Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Me and myselves

Point Of View, or our dear old POV, is a question all writers must face sooner or later. Usually sooner. In simplistic terms, POV answers the question "who tells the story?" and there are four major groupings:

1) first person - ex. I got hit by a train and I could feel my ribs break.
2) second person - ex. You got hit by a train and must have felt your ribs break.
3a) third person limited - ex. She got hit by a train and could feel her ribs break.
3b) third person omniscient (all knowing) - ex. She got hit by a train and must have felt her ribs break.

Talking about POV is the same thing as dicussing the story's narrator.

1) In 1st person, the narrator is the same as the main character. It's all seen from her or his head and the story is told completely influenced by this character's values, prejudices, dislikes, likes and experiences. The reader will not know anything beyond what the character knows, which makes some plots trickier to handle. In my current WIP I balance first person with short scenes in omniscient 3rd person so to introduce the threat to the clueless main character. According to some the problem with first person is that the story easily gets "ranty" - the writer need to note the train of thought chronologically and "the way it's thought". I haven't edited my way through enough 1st person narrations to judge on my own if this statement has any truth, but it's good to bear in mind.

The challenge - you can't present information unknown to the main character
The opportunity - you can give your readers an intense ride and tie them closely and emotionally to the main character

I got hit by a train at 5.14 pm and felt my ribs break. Not a pleasant feeling and my rage at the hand which had pressed against my back grew and engulfed the pain. I would get the son of a bitch. One way or the other.

2) In 2d person, the narrator is not the same as the main character. The main character is the "you" in the story. It's the story about someone told to that very person. I've seen this done spectacularly well in one book - Robson. The story is about a woman retelling the story of her husband's (the "you") struggle against cancer. I can imagine it would work great in books about alzheimer as well, or senile characters (for example "The Notebook", although they don't use that narration technique in it).

The challenge - to connect with the reader when the story is obviously told to someone else (unless the reader can identify with the "you" in the story)
The opportunity - in my mind, you can tell difficult tales in a little less personal way and therefore handle less cute subjects.

You got hit by a train at 5.14 pm and you must have felt your ribs break; the paramedics said you were still conscious at the site. It can't have been a pleasant feeling, but perhaps your rage against the hand that had pushed you out on the tracks engulfed even your pain. You wanted revenge, and you would get in one way or the other.

3a) In 3rd person limited, the narrator is the main character, although not in as a direct way as 1st person. However, you as a writer must still obey to the fact that everything is limited to the character's experiences, intellect etc. You can relate direct thoughts just as you can in 1st person. The technique allows you to have multiple characters/POVs, but for all that's holy, NEVER change POV in the middle of a scene! I don't care which author has done it or which smart person tells you it's possible. You say you have a good example? I bet it's in 3rd person omniscient and isn't a POV change at all, just the narrator focusing on another character. There's a difference.

The challenge - to keep the view limited to only one narrator within each scene
The opportunity - to invite the reader to share the mind and experiences of the character yet be free to step out of the emotional rollercoaster at times.

She got hit by a train at 5.14 pm and she felt her ribs break. It wasn't a pleasant feeling and her rage at the hand which had pressed against her back grew and engulfed the pain. She would get the son of a bitch. One way or the other.

3b) In 3rd person omniscient, the narrator is a completely other person than the main character and who knows everything (or pretty much) about the characters and perhaps even the story. If the story somewhere contains "little did she know" then you got an omniscient narration. The narrator can imbue the story with prejudices, knowledge and "memories" that the main character (or character in focus) doesn't know about or doesn't share. The narrator has a distinct voice and there are no direct thoughts from the characters (direct thought = 'This sucks'; wheras indirect thought = 'This sucks, she thought').

The challenge - it's not possible to relate the characters feelings and thoughts directly
The opportunity - memories, knowledge and other facts can be freely related by the narrator regardless of what the character/s/ wouldn't know.

She got hit by a train at 5.14 pm and she must have felt her ribs break, even though she never could recall that moment. The man that had pushed her out on the tracks was already gone by the time the paramedics turned up. The train guard, who had been tending his inflamed tooth when the so-called accident happened, said she had jumped. He was afraid to admit anything else, even to himself. The paramedics believed him; everyone did. But she knew the truth. She would get the son of a bitch, she thought, one way or the other.

Feel free to discuss these points in the comment section, or post your own examples (or paragraphs you wonder about). I'll do my best to give sensible answers. I'm also very curious about which pro's and con's you have experiences with each narration style! Please share.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Curse of Being Great

We are all good at something, whether this be whistling through our nose, caring for others, cooking, writing or running fast. Sometimes we're not even aware of it, or at least we're not made aware of it.

There are a twofold problem. 1) everyone around you are so used to you being great they no longer notice it, or 2) you are so good people assume you are aware of your skill.

1) I learned of the first a few weeks ago when a friend - I can no longer remember what we discussed but probably my math course - said something like "but you're always good at [it]". I was rather surprised that he thought so, but as I thought of it I realised that praise has a tendency to stop coming. I understand that no one can go around saying someone's great all the time, but does the time passing make you less skilled? No, it doesn't. You're as good, and you shouldn't need to become better for people to appreciate your skill.

2) I considered the question about querying the other morning on the bus to work. I thought about the form rejections I've received, and how I've always assumed the worst of it - that they didn't like my writing and that the plot was lame or that my characters were one dimensional etc etc. This morning - shocker! - I suddenly found myself thinking "but what if they simply didn't know how to promote it? What if they liked it, and thought I could write, but that the plot/meaning wasn't to their liking?". Then the Evil Editor on my shoulder said that if they liked it, they would have told me and not sent a form rejection. But what if they just thought the writing was so good they assumed I must know that I can write, and therefore saw no reason to send further encouragement?

I toyed with the thought - better keep myself positive now when NaNo is approaching! - and realised I often do just that myself. I assume people know how good they are. I often look at photos or paintings at deviantArt and find them so stunning I can't imagine the artist doesn't know they're stunning. Then I keep browsing, leaving no hint of my appreciation.

The problem is that when I don't like something, I don't say anything either. Which means my reaction when seeing something great or something horrid is the same one (virtually at least).

Of course, this post is mostly a rather random pondering on Things' Being and Stuff. But also, a reminder to myself as well as to others to let your loved ones know they are great. Let strangers know they're awesome. Let friends know how talented they are.

They might need to hear just that.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

When All Else Fails…

…use duct-tape. It works in real life, and it works in writing. There are, of course, two ways of using duct tape. Sometimes either way is okay, sometimes one way is used inappropriate and you find yourself 10 miles from the nearest settlement and your car has come asunder (or your spaceship, which would be even more annoying).

Duct taping is doubly important now as NaNo is approaching!!!!! (tiny Pratchett craziness)

Two ways of using duct tape:
  1. The duct tape will keep the whole thing together so you can roll into safe harbour
  2. The duct tape will fix it permanently

As in real life, the permanent duct tape fix only works for less important things, or objects that aren’t much used. The temporary patch-up is however very useful so not to lose your stride or when you’re stuck on a bus and don’t have a thesaurus.

Let’s start with “what a hell is duct taping in writing?”

Duct taping is when you do a makeshift solution for a writing problem. For example:

  • a synonym of the word you want to use but can’t remember.
  • a summary/shallow description of how the heroine steers the rampaging truck out of harm’s way instead of the detailed “this is how you do it” description that you want.
  • a simple scene where the Evil Dude reveals his Evil Plans instead of the intricate and complicated one where the reader learns of The Plans by surmising what someone else is doing.
  • writing “went to street X where the snazzy boutique is” instead of going to the library, finding a New York guide book, looking through all streets to find a suitable place and boutique, before actually continuing to write.
  • a dialogue without deeper descriptions and speech-tags.

The most important rule of writing is to write. Duct taping helps you to use the steam while it’s hot (alright, when it’s not hot it’s not steaming, but I have acquired an artistic license to lie and exaggerate).This is especially important when you’re prone to writer’s block, or when you have a limited amount of time or very varied amounts of time on your hands.

I admit, I’m a lazy researcher. Permanent duct taping is my favourite. You often find me rewriting segments and sentences when I can’t remember the word I want. If I don’t know how my character would fix the hole in the spacecraft hull, I erase the hole and create another problem she can fix (which I know how to do). I don’t look up how dresses fit in the 15th century, I describe the dress in a non-revealing way.

If you like research, but have little time to write, I suggest write when you feel for it by using careful duct taping. Then do research and insert the information you want when you can. That way your thoughts will be archived and the cake just lies there, waiting for the frosting.

For some things you don’t have a choice. They can’t – or shouldn’t - be duct taped until the end of Eternity. Major plot points can’t be skimmed over. Character revelations shouldn’t be done in info dumps. Dialogue needs descriptions of character reactions.

Only you can decide what will be a permanent fix. Choose wisely. Time will tell.

But until end of November, DUCT TAPE RULES!