Take One More Step

We can grasp a concrete notion better than a general one. That’s why a well-told detail is specific. Let’s take a typical example of a lazy description: “The crowd hurried by, trying to get out of the rain.” Even if I know the place and time beforehand, do I really feel like I am participating in the action? 

Stop for a moment and describe one person hurrying. Is an older man cursing because his umbrella just flipped inside-out in the wind? Did a young woman clip the neck of the heroine with her umbrella spokes as she bulled past?  Does the hero look down at his front and see it all spattered, making him readjust how he is carrying his umbrella? Forget the crowd. Look for examples within the crowd. You don’t have to go crazy: each one of the examples I just supplied is merely one sentence apiece. 

The specific detail can also include a short burst of dialogue. For example, everyone in New York City knows it’s impossible to hail a cab when it’s raining. You can ratchet up tension if the heroine, flailing her arm uselessly, suddenly shouts: “Goddamn all the cabs in this city!” Everyone nearby turns to look at the madwoman—and we now know how hard it’s raining.

Where specifics really work is with repeated actions that are glossed over in passing. Sticking with the topic of city life, how about: “All the petty indignities of the daily commute were getting him down.” Now, how am I supposed to get inside that? 

Give us an example of the indignities. A lead character races over to a miraculously available ticket machine at a train station, only to find a taped piece of paper over its view window, reading: “Out of Order.” A woman alone in a two-seater hears the train doors close, and as she sighing in relief, an immensely fat man who just made it on walks down the aisle, nods slightly at her, and plops down with all that blubber beside her. 

As noted before, this sort of work can be as brief as you like. The key is, whenever you use a plural, consider whether you can turn it into a singular. Then you’ll find the example wonderfully lights up the rule.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye toward actions or events described in the plural. When you find one, determine if it’s consequential enough to deserve a fuller example. If so, sit back for a few moments and sort through the possible examples of that blanket statement. Write down a few, allowing your mind to continue to play with the idea. Once you stop and listen, so to speak, you’ll find that your mind contains a flood of terrific singular examples.

"There are two cardinal sins from which all others spring: Impatience and Laziness." — Franz Kafka 

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


What Is Implicit

The early phase of a novel features a good deal of what I call “setup” material. An author needs to put the reader’s feet on the ground in a fictional world. That includes establishing the settings and providing backgrounds for the major characters. For the story to have any richness, such work is vital. Yet authors can write these pieces as though their audience has never inhabited a similar setting or met a similar character type. The result can be yawns of recognition. How do you know what should go and what should stay?

A good rule of thumb is: use what is fresh. Does your setting have interesting or exotic features that set it apart? For instance, mention the swaying palm trees in a passing sentence, but dig in on the driftwood shelter a beach bum has built. With characters, use quick strokes to lay down a stormy relationship of the father and daughter over driving the family car. Get to the friend who has snuck into the car and pops out when they leave the driveway. 

What writers forget, in the dark of the lonely study, is that readers are bombarded with settings and character relationships all the time, from Sesame Street onward. Say, you want to lay down the setting of a high school. Do you think I know how tedious an oral book report is? You bet I do—and you can summarize the whole scene in one sentence. Go straight to the scene where the student pulls out the quart of Colt .45. 

If you want to establish a cool student browbeating a loser, do it in one scene or two. Past that you are merely trading on sympathy that is already running thin. The reader has probably read a dozen articles or stories on bullying. Instead, you should decide whether you are going to build the relationship during the course of the book, until the loser hopefully shoots the bully, or move on with either of the two to create new heights for them elsewhere. 

Burrowing down into a story objective is the only way to make the ordinary interesting. If you lay the groundwork for a relationship that will build over a series of 20 scenes, you can use reader recognition of certain plot turns or characteristics as ways to involve them more deeply. Even then, keep trying to surprise us with the endless complexity of the human species.

Exercise: You can test out whether a setup scene works by deleting it entirely. Wait two weeks and then read the 20 pages before it and after it. What missing ingredients do you feel are vital for the reader to know? Read over the scene and pick out the necessary pieces. Then place them in another scene. Wait two weeks and read that passage again. Do you still think you need the scene?

“Perhaps there is no agony worse than the tedium I experienced waiting for Something to Happen.” —Lance Loud

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Historical Determinants

Unless you would like to spend years writing your historical novel, you are advised to consider some cardinal points that will frame your concept. Starting from the ground up may work in history, according to Tolstoy, but that method can lead to dozens of pages you’ll later throw out. Here are some commonsense questions you should ask yourself:

First, why would a reader be interested in reading about a certain time period? Just because you are interested in the separation movement that ended with Kentucky becoming the 15th state doesn’t mean anyone else has any idea what that was. You can develop stirring characters and moving personal dramas, but don’t count on lines at the bookstore based on the concept.

Second, how much does the novel depend on the historical events that occurred during the time frame you have chosen? This genre has severe limitations on the imagination in the public sphere. If you start with the idea about how a family in the era fell apart due to historical circumstances, such as the father heading out west in the 1850s, you have to make sure that his participation in the Kansas border war does not lead the book so far astray that the family left behind is forgotten by the reader too. Otherwise, when he returns home, no one is going to care what happens.

Third, when mapping out the plot, how much research have you done into the historical figures and the events that will appear in the novel? You cannot narrate events that contravene what is known, and often a first pass through a general history of the era does not reveal the fine details you need to know. If you have a great idea about an African American counterfeiter in pre-Civil War New York City, a close look will inform you that blacks were not involved in that type of crime. Counterfeiting depended largely on how the “shover” presented himself to a merchant or banker, and you can’t dismiss the fact that, however wrongly, blacks were regarded in the city as second-class citizens. 

That leads to the question that any historical novelist favors: How well can you organize the novel’s plot around a historical event? To extend the prior example, the signal event for New York African Americans during this time period was the Draft Riots of 1863. So what does Kevin Baker do in Paradise Alley? He starts the novel with a black woman near the present-day Seaport who sees a gang of men marching and shouting in the streets about Abraham Lincoln’s new draft law. Historical and private events are entwined from the very start, and that makes the novel powerful.

“I was reading this book today, The History of Glue, and I couldn't put it down.”   —Tim Vine

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


What Crosses the Finish Line

Along the long march to completing a draft lie pods of material you’ve written. At one time a mini background for the protagonist’s friend’s mother, for instance, may have seemed worthwhile because it helped to explain the friend’s motivation for a plot event. Dozens of similar explanations can dot a novel, all of which had a cogent reason at the time. Yet as you’re reading over the draft after completion, you notice that the first third of the story moves very slowly. How do you decide how to accelerate the pacing?

A useful practice is isolating a single character at a time. You can use a chart with columns that track: on which pages they appear, how many pages for each appearance, and the subject matter of the scene. Finally, create a column for background material. The entries can consist of two types—narrative summaries and flashback scenes—so use letters like NS and FL to indicate the difference. 

Numbers don’t lie. If you study the column that records when someone appears, you can see if those scenes are clustered earlier or later. What can often happen is that you were interested in a character for a while, such as when they were useful for the plot. Later, the character may become more of an also-ran—still showing up but not performing action of any note. When regarded from a reader’s perspective, they fall by the wayside because they are not continuing to command attention.

Now look at the background column. How many pages have you devoted to setting up that character? If you see a total of 6-7 pages, you might not think it’s that big a deal. The problem comes in when you consider how many pages you have devoted to all of the other characters. If you create charts for each, you can cross-check them and identify on which pages they all get background work. Since many authors place background material within the first third of a book, when you’re trying to set up distinctive characters, you may have unintentionally created a logjam. 

That’s when examining each of the charts for appearances later in the novel can bear fruit. Those characters with major roles later should dominate in the realm of background material as well. They are the ones paying off for the time the reader spent reading about them. If you cut back the early material to reflect that emphasis, you’ll find that not only does your pacing increase, your major characters stand out more because you’ve cleared away unnecessary brush.

Exercise: Often a minor character’s background involves the protagonist. What you may be able to do is substitute a major character in their place. If it is a childhood prank, for example, could you merely change the names and produce the same effect? 

“Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.” —Igor Stravinsky

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Acid Test: You

A common problem for fledgling authors and even those who have written multiple plot-driven novels is the distance that divides them from their main character(s). Because writing involves both narrating a plot event and placing a character within it, a writer tends to focus the first draft on the former, at the expense of the latter. The distance is increased by the common use of the third-person narrator. The “he” or “she” down on the page is coming from inside you, but only as an actor in your drama.

This two-faced process can lead to commentary on the character rather than their experiencing the event from the inside. Let’s take an example: “Josh had to face the downside of leaving college without a plan to achieve the status he craved.” Is that Josh’s thought or the author’s remark about him? It doesn’t really matter, because the reader’s reaction is the same: I’ve never felt that way, not once.

That’s because a reader does not have the same problem as an author. A reader is a vicarious participant, wanting to live inside the head of the main character(s). The closer the experience feels, the more satisfying the story is. This passive stance becomes active only when a reader does not feel that close connection. Uh, the reader puts the book back on the shelf, never to be read again.

A simple test can help you determine the distance of any thought. Put the thought in the first-person narrative voice. If you substitute, using the example above, you get: “I had to face the downside of leaving college without a plan to achieve the status I craved.” Ask yourself: have you ever had such a thought in your entire lifetime? Of course not. You may have never thought you “craved” anything.

A narrative summary is the right place to put such distant writing. If you want to move past a subject quickly, by all means trot out fancier words. It’s not a character’s thought, so you can afford to be more impersonal. The very use of such language is a signal to the reader that a bunch of “factual” material is being covered in one sweep.

With the thoughts, keep shifting into the first-person. That type of writing is the most immediate—and immediacy is what brings a reader close. Dumb down your thoughts if you have to. That lofty statement might become: “It was pretty obvious that not graduating from college was a sure road to feeding a robot.” The reader can feel that, maybe even smile. That is an emotional connection.

Exercise: You can take the self-analysis process one step further. Put the first-person statement within quotation marks, as though it was being spoken aloud. What was the last time you heard someone use “craved” in a conversation? Once you’re done editing, just remove the quotations and change the thought back to the third-person voice.

“Laughter is the closest distance between two people.”  —Victor Borge

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.  


The Personal Touch

The what if? concept begins most novels. An interesting plot premise is then filled out with characters and plot lines. If enough details are laid in place, the most outrageous notion can be made believable, a truth to which any science fiction author can attest. As the world begins to emerge from the Covid crisis, authors may seize upon this concept in which to infuse their real-world struggles during the past year.

You can count on readers picking up the book to see what you’ve got. Yet translating such a broad idea into a story that characters can inhabit requires plotting that grounds the reader in the author’s “real” world. This is where you can fall short. The natural instinct is to plunge into scenes so you can write about characters you’ve picked out, adding convincing dialogue and descriptions. The impulse is right, to make the reader empathize with the lead characters. Yet if the larger plot containing these scenes isn’t supported enough with convincing details, the reader will continue to be nagged by the sense that real life seems stranger than your fiction.

The broader the premise, the more likely it will feel slight compared to the real thing. An epidemic happens to be a good example, since that concept is real enough but also so widespread that it can feel amorphous. There is no moral dilemma for a character, unless you think fights over mask wearing will entertain the reader. The process of devising the antidote—i.e., defeating the villain—seems stuffily scientific and likely sterile. 

You need to telescope the worldwide problem into tight circles of characters. You can succeed by exploring the personal within the wider realm. In other words, you need scenes featuring a set of people suffering from the virus, along with their affected family members. That is why feature articles in magazines always start with a single individual—the example proves the rule. There can be no protagonist madly scrambling to save the day. You need to focus on the human element to show why the pandemic must be stopped. 

The novel might work better if it transforms into another classic shape: the kitchen table drama. If you keep featuring the same individuals, the story becomes a web of relationships. A mother who is increasingly worried that the outbreak at her child’s school will have transmitted the disease to her daughter grabs our attention, then our pity if the daughter succumbs. What is best is if a featured victim is related to the main character. Now the epidemic feels real—because you provided people with whom we can identify.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out only for how the characters will connect privately. How well are you supporting the building relationships as the novel goes on? Sickness and death in this context can be employed dramatically, but the primary determinant of their effectiveness is how much you have made the reader love the characters affected.

“But what does it mean, the plague? It's life, that's all.”  ―Albert Camus 

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Concise, Not Precise

As an author learns how to write, the impulse to provide pinpoint details becomes more pronounced. A confident person strides rather than walks. Not wanting to wake a partner, a wife takes care not only to tiptoe but tiptoe over the squeaky board at the top of the stairs. More exact observation by the author leads to the reader feeling more in-depth impressions from the fictional world being created.

That encouraging trend in writing skills needs to be balanced, however, by the dictum to entertain. In trying to locate a character fully, an author can waste the reader’s time. Let’s say Ellen is stopped by a policeman, who takes his regal time examining her license and registration. A description might go: “Ellen watched him out the side window of the car, wondering what was taking him so long.” Okay, that’s how she would do it. But then I wonder: how else would she watch him? The phrase “the side window of the car” isn’t needed at all. That leads to the next consideration: if she is going to watch something, it had better to be unique (aka entertaining). What details can you pick out of a routine traffic stop that makes the incident noteworthy?

The same false emphasis on precision leads to unneeded verbiage. After the cop leaves, Ellen is mad. The description of her driving away might be: “The tires of the car sped away down a narrow lane.” Again, I understand the logic: the tires connote squealing and the like. But it’s also childish: how else is the car to speed down the road? If you take “the tires of” out of the sentence, what is left? Should you be telling the reader about the car speeding away at all? I, for one, would rather know how Ellen feels about cops in general, or about her love of driving fast—or anything more attention-grabbing and fun.

Any description needs to perform a distinctive purpose. I don’t need to know that “Howard raised his phone to the side of his head.” Where else would you raise the phone to? I don’t have to know any of that information unless it provides insight into either Howard or what he is doing. If in raising the phone, Howard bangs himself on the underside of his ear, and he curses because he does that kind of stuff all the damned time, now I’m smiling. Yep, being a lummox is part of life. Unless the detail is telling, though, you are functioning merely as a video recorder. Make sure what you capture comes from an interesting vantage point.

Exercise: The easiest way to spot excess descriptions is to look for prepositions. In a sentence that uses “the tires of the car,” I first am alerted by the “of.” Look hard both at the noun the prepositional phrase describes and then at the object of the preposition. Are they distinctive? Or are they just piling a banal word on top of another banal word in an effort to somehow make the noun distinctive? The phrase “of the car” isn’t needed at all.

“Everything in excess is opposed to nature.”  —Hippocrates

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Assembling Blocks

The process of writing a novel is not a straightforward one, even when you have mapped out a complete outline beforehand. That’s because you may become interested in a character unexpectedly, or you write a scene whose drift leads in an unplanned direction that has knock-on effects with later scenes. How can you lessen the amount of time spent writing scenes you’ll later throw out?

Before suggesting an answer, I’ll first note that nothing you write is truly wasted. Sometimes you can’t find the right path until you lose interest in the original one you thought was promising. For instance, you may have planned to make a father distant because he travels all the time, but as the novel progresses, you realize that he’s not getting enough scenes for you to get any payoff from his distance. Those early scenes you wrote with him and a child? If nothing else, it helped you to understand what makes the child tick.

Other scenes may not have to be scrapped, however. Let’s say you originally intended for an older sister, the one the parents deem to be perfect, ends up embezzling money. Yet halfway through you realize that you really want her to marry a creep. When you examine the scenes between the two siblings, you may find that all you have to rework is the material leading toward the thievery. It could be that you have an assortment of wonderful thoughts by the younger sibling about their relationship, as well as some great backstories from childhood. Why do they have to change? Because scenes are mostly local—in terms of where they are located in the novel—the level of tension you are developing can remain much the same. You swap out some dialogue, a few thoughts, and keep the rest. You might even keep all the stuff about the sister’s company if you haven’t revealed the embezzlement yet.

Paying attention to what is interesting you as the novel develops also cuts down on wasted effort. Because a writer can have so many thoughts about what to put in a book, these points of interest may be only flashes that then recede to the back of your mind. If you get in the habit to jotting them down, using a separate file, you can then set up an appointment on your calendar to visit those thoughts every week. Pulling back from the minutia of a single scene to keep reviewing the larger picture will allow you to weigh possible new turns. Just as important, you’ll start to see which ones have promise and which ones are just a flash in the pan.

Exercise: The same review process can work for files on your major characters. If you jot down what new developments intrigue you, you’ll start to notice that certain character files are growing in length each week. You’re drawn to them, so you should do more of that.

“Quite casually I wander into my plot, poke around with my characters for a while, then amble off, leaving no moral proved and no reader improved.”                      —Thorne Smith

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Not to Be

During the course of a line edit, one of the most common suggestions I make is changing a variant of the word “is” into an active verb. While “there is” and “it is” are obvious culprits in passive sentence construction, I’d like to point out the other most common words associated with this static verb.

The first word is “now.” I won’t bother bemoaning the fallacy of using this word in prose written in the past tense, as most novels are. I will merely point out that “is now” usually is a shortcut for describing how a character got from there to here. Here’s an example: “I was now at an altitude of over thirteen thousand feet.” 

Think about that: could a person’s heroic efforts to climb so high possibly be written in a more boring fashion? How about the scratching of rock, the grunting, and the like? At the very least, the verb could become active: “I had vaulted to an altitude of over thirteen thousand feet.”

A second flag is the use of “it is” related to personal effort. The “it” in this case is the author’s comment on a character. Let’s take: “It had been an enormous struggle filled with doubt.” This is an inert lump of a sentence. In so many of these cases you can merely change the “it” to “I” and substitute an active verb: “I had endured an enormous struggle filled with doubt.”

A third marker is the use of the “to be” verb twice in a sentence. This often occurs when an author thinks of one quality a character possesses and then tacks on another, e.g.: “With reddish blonde hair, her name was Barbara, and she was an intensive care unit nurse.” Right away I’m thinking: reduce one of the clauses to a phrase; get rid of that second “was.” A good way to do that is invert the order of the sentence: “Barbara was an intensive care unit nurse with reddish blonde hair.”  

One primary benefit of stopping to examine passive construction is giving yourself the opportunity to think more deeply about what you want to accomplish in that sentence. How many interesting verbs could be linked with “an enormous struggle filled with doubt”? You start probing, you add richness. Do it 100 times, and guess what? The reader is a big winner.

Exercise: I should clarify that a form of “to be” can be used as a helper verb in a progressive sentence. That means that the action in the sentence is ongoing. “She was helping me lower the fire-escape stairs.” That’s not passive. “Was” is not the main verb. When you’re trying to trim “to be,” the sign to look for here is the “-ing” at the end of the verb following it.

“I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.” —Stephen King

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Oh, the Places You’ll See

Going on vacation would seem like an ideal time to write. You’ll have all those free days. Plus, you’re probably sick to death of the same old routine, in the same room, anchored to that cluttered desk. Travel represents a chance to have new experiences, widen your horizons, provide fresh ideas. Yet when you wake up the first morning in a hotel room, you find you have no intention of writing, none. You want to map out what you’re going to do that day, or you perform some familiar routines, such as checking out sports scores. The hopes you had for new invigoration have vanished in the sultry breeze.

What is the problem? Most likely it stems from trying to write in a strange place. No matter what writing habits you have—in a study or at Starbuck’s—you’re a world away from such touchstones for creativity. Oddly enough, inventing wild and crazy ideas often originates from a mundane, trusted locale.

You may be better off not trying to make progress on your present project. You want new ideas? They’re all around you. Why are you sitting in a hotel room rather than going out to find them? Not everything you write must funnel into useful activity. You know full well how many useless days you have sat at home not coming up with a blessed thing. Abandon the laptop for the phone, or for more old-fashioned types, the legal pad for the pocket notebook. You can stay engaged with the live wire of your writing. Just don’t expect it to be productive.

When you are merely recording impressions, you’ll find that exotic details recorded at the time may be transmuted into a modulated version once back home. You may write a detail about a tropical flower after a brief morning shower, but flowers do tend to be alike in terms of droplets and petals. More to the point, an exotic detail may lead your mind to wander onto a surrogate that would fit better in your homeland.

One good idea is to take some books that you had meant to read but never got around to. If you’re thinking of using a con man as a character, maybe you should bring Herman Melville’s Confidence Man or Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull. Spend a few weeks seeing how they did it without worrying about the mechanics of how you can. When you return home, you may find you’re filled with ideas sparked by your impressions.

Exercise: A profitable practice can be to challenge your foreign jottings when you return to your hotel room. Rather than merely one impression of gloomy light on the Thames, stop to think of the exact opposite: in full sunshine. Rather than rave review ad nauseam about the next sight you see, take a cynical view of it too. You may find the opposite version is the one that proves more useful later.

“Not all those who wander are lost.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


What Rings True

When an author tries to write about a subject that is unfamiliar, research is called for. Within the body of what is read lies two types of knowledge: not only what happened or would happen, but also the exact terminology used. The more general level is essential not to make mistakes that critics will cite with contempt. Yet words matter too, and you can gain belief from the reader because they sound so right.

Compare this laborious approach with the natural authenticity that, say, a former Amazon warehouse worker turned writer possesses. They know from experience what procedures are mechanized and what happens during the Christmas rush. Yet they can grab the reader at every step by the recall of what the workers would say and how they would say it.  

How can hazy notions be converted into exact prose? Let's say you're writing about a change of scenery in between the acts of a Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar. You write it out and realize the language is flabby. It's time to do some research.

Say you decided that a portion of the scenery walls—most people know they are called “flats”—painted to represent a temple in the Roman Forum, would be mounted on a “rolling platform.” Yet that’s not the correct term. It is a “stage wagon” or “scenery wagon.” Maybe you know that the wheels underneath the rolling platform can be stabilized temporarily by sticking wooden triangles next to them. Research discovers that they are called “carpenter wedges.” Further, you watch a video of three techs on the National Theatre stage moving a platform by pushing on horizontal bars sticking out from the back of the flats. But they aren’t called “bars”: they are “push poles.”

How much space did the scenery change take up in the manuscript? Probably a paragraph. All that scouting for a few sentences. Yet you can see how much authenticity is added by getting the terms right. You just had to read about people who make a living in the theater. Now that character moving the scenery sounds like the real deal.

Exercise: The key to this hunting and pecking is the willingness to stop. Read through a text to get the general sweep. Then read a second time looking for exact phraseology. When you see something interesting, write it down in a list. When you turn to writing, you may use only a third of what you have, but every one of them will strike the note you want.

“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” ― Neil Gaiman

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Hither and Yon

One of the problems with writing commercial fiction is that you can start to feel like you’re writing the same old crap. Good detective character, trail of clues, quirky companion  . . . yawn. You decide you can do better. Book readers are educated, and they want more than TV slop. As one of those readers, I am fully in agreement—depending on which new developments you choose to pursue.

Given that writing in-depth characters is the hardest job in fiction writing, it is not surprising that an author will pick from the range of other alternatives. One choice is to educate readers about each plot development. If an investigation is to lead the detective team on a chase around New York City, for example, a clue that leads them to Mott Haven in the South Bronx might be expanded by research into Robert Moses and the federal highway that split off a slice of the neighborhood in the 1950s. From there research (oh, I mean the detectives) might follow the highway south to the Triborough Bridge and what it replaced on Randall’s Island. Across the next river into Queens, hopefully to take in a Mets game, means investigating how Astoria was riven by several highways . . . 

I’m not disinterested in research about the city, particularly the more obscure corners, but the novel can start to take on the feel of a travelogue. Be it New York, Chicago, or the Wild West, if you dig enough, you can turn up interesting tidbits about any locale. If you are clever, you can assemble pieces of an entire history about it. Wherever the “detectives” go, there is gold in them thar hills.

The sticking point? If I wanted to know that stuff, I would read a nonfiction book. Skip the novel altogether. You are outsmarting yourself. Every time I have to pause for a page of research, I’m losing out on the two main reasons I read a mystery. One is the tension of the chase for the perpetrator, and the other is the immersion in the characters. 

Locale can be a terrific tool if you concentrate on looking through the eyes of the characters. If a detective’s Aunt Louise lived in Mott Haven and when her house was demolished to make way for the highway, she went batshit crazy, I am interested in Robert Moses and city planning. But not so much Moses and a lot more Aunt Louise, in proportion.

Exercise: In amassing locale research, try to assign the place in a progressive fashion: to a more featured character each time. That’s because readers will become bored if you keep traipsing off, using somebody as an excuse each time. If you’re really clever, Mott Haven contains a vital clue, buried for generations, that solves the mystery.

“If you wish to travel far and fast, travel light. Take off all your envies, jealousies, unforgiveness, selfishness and fears.”  —Cesare Pavese

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Crossed Lines

In a world where megalithic corporations funnel us all toward becoming oafs who eat burgers, it is not surprising that we clamor for entertainment that presents a new take on things. Yet the insidious pull of sameness affects novels as well, with formulaic plots helmed by cynical mavericks who really, deep down, are good people. How does an author devise characters who could intrigue us?

You might want to start by thinking of the main characters you want to include and write them down in a list. Then, off the top of your head, name one stereotypical quality that would describe them. Once you have jotted down a list of those attributes, then play a kid’s game with yourself. Draw a line to connect the names not with the quality you assigned, but on a diagonal, at random, with another quality. So the librarian, for instance, does not win the “mousy and quiet” label but the “muscles hard as steel.” That would be unusual: a librarian who lifts weights.

The point of the exercise is not to create weirdos that no reader would believe in. Rather, it’s a way of shaking you out of your habitual ways of thinking about people. We all have our slants; they’re a variant of reaching for the burger, only intellectually. But what would happen if, in that library scene you were scheming about, the librarian was glancing down at a muscle mag behind the counter while helping a helpless patron? What if they started tripping out on a fantasy about a particularly statuesque body builder while answering questions about the gardening section? That scene is sparky, not the same old grind.

At the same time you can free-associate between the labels and different characters. The ardent gun lover who makes sure they always dress in vogue might be a bridge too far for you, but not for the student who marches for our lives. In the midst of mismatching, new traits may spring to mind that are fresh but align better with the core of what you want for the character. Maybe the librarian, rather than bulking up, gains the attribute of being worried about the nutrition of the food served in their local soup kitchen.  

Shaking up your preconceptions at the start will produce more unique characters than your discovering more of what they’re like as you work through the draft. That way is more prone to following your unconscious slant. A flatter character, despite all that you’ve added, may be the inevitable result.

Exercise: Examine your notes for a character and ask yourself if you have experienced that type before: in a book, movie, or television show. If you have, why are you going in that direction? Somebody else already did that. Instead, flip the attribute on its head and choose the exact opposite. How would the character look turned upside-down?

“Our mind is capable of passing beyond the dividing line we have drawn for it. Beyond the pairs of opposites of which the world consists, other, new insights begin.” —Hermann Hesse

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Connected Rings

When years have passed since the last English class, an adult, like this editor, can forget useful tools taught in the classroom. One of them recently came back into the view finder, and I was struck by its elegant simplicity. That is the practice of linked rings. You place a character in each ring and draw lines between them. Then you write what qualities each possesses that influences the other.

Elena Ferrante may have been aware of this tool when writing My Brilliant Friend, because she does such an incredible job of building character relationships. That practice relies on intuition and the flow of the developing manuscript, to be sure, but why not give yourself a head start by clearly delineating major points you want for a pairing of characters?

What I see so often are buddies that bumble forward side by side rather than establishing a relationship foundation that can be deepened. Objectives are not defined; they grow closer only because they share so many scenes together. I know one reason why: an author thinks, “My best friend X would say such a thing,” and that rings true. But does an outsider share that feeling?

When you list how Sydney and Peyton relate to each other, you can move beyond “extrovert” and “introvert” very quickly. You can start listing instances of their interactions. Consider early behavior first. What classroom antic of Sydney’s caused what reaction from Peyton, and then vice versa? Who made the good grades, and how did that affect the other? Which had the more stable parents, and how does that play out in higher education? These are not character traits; the trait matters only in its effect on the buddy. People in real life are shaped forever by childhood friendships, and you can use your particular memories to create a special bond. Even better, you can then write in implied aspects of the relationship—and don’t have to explain anything.

The initial notes can be supplemented by a second phase of consideration: what happens to them during the course of the book. This can be a crucial exercise, because in limning their in-book development, you can sense how important the relationship will be. Is the childhood friendship going to morph into one that is more distant? If so, why spend a lot of time writing about it? Is the relationship going to reach a crisis point that packs an emotional wallop? How important is that—i.e., when will that occur in the novel? By the use of the rings, you can shape what appeals to you without spending months lurching down a blind alley. 

Exercise: Links between two characters can also pinpoint what quality of a character will emerge most sharply with whom. If you have two friends who bring out the same quality, you have duplication of function. Separate out each character so that they show a different quality. That way the character’s companions won’t be an amorphous scrum.

“One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.” —Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Pawns in the Author’s Match

One problem that I encounter frequently with first-time novelists is their patchy use of minor characters. By and large, authors do understand that their protagonist should show up on a regular basis. Yet the supporting characters often are regarded as chess pieces to be moved in order to advance the plot or, worse, an author’s themes. 

This occurs for a variety of reasons. One stems from the organic nature of building a novel. When you first start off, you usually have only a broad idea of how the plot is going to turn out. As the story moves forward, you find that characters you like, or realize you are writing well about, become more important. But others remain on the level of plot functions—they move the plot forward. Sometimes they are better drawn (let’s say, adorned chess pieces) and move the plot forward several times. 

Another reason might be termed the totem character. That person exists in the novel to exemplify a particular thematic point. For example, in a novel about the Vietnam War era, a character might show up, shoot off his big toe in order to escape draft induction, and then drop out of the book. As a reader, how am I supposed to react to that? I do know that people injured themselves in order to avoid being shipped overseas. While vaguely horrified, I feel no emotion toward such a cameo character. 

A third reason originates from an author’s personal background. A common figure from our gloaming past is the bully. She rules her corner of the playground and woe betide anyone she selects for torment. Or, she shames the otherwise engaging heroine in a furtive act, such as smoking dope in high school. The bully can be carried on for hundreds of pages as a brooding malign presence, but if she has no other defining characteristics besides slobbering sadism, is the reader really going to care?

It is your job to assign dramatic weight. If someone is going to commit a significant act, give that job to a major supporting character. That character isn’t a pawn; because you give him regular coverage, he’s a knight. Better yet, align the character with the protagonist.  Have your heroine react to that blown-off toe. Luke, what the hell were you thinking? By the same token, give the bully insecurities. If I know he fears his father, I might want virtue to triumph—for the bully’s own good.  

Exercise: Examine your manuscript with an eye out for distractions. That’s what pawns often are: they distract attention that might be devoted to your protagonist. Could you pull a scattered incident more closely to your main characters? Could you elevate that pawn by providing more coverage before and after the incident so that we get to know that character—and care what happens to her? 

“Without heroes we're all plain people and don't know how far we can go.”             ―Bernard Malamud

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Keep the Laughs Coming

Satire can make for a wonderful read when placed in capable hands. So many social conventions as well as belief systems are absurd. Yet what starts as a barrel of laughs can be doomed in the long run if an author does not employ a variety of tools to keep the novel’s turns fresh. 

The first is to keep one primary plot aim true. While it’s fun to read about characters taking constant swipes, the story can devolve into a puppet show of tricksters and fools if someone is not staying on the beam. That character may well be the most slashing maverick of them all as long as her cause is meaningful, such as curing malaria. The reader then can keep rooting for justice to be served through all the mayhem.

Second, provide enough plotting so that the novel does not remain on the same starting premise. An arrogant bully can lose swagger if he keeps dissing the same characters about the same topic. A satire about the development of a miracle drug, say, had better move beyond the laboratory and the boardroom, or you’re done in 80 pages. A further stage in this scenario might be a hypochondriac in a trial phase, the head of the FDA review board, a member of Congress agog about the benefits of a side effect, etc. 

A third asset is a large cast of characters. What seems extremely funny when one character takes a beating can start to look like meanness after repeated blows. A hedge fund raider, for instance, can beat up on a hapless CEO only so much before we start wishing the CEO had some redeeming quality. That’s not to mention the repetition factor. Even a running gag needs new circumstances to remain vibrant. If you advance the plot steadily, that will entail adding new characters. You can not only use them in new settings. You can also insert new players into the matrix of old slings and arrows as a way add new variety to what seemed tired.

You might also consider starting with a subplot from the beginning, headed by an absurd character. In the running example being used, this might be a mad scientist working for a second biogenetics company who comes at the malaria issue with a patently quack solution. This personage also provides a break from the main plot, and that is helpful because switching back and forth by itself helps to keep plot lines fresh. That, in essence, is the entire ballgame: keep showing us new tricks.

Exercise: An outline can be valuable before starting a satire. You can lay out the characters in opposition at each stage. Not only that, you can sense from afar when a plot thrust is losing gas. That’s when a new plot line/character needs to be introduced. You can also sketch out how old and new characters can intertwine for new twists on old gags.

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”  —E. B. White

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


How to Dig

The internet is a boon for any author seeking information about a topic, but the very multiplicity of information sources can lead to hours of wasted research time. A Google entry can call up dozens of websites that contain variants of the same information. That’s because so many online writers are amateur historians or scientists or what have you. How can you dig down deeper to find stuff that really will interest readers?

Not surprisingly, one fruitful method stems from an age-old practice, back when writers would comb through books. At the bottom of an article you will find the footnotes’ sources. This is true of any Wikipedia article, for instance. The writer of that article is likely more of a specialist than you are, and the sources used therefore have more substance. A search for “Five Corners,” a notorious New York City slum of yesteryear, will yield an article wherein one source is the book Five Corners. Within its 441 pages you can find all sorts of information, some of which can occasion new research forays.

While that particular book needs to be purchased or borrowed from the library, there is plenty of other source material that can be found right online. Many older books and journal articles of any age are compiled on scholarly websites such as JSTOR. While some demand a fee to sign up, these prices can be nominal, and many times you don’t have to pay at all. A scholarly journal article may run only 10 pages, but you might find 10 facts that illuminate what you want for your fictional world.

Depending on the age of the books cited, many of them belong in the public domain. That is, anyone can reproduce the book. It’s extremely helpful for all readers that big tech companies have decided they should use that right to make the books available online. The Google Books site has hundreds of books available for free, and the same is true through applications like iBooks. Even books that are still under copyright can be available to read if you merely register for a website.

All of this hunting for books for free bypasses the fruitful avenue of buying used books. After assessing how germane a book is to your subject, you may decide that spending 10 or 15 bucks is a wise investment. You can find nearly new books on sites such as Book Finder and Alibris. I should point out that I’m not dismissing the attractive option of purchasing a new book. If it really interests you, don’t you want it for your library?

Another option, which I’m leaving for last only because it is the most traditional, is using your local libraries. All of them have online catalogues these days, and a number of the websites you’ll find expressly have a box to enter your zip code to find a local library that has your book. You may still spend many happy hours in the stacks even you come to them from your laptop.

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” —C. S. Lewis

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Where Do the Insights Go?

As a novel is being written, stray thoughts about characterization can come unbidden to an author. You realize a key background fact about a relationship, say, could be told in a certain way, and you write it down. You don’t know where it will go, but you do know it is worth keeping.

That then prompts a question: where do you place the observations about characters? Let’s use a concrete example by way of illustration. Let’s say that an older brother, Carl, has come back from being away for an extended time, such as to college, and a younger sibling, Reid, feels Carl has somehow changed and that their relationship will never be the same again. Nice thought, but what can you do with it?

You have to make a decision about where it belongs in the arc of the relationship. If placed early in a novel, it becomes a setup piece. Reid, to use the example, realizes it when the novel still has hundreds of pages to go. What is it setting the stage for? Or, it could be one of a number of setup pieces that will form a mystery about why the change has occurred. What has Carl been doing while he’s away, and how will that impact Reid later?

If it is placed later, it becomes more of a plot stake. A bunch of setup work was leading up to this realization. The revelation could proceed onto a climactic break, such as Reid’s finally breaking free of her older brother’s domination. He’s already checked out of the relationship, so why can’t she? You can also use it as an end point in order to lay out a step-by-step process during which the change is discovered.

A further consideration is: how important is it to the story you are developing? Maybe it should be relegated to just another one of the dozens of insights that hopefully enrich the novel. You have to assess whether this sibling relationship is worth building as a major arc, or is better ranked as an incidental factor in Reid’s larger wave of rebellion. Maybe bad-girl friend Deloris deserves a larger share of attention. 

In other words, you know you like the sterling nugget you wrote. Yet it will remain minor if you don’t allow your mind to roam over the possibilities. Maybe the process of your subconscious brought you to the nugget for a reason. 

Exercise: One good practice is maintaining a separate notebook or electronic file specifically for these jottings. Unless every single word you write sparkles effortlessly, these stray bits can become studs that tone up the novel. Even better, they can force you, when writing a new draft, to craft all of your sentences to match their standard.

“From a little spark may burst a flame.” —Dante Alighieri

Copyright 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Striking Gold

In a world awash in forensic details, a writer who wishes to include mystery elements in the story can forget a basic lesson from the days of yore. DNA is good, ViCAP is good, hacker tricks are good, but such technical advances tend to appeal to us because we are too dumb to understand that stuff. They serve as points of instruction, if you will. Yet myths and other tales from the distant past found other ways to tantalize. At the heart of many of them was an object of great power.

These days readers won’t accept a protagonist who meets a mermaid holding a golden ring, but you can use the ring. Anything unique and valuable has an intrinsic fascination. Such objects serve as touchstones in our subconscious, relying on a more primal urge. If a woman hungers for a golden amulet, we instinctually understand why she could go mad in the pursuit of it. 

So how does that notion work practically? Let’s say a contractor steam-shoveling the foundation of a new house uncovers a skeleton. By all means bring on the crime technicians. But if one bony finger is adorned with a gemstone with obscure runes engraven on it, the subconscious lust within us for such a talisman commands our attention. Who is this person who would possess such an object? What are those runes all about? Why didn’t the killer seize the gemstone?

You heighten the reader’s powers of concentration with such an age-old feature. The pragmatic detective will try to link the object to the slain victim’s nearest and dearest. When the divorced husband claims to know nothing about it, his ignorance causes outrage. You fool, how could you not know about the stone? You can devise an expert in runes who studies the object and comes up with an obscure phrase: At midnight rises the chariot, or whatever you like, as long as it can be explained when the proper context is finally provided. As new clues turn up, the investigator can keep asking how they relate to the gem. 

In this era of zoned to a cell phone, we have merely submerged our primitive desires. In everyone’s heart lurks the wish for a rich relative who will die and leave us a pot of gold. Layer on the cool tech, but you may find that what the reader remembers after putting down the book is the scrawl on the gemstone.

Exercise: Finding a suitable object of rabid desire is easy. Just start reading a body of myths that spark your interest. Christian lore, Irish lore, Egyptian lore, are filled with stories of Aladdin types. Once you find an idea that intrigues you, think of how the talisman can be fitted into your book as a twist: the secret underlying the glow.

“The process of delving into the black abyss is to me the keenest form of fascination.” —H. P. Lovecraft

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Finding Your Way Forward

All of the preliminary notes in the world cannot prepare an author for the pull that a character will exert on a novel. Even a heavily plotted story needs a core of distinctive characters. The ability of an author to let go of the reins on those characters in large part determines whether they will be compelling to the reader.

As the notes gain life in actual scenes, the personality traits that the writer at first thought would govern a character’s actions are laid bare on the page. Let’s say the original intent was to create a young man who is given to fighting because he has to survive in a rough neighborhood. Environment produces trait: that makes sense. As a consequence the earliest scenes consists of different fights, as well as reactions by those around him to his fighting. 

Then out of nowhere you write a scene where the young man meets someone he likes, and she has no interest in such a thug. After you write it, you like it—you like the chemistry between them and know you can write it well going forward. But she won’t accept him the way you’ve written him. Does the character have to change from fighting to wearing flowers in his hair?

In the first place, it is not a yes/no question. Characters can have opposing thoughts at the same time. So maybe his being proud of hitting changes to his knowing he has to protect himself, but he becomes ashamed of himself when he loses his temper. Maybe he goes on fighting and tries to hide it from her, until she’s fed up and leaves him. Maybe her curtailing his fighting becomes a long-range plot line, until they finally move across the river to a nice town in New Jersey. 

No matter what you decide, the intent of the original character note has changed. Proto boxer has become more interesting. You have to figure out how to reconcile competing imperatives. In the process the character will also become more original, able to stand out in the teeming crowd of angry young men in other books. 

What may also change is the prominence of the new character. Maybe on that initial list of character notes she was buried way down on page 7. She was supposed to be merely a foil for the hero. But when you start writing about her, you realize you are connecting with her, in that strange alchemy that produces magic in writing. It may be time to take another look at your notes and think through how she will affect the assignments for more featured characters. 

Exercise: Notes are not graven in stone. They are supposed to be guidelines. It is a useful habit to set up a weekly time when you review your notes. Read them over and see what still pertains and what can be jettisoned. In the process, write new notes that better fit how the story is evolving. 

“The only thing I fear more than change is no change. The business of being static makes me nuts.” —Twyla Tharp

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Turning the Spoken Inward

Churning out dialogue is the easiest technique for a writer to master. Not surprisingly, that is also the way a first draft may come out of your head. You imagine a setting, so the descriptions come forth, but mostly the conversations are what pour out. To a large degree, you fill in the other scene pieces around the dialogue. 

Yet dialogue also is the most opaque of writing methods. The same line spoken by a different character may take on a wholly different meaning, and the line can be interpreted various ways even if spoken by the same character. If you are interested in fuller characterization, you have to accept that your rat-a-tat scene is only the first step toward the one that will appear in your final draft. You must convert dialogue into narrative.

How is that done? One way is to isolate a block of dialogue. Let’s say a homeowner and his son want to tar a driveway. After a trip to their friendly Home Deep for a barrel of tar and some brooms, the father instructs his boy on how to do the job. Lots of dialogue, some pithy adolescent snark, stern dad you know the way they get. That runs on for several pages. Your goal is to reduce that by half, maybe more.

The first step is picking the point of view. Whose thoughts are running through the scene? Let’s choose the son, since sarcasm is fun in thoughts as well. Rather than talking through all of the steps of tarring—are you writing a manual?—try to summarize the basic points and then apply the son’s feelings about the procedure in general. Does he want to help in the first place? Is he physically uncoordinated? Is a part of him secretly terrified that, at some point, he is going to accidentally tip over the entire barrel of tar? 

Now go further. When does this scene occur in the book? In other words, what has happened between father and son prior to the scene, and where do you project they will end up? The son’s thoughts are also a step along that continuum. What did dad do earlier that week, or even that morning, that really pissed him off? Has the son just learned a shocking revelation about his dad? Bring that into the proceedings while he’s sweeping out the stupid tar like dad says.  

At the same time, you want to modulate the tone to fit the stage in the book. Do you really want an explosion on page 40 that leads to days of petulant silence? You may need to have them talk during those days. Stalking off in anger after the son has ruined the lawn would allow the two to cool off by that evening. 

When you start writing out all of the feelings, you’ll find that the dialogue shrinks to merely prompts for the next string of thoughts. The two pages might be broken up into interludes of a few lines apiece. Now the scene has become an exploration of character. 

“Grave silence is far more powerful than the same old voices yapping away.”        —Carolyn Chute

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Designing Scenes from Notes

The dictum “Show, don’t tell” is solid in principle, but authors can stumble when trying to apply it in practice. Usually, the trouble stems from the distance between the author and the character narrating the scene. The author is merely pretending to be the character, and so when a new subject—most often a new character—comes up, the author tells what they “know” about it. 

Let’s use the example of a drunken father. The character shows up on the family doorstep looking to cadge money, and the scene is narrated by the son. The author writes a paragraph about how the father used to be a respectable butcher but hit his wife while drinking, to the point that she left with her two boys. She has an income, and she is contemptuous but also fearful of her former husband. 

So far what you’ve learned about the character are merely notes. The author is trying to devise who the heck the guy is. Once the basic premise is set, the notes have to be made active. You can start with easy stuff: descriptions. A man who drinks too much has it stamped on his face. He may smell like the liquor he drinks. How does he walk? Does he have a nervous tic because he needs a drink? All of that can be shown without any commentary needed. 

Now see if you can dig a little deeper. If the son answers the door—let’s say he’s 16—he has a long relationship with dear old dad. The son knows a good chunk of the marriage history, and he has likely been burned by his father before. How he interacts with Dad and what they say to each other can make all sorts of points about their relationship. Say, the father hates his wife for taking his children. He is going to try to persuade his son of the truth the way he sees it. But hasn’t the son heard his father complain dozens of times in the past about her? You construct the dialogue so the kid says, “Dad, you’ve told me this story a hundred times. I know she’s a terrible person.” Nuff said. You’ve made the point implicitly. Do you want to show that the son still needs his father’s love? Have the father, subtly or not, ask his son for money. Don’t you think that will bring tears to his son’s eyes, seeing his father stoop so low? 

Examine every sentence of your notes about a character and decide: is there a way to make this idea active? If you have to go further than you want to show a point, such as the son driving by the store the father used to own, maybe that is relegated to told history. But even there, it is not hard to devise a paragraph in which the son is being driven somewhere in town.

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”          —Benjamin Franklin

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.  


Skimming for Riches

A good novel is stuffed full with details. Hundreds of narrative sentences contain a pinpoint observation or physical reference point for the characters occupying the setting. A casual reader may well wonder: how could the author come up with so much great minutia? While it is true that good writers are observers, you can avail yourself of a more practical method: actively minded research.

You can choose the topic you want to illuminate and then go hunting. Let’s say you want to write about life in Chicago during the Depression. Any number of history books and websites contain photos and drawings that you can peruse. You can flip through them, looking for a detail that catches your eye. In particular, you want details that cement that place and time. You won’t find anyone today carrying a sandwich board, for example. A Hooverville by the railroad tracks can pin the reader to the 1930s.

Such details can be amassed in several ways. The first one is jotting down items on a list. You see a detail, it looks evocative, and you write it down. Later on you may have to sift through dozens of pages, looking for it, but even that random process can be invigorating. As you read through the list, new ideas can be sparked in your mind, leading to more details.

A second variety consists of details you select for specific characters. You might be curious, for example, about what details of clothing separated a destitute woman from one unaffected by the Depression's economic fallout. As you file through photos or written accounts, you can target your specific concerns and then jot them down under a list for each character.

Another fruitful source comes from watching movies. Forget about the story lines; you want to pay attention to the scenery, the costumes. As long as you watch them on a streaming device, you can freeze frames when a telling detail leaps out at you. Your involvement in poor Nell’s pathos may be restricted, but you can write down that great image of the laundry being hung across the living room window. 

Throughout the process, you are not a passive note taker. By putting images and ideas into your own words, they are also crafting how you want to use the material. One writer might focus on the tattered hem of a dress, in the example above, while another contrasts a man’s pants with his child’s socks. In your accumulating embarrassment of riches, you can apply any interpretation you like.

Exercise: The process undergoes a second infusion of creativity once you place the detail in the manuscript. At that point you not only know which character is affected by the detail, but what they are doing in that specific scene. How the item is judged changes accordingly, and you may find that the end result is quite unlike what you originally wrote down.

“The truth is in the details.” —Stephen King

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


All My Life

Many authors carry away from their studies in higher education, sometimes for decades, a disdain for commercial fiction. When they finally sit down to write that novel that has been brewing inside, they know one thing: they’re not writing any slam-bam piece of trash. What they might not realize is how far the gulf between a popular and literary novel really is.

The project begins the way they have read in countless great books: from inside the main character’s(-s’) head(s). They try to connect with their feelings while recording the supposed feelings of the character they have chosen. What emerges is heartfelt, strong enough swelling in the breast to command several read-throughs immediately afterward, even causing tears. Pages fly by this way until the author decides to review a chapter or several chapters. Given the distance of time, head scratching may follow. Yes, plenty of emotions but they seem so precious and . . . so ordinary.

A common reaction is to hone the writing. More exactitude will certainly help, but the key element in elevated prose is: perspective. Great writers have greater thoughts, greater insights, greater concentration. How can a mere mortal possibly reach that high? 

You can start with sweeping statements. “All my life . . .” is a useful way to think of the matter. Sharon didn’t just have a thought in reaction to what Lisa said; she has thought that way since she can ever remember. Take a thought that you think is suitable for such grandiloquent treatment, and make it into that sort of declaration. If you weren’t your vain self, would you believe it?  You may wince inside: man, that is disregarding so many qualifiers you could name. But that’s what great writers do. They put on their Norman Mailer hat and proclaim: There, that’s a universal truth. If you, reader, don’t like it, put down the book. I dare you.

When you start writing that way, you’ll find that you have to become a bigger thinker. A bold claim can’t be dopey, or at least not consistently. You may be forced to think all the time about your book, waiting for eureka moments to pop out of nowhere. That’s what I meant to say! Or you’ll be conducting research, and reading about one fact makes a connection subconsciously to a completely different part of the book. That’s because an author has to be larger in order to fashion a larger-than-life character.

Exercise: You can work to make the ordinary sublime. If you focus on a thought that you want to become larger, and carry it around in your head as you go about your day, you will find that variations will come to you. You can keep jotting them down, over a course of months if need be, until you reach the higher plane you desire.

“Great artists are people who find the way to be themselves in their art. Any sort of pretension induces mediocrity in art and life alike.”  —Margot Fonteyn

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Too Much Personality

When writing nonfiction that has a historical aspect, many authors prefer to focus on a person as a narrative thread. This strategy makes sense for several reasons. First, it gives the book, or section of it, a focal point around which other material can align.  For instance, information on the growth of intercontinental missiles, or ICBMs, can be attached to an account about John F. Kennedy. Second, readers like to read about famous and/or heroic people. In the previous example, the draw of a historical figure like Kennedy is self-evident. 

Most nonfiction books also contain dominant themes, and in many cases the main theme is the new prism through which a historical period is viewed. To continue with JFK, think of all the books that have been written about Camelot. Each one has to contain a new prism, because the amount of new research any new author can uncover by now is fairly slight.  So, one new prism might be along the lines of “The Nuclear Strategy of John F. Kennedy.” 

The problem is, you can get lost in the details. Because material about your lead figure is often plentiful—since so many comments have been made about her—you can get lost in the minutia about the person. If she kept her cards close to the vest, say, instead of delegating responsibilities and contacting other players for points of agreement, then the narrative may get caught up in personal spats she had. While such altercations are entertaining, the theme of “she listened to too few people on nuclear arms policy” may get lost for pages at a time. Your new book is not so special now, particularly if you have used older books as a source for those spats.

Even worse, getting too involved in personalities can lead an author to make an unsupported case either for or against the historical figure. Plenty of examples can be found to make any argument. If you’re down at the level of spats, the failure to delegate starts to look like a real problem. But that’s not the point. The theme was: what was the impact on U.S. nuclear policy during that era? 

Journalists are known for finding opposite views for an article. While this in itself can create bias (e.g., giving scientists on either side of the global warming debate equal weight), it is a useful corrective for a nonfiction author. If you find you are  ganging up personal facts on one side, you have stop yourself. Don’t get carried away in your own tide. If you’re accenting the negative, deliberately look for positive examples. That will allow you rise up once again to more of the helicopter view, where you can see the entire landscape of your project.

Exercise: Write a list of the themes you want to emphasize. Now read through a chapter, keeping that list right next to your screen. Are your examples aligned with the themes, or are they burrowing down into personal trivia? Look in particular for personal interactions. Are you displaying theme or a personality trait?

“A bad review may spoil your breakfast, but you shouldn't allow it to spoil your lunch.” —Kingsley Amis

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Meshing Public with Private

Writing historical fiction entails blending what is real with what is made up. Because, even today, so much that happens in a historical figure’s private life is unknown, a writer has plenty of room for the imagination. One bedeviling issue that can arise early in a book’s plotting is: how much dramatic weight should a defining historical event have on the story?

I’ll throw out an example to put the matter in more concrete terms. Let’s pick the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Let’s further postulate that your original story germ was a tale of two brothers who live on the big island of Hawaii: one for whom love goes good and the other where it goes bad. You were thinking it would happen in or around the 1930s because that’s a period in Hawaiian history you find intriguing. Yet Pearl Harbor is a draw for readers, who otherwise might shrug at a novel written during an obscure time in Hawaii. 

Once you decide to include it, a logical first impulse is to make the attack the climax of the book. I mean, how can you top Pearl Harbor as a plot event? You can’t get a more bang-up finale than that. Yet in your initial plot notes, you don’t have either of the brothers going to Oahu at all. Maybe one of the themes of the novel is the islanders’ resentment of the encroaching Americans. Do you really want to warp the entire book just so it includes an event that, admittedly, would be very attractive to readers of historical fiction?

You decide: one of the brothers could decide to sign up as a sailor in the summer of 1941. He’s rebellious, and he’s going to lose in love anyway. The more you mull over the consequences, though, the more you realize that you don’t want to research Honolulu, don’t want to research the requisite military history—heck, you hate that your tax dollars are wasted on the bloated military budget. So, does Pearl Harbor have to go in the trash can?

A marketing concern does not have to be a novel’s main concern. You could devise a scenario where the #3 male character in the book—say, a rival for one of the women—enlists only to be killed that day. The attack happens “offstage”—that is, not covered in a live scene. The fallout of public opinion would still wash over the book, but now the event is confined in the private sphere where you’d like the story to take place. 

Exercise: A good way to achieve both aims is to feature the selected character (the #3 in the example above) showing repeatedly their interest in your historical event. If that character talks in multiple scenes about proving himself as a man, or really hates the Japanese merchants in their Hawaiian town, you are guiding the reader toward the public aspect of the novel.

“What is history but a fable agreed upon?” —Napoleon Bonaparte

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


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.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.