Tried and True

When an author is searching for what to write about, certain touchstones from real life come to mind. What would the reading public be passionate about? At present, some people grumble about stupid anti-vaxxers, while their counterparts take livestock-related remedies advertised on social media. Let’s say you decide the contrarian point of view is more interesting. Your protagonist will at the very least use ivermectin during the course of the novel. 

So far, so good. Becoming steeped in the weird means you’re taking the reader on a new adventure. You can research what ivermectin is, the effect it has on cows, and the reported effects on humans using it as an alternative to a vaccine. This is all stuff the reader doesn’t know. Plus, you are creating a personal story in which the suffering takes place. 

Trouble may arise when you start to consider such factors as milieu. What sort of person would take it? What does that indicate about their environment and the people influencing their choices? Since most of the resistance is occurring in libertarian areas, that indicates such factors as: belief in God and distrust of government. Now you’re venturing into a realm where generalizations can undercut your good intentions. Do you understand how a rural community interacts? 

This is where an author can start to take shortcuts. What is really interesting is imagining you could be that person taking ivermectin and, by extension, people you know are the nexus around that character. So an aunt who in real life does go to church every Sunday becomes the mouthpiece for ordinary stuff like the creation myth and the coming of the apocalypse. The protagonist’s best friend, in that beery tone you know so well, starts spouting off political cant. You’re ignoring the fact that this sort of stuff is so well known that everyone, from both ends of the political spectrum, has read or heard the arguments so many times that eyelids slowly flutter and close.

It is your job to keep all aspects of the adventure fresh. The aunt might start spouting out, but the protagonist’s mother tells her to shut up. She’s sick of that talk. As it turns out, the mother has her own very bizarre take on Christ. The protagonist cuts off the best friend before they can get started. I know that, and it sure is not going to change the investigation into who stole those grenade launchers. You stay in the vanguard on every front. That way the reader will keep on wanting to find out what you’re bringing next.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for any lazy points you slipped into because they came so easily. If it was easy, it should be penciled out in favor of your digging into that point to see if there is a novel viewpoint you hadn’t considered. It takes a lot more time that way, but the reader will also be engaged all the way through.

“Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” —Ambrose Bierce

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Stripped Down, Bare Chested

One of the perennial difficulties I have as an editor is getting male authors to provide well-rounded heroes. Like men in general, these characters tend to work hard, play hard, and have difficulties understanding the opposite sex. Yet in an age when women dominate the editorial ranks at major publishing houses, the stripped-down hero usually ends up in the rejection pile. Guys, you have to deliver more of the goods.

You might want to use connections. That is, create connections between characters. Although this process does further plot, in the sense that interpersonal dynamics produces friction, it primarily forces an author to focus on how the characters relate to each other. One of the aims is to help define what is different about each character, primarily the protagonist. If Malcolm is sullen, for instance, who in the book knows why? Who has been exasperated by it, and what consequences has Malcolm suffered because of it? 

Already you can start thinking to yourself: where was the starting point—that’s one connection. How has that played out in his romantic involvements—that’s possibly several connections, each different. Regarded by itself, sullen is an unapproachable island. Regarded in terms of connections, Malcolm is being pulled in all sorts of directions—and he may well wish he was less sullen. That is complex, interesting.

An equally important function of connections is creating ongoing relationships during the course of the book. Too often I ask an author to address sullenness, and he responds with a quarter-page back story about an abusive mother. Yet a connection means that the abusive mother would participate in the novel: calling the hero about some persistent issue, getting in his way when he has important stuff to do, and best of all, forcing the author to reveal how the hero relates to his mother. 

Ask yourself: how do you talk to your mother? What secrets does she know that reveal how you tick?  For what did she praise you? About what did she complain bitterly, unceasingly, about you, or maybe your father (and thus you by association, you male lout). That connection does not have to be a mother, of course. But you see what I mean. When you are forced to make the hero interact, on an ongoing basis, he’s going to reveal scars and warts—that make him stand out from his army.

Exercise: Sit back in your chair, close your eyes, and think of the three most important traits your protagonist possesses. Write them down, leaving space below each to fill out. Now pick any of them at random, the one that grabs you right away. Do you have a supporting character who can help reveal that trait? Could you find 8-10 places during the course of the novel where that trait could be displayed, commented upon by another character, etc.? By conscious effort, you can add another layer to that character.

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”  ― Ray Bradbury

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Wading Through Source Material

When you are writing nonfiction, you often need to use others’ material. Depending on the type of book, quotations from another author can provide an expert’s view that buttresses a point you are making. The more academic or technical the writing, the more you need to show that your work acknowledges the contributions of others. If you don’t back up what you say, you run the risk of a reader assuming that you are not presenting facts, but only your opinion.

This imperative can be taken too far, however. Hunting for and gathering source material is meant to apply only to the first phase, when you are collecting a mine from which you can draw. When you sit down to write, hunting and gathering can lead to results as primitive as the stone age practice. In a much later era, with the advent of roads, we invented the sign post. For our purposes here, you can consider those signs posts as guides to the reader as to where the book is heading next. 

For practical purposes, let’s focus on a single book: a narrative about a homicide committed by a gang of moonshiners. All you have are historical records: testimony in the court cases, court records of various hearings and grand jury proceedings, newspaper accounts, and perhaps a diary of one of the felons. From these sources you can patch together a fairly cohesive chronological record of what led up to the murder and what came after. Yet each piece of source material was not written to fit within an overall whole. You have to link them with your sign posts.  

Sometimes you need a topic paragraph to provide an effective change in direction. At other times, when the source material follows a clear pattern, you need merely a sentence. If you are switching, for instance, between an arrest after a still is discovered by police to another occasion entirely where a potential witness was browbeaten, you’re probably going to provide a paragraph bridge in order to make the transition. If you are switching, though, merely between a grand jury finding and paying the subsequent bail levied by the judge, a sentence will probably suffice.

Beyond simple direction pointing, source material can become balky when you are employing long stretches of it. In this book, the likely culprits would be snatches of trial transcripts. If you use two pages of testimony by witness A and then three pages by witness B, etc., the reader may start to feel in over his head. Oral testimony often segues onto tangents, despite a lawyer’s attempts to keep the witness on track. When enough of that occurs, anyone reading may become exasperated that he has to wade through trivia.

A solid means of supplying more direction is breaking up the transcript into smaller pieces. You can take a section and paraphrase it in a narrative paragraph. While you’re at it, you can add in extra directions as to where the testimony that precedes or follows the paragraph is headed in general. That way you can corral your source material and bend it to a purpose that will please your readers.

“To be a book-collector is to combine the worst characteristics of a dope fiend with those of a miser.” —Robertson Davies

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Standing Pillars

The original conception of a character may not stand the test of repeated writing sessions. Early notes tend to reflect broad ideas, not the least because you are thinking at that point of overarching themes. A sketch propels you forward into the first scenes. Be . . . like that. A novel, however, takes a different form when your hazy thoughts in the gloaming are transferred onto paper. You may find that perhaps a conception requires a more character-driven approach that you seem capable of writing. You’re ending up with a string of dialogue scenes that really aren’t accomplishing much of anything.

So you switch gears. Maybe you add more plot elements to make up for your lack of penetration into the character. Let’s say you have chosen a teenager with a limp, Cal, because you want to write in a meaningful way about the challenges of being handicapped. You made him into a brawler, because he is teased so often about his limp—because it’s so obvious. Yet when you read over the first 30 pages, you find yourself bored. Amid a sea of what reads like complaints, the pugilism is the only interesting thing you’ve written about the guy. You decide that Cal, along with another character that you never get around to including, Yvonne, will solve a mystery. The handicap will be dealt with along the way to finding a murderer.

What happens to the fists? You don’t really need them anymore. You were only trying to stir up story tension with them. So do your present fight scenes and projected ones all get tossed along with the whining? Not necessarily. Any plot element that produces friction can be repurposed. After all, one could argue that Sam Spade is better at being a tough guy than he is at solving mysteries.

So maybe you use an early scene of taunting for a new purpose: to show Cal will resort to fighting to solve a problem. That will be helpful if you have a scene where Cal and Yvonne venture into the equivalent of a back alley and some thugs come out the back door. Even if Cal is overmatched, he can throw enough punches so they can get the heck out of there. 

The character purpose remains. Cal becomes mad when he is taunted, and his lashing out still feels like a natural trait of a handicapped person. Yet you have turned what was a defining characteristic into merely one of the tools you use to set him apart. The fact that you have downgraded it may also help to make it feel more realistic.

“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses—behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”                     —Muhammad Ali

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Completing Cycles

In any novel whose characters have enough depth to sway readers, how they are resolved relative to each other can have a sizable impact on how well received the story is overall. That statement sounds complicated, so I’ll break it down to a simpler concept: how they are ranked. The bigger they are, the more they will impact a reader’s satisfaction. How have you lined up your heaviest hitters at the ending?

Most authors realize that the protagonist should occupy the most space at the end. That character has been leading a reader throughout the book, and that attachment can be marred if the final chapter features a #2 or #3 character. Why are we ending up with that guy? a reader might ask. I didn’t even like that guy. An exception can be made if the hero dies in the climax, but even there, you are wise to keep an epilogue short and sweet. The reader’s interest in the book declines rapidly once the arc of the lead character is completed.

When you have an ensemble cast, in which 4-5 characters occupy your top circle, decisions about who ends where become more complicated. In this case, you have to determine who goes last by their dramatic weight. Several factors can help in the judging process. First, which characters reach a turning point because of the novel’s events? A corollary to that question is: how significant is the turning point to the novel as a whole? If Wendy, for example, decides to leave her husband, Mark, because she realizes that she doesn’t have to forgive his transgressions anymore, you probably don’t want to end on Mark blithely picking up another floozy. The reader most likely is rooting for Wendy. We will achieve resolution by finding out what she’s going to do next.

Second, how many pages of coverage have you allotted to which characters? If the Wendy-Mark strife has merited only 100 pages and a second couple—call them Gail and Harv—occupy 200 pages, then Wendy’s victory is never going to amount to more than a minor accent. If she has the only turning point, she still might merit a penultimate chapter at best. 

Another consideration is lapping your major characters. By that I mean putting one in the service of another completing their character arc. Perhaps Mark, as your #4 character, should be killed off—heart attack with floozy—so that Wendy’s ending achieves more of a sense of completion. Her grief for her undeserving spouse gains a ring of finality. Now she truly can turn the page.

Exercise: One way to weigh who is most important is your own feelings about the characters. As the novel has developed, who did you like more and more? Your allegiance will likely be transferred to the reader. In that case, review the manuscript to make sure that character has been set up all along to carry the dramatic weight of the ending. 

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” —Jackie Robinson

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Switching Gears

If it is hard for a rich man to get into heaven, an author may want to reconsider how to position a rich character. The salience the biblical quote possesses stems from a very basic human tendency. Most of us dislike rich people. In America, that envy has been twisted into a perverted form of hero worship, but even here workers resent those who wear alligator shirts. 

The same feeling extends to fiction, unless the genre is clearly the perils of the rich and famous. As readers we can sympathize with a rich character who is troubled, but if we know all along they can buy their way out of misery, some of the edge is taken off. The general sentiment might be summed up as: you got problems I wish I had.

While not every fictional situation can be converted to a version of Dickens, you can adjust the motivations of a character. A nouveau riche who buys a mansion with a high mortgage is different from a rich cat who buys it as a winter home. If a high-flying job ends abruptly, hopefully unfairly, we can enjoy watching someone as they plummet. A marriage can be wrecked, a family can split apart—that sort of predicament is fun to read about. You thought you were a fat cat, but you’re just a palooka like the rest of us.

Revised positioning affects relationships in the novel as well. If your best friend is Alistair, who is positive that Groton is simply better, a reader may feel excluded from the camaraderie. Bermuda? Well, I went to . . . If the best friend is Eddie, who has never stopped smoking too much dope, now the clubhouse is big enough to embrace us. The contrast between what the lead character was and is now can provide a wide variety of tension points as well as comedy. 

Better yet, you can use the contrast by making a rich person the antagonist. The hero may have to hobnob with snooty jerks, but when one of them demonstrates pure evil, the reader roots harder for the hero. We all know what money is the root of. That brand of enemy also can possess unlimited resources to thwart the protagonist, making the obstacles more difficult. You have also, by this device, aligned your lead with all of us hoi polloi.

Exercise: Falling from grace is a fate that everyone dreads. As such, it is an unsteady board that you can employ from page 1 onward. Amid the trappings of wealth you can plant seeds that alert the reader that doom is gathering to strike. Yes, splendid Porsche, but how soon will it be repossessed? Yes, knockout spouse, but how flimsy is the foundation of the partnership?

“When the rich wage war, it's the poor who die.” —Jean-Paul Sartre

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Coming on Too Strong

What makes the first-person narrative voice compelling can in inexperienced hands prove off-putting. The immediacy of the style is its foremost lure. Merging with a character is easier when the words seem to come from your own mouth. You can be casual with readers, letting them in on your asides, wry or otherwise. What is often lost amid all the familiarity, however, is: something worth reading about.

One way the trap of too much self-reference opens is because a writer who is bold enough to betray confidences may be used to carrying the real world by storm. That is true of many writers who turn to writing after a successful career. Along the way even a formerly shy teenager who felt most at home in a library may have shed that outsider skin after learning how to tell a good joke or acing the competition to a level that is well above respectable. 

All of those accomplishments are part and parcel of the insider approach. To a certain extent, they are beneficial. Readers need to grasp an ongoing onslaught of commentary, and citing experiences familiar to them smooths that path. Past a certain point, though, well-schooled patter must be abandoned in order to stake out truly new ground. I personally prefer that the process start on page one, but I’ll give an author 10 pages to show what’s up their sleeve.

Can you get out of your own way fast enough? I don’t want, for instance, wry commentary on a gated community. I want one whacko who is actively causing trouble in the community. All of the intimate details of the I-voice may cause a narrative to unwind too deliberately. You may think that the jaw-dropping incident in Chapter 4 will rivet the reader to the page, but what if I don’t get to Chapter 4? What if I get tired of the narrator being such an excellent yuppie?

A majority of writers would be better off choosing a protagonist that doesn’t resemble their life story at all. You have your take on the world that is going to flavor the story no matter what. Yet if you begin with what is foreign, you will have to follow the character’s strange ways—because you chose that starting point. Get to that jaw-dropper on page 4.

Exercise: The protagonist will always be you. So at a very early stage, think through what you want your themes to be. How could your lead character exemplify those themes? If you pick someone too much like you, you’ll see right away if the story’s obstacles are too ordinary. Go way beyond that—and find a character who would actually do that stuff.

“The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” ―Charlotte Brontë

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Double the Trouble

Best-sellers make for quick, thrilling reads, but they can contain many poor examples for an aspiring writer. A primary focus of such books is exciting dialogue. That type of writing is not only easiest on a beach reader, but also for a beleaguered popular author, who may spend 10 months out of the year promoting a book before spending two months writing the next one. 

Effective dialogue, however, requires narrative interpolations. Commentary can add emphasis to certain sentences, or it can break up a spoken passage when a character wants to shift to a new subject. In order to maintain a fast pace, such work in between the lines needs to be easy to grasp. That is why so many of them feature the verbs: turn, look, stare, and nod. “He began to leave the room, then turned back” is a typical representative of this ilk. 

Even an author writing in white heat starts to realize that certain pieces of physical business are being overused, and that leads to attempts to disguise the repetition. The pieces are doubled: “He began to leave the room, then turned and stared.” Not exactly the same, and the writer doesn’t have to slow down to think of something original. Such a reflex can lead to bad habits, however. The author might start writing that a character looks at someone when doing anything else. “She sprang up from the sofa and looked down at him.” 

The problem is that such simple multiplicity forces the reader to wade through extra verbiage. If someone stands up, obviously she would be looking down at whomever she’s addressing. That part of the sentence isn’t needed. At times I feel like I’m editing a person who was as a child warned too many times to look before he crosses the street. I am witness to the adult scar that remains: always looking.

The doubling can occur in other forms. “They stood and followed him out of the room” is another common example. If they’re following out a doorway, obviously they rose to their feet first. The extra piece of physical business is inserted to make a pedestrian sentence more complex—when it isn’t. It’s just wasting the reader’s time. When that process becomes a bad habit, the extra words can add up into the thousands. I know, because I usually trim a popular manuscript by 10 percent.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye toward eliminating the word “and” during dialogue passages. If the sentence is left feeling too plain, you need to focus more on the one verb you would like to use to drive it. Rather than a stage direction related to physical movement, try substituting a thought or a description of an item in the setting that arrests the character’s attention. That’s where you’ll find truly interesting variety.

“Design, refine and repeat, and keep learning all the way along. It sounds bland and pedestrian, but in fact, it's the reverse.”  —Anouska Hempel

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.