Working the Other End

An author tends to regard a novel from the point of view of the protagonist. That is fitting, because the most notes, sketches, and actual scenes revolve around the hero. Yet this prism leaves out subsidiary possibilities that can have solid emotional impacts on the reader. 

Take the concept of a supporting player. We know what their role is: to support the main characters. Yet because the #2 character in a book can also be a supporting character (to #1), you have to consider varying dramatic weights of roles all the way down the ranks. Are you bringing all of your forces to bear?

Let’s suppose that you have two married couples who are friendly. One from each has an affair with the other. Your protagonist is one of the maligned, let’s say Perry, a husband. Your focus is on him, the deception of his wife, Claire, and the other husband, William. That’s the menage-à-trois. Later in the draft you realize that William’s wife, Evelyn, might be useful—if Perry and Evelyn met to commiserate. 

Good planning all around, right? Now consider emotional impacts. If you want the reader to root for Perry, how are you effectuating that? Through being wronged by both Claire and William, plus hearing Evelyn’s teary story. Now ask yourself: what about their children? You may have a scene or two where they run through the kitchen, but they are just kids. Sex is so far above their heads.

You are evaluating the matter through Perry’s eyes. Yet you can make the world around him work for your purposes. What if you featured the children in both families more prominently? Choose Perry’s daughter, Wendy, age 10, and a girl from Evelyn’s family. They could have scenes with Perry as an active participant. Do you think girls of that age are dopes? They don’t pick up adult vibes? If Wendy finds out about her mother, now what does your emotional calculus look like?

This knock-on effect can be employed in a wide range of scenarios. Even a minor character can contribute to creating a groundswell. You stage events so that you keep raising the stakes. Who knows? Aunt Brodie and her brownies might come in handy. 

Exercise: Review the manuscript looking for minor characters in a main setting. Not characters who already are featured in scenes with a main character. The ones below that, who function basically as part of the setting. Could they be given speaking roles? Maybe they could appear in three scenes spaced apart over the course of half the book. Now you have another viewpoint that can create friction around a main character’s transgressions.

“Some women want the strong silent type, so they can tell him to shut up and rearrange the furniture. —P. J. O’Rourke

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Around the Bush to Brilliance

The rapid technological advances of our age are only the most prominent products of a results-oriented culture. We are all caught up in its tumult, infected by what we see rushing past us. When you have only your regular job to do, or regular texts to take care of, the frenetic pace is fun. 

Yet when you are trying to write, the clamor that invites you to do, do, do—don’t be bored!—can have an adverse effect. If you sit down for a writing session and you can’t produce, disgruntlement sets in. You are sitting in front of your screen, and the words seem like meaningless scribbles that might as well be cuneiform for all the connection you feel to them. 

You try to start, and you stop. After ten minutes you actually get down a sentence, feeling a burst of inspiration, but then you feel as arid afterward as you did before you managed that pitiful dribble. Your feelings of frustration are understandable. You have put aside the precious time, and nothing is happening. If these stale sessions occur too often, you will follow the pain and pleasure principle. If writing is so self-defeating, I won’t do it. Weeks may go by before you return to the keyboard. That novel is never going to be finished.

What is the problem? You are trying to force the issue. You need to permit yourself to meander. Sometimes the way through is not full-steam ahead. You might have to waste time to make time. Of that hour you allotted for writing today, you may have to spend the first 35 minutes feeling unable to get started. Then you feel something gel inside and you knock out a page or two in the last 25 minutes. 

You have to follow a rule: You cannot move from your chair until the time you set for yourself is up. Because you can’t escape, you have to devise techniques to muddle through. You wait out your frustration, in other words. You can’t call up brilliance on demand, but you can wait for the Muse to come knocking.

Exercise: Rather than staring at the page you planned to write, allow your mind to wander where it will. While you are focused on one thing, you usually will find that stray pieces related to the story pop into your head. You’d meant to research a minor point, for example, or you know you took research notes that you’ll use later in the chapter. Forget about what you planned to write. Get busy looking up that research bit. Write a sentence or paragraph on that point and paste it into the chapter. That’s progress. Even better, it may be what gets your writing session going that day.

“’Keeping busy’ is the remedy for all the ills in America. It's also the means by which the creative impulse is destroyed.”  ― Joyce Carol Oates

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Aligning Boxcars

Boxcars are mechanical, books are works of art. How could the concept of the one possibly be applied to the other? As a way to begin, I’ll explain that I am using a boxcar as a metaphor for a plot line. This is true in the sense that any plot has a set number of scenes that take up a certain number of pages. If you bothered to count, you would see that your main plot is always the longest boxcar. 

Why is this concept helpful in the slightest? You can use it when you review a draft and sense that characters who were important earlier in the story seem to be forgotten later on. That might not be a problem, if the character was useful only at that stage in the protagonist’s life, or at that phase in the plot. But really, wouldn’t you prefer if all of your plot lines converged during the climax sequence to accumulate the greatest impact?

The key is examining your time line. You might call it scheduling the boxcars, although now I feel I’m verging on Ringo Starr and Thomas the Tank Engine. When you parse out when major events in a plot line occur, you may find that you were merely focused on those events at a given point during your months of writing the book. Further, the crisis might have occurred in real life to your brother, say, when you were 12 years old. You are trapping yourself in a time continuum, and that’s stupid. In a novel, you can make up any time sequence you like.

Why couldn’t the crisis occur when the protagonist is 16, when the large bulk of the novel’s events are taking place? You take the scenes you’ve written and insert them in between main plot scenes. Usually, you want a rhythm in your plot lines—breaking away from one and leaving the reader hanging for a chapter. So the brother scenes allow you that periodic break. Your boxcars—you knew that was coming back in—are now running in parallel, and you’re accumulating the power that derives from the tension contained in each one of them.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for each of your main characters, and write down in a chart the pages on which they appear, in an active way.  Once you are finished, study those numbers. Do you see groupings, which represent when they are important to the book? If you need the character as a force in the climax sequence, could some circumstances be changed so that the grouping slides back further in the book?

“There is nothing permanent except change.” —Heraclitus

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Passing Ships

A novel has been likened to a journey, and that entails at least the main character starting at Point A and moving to Point Z by the end. Along with movement comes progression, or building. That’s because a reader’s identification with a character deepens the more times they appear, and if the character isn’t developing in tandem, the reader starts to lose interest. If no one is going anywhere, why am I reading this book?

Most authors readily grasp the notion of an arc, but their attention can be focused on the protagonist to the exclusion of others. In large part, that occurs because the author identifies most with the hero. Often the hero is the author at a younger age. While a singular focus can yield many riches, it can cause a problem with your supporting characters.

I rank such characters in an upper circle, and most authors can only probe a half dozen to any significant depth—that is, making them stand out to the reader. To achieve that stature, they must appear multiple times during the course of the book. Here is where the problem comes in. They may represent a fixed entity that serves as an ongoing source of conflict with the protagonist. This is particularly true of adult characters in a realistic drama. Let’s face it: how much do people change past the age of 30?

So what’s the problem? As the novel develops, the arguments and commentary that your protagonist engages in with a character that is static will after a while also become static. They fight about the same basic stuff. The protagonist’s thoughts about the character are the same. How could it be otherwise when that supporting character is fixed in their plot purpose?

To correct that, you need to devise the novel’s structure so that person is also progressing. If the character is a stay-at-home mom, for example, why isn’t she getting on with her life? If the protagonist is old enough to retain the reader’s interest, at least an adolescent, is the mother really happy to be stuck at home while the kids fly the coop? More to the point, how interesting is that character to the reader? If the mother also is on the move—taking a job, for example—then the child has new reasons to argue, new resentments to stew over. That’s all I want: new explosions.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye on only one supporting character. For each active scene they have, or interior monologue about them, write a quick summary of what it’s about. Do you start seeing that later scenes are only an elaboration on what happened earlier? Don’t change the subject of the scene. Change the position of the character so that they are developing too.

“Once you do away with the idea of people as fixed, static entities, then you see that people can change, and there is hope.” —bell hooks

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Junk Words

When an author is editing a manuscript, the goal is sterling prose, sentence by sentence. Included in that effort is the hope you will find new twists in the ways you tell your story. That desire to be distinctive has drawbacks, however, when you are using a low level of diction, which is found in almost all popular novels. A character’s point of view might have the right cadence, but you’re trying too hard to swing the reader behind you.

The most common error I correct during a line edit is repetition. This occurs over the course of any novel, of course, but what I find surprising is how often a word is repeated in the same paragraph or even the same sentence. For example: “He noticed the slim fingers that poked out of the fingerless black gloves.” The difficulty here is plain: they are a certain type of gloves that fingers stick out of. You have to follow a strict rule not to repeat any words. Adhering to that means you have to find an alternative, and in this case one answer is: “ . . . black workout gloves.” 

Part of establishing an idiomatic voice is using expressions that readers immediately grasp, and so often that means using clichés. While these do have a place in dialogue, when a speaker may well want to bring the listener into accord, I am harder on their use in prose. Take this example: “Getting dragged across hot coals seemed more appealing than going home.” The cliché reduces the character to anyone. Anyone could be dragged across hot coals, because the idea is so common. Why not pick out an expression that accurately describes your character? In this case, let’s say the character is a teenager. So maybe it is: “Spending days writing code seemed more . . .”

This process of using the lowest common denominator also can lead to clichés employed in mixed metaphors. Let’s consider: “She had grabbed too many rungs up the career ladder to put up with his Tarzan act.” As far as I know, Tarzan does not use a ladder; he swings on vines. The author is trying too hard, seizing a worthy idea—women should be treated equally in the workplace—and trivializing it by pairing it with an easy grab. 

Easy tarnishes crisp prose. You have to be ruthless with yourself, even if it means stopping to close your eyes and think through what might be a fresh substitute for a common expression. Yes, it will take you extra hours, but really, what is your hurry? Unless you’re rushing to fulfill a contract on your mega-book deal, the first judge you should be trying to please is: yourself.

“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.” —Thomas Paine

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Checking It Twice

The prospect of editing your manuscript is unwelcome, and the process is arduous. Nonetheless, you do it because either you or someone you respect has identified aspects of the book that are less compelling. You may have too much interior monologue, for example, on the part of your point-of-view character(s). You may have nonfiction-based content, such as a current social debate, that seems repetitious. Whatever you settle on, you have guidelines that tell you what to look for as you are editing the work.

The process that most authors follow is one of trimming. You keep shaving, shaving, shaving—sentence by sentence, sometimes throwing out whole paragraphs or a few pages, depending on how deep the rabbit hole is. You find a ton of stuff that is pretty good, and you don’t really want to cut it. You may remember how great you felt about it when it first burst forth from the keyboard. So that stays.

This process of accretion—little bit here, little bit there—is undoubtedly helpful in terms of how well the book reads when you finish. If you cut 10 percent of any story, the good stuff will stand out more when the dross is removed. The larger objectives, however, tend to be obscured by this approach. What did the person in the writing group really say? What was the literary agent’s real objection?

You can forget that the real objective is to produce a book on a higher plane. While you’re cutting a lot of interior monologue, you also have to consider what might be better interior monologue. You have a grasp of your characters by now. If you look at each plot turn, could you catalogue, step by step, more deeply how they’re feeling? That is, maybe the objection to too much thinking may be because it was too slight or too event-oriented to allow us to know the character better. Skating on the surface can become tiring for a reader—who wants to be the character, inside.

The same is true of that current debate you lectured about. Maybe the problem isn’t cutting down all the dialogue about, say, the January 6th attack on the Capitol. Maybe it’s the talk itself. Talk is cheap. What would happen if you cut it all? Instead you introduce a new character, a friend who infiltrated security and hoisted a brewski inside the hallowed halls? They brag about it to your protagonist. You follow a series of subplot scenes in which the FBI comes knocking. In each scene, you keep telling us: how does the protagonist feel about the friend?

Exercise: When you draw any conclusions yourself, or receive any comments, ask yourself: what is the objection? Is it too much junk, or is the way I’m going about it? You may be discoursing when you should make your characters act. Consider completely different alternatives. Sketch them out. Write a few scenes in that new direction. Now what do you think?

“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” —Ansel Adams

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Sleep on It

Writing any book takes a long time. I occasionally edit authors who write at white-hot speed, but the number is not great and neither are the books. For most, with no deadline to meet, the writing can span months, revolving through numerous iterations, each of which adds a new layer of complexity. What is not as apparent in this involved process is how long a section may lie fallow before you turn your attention back to it. That gap in time can also be a tool in producing the best results. 

The process of writing goes through three broad stages: research and notes; the initial burst of creativity; and editing. If the process takes several years, let’s say, then Chapter 5 may not be revisited for months on end. When you return to it, you read almost as you are coming upon the prose for the first time. Yes, you recognize the general drift for the characters and plot, but the individual sentences, all the tiny steps of getting from beginning to end, are a source of surprised delight—and, if you’re serious, consternation. 

Let’s focus on that third stage, editing, which is so often in conflict with the second, writing new material.  That’s because most authors face an ongoing problem of feeling blocked. You wake up on the wrong side of the bed for writing, and no matter how much you try to fight through it, you continue to feel listless. So you decide to edit what you’re already written. After all, you might as well get something done. And who knows? After a time the muse may finally come knocking. 

That’s fine as an expedient. One day sucks, okay, write that off. But what do you do when the blockage malaise extends over several days, as it so often does, or even a week and more? By that time you’re wondering if you’ll ever become a writer or, conversely, whether you’re all washed up. You may even find yourself whining about setting aside the time but nothing’s happening.

The answer? You have to try harder, of course. No one cares if you never write a book, or another book. You’re the one who likes to tap into the flow of creativity. You must push yourself to write new material every time out. If you set aside an hour and the pen only flows for the last 20 minutes, well, the pen flowed, didn’t it? What you can’t do is settle into a routine of editing yourself. A book takes long enough to write. When do you think you’ll ever finish if you don’t make a little progress every session?

Exercise: When you’re editing, don’t worry about getting everything exactly right. You’re only thinking everything’s right at that point in time. A writer is never satisfied. So put Chapter 5 aside. Sleep for a month on it, then come back. You’ll find more niggling things that need to be fixed. But during that month, if you force yourself to keep pushing ahead, you’ll have left that chapter far behind.

“A book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.” —Franz Kafka 

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.



Only Ten Percent

Hours of intense writing sessions produce volume, if nothing else. The better the writer is, the harder it is to cut material after beta readers or literary agents advise that the manuscript is too long. The first impulse is to trim sentence by sentence. That way nothing major has to be sacrificed. Yet I know as a line editor that this approach is doomed if the manuscript is very long. You won’t gain more than 10 percent in savings.

Instead, regard the manuscript as a series of steps from the top down. What are the major timbers? They are theme, character, and plot. So start at the top. How many themes do you have? Which ones, if you had to put them in order, are the most important? Once you have that list, a good first step is examining the book solely in terms of how well the characters and plot action support each of them. You may spot one or two that, while they seemed promising at the outset, haven’t really been carried through in the writing. Could you take out the parts supporting that incomplete theme?

Next, because a character can embody a theme, judge how taking out a theme impacts the character(s) supporting it. Let’s say you have a teenager damaged by a brutal father that left the family a number of years ago. The only parent that plays an ongoing role in the book is the mother, with the father relegated to background stories and maybe a cameo appearance actively. Could you express the damage created in shorter strokes, cutting down on the back stories? Could you use the mother’s implied references to him  to accomplish part of the theme? Does the father really have to appear in the story at all? Slashing in this direction could gain sizable chunks.

Plotting is the last big element and often the one most amenable to cuts. That’s because a plot event can either be related in live action or in narrative summary. As you did with the themes, draw up a list of scenes related to each plot line. Which ones are vital to understanding the story’s passage? You may find a number of incidental scenes. Nice to have as stepping-stones, but they could be reduced from a scene to a paragraph or two. You may find, in the process, that you have scenes that overlap in function. How many times, to use the previous example, does the boy have to drive off for the evening with no destination known? Maybe save only the one when he nearly does drive off the edge.

The most attractive target may be an entire subplot. That’s because, depending on its length, that plot line might be used as a head start on your next book. In that case, could you realign the background stories so that they fill the gaps left by the subplot scenes you take out? A reader can be left dangling at the end of a chapter merely by switching away from the present.

“Writing for me is cutting out the fat and getting to the meaning.” —James McBride

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.