When an author comes from a 9-to-5 career of any sort, the dictum to write what you know can have pitfalls. Experiences that either you have had or that happened within your profession can stand out in your mind like shiny baubles. Who wouldn’t want to read, for instance, about that gas explosion that rocked the manholes down on 14th Street? Or that really crazy one on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago? 

The characters in such planning may seem vivid to you, but already I’m thinking: how is a fireman in New York connected to an explosion in Chicago? In other words, are the characters following the action or orchestrating it? The answer better be the latter, or they’ll be pawns in your game of fictionalized real life.

At the same time, I like excitement of any sort, like most readers. So how can you fold disparate incidents into a cohesive evolving whole? The first step is to write down all of the ones floating in your mind. Let’s say you want to include 10 of them. Rank them in a list that roughly places when you’d like to feature them in the book. If you’re smart, you’ll put the less exciting ones early and the catastrophic ones later. That way they will help build the drama.

Next, write down a list of your main characters—no more than five. Rank them by number, 1-5. Now return to your list of incidents and think to which character you’d like to assign them. Write their number down with that entry on the list. When you’re done, how many incidents do you have for how many characters? Your protagonist had better be associated with more of them than anyone else. How about the #2 character? Maybe three of them? Could you work out a way that #1 and 2 appear together at some of them?

Third, consider the before and after. If an explosion comes out of the blue at the reader, it will seem random. Sometimes that’s okay, but most of the time you want to set up a plot logic prior to the incident—to make it believable, if nothing else. So draw up a list of beforehand scenes that are attached to each incident. Which characters are appearing in that scene? In some cases, you’ll want the villains planning the incident. In others, you might have the good guys worrying about the next explosion. Try to assign all beforehand scenes to a main character.

You can do the same with the after scenes. What are the repercussions of the incident? The more you have your main characters react, the more the reader will feel included in the story. That’s because your main characters should be the threads connecting the incidents. Then you’ll have a novel that hangs together.

“We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”  —Joan Didion

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Shifting Emphasis

When you are writing a draft, you may become uneasy about the lack of tension the plot events are generating. For example, you thought at the outset that, based on personal experience, a drama between a college student and her drunk father would produce solid combustion. Maybe the father swings by a few times a week to see if she’ll buy him a few drinks. So she drinks with him with the goal of eventually saving dad. 

You set off on that path for 100 pages. Lots of scenes of dad and roommates. Then you decide to read all of the chapters so far—and find that you have merely a variation of the same adolescent rebellion you’ve read or seen a million times.

You decide that can’t be the main plot. It is relegated to a subplot. Instead, you pick another leading foil, a boyfriend who is too charming and slashing. You start writing scenes of mutual interest at a frat party and other venues, and you feel a nice tension brewing. That wolf is no good for her. Yet you still have those father scenes that you wrote before. Does all of that good material have to be thrown out? 

Thinking in such absolute terms is a mistake. A novel is about as far from all or nothing as life gets. Your first step should be: leave those scenes alone for now. Instead think in terms of competition. Those 50 pages of daughter-dad scenes have to be balanced with the new girl-boy scenes. As the latter proliferate, you’ll be able to assess how frequently the dad scenes should appear. Maybe they are inserted every fourth chapter, so the reader doesn’t forget him. Once you reach page 150, you will be better able to make astute judgments.

One element to watch for is how much background material was previous given to dad and daughter. How much do you have for the boyfriend? If the daughter is the protagonist, maybe the back stories should be rewritten so that she is highlighted more. Dad’s stuff is trimmed, and Mom stuff and Sis stuff, etc., are added, in order to better round out your hero’s past. 

More to the point, you need to recognize that your pole stars have shifted. If the central drama is the hero being sucked in by the guy, who are the people telling her that he’s no good? If that’s primarily the mother, she should included in more background stories. She might also be added to the already written dad-daughter scenes. In other words, the characters engaging in the present-day scenes become part of the rebalancing. If only half of those 50 dad pages end up remaining, you should regard them as the best of those pages you wrote.

“The idol of today pushes the hero of yesterday out of our recollection; and will, in turn, be supplanted by his successor of tomorrow.” —Washington Irving

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Breaking the Spell

A major nonfiction field consists of books filled with the opinions of experts. This sort of narrative uses a rhythm that I roughly call “theory, proof.” The author advances an idea and then verifies it by referring to another source. Often that is an example that shows a person or company in an illustration of the point being advanced. Other times the proof is supplied by the writing of another expert in the field. The author is not just going out on a limb; there are others who support the theory.

The marshaling of these other voices can provide great pleasure to an author inclined to read widely. The discovery of a case study focused on the trauma caused by a lost limb, say, can fit wonderfully into a chapter on a like subject. Given enough time and diligence, an author can find sources that back up every theory in the book. So many, in fact, that the book can start to feel like a rocky passage between a multitude of expert voices. I have read books where the theory aspect frequently consists of a short paragraph, outdone on the same page by a lengthy quote from an apparently more knowledgeable soul. 

In this case, the collector has been crowded out by their menagerie. An author may protest such an idea. Of course it’s their book; they’re in control of what’s being presented. Yet a reader may not feel the same way. The motive behind reading the book usually is gaining knowledge of a subject. An expert collator of greatest hits might be better termed an editor.

A worse fate yet might befall the too deferential author. One reason authors become known in a field is their ability to write well. That’s what separates an Atul Gawande from all the other doctors. The reader may experience great pleasure while reading a long passage of his and decide they really should read that book, not yours. Your book may be put down while the other is explored—and never be retrieved again. 

Put bluntly, you wrote the book so you could become an expert. That happens when the reader is caught in the sway of your words. You need to balance the amount of text you compose with the quotations produced by your chorus. Otherwise, you may be merely a guide that introduces readers to all of those better writers.

Exercise: The easiest way to reduce the amount of text supplied by others is to paraphrase part or all of a quotation. That method keeps the narrative more in your voice, with your rhythms, making the points you are directing the reader toward. It also shows the reader that the quote is merely a cog in your greater design. 

“There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.”  —Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Around the Room to Within

A technique that helps brings an author inside a character’s head proceeds in a curious fashion: from outer to inner. The curiosity factor stems from where a writer usually starts a scene: from a chosen point of view. That is, from already inside the character’s head. So why would anyone consider going to another character’s thoughts? Won’t that disrupt the intimacy with the reader?

To explain, let’s examine how a scene is actually written. At the beginning, you don’t know exactly what will emerge from your pen. You know which characters will dominate the scene. You may have some notes sketching an intended plot advance, along with possible text pieces that you wrote previously, knowing they would fit somewhere in the book. But you still have to write out what happens in that scene.

Let’s assume that a young woman wants to ask permission from her father to go out with her best friend. She knows he thinks the friend is a bad influence. That is the first level of interior monologue. I know Dad is going to say no. How do I get him to yes, because I really want to go? You write out some dialogue, and sure enough, Daddy-o says no. The teenager does some plot-related thinking. When you read over the scene, you feel it’s pedestrian, something out of a Nickelodeon show. How do you get deeper?

You add qualifying factors. One of the best sources for them lies with the father. What happy time might she remember when he was tickled by the best friend? What about her made him smile? What deed did he praise her for? What concern does he have, such as being really smart in math but not applying herself? When you jot down some of these memories, you give your chosen character some ammunition in her argument.

You can go beyond that, using the dad foil. When does she know he is most receptive to her asking a favor? After a few drinks or a bowl of chocolate ice cream? She might also consider using citing her mother as an ally, as in mentioning something she did that always raises his hackles? The anger gets directed onto the mother, and the daughter looks like an angel because she totally supports everything her father says. 

In other words, by considering the supplementary character’s views on subjects that will be raised in the scene, you can discover how the lead character will manipulate or react. You’re still writing from inside her head. You just took a detour to find out nuances that would never occur to you from the inside out.

“A lie does not consist in the indirect position of words, but in the desire and intention, by false speaking, to deceive and injure your neighbour.”                    —Jonathan Swift

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Vague Shadows

A good novel is encyclopedic in its coverage of so many different realms. Chief among them are the attitudes of the lead characters toward each other. When you’re writing truly from one point of view, an entire history of a relationship can be revealed in what a character assumes about another—without the author having to expressly comment on what either of them is like. 

Where does this history come from? From the nether regions of your brain. Even if you are basing a fictional relationship on a real one, you still have to cull from the complexity of those years certain ways of interacting that can form a cohesive bond within the confines of your book. That’s where your reliance on knowing how you and your best friend, say, work(ed) together can lead you astray.

That’s because your characters are going to be more extreme than the real-life models. That means their past history will have correspondingly sharp highlights. As you’re writing, this altered past comes into play. Let’s assume you have made real-life teenage drinking and drug escapades more serious. You know you want the friend to be more hardened, maybe having served time in prison or in a dry-out clinic. Yet how, if the two were supposed to be buddies, can you keep your protagonist savory enough that a reader isn’t turned off by their evil?

Unless you sketch out this grimmer past, you won’t know. You’ll have a vague notion of how a plot turn might go, but because your made-up version of the past still is swimming in the ether of the real past, you’ll end up continuing to put off having to decide. Chapters may be written down, in which the two have solid dialogue, attitudes about plot events that ring like a bell, etc., but underneath—where you have the opportunity to really make them distinctive—you’re still undecided about their roles. 

You have to stop working on the story. Forget about making headway. Figure out what the two did in your fictional past. Start with character notes: what are the buddy’s family and environmental impacts that made them the bad influence on the protagonist? What was the first bad thing the two did together? How, as they got older, did they start to drift apart? How did the hero escape going to prison, as a for-instance?

Then write out several scenes that you know probably won’t make it into the novel. How did the two interact when the evil was committed? Was one intent on malice while the other was talked into it? After it happens, what are the two divergent reactions? How does that impact the way they approach another act of evil a month/year later? Write out that next scene. What you’ll find is that you will learn the answers. Once you know, then you can write implicitly about their interactions in the present day.

“My father had a profound influence on me. He was a lunatic.” —Spike Milligan

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


The Rhetorical Question

Authors are constantly looking for ways to involve a reader in their story, and one of the devices is asking the reader a question. It works, since a reader likes to get inside the head of a lead character. Plus, a question breaks up the rhythm of the narration, which is usually dominated by a point of view that is trying to make the fictional seem real.

Yet the device tends to be used sparingly, and there are good reasons for that. The best one is that it can appear to too transparently gin up tension. What can be done to avert such terrible misfortune? might sum up the general drift of such usage. The reader is, like, come on, do you expect me to go for that? In other words, it amounts to another form of foreshadowing: Myra couldn’t know the terrible consequences of that simple decision. Yawn.

Much better is placing the question within a character’s thoughts. What am I going to do now? feels authentic, because that is what the reader is asking at that moment. In addition, we frequently ask ourselves questions within our real life. They are part of our everyday inner monologue that patters so incessantly. 

Even here, though, an author can easily overstep by asking questions back to back. What am I going to do now? Could I really steal a car? Again, the reader starts to become offended. Okay, okay, enough with the questions. Why don’t you get out there and do something?

One variety that I like to see is the philosophical query. The fact is, categorical statements about life are bunk. As a male teenager you might be awed by Henry Miller’s statement that all women are whores—so deep, dude—but further reflection about your own experiences makes it laughable. If you voice a concern as a question, though, you leave the thought open-ended. If she says I’m cute, does that mean she thinks I’m a joke? leaves it up to the reader to decide.  

Exercise: As you review a draft, look for the occasional spot where a rhetorical question could form a point of emphasis. It can be effective, for instance, when it counters the narrative flow in a paragraph that contains heightened tension. You can also look for statements that seem overbearing. If you reversed the subject and verb, would the intent to provoke remain while not seeming so ponderous?

“Art has always been this—pure interrogation, rhetorical question less the rhetoric—whatever else it may have been obliged by social reality to appear.” —Samuel Beckett

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.