A Delicate Equipoise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Managing Point of View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Don’t Hate the Copy Editor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Using One Attack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Lack of Coordinates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Once Upon a Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


All That Luggage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.