When an author comes from a 9-to-5 career of any sort, the dictum to write what you know can have pitfalls. Experiences that either you have had or that happened within your profession can stand out in your mind like shiny baubles. Who wouldn’t want to read, for instance, about that gas explosion that rocked the manholes down on 14th Street? Or that really crazy one on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago? 

The characters in such planning may seem vivid to you, but already I’m thinking: how is a fireman in New York connected to an explosion in Chicago? In other words, are the characters following the action or orchestrating it? The answer better be the latter, or they’ll be pawns in your game of fictionalized real life.

At the same time, I like excitement of any sort, like most readers. So how can you fold disparate incidents into a cohesive evolving whole? The first step is to write down all of the ones floating in your mind. Let’s say you want to include 10 of them. Rank them in a list that roughly places when you’d like to feature them in the book. If you’re smart, you’ll put the less exciting ones early and the catastrophic ones later. That way they will help build the drama.

Next, write down a list of your main characters—no more than five. Rank them by number, 1-5. Now return to your list of incidents and think to which character you’d like to assign them. Write their number down with that entry on the list. When you’re done, how many incidents do you have for how many characters? Your protagonist had better be associated with more of them than anyone else. How about the #2 character? Maybe three of them? Could you work out a way that #1 and 2 appear together at some of them?

Third, consider the before and after. If an explosion comes out of the blue at the reader, it will seem random. Sometimes that’s okay, but most of the time you want to set up a plot logic prior to the incident—to make it believable, if nothing else. So draw up a list of beforehand scenes that are attached to each incident. Which characters are appearing in that scene? In some cases, you’ll want the villains planning the incident. In others, you might have the good guys worrying about the next explosion. Try to assign all beforehand scenes to a main character.

You can do the same with the after scenes. What are the repercussions of the incident? The more you have your main characters react, the more the reader will feel included in the story. That’s because your main characters should be the threads connecting the incidents. Then you’ll have a novel that hangs together.

“We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”  —Joan Didion

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Shifting Emphasis

When you are writing a draft, you may become uneasy about the lack of tension the plot events are generating. For example, you thought at the outset that, based on personal experience, a drama between a college student and her drunk father would produce solid combustion. Maybe the father swings by a few times a week to see if she’ll buy him a few drinks. So she drinks with him with the goal of eventually saving dad. 

You set off on that path for 100 pages. Lots of scenes of dad and roommates. Then you decide to read all of the chapters so far—and find that you have merely a variation of the same adolescent rebellion you’ve read or seen a million times.

You decide that can’t be the main plot. It is relegated to a subplot. Instead, you pick another leading foil, a boyfriend who is too charming and slashing. You start writing scenes of mutual interest at a frat party and other venues, and you feel a nice tension brewing. That wolf is no good for her. Yet you still have those father scenes that you wrote before. Does all of that good material have to be thrown out? 

Thinking in such absolute terms is a mistake. A novel is about as far from all or nothing as life gets. Your first step should be: leave those scenes alone for now. Instead think in terms of competition. Those 50 pages of daughter-dad scenes have to be balanced with the new girl-boy scenes. As the latter proliferate, you’ll be able to assess how frequently the dad scenes should appear. Maybe they are inserted every fourth chapter, so the reader doesn’t forget him. Once you reach page 150, you will be better able to make astute judgments.

One element to watch for is how much background material was previous given to dad and daughter. How much do you have for the boyfriend? If the daughter is the protagonist, maybe the back stories should be rewritten so that she is highlighted more. Dad’s stuff is trimmed, and Mom stuff and Sis stuff, etc., are added, in order to better round out your hero’s past. 

More to the point, you need to recognize that your pole stars have shifted. If the central drama is the hero being sucked in by the guy, who are the people telling her that he’s no good? If that’s primarily the mother, she should included in more background stories. She might also be added to the already written dad-daughter scenes. In other words, the characters engaging in the present-day scenes become part of the rebalancing. If only half of those 50 dad pages end up remaining, you should regard them as the best of those pages you wrote.

“The idol of today pushes the hero of yesterday out of our recollection; and will, in turn, be supplanted by his successor of tomorrow.” —Washington Irving

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Breaking the Spell

A major nonfiction field consists of books filled with the opinions of experts. This sort of narrative uses a rhythm that I roughly call “theory, proof.” The author advances an idea and then verifies it by referring to another source. Often that is an example that shows a person or company in an illustration of the point being advanced. Other times the proof is supplied by the writing of another expert in the field. The author is not just going out on a limb; there are others who support the theory.

The marshaling of these other voices can provide great pleasure to an author inclined to read widely. The discovery of a case study focused on the trauma caused by a lost limb, say, can fit wonderfully into a chapter on a like subject. Given enough time and diligence, an author can find sources that back up every theory in the book. So many, in fact, that the book can start to feel like a rocky passage between a multitude of expert voices. I have read books where the theory aspect frequently consists of a short paragraph, outdone on the same page by a lengthy quote from an apparently more knowledgeable soul. 

In this case, the collector has been crowded out by their menagerie. An author may protest such an idea. Of course it’s their book; they’re in control of what’s being presented. Yet a reader may not feel the same way. The motive behind reading the book usually is gaining knowledge of a subject. An expert collator of greatest hits might be better termed an editor.

A worse fate yet might befall the too deferential author. One reason authors become known in a field is their ability to write well. That’s what separates an Atul Gawande from all the other doctors. The reader may experience great pleasure while reading a long passage of his and decide they really should read that book, not yours. Your book may be put down while the other is explored—and never be retrieved again. 

Put bluntly, you wrote the book so you could become an expert. That happens when the reader is caught in the sway of your words. You need to balance the amount of text you compose with the quotations produced by your chorus. Otherwise, you may be merely a guide that introduces readers to all of those better writers.

Exercise: The easiest way to reduce the amount of text supplied by others is to paraphrase part or all of a quotation. That method keeps the narrative more in your voice, with your rhythms, making the points you are directing the reader toward. It also shows the reader that the quote is merely a cog in your greater design. 

“There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.”  —Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Around the Room to Within

A technique that helps brings an author inside a character’s head proceeds in a curious fashion: from outer to inner. The curiosity factor stems from where a writer usually starts a scene: from a chosen point of view. That is, from already inside the character’s head. So why would anyone consider going to another character’s thoughts? Won’t that disrupt the intimacy with the reader?

To explain, let’s examine how a scene is actually written. At the beginning, you don’t know exactly what will emerge from your pen. You know which characters will dominate the scene. You may have some notes sketching an intended plot advance, along with possible text pieces that you wrote previously, knowing they would fit somewhere in the book. But you still have to write out what happens in that scene.

Let’s assume that a young woman wants to ask permission from her father to go out with her best friend. She knows he thinks the friend is a bad influence. That is the first level of interior monologue. I know Dad is going to say no. How do I get him to yes, because I really want to go? You write out some dialogue, and sure enough, Daddy-o says no. The teenager does some plot-related thinking. When you read over the scene, you feel it’s pedestrian, something out of a Nickelodeon show. How do you get deeper?

You add qualifying factors. One of the best sources for them lies with the father. What happy time might she remember when he was tickled by the best friend? What about her made him smile? What deed did he praise her for? What concern does he have, such as being really smart in math but not applying herself? When you jot down some of these memories, you give your chosen character some ammunition in her argument.

You can go beyond that, using the dad foil. When does she know he is most receptive to her asking a favor? After a few drinks or a bowl of chocolate ice cream? She might also consider using citing her mother as an ally, as in mentioning something she did that always raises his hackles? The anger gets directed onto the mother, and the daughter looks like an angel because she totally supports everything her father says. 

In other words, by considering the supplementary character’s views on subjects that will be raised in the scene, you can discover how the lead character will manipulate or react. You’re still writing from inside her head. You just took a detour to find out nuances that would never occur to you from the inside out.

“A lie does not consist in the indirect position of words, but in the desire and intention, by false speaking, to deceive and injure your neighbour.”                    —Jonathan Swift

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Vague Shadows

A good novel is encyclopedic in its coverage of so many different realms. Chief among them are the attitudes of the lead characters toward each other. When you’re writing truly from one point of view, an entire history of a relationship can be revealed in what a character assumes about another—without the author having to expressly comment on what either of them is like. 

Where does this history come from? From the nether regions of your brain. Even if you are basing a fictional relationship on a real one, you still have to cull from the complexity of those years certain ways of interacting that can form a cohesive bond within the confines of your book. That’s where your reliance on knowing how you and your best friend, say, work(ed) together can lead you astray.

That’s because your characters are going to be more extreme than the real-life models. That means their past history will have correspondingly sharp highlights. As you’re writing, this altered past comes into play. Let’s assume you have made real-life teenage drinking and drug escapades more serious. You know you want the friend to be more hardened, maybe having served time in prison or in a dry-out clinic. Yet how, if the two were supposed to be buddies, can you keep your protagonist savory enough that a reader isn’t turned off by their evil?

Unless you sketch out this grimmer past, you won’t know. You’ll have a vague notion of how a plot turn might go, but because your made-up version of the past still is swimming in the ether of the real past, you’ll end up continuing to put off having to decide. Chapters may be written down, in which the two have solid dialogue, attitudes about plot events that ring like a bell, etc., but underneath—where you have the opportunity to really make them distinctive—you’re still undecided about their roles. 

You have to stop working on the story. Forget about making headway. Figure out what the two did in your fictional past. Start with character notes: what are the buddy’s family and environmental impacts that made them the bad influence on the protagonist? What was the first bad thing the two did together? How, as they got older, did they start to drift apart? How did the hero escape going to prison, as a for-instance?

Then write out several scenes that you know probably won’t make it into the novel. How did the two interact when the evil was committed? Was one intent on malice while the other was talked into it? After it happens, what are the two divergent reactions? How does that impact the way they approach another act of evil a month/year later? Write out that next scene. What you’ll find is that you will learn the answers. Once you know, then you can write implicitly about their interactions in the present day.

“My father had a profound influence on me. He was a lunatic.” —Spike Milligan

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


The Rhetorical Question

Authors are constantly looking for ways to involve a reader in their story, and one of the devices is asking the reader a question. It works, since a reader likes to get inside the head of a lead character. Plus, a question breaks up the rhythm of the narration, which is usually dominated by a point of view that is trying to make the fictional seem real.

Yet the device tends to be used sparingly, and there are good reasons for that. The best one is that it can appear to too transparently gin up tension. What can be done to avert such terrible misfortune? might sum up the general drift of such usage. The reader is, like, come on, do you expect me to go for that? In other words, it amounts to another form of foreshadowing: Myra couldn’t know the terrible consequences of that simple decision. Yawn.

Much better is placing the question within a character’s thoughts. What am I going to do now? feels authentic, because that is what the reader is asking at that moment. In addition, we frequently ask ourselves questions within our real life. They are part of our everyday inner monologue that patters so incessantly. 

Even here, though, an author can easily overstep by asking questions back to back. What am I going to do now? Could I really steal a car? Again, the reader starts to become offended. Okay, okay, enough with the questions. Why don’t you get out there and do something?

One variety that I like to see is the philosophical query. The fact is, categorical statements about life are bunk. As a male teenager you might be awed by Henry Miller’s statement that all women are whores—so deep, dude—but further reflection about your own experiences makes it laughable. If you voice a concern as a question, though, you leave the thought open-ended. If she says I’m cute, does that mean she thinks I’m a joke? leaves it up to the reader to decide.  

Exercise: As you review a draft, look for the occasional spot where a rhetorical question could form a point of emphasis. It can be effective, for instance, when it counters the narrative flow in a paragraph that contains heightened tension. You can also look for statements that seem overbearing. If you reversed the subject and verb, would the intent to provoke remain while not seeming so ponderous?

“Art has always been this—pure interrogation, rhetorical question less the rhetoric—whatever else it may have been obliged by social reality to appear.” —Samuel Beckett

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Art of Insertion

A review of your latest draft can result in a decision to strengthen certain character arcs or plot lines. Commonly, you realize that you have gaps in coverage, or a character/plot ends uneventfully and too soon. You can make a conscious effort to plug those holes. 

First, draw up a chart to find out exactly when a character participates in which plot concerns. Let’s say you have four plot lines that need to be shored up. They can be divided into four columns. Write down the page numbers for each scene and a few words about what happens—as a reminder to yourself. 

When you read vertically, column by column, the true structure of that concern will emerge. For example, there is an 90-page gap between appearances for the divorced dad. If you give him an extra scene, you could divide that number by two, and now he would have only two 45-page gaps. If he is ranked third or fourth in your plot lines, that is fine. You look for the page number halfway in between, and you’ll find a suitable place roughly about then for the insert.

Should he be raised to more importance? You may decide to have him appear in two new scenes. Now he would appear every 30 pages or so. Yet that may raise a different issue, because you may not want to break up that 90-page stretch two full times. You may be alternating nicely, say, among your top three characters. 

In that case, see if you can slot him into an existing scene. A divorced dad can show up unexpectedly, and if only the kids are around, they likely will be glad to see him. So you give him some stage business as well as a few lines commenting on the extant action in a way that furthers his character portrayal. You’re not interrupting anything now.  

The same technique works in extending a plot line. Ending anywhere from the 50-page mark to the end of the novel will feel satisfying, again depending on the plot’s importance. In order to give the last scene some pop, truly finishing things off, you may have to devise a chart-topping conflict. That can involve writing two scenes: one to set up the final obstacle and one to resolve it. Or, if you already have a scene you like as the subplot’s finale, move that scene later and insert a new scene in its place. 

Exercise: One option that shouldn’t be overlooked is: spacing out your present scenes with longer gaps. A plot column may reveal that a plot line is all bunched up in a certain sector of the book. That makes sense, because you were focused on it then. Is the story’s time element, though, so crucial? Could secondary-plot scenes from later be inserted in between several if not all of those scenes?

“When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.” —George Orwell

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Worth the Plunge

A scene in a novel begs to be filled up with details, whether they be lines of dialogue, pieces of the setting, or a character’s point of view. The wealth of them determines how much the scene comes to life. It is hard for a reader to care much what happens until you fill out a run of pages—let’s say three double-spaced manuscript pages at a minimum. Anything less can be considered a narrative summary or a partial scene designed to set up a later full-fledged scene.

Why does some arbitrary length matter? Why not just jump into a scene and let it rip? The reason I raise a caution flag is the effect of these blocks of scenes in the aggregate. While you’re immersed in a single scene, the juices are flowing. All is right with the world. Yet what happens when you’ve written 50 pages and you decide to read over those blocks in sequence? 

What can happen is a growing disenchantment with the larger direction of the novel. Your initial impulse to follow, for example, the dissolution of a meth addict starts off crisply, but soon the story is so depressing, you want to die. Just lay me out on my keyboard—that’ll be fine. Worse than the momentary gloom is the thought of all the work you put in. All those scenes with such well-plumbed details, and I end up with this? Depending on how misguided the project seems, you can pull back from writing more for weeks at a time.

You have to make better choices about the blocks you immerse yourself within. You might have thought at first that the older sister would serve as a good measuring stick for the addict’s fall, and so you wrote out a seven-page scene when she first notices he’s acting psychotic. The idea is solid, but maybe that scene should have waited until she feels compelled to do more than the older-sister lecture that, frankly, sounds like a lot of other older-sibling lectures.

You might be better off drawing up a plot chart. Write out a synopsis of each scene you’ve written in five lines or less. Then look at your initial notes, whether on characters or plot, and write down the gist of scenes based on those points. See if you can work out several hundred pages of projected material—or 20 chapters in your chart. That way you can more clearly tell how the steps into hell really progress. You can see if the sister really is going to matter later in the book. 

An outline changes as a novel grows. You’re not being pinned down. What you’re doing is setting forth relative dramatic weights of plot events and characters. That way you won’t be stumbling in the dark when a character suddenly grabs you by the lapels and demands that more be written about them.

“The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one's own.” —Willa Cather

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Strange But Familiar

When you wish to use touchstones from your own life in a novel, the most common come from relationships. In the early stages of a draft, you realize you want your best friend from high school, say, as a main character. If you keep a journal to capture haphazard thoughts—a highly recommended idea—you can jot down different episodes or shining moments or comments involving your friend. These can have emotional value for the book because the reason you remember them so clearly is you have deep feelings about them.

The notes are a fine start, but at some point you reach a common hurdle in novel writing. Feelings are random unless they are placed in a plot matrix. A plot must be original, and that means going beyond what really happened. That is, you have to inject artificiality into the proceedings. Two kids lighting up a doob behind the barn contains a modicum of danger, but if they start laughing hysterically, the reader will become bored. Oh, yeah, I did that too, back then.

Moving out of the comfort zone of memory lane may freeze your pen. No, your friend really wasn’t mad enough at their father to light the barn on fire, so how could I write about that? And I (I mean, the protagonist) am not the type of guy who glories at finding a can of gasoline. It’s a conundrum: how do you merge real with interesting?

One answer is to focus on details. Any effective scene is buttressed by micro-fine images and at-the-moment thoughts. You take an idea jotted down: Lee said I would never become a rebel because I played by the rules. What if that becomes what the friend says to the protagonist when they find the gasoline by the wheels of a tractor? Lee really did say that, so it shores up the improbability of a sudden impulse to splash gas around. If you go on to describe the piercing foul smell, maybe the odd way that wet hay sinks to the floor, you have intertwined the familiar into the made-up proceedings. 

Exercise: When you review your initial notes, be ready to abstract them from their original context. What was a thought might be spoken aloud in the novel and vice-versa. The crisp lines of the moon witnessed while stoned might be used in contrast to flickering flames. Better yet, once the germ of a story idea seizes you, write down the extension of your note right on the journal page. Keep blasting away with how it could work until the glow of inspiration is spent. When you look at it later, you may have paragraph or a page that will work just fine.

“Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life.”          —Simone Weil

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Best Research

In the previous post I covered some guidelines for researching on the web. In my own experience, the internet is broad but it is not deep. That’s fine if you merely need to establish a point here and there—e.g., a silk dress 100 years ago was likely worn by a rich woman. Yet if you are trying to present facts that are truly eye-opening, you need sources that go beyond what is commonly known. 

The first step in that direction comes from the back of a book. Within that term I’ll include the footnotes along with the bibliography, since many times they are aggregated in an endnotes section. A book you research in the early days likely is an overview of a topic. By now you probably already have initial probes in your notes that indicate what you really want to learn more about. The back matter of a general book will break down the categories covered into subsets. Professors rarely write broad books: they pick some aspect for which they can show more diligence than other professors. They’re in their own race to the top, and you are the beneficiary.

Let’s suppose that you want to study 19th-century New York City theater. If you merely want to know technical aspects of what happened backstage, it’s possible that a book on a theater in Philadelphia is worth exploring. The guys who built that theater drew on British models, just like their confrères 100 miles northeast. Likewise, any book on theater gaslights will suffice. That’s because the specifics of one bygone theater you have settled on as a setting may be lost in the sands of time.

The problem you may run into on a broader topic—let’s say, how a lower-class worker fared during the city’s rapid expansion up Manhattan island—stems from a lack of discernment in terms of the author’s discipline. A sociology professor will write a different book than a women’s studies professor. What is really right for the characters you are considering? Then too, many books on a topic, such as policing during that era, may focus more on the growing organizational apparatus of the police force rather than: how did a detective pre–Sherlock Holmes solve a murder? That’s because the author can access data recorded by the long-ago organization’s officials.

You may be better off searching the footnotes for memoirs and magazines written at the time. Sure, you have to forge through the archaic language. Yet such accounts reveal more of how life was experienced at the street level. Just in their casual observations you may find a wealth of interesting details that would never be included in a top-down study. And, because memoirs are just on the other side of the nonfiction line, you may find that novels are the richest source of all. You want to know how thieves operated in that century? Try Herman Melville’s Confidence-Man. Mind you, I’m not advocating plagiarism, but a detail from a paddle wheel can be put into your own words. 

“The knives of jealousy are honed on details.” —Ruth Rendell

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Right Research

Authors need to find the facts about a subject before including it in a story. That seems like a straightforward proposition until you start trying to find the information. What sort of research is being conducted, and how will the facts you discover be of any help to you? This post will cover the internet, since that is the first place anyone looks these days. Your better choice, books, will follow in the next post.

The internet is right there at your fingertips. You don’t even have to get off your ass. You type in “New York City theater 19th century,” for instance. What such a search is likely to find breaks into several categories. The most common one is history attached to a travel guide. You read one all-too-short article on the difference between the theaters on Broadway and the Bowery. You click to the next entry, and you find pretty much the same stuff. Hey, the start of class warfare: Broadway vs. the Bowery. 

Beyond that, you may find sites that really are about New York theaters in the 20th century, but they do have one mention of the 19th century, in 1898. So that’s a waste of time. Luckily, you may become skilled in skimming the contents of the teasers on the search page.

Before moving on to the most fruitful category, I will point out that pictures on any site can be valuable to you. Just looking at a drawing inside the Bowery Theatre gives you a sense not only of the entertainment offered but the audience adoring or hating it. If you compile a file of drawings and sepia photographs alone (in this example), you will have material you can study at a later date.

Your best guess for info that will actually help you imagine your fictional world comes from the scholarly realm. A site like JSTOR is an incredible resource for articles that have appeared across a wide spectrum of academic journals. These professors are all digging in deep, so you may find such interesting material as: when did respectable women start attending the theater? Looking up the relevant topics isn’t easy, because their AI is a vast vacuum cleaner too, but at least when you do make choices, you get something out of your reading.

Better yet, those articles have footnotes and bibliographies. You might discover the memoir of an actor who appeared often with 19th-century star Edwin Forrest. That gives you an on-the-ground view of someone who lived through those times. Florid language aside, you may discover all sorts of interesting nuggets. While it’s very possible that a site like Google Books will allow you to read such an ancient tome online, you may find yourself hopping in the car and driving to the library. (To be continued.)

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”― Marcus Tullius Cicero

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Working the Other End

An author tends to regard a novel from the point of view of the protagonist. That is fitting, because the most notes, sketches, and actual scenes revolve around the hero. Yet this prism leaves out subsidiary possibilities that can have solid emotional impacts on the reader. 

Take the concept of a supporting player. We know what their role is: to support the main characters. Yet because the #2 character in a book can also be a supporting character (to #1), you have to consider varying dramatic weights of roles all the way down the ranks. Are you bringing all of your forces to bear?

Let’s suppose that you have two married couples who are friendly. One from each has an affair with the other. Your protagonist is one of the maligned, let’s say Perry, a husband. Your focus is on him, the deception of his wife, Claire, and the other husband, William. That’s the menage-à-trois. Later in the draft you realize that William’s wife, Evelyn, might be useful—if Perry and Evelyn met to commiserate. 

Good planning all around, right? Now consider emotional impacts. If you want the reader to root for Perry, how are you effectuating that? Through being wronged by both Claire and William, plus hearing Evelyn’s teary story. Now ask yourself: what about their children? You may have a scene or two where they run through the kitchen, but they are just kids. Sex is so far above their heads.

You are evaluating the matter through Perry’s eyes. Yet you can make the world around him work for your purposes. What if you featured the children in both families more prominently? Choose Perry’s daughter, Wendy, age 10, and a girl from Evelyn’s family. They could have scenes with Perry as an active participant. Do you think girls of that age are dopes? They don’t pick up adult vibes? If Wendy finds out about her mother, now what does your emotional calculus look like?

This knock-on effect can be employed in a wide range of scenarios. Even a minor character can contribute to creating a groundswell. You stage events so that you keep raising the stakes. Who knows? Aunt Brodie and her brownies might come in handy. 

Exercise: Review the manuscript looking for minor characters in a main setting. Not characters who already are featured in scenes with a main character. The ones below that, who function basically as part of the setting. Could they be given speaking roles? Maybe they could appear in three scenes spaced apart over the course of half the book. Now you have another viewpoint that can create friction around a main character’s transgressions.

“Some women want the strong silent type, so they can tell him to shut up and rearrange the furniture. —P. J. O’Rourke

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Around the Bush to Brilliance

The rapid technological advances of our age are only the most prominent products of a results-oriented culture. We are all caught up in its tumult, infected by what we see rushing past us. When you have only your regular job to do, or regular texts to take care of, the frenetic pace is fun. 

Yet when you are trying to write, the clamor that invites you to do, do, do—don’t be bored!—can have an adverse effect. If you sit down for a writing session and you can’t produce, disgruntlement sets in. You are sitting in front of your screen, and the words seem like meaningless scribbles that might as well be cuneiform for all the connection you feel to them. 

You try to start, and you stop. After ten minutes you actually get down a sentence, feeling a burst of inspiration, but then you feel as arid afterward as you did before you managed that pitiful dribble. Your feelings of frustration are understandable. You have put aside the precious time, and nothing is happening. If these stale sessions occur too often, you will follow the pain and pleasure principle. If writing is so self-defeating, I won’t do it. Weeks may go by before you return to the keyboard. That novel is never going to be finished.

What is the problem? You are trying to force the issue. You need to permit yourself to meander. Sometimes the way through is not full-steam ahead. You might have to waste time to make time. Of that hour you allotted for writing today, you may have to spend the first 35 minutes feeling unable to get started. Then you feel something gel inside and you knock out a page or two in the last 25 minutes. 

You have to follow a rule: You cannot move from your chair until the time you set for yourself is up. Because you can’t escape, you have to devise techniques to muddle through. You wait out your frustration, in other words. You can’t call up brilliance on demand, but you can wait for the Muse to come knocking.

Exercise: Rather than staring at the page you planned to write, allow your mind to wander where it will. While you are focused on one thing, you usually will find that stray pieces related to the story pop into your head. You’d meant to research a minor point, for example, or you know you took research notes that you’ll use later in the chapter. Forget about what you planned to write. Get busy looking up that research bit. Write a sentence or paragraph on that point and paste it into the chapter. That’s progress. Even better, it may be what gets your writing session going that day.

“’Keeping busy’ is the remedy for all the ills in America. It's also the means by which the creative impulse is destroyed.”  ― Joyce Carol Oates

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Aligning Boxcars

Boxcars are mechanical, books are works of art. How could the concept of the one possibly be applied to the other? As a way to begin, I’ll explain that I am using a boxcar as a metaphor for a plot line. This is true in the sense that any plot has a set number of scenes that take up a certain number of pages. If you bothered to count, you would see that your main plot is always the longest boxcar. 

Why is this concept helpful in the slightest? You can use it when you review a draft and sense that characters who were important earlier in the story seem to be forgotten later on. That might not be a problem, if the character was useful only at that stage in the protagonist’s life, or at that phase in the plot. But really, wouldn’t you prefer if all of your plot lines converged during the climax sequence to accumulate the greatest impact?

The key is examining your time line. You might call it scheduling the boxcars, although now I feel I’m verging on Ringo Starr and Thomas the Tank Engine. When you parse out when major events in a plot line occur, you may find that you were merely focused on those events at a given point during your months of writing the book. Further, the crisis might have occurred in real life to your brother, say, when you were 12 years old. You are trapping yourself in a time continuum, and that’s stupid. In a novel, you can make up any time sequence you like.

Why couldn’t the crisis occur when the protagonist is 16, when the large bulk of the novel’s events are taking place? You take the scenes you’ve written and insert them in between main plot scenes. Usually, you want a rhythm in your plot lines—breaking away from one and leaving the reader hanging for a chapter. So the brother scenes allow you that periodic break. Your boxcars—you knew that was coming back in—are now running in parallel, and you’re accumulating the power that derives from the tension contained in each one of them.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for each of your main characters, and write down in a chart the pages on which they appear, in an active way.  Once you are finished, study those numbers. Do you see groupings, which represent when they are important to the book? If you need the character as a force in the climax sequence, could some circumstances be changed so that the grouping slides back further in the book?

“There is nothing permanent except change.” —Heraclitus

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Passing Ships

A novel has been likened to a journey, and that entails at least the main character starting at Point A and moving to Point Z by the end. Along with movement comes progression, or building. That’s because a reader’s identification with a character deepens the more times they appear, and if the character isn’t developing in tandem, the reader starts to lose interest. If no one is going anywhere, why am I reading this book?

Most authors readily grasp the notion of an arc, but their attention can be focused on the protagonist to the exclusion of others. In large part, that occurs because the author identifies most with the hero. Often the hero is the author at a younger age. While a singular focus can yield many riches, it can cause a problem with your supporting characters.

I rank such characters in an upper circle, and most authors can only probe a half dozen to any significant depth—that is, making them stand out to the reader. To achieve that stature, they must appear multiple times during the course of the book. Here is where the problem comes in. They may represent a fixed entity that serves as an ongoing source of conflict with the protagonist. This is particularly true of adult characters in a realistic drama. Let’s face it: how much do people change past the age of 30?

So what’s the problem? As the novel develops, the arguments and commentary that your protagonist engages in with a character that is static will after a while also become static. They fight about the same basic stuff. The protagonist’s thoughts about the character are the same. How could it be otherwise when that supporting character is fixed in their plot purpose?

To correct that, you need to devise the novel’s structure so that person is also progressing. If the character is a stay-at-home mom, for example, why isn’t she getting on with her life? If the protagonist is old enough to retain the reader’s interest, at least an adolescent, is the mother really happy to be stuck at home while the kids fly the coop? More to the point, how interesting is that character to the reader? If the mother also is on the move—taking a job, for example—then the child has new reasons to argue, new resentments to stew over. That’s all I want: new explosions.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye on only one supporting character. For each active scene they have, or interior monologue about them, write a quick summary of what it’s about. Do you start seeing that later scenes are only an elaboration on what happened earlier? Don’t change the subject of the scene. Change the position of the character so that they are developing too.

“Once you do away with the idea of people as fixed, static entities, then you see that people can change, and there is hope.” —bell hooks

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Junk Words

When an author is editing a manuscript, the goal is sterling prose, sentence by sentence. Included in that effort is the hope you will find new twists in the ways you tell your story. That desire to be distinctive has drawbacks, however, when you are using a low level of diction, which is found in almost all popular novels. A character’s point of view might have the right cadence, but you’re trying too hard to swing the reader behind you.

The most common error I correct during a line edit is repetition. This occurs over the course of any novel, of course, but what I find surprising is how often a word is repeated in the same paragraph or even the same sentence. For example: “He noticed the slim fingers that poked out of the fingerless black gloves.” The difficulty here is plain: they are a certain type of gloves that fingers stick out of. You have to follow a strict rule not to repeat any words. Adhering to that means you have to find an alternative, and in this case one answer is: “ . . . black workout gloves.” 

Part of establishing an idiomatic voice is using expressions that readers immediately grasp, and so often that means using clichés. While these do have a place in dialogue, when a speaker may well want to bring the listener into accord, I am harder on their use in prose. Take this example: “Getting dragged across hot coals seemed more appealing than going home.” The cliché reduces the character to anyone. Anyone could be dragged across hot coals, because the idea is so common. Why not pick out an expression that accurately describes your character? In this case, let’s say the character is a teenager. So maybe it is: “Spending days writing code seemed more . . .”

This process of using the lowest common denominator also can lead to clichés employed in mixed metaphors. Let’s consider: “She had grabbed too many rungs up the career ladder to put up with his Tarzan act.” As far as I know, Tarzan does not use a ladder; he swings on vines. The author is trying too hard, seizing a worthy idea—women should be treated equally in the workplace—and trivializing it by pairing it with an easy grab. 

Easy tarnishes crisp prose. You have to be ruthless with yourself, even if it means stopping to close your eyes and think through what might be a fresh substitute for a common expression. Yes, it will take you extra hours, but really, what is your hurry? Unless you’re rushing to fulfill a contract on your mega-book deal, the first judge you should be trying to please is: yourself.

“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.” —Thomas Paine

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Checking It Twice

The prospect of editing your manuscript is unwelcome, and the process is arduous. Nonetheless, you do it because either you or someone you respect has identified aspects of the book that are less compelling. You may have too much interior monologue, for example, on the part of your point-of-view character(s). You may have nonfiction-based content, such as a current social debate, that seems repetitious. Whatever you settle on, you have guidelines that tell you what to look for as you are editing the work.

The process that most authors follow is one of trimming. You keep shaving, shaving, shaving—sentence by sentence, sometimes throwing out whole paragraphs or a few pages, depending on how deep the rabbit hole is. You find a ton of stuff that is pretty good, and you don’t really want to cut it. You may remember how great you felt about it when it first burst forth from the keyboard. So that stays.

This process of accretion—little bit here, little bit there—is undoubtedly helpful in terms of how well the book reads when you finish. If you cut 10 percent of any story, the good stuff will stand out more when the dross is removed. The larger objectives, however, tend to be obscured by this approach. What did the person in the writing group really say? What was the literary agent’s real objection?

You can forget that the real objective is to produce a book on a higher plane. While you’re cutting a lot of interior monologue, you also have to consider what might be better interior monologue. You have a grasp of your characters by now. If you look at each plot turn, could you catalogue, step by step, more deeply how they’re feeling? That is, maybe the objection to too much thinking may be because it was too slight or too event-oriented to allow us to know the character better. Skating on the surface can become tiring for a reader—who wants to be the character, inside.

The same is true of that current debate you lectured about. Maybe the problem isn’t cutting down all the dialogue about, say, the January 6th attack on the Capitol. Maybe it’s the talk itself. Talk is cheap. What would happen if you cut it all? Instead you introduce a new character, a friend who infiltrated security and hoisted a brewski inside the hallowed halls? They brag about it to your protagonist. You follow a series of subplot scenes in which the FBI comes knocking. In each scene, you keep telling us: how does the protagonist feel about the friend?

Exercise: When you draw any conclusions yourself, or receive any comments, ask yourself: what is the objection? Is it too much junk, or is the way I’m going about it? You may be discoursing when you should make your characters act. Consider completely different alternatives. Sketch them out. Write a few scenes in that new direction. Now what do you think?

“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” —Ansel Adams

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Sleep on It

Writing any book takes a long time. I occasionally edit authors who write at white-hot speed, but the number is not great and neither are the books. For most, with no deadline to meet, the writing can span months, revolving through numerous iterations, each of which adds a new layer of complexity. What is not as apparent in this involved process is how long a section may lie fallow before you turn your attention back to it. That gap in time can also be a tool in producing the best results. 

The process of writing goes through three broad stages: research and notes; the initial burst of creativity; and editing. If the process takes several years, let’s say, then Chapter 5 may not be revisited for months on end. When you return to it, you read almost as you are coming upon the prose for the first time. Yes, you recognize the general drift for the characters and plot, but the individual sentences, all the tiny steps of getting from beginning to end, are a source of surprised delight—and, if you’re serious, consternation. 

Let’s focus on that third stage, editing, which is so often in conflict with the second, writing new material.  That’s because most authors face an ongoing problem of feeling blocked. You wake up on the wrong side of the bed for writing, and no matter how much you try to fight through it, you continue to feel listless. So you decide to edit what you’re already written. After all, you might as well get something done. And who knows? After a time the muse may finally come knocking. 

That’s fine as an expedient. One day sucks, okay, write that off. But what do you do when the blockage malaise extends over several days, as it so often does, or even a week and more? By that time you’re wondering if you’ll ever become a writer or, conversely, whether you’re all washed up. You may even find yourself whining about setting aside the time but nothing’s happening.

The answer? You have to try harder, of course. No one cares if you never write a book, or another book. You’re the one who likes to tap into the flow of creativity. You must push yourself to write new material every time out. If you set aside an hour and the pen only flows for the last 20 minutes, well, the pen flowed, didn’t it? What you can’t do is settle into a routine of editing yourself. A book takes long enough to write. When do you think you’ll ever finish if you don’t make a little progress every session?

Exercise: When you’re editing, don’t worry about getting everything exactly right. You’re only thinking everything’s right at that point in time. A writer is never satisfied. So put Chapter 5 aside. Sleep for a month on it, then come back. You’ll find more niggling things that need to be fixed. But during that month, if you force yourself to keep pushing ahead, you’ll have left that chapter far behind.

“A book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.” —Franz Kafka 

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.



Only Ten Percent

Hours of intense writing sessions produce volume, if nothing else. The better the writer is, the harder it is to cut material after beta readers or literary agents advise that the manuscript is too long. The first impulse is to trim sentence by sentence. That way nothing major has to be sacrificed. Yet I know as a line editor that this approach is doomed if the manuscript is very long. You won’t gain more than 10 percent in savings.

Instead, regard the manuscript as a series of steps from the top down. What are the major timbers? They are theme, character, and plot. So start at the top. How many themes do you have? Which ones, if you had to put them in order, are the most important? Once you have that list, a good first step is examining the book solely in terms of how well the characters and plot action support each of them. You may spot one or two that, while they seemed promising at the outset, haven’t really been carried through in the writing. Could you take out the parts supporting that incomplete theme?

Next, because a character can embody a theme, judge how taking out a theme impacts the character(s) supporting it. Let’s say you have a teenager damaged by a brutal father that left the family a number of years ago. The only parent that plays an ongoing role in the book is the mother, with the father relegated to background stories and maybe a cameo appearance actively. Could you express the damage created in shorter strokes, cutting down on the back stories? Could you use the mother’s implied references to him  to accomplish part of the theme? Does the father really have to appear in the story at all? Slashing in this direction could gain sizable chunks.

Plotting is the last big element and often the one most amenable to cuts. That’s because a plot event can either be related in live action or in narrative summary. As you did with the themes, draw up a list of scenes related to each plot line. Which ones are vital to understanding the story’s passage? You may find a number of incidental scenes. Nice to have as stepping-stones, but they could be reduced from a scene to a paragraph or two. You may find, in the process, that you have scenes that overlap in function. How many times, to use the previous example, does the boy have to drive off for the evening with no destination known? Maybe save only the one when he nearly does drive off the edge.

The most attractive target may be an entire subplot. That’s because, depending on its length, that plot line might be used as a head start on your next book. In that case, could you realign the background stories so that they fill the gaps left by the subplot scenes you take out? A reader can be left dangling at the end of a chapter merely by switching away from the present.

“Writing for me is cutting out the fat and getting to the meaning.” —James McBride

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Tried and True

When an author is searching for what to write about, certain touchstones from real life come to mind. What would the reading public be passionate about? At present, some people grumble about stupid anti-vaxxers, while their counterparts take livestock-related remedies advertised on social media. Let’s say you decide the contrarian point of view is more interesting. Your protagonist will at the very least use ivermectin during the course of the novel. 

So far, so good. Becoming steeped in the weird means you’re taking the reader on a new adventure. You can research what ivermectin is, the effect it has on cows, and the reported effects on humans using it as an alternative to a vaccine. This is all stuff the reader doesn’t know. Plus, you are creating a personal story in which the suffering takes place. 

Trouble may arise when you start to consider such factors as milieu. What sort of person would take it? What does that indicate about their environment and the people influencing their choices? Since most of the resistance is occurring in libertarian areas, that indicates such factors as: belief in God and distrust of government. Now you’re venturing into a realm where generalizations can undercut your good intentions. Do you understand how a rural community interacts? 

This is where an author can start to take shortcuts. What is really interesting is imagining you could be that person taking ivermectin and, by extension, people you know are the nexus around that character. So an aunt who in real life does go to church every Sunday becomes the mouthpiece for ordinary stuff like the creation myth and the coming of the apocalypse. The protagonist’s best friend, in that beery tone you know so well, starts spouting off political cant. You’re ignoring the fact that this sort of stuff is so well known that everyone, from both ends of the political spectrum, has read or heard the arguments so many times that eyelids slowly flutter and close.

It is your job to keep all aspects of the adventure fresh. The aunt might start spouting out, but the protagonist’s mother tells her to shut up. She’s sick of that talk. As it turns out, the mother has her own very bizarre take on Christ. The protagonist cuts off the best friend before they can get started. I know that, and it sure is not going to change the investigation into who stole those grenade launchers. You stay in the vanguard on every front. That way the reader will keep on wanting to find out what you’re bringing next.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for any lazy points you slipped into because they came so easily. If it was easy, it should be penciled out in favor of your digging into that point to see if there is a novel viewpoint you hadn’t considered. It takes a lot more time that way, but the reader will also be engaged all the way through.

“Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” —Ambrose Bierce

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Stripped Down, Bare Chested

One of the perennial difficulties I have as an editor is getting male authors to provide well-rounded heroes. Like men in general, these characters tend to work hard, play hard, and have difficulties understanding the opposite sex. Yet in an age when women dominate the editorial ranks at major publishing houses, the stripped-down hero usually ends up in the rejection pile. Guys, you have to deliver more of the goods.

You might want to use connections. That is, create connections between characters. Although this process does further plot, in the sense that interpersonal dynamics produces friction, it primarily forces an author to focus on how the characters relate to each other. One of the aims is to help define what is different about each character, primarily the protagonist. If Malcolm is sullen, for instance, who in the book knows why? Who has been exasperated by it, and what consequences has Malcolm suffered because of it? 

Already you can start thinking to yourself: where was the starting point—that’s one connection. How has that played out in his romantic involvements—that’s possibly several connections, each different. Regarded by itself, sullen is an unapproachable island. Regarded in terms of connections, Malcolm is being pulled in all sorts of directions—and he may well wish he was less sullen. That is complex, interesting.

An equally important function of connections is creating ongoing relationships during the course of the book. Too often I ask an author to address sullenness, and he responds with a quarter-page back story about an abusive mother. Yet a connection means that the abusive mother would participate in the novel: calling the hero about some persistent issue, getting in his way when he has important stuff to do, and best of all, forcing the author to reveal how the hero relates to his mother. 

Ask yourself: how do you talk to your mother? What secrets does she know that reveal how you tick?  For what did she praise you? About what did she complain bitterly, unceasingly, about you, or maybe your father (and thus you by association, you male lout). That connection does not have to be a mother, of course. But you see what I mean. When you are forced to make the hero interact, on an ongoing basis, he’s going to reveal scars and warts—that make him stand out from his army.

Exercise: Sit back in your chair, close your eyes, and think of the three most important traits your protagonist possesses. Write them down, leaving space below each to fill out. Now pick any of them at random, the one that grabs you right away. Do you have a supporting character who can help reveal that trait? Could you find 8-10 places during the course of the novel where that trait could be displayed, commented upon by another character, etc.? By conscious effort, you can add another layer to that character.

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”  ― Ray Bradbury

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Wading Through Source Material

When you are writing nonfiction, you often need to use others’ material. Depending on the type of book, quotations from another author can provide an expert’s view that buttresses a point you are making. The more academic or technical the writing, the more you need to show that your work acknowledges the contributions of others. If you don’t back up what you say, you run the risk of a reader assuming that you are not presenting facts, but only your opinion.

This imperative can be taken too far, however. Hunting for and gathering source material is meant to apply only to the first phase, when you are collecting a mine from which you can draw. When you sit down to write, hunting and gathering can lead to results as primitive as the stone age practice. In a much later era, with the advent of roads, we invented the sign post. For our purposes here, you can consider those signs posts as guides to the reader as to where the book is heading next. 

For practical purposes, let’s focus on a single book: a narrative about a homicide committed by a gang of moonshiners. All you have are historical records: testimony in the court cases, court records of various hearings and grand jury proceedings, newspaper accounts, and perhaps a diary of one of the felons. From these sources you can patch together a fairly cohesive chronological record of what led up to the murder and what came after. Yet each piece of source material was not written to fit within an overall whole. You have to link them with your sign posts.  

Sometimes you need a topic paragraph to provide an effective change in direction. At other times, when the source material follows a clear pattern, you need merely a sentence. If you are switching, for instance, between an arrest after a still is discovered by police to another occasion entirely where a potential witness was browbeaten, you’re probably going to provide a paragraph bridge in order to make the transition. If you are switching, though, merely between a grand jury finding and paying the subsequent bail levied by the judge, a sentence will probably suffice.

Beyond simple direction pointing, source material can become balky when you are employing long stretches of it. In this book, the likely culprits would be snatches of trial transcripts. If you use two pages of testimony by witness A and then three pages by witness B, etc., the reader may start to feel in over his head. Oral testimony often segues onto tangents, despite a lawyer’s attempts to keep the witness on track. When enough of that occurs, anyone reading may become exasperated that he has to wade through trivia.

A solid means of supplying more direction is breaking up the transcript into smaller pieces. You can take a section and paraphrase it in a narrative paragraph. While you’re at it, you can add in extra directions as to where the testimony that precedes or follows the paragraph is headed in general. That way you can corral your source material and bend it to a purpose that will please your readers.

“To be a book-collector is to combine the worst characteristics of a dope fiend with those of a miser.” —Robertson Davies

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


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. 

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.