Friday, March 27, 2009

POV, Part II

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Allow me to indulge my Inner Pedant for the length of a post. After this, no more graphs. Promise.

Choosing the right POV for a story is one of a writer's most critical tasks. Sometimes the choice is obvious from the outset, and comes wholly from intuition; at other times--especially in multi-POV stories--the kinds of things that can be told depend on whose consciousness is filtering events, and the writer may have to wrestle with whose POV ought to dominate a given scene.

It seems to me that each of the major categories of POV (first, second, third limited, and third) also have a distinct range of intimacy, or psychic distance, over which they can work. I've tried to capture my concept of 'range' in the chart below, with the bars representing the natural distance each kind of POV voice can cover.

Before I launch into details, I ought to define how I'm using the protean term 'omniscient.' Many writers use the label casually to mean a narrative POV that can dip into many minds, even in the course of a single scene. Omniscience includes that ability, of course, but it also means much more. An omniscient narrator in principle can know anything about anything (though any given narrative voice may not claim quite that much), even foretelling the future accurately. But one of the most important aspects of a truly omniscient POV is a reliable narrative consciousness that exists independently of the minds of any of the characters--a narrative voice that must be believed for the book to work. An omniscient perspective is what allows Tolstoy to open with "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." An omniscient distance is what allows Jane Austen to add her most memorable and ironic running commentary on the events of her stories. And, despite claims that the omniscient POV is largely a creature of the 19th century, omniscient narrators are alive and well in plenty of recent fiction, including Douglas Adams' Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

In terms of psychic distance, or "intimacy," the first-person POV can get closer to the reader than any other. In first-person (with a few odd exceptions--more on that later) there is no narrative voice separate from the the voice of the POV character; there is no suggestion that another consciousness is filtering thoughts, and we can share a wholly subjective experience with the character.

On the other hand, first-person cannot reach the fully omniscient, authorial voice, that declares Truth, delves into the minds of others, or makes impartial observations about the first-person character. The first-person narrator can engage in objective exposition, and can even attempt to describe matters in an omniscient fashion; but there is a single, fallible consciousness narrating, and this means any observations the narrative voice makes--even pertaining to facts, and even more so with regards to principles and conclusions--are bound to be colored by the narrator's perceptions. The 'unreliable narrator' is possible in other POVs, but is most common in first person. (It may be most effective in second person.)

Putting second-person to the side for a moment, third-person limited has a range very similar to first-person; indeed, some people describe third-person limited as "first-person using 'he' or 'she' instead of 'I'." (John Gardner, brilliant but always grouchy, claimed that the dominance of third-person limited showed there was something deeply wrong with modern fiction.)

Third-person limited has a range with a span similar to that of first-person, but offset a little in the direction of greater psychic distance. Third-person limited can be very subjective--it can delve deep enough that the inner workings of a mind can be reported verbatim without the mediation of "he thought." Yet I don't believe it ever feels as wholly subjective as the first-person equivalent, where we are aware that the whole text belongs to the perceptions and voice of the narrator. Third-person limited is slightly more distant, because there is the hint of a non-character narrator (no matter how self-effacing or transparent that narrator may be).

That hint of an independant narrator also allows third-person limited to reach a little farther up the scale toward omniscience than first-person. Reporting of facts, and conclusions drawn from them, are more credible in a third-person POV, as we believe there is an objective narrator hiding somewhere back behind the curtain. Push this too far, however, and the narrative form spills over into full third-person.

Third-person has the greatest range of psychic distance. Although I don't believe it can ever get quite as intimate as first-person--the narrator lurking in the background always makes us conscious of a gap, though it may be small--the third-person voice can range up and down the psychic-distance scale, and, wielded skillfully, can also range through the minds of characters, even non-human characters. It is certain that the full third-person is the POV that offers the most freedom; but it also creates corresponding problems of control and balance. (Above all, a writer who wants to assume full omniscience must create an authorial voice for the novel that the reader accepts unconditionally. In our cynical and suspicious times, such a voice is most often humorous, satirical, or ironic; this is one reason Austen and Voltaire still seem so fresh and readable to the modern eye.)

Second-person, as I will discuss in a later post, is a slippery little devil--very much like first-person that refuses to admit it is first-person. Although it is subjective, the constant use of 'you' keeps us at a distance from the narrator's inner being; and this evasive quality makes the narrator's observations on events and larger truths seem even more suspect than in the first person. The result is that while second-person can be quite powerful, it works only in a narrow range.

For first-person (and also, to a less-important extent, in second-person and third-person limited) there is a critical additional third dimension not shown on the graph--the choice of past or present tense. Since in first-person narration, the narrator is also the POV character, in principle when first-person narration is done in past tense, the narrator is capable of looking back and reflecting, of playing the 'had I but known' game; the narrator knows what will happen next. This cannot be done if the narrator is locked into present tense. (Some novels have it both ways. For example, Leslie Schwartz's Jumping the Green alternates between chapters of first-person past and first-person present, so that the same narrator can tell what happened as she was growing up and then can switch to the uncertainty of telling what is happening right now.)

Why all this talk about range? Because not every kind of POV will work for every kind of story. Writing an epic in second-person might be an interesting exercise, but it's doubtful that second-person would serve the scope best. If the story requires moving across a wide range of psychic distances and multiple minds, nothing but true third person is likely to work. If you're writing War and Peace, you'll need the full range from omniscient down to subjective, as well as the span of multiple characters. If you're writing The Old Man and the Sea, you have more choices of how to go about it.

Choosing the wrong POV for your story is the easiest way I know to saw off the branch upon which you're seated. If you've gone to the trouble to find the right voice for the story, started all the gears in motion, and then you find can't tell the things you need to tell, the problem can't usually be fixed by changing "I" to "he." Believe me, I've been there.

Novelist Raymond Obstfeld has discussed ways of reviving a novel when it simply isn't working. His first suggestion is changing the names of the main characters to try and readjust your subconscious relationship with them. (I've never done this, but I've seen it work for people.)

His second-line, more drastic attempt at salvage is to change the POVs and narrative strategy--either jump from, say, third to first, or, even change the POV characters without changing the cast.

Does this have an impact? You bet. Because when you change POVs, you are actually writing another book, a book with a different set of possibilities and often a different range of available psychic distances.

It's easier if you pick the right narrative structure and POVs before you've written a couple of hundred pages.

It's also easier said than done. Even if you have a graph.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Clueless, Ink.--A Resource for Writers

A number of you may have seen interesting comments from Haarlson Phillipps pop up on this blog. Until recently, I'd never clicked through to visit his own blog--which, in fact, hasn't been in business all that long.

Despite the fact it's a recent endeavor, Haarlson has turned his blog--Clueless, Ink.--into a major resource clearinghouse. The sidebar is an amazing directory--the websites and blogs of agents (US and UK both, by category), editors, publishers, and writers. He blogs frequently, and many of his posts are tightly targeted and highly informative. For example, can anybody use 10 Plus US Publishers Who Accept Submissions from Writers? No? Then howsabout 10 UK Publishers Who Accept Submissions from Writers? (He also has a nice recent post on MNW with some good links.)

On top of that, he has frequent reviews of books on writing, comments on current developments, descriptions of new things he's dug up on the web, and above all, he has content. Every post is bound to be useful to some writers, and and many of them are likely to be of interest almost all writers--which is saying something about such a diverse and fractious subsection of humanity.

Clueless, Ink. is well on its way to becoming an invaluable resource for writers. Take a glance and then join me in spreading the word.

Well done, Haarlson!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A POV Curriculum, Part I

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There’s plenty of mistakes you can make when you first start writing, and we should probably go ahead and make them as quickly as possible. That will get the easy, big, dumb mistakes out of the way early, so you can move on to the fun of the gnarlier, subtler, paradox-riddled, suicide-inducing, no-one-can-solve-it-but-you problems that await further down the road.

With luck and application you can get to really nasty stuff soon enough to drop the whole writing thing as a bad idea and still have enough of your youth left to go on and make a useful contribution to society in some other area of endeavor.

(Deep breath.) So. Of the big mistakes newbie writers make, the one that stands out the most to me is poor control of point of view. A chapter is being told in third-person from Bob’s POV, but the writer imagines something so clever for Kathy to think that there is nothing to do but vault into Kathy’s head for just a moment—-just long enough to make that priceless observation, without which literature will remain permanently impoverished—but then we are back to Bob for another ten pages.

It reads like this: Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Kathy Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob.

Is this perhaps akin to the slight imperfection in a Persian carpet added so as not to offend Allah, or the tiny flaw in the Japanese vase that accents the utter mastery of the craftsman?

No. The technical terminology for this is a screw-up; all those Bobs a-bob-bob-bobbin' along become inaudible, like the white noise of a bobbling brook, but in the middle of it all the author screams KATHY and...well, let's just say it slightly undermines what John Gardner called the vivid and continuous dream of good fiction.

Note that I am not condemning switching POV. I am complaining about inept switching of POV. I am complaining about switching POV for the author's self-indulgence, or, worse, out of sloppiness.

Even in first person, some writers will find the pull of a wobbly POV irresistable. It tends to be worst in romance-y writing, where a first-person narrator will tell you 'my eyes flashed with anger' (oh, sorry--that should be 'my emerald-green eyes flashed with anger'), but it can be found in any kind of story.

I once attended a workshop with a young woman who was writing in a candid, seductive first person. All went well until her narrator, clad in panties and a camisole, cigarette in hand, took up a pose on a windowsill that, from across the room, made her look like a Herb Ritts photograph.

Now, that's just wrong, and I don't mean the choice of Herb Ritts. (That's also wrong, but in a different way.) A first-person narrator can't describe herself from the outside. They can imagine that, from across the room, they look like a Herb Ritts photo. They can inform us that, postioning themselves so that they were backlit by the window, they attempted their best imitation of a Herb Ritts lingerie shot. They can tell us of their utter confidence that they must look like a Herb Ritts snap. They can tell us that they slid into their well-practiced Herb-Ritts-photo pose (especially if the narrator is being ironic or naive). But we can't simply have a bald statement of what the narrator looks like from across the room without any hint of the filter of the narrator's consciousness. Do that very often and the reader will become annoyed--perhaps without knowing quite why, but annoyed nonetheless.

If someone were foolish enough to ask me how to learn the various points of view—or if someone even more foolish put me in charge of a Beginning Fiction Workshop—I know how I’d lay out the curriculum for mastering POV.

Since I don't hear a chorus of voices asking me that question, I guess I’ll ask myself; otherwise this will be a pretty short series of posts. Part II soon.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Ethics of Used Books

In discussing his favorite bookstores, Ryan David Jahn mentions that he only buys used books if the author is deceased. I take his point immediately, and I, too find the question of buying used books written by living, potentially royalty-earning authors to be a question that deserves some thought.

Of course, in some cases the damn books are out of print, so there's no ethical problem at all.

In other cases, I may stumble across a hardback copy of a book I prize, but own only in paperback. There again I'm not troubled; I shoveled out the cash once, and usually the hardback is out of print.

The tricky bit comes with books I don't own in any form, that are still readily for sale as new books. Do I, like Ryan, always hold out for a new, royalty-paying copy?

Well, sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. One of the joys to me of a used book shop is stumbling across something I might not have seen otherwise, and might not be altogether certain I really want to read. But, what the hell, if the cost is low...

The only way I can make up my mind about the ethics of this is to consider the "do unto others" aspect of the whole thing. Would I prefer that somebody buy my own books new? Sure.

On the other hand, if someone stumbles across a book of mine used and says, "Hmmm...looks interesting...maybe..." then do I have a problem with them buying it used? Not at all.

Do I mind if someone goes on Amazon intending to purchase my book new, and then sees all the used copies and decides to buy one of those instead?

Not really. I'd naturally prefer that they bought the book new. Hell, I'd prefer that they bought two new copies, one to read and another to be kept in mint conditions behind a glass-doored bookcase, but I'm glad that they're buying the book at all.

I don't object to libraries lending out my book. And I don't object to people passing a copy of my book on to friends.

Back when Thomas Harris' Red Dragon first appeared in paperback, I bought a copy, read it, passed it to a friend, who read it, and passed it on...if I recall, by the time it got back to me, something like 27 people read that poor, broken-backed, tattered copy. So Harris missed out on some royalties there. On the other hand, though, by the time Silence of the Lambs came out, we'd all finished graduate school, and I bet he sold 27 extra copies of that one.

I find this too be a gray area, not only ethically, but in terms of my own preferences. To put it simply, more money is good...but more readers is even better, and I'm not sure where the trade-off lies.

More money and more readers would be excellent, in whatever proportions.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Lifelong Creativity

I’ve always admired Kirk Douglas. Not only did he make some splendid films, but he—along with Humphrey Bogart—was one of the few Hollywood stars to stand up to the McCarthy-era blacklists and witch-hunts.

Yesterday we had a chance to see Kirk Douglas in his one-man show, Before I Forget (at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, a theatre he endowed as part of LA’s Center Theatre Group. At one point, he remarked: “I never wanted to be a movie star; I wanted to be a star onstage. Finally I figured out the trick: build your own theatre.”)

The show had a short run—four sold-out performances. The theatre is in Culver City, right across the street from Sony Pictures (the company that used to be Columbia Pictures, and recently gobbled up MGM as well). As you might imagine, in a company town like Culver City most of the attendees were people “in the industry,” but it was a pleasant gathering anyway.

Kirk Douglas is 92 years old. Not too many nonagenarians decide to attack a 90-minute, no-intermission, one-man show—though when you’re a legend all you have to do is show up, right?

Well, not in this case. This is a man who has been through the wringer physically. In the early 1990s he survived a helicopter crash that broke his back and required knee replacements, and later in that decade he suffered a stroke that left him unable to speak. As he was recovering from the stroke, he said he realized he would never make another movie, never do another stage show, and after a good long cry he decided to kill himself. His physical condition was low enough that when he put the barrel of his pistol in his mouth he hit one of his teeth, painfully hard. “And that’s why I’m still alive,” he said, “all because of an aching tooth.”

He has learned to speak again, but the evidence of his stroke is still clear; enunciation is still a chore, and he has to speak slowly to be understood. Yet he has turned this debility to his advantage. “When I speak ve-ry slow-ly, it turns out…that people listen.” He also uses his deliberate enunciation as a running aside to the audience: “…but we still lived in this di-lap-i-dated—pretty good word, huh?— di-lap-i-dated house…”

The show was funny, self-deprecating, touching, and sometimes even profound, and I don’t think there were many people who sat through the whole performance without at least a few tears welling up.

The performance itself was wonderful, but what I found myself mulling over was the fact that he had found a way to carry on with his chosen art and craft, despite his age, despite huge physical barriers. Frankly, when I think about some of the things I let get in the way of my work, he makes me feel a bit ashamed.

And he made me feel extraordinarily young, too, which isn’t a feeling I often have of late.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Craft and Canes

Henry James famously advised writers to "Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost." Alas, plenty of things sail right past me. I can claim, however, that I make immense use of the little that I notice. Let me pay serious attention to something and I'll chew at it until it looks like something the rats have been at.

All that by way of talking about my ankle yet again. (And about writing. Just bear with me a second here.) I'm walking around again, with the occasional wince, and I'm finding that I don't quite remember how I went about it all these years.

About 15 years ago, I returned from overseas with something that progressed into a nasty bout of encephalitis, and I temporarily forgot how to do pretty much everything--speak distinctly, walk, pick things up. At one point I found myself sitting on the toilet, pants down around my ankles, without the slightest idea in the world how I had usually stood up from that position. I knew I had always somehow grabbed my pants and pulled them up in the process of rising--but how? I don't recall when I learned to do this, and don't clearly recall a time when I couldn't, but for a very long moment I sat there trying to work it out.

Performing this action was a struggle for a couple of months. Now it's safely reinstated as an automatic piece of my wetware, and I'm once more not sure how I go about it. Some acts--like tightrope-walking--aren't improved by thinking about mechanics during the execution.

Writing is one of those sorts of activities. Thinking too hard about how the writing is crafted while writing results in all kinds of hesitations and stumbles. We're all happiest when it flows.

Many writers I meet are reluctant to think about issues of craft. In some cases, I'm guessing they like to think of the process as magical and don't want reason intruding on it. But I believe many of the others are fearful that if they think about the process--even when they aren't at the desk--they'll make themselves stumble and even fall.

There's something to be said for the theory that improving your practice can result in a major setback, at least initially. I'd certainly be able to type faster if I used all ten fingers, for example (I do most of this with my the index and middle finger on my right hand and my index finger and thumb on my left). But I've tried to learn real typing, and I'd have to slow w-a-a-a-y-y-y down before learning the new technique could make me faster. I hear this principle applies to many sports activities, such as swinging a golf club--if you learned to do it in a suboptimum way originally, you may have to suffer a decline in performance before you can learn new, better habits.

Now, I don't claim there's an exact analogy between physical coordination skills and writing, but I've sometimes discovered that there are, if not better ways of attacking a writing, at least many alternative ways of coming at a problem. When we start out, I think most of us are simply doing our best to do what we can do to tell the story. Later, when we acquire more skills, we begin to worry more about the optimum way to tell the story--and the more experienced you become, the more possible approaches you can see.

Trouble is, of course, if I drop my tried-and-true approach (I mistyped that as 'tired-and-true' the first time, which would be equally applicable) for something I haven't attempted before, I can find myself in the position of learning to walk all over again. Some people's resistance to thinking about craft may be nothing more than that: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

But most scribblers are also voracious readers, and the more we write, the more we are prone to notice how other writers tackle a problem--say, their approach to exposition, or how they deal with the passage of time, or shifts in POV. Not only do we all tend to admire precisely those techniques we haven't already mastered, but some of them look damn handy...

But it's often like starting all over again.

I seem to do that a lot. Do you?