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. 


Using Multiple Guessers

For those who are not gifted at plotting mysteries, other strategies for laying crumbs for readers have to be employed. One that works well relies on multiplying the number of characters involved in investigating a crime. The advantages stem from having different opinions about the same number of clues.

In order to make it work, you first should get in the habit of “thinking” from different characters’ points of view. Let’s say Cal is intuitive but impractical. His partner in sleuthing is Lenora, who is rational and down-to-earth. Maybe a third member of the crew, Lee, is good at intellectual puzzles. Now pick out a clue: say, a red rose pinned to a victim’s lapel. You can plot out three different interpretations of one clue, and until more clues are available, all of them will seem valid to the reader. 

The next step is relating the clue to known suspects. Let’s say Malcolm is strung up on a balcony rail overlooking the foyer. Cal may guess that the murderer must be the homeowner Sandy, since he heard a violent argument between them recently. Yet Lenora points out that whoever strung up Malcolm must be strong, and Sandy weighs only 110 pounds, 50 pounds lighter than her supposed victim. At the same time, Lee weighs in with the observation that the rope is a special nylon type associated with sailing, and Malcolm’s good friend Trent is always bragging about his boat. How is the reader supposed to settle, for sure, on any of these choices?

Even better, you may choose a suspect that has a personal relationship with one or more of your sleuths. If Cal intensely dislikes May, he may slant his interpretations of the clues so they fit May. Yet Lenora may sensibly point out the faults in Cal’s reasoning, knowing full well his dislike. You can then calibrate a third response because Lee views May more of a psychological specimen than a person. Depending on who is the protagonist, you can assign more weight of suspicion to May, but the other characters’ objections still need to be noted by the guessing reader. 

As the book progresses, you can then play off one character’s worth in guessing against another. Because Cal seems to use his heart rather than his head, the pendulum may swing toward Lenora, who is always so logical in her conclusions. Lee may start to fall by the wayside because the intellectual nattering doesn’t really address a motive behind the clues. Now their opinions are weighted by how you have developed the novel—and still, any of the three of them might be right.

Exercise: Repetition is the curse of any novel. When you are judging each clue, bear in mind that you want a character’s take on it to be fresh. So maybe mix it up: Cal comes up with an intellectual interpretation, or Lenora uses logic to make an intuitive leap. As long as the character can explain the deviation to the reader, you won’t repeat yourself.

“People do not seem to realize that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Characters Taken from Real Life

Being true to life is a principle that will spark some of your most original writing. As in any field, nothing beats hands-on experience for knowing the nuances of how a relationship or a plot event evolved. Yet adhering to real life does not work so well in the larger scheme of a novel. Life has so many nuances that you could write a thousand pages about a single week. The process of writing a novel leads almost immediately to compression. You need to relate just the interesting stuff. The compressed nature of a novel in turn shapes its characters into exaggerated, larger-than-life figures. True to life, yes, but within a novel’s inherent distortions of life. 

Trying to write from experience causes a common failing among novice writers: not separating their characters from their real-life models. People you know can be extremely limiting when building a novel. You need the freedom to discover where a character wants to take a plot thread. When the character is your sister, however, she will bend your plot to go in the direction that you know she would demand. That may be fine in some instances, but you can see the problem. The character has placed shackles on your imagination. You’re on the outside looking in at that other person, not inhabiting the character from the inside out. In many cases, an even worse outcome ensues. Your sister, because what she wants is so realistic, makes your novel ordinary. You come back a few days later to a piece of dialogue you’ve written and think, “OMG, this is so terrible. Even my sister is more interesting that this!”

You can use both approaches. Before you start the novel, write a character sketch that includes the realistic attributes you want a character to have. But once you start writing, listen to what the character wants. Let your fingers do the walking until you see where the next scene ends up. What frees a good character of his shackles is when he goes where he wants to go—not because that is what the real-life model would do, but because he is reacting to the events inside your book. 

Exercise: Pick a character and track how she is developing in any scene. When she talks, are you thinking of a specific person in your life? If so, dig deeper. What point has the character’s developmental arc reached at that point? What should she be doing for the plot at that point? Immerse yourself in what your fictional situation calls for, and pretty soon you’ll find that she is telling you what she wants.  She has become a player in your drama.

“The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else.” —Umberto Eco


A Position, Not a Theme

More politically minded novelists like to use popular themes of the day in order to make points pro or con. In the charged atmosphere of America today, when almost anything is a cause calling for blind fervor, a writer can feel that a hot-button issue will inject drama into the proceedings. Yet when an issue such as abortion becomes a major character’s crusade, an author may be dismayed by how flat the scenes are. How could that happen, when neighbors in real life are ready to tear out each other’s lawn?

The first step in answering that question lies in the spillover from the real world into fiction. Since novels tend to be realistic in order to allay a reader’s disbelief, the views of a flag-waving character may borrow largely from what a reader has learned, possibly ad nauseam, on the news. As the phrase goes, familiarity breeds contempt. As soon as I, as an example, recognize a certain line of cant, I start skimming immediately. I read novels to get away from that stuff.

Equally as important is recognizing that the power of any theme correlates with its progressive development. If an issue does not change over the course of the book, there is no dramatic movement. If a character keeps saying the same stuff in every scene, no matter what the content is, a reader will become bored. Yes, we know how you feel, so when is that going to become more interesting? 

As with any story element, a character needs to begin at Point A and progress to Point Z with a theme. If you wish to write about abortion, for example, you should figure out a starting point and an ending point during the initial outline stage. How do the events inside the novel impact the character’s thinking about the issue? That is the only way a novelist can be original on such a well-worn topic.

Framing the matter this way leads to a final and most decisive step: making the issue personal. Only when you focus hard enough on one individual’s travails during the heart-rending course of what to do with an unborn child will you make the reader care. The snap answers you see on the screen will pale to their usual political banality, and you will discover for real why the issue is so contentious. It’s because the experience is so painful. That’s what you should be writing about.

Exercise: Contrary to real life, where men arrogate the right to somehow know what an expectant mother is feeling, a male novelist has to work a lot harder. You should read a variety of works, even if you don’t agree with their viewpoints. You should talk to women—your relatives, professional counselors, and/or young teenagers. Then come back and tell us what your heart learned.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” ―Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


All the Comic Masks

One of the problems in writing a comic novel is using too few characters that are funny. A book is really long when viewed from the perspective of a single gag. You can have a gross slob, for example, with all the attendant crumb dropping, face smearing, and upchucking, but you will find that well will run dry a long way before the end of the book. You are better off establishing a host of comic characters.

While you can work up a group that interacts constantly, you’re better off starting with the question: who is leading my plot lines? Most books have a main plot and a subplot, so your second most important comic choice is the character who leads the subplot. You will have a number of scenes in which the main comedian will not appear—that’s the nature of a subplot. So if that second character is not out-and-out funny in their own way, you will have a number of scenes in which the humor sags. Every time a reader loses their smile, it is harder and harder to get them to smile again.

The same is true even in main plot scenes. You may have a run of scenes where, say, the boss’s secretary really runs the office. What is the secretary’s shtick? Who is receiving the orders, and how do they react when it’s not the boss speaking? If you don’t have subsidiary characters who have their own quirks, you will have the same problem of: funny scene, not funny scene, funny, not funny, until even the funny scenes are not that amusing anymore. 

For every outrageous extrovert you can match them up with what in a comic skit would be called a straight man. That character cannot merely react passively, being outraged every time, or you run into the same problem of repetition. Instead, develop a character arc of their own. For instance, a new boss might take increasing pride in their well-deserved perks of power: nicer apparel, nicer assistants, golf, etc. If the extrovert keeps barging in on such fastidious gardening of power, you gain not only new sources of laughs but also escalating humor because the character keeps having more pride in a new source of power before it is deflated. 

The idea of pairs works on multiple levels. A #3 character will lead a number of scenes, so who are they bouncing off in those scenes? How is the humor different from that generated in the scenes with #3 and #1? Again, you’re looking for variety. You keep showing the reader new tricks. That only works if you have an entire core cast who all are pursuing their own comic goals.

Exercise: You can use personality traits to help with plotting. Draw up a list of plot events you know you want. For each entry, consider how the event would strike each of your main characters. Would that boss-secretary scene be funnier, for instance, if your madcap #1 burst open the door? When you keep your mind open about who will appear, you may find the scene is funnier with a different combination.

“Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.” —Peter Ustinov

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.