer may feel inadequate to the task of producing a thought-provoking adult work. They may be a parent who always enjoyed the books their kids read. Or, they may like the fact that young adult novels are shorter and take less time to write. 

I have been asked: what is the difference between adult and young adult fiction? While there is no hard and fast rule, the book should feature a young protagonist. If you think about readers’ preferences on the whole, the reason why is obvious. Men tend to like to read books about men. Women like to read about women. So why would a teenager want to read about some old fart? That, of course, includes anyone over the age of 30. An older character can function as a mentor, or an antagonistic parent type, but that is a supporting, not leading, role.

When you try to picture what you were like as a teenager, the scope of the novel becomes clearer. Teens by and large are worried about their status among their peers, so the novel’s concerns need to reflect it, to whatever degree you like. Putting wisdom in their mouths is inviting scorn from other teen characters. A good many adolescent conversations revolve around why X or Y is such a loser. I should add that if you don’t feel you know the current lingo, as well as a culture that includes cell phones and social media, don’t write a novel set in an earlier era with that era’s lingo. What teenager wants to know about how old fogies used to talk back when dinosaurs roamed the world (e.g., the sixties)?

Another factor that falls on one side of the line or the other includes plot activities. If you write a mystery, and the clues are set up in treasure hunt fashion—what does the arrow running up and to the right of the circle mean?—you should ask yourself: who likes treasure hunts? Children. Teenagers are a lot closer to children than adults, so it would fit better in a young adult novel. Conversely, teen readers might wish that the nice adult man and woman in supporting roles will fall in love, but they don’t want any sex scenes with that couple. That’s gross. They should close the door.

Do some books straddle the line? Of course they do. Are you, the neophyte, experienced enough to know how to do that? Probably not. Choose your top five characters, and rank them, adult or teen, according to where you want to place your emphasis.

Exercise: The first step you should take is: know your market. Read bestselling young adult novels and see what they do. If you feel distaste while reading one, then you know that’s not the market for you. You are going to spend untold hours on the book, so you’d better like writing it.

“Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.” —Kurt Cobain

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Puzzle Assortment

I’ll pick up from the previous post to address another aspect of making large-scale changes during the revision of a novel. That concerns the practice of chopping up portions of the previous draft and realigning them in the new. The approach does have merits. If a piece is freed from being a link in a continuous narrative, you can shorten it until only the essential core of it is left, lopping off unneeded pages. Also, jumping back and forth in time is a well-established technique in fiction.

The art of mixing and matching is more difficult, though, than it seems. A primary reason, ironically, is continuity. When you first slotted the scene in the narrative, part of its power borrowed from what had happened before, at the very least in the scene that preceded it. You could build on what was fresh in the reader’s mind.

What happens when the piece appears out of nowhere—say, a flash from the past? Now readers have to reorient themselves. When is this scene taking place? Why am I switching away from the main story line to read it? The essence you pared it down to had better pack a punch, because it is standing on its lonesome. Consider too: the reader should feel that the scene fits in the proceedings, even if obliquely. So placement, and probably tailoring the scene to fit in that place, becomes a crucial consideration.

To explain why a past scene is being sprung on the reader, one solution is a cue provided in the present-day story. Henry stubs his toe on the edge of his bedroom door, and he remembers the last time he stubbed his toe: on that dark and rainy night when Natalie set her suitcase on the bed, etc. This device does work, but only to a very limited extent. When used more than a couple of times, the reader starts sighing. Here we go again, off down the author’s memory lane. Even worse is using the cue and following with several background scenes in a row. By the time you return, will readers remember where they were in the present-day plot line?

Finally, any odd assemblage of scenes will hamper a novel’s forward progress merely by their random nature. See, you know the context in which the scenes were originally written, but the reader doesn’t. All they see is one unexpected jump after another. You are obliged to make the disparate scenes fit a building pattern of their own. This can be done by lining up the past scenes in chronological order. You can also provide a thematic thread, such as a mother-daughter relationship. In this case, you can regard the past pieces as a subplot, whose scenes also appear occasionally.

Exercise: One solution is to gang up like scenes into discrete story units, or chapters. Rather than inserting nine puzzle pieces, why not create three chapters that are set entirely in the past? If you provide a strong clue at the end of a present-day chapter, you could start the first of these past chapters on the next page. Since readers understand patterns, you could drop in the other two without any preface at all.

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

—George Orwell

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.