Past the Obvious

Any author who receives a rejection letter that says “I couldn’t connect with the characters” feels the bewilderment of what they’re supposed to do. While that stock response can refer to the lack of depth in the narrative voice, what about a novel that is filled with action? This type of book usually is written in the third person, and multiple points of view are used. So you’re not going to achieve that much depth with any one of them anyway. You can, however, make your characters more distinctive. 

When I suggest specific places where an author could better fill out a character from the inside, what I often find in response is a surface-level reaction. When, for instance, a detective reacts to the sudden appearance of a figure on a dark city street, the author's reaction might be: “He knew he had to steel himself for the worst.” While that might be fine, it is also typical. You can almost hear the trumpets blare before the two jousting knights charge toward each other. What was the agent’s/editor’s comment? Not connecting. Maybe it’s because of typical reactions like that. Right, what any male would think. Click to open a rejection notice.

To extend this example, you should try to go deeper than the noble guy.  Stop and shut your eyes, not looking at the character out there on the screen. Take a minute and sort out what you would feel. Write three separate options: one noble but one the opposite of noble, and then one that is a tangent of the opposite of noble. If the opposite is “He felt an urge to stain his pants,” then jump from there. One thought might be: “He was really offended . . .” 

Then choose one and keep writing for maybe another quarter page. How is that working out? Does it feel like a TV rerun? Then select another and write out a quarter page. If you feel you need to explore the third option, write out a quarter-page skein for that. 

As you’re writing each one, keep thinking about alternatives. What did the character do earlier in the novel? Say, he found he actually understood the problem his daughter had in her math homework. He is the same guy in both situations. Could the homework helper influence the thoughts of the tough detective? In other words, the way to be different is to reach for another gear, one that is unexpected but also makes sense, because we liked him when he was helping her with the homework. You may find, by the time you have finished the third alternative, that you have another idea altogether: one that’s truly unique. What you’re doing is bringing all parts of your character to bear on that moment. That’s depth.

“My literature is much more the result of a paradox than that of an implacable logic, typical of police novels. The paradox is the tension that exists in my soul.”  —Paulo Coelho

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Buddy Conflict

Most writers intuitively grasp the need for conflict in a novel, because strife between characters creates obstacles for the main character. Yet the logic often extends only to protagonist and antagonist, leaving gaps of tension strewn through the story. When plotting out a scene to be written, an author is better off looking for sharper edges among characters of all stripes. 

A common scene type that falls flat takes place between characters in a buddy pair, usually with the protagonist and a friend or relative. Such scenes can be filled with jokes or exchanges designed to show the personal side of the main character. Any danger posed by malign characters is forced to lie in wait, and any tension created before the scene fizzles out as shots of tequila or what have you are exchanged.

Somehow the most basic truth we know—everyone lives their life alone—melds into a sort of relationship glop that could only exist in a book. The lie in that artifice can be easily exposed. While you and your partner, say, are aligned on many issues, you also bicker constantly because you have differing views as well. If you are trying to create conflict, why are you writing kumbaya scenes? At the very least, doesn’t familiarity breed contempt?

Another factor should contribute to that feeling of being set apart. If Stanley Elkin is correct when he says, “I would never write about anyone who was not at the end of his rope,” how does your protagonist’s desperation look to others? If she commits a major faux pas, why would you think her friend would rush to her aid? Even if your sister does something embarrassing in public, your first reaction will be to join the crowd and shun her. Or, at a minimum, stay silent and leave her to dangle on her lonesome.

Recognizing when close binds fray can aid in devising scenes that show those tears. If the hero is acting so badly that even friends make themselves scarce, the reader realizes how unusual the situation is—and that adds tension. It also requires that you think through all of the characters’ personal agendas so that they don’t align. How can you set competing interests in play all through the book and still devise reasons for them to appear together?

You can go deeper into characterization as well. If the main character is going wrong, and that rubs a friend the wrong way, what is being rubbed? You have to think through  what the baseline of the character’s traits are. If he is shy, a hero’s insistence that he clear their name will cause resentment. I don’t do that stuff, so why are you asking? Then follow that thread—how can you keep rubbing that sore spot in new and interesting ways? Now you have friction abroad and friction at home.

“One loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives.”  —Euripides

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Early Morning Ghost

Writers are lucky that the human species does not wake up instantly. Instead, we lounge in bed, even after the alarm goes off. In those minutes before fully awakening, thoughts about your story can come to you. Like a cyclone, a ball of thoughts about a scene can spin out of the nether regions. Soon enough, you find yourself trying to lock down the ineffable so that you can include it in the book.

What ends up happening, unless you possess a preternatural ability to access your subconscious, is that you concretize only a small portion, maybe a paragraph. Lying in bed, you keep repeating the words, over and over, until you remember them well enough that you can jump up, rush to your desk, and record them. Repeating also helps you to judge whether you really have discovered a bon mot. Many times the thoughts tumbling inside your head can glow because the general direction seems so promising. When you actually pull one of the lumps out into plain view, you may find that it is really dross. That realization may occur while you’re still in bed, when you write it down, or when you review it later, thinking you were so damned smart and . . .  wazzz this thing?

Once you have written down your eureka thought, don’t set it aside and trot off to breakfast. Dwell with it awhile longer. You may not be able to recapture the glowing whorl, but you may be able to tack on thoughts to what you have. What are the possible consequences of that sentence or two you wrote down? 

Let’s say the line is: “She didn’t mind that he wasn’t smooth, that his chin scratched her. She was pleased he had tried at all.” What do you know about that woman character? Does this new thought turn up a new trait of hers you hadn’t considered? Bear in mind that you don’t have to write follow-on text. You could simply make a note about her in her character-notes file: I want her also to be like “that.”

When you dwell in the pursuit of what pulled you out of bed, you may find, while drinking a cup of coffee to keep waking up, that you are tingling with the promise of a good writing session to come. Maybe the page you write that morning is more pedestrian than your eureka sentence, but it still a page of writing you put down on paper. Especially if you had been building up to a new breakthrough over the past few days, the one thought bursts open a dam of other thoughts. Brilliance doesn’t only come in spurts. Once you have material down where you can work with it, you can rewrite until that entire page shines as well.

“The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.”    ―William Faulkner

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


How Much Should Be Carried Over?

Most authors writing a series are aware that each of the books must stand on their own. That means a new plot and new characters, since the one usually requires the other. Yet a series does feature the same protagonist and often a core cast of characters. They all have rich backgrounds once the first book is written. So what is the dividing line between starting a new book from scratch and borrowing too much from a past book?

A first guideline is: use narrative summaries. You shouldn’t be borrowing parts of scenes from a previous book. Anyone who read that book will experience deja vu—didn’t I already read this stuff? No one likes to read repeated material, even if they haven’t read a book in a while.

When you use narrative summaries, you can then follow a second guideline. Write out any background information from a previous book in the same way you would write background info for a new character. You write a paragraph or two, maintaining a narrative distance because you’re trying to get through the material quickly. If you have backgrounds for multiple characters in a core cast, you can drop in the compressed back stories at opportune times for each (that is, not all stuffed in one place). That’s the way you would do it if you were starting off fresh.

There is an additional consideration. What if the first book is not picked up by an agent or doesn’t sell to a publisher? You may need to be flexible. The second book you write may end up being the one that sells first. All that time you lavished on background material for the second book now has to be tossed. You have to write new material to insert in what you thought was the first book. How much time do you want to spend on stuff that is not moving the story forward?

That leads to a third guideline: write the narrative summaries as though they would fit for any book in the series. That means in particular that you shy away from referring to specific events in a previous book. If you feel that the character’s history must contain them, leave a few sentences in that paragraph(s) blank. That way you can fill in the events once you know in which order the books will appear in the store.

That last point touches upon a very common problem with writing sequels. You can be trapped by what happened in a previous book, to the point that you get stuck and can’t devise new plot events for the new book. Forget what happened. Just relate how the characters related to each other. That’s all the series reader will remember, anyway.

“The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.” —Salvador Dali

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Less Back and Forth

One common issue in story structure concerns the balance between the ongoing story and the background pieces that fill out the characters’ past. Since authors tend to insert background work early in a novel, the problem is made more acute. So much time can be spent in the past that the present-day plot never has a chance to generate the momentum needed to pull the reader through the book.

While the imbalance can be be addressed partially by paring back the background stories, I find as an editor that most of that sort of work is worthy of inclusion. It is important to make characters as distinct as possible, and limning their childhood, for instance, is a solid way to do that. So how can these two imperatives work in better harmony? 

A first step is reviewing the background pieces, especially entire chapters. How many do you have? Using a rough count, add up the number of pages devoted to background as well. Then count the number of present-day chapters during that same early stretch, along with its aggregate number of pages. 

If the count is roughly equal, one method of lessening the drag of background pieces is seeing if you can combine them to create fewer of them. This is particularly effective if you are trading back and forth, one for one, between present and background chapters. When you make longer chapters by ganging them up, you are jerking the reader back into the past fewer times. 

That raises a new issue, of course. Aren’t I creating more emphasis on the past by allowing the reader to dwell there longer? That can be addressed by several strategies. First, increase the length of your present-day chapters, ganging them up if necessary, in order to maintain a preponderance on that side. Also, because you generate more tension in chapters in which readers don’t know the outcome, you can create stronger momentum in the present-day chapters by making sure they end on a tense note that the reader wants to see resolved. You leave them hanging, in other words. When you create a tense chapter ending, the reader will have a strong desire to return to the present.

Once you have done that, return to the background pieces with an eye toward cutting them down. You’ll find that the background chapters want to be more compressed, not covering a flashback second by second, because you know the reader is waiting for you to get back to the good stuff in the present. 

Exercise: An efficient way to parcel out background information is use a ladder concept. That is, which character is highest on your ladder in terms of importance? The protagonist should get the greatest volume of background work early on. If you have stories about supporting characters, they can be pushed back later in the book. Just look for stretches where their roles in the present become more important.

“The past is always tense, the future perfect.” ―Zadie Smith

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The End Determines the Means

The process of building a novel layer by layer is harder than it might seem. I regularly review books in which the author ramps up the tension toward a bang-up ending, but as a reader I’m not that energized to see how everything turns out. Sometimes the characters involved in the climax have dropped out of the book for a while. Sometimes they reached a high point earlier on, but by the time the climax sequence starts, they’ve been drifting for a while, waiting for the hero to get done with other necessary business before their turn to shine comes. I’m not engaged with them because, frankly, the author has shuttled them off to the side.

How do you build a story so that the climax has the reader sitting on the edge of their seat? One useful technique is starting from the end of a draft and working backward. What is your high point for a character arc? Let’s say you have a black widow, with three husbands dead in mysterious circumstances, who tries to seduce the hero from the very beginning of their relationship and will seduce him finally in the climax. How do you get from the one point to the other in a way that keeps building? 

You work backward. In the end, let’s say she ties him up and lays him on a pool table, ready to plunge a syringe into him. Okay, nice about that. I could get tensed up about that. Now look at what she was doing in the scene prior to that. She was at the hardware store, buying the rope. Okay, that produces what I call anticipatory tension. What about the scene before that? Oh, she’s milling around the bad guys’ mansion, not performing. Meanwhile, the hero is busy—trying to slip onto the grounds outside. What is the effect on the reader? While she’s waiting around, I’m losing interest in her. If the hero is otherwise occupied, she has to have things to do on another front. Better yet, she needs to be taking active steps that will combat the inroads that the hero is making on the villainous operation. 

Part of making her more vital is clearing the deck of other characters—focusing on her. More to the point, though, is looking back to the beginning and examining what she was doing when she met the hero. How can you build scenes from that starting point? Or, if you do have a good run of scenes that continue to build sexual tension for a while, where does she run out of gas and go into a holding pattern? Could she be assigned other nefarious duties as part of the villainous operation? In other words, seduction is good. Deception is good. Are those qualities going to be enough, however, to sustain her all the way through the book? If not, you have to buttress her role with other activities, such as building a scam to defraud a partner in evil. You can best decide how to do that by viewing all that you have built and working backward.

Exercise: Focus on a single character and put that name at the top of a chart. At the top of the first column, write #—the chapter numbers where they appear. In the next column, write down Pages—which pages that scene occupies (e.g., 43-48). In a wide third column, write Synopsis—you’re going to summarize in a few sentences what the character does in that scene. Now start at the bottom—say, row 20. Work your way back from the end of the novel and see, in reverse, how you have built that character arc. You’ll be surprised at where you are failing that character. Now give them something to do all the way through.

“Never confuse movement with action.”  —Ernest Hemingway 

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Front-Loading Options

The organic method of following your nose into a story can lead an author down blind alleys and, worse, pages that end up being thrown away. While you can always say, “They will make my next book that much shorter,” the chances are that they will never fit in your next book, either. You are better off exploring plot options early in the process.

Let’s say you come up with a concept. You want to write about making movies before the rise of Hollywood. Maybe you know Ithaca, New York, was a site used back in those primitive days. You research a likely film company and the silent films it produced. You decide the protagonist is the person in charge of the props—the furniture and accouterments needed for each scene. A love affair will develop with a leading man, one that mirrors the story in the film.

Before embarking into step-by-step scenes that proceed from winks and nods to bumps to caresses, you might want to lay out a host of scenarios first. One determinant that is useful is research. If you are exploring possible lead characters, what does the historical record say? By finding out more about what really happened on one movie set, you may see more possibilities for the story line you’ve chosen.

As you’re realizing what sort of frame will fit your story, you can start making decisions about your overall endeavor. A romance is fine as a plot line, but you usually will need diversions from it at the very least. Pounding the flesh has only so many variations. Do you want to build in a mystery subplot? How should your characters be arranged for that construct? Will the narrative be more internal, as in a literary book? Do you think you could superimpose another generation of moviemaking, and run the two plot lines in parallel? 

Then write the stuff down. As ideas come to you, let your fingers bring your balloons down to earth. That way you can not only judge a notion dispassionately. You can also come back in ensuing days to determine how the initial impulse is holding up in terms of your desire to pursue it. Keep writing notes for each idea as they strike you. The growing preponderance of one area probably means it’s the right one.

You’re not foreclosing options that may come up later in the first draft. The embrace of early notes does not reach far at all. But what you will accomplish is setting aside obvious wrong choices that you stumble through for 50 pages before wanting to slit your throat for all the time you’ve wasted.

Exercise: Your intentions can filter everything you learn about a subject. If an early movie star was dashing, ask yourself: how would that quality fit into my notes? When research is grist for the mill, you will find facts can spur wavelets of creativity. They push you closer to a conception that satisfies you.

“Intuition is the clear conception of the whole at once.”  —Johann Kaspar Lavater

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


A Sparkling Ring

Embarking on a new book begins with the vaguest of notions. An idea pops out of the ether, and that spark can loop around and around in your head. Along its orbits coalesce related ideas that seem worthy of inclusion. Once this spinning core gains enough gravity, an author can be moved to write down some initial notes about the project. 

The circumstances of the setting, maybe some plotting notes, some ideas about characters can spin out onto the page. I encourage authors to let them come out randomly, since good notes cannot be forced. Or rather, the ones prematurely organized will likely be discarded at a later date. A more profitable enterprise during this opening phase is focusing on who the players in the drama will be.

Such initial notes should concern the protagonist, to be sure, but you may also want to devise some sketches of those immediately around the center. The qualities of the hero will exist, after all, within the context of others. You could spin out long paragraphs about what themes and personality traits you’d like to see, but what good are they in isolation? Is the novel only going to feature one character? 

Opposition to the hero’s desires needs to be found. Otherwise, you would not have any drama. That means detailing at least one antagonist that will specifically create obstacles for the hero. If you examine your notes on what the story is about, you can draw up an ideal enemy that will thwart the hero’s desires at multiple points along the novel’s journey. 

That includes only the antagonist. All of the major relationships must contain conflict of some sort. A happy family doesn’t exist in fiction, or rather, any members of the family that are content should be relegated to background noise, filling out the scenery. Does the protagonist have immediate family members? They could frame how the hero acts, possibly decisively. Choosing a pairing of a mother or father, or older brother or sister, would give you multiple mirrors through which to show different facets of your lead. One of them might be a pernicious influence as well, since family relationships are so complex. So, maybe a minor antagonist because we can’t choose our family members.

What comes of expanding immediately to a ring of characters is that you gain various insights from these different directions. Because writing at this stage is not linear, you may come up with a great idea about the hero because you’re were investigating the best friend in college. Another one pops up when describing a quality of the mother. You can fill out the main portrait from the edges as well as from the core.

Exercise: If you let the ideas bang around, pretty soon the separate pages devoted to a half dozen characters, say, are sprinkled with sentences. They can become paragraphs—all of your coordinated good ideas. You may find that’s how creation works best for you, by fortunate accidents.

“The world does not have tidy endings. The world does not have neat connections. It is not filled with epiphanies that work perfectly at the moment that you need them.”  —Dennis Lehane

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


It’s an Outrage

Highly developed countries have robustly developed governments, and their laws and regulations affect countless endeavors, including topics in nonfiction books. That association is made even stronger by the fact that books tend to feature issues that are crying out for reform. Readers like to read about hot-button topics. Yet the unwary author who becomes too assiduous about their research may find that their personal feelings undercut the benefits the book intends to provide.

Many nonfiction books are written to guide a reader through the maze of a specific field, such as estate planning. A seasoned accountant with a literary flair may know all sorts of issues that people young and old should consider when laying out a long-range budget. The book’s objective is stated in its title, subtitle, and advertising copy on its back cover or flap copy. All are designed to lure the reader into purchasing the book. This is hardly a pernicious practice, because that browser likely came into the bookstore looking for just such a guide.

A subject like estate planning is bound by all sorts of rules and regulations. Indeed, one of the main thrusts of the book may be to lead the reader through arcane labyrinths whose sense is known only to our esteemed rule makers. During a discussion on 401K contributions, for one example, the author may have to explain a recent IRS–mandated change. That might entail expanding into why the Senate Finance Committee, say, led the way to a new law. 

As long as only the facts are presented—which year and which august chairman—the author is on safe grounds. The problem lies in the perceived unfairness of the law, or the change. If the author starts intruding with their personal opinion, the material becomes politically charged. Even worse is an entire passage, perhaps running for several pages, tracing the past futility of both parties to make such an obvious correction. When you see exclamation points, it’s time to start groaning. 

The question a reader may rightfully ask is: what makes you an expert on this political discussion? Do you have a Ph.D. in this area? Do you have an academic or professional credential? In other words, as the reader I have stuff I don’t like either, but I limit my umbrage to dinner-party discussions. That’s the correct realm for such material, as far as I can tell.

Exercise: Let’s return to the idea of undercutting. If a reader becomes annoyed, all of the worthy information you are providing is cast in the shade of your personal opinions. Once you have finished a draft, take a hard look at any of those sections. Are you just presenting facts? Once you take out your slant, you may find that the facts make your case for you.

“Those convinced against their will are of the same opinion still.” —Dale Carnegie

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


The Endless Explanations

One of the advantages of the 1st-person narrative voice is the ability for a character to spill out thoughts and comments. The personal touches that this interior work adds can change pedestrian prose into a highly nuanced style. Since the narrator’s view of an event determines how the reader experiences it, you can make the most banal daily undertakings fresh and engaging. 

I am an advocate of the open-spigot approach when you are getting ideas out of your head onto the paper. When they remain whirling upstairs in your brain, their usefulness is compromised by the myriad other ideas you are planning to get into the story somewhere. They also can glow with a promise that often dims when set in the concrete of black type. So, get it down first in order to focus on what you actually have.

When you go back to edit, what you may find is a melange of striking thoughts—the keepers—and what I’ll call notes to yourself. Let’s take an extended example to illustrate. Say you want to capture the prickly interactions between a male teenager and his mother.  The barbs contained in the dialogue may have some sting, but you don’t want the exchange to sound like another show on Nickelodeon. So smart, and aren’t they from L.A.? You add commentary in between the lines of dialogue to define why this relationship is different. In this case, maybe the boy’s father died a few years back.

During the editing, a primary objective should be to transform as much of the commentary into the dialogue as possible. That is, once you know the relationship, you can craft the lines of dialogue to make the ramifications of the father’s death implicit—both in what they say and how they react to statements. If the boy gave up sports to mind his younger siblings after school, that resentment frames what he says about his siblings when he talks to his mother. It frames how he reacts when she complains about never having a spare moment to herself. As you go through the manuscript, you can look at each sentence of narrative commentary on an issue and ask: “Can what he is saying assume they’re both aware of the issue?” Then you can delete the commentary.

When you winnow out such notes to yourself, what will remain are the more acute thoughts. He may make a sweeping remark to the reader that he knows he dares not say to his mother. He may vow to do something in the future. In this way the thoughts become just another dazzling means of attack.

Exercise: As you’re reviewing, separate out what happened in the past from the present. You can trim remarks about the past, for sure, but most of the notes to cut concern the present. That stuff is dynamic, which you should change to become active.

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”    —Anton Chekhov

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Follow Your Nose

When an author is writing a mystery, the full extent of the plot may not be clear until later or at the end of a draft. This incomplete knowledge exists on one plane, that of the writer overlooking the story. Another plane entirely belongs to the protagonist, or whoever is investigating the crime(s) within the story. Of necessity, the lead character starts with incomplete knowledge, because that is how a mystery is built: pulling away successive veils until the denouement. 

One cardinal mistake an author can make is conflating the two planes. This error occurs because the writer is trying so hard to merge with the character’s thoughts in order to draw the reader into the fictional world. Yet mystery is a genre that often pits what the author (and sometimes the clued-in reader) knows against what the character knows.

A common strategy by a skilled author is to train the hero’s sights on local targets. The crime is framed by the partial window they can see. This approach also has the benefit of feeling logical. If a kidnapping, for example, occurs in Evanston, just north of Chicago, the notion that the criminals live in the area makes eminent sense. 

You can then provide several on-site clues, such as an attack on the campus of Northwestern University (located in Evanston), an incident on the El train heading south into Chicago, or whatever else could be related to local actors . . . and other actors who have traveled to the local scene. 

Because the protagonist starts from the limited point of view, the initial inquiries can be curtailed simply by the lack of comprehension that an outside force would want to invade what, to the protagonist, is a private space. We were just going to the playground! is one variation. Yet this advantage concerns not only plotting. An author can use this first phase of investigation to build a core cast of characters that can then travel with the protagonist, either in person or remotely, to other locales as the clues direct them. It is likely by that point in the book that you have already begun featuring scenes of the abducted victim in a different location. That way you pit a hero’s knowledge against the reader’s to create nice layering.

Exercise: Building a ring of characters around the protagonist is basically your main job during the first third of a novel. While private scenes can be effective, the demands of the mystery genre press in the kitchen-table affairs. If you can use a local investigation to keep those key characters busy, you kill two birds with one stone.

“Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.” —Jean Rhys

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


A Delicate Equipoise

Authors bring different innate strengths to their writing. Some are clever in plotting ingenious twists. Some have a knack for knowing the right gossipy detail about a character. Still others have a knack for painting word pictures. The disparity of talents can lead to an uneven narrative if the writer isn’t careful to maintain a balance. 

For this post I will set aside plot and character in favor of focusing on descriptions. Narrowing further, I’ll leave out descriptions that show a flair for metaphor, describing an object by using an unexpected parallel. I’ll concentrate instead on very detailed descriptions, as seen almost with a magnifying glass.

This style of descriptive work hails from the late nineteenth century, before film came into vogue. Readers of dense books like those of Thomas Hardy marvel even today at the remarkable ability to “see” the fictional world being portrayed. These books are accompanied by a narrative approach that applies such details to a novel’s other aspects, particularly the feelings of the characters and the moral milieu in which the outsider was punished.

Such harmony is difficult to achieve these days, when prose style in general has been largely stripped of such flourishes.  Nobody speaks anymore with cultured mannerisms, for one example. The advances of science have shorn us largely of any cosmos-based morality, making a character’s thoughts more utilitarian as well. So, what happens to a modern writer who happens to be terrific at painting exquisite word pictures?

If they are placed within a novel in which the other narrative elements are more plain, descriptions that hone in on pinpoint details can seem florid. The writer’s strength is undone because the different aspects of the novel are unbalanced. Any reader coming upon a half page of intricate sentences may be repelled by their very density when in fact the opposite is intended.  

A good solution is for the writer to raise their game in other elements as well. If the protagonist has equally knotty thoughts about life’s eternal questions, then the entire enterprise is raised to the level of literature. Portraying such a rich inner life is, however, the most difficult achievement for a novelist. A description can be gained by close observation. The complexity of the tribulations we all face is less easily captured. But if you wish to scale the heights of the one peak, you should try to match it with the other.

Exercise: One way to skirt the imbalance is by breaking up descriptions into smaller parcels. A paragraph with three painstaking sentences can be enjoyed as a sideline while on the way to the next plot development or inner monologue. A single sentence thrown in juxtaposition to strong action can be a refreshing break away from its intensity. You just insert less rich cake at a time.

“You can't have words sticking out too much, like promontories. They disturb the density. You have to flatten them, or raise the surrounding terrain.” —Ben Okri

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Managing Point of View

Inexperienced authors have a rude awakening when their manuscripts are rejected, in part or solely, because of “head hopping.” That term of derision is applied when the point of view shifts from one character to the next within the same scene. Yet oftentimes the omniscient narrative voice is chosen precisely because the writer wants to convey the thoughts and intentions of multiple characters. 

The imperative for this open-ended narration is greatest during a climax sequence. The author wants to convey not only the point of view of the villain, but of the protagonist and possibly a character in grave peril because of the villain. So, three points of view, and the author wants to keep switching in order to heighten the suspense of each step along the way. The feat can be pulled off by employing four tools.

First, a chapter can be broken into multiple scenes, with a line-space break in between them. You’re not head hopping, because you’ve switched to a new scene. When you look at an exciting chapter closely, you’ll see that one character will tend to dominate a sequence for paragraphs at a time. You’re not making the reading too jagged by switching every page or so, or even a half page at a time.

Second, when you’re switching for only a single paragraph, see if it can be moved to the next time that character assumes the point of view. For instance, if the villain throws a victim into a closet, the next paragraph’s descriptions of the victim being bruised may not have to come immediately afterward. The reader already knows what happened. If you make the reader wait a half page to record the bruises, no one is going to notice. Such transpositions apply especially to the protagonist hunting for the villain. If the capture isn’t imminent, does that step in getting closer really have to go right there? 

Third, look at single paragraphs and ask if they are needed at all. You may find that you’re repeating that step in the sequence, only from a different point of view. Yes, you do have the slight shading, and the reactions of the second character are useful for suspense, but does that outweigh the need for the smoothest narrative—the least breaks—possible?

Finally, the feeling of choppiness can be eased by breaking more frequently to a new chapter. It is common practice in a climax sequence to employ short chapters. The break itself creates suspense, because it leaves the reader hanging. An even better idea is to see, as much as possible, if you can have each chapter either end or start with a scene featuring the protagonist. Now you’re creating dramatic emphasis when in fact you’re using the narrative gambit for another reason entirely.

“This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”  —Oscar Wilde 

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Don’t Hate the Copy Editor

The core reason that a copy edit can turn into a clash concerns the varying roles that an author and copy editor play in the publishing process. The writer desires freedom of expression in order to tell a good story. A copy editor tries to corral an author’s exuberance within boundaries that make the reader’s experience error-free. It is no wonder that where to draw those lines can become so problematic.

An author needs to explode within the work. I encourage this among all the writers I work with—get it out on the page. Don’t let a character’s thoughts remain inside the author’s head. Describe action in minute detail to put us inside a character’s shoes. Place us all in a character’s surroundings.  That is a writer’s most important job: to make us vicariously enjoy a character’s experiences. The more deeply a character is explored, the more we will enjoy the book.

In the desire to throw everything out on the table where the reader can see it, errors can be made. An author is focused on the big picture, not all the details that compose sentences. A very common concern for a copy editor is the series comma (with three objects in a row, a comma is added before the “and”). An author may regard the matter as negotiable; sometimes it feels right and sometimes it doesn’t. Yet a copy editor needs to make the usage consistent, for a very good reason. Readers take cues from every element of the text, and a missing comma can cause them to falter, wondering if a mistake was made. If this concern seems petty, that’s because it is. Yet this tiny variance can occur hundreds of times within a manuscript, which means hundreds of possible momentary flickers of doubt in a reader’s mind—all of which are unnecessary with consistent application of the rule. 

The unending onslaught of such small corrections can infuriate an author, particularly if the copy editor decides that certain rules “must” be applied. Once she has applied it once, she then must be consistent with her change and mark it every time after that. This license can be taken imperiously. After all, she has worked on possibly hundreds of manuscripts, and she knows what the standard rules are. The author is regarded as a bumbling fool. That can mean the copy editor is acting like a cop, and it isn’t her duty to police authors but to help them. 

The conflict is compounded by the fact that authors can be arrogant themselves.  They can be irate if anybody dares touch anything they write, no matter how well grounded the cause. The level of rage, I should point out, usually corresponds to an author’s familiarity with grammar rules. 

How do you avoid this struggle? You should be aware of good grammar practice. The rules are not meant to hem in your exuberance of expression. They are part of a compact between you and your readers, so their reading experience is seamless. An experienced copy editor will bend when that is sensible. You too, if you are not a hot dog, have the right to ask that a change be restored. But don’t hate the copy editor when, most of the time, they are trying to make you look good. You are simply engaging in an age-old struggle between creativity and analysis. You are the creator: you can confer forgiveness. 

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Using One Attack

The business fable had its genesis as part of a logical progression. So many books in this genre are forms of exhortation written in a personal vernacular that connects directly to its reader. “You can do it!” is not a far cry from an entire chapter in which a fictionalized business leader shows their work force how to do it. In addition, the fable frees a business writer to expand into fiction, albeit in a circumscribed way.

In a more formal narrative a writer can also employ another favorite of the genre: a numbered or bulleted list. Many business people like to work in this format, since it is an extension of a daily or weekly to-do list. Indeed, I have edited manuscripts in which it’s hard to tell what should dominate: narrative or the lists. They are useful especially at the end of a chapter, because they can summarize points that are considered important.

What does not work so well is a melding of the business fable with the list format. They are two extremes of narrative style, and switching back and forth between them is jarring to the reader. It is easy to understand why. Narrative nonfiction flows smoothly, with personalities and dialogue, and the reader is engaged by the lifelike interactions. The entries in a list, on the contrary, are designed to be brief and succinct, hammering home point after point. At the end of a dramatic chapter in a fable, a list can seem like a stern teacher—these are the takeaways!

Sometimes a writer will try to avoid the contrast by spinning out the entire fable first and then tacking on an extended list for the second part of the book. This approach makes the matter worse. Readers grow used to the effortless and fun rhythm of a fictionalized story, and they may put down the book after reading only a few of the imperatives the list demands. Oh, brother, here are the takeaways.

What works better is melding the two completely. Why does a topic of discussion need a number? A writer can compose the list as a separate entity to start. Then each point will become clear. Then the written material can be inserted into the fable. It has to be refashioned somewhat to fit the looser style, but that way you are buttressing what you know works.

Exercise: Once you have drawn up the list, go back to the fable portion of the manuscript. As you read, look for places where a topic from the list would logically fit. Drop those in as you go. When you are finished, you merely need to go back and make the list text into asides that the lead “character” in the fable tells directly to the reader.

“Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.”  —Frederic Bastiat

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Lack of Coordinates

Wanting to be different is a natural impulse, and so is the desire to break the mold. Over the centuries writing has advanced a long way, from the rollicking adventures of Tom Jones to the automatic writing of James Joyce, among other innovations. So an author cannot be blamed for striving to find a unique voice.

One of the more unfortunate modern experiments, however, has been the development of prose that lacks punctuation. While such a read is merely challenging in the hands of an experienced author, it can be highly annoying when coupled with undistinguished writing. Not using periods and commas in the right places sometimes is the only feature that makes the material different. Now we venture into the realm of really bad.

As an editor, I correct grammar as a matter of course. I correct typos even when I am engaged in a developmental edit, which is on a plane a level above grammar. So perhaps I am more offended than most when I encounter sloppy writing. I don’t see why I should pick up after an author like a child’s maid.

Willful arrogance is common among writers, and it can be good for a novel. Yet that attitude can go too far for the poor slob out in reader-land. If I have to struggle to read a book that isn’t first-rate, I am inclined to put it down in favor of a not-so-great novel that I can read effortlessly. I am hardly alone among my clan. Unless you are well-known, you will find to your cost that typos are one of the primary reasons a submission is rejected, by either an agent or an editor.

Besides the commercial aspect, it is worth considering the point of the exercise in the first place. You’re trying to involve the reader. If readers have to supply the  periods, they read more carefully. That attention is similar to the way a densely  written novel, say by Thomas Mann, has to be read. The extra diligence is rewarded by the depth of what is discovered.

This is where an author has to be realistic. Is your prose that special? Are the ideas you are espousing so unique? In other words, a lack of punctuation places a greater burden on you to be original in order to reward the greater effort by the reader. To help you make your decision, sit down and read a book you admire. Are you measuring up? If not, maybe you’d better make life easier on all of us.

Exercise: Grammar is not a straitjacket. It is a tool of the profession. You are trying to communicate to others, so you use a rulebook we all go by. Once you have mastered your craft, you can bend what is expected, play with the reader to make certain points stand out. But first sit down with your middle-school grammar book and make sure you know how to maneuver through your text.

“Art is messy, art is chaos—so you need a system.”  Andrew Stanton

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Once Upon a Time

When choosing a subject for a novel, a number of authors choose to write for a younger market. Children’s books, even those for young adults, are shorter, which means less of a writing mountain looming ahead. You may feel that you have always been a teacher of sorts, so the impulse toward instruction is natural. Once the book is started, however, a difficulty of a most basic variety crops up. What sorts of vocabulary words should be used? How complex should the sentences be?

Authors frequently think in terms of their own desire, neglecting basic principles they would follow in ordinary life. Would you buy the first nail gun you see? Do you even need to buy one at all? You would research the question to find out. The same holds true for this market you have chosen. Don’t shoot in the dark—look up online what books schools recommend for each grade level. Then read a few of them, hopefully your direct competition. If you want to write a historical novel, read the ones they recommend and see what level that writing hits.

One reason I point this out is that children are more sophisticated than you think. Depending on the grade, they may be used to reading complex sentences, for one example. You shouldn’t assume that children don’t know words that are longer than eight letters. When you consider that New York Times articles are written at a ninth-grade reading level, you don’t have to dumb it down so much. Not only that, but teachers at each grade level want books that challenge their students to find new words. If you’re writing at a fourth-grade reading level for the sixth-grade audience you want to reach, remember who are the guardians at the gate. 

How do you know what level you should be writing at? That is an easy question to answer. Education is one of the largest sectors in the country. Entire websites are devoted to all sorts of topics for students. Your readers are the ones that can run circles around you tech-wise, remember? You can check your reading level by consulting online sources such as Readable and Lexile and Quantile Hub, for two good examples. 

The willingness to do your homework as an author will prepare you for the most important task at all. You need to communicate, as an adult, to children. You have to be a little kid inside. All of the hundreds of other children’s authors are doing it. See how you can help out with your great ideas.

Exercise: When studying your competition, you need to divorce yourself from the material you are reading. If you get caught up in the story—or, if you pooh-pooh how simple it is—what good does that do for your analysis? The best tactic is to stop frequently. Read only a few pages of a chapter. Don’t finish it. Then go back to the start of the chapter and read it again. That way you’ll be able to say: that’s what they are doing so well.

“Make it a rule never to give a child a book you would not read yourself.”            ― George Bernard Shaw

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


All That Luggage

A writer’s interest in a character or subject can exceed the reader’s. A major  reason is that an author writes more about it than is apparent in a finished work. If you have written notes or entire scenes that you decide not to include, all of that material infuses what you leave in. That’s good practice, as far as it goes. But how can you tell when you have too much?

The clearest indication is how well you have laid out the developmental sequence. By that I mean the stages by which the topic is built over the course of the novel. If you start early and finish late, the reader will be more receptive, because they realize it is more important to the story. You keep elaborating on a known subject matter.

The worst approach is to dump it on the reader all at once. Let’s say I as the reader have been following the protagonist for the first 100 pages or so, seeing how other characters and plot lines interact. Then the writer decides to segue into a 30-page segment on the (quite disturbed) uncle. A character that comes on too strong upon first acquaintance can irritate the reader. The experience is similar to feeling pained when a conversation with a stranger becomes over-long. I just don’t want to know their whole life story. 

The problem can be compounded if the uncle, in this case, appears only in that one patch. Such planning is the fault of the novelist. If I only have one chance to meet the uncle, and the rest of the book merrily sails away without him, I’m left wondering: why did I need to know all that stuff?

The same holds true for a subject area. You may pick a topic of general fascination, such as what it’s like to fight a fire. Yet if some stranger to me goes through all the routines of getting dressed, meeting the crew, taking the truck to the fire, planning how to enter the building, and on and on, my interest is going to wane. What about all the other story elements that I was enjoying before the detour into the blazes?

Let’s return to that earlier idea: start small and grow bigger. Despite how large a novel may seem, you actually have a very limited number of targets that you can successfully portray. Maybe all of the terrific work that you have done would work better as a full subplot in your next book. Don’t shoehorn it in. If it’s important to you, make sure you lay it out nicely for the reader.

Exercise: You can calculate how long an opening sally should be, based on the lengths of your other chapters. If your average is 10 pages, don’t go beyond that. Chop up the full passage into pieces and then drop them into the existing text with decent chunks of the main plot intervening. That way you’ll be forced to develop the segue material too.

“A healthy male adult bore consumes each year one and a half times his own weight in other people's patience.”  —John Updike 

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.