The Early Morning Ghost

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


How Much Should Be Carried Over?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Less Back and Forth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The End Determines the Means

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

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

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

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

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

“Never confuse movement with action.”  —Ernest Hemingway 

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Front-Loading Options

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


A Sparkling Ring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


It’s an Outrage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


The Endless Explanations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Follow Your Nose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.