Take One More Step

We can grasp a concrete notion better than a general one. That’s why a well-told detail is specific. Let’s take a typical example of a lazy description: “The crowd hurried by, trying to get out of the rain.” Even if I know the place and time beforehand, do I really feel like I am participating in the action? 

Stop for a moment and describe one person hurrying. Is an older man cursing because his umbrella just flipped inside-out in the wind? Did a young woman clip the neck of the heroine with her umbrella spokes as she bulled past?  Does the hero look down at his front and see it all spattered, making him readjust how he is carrying his umbrella? Forget the crowd. Look for examples within the crowd. You don’t have to go crazy: each one of the examples I just supplied is merely one sentence apiece. 

The specific detail can also include a short burst of dialogue. For example, everyone in New York City knows it’s impossible to hail a cab when it’s raining. You can ratchet up tension if the heroine, flailing her arm uselessly, suddenly shouts: “Goddamn all the cabs in this city!” Everyone nearby turns to look at the madwoman—and we now know how hard it’s raining.

Where specifics really work is with repeated actions that are glossed over in passing. Sticking with the topic of city life, how about: “All the petty indignities of the daily commute were getting him down.” Now, how am I supposed to get inside that? 

Give us an example of the indignities. A lead character races over to a miraculously available ticket machine at a train station, only to find a taped piece of paper over its view window, reading: “Out of Order.” A woman alone in a two-seater hears the train doors close, and as she sighing in relief, an immensely fat man who just made it on walks down the aisle, nods slightly at her, and plops down with all that blubber beside her. 

As noted before, this sort of work can be as brief as you like. The key is, whenever you use a plural, consider whether you can turn it into a singular. Then you’ll find the example wonderfully lights up the rule.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye toward actions or events described in the plural. When you find one, determine if it’s consequential enough to deserve a fuller example. If so, sit back for a few moments and sort through the possible examples of that blanket statement. Write down a few, allowing your mind to continue to play with the idea. Once you stop and listen, so to speak, you’ll find that your mind contains a flood of terrific singular examples.

"There are two cardinal sins from which all others spring: Impatience and Laziness." — Franz Kafka 

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


What Is Implicit

The early phase of a novel features a good deal of what I call “setup” material. An author needs to put the reader’s feet on the ground in a fictional world. That includes establishing the settings and providing backgrounds for the major characters. For the story to have any richness, such work is vital. Yet authors can write these pieces as though their audience has never inhabited a similar setting or met a similar character type. The result can be yawns of recognition. How do you know what should go and what should stay?

A good rule of thumb is: use what is fresh. Does your setting have interesting or exotic features that set it apart? For instance, mention the swaying palm trees in a passing sentence, but dig in on the driftwood shelter a beach bum has built. With characters, use quick strokes to lay down a stormy relationship of the father and daughter over driving the family car. Get to the friend who has snuck into the car and pops out when they leave the driveway. 

What writers forget, in the dark of the lonely study, is that readers are bombarded with settings and character relationships all the time, from Sesame Street onward. Say, you want to lay down the setting of a high school. Do you think I know how tedious an oral book report is? You bet I do—and you can summarize the whole scene in one sentence. Go straight to the scene where the student pulls out the quart of Colt .45. 

If you want to establish a cool student browbeating a loser, do it in one scene or two. Past that you are merely trading on sympathy that is already running thin. The reader has probably read a dozen articles or stories on bullying. Instead, you should decide whether you are going to build the relationship during the course of the book, until the loser hopefully shoots the bully, or move on with either of the two to create new heights for them elsewhere. 

Burrowing down into a story objective is the only way to make the ordinary interesting. If you lay the groundwork for a relationship that will build over a series of 20 scenes, you can use reader recognition of certain plot turns or characteristics as ways to involve them more deeply. Even then, keep trying to surprise us with the endless complexity of the human species.

Exercise: You can test out whether a setup scene works by deleting it entirely. Wait two weeks and then read the 20 pages before it and after it. What missing ingredients do you feel are vital for the reader to know? Read over the scene and pick out the necessary pieces. Then place them in another scene. Wait two weeks and read that passage again. Do you still think you need the scene?

“Perhaps there is no agony worse than the tedium I experienced waiting for Something to Happen.” —Lance Loud

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Historical Determinants

Unless you would like to spend years writing your historical novel, you are advised to consider some cardinal points that will frame your concept. Starting from the ground up may work in history, according to Tolstoy, but that method can lead to dozens of pages you’ll later throw out. Here are some commonsense questions you should ask yourself:

First, why would a reader be interested in reading about a certain time period? Just because you are interested in the separation movement that ended with Kentucky becoming the 15th state doesn’t mean anyone else has any idea what that was. You can develop stirring characters and moving personal dramas, but don’t count on lines at the bookstore based on the concept.

Second, how much does the novel depend on the historical events that occurred during the time frame you have chosen? This genre has severe limitations on the imagination in the public sphere. If you start with the idea about how a family in the era fell apart due to historical circumstances, such as the father heading out west in the 1850s, you have to make sure that his participation in the Kansas border war does not lead the book so far astray that the family left behind is forgotten by the reader too. Otherwise, when he returns home, no one is going to care what happens.

Third, when mapping out the plot, how much research have you done into the historical figures and the events that will appear in the novel? You cannot narrate events that contravene what is known, and often a first pass through a general history of the era does not reveal the fine details you need to know. If you have a great idea about an African American counterfeiter in pre-Civil War New York City, a close look will inform you that blacks were not involved in that type of crime. Counterfeiting depended largely on how the “shover” presented himself to a merchant or banker, and you can’t dismiss the fact that, however wrongly, blacks were regarded in the city as second-class citizens. 

That leads to the question that any historical novelist favors: How well can you organize the novel’s plot around a historical event? To extend the prior example, the signal event for New York African Americans during this time period was the Draft Riots of 1863. So what does Kevin Baker do in Paradise Alley? He starts the novel with a black woman near the present-day Seaport who sees a gang of men marching and shouting in the streets about Abraham Lincoln’s new draft law. Historical and private events are entwined from the very start, and that makes the novel powerful.

“I was reading this book today, The History of Glue, and I couldn't put it down.”   —Tim Vine

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


What Crosses the Finish Line

Along the long march to completing a draft lie pods of material you’ve written. At one time a mini background for the protagonist’s friend’s mother, for instance, may have seemed worthwhile because it helped to explain the friend’s motivation for a plot event. Dozens of similar explanations can dot a novel, all of which had a cogent reason at the time. Yet as you’re reading over the draft after completion, you notice that the first third of the story moves very slowly. How do you decide how to accelerate the pacing?

A useful practice is isolating a single character at a time. You can use a chart with columns that track: on which pages they appear, how many pages for each appearance, and the subject matter of the scene. Finally, create a column for background material. The entries can consist of two types—narrative summaries and flashback scenes—so use letters like NS and FL to indicate the difference. 

Numbers don’t lie. If you study the column that records when someone appears, you can see if those scenes are clustered earlier or later. What can often happen is that you were interested in a character for a while, such as when they were useful for the plot. Later, the character may become more of an also-ran—still showing up but not performing action of any note. When regarded from a reader’s perspective, they fall by the wayside because they are not continuing to command attention.

Now look at the background column. How many pages have you devoted to setting up that character? If you see a total of 6-7 pages, you might not think it’s that big a deal. The problem comes in when you consider how many pages you have devoted to all of the other characters. If you create charts for each, you can cross-check them and identify on which pages they all get background work. Since many authors place background material within the first third of a book, when you’re trying to set up distinctive characters, you may have unintentionally created a logjam. 

That’s when examining each of the charts for appearances later in the novel can bear fruit. Those characters with major roles later should dominate in the realm of background material as well. They are the ones paying off for the time the reader spent reading about them. If you cut back the early material to reflect that emphasis, you’ll find that not only does your pacing increase, your major characters stand out more because you’ve cleared away unnecessary brush.

Exercise: Often a minor character’s background involves the protagonist. What you may be able to do is substitute a major character in their place. If it is a childhood prank, for example, could you merely change the names and produce the same effect? 

“Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.” —Igor Stravinsky

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.