The Art of Insertion

A review of your latest draft can result in a decision to strengthen certain character arcs or plot lines. Commonly, you realize that you have gaps in coverage, or a character/plot ends uneventfully and too soon. You can make a conscious effort to plug those holes. 

First, draw up a chart to find out exactly when a character participates in which plot concerns. Let’s say you have four plot lines that need to be shored up. They can be divided into four columns. Write down the page numbers for each scene and a few words about what happens—as a reminder to yourself. 

When you read vertically, column by column, the true structure of that concern will emerge. For example, there is an 90-page gap between appearances for the divorced dad. If you give him an extra scene, you could divide that number by two, and now he would have only two 45-page gaps. If he is ranked third or fourth in your plot lines, that is fine. You look for the page number halfway in between, and you’ll find a suitable place roughly about then for the insert.

Should he be raised to more importance? You may decide to have him appear in two new scenes. Now he would appear every 30 pages or so. Yet that may raise a different issue, because you may not want to break up that 90-page stretch two full times. You may be alternating nicely, say, among your top three characters. 

In that case, see if you can slot him into an existing scene. A divorced dad can show up unexpectedly, and if only the kids are around, they likely will be glad to see him. So you give him some stage business as well as a few lines commenting on the extant action in a way that furthers his character portrayal. You’re not interrupting anything now.  

The same technique works in extending a plot line. Ending anywhere from the 50-page mark to the end of the novel will feel satisfying, again depending on the plot’s importance. In order to give the last scene some pop, truly finishing things off, you may have to devise a chart-topping conflict. That can involve writing two scenes: one to set up the final obstacle and one to resolve it. Or, if you already have a scene you like as the subplot’s finale, move that scene later and insert a new scene in its place. 

Exercise: One option that shouldn’t be overlooked is: spacing out your present scenes with longer gaps. A plot column may reveal that a plot line is all bunched up in a certain sector of the book. That makes sense, because you were focused on it then. Is the story’s time element, though, so crucial? Could secondary-plot scenes from later be inserted in between several if not all of those scenes?

“When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.” —George Orwell

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Worth the Plunge

A scene in a novel begs to be filled up with details, whether they be lines of dialogue, pieces of the setting, or a character’s point of view. The wealth of them determines how much the scene comes to life. It is hard for a reader to care much what happens until you fill out a run of pages—let’s say three double-spaced manuscript pages at a minimum. Anything less can be considered a narrative summary or a partial scene designed to set up a later full-fledged scene.

Why does some arbitrary length matter? Why not just jump into a scene and let it rip? The reason I raise a caution flag is the effect of these blocks of scenes in the aggregate. While you’re immersed in a single scene, the juices are flowing. All is right with the world. Yet what happens when you’ve written 50 pages and you decide to read over those blocks in sequence? 

What can happen is a growing disenchantment with the larger direction of the novel. Your initial impulse to follow, for example, the dissolution of a meth addict starts off crisply, but soon the story is so depressing, you want to die. Just lay me out on my keyboard—that’ll be fine. Worse than the momentary gloom is the thought of all the work you put in. All those scenes with such well-plumbed details, and I end up with this? Depending on how misguided the project seems, you can pull back from writing more for weeks at a time.

You have to make better choices about the blocks you immerse yourself within. You might have thought at first that the older sister would serve as a good measuring stick for the addict’s fall, and so you wrote out a seven-page scene when she first notices he’s acting psychotic. The idea is solid, but maybe that scene should have waited until she feels compelled to do more than the older-sister lecture that, frankly, sounds like a lot of other older-sibling lectures.

You might be better off drawing up a plot chart. Write out a synopsis of each scene you’ve written in five lines or less. Then look at your initial notes, whether on characters or plot, and write down the gist of scenes based on those points. See if you can work out several hundred pages of projected material—or 20 chapters in your chart. That way you can more clearly tell how the steps into hell really progress. You can see if the sister really is going to matter later in the book. 

An outline changes as a novel grows. You’re not being pinned down. What you’re doing is setting forth relative dramatic weights of plot events and characters. That way you won’t be stumbling in the dark when a character suddenly grabs you by the lapels and demands that more be written about them.

“The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one's own.” —Willa Cather

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Strange But Familiar

When you wish to use touchstones from your own life in a novel, the most common come from relationships. In the early stages of a draft, you realize you want your best friend from high school, say, as a main character. If you keep a journal to capture haphazard thoughts—a highly recommended idea—you can jot down different episodes or shining moments or comments involving your friend. These can have emotional value for the book because the reason you remember them so clearly is you have deep feelings about them.

The notes are a fine start, but at some point you reach a common hurdle in novel writing. Feelings are random unless they are placed in a plot matrix. A plot must be original, and that means going beyond what really happened. That is, you have to inject artificiality into the proceedings. Two kids lighting up a doob behind the barn contains a modicum of danger, but if they start laughing hysterically, the reader will become bored. Oh, yeah, I did that too, back then.

Moving out of the comfort zone of memory lane may freeze your pen. No, your friend really wasn’t mad enough at their father to light the barn on fire, so how could I write about that? And I (I mean, the protagonist) am not the type of guy who glories at finding a can of gasoline. It’s a conundrum: how do you merge real with interesting?

One answer is to focus on details. Any effective scene is buttressed by micro-fine images and at-the-moment thoughts. You take an idea jotted down: Lee said I would never become a rebel because I played by the rules. What if that becomes what the friend says to the protagonist when they find the gasoline by the wheels of a tractor? Lee really did say that, so it shores up the improbability of a sudden impulse to splash gas around. If you go on to describe the piercing foul smell, maybe the odd way that wet hay sinks to the floor, you have intertwined the familiar into the made-up proceedings. 

Exercise: When you review your initial notes, be ready to abstract them from their original context. What was a thought might be spoken aloud in the novel and vice-versa. The crisp lines of the moon witnessed while stoned might be used in contrast to flickering flames. Better yet, once the germ of a story idea seizes you, write down the extension of your note right on the journal page. Keep blasting away with how it could work until the glow of inspiration is spent. When you look at it later, you may have paragraph or a page that will work just fine.

“Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life.”          —Simone Weil

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Best Research

In the previous post I covered some guidelines for researching on the web. In my own experience, the internet is broad but it is not deep. That’s fine if you merely need to establish a point here and there—e.g., a silk dress 100 years ago was likely worn by a rich woman. Yet if you are trying to present facts that are truly eye-opening, you need sources that go beyond what is commonly known. 

The first step in that direction comes from the back of a book. Within that term I’ll include the footnotes along with the bibliography, since many times they are aggregated in an endnotes section. A book you research in the early days likely is an overview of a topic. By now you probably already have initial probes in your notes that indicate what you really want to learn more about. The back matter of a general book will break down the categories covered into subsets. Professors rarely write broad books: they pick some aspect for which they can show more diligence than other professors. They’re in their own race to the top, and you are the beneficiary.

Let’s suppose that you want to study 19th-century New York City theater. If you merely want to know technical aspects of what happened backstage, it’s possible that a book on a theater in Philadelphia is worth exploring. The guys who built that theater drew on British models, just like their confrères 100 miles northeast. Likewise, any book on theater gaslights will suffice. That’s because the specifics of one bygone theater you have settled on as a setting may be lost in the sands of time.

The problem you may run into on a broader topic—let’s say, how a lower-class worker fared during the city’s rapid expansion up Manhattan island—stems from a lack of discernment in terms of the author’s discipline. A sociology professor will write a different book than a women’s studies professor. What is really right for the characters you are considering? Then too, many books on a topic, such as policing during that era, may focus more on the growing organizational apparatus of the police force rather than: how did a detective pre–Sherlock Holmes solve a murder? That’s because the author can access data recorded by the long-ago organization’s officials.

You may be better off searching the footnotes for memoirs and magazines written at the time. Sure, you have to forge through the archaic language. Yet such accounts reveal more of how life was experienced at the street level. Just in their casual observations you may find a wealth of interesting details that would never be included in a top-down study. And, because memoirs are just on the other side of the nonfiction line, you may find that novels are the richest source of all. You want to know how thieves operated in that century? Try Herman Melville’s Confidence-Man. Mind you, I’m not advocating plagiarism, but a detail from a paddle wheel can be put into your own words. 

“The knives of jealousy are honed on details.” —Ruth Rendell

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Right Research

Authors need to find the facts about a subject before including it in a story. That seems like a straightforward proposition until you start trying to find the information. What sort of research is being conducted, and how will the facts you discover be of any help to you? This post will cover the internet, since that is the first place anyone looks these days. Your better choice, books, will follow in the next post.

The internet is right there at your fingertips. You don’t even have to get off your ass. You type in “New York City theater 19th century,” for instance. What such a search is likely to find breaks into several categories. The most common one is history attached to a travel guide. You read one all-too-short article on the difference between the theaters on Broadway and the Bowery. You click to the next entry, and you find pretty much the same stuff. Hey, the start of class warfare: Broadway vs. the Bowery. 

Beyond that, you may find sites that really are about New York theaters in the 20th century, but they do have one mention of the 19th century, in 1898. So that’s a waste of time. Luckily, you may become skilled in skimming the contents of the teasers on the search page.

Before moving on to the most fruitful category, I will point out that pictures on any site can be valuable to you. Just looking at a drawing inside the Bowery Theatre gives you a sense not only of the entertainment offered but the audience adoring or hating it. If you compile a file of drawings and sepia photographs alone (in this example), you will have material you can study at a later date.

Your best guess for info that will actually help you imagine your fictional world comes from the scholarly realm. A site like JSTOR is an incredible resource for articles that have appeared across a wide spectrum of academic journals. These professors are all digging in deep, so you may find such interesting material as: when did respectable women start attending the theater? Looking up the relevant topics isn’t easy, because their AI is a vast vacuum cleaner too, but at least when you do make choices, you get something out of your reading.

Better yet, those articles have footnotes and bibliographies. You might discover the memoir of an actor who appeared often with 19th-century star Edwin Forrest. That gives you an on-the-ground view of someone who lived through those times. Florid language aside, you may discover all sorts of interesting nuggets. While it’s very possible that a site like Google Books will allow you to read such an ancient tome online, you may find yourself hopping in the car and driving to the library. (To be continued.)

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”― Marcus Tullius Cicero

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.