Creature of Habit

By now everyone is complaining about being cooped up during the Covid crisis, and the winter is only beginning. Yet one silver lining is the extra time people have to drag out that old manuscript from a desk drawer, literal or figurative. If entertainment cannot be found without, it can be uncovered within.

I have long been an advocate of writing daily, keeping a finger on the thrumming pulse of your creativity. In the past, with commutes of an hour and more, such a regimen was nearly impossible for those who work in an office. Only those willing to rise before dawn or to burn the midnight oil could keep up. 

That stricture no longer exists, however. That is, essentially, new free time if you want it to be. The problem is switching over from a more sporadic schedule of toiling for hours on the weekends to a daily grind. You have biorhythms and you may not feel like writing every day. 

Therein lies the false belief you are telling yourself. You are not used to writing that way, and so you make an excuse based on habit. If you can show proof that storing up your subconscious juices until they bubble forth actually works, that would be fine. It even chimes with a nice ring of making logical sense. 

If we were all cauldrons, that is. The fact is, a habit is what you make. I used to smoke Lucky Strikes, but then I realized that wasn’t such a great habit. I also have written (nearly) every day for years, and I know very well how easy it is to lose a story thread after an absence, even of a few days during a weekend. 

Writers have to retrieve interesting bits and pieces from a mind that is always churning with mundane garbage. That is really what bubbles up: constant reviews of what you did and said yesterday. Setting aside a daily time period means locking yourself into a type of purity regime. That time is sacred because you have declared that is when you aren’t going to be ordinary. 

Forcing yourself to write every day has an added benefit: you’ll find the book is being finished faster. Someday the pall of Covid will lift, and then that new free time will be stolen away by your normal schedule. You’d better be done with the book by then.

Exercise: Dedicate a block of time at the same hour every day and put it on your calendar as a repeating event. I prefer early in the morning, because that’s when dreams edge onto being awake, but stretching the lunch break to include an extra hour works too. Grow protective of your new habit, and you’ll soon find that any family members will work around you—because they’re proud of your dedication too.

“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.” —Philip Roth

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


When Is Enough Enough?

When a reader finishes a published novel, there is a sense of completion, that the story has come full circle. The final page, with all that welcome white space that frees us for another book, signals: done. Yet for the person who penned the work, the end line is not so clear. The manuscript has probably been through a series of revisions, and every time numerous changes, if only word substitutions, clearly made the book better. So, for all of those who do not have a publisher’s deadline,  when do you declare finito?

For some authors, writing a gemlike solitaire is enough. Yet I raise the question because most authors I talk to say they are dreaming about their next book or have already started it. They are just waiting to put their present one to bed.

Unless you have hired an editor and believe you’re done when they’re done with the edit, the quandary of should I stay or should I go can linger. Here are a few signs you should move on.

The first is: you’re sick of the manuscript. You’ve been over and over it so many times that passages that once delighted you now seem like a homework assignment. In that frame of mind you’re not doing the book any good. Sure, you could hunt and peck for better verbs, but you still have to go through all the other text that seems just fine. While applying any time-efficiency ratio to writing is laughable (how many hours have you spent?), you may rightly feel that you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns.

A more ominous sign is when you start tearing apart large pieces because you’ve seized upon a new idea that seems promising. If you’re doing that after completing your first draft, you may well have justification. If you’ve completed a third or fourth draft, you have to pull on the reins. Familiarity breeds contempt, and authors can be self-sabotaging at a certain stage. Unless you really are (all your friends and relatives and fellow workers say so) a genius, you may be taking on a gigantic amount of work that won’t, in the end, make the book much better. 

A third sign is structural. You feel uneasy about the story and decide to adopt techniques you see in best-sellers. In one common example, you start creating short-short chapters and then rewriting to create suitable cliff hanger endings for the new material. Again, you’re creating a lot of new work for yourself. Remember, all that time you’re spending is time you could be devoting to the next book. Maybe that book, because of your hard-won experience, will be better.

Exercise: If you are undecided, think globally. Don’t become mired in each sentence as you’re reviewing. Read faster, taking in the material but sticking to a resolve not to change a thing. Read only a half hour at a time, to stay fresh. You’ll find that you are retaining the gist of the chapters, and that will tell you how far you’ve come.

“I do so hate finishing books. I would like to go on with them for years.”              —Beatrix Potter

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Evening Out

The process of revision is local just the way writing the first draft is. By that I mean an author tends to write one section at a time. That makes sense, if you think about the steps required in editing. First, while reading over the manuscript, the writer perceives a problem. A solution is devised, and then the writer searches for places in the manuscript to insert the solution. Said place is found and a new patch of a few pages appears. This identification and insertion process can occur in several other places. If you leave track changes (which shows where text has been changed) running, you can see these discrete spots. Is that really enough, however, to fully bend a story arc in a new direction? 

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say a terrorist wants to blow up the New York Stock Exchange with an ammonium nitrate bomb in the climax. While reviewing the first draft, an author might like the excitement—will Sergeant Fitzgerald thwart the dastardly villain?—but realize that the bomb is sprung on the reader all at once. How do you make an ammonium nitrate bomb in the first place? So a few new scenes are written in the villain’s basement, using its rusty square sink, and voilĂ ! The villain is not only ambitious, he’s handy too.

Yet a further review of the revised manuscript shows an additional problem. The new patches are fine, but they seem to come full-blown out of nowhere. How did the villain go from grumbling at the government to handling bags of fertilizer? Why was that method chosen and what research into bomb making is done? What role does reading about past bombings play? Does the villain boast about the method to friends or as a manifesto online? 

All of the tendrils attached to a large block of text need to be considered, and more than that, further insertions that include them will help build story tension. They don’t need to be as lengthy as long as they appear regularly. You might insert into an early scene, for instance, the villain viewing an old photo of the Oklahoma City bombing and saying: Whoa, that’s what freaking fertilizer can do?

That is how a sturdy story arc is built: piece by piece all through the book. If you start small and then write increasingly longer passages, the mere length provides a building dramatic emphasis. Then readers really will be on the edge of their seat when the villain’s van turns onto Wall Street.

Exercise: New insertions can often be written independently of the existing text. Writing that way can be helpful in terms of maintaining continuity between each piece. Write out the fragmented story and then look for places to insert the blocks. You’ll usually find that only the beginning and ending of the piece has to be changed in order to align with what you already have.

“I write down portions, maybe fragments, and perhaps an imperfect view of what I'm hoping to write. Out of that, I keep trying to find exactly what I want.”          —James Salter

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Swallowing a Loss

From the grand mishmash of story threads that weave through a writer’s mind while writing a novel emerges a structure that channels these different impulses. While not every piece needs to correspond to the whole, the author needs to be wary of any tangent of significant length. That happens for various reasons, and a common one is: what is left over from a previous draft.

For the purpose of illustration, perhaps the thread metaphor should be colorized. I do that with plot charts during editing. Each major character is assigned a color so that, at a glance, I can tell when one of them has been neglected for a long time. You can also assign a color to certain character pairings: the protagonist-antagonist, protagonist-friend 1, protagonist-friend 2, etc. That way you can track how relationships build.

With such a tool in hand, you can better judge how pieces from an old draft have survived. Seeing the forest for the trees is important in this regard. If you decided after reading over a draft that you needed to add more scenes with a bereaved widow, you need to judge how episodic the new additions are. If she appears only after 40-, 60-, or 80-page gaps at a time, you know the reader isn’t going to care much about her grief. It hardly ever shows up in the book. That raises a knock-on question: what scenes still fill those blocks of text in between her appearances? 

The reason I am pointing this out is that, in my experience, authors are more willing to add new material than they are to cut existing stuff. Both are required if you’re trying to make a shift in a plot or character direction. Let’s say that the original judgment was: the story spends too much time on the widow’s life before her husband’s death. The scenes set in the past are too much of a drag on the present-day story. 

The new scenes of grief are written to push the book forward into the future. Yet if you make only faint-hearted attempts to pare down those past-marriage scenes, that remaining growth is choking out your new shoots. You have to clear more of the ground.

If you assign colors, you will see that very clearly. If the scenes with both wife and husband are red, how many of them still appear in your chart? The new scenes might be purple: the wife post-death with her daughter, say. Let’s add another decision you made: what happens between them will determine whether the wife kills herself in the ending. How well have you, the author, moved on?

Exercise: Vividness in storytelling counts. A full scene in the present contains dialogue, thoughts in the moment, etc. You can truncate those scenes you want to cut down by eliminating almost all dialogue and thoughts. Summarize them instead. Your scenes will be shorter, and they will have a more distant narrative tone.

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” —Colette

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


When It Pours

A writer is constantly hunting for details to fill up a book. Most people act upon their circumstances, while the writer must observe them in order to act: to put words on paper. Such observations often concern people’s interactions, but a full-colored novel contains details of a character’s surroundings. In a way, the lack of those details shows a person’s inclination to act, while writing remains a sideline. 

A common event in our lives that makes this point is rain. This weather phenomenon occurs frequently, and yet it appears usually as a contributing element of an action-based climax. Oh, how I hate the rain, and now I have to save lives in it! I am reminded of John Lennon’s mocking words about what people do when it rains: “They run and hide their heads/They might as well be dead.” 

If you are to be a writer, you can start by getting wet. That entails overcoming several good reasons why people run. The most basic is the dislike of having to shutter your eyes against the falling wetness. It is unpleasant to be forced to look downward. Yet people manage, by resorting to such devices as wearing a cap with a bill. Another complaint is getting your clothes wet. Yet people at ball games and playgrounds wear slickers and ponchos. To be honest, some of the times when I felt most free have come when I was totally soaked, beyond all hope of ever escaping the storm.

Once you have liberated yourself from quotidian concerns, you’ll discover the details of how the rain alters your world. That is important, because you’re trying to find unique details for your book. Whether you’re describing raindrops on a spiderweb or a collapsed sand castle or a washout in a gully, you’re including striking images that break the norm. Different types of rain can produce different physical reactions, such as pain while being stung by hail.

The descriptions can expand into the metaphysical realm as well. The rain beating down can lead to feelings of oppression or gloom. Nothing’s going right for that character. A rivulet of rain running off the bill of said cap can express a parent’s frustration with their child’s madcap coach. Drinking in the rain, with the bottle in the sodden brown bag, can describe a character’s low ebb.

All sorts of ideas can come to you while standing out in the rain. You’re not thinking of your comfort. You’re thinking of your book. 

Exercise: The effects of rain can produce the sort of pinpoint details that lock the reader inside your made-up world. Raindrops are minute: to describe them, you have to look really hard. Rain too can produce odd-looking shapes that lend themselves to metaphors, like a sodden incline resembling an old man’s face. That is what will startle the reader into recognition.

“The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself.”          —Bertrand Russell

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Swapping In

The guessing game in fiction, especially in the mystery and thriller categories, proceeds through a series of twists. The impact of each one depends on the reader’s deepening involvement of the story, to be sure, but also on the amount of attention paid to targeted characters. That is hardly surprising, since the depth of characterization determines how much a reader cares about any character in any novel.

Many authors start out with only a dim notion of who will become the main characters. The story is usually more important, not least since it is often based on real-life events and the characters are only balloon figures filling out different known parts. The villain(s) emerges soon enough, if only to provide opposition in a given scene. More complications are inserted as the author becomes more immersed in the circumstances. Only by the end of the draft may it become apparent that all the suspects are obvious. Where are the twists, particularly the be-all ending twist? 

As an editor, I may suggest picking a character who, as written, is one of the leading good guys. That pick is based on two key considerations. First, the character must be important. Second, the character’s true motives must remain hidden. A leading good character fits these perfectly. If the protagonist has interacted frequently with the new chosen villain—say, a significant other—a lot of attention has been paid to them, increasing depth. The motives are hidden, of course, because you never wrote any in the first place.

As in so much in rewriting fiction, you can pick an end point and work backward. Your first task to write in new signals. After all, the reader must slap themselves in the forehead for not guessing correctly. You have to provide some basis for that. Examining the scenes already written can yield possible double entendres. You had the villain say something innocent, but in this new context, it could also point in your new direction. Or, you may create a double meaning by changing just a few words.

The present situations can also be converted to new uses. It might be that the former flame was kidnapped by the chief obvious villain. With a few changes, such as inserting a few articles of clothing that the hero finds in the villain’s house, the flame can become the chief villain’s lover. When the two show up in the climax both intending to kill the protagonist, no one can say they weren’t warned.

Exercise: The more obvious clues can be placed early on. If they are glancing enough, the reader then has hundreds of pages in which to forget them. The stage of getting to know you can be colored by, say, the protagonist’s romantic interest in the flame, and in that mix you drop a few clues that, in retrospect, the reader should definitely have seen.

“I don't mind a narrator who's self-deceiving, but the clues for their truth have to be there for the reader to see.”  —Sarah Pinborough 

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


What Is Sardonic

Criminal law is a good background if you want to become a novelist. These lawyers work in a field that probes crimes, especially murder, a rich source of storytelling tension. They deal with the seamy underbelly of society, both criminals and cops, which provide antisocial models for characters. They have to do a lot of reading and writing in their profession, and skill in writing is gained through the practice of writing. So why isn’t the world flooded with lawyer novelists?

I believe the answer, ironically, is judgment. Not so much in the usual equation of an author’s ego vs. talent, although lawyers as a rule have a mighty good opinion of themselves. I mean more in terms of sitting in judgment. After all, many lawyers aspire to be judges, to perch high on the bench and pronounce on the unfortunates that flow in and out of the courtroom.

That lofty distance can be married with a lawyer’s hard-bitten view of humanity. That produces a narrative that is sardonic in tone: can you believe someone would be so . . . ? This viewpoint can be humorous, often of the slight-smile category, and the story can ring with authenticity. So what is the drawback?

The culprit is the ironic distance. Such a perspective is to be expected from someone who long ago adopted a shell to protect themselves from the violence and indignities of the criminal life. Yet because a character is only as deep as the emotions the author inserts, that distance is a form of self-protection. Like a criminal client, a character remains “out there,” to be remarked upon. The author can hide their own passions from the reader.

You cannot become the next Michael Connelly without realizing that he creates terrific characters. The sardonic tone is voiced from within those characters. Passion is a better first stage for a writer. Devise a character willing to jump into the fray beyond all decorum or even decency you’ve ever seen in a courthouse. The polished veneer can be added after connecting with the animal inside. What an aspiring writer might find is they will penetrate that long-adopted shell to find their younger, passionate self. 

Exercise: When first scheming a plot, set all of your old experiences aside. That stuff can be realistic filler you insert later. Think of outrageous crimes, with braided leads that lead to a number of characters. Some are obvious early on to the reader, and some are deeply hidden. If you want to use your own past cases, you probably will need to turn the amp on them up to 10 and then keep shrieking.

“A lawyer is a person who writes a 10,000-word document and calls it a "brief."   —Franz Kafka

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


A Thread, Not a Patch

The revision of a novel can be viewed through a perspective that is short-sighted. The course of writing a first draft is an expansive process during which discoveries continually pop out. Revision, by contrast, is a more clinical stage. You have a body of work, with all its gnarly tendrils, and only vague notions of how to make it better. How you decide to reenter the story makes a crucial difference in whether the additions will fit in the whole seamlessly.

The first step is determining the dramatic weight of the change you want to make. Let’s say a beta reader comments that the central love affair goes too smoothly. Al and Joanie have sex on page 40 and then keep on having invigorating sex (yawn) for the rest of the book. All happy—mostly dull. So you decide: Al will have an affair. That will cause waves.

In real life, we know that there are two types of people: the ones who proceed cautiously and the ones who rush in. The latter better suits the temperament of an artist—the prize is to the bold! Yet a revision is a form of weighed improvisation. That is, you have to consider the long view as well as the immediate objective. 

We’ll continue with the example. Sure, you can sally forth and write a sex scene with Al and a third party, yet you should have already considered two larger calculations. Why, if the couple was so newly in love, would he have an affair in the first place? What sense does that make? Second, what are the long-term ramifications? Is Joanie really such a tool that she would take him back in the same chapter? 

The problem is, the revision is a patch. That approach works fine when the addition is minor. You might change Al from having “mousy brown hair” to “surfer-boy blond.” But you have to remember what the original criticism was: the romance is too smooth. That means the romance in all those chapters in which it is featured.

You need to stage a series of scenes. Al has to have a reason why an affair would appeal to him. Is it a drunken accident? Is he prone to thinking with his little head? What is the sex scene like, with that woman other than Joanie? How long does he hide it from her? How long does it take for her to forgive him? All of these questions contain tons of suspense—not so smooth now.

Exercise: When considering advice for revision, think of what the characters are like first. If Al was a playboy before meeting Joanie, he would regard an affair differently from a loner who hasn’t had a girlfriend since seventh grade. If Joanie is not so sure Al is “the one,” she would react differently from a woman expecting a ring any day now. After adjusting them to weather the affair, you may realize that you know both of them much better.

“Let the reader find that he cannot afford to omit any line of your writing because you have omitted every word that he can spare.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Find Out Where They Start

The process of discovering your major characters can be a hit-or-miss affair. Most authors start a manuscript with only the vaguest idea what the story will be about, much less who will populate it. More certainty is gained as the pages pile up. Realization dawns at a certain point: Okay, that is starting to look like Dad, or that side of Dad we didn’t like. With such a stumbling process, characters can look like eight shades of vanilla by the time the first draft is completed. Like Dad, but not doing justice to his vibrancy at all. 

When an author is first choosing major characters, “damaged” should be the first quality that comes to mind. The only good characters, the ones that have any hope of holding our interest all book long, are damaged. They might be alcoholic, like Sportcoat in James McBride’s Deacon King Kong, or lonely, like Hawkhill in Annie Proulx’s “On the Antler.” Such characters have an unpredictable edge because they violate society’s bounds. 

Once you have chosen someone who can keep the reader nervous, the next step is to develop a full background story about how they got that way. While some of this work may appear in the novel, most of it won’t. You’re trying to devise a frame of reference for the character. That way they can refer to something that happened 10 years ago as a given, mulled over many times, the way you yourself refer to signal past events in your own mind. Just an offhand sentence, or even a phrase, and the reader understands the terrible burden, or whatever, the character has been carrying all these years. Yet you cannot make that comment without knowing whence the reference came.

How do you choose the cardinal points that determine a background? You start with what went wrong in the character’s life. That’s how they got damaged. Whether you choose an abusive parent or childhood bullying, a love lost or a death, or a combination of such factors, you are probing for how a life can go off the rails. That’s because the only way to view life from an interesting angle is to have fallen off the path that guides us in our safe lives.

How long should the exercise go on? There really is no limit, but I would shoot for 20 pages at a minimum. That forces you to really dig. You got to get to 20, so that means you will dwell in that past long enough that you really get to know who’s carrying your torch.

Exercise: An important part of this exploration is gleaning possible supporting characters that will play an active role in the book. To return to Sportcoat as an example, his wife, Hettie, is a constant presence in his life even though she is dead. The story is ingeniously designed so that the only way he can lay her ghost to rest is to stop drinking. So background work isn’t just the past; it may cast looming shadows over the present.

“Childhood is the fiery furnace in which we are melted down to essentials and that essential shaped for good.”   —Katherine Anne Porter

Copyright 2020 @ John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.