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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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