The Acid Test: You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.  


The Personal Touch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Concise, Not Precise

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Assembling Blocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Not to Be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Oh, the Places You’ll See

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


What Rings True

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Hither and Yon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.