Standing Pillars

The original conception of a character may not stand the test of repeated writing sessions. Early notes tend to reflect broad ideas, not the least because you are thinking at that point of overarching themes. A sketch propels you forward into the first scenes. Be . . . like that. A novel, however, takes a different form when your hazy thoughts in the gloaming are transferred onto paper. You may find that perhaps a conception requires a more character-driven approach that you seem capable of writing. You’re ending up with a string of dialogue scenes that really aren’t accomplishing much of anything.

So you switch gears. Maybe you add more plot elements to make up for your lack of penetration into the character. Let’s say you have chosen a teenager with a limp, Cal, because you want to write in a meaningful way about the challenges of being handicapped. You made him into a brawler, because he is teased so often about his limp—because it’s so obvious. Yet when you read over the first 30 pages, you find yourself bored. Amid a sea of what reads like complaints, the pugilism is the only interesting thing you’ve written about the guy. You decide that Cal, along with another character that you never get around to including, Yvonne, will solve a mystery. The handicap will be dealt with along the way to finding a murderer.

What happens to the fists? You don’t really need them anymore. You were only trying to stir up story tension with them. So do your present fight scenes and projected ones all get tossed along with the whining? Not necessarily. Any plot element that produces friction can be repurposed. After all, one could argue that Sam Spade is better at being a tough guy than he is at solving mysteries.

So maybe you use an early scene of taunting for a new purpose: to show Cal will resort to fighting to solve a problem. That will be helpful if you have a scene where Cal and Yvonne venture into the equivalent of a back alley and some thugs come out the back door. Even if Cal is overmatched, he can throw enough punches so they can get the heck out of there. 

The character purpose remains. Cal becomes mad when he is taunted, and his lashing out still feels like a natural trait of a handicapped person. Yet you have turned what was a defining characteristic into merely one of the tools you use to set him apart. The fact that you have downgraded it may also help to make it feel more realistic.

“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses—behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”                     —Muhammad Ali

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Completing Cycles

In any novel whose characters have enough depth to sway readers, how they are resolved relative to each other can have a sizable impact on how well received the story is overall. That statement sounds complicated, so I’ll break it down to a simpler concept: how they are ranked. The bigger they are, the more they will impact a reader’s satisfaction. How have you lined up your heaviest hitters at the ending?

Most authors realize that the protagonist should occupy the most space at the end. That character has been leading a reader throughout the book, and that attachment can be marred if the final chapter features a #2 or #3 character. Why are we ending up with that guy? a reader might ask. I didn’t even like that guy. An exception can be made if the hero dies in the climax, but even there, you are wise to keep an epilogue short and sweet. The reader’s interest in the book declines rapidly once the arc of the lead character is completed.

When you have an ensemble cast, in which 4-5 characters occupy your top circle, decisions about who ends where become more complicated. In this case, you have to determine who goes last by their dramatic weight. Several factors can help in the judging process. First, which characters reach a turning point because of the novel’s events? A corollary to that question is: how significant is the turning point to the novel as a whole? If Wendy, for example, decides to leave her husband, Mark, because she realizes that she doesn’t have to forgive his transgressions anymore, you probably don’t want to end on Mark blithely picking up another floozy. The reader most likely is rooting for Wendy. We will achieve resolution by finding out what she’s going to do next.

Second, how many pages of coverage have you allotted to which characters? If the Wendy-Mark strife has merited only 100 pages and a second couple—call them Gail and Harv—occupy 200 pages, then Wendy’s victory is never going to amount to more than a minor accent. If she has the only turning point, she still might merit a penultimate chapter at best. 

Another consideration is lapping your major characters. By that I mean putting one in the service of another completing their character arc. Perhaps Mark, as your #4 character, should be killed off—heart attack with floozy—so that Wendy’s ending achieves more of a sense of completion. Her grief for her undeserving spouse gains a ring of finality. Now she truly can turn the page.

Exercise: One way to weigh who is most important is your own feelings about the characters. As the novel has developed, who did you like more and more? Your allegiance will likely be transferred to the reader. In that case, review the manuscript to make sure that character has been set up all along to carry the dramatic weight of the ending. 

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” —Jackie Robinson

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Switching Gears

If it is hard for a rich man to get into heaven, an author may want to reconsider how to position a rich character. The salience the biblical quote possesses stems from a very basic human tendency. Most of us dislike rich people. In America, that envy has been twisted into a perverted form of hero worship, but even here workers resent those who wear alligator shirts. 

The same feeling extends to fiction, unless the genre is clearly the perils of the rich and famous. As readers we can sympathize with a rich character who is troubled, but if we know all along they can buy their way out of misery, some of the edge is taken off. The general sentiment might be summed up as: you got problems I wish I had.

While not every fictional situation can be converted to a version of Dickens, you can adjust the motivations of a character. A nouveau riche who buys a mansion with a high mortgage is different from a rich cat who buys it as a winter home. If a high-flying job ends abruptly, hopefully unfairly, we can enjoy watching someone as they plummet. A marriage can be wrecked, a family can split apart—that sort of predicament is fun to read about. You thought you were a fat cat, but you’re just a palooka like the rest of us.

Revised positioning affects relationships in the novel as well. If your best friend is Alistair, who is positive that Groton is simply better, a reader may feel excluded from the camaraderie. Bermuda? Well, I went to . . . If the best friend is Eddie, who has never stopped smoking too much dope, now the clubhouse is big enough to embrace us. The contrast between what the lead character was and is now can provide a wide variety of tension points as well as comedy. 

Better yet, you can use the contrast by making a rich person the antagonist. The hero may have to hobnob with snooty jerks, but when one of them demonstrates pure evil, the reader roots harder for the hero. We all know what money is the root of. That brand of enemy also can possess unlimited resources to thwart the protagonist, making the obstacles more difficult. You have also, by this device, aligned your lead with all of us hoi polloi.

Exercise: Falling from grace is a fate that everyone dreads. As such, it is an unsteady board that you can employ from page 1 onward. Amid the trappings of wealth you can plant seeds that alert the reader that doom is gathering to strike. Yes, splendid Porsche, but how soon will it be repossessed? Yes, knockout spouse, but how flimsy is the foundation of the partnership?

“When the rich wage war, it's the poor who die.” —Jean-Paul Sartre

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Coming on Too Strong

What makes the first-person narrative voice compelling can in inexperienced hands prove off-putting. The immediacy of the style is its foremost lure. Merging with a character is easier when the words seem to come from your own mouth. You can be casual with readers, letting them in on your asides, wry or otherwise. What is often lost amid all the familiarity, however, is: something worth reading about.

One way the trap of too much self-reference opens is because a writer who is bold enough to betray confidences may be used to carrying the real world by storm. That is true of many writers who turn to writing after a successful career. Along the way even a formerly shy teenager who felt most at home in a library may have shed that outsider skin after learning how to tell a good joke or acing the competition to a level that is well above respectable. 

All of those accomplishments are part and parcel of the insider approach. To a certain extent, they are beneficial. Readers need to grasp an ongoing onslaught of commentary, and citing experiences familiar to them smooths that path. Past a certain point, though, well-schooled patter must be abandoned in order to stake out truly new ground. I personally prefer that the process start on page one, but I’ll give an author 10 pages to show what’s up their sleeve.

Can you get out of your own way fast enough? I don’t want, for instance, wry commentary on a gated community. I want one whacko who is actively causing trouble in the community. All of the intimate details of the I-voice may cause a narrative to unwind too deliberately. You may think that the jaw-dropping incident in Chapter 4 will rivet the reader to the page, but what if I don’t get to Chapter 4? What if I get tired of the narrator being such an excellent yuppie?

A majority of writers would be better off choosing a protagonist that doesn’t resemble their life story at all. You have your take on the world that is going to flavor the story no matter what. Yet if you begin with what is foreign, you will have to follow the character’s strange ways—because you chose that starting point. Get to that jaw-dropper on page 4.

Exercise: The protagonist will always be you. So at a very early stage, think through what you want your themes to be. How could your lead character exemplify those themes? If you pick someone too much like you, you’ll see right away if the story’s obstacles are too ordinary. Go way beyond that—and find a character who would actually do that stuff.

“The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” ―Charlotte Brontë

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Double the Trouble

Best-sellers make for quick, thrilling reads, but they can contain many poor examples for an aspiring writer. A primary focus of such books is exciting dialogue. That type of writing is not only easiest on a beach reader, but also for a beleaguered popular author, who may spend 10 months out of the year promoting a book before spending two months writing the next one. 

Effective dialogue, however, requires narrative interpolations. Commentary can add emphasis to certain sentences, or it can break up a spoken passage when a character wants to shift to a new subject. In order to maintain a fast pace, such work in between the lines needs to be easy to grasp. That is why so many of them feature the verbs: turn, look, stare, and nod. “He began to leave the room, then turned back” is a typical representative of this ilk. 

Even an author writing in white heat starts to realize that certain pieces of physical business are being overused, and that leads to attempts to disguise the repetition. The pieces are doubled: “He began to leave the room, then turned and stared.” Not exactly the same, and the writer doesn’t have to slow down to think of something original. Such a reflex can lead to bad habits, however. The author might start writing that a character looks at someone when doing anything else. “She sprang up from the sofa and looked down at him.” 

The problem is that such simple multiplicity forces the reader to wade through extra verbiage. If someone stands up, obviously she would be looking down at whomever she’s addressing. That part of the sentence isn’t needed. At times I feel like I’m editing a person who was as a child warned too many times to look before he crosses the street. I am witness to the adult scar that remains: always looking.

The doubling can occur in other forms. “They stood and followed him out of the room” is another common example. If they’re following out a doorway, obviously they rose to their feet first. The extra piece of physical business is inserted to make a pedestrian sentence more complex—when it isn’t. It’s just wasting the reader’s time. When that process becomes a bad habit, the extra words can add up into the thousands. I know, because I usually trim a popular manuscript by 10 percent.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye toward eliminating the word “and” during dialogue passages. If the sentence is left feeling too plain, you need to focus more on the one verb you would like to use to drive it. Rather than a stage direction related to physical movement, try substituting a thought or a description of an item in the setting that arrests the character’s attention. That’s where you’ll find truly interesting variety.

“Design, refine and repeat, and keep learning all the way along. It sounds bland and pedestrian, but in fact, it's the reverse.”  —Anouska Hempel

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Not for Always

For any novel that depends on plot elements to move a story forward, it’s useful to keep in mind that a plot event is not necessarily an advance set in stone. It’s easy to see why an author might make this mistake. Once a plot advance is written, it’s down on paper. Check it off the list of outline notes. Yet what is done can be undone by sleight of hand.

Let’s consider the example of an accountant coming upon odd entries in a company’s records. A scene is written for the first discovery, perhaps another scene for a more extensive search, and something looks very suspicious. At some point the accountant will report the findings to a superior. You have the reader on the hunt. Finally, the crooks will be uncovered. Yet what happens if the superior is the embezzler, and the accountant the next morning is found floating in the river?

The character scored only a temporary win. What does that mean in terms of overall story dynamics? You still derive the benefit from those scenes building up the hunt. Plus, the knowledge is still a suspense element even though the accountant, in this case, is no longer in a position to build it further. That’s because you have imparted evidence to the reader—but not to other characters who are in a position to right the wrong. 

A plot gain can also be reversed. This is true especially when tracking a character’s  emotions. The pathway to blissful sex for the rest of a character’s life is a common aim thwarted in the romance genre. Great sex early on, yes, but then the stud muffin makes a typically stupid male error, the heroine is offended, and the reader is frustrated for another 50 pages. Lest the more literary types scoff, think of a daughter’s yearning to be accepted by her mother. What seems like a victory could be snatched away the very next day—because the problem all along has been that the mother is unstable.

So that plot element is not crossed off the list at all, if you don’t want it to be. Story tension is like musical tension: a crest is succeeded by a trough and a new way to find the next climax. You can design a plot advance so that it becomes a setback when experienced by a minor character, such as the accountant, but becomes a watershed when discovered by your protagonist later on. You can go back to the same well, only the guise—and more important, a reader’s emotional involvement in a character—is different. 

Exercise: Review the manuscript for great ideas that seem, in the long run, to have been cut short. Who is the event assigned to? If you repurposed an event to be private rather than  “a plot event,” could it become a cog in a larger wheel? You can create progression in an idea merely by how it is perceived successively by the protagonist.

“Progress is man's ability to complicate simplicity.” —Thor Heyerdahl

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Filling in the Spaces

When layering a previous draft with new plot material, an author obviously has to check to see that the new material aligns with the old. A more subtle approach is to judge the value of the old material in light of your advanced knowledge of the novel. The word layer is a useful one for this process. Part of what you’re doing, every step of the way, is adding texture and depth to the story. If you’re inserting new text in addition to the old, and making a few minor corrections, you’re merely making the book longer.

A novel can skate on the surface of its unfolding plot events. That’s why a plot-filled best-seller is such a light read. To add characterization, you provide background material. To make the narrative unique, you develop a distinctive point of view(s). To illuminate the fictional world you provide descriptions. All of these elements add threads to your weave. An engrossing novel tends to mix both action and context.

When adding new material, this question of action:present versus context:past should be kept in mind. Let’s say you depicted white Sheila and black Elaine in an early scene. In your original version they didn’t know each other, and so their first scene together had a lot of skirting around racial flash points. Getting to know you, in other words. But you have moved beyond the original conception. Now you want this duo to solve a mystery at their place of work. What happens with the go-lightly scene?

You could keep it and add the new material in a second scene. But you could pull away and take a longer view. If they’ve been working together for, say, two years, why don’t they already know each other? Maybe they’re both huge Colson Whitehead fans. Maybe they have the same sort of screw-up little brothers. Just from these few examples you can see that maybe the point at issue here isn’t addition. It’s reformulating what you have to better accommodate the addition.

What was action is replaced by background material. You spend a morning drawing up a story about those two years together. You can define how they’ve interacted before the book starts. You can write their new scenes with the knowledge that one will react to the other in certain predictable ways—those ways you make up as part of the background. You find a few places prior to the new scene to drop in the background packets. Now the relationship is a given. You’re free to explore your new plot events within a story with that added depth element.

Exercise: Once you have drawn up your new material, read over all of the related scenes with the featured characters. Don’t plunge right into their first scene. Based on what you know now, can you see if their arc of development rises quickly enough to support the dramatic burdens you are placing on them in the next draft? 

“In our deepest moments we say the most inadequate things.” ― Edna O'Brien

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Not Clumping Too Close

An author trying to write a novel that is more driven by characters than plot can make the mistake of believing that no planning is needed at all. Why should you bother, since you want the characters to tell you what they want? While I’m all for the idea in principle, in practice it can lead to early scenes that seem shallow, because you haven’t gotten to know the characters very well yet.

A better strategy may be setting guide posts out ahead of the writing. Let’s take, for example, a three-way love affair in which a man, call him Len, knows that Marge is a better marriage candidate, but he is fascinated by Sybil, who is much more fun. When you follow your nose, you may find that individual scenes sparkle: Len showing different sides of himself with both women. Yet when you reach a crucial plot point—he makes a decision about getting engaged—you find it hard to believe that Len, who’s been having so much fun with Sybil, would throw her over just because Marge is a more sensible choice. That makes Len boring, not to mention calculating. 

How is this situation rectified? Working backward, you can always write new Len-Sybil scenes. In them you can show how Sybil likes to have fun with other men, and although Len never sees anything overt, the jealousy leads him to make a choice for Marge. Still a calculation, but a reader could see why he’s gunshy.

Yet going back to insert scenes has knock-on effects. In building toward that one plot point, you may find the new scenes impinge on other points. So you have to read through the draft looking to alter those. You could have saved yourself the trouble if you had asked a plot question before you started: what would make Len choose Marge? You could quickly reach the same conclusion and then plot out the initial scenes with that basic objective in mind. 

What about listening to your characters? The fact is, when you start a draft, you don’t know the characters. You make them up as you go. Once you reach a critical mass of scenes, then they’ll start talking to you. You’re not sacrificing anything, because all they were at the beginning was nether matter.

Exercise: Even when you set out a long-range plot point, that doesn’t mean you’re bound to it. What Len, for example, feels before making the decision does not govern how he feels afterward, when he sees the reactions of both women. Or, it may be that he is confident he made the right choice at first and, over time, comes to regret it. By that time, your listening to your characters could take you in all sorts of directions.

“I tried to discover, in the rumor of forests and waves, words that other men could not hear, and I pricked up my ears to listen to the revelation of their harmony.”    ―Gustave Flaubert

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Guilty as Implied

One effective tool in bringing a reader into a story is a presumption by a character. Although this sort of statement is made in passing, the information it conveys can reveal an entire side to a character that was previously unknown. Let’s take an example: “Not enough time had passed since she threw Dad out of the house for her to . . .” That might shine a light on a teenager’s resentment of his mother. The passing remark provides context that goes beyond typical adolescent snark.

How can you attain the familiarity with a character to make such a remark? You can start with a timeline of events the character experienced before the book starts. To continue the prior example, what if the mother is dating a new man that the boy doesn’t like? When did that start? Is he the first man she has dated since the marriage? What did the teenager think in the immediate aftermath of his father’s departure, and how has that reaction matured since then? The answers to all of these questions, and more, could become implicit statements.

With further exploration you can provide more fodder. If the boy interacts with his mother, their conversations can also include assumed knowledge. The first argument about the new lover that they have in the book doesn’t have to be the first one they’ve ever had. What were their positions in the previous argument(s)? How have they shifted to provide a better line of attack next time? For instance, if the mother states that she has a right to enjoy her life, the boy might have conceded the point. So what does he come up with the next time? He still doesn’t like the boyfriend, and he still is suffering Oedipal jealousy. At what point does the boy give up on persuading the mother and start mouthing off directly to the boyfriend?

You can extend the probe via another connection: the boy and his father. Let’s say dear old dad has a drinking problem. What were the power dynamics between him and his wife before the problem became abject? What were the circumstances around the start of their marriage in the first place—i.e., their relatives? What was his relationship to his son before he split? Is he trying to con the boy through denigrating his former spouse? That in turn invites nailing down how the boy reacts. Does he regard himself as a crusader who can patch up the marriage if only Dad would give up the sauce? Does he know he’s being conned? 

By now you should have a pretty complete picture of what happened and when. None of that stuff has to go directly into the book. You can insert pieces as assumed points either thought by the character or through interactions with the concerned others. Because you know the full story, you’re in command of the narration.

“I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes and pursuits of false assumptions, not by my exposure to fonts of wisdom and knowledge.” —Igor Stravinsky

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


The Use for You

A more intimate narrative voice better carries a reader along in a novelist’s currents. To achieve that cadence, an author needs to employ a variety of tricks that echo the way we all think. With a neophyte writer, for instance, I suggest that they write out a character’s thoughts as spoken aloud—inner dialogue, literally. Or, sentence fragments can add immediacy. What is often overlooked, however, is the fact that a person often refers to an alternative self in their thoughts.

We are all familiar with the good angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. When someone does something bad to us, like elbow us in the subway door, the first impulse is a desire to punch out that person’s lights. Yet another voice swiftly intervenes: “Now, now, let’s just go to work this morning.” We correct ourselves, in other words. 

That extends to referring to ourselves as “you.” This often comes out when we are muttering under our breath about something stupid we did. “You idiot! Why did you do that?” The “you” is the lumbering, sappy dope we all know lurks inside of us. 

So why aren’t you using that tool in your writing arsenal? For example, a person who hates doctors may have to correct himself during a visit: “The drugs, stupid, you need the drugs.” The line is funny, but more important, the reader knows exactly what that character is thinking, right at that moment. 

The reason I couch the usage as merely one trick in a bag is because “you” is quickly overused. If a character says it too much, the reader may wonder if she’s schizophrenic. In that way, “you” resembles an exclamation point. You don’t want the boy to cry wolf too often. When used in a corrective function, however, it enables an author to penetrate to a solid depth of narration. 

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out for places where a character makes a decision. Do you start feeling that he is decisive in an otherworldly way? Have the character bicker with herself, second-guess herself. Put “you” in there, and watch how tangled up the character’s thoughts become. Now he’s thinking like the rest of us poor schmucks.

“Schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy.” —Marshall McLuhan

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Dost Protest Too Much

A nonfiction writer who sets out to alert the world of a new advance needs to keep one maxim in mind. A book is an argument you’re making. The cause célèbre does matter, and the ignorance of the powers that be does need to be considered. Yet all of the good intentions in the world won’t matter if the author fails to obey this dictum.

If you went to a party, how would you persuade others that your cause is right? You would line up the conditions around the problem. To give an example, let’s pick one that caused so much consternation, and hilarity, last year: a cure for a virus. You might list scientific knowledge, such as how the spokes of a virus penetrate cellular walls. You see your audience nodding their heads. Yet the moment you raise your voice, to declaim the FDA are jerks for not recognizing your cure, you suddenly find people needing to refresh their drink or heed the call of nature.

In a book, you type out the arguments, and you have the space to lay out all of the possible reasons you’re right. Yet the moment you insert an exclamation point—what idiots!—the reader cringes. A book is different in that a reader will give you some leeway. After all, they probably picked up the book because they were hoping you’d make a good case, and they have invested all that time reading up to the exclamation. In the age-old calculus a reader has—should I stay or should I go?—they start to lean the wrong way. More exclamation points put down more strikes against, and if you then include a pages-long passage about how corrupt the FDA is, they put down the book. Another maniac, they decide, with a screed. I can get that on the subway.

You should follow the wisdom of a salesperson. The more outrageous the claim, the more you undersell. You can turn that provocative exclamation into a rhetorical question: Isn’t it funny how the FDA works? I mean, we all know that every government institution is on the verge of incompetence at all times. So go easy. Use the sly jab of the elbow and a wink. The reader may still decide against you in the end, but at least they won’t slam down the book.

Exercise: Review your manuscript, and categorize all of your statements by how factual they are. Any argument will contain claims, and those are the ones you need to focus on. Are you allowing your outrage to show? That’s where to clamp down. Keep the tone easy, realize you have to get over—and let the reader decide.

“I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.”  —Stephen Hawking

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Transported to New Heights

The accoutrements of writing can earn more fanfare than they deserve. The Find and Replace function, for example, can pare back the overuse of a certain word, but you still need to read the entire passage around the word to judge which ones to change. Using a voice-recording device can capture a certain cadence, but when used too often, your prose ends up banal, like ordinary speech. Nothing, to my mind, can replace quicksilver intuition, that feeling—often after long wrangling back and forth—that you finally nailed what you want. 

Where technology serves a writer best is at the margins. For example, a writing program like Scrivener manages drafts and research material better. Compare Documents in Word allows you to see clearly all the changes between drafts. Among these helper tools is a terrific new variation on gleaning nuggets from research: the OCR app.

Optical Character Reading programs have been around for a while. I remember all too well nights spent laboriously pressing a book flat against the glass surface of a scanner. Often I had to configure how all the text I wanted would actually be contained within the scanner window. The curve of a book’s gutter (toward its spine on the inside) would often render the imaged words indecipherable when the program spit them back out. Then I would have to keep the book open with one hand and type in the missing words with the other. 

So imagine my delight when I added two plus two. They have a phone app for everything else, so why not . . . ? Sure enough, you can use your phone camera for research. You keep the book open to the right page, line up the text block within the viewer, and presto! The text appears and you can send it to your computer in a second. Even better, there is no limit to where you can scan the text. In a library, in a bookstore, in a park—wherever you are reading, you can conduct research.

The app serves a social function as well. While everyone else in the world is frittering away their brain with some game or news outrage or product on sale, you too are intent on your phone. Only you are engaged in the pursuit of knowledge, like a veritable Plato on the streets of your town. How good is that?

“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”  —Bill Gates

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Directing Notes

The notes that an author draws up before starting a novel and then adds to as the early chapters take shape tend to fall in two categories: character notes and plot notes. You keep coming up with attributes that you want characters to have, and as you pen them, you realize that a characteristic could take active form in a related plot event. By the same token, you write down a plot event and realize that affects the characters in that scene. This cross-pollination builds up a mass that anchors you more firmly in the fictional world that you want to create.

Yet too often a note—a good idea at the time—can be written down and subsequently forgotten. As you forge ahead, you recall its vague after-echo but not its content. You can plunge into writing a new scene not exactly sure what you want from it. A few writing sessions later, you emerge with a scene that feels okay but seems to waste a lot of time getting to its point, which itself might seem minor.

How do you remember your good ideas? You can make a deliberate practice of placing them where you’ll see them later: in your outline. Let’s say you are planning a murder. That entails not only the act committed but the people who might have done it and the clues they left behind. Many of those ideas you have already written down, but they’re not organized. Some are related to character, others to plot. In other words, they’re scattered all over the place.

Start a new file: notes related to the murder. Comb through each of your note files and search for any element related to the murder. Copy and paste the notes into the new file. They don’t have to be in order, just roughly when you gauge the note should occur. When you are done, you may find you have a dozen notes that all demand explication. They must happen at some time during the story. 

You can see right away how much the practice informs your outline. Now that all of the related notes are in front of you, you can select places where they go. You can decide which ones are important, necessitating an entire scene, and which are incidental, the ones that are mentioned. You’re no longer stumbling forward, but acting on the ideas you really liked.

Exercise: Many notes around a single plot event tend to coalesce during one stretch of the novel. You get the largest flurry of setup and clues and discussion shortly before and after a murder, for example. Yet from this new file you can also see which ones require follow-up later. Any further ideas can be pushed down the list. You can even determine, at a very early stage, how the plot thread will be tied up in the end.

“Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” —E. B. White

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Restarting the Engine

One of the most difficult tasks for a writer is starting a revised draft. While staring at a blank page can be overwhelming, the prospect of diving back into what you thought was a completed book can provoke plenty of doubts as well. What are the best ways to recapture that spirit you had the first time around?

The first is not to jump to conclusions. Let’s assume to start that you are reacting to comments made on the manuscript. A friend or writing group buddy or literary agent or editor gives you a critique of whatever length. The shorter the length of the comment, the more you should restrain your imagination to fill in the blanks. What in fact was the comment, and what was your reply? Don’t create a mountain out of a molehill.

The second is: don’t be linear. It is likely that you spent a good deal of time on your last pass making sure the story follows a logical thread from beginning to end. Now you have throw that process aside. Linear is always a late stage of editing a draft—and you’re just starting a new one, remember? What you need to do is write out the scenes that directly address the comments the critic made. Say, the critic pointed out that the father, who turns out to be crucial in the climax, appears in very few scenes. While you were talking to the critic, several terrific ideas for new scenes with dead old dad may have popped into your head. Start the revision by writing only those scenes, in isolation. 

For the time being, forget about the book you’ve already written. Don’t worry about Dad’s first scene, or any scene before the new one you’re writing. Don’t worry about how the new scene fits with his background work. Get the scene out of your head and down on paper, all on its lonesome. After all, how long will it take, really, to change some “fact” in a new scene that doesn’t align with the old material? Fifteen minutes? A half hour? Far more important is feeling that rush of new, great ideas.

Writing scenes in isolation has a related benefit. Once you have gotten your feet wet, wading further into the draft becomes easier. Your confidence grows as you write. All the loose threads and snippets bothering you will keep flapping in your subconscious until the time comes that you set them in order. By that point you will know much more about what the new draft looks like, because you’ve added all this new material—and you will make stronger decisions about the story as a whole.

Exercise: Start with the scene that speaks most to you emotionally. If you had a flash of a perfect scene with Dad, because you remember one with your own father so well, write that down. Don’t worry about the order of new Dad scenes. Just write down the stuff in the order of what burns most brightly in your mind.

“Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.”  —Bernard Malamud

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Using Multiple Guessers

For those who are not gifted at plotting mysteries, other strategies for laying crumbs for readers have to be employed. One that works well relies on multiplying the number of characters involved in investigating a crime. The advantages stem from having different opinions about the same number of clues.

In order to make it work, you first should get in the habit of “thinking” from different characters’ points of view. Let’s say Cal is intuitive but impractical. His partner in sleuthing is Lenora, who is rational and down-to-earth. Maybe a third member of the crew, Lee, is good at intellectual puzzles. Now pick out a clue: say, a red rose pinned to a victim’s lapel. You can plot out three different interpretations of one clue, and until more clues are available, all of them will seem valid to the reader. 

The next step is relating the clue to known suspects. Let’s say Malcolm is strung up on a balcony rail overlooking the foyer. Cal may guess that the murderer must be the homeowner Sandy, since he heard a violent argument between them recently. Yet Lenora points out that whoever strung up Malcolm must be strong, and Sandy weighs only 110 pounds, 50 pounds lighter than her supposed victim. At the same time, Lee weighs in with the observation that the rope is a special nylon type associated with sailing, and Malcolm’s good friend Trent is always bragging about his boat. How is the reader supposed to settle, for sure, on any of these choices?

Even better, you may choose a suspect that has a personal relationship with one or more of your sleuths. If Cal intensely dislikes May, he may slant his interpretations of the clues so they fit May. Yet Lenora may sensibly point out the faults in Cal’s reasoning, knowing full well his dislike. You can then calibrate a third response because Lee views May more of a psychological specimen than a person. Depending on who is the protagonist, you can assign more weight of suspicion to May, but the other characters’ objections still need to be noted by the guessing reader. 

As the book progresses, you can then play off one character’s worth in guessing against another. Because Cal seems to use his heart rather than his head, the pendulum may swing toward Lenora, who is always so logical in her conclusions. Lee may start to fall by the wayside because the intellectual nattering doesn’t really address a motive behind the clues. Now their opinions are weighted by how you have developed the novel—and still, any of the three of them might be right.

Exercise: Repetition is the curse of any novel. When you are judging each clue, bear in mind that you want a character’s take on it to be fresh. So maybe mix it up: Cal comes up with an intellectual interpretation, or Lenora uses logic to make an intuitive leap. As long as the character can explain the deviation to the reader, you won’t repeat yourself.

“People do not seem to realize that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Characters Taken from Real Life

Being true to life is a principle that will spark some of your most original writing. As in any field, nothing beats hands-on experience for knowing the nuances of how a relationship or a plot event evolved. Yet adhering to real life does not work so well in the larger scheme of a novel. Life has so many nuances that you could write a thousand pages about a single week. The process of writing a novel leads almost immediately to compression. You need to relate just the interesting stuff. The compressed nature of a novel in turn shapes its characters into exaggerated, larger-than-life figures. True to life, yes, but within a novel’s inherent distortions of life. 

Trying to write from experience causes a common failing among novice writers: not separating their characters from their real-life models. People you know can be extremely limiting when building a novel. You need the freedom to discover where a character wants to take a plot thread. When the character is your sister, however, she will bend your plot to go in the direction that you know she would demand. That may be fine in some instances, but you can see the problem. The character has placed shackles on your imagination. You’re on the outside looking in at that other person, not inhabiting the character from the inside out. In many cases, an even worse outcome ensues. Your sister, because what she wants is so realistic, makes your novel ordinary. You come back a few days later to a piece of dialogue you’ve written and think, “OMG, this is so terrible. Even my sister is more interesting that this!”

You can use both approaches. Before you start the novel, write a character sketch that includes the realistic attributes you want a character to have. But once you start writing, listen to what the character wants. Let your fingers do the walking until you see where the next scene ends up. What frees a good character of his shackles is when he goes where he wants to go—not because that is what the real-life model would do, but because he is reacting to the events inside your book. 

Exercise: Pick a character and track how she is developing in any scene. When she talks, are you thinking of a specific person in your life? If so, dig deeper. What point has the character’s developmental arc reached at that point? What should she be doing for the plot at that point? Immerse yourself in what your fictional situation calls for, and pretty soon you’ll find that she is telling you what she wants.  She has become a player in your drama.

“The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else.” —Umberto Eco


A Position, Not a Theme

More politically minded novelists like to use popular themes of the day in order to make points pro or con. In the charged atmosphere of America today, when almost anything is a cause calling for blind fervor, a writer can feel that a hot-button issue will inject drama into the proceedings. Yet when an issue such as abortion becomes a major character’s crusade, an author may be dismayed by how flat the scenes are. How could that happen, when neighbors in real life are ready to tear out each other’s lawn?

The first step in answering that question lies in the spillover from the real world into fiction. Since novels tend to be realistic in order to allay a reader’s disbelief, the views of a flag-waving character may borrow largely from what a reader has learned, possibly ad nauseam, on the news. As the phrase goes, familiarity breeds contempt. As soon as I, as an example, recognize a certain line of cant, I start skimming immediately. I read novels to get away from that stuff.

Equally as important is recognizing that the power of any theme correlates with its progressive development. If an issue does not change over the course of the book, there is no dramatic movement. If a character keeps saying the same stuff in every scene, no matter what the content is, a reader will become bored. Yes, we know how you feel, so when is that going to become more interesting? 

As with any story element, a character needs to begin at Point A and progress to Point Z with a theme. If you wish to write about abortion, for example, you should figure out a starting point and an ending point during the initial outline stage. How do the events inside the novel impact the character’s thinking about the issue? That is the only way a novelist can be original on such a well-worn topic.

Framing the matter this way leads to a final and most decisive step: making the issue personal. Only when you focus hard enough on one individual’s travails during the heart-rending course of what to do with an unborn child will you make the reader care. The snap answers you see on the screen will pale to their usual political banality, and you will discover for real why the issue is so contentious. It’s because the experience is so painful. That’s what you should be writing about.

Exercise: Contrary to real life, where men arrogate the right to somehow know what an expectant mother is feeling, a male novelist has to work a lot harder. You should read a variety of works, even if you don’t agree with their viewpoints. You should talk to women—your relatives, professional counselors, and/or young teenagers. Then come back and tell us what your heart learned.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” ―Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


All the Comic Masks

One of the problems in writing a comic novel is using too few characters that are funny. A book is really long when viewed from the perspective of a single gag. You can have a gross slob, for example, with all the attendant crumb dropping, face smearing, and upchucking, but you will find that well will run dry a long way before the end of the book. You are better off establishing a host of comic characters.

While you can work up a group that interacts constantly, you’re better off starting with the question: who is leading my plot lines? Most books have a main plot and a subplot, so your second most important comic choice is the character who leads the subplot. You will have a number of scenes in which the main comedian will not appear—that’s the nature of a subplot. So if that second character is not out-and-out funny in their own way, you will have a number of scenes in which the humor sags. Every time a reader loses their smile, it is harder and harder to get them to smile again.

The same is true even in main plot scenes. You may have a run of scenes where, say, the boss’s secretary really runs the office. What is the secretary’s shtick? Who is receiving the orders, and how do they react when it’s not the boss speaking? If you don’t have subsidiary characters who have their own quirks, you will have the same problem of: funny scene, not funny scene, funny, not funny, until even the funny scenes are not that amusing anymore. 

For every outrageous extrovert you can match them up with what in a comic skit would be called a straight man. That character cannot merely react passively, being outraged every time, or you run into the same problem of repetition. Instead, develop a character arc of their own. For instance, a new boss might take increasing pride in their well-deserved perks of power: nicer apparel, nicer assistants, golf, etc. If the extrovert keeps barging in on such fastidious gardening of power, you gain not only new sources of laughs but also escalating humor because the character keeps having more pride in a new source of power before it is deflated. 

The idea of pairs works on multiple levels. A #3 character will lead a number of scenes, so who are they bouncing off in those scenes? How is the humor different from that generated in the scenes with #3 and #1? Again, you’re looking for variety. You keep showing the reader new tricks. That only works if you have an entire core cast who all are pursuing their own comic goals.

Exercise: You can use personality traits to help with plotting. Draw up a list of plot events you know you want. For each entry, consider how the event would strike each of your main characters. Would that boss-secretary scene be funnier, for instance, if your madcap #1 burst open the door? When you keep your mind open about who will appear, you may find the scene is funnier with a different combination.

“Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.” —Peter Ustinov

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


First Off the Deck

Once a writer decides when the victims in a mystery should be killed, the next step is determining how the first one will be positioned to open up the plot. Being killed in an interesting way helps for its shock value, but the victim’s personal connections and their motives need to be thought out.  From there you can devise how to assign the clues.

To start, it is important to mask the trail leading to the perpetrator. If you feature an early scene of the killer acting weird, or overly interested in the death, the reader will mark them down on their suspect board—and there goes your twist. Instead, the friend-of-a-friend principle can be helpful. The victim was known to associate with a friend of the killer, and thus becomes a suspect who masks the actual villain. If the killer and the friend engaged in a number of similar activities, you can continue hiding the killer in the shadows in future scenes—because the reader is pointed toward the friend. So see if you lay out a string of shared activities and then stagger them throughout—i.e., a series of clues.

Also, characters who knew the victim can provide observations that hint about the motive without nailing down the specific act that led to the killing. Since murder, famously, is committed either for money or for love, you can pick out a general topic that relates to motive. For example, if the victim was known for lavish dinner parties but did not have much of an income, that hints at living beyond their means. Unless you specifically produce a loan shark, you can bruit news about that person with several unsavory associates, all of whom the reader must put up on the board. 

You can also provide different views of the victim from several characters. If you think through what those views are, then assign them to the characters who will voice those opinions, you are in a position to decide when each view will be given. For example, if a fellow office worker says the lavish-spending victim is guilty of embezzlement, that opens an avenue at the victim’s place of work. Maybe that is pursued first, in a string of scenes, and the embezzlement comes to seem less likely as a motive for murder. That’s when you drop in the second opinion: oh yeah, the vic was a sex hound, and here’s the number of one of the street walkers that serviced them. Another avenue is opened up, and this one really leads somewhere, because the loan shark also is or is linked to a pimp. 

By this point you may have already bumped off a second victim, and you then can start linking the two deaths. The two might have frequented the same bar, for instance. The same witness that knew about the sexual activity of vic 1 also has an opinion about vic 2. And now you’re off to the races.

“Life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim.”          —Bertrand Russell

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Applied Penetration

During a first draft an author is still trying to find out who the characters are. Forces in your subconscious move you in sometimes inexplicable directions. You may find yourself writing really well about a character you didn’t think at first would be that important. Or, you lose interest in a character that initially shone in your mind.

When you go about revising the manuscript, you do continue to respond to such unbidden ebbs and flows, but the process can be more deliberate. You can decide at the outset that you want Character A to have X as a signal element of his personality. Let’s say you want X to be: passive-aggressive. The character spends the entire book trying to please people, but at the same time he stores up all this resentment that people take advantage of him.

That’s a nice concept. Sure, passive-aggressive would work. But how, exactly, do you go about doing such a thing? 

Start by thinking about a person you know who is always trying to please people. What does she do? She might, while at your house, see an unmailed letter and offer to take it to the post office for you. She might offer, even though you interrupt her in the process of stamping prices, offer to take you to the exact item in the drugstore. In short, she embarrasses you by going the extra mile you never asked her to take. So write down a list of such generous acts. Better yet, keep in mind Character A as you’re writing, and tailor the list for that character.

Then review all of the scenes in which he appears. Is he constantly trying to please people? Does he offer to give the heroine a ride home even though she knows it’s out of his way? You are viewing each one of his actions through a specific prism—passive-aggressive. And guess what? The reader is going to think that he tries too hard to please people—because that’s what he keeps doing.

Now flip the coin: the aggressive side. How do you show that? Again, think about human nature. Such a person tends to grumble to Character B about how Character C is taking advantage of him. As the book goes on, the grumbling can become increasingly explosive. He lashes out, maybe two-thirds of the way through, at another character for always taking, taking, taking—I’m sick of it! Now the reader is disturbed. The development to the explosion feels natural, but you’ve been stage-managing every single scene to reach that result.

Exercise: When you’re drawing up the list, remember the cardinal rule: entertain the reader. Think of different ways to show a trait, but discard the pedestrian ways. The wilder the gesture (within bounds of plausibility), the more you increase the embarrassment factor. You want the reader to cringe, a little or a lot.

“They consider me to have sharp and penetrating vision because I see them through the mesh of a sieve.” —Khalil Gibran

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


When to Bump Them Off

Plotting a mystery entails schemes that operate both within and beyond the reader’s view, and a large part of figuring out how to do that involves picking the right victims. While you may kill off only one character, that is setting yourself a very hard task, since so much work must be put into laying out schemes for multiple suspects. A more hard-driving mystery will knock off maybe three victims. That way the perpetrator has to operate closer to the surface, creating potential linkages among victims and making more mistakes that can be investigated.

What are the considerations when choosing victims? That depends on when you want to kill them off. A mystery traditionally features a murder early on, often in the first chapter. That is what sets the clue-finding process in motion. What sort of character works best in this role? So early on, the victim is a stranger to the reader, so catharsis derives from the strangeness of the physical act. As an investigator explores, the victim serves the book best if they possess a range of unsavory attributes. Those can affect a number of suspects the character knew—for instance, the unhappy relatives in an Agatha Christie tale. More to the point, it opens up an array of options for your scheming.

The second victim (out of three) tends to be killed around the one-third mark. That placement serves several purposes. One, it reinvigorates the plot, since by that time an investigator may have exhausted the initial web of clues you have laid out. Two, it happens close enough to the first murder for linkages to be made between the two. 

An important factor in picking this victim is: you need more character depth to heighten the reader’s involvement. A random stranger seems shallow after you’ve spent 100 pages involving us in the main characters’ lives. We won’t know the character that well, but if you can make them count—say, a potential love interest for the main character—now you can write about what their loss means to the protagonist. 

The final victim usually expires around the two-thirds point. The killing functions best as a spur of emotion that kicks off the climax sequence. (If that sequence is shorter, maybe you’re at the three-quarters point.) How do you make the reader red-eyed, wanting revenge for the killing? It necessitates a fairly deep knowledge of the victim. That’s why a main suspect for the earlier killings is often used. Yes, you pull the rug out from under the reader, but you also have featured that character enough that we have gotten to know them. A wife of the protagonist creates powerful catharsis for the same reason—we know her and we like her by that time. 

The requirements for achieving these aims should govern your initial planning. The second and especially the third victim have to show up often for us to care about them. If they are taking up so much space, what assignments do you need to give them all along the way?

“Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.”                      —Rene Magritte

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


A Sparkling Shell

Writing in a distinctive narrative voice is a decisive step that separates an author from the pack. Stories that are told in a linear fashion are more likely to seem like other books on the same topic. They also don’t generate the same excitement among book professionals, who are always looking for original works. 

Crafting such an approach, however, is not a substitute for a satisfying book. Narrative can be regarded, crudely, as a mechanism—a way to tell a story. Relegating such a stellar achievement to that status may sound demeaning, but in fact the best narrative is a supplement employed to fill out characterization. Huck Finn would not stand out as much if he didn’t have that inimitable dialect, but we are moved by what he did on the raft. 

Plotting is largely unaffected by polished prose. That does not matter as much in a literary novel, when being inside the protagonist’ fascinating mind is largely the point of the reading exercise. Yet unless you mean to create only an intellectual abstraction, a good plot enables a character to make meaningful changes during the course of the book. Plotting also places a character in greater jeopardy, because a character who acts upon their dissatisfaction is more forceful than one who merely grouses. Acting entails an element of danger, that a bet will be wagered and could go wrong out in the world. 

An author may feel that providing stylish narrative voices adds to characterization, and to an extent it does. A younger character can use more current idioms, for instance. If the chatter is focused on mundane subjects, however, or skirts around rather than explores a weighty matter, it amounts to no more than surface gloss. Worse, it may leave the reader feeling that the character is using smart talk to mask the pain they feel. In that case, what started off as fresh and entertaining devolves into a scintillating shield to hide real emotions.

Worse, the reader may come to feel that a character is merely running in place. Nothing happens to produce meaningful change, and so the book skates on the surface. Artifice in word play ends up making the character feel artificial. What is happening seems ordinary, only told in a different way. Gradually, the character loses their grip on the reader’s attention.

A stock piece of advice for a commercial novelist is: keep them turning pages. An author shooting for a higher plane need not worry as much about this dictum, but making sure that a character makes a plot advance by the end of their chapter will ensure the reader feels they are still making progress toward a future goal.

Exercise: The place in a novel where the go-nowhere feeling is most apparent is when you are setting up your characters early on. A good strategy to combat this is looking for a character’s future scenes. When you see plot movement, you should move that event forward. Mash the two scenes together and see you get.

“Art, whose honesty must work through artifice, cannot avoid cheating truth.”     —Adrienne Rich

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


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. 

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.