Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What I meant was...

Alas, the terminology of writing is far from universal. Frances has mentioned that my preceding post might be clearer if the reader knew what exactly I meant by "close third-person POV." I suppose it's clear as mud without a definition, so here goes.

"Close third-person narration" to me is identical to "third-person limited." (There's a definition that wouldn't clarify much for most people.) The narration is written in third person, but there is nothing even approaching omniscience on the part of the narrator. The narration is married to the POV character's perceptions; the narrator doesn't tell un anything that the POV character doesn't know.

We don't see expressions on the POV character's face, for example, because the character has no means of watching his own face. (Well, except for mirrors. But that trick tends to make editors, no small number of readers, groan.) A character can feel a silly grin spreading on his face, for example, but such a character can't "look stunned." (The character can conjecture that he might or even must look stunned, but this can't be reported as fact, or we being to move away from close third.)

It's very subjective narration that stays close to the consciousness of the POV and never backs up for wide shots. It may get so far from the inside of character's head that it needs to worm its way back in via "he thought" until we are clearly established (after which thoughts can be directly reported).

Shock and Awe was third-person multi-POV. In most cases, each chapter 'belonged' to a single viewpoint character. The book wasn't written entirely in close POV, although much of it was quite close; there was a distinct narrative voice that sometimes took a wide view before modulating down into a POV character's thoughts and emotions.

Shock and Awe required multiple POVs simply because of the architecture. I could have written multiple first-person, but multi-first tends to be stressful for both reader and writer.

My WIP has only one POV character. This is more common in mysteries than in thrillers, but it's not unheard of. Thrillers often up the suspense by showing the reader mounting dangers of which the protagonist is unaware. This requires either omniscience or multiple POVs (or both).

Mysteries, on the other hand, often have only a single POV character--often the detective, but sometimes a Watson or an Archie Goodwin. This restricts the reader's knowledge to what the POV character knows. Some argue that this is inherently less suspenseful than letting the reader see dangers while keeping the protagonist in the dark.

I'm not taking a position on this, as some artists have done both in different works. For example, Alfred Hitchcock's movies achieve suspense thrugh both tools. Hitch was fond of letting the viewer see the bomb ticking away under the dinner table while the protagonist sits ingorant with his feet inches away from the explosives; but in some of his most gripping scenes in Psycho the camera remains fixed on the POV character, who is unable to see around corners or up beyond the top of the stairs.

Lee Child is unusual in that some of his Jack Reacher novels are written in third person, while others are in first person--and the dividing line seems to be whether or not they require multiple POVs. If he wants us to see the bad guys at work, then the whole book will be in third person; but if he doesn't need any "meanwhile, back at the ranch" scenes, then he'll stay with Reacher's POV--and do it in first person, to boot.

So here I am, writing in a single POV, and staying very close, without a hint of omniscience. And I'm wondering why, as long as I'm staying tied to this one person's perceptions, I'm not just letting him tell the damn story. It's already very much in his voice, and I'm beginning to think that the mechanics of presenting his thoughts and moving exposition along would be far easier if he just told the damn story himself.

I'm a bit confused as to why I'm in third person to begin with. I'd like to think I had a reason.

The character is quite a bit younger than me. Maybe I didn't feel ready for that level of impersonation--similar to the way that some people are reluctant to go first-person on characters of the opposite sex.

Or maybe I just didn't think it through. It wouldn't be the first time, and I'd venture it won't be that last.

I comfort myself with the fact that rewriting in first would be easy, and would probably be more fun. Well, if I decide to go that way. I'm still hopping from one foot to another.

A pause for head scratching

Okay, so you're writing from one POV in a novel. And it's pretty close third-person POV throughout.

First person is more sympathetic. First person doesn't require reminders and tags when you modulate from narrative voice to internal reflection. And first person eliminates a whole slew of pronoun problems.

So remind me again: at page 100, why am I writing my current WIP in close third? I'm sure there's a reason...

Friday, June 25, 2010

Plot versus Story versus Godzilla

One of Aliya's posts on plot and literary fiction had me responding at enough length on her Comment Trail that I realized I ought to bring what I had to say over here, rather than inflicting it on unwary visitors to her blog. In other words, I plan to inflict it on you--but I'm assuming that by this point in our relationship, anyone arriving here is a wary visitor.

At the risk of getting off into abstractions, I'd like to distinguish between "story" and "plot."

I do tend to require that novel-length fiction has a story of some sort. For me, "story" boils down to either characters experiencing conflict (within some setting or parameters), or characters on some sort of journey. (Helps if the journey involves some conflict rather than just being a travelogue. But the entirely episodic, picaresque novel has a long and honorable history, and sometimes we're just along for the sightseeing. Hey, if it works, it works.)

Even some of the most purely "literary" fiction that manages to engage me has some sort of conflict. In much of Beckett, it's a matter of someone in conflict with himself, or in conflict with meaninglessness, but you can still say, "This is a story about..."

"Plot," for me, is another matter entirely--it's the mechanics of how the story unfolds. And the mechanics can be big and loud and obvious, or so extremely subtle and apparently minor that people might assert the story is "plotless." (In a successful stream-of-consciousness novel, the 'plot' is disguised as free association; but the mechanics are still put there by the author, who decides what thought will stir up what new association. Thinking about horses and then segueing into a childhood carousel ride flashback is just as plotted as having a man walk in with a gun.)

If you can still say, "This is a story about a man who can't muster up the motivation to get out of bed," then you have a story. Probably not much of an evident plot. Whether the writer can make such a story interesting to the reader is another matter, and I think has a good deal to do with whether the writer is actually engrossed in the story (including the character) to begin with.

I believe that plotless stories tend to become boring when the writer doesn't care about the story or the conflict, and is only writing to watch his or her own cleverness at laying down verbiage. When a good writer cares, it drags the reader right along. But in the worst forms of lit fic, the writer really doesn't give a damn about the story.

I will concede that Joyce probably didn't care all that much about the plot, such as it is, of Ulysses. But he cared powerfully about the characters and what they experienced during the course of that long journey through a day. (Finnegans Wake, on the other hand, doesn't seem to me to have a story anyone cares about; it really is a lot of self-referential cleverness. Some of which is incredibly clever and fun to read aloud, mind you, but it no longer feels like a story. I'm not even sure I consider it a novel: more like an alien artifact.)

It is quite possible to write genre fiction that commits the same sin of not caring about the story. In genre fiction, this usually happens when the writer cares primarily about the plot, but not about the characters except insofar as they serve the plot--which is another way of not really caring about the story.

There's all kinds of ways of breaking the rule that you have to care about the story, or have a story. Borges did it routinely; so did Donald Barthelme. And I adore much of their short fiction. But expand any of those didactic or satiric short pieces to novel length, and you'll find me dropping the book on the floor somewhere around page 20.

On the genre side, the same thing holds for puzzle mysteries--such as the 'locked-room' mysteries which were so popular in the early years of the 20th century: I can enjoy them (well, actually I don't, but I can imagine that someone might) for ten pages or so, but there isn't enough story for a book; it's all plot.

I guess what I'm saying is that I dislike reading hundreds of pages of fiction unless the author gives a damn about something other than his own precious self.

Of course, giving a damn isn't sufficient; there's a lot of heartfelt fiction out there that is just plain awful because of lousy execution. But I'd argue that caring about the story you're telling is a necessary prerequisite to any kind of success in reaching a reader.

Probably the reason that so many lit-fic writers fail in this regard is that they sat through too many classes where professors said things like, "What Shakespeare is teaching us here..." or "What Tolstoy is trying to tell us..." (Many teachers seem to have truly great works of literature confused with Aesop's Fables or Rudyard Kipling's Just-So stories.) Then these students move on to other classes where someone's prose experiments are praised, simply because they are experimental.

No wonder so many MFA students write such lousy novels.

And where does Godzilla fit into all this? Well, what Godzilla was trying to show us was...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Writing and Peripheral Vision

I've made no secret of the fact that 2009 ranks as one of my least favorite years. My health issues so contaminated the novel I was writing that I had to set it aside entirely; even now, it exudes a miasma that seems unhealthy. Since publication of Shock and Awe at the end of 2007, I've completed one novel (Earthly Vessels, which, alas, is entirely unsuited to my MNW autorial persona), and had two others grind to a halt 100-200 pages on in glorious 2009.

I'm not ready to return to those WIPs, though I think both of them are potentially good novels. So I've been working on something new, based on a single opening chapter I wrote some time back. And, to my amazement, it's going swimmingly, and I'm eight chapters along. (Well, as swimmingly as writing has ever gone for me, which is to say 'flounderingly.') I've found I can even write and maintain something akin to normal blood pressure as long as I eventually get up from my desk and go do something reasonably fierce in the way of exercise to blow the tension out of my system.

Since I'm not much of a plot-ahead kind of guy, there are always what-happens-next roadblocks, both large and small. Once I've written a couple of chapters and the characters are alive and contributing their suggestions, I have a good sense of the general direction I'm heading, but the details remain fuzzy. With apologies to Aliya Whiteley's brother and sister characters in Mean Mode Median (and to Tim Stretton for citing a fantasy character with an apostrophe in his name), the best analogy I can come up with is that used by Paul Muad'Dib in Dune when discussing seeing the future: You can get a glimpse of a few hilltops and ridges in the distance, but you have no idea what awaits in the valleys between them.

And, of course, most of one's time is spent traversing the valleys, and sometimes they aren't the valley you're expecting: Instead of the Valley of the Jolly Green Giant, you find yourself in the good old Valley of the Shadow of Death. But there are constant what-happens-next-and-how questions, large and small.

Which brings me, in my typical blabbermouthed fashion, to the point of this post. Very seldom can I solve a story problem by focusing on it. It isn't math(s). Staring longer doesn't allow me to break it down into logical steps.

I should add that it isn't that I'm incapable of coming up with something to happen at the next major undecided point. It's that I can come up with several things, each of which, on careful interrogation, turns out to be unsuitable in some way.

(First ideas for solving intermediate plot points are almost always stale, derivative, or obvious. Well, I speak only for myself, there. Perhaps your first ideas are always strikingly original. I sometimes have strikingly original ideas, and when I get them early and easily, it's almost always a sign that they are striking, and original, and unworkable.)

A certain amount of staring is needed to get the problem fixed in my mind. This can often be achieved by pinpointing exactly why your proposed solutions so far suck. But after that, I have to count on peripheral vision--the answer that is handed to you when you are apparently paying attention to something else.

When I'm lucky, what I'm paying attention to is the writing; the answer to a given plot issue will often pop up--sometimes because some minor element I've written in along the way turns out to be more than merely descriptive, or will fulfill dual roles.

When I'm less lucky, I have to resort to some kind of activity to occupy a part of my brain. The physicist Niels Bohr was famous for solving conceptual problems by fixing the issue in his mind and then forgetting about it by going to see American Westerns--just diverting enough to keep his frontal lobes distracted, but not so complex or emotionally involving as to take over too much of his subconscious mind. (So who says that movies that are all fluff aren't useful?) And I know one oft-published novelist who says that any movie at all will work for him.

Not so for me. Sometimes home-construction tasks will turn the trick, but these can also become so demanding that they take up too much of my all-too-limited brainpower. Gardening works well sometimes, but not always, and that old standby, the shower, sometimes produces results--but one can only spend so long in the shower.

For me, physical motion seems most effective. Walking often allows solutions to pop up; hiking is good, too, except that there is usually a long period where the scenery pushes everything far down, and there is the added problem that when you've solved your problem you are anywhere from ten to a hundred miles away from your keyboard.

Joyce Carol Oates claims to get her best work done while she is running, but Ms Oates is built like one of the more slender species of antelope, and running for her is probably like walking for me. If I could muster up the focus to work on a story issue while running, I would no doubt resolve most of my plot issues by having all my characters sit down and gasp for breath.

Long drives can help, and I find that drives in heavy, high-speed, freeway traffic work best--for some reason, knowing that it's life-endangering to make so much as a note seems to encourage the subconscious to become especially fecund.

The protagonist in my WIP solves urgent problems by thinking hard about something else. This has given me the challenge of coming up with complete non sequiturs for him to contemplate, and "now think of something completely unrelated" isn't as easy as it sounds.

Luckily, my protag doesn't need to get up and move around for this to work. I hope to learn something from writing him.

But meanwhile I need to go exercise. My protag has raised my blood pressure enough for one day.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Prince of Persia--a flap over nothing

I haven't seen Prince of Persia, nor am I in any great haste to do so. But I have noticed, as many probably have, the huge flap on the web over the fact that "a white actor" is playing a Persian.


Persia, of course, is largely that area now called "Iran." ("Persians" incidentally, always called the place "Iran." The Greeks are the ones who called them Persians.)

Hands up, anybody who knows where the name "Iran" comes from? Anybody? Yes, Ashley?

That's right. "Eran" which in Latin was "Arianus," which in English, is "Aryan." Yep. Hitler's master race. The white people. The Aryans were the root race of what we call Persia.

Now, things changed a bit when Alexander tromped through and his troops inseminated many of the Aryan women there. Though, being Greek and following Alexander, they may have inseminated more of the Aryan men.

And, of course, the Mongol hordes passed through, and killed about a zillion of the Aryan men, and, of course raped many of the women.

And, fairly recently as such things go, the Arabs stormed into the place, killed about a zillion of the men, raped the women, or, worse, married them, and converted everyone to Islam at swordpoint. So now there is a lot of Arab blood running in modern Iranian veins...along with an occasional touch of East Asian that can be seen in the eyelids (the same effect you sometimes see cropping up in Eastern Europe and Germany), as well as some Greek genes, which is why--no, wait, I already did the obvious Greek joke.

I've met many Iranians, and, yes, some of them look a good deal like Arabs. But I've met many who look like total honkies, because--well, if you buy any of the Aryan race crap, they are the spring and lifeblood of honkydom. Which the Germans long recognized, and why Germany and Iran/Persia/Whatever, have long been so cozy.

The Jews and Arabs are the Semitic peoples--or, as Hitler and his gang called them, "mud people." The Persians are the Master Race (and some of them actually believe it).

So, the outrage over casting Jake Gyllenhaal as a mo-fo honkie haole fishbelly ghost person Aryan strikes me as pretty weird. (Plus, the guy isn't as white as, say, Paul Bettany. I've seen lightbulbs that looked dark compared to him.)

Look, I understand that for decades white actors were cast as other races, pushing aside some excellent actors in the process, and that's reprehensible.

On the other hand, I've always enjoyed it in modern film and theater when someone is cast in a different gender--Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan, for example--or a black man is cast in what is a white role without any comment whatsoever, such as Denzel Washington playing Don Pedro in Branagh's production of "Much Ado About Nothing." So I've always hoped that in the future, no one would much give a shit.

I understand the urge to redress wrongs. But I think the lines often get drawn in the wrong places, and I think this is a great example. I think Jake Gyllenhaal can play an Aryan without any issues whatsoever being raised.

The funny thing is, if they had cast an Arab or a Turk in that role, I don't think we'd be hearing any noise whatsoever--even though racially that's just as extreme as casting Marlon Brando as an Okinawan. (Bad idea, that one--but it was done.)

Then again, I think about it and realize that most Americans think Iranians are Arabs. Hell, the other day I heard someone bitching about all the Middle Easterners moving into his neighborhood, and, after asking a couple of questions, realized he was talking about people from India. So I guess a lot of people are all riled up because they think Jake Gyllenhaal is going to be playing an Arab. Or an Indian. Or, well, one of those kind of people, and a Persian should be played by, like, you know, an Arab or Indian or Mexican or somebody, well, ethnic.

Here's the real problem. The US is filled with people like Miss Teen South Carolina.

I'm much more bothered when Hollywood rewrites stories so that the races of the original characters are changed to white (whatever the fuck that is). There's the problem.

Jake Gyllenhaal playing an Aryan? No problem. Though if I were king, I'd have gone with Jude Law.


PS There was also a lot of outrage when Jonathan Pryce--a great actor, IMHO--was cast as a Eurasian in Miss Saigon. I couldn't really get that wound up about it. People are pissed that a European was playing a Eurasian--because they thought it needed to be an Asian? Umm, big disconnect for me. "Eurasian" is typically what Hawaiians call "hapa"--50:50.

I can't wait to see what happens when they do a Tiger Woods biopic. Because my guess is that Asian actors won't even be auditioned--even though plenty of Cambodians, Indonesians, and Malaysians look more like Tiger Woods than most black Americans do.

I think they'll probably cast Will Smith.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

That special time of the year...

Christmas in June? No (although the excellent but generally forgotten band The Young Adults had a great song called Christmas in Japan in July). And not summer vacation, either, although I guess it's that time of the year.

No, it's the annual Rancho Mirage Writing Workshop, in the blasting heat of the California desert. A baker's dozen of writers working together and critiquing, under the sharp-tongued guidance of Raymond Obstfeld.

This had become an annual event for me...except for last year, when my health problems kept me from attending. Not so this year. I'm annoyingly hale and hearty, and have my nose and consciousness buried deeply in my latest novel.

We've all received 20-35 pages of each other's manuscripts, and we'll start off with a round-robin critique at 5 this evening. There's some good stuff here, and some very odd stuff, and some familiar stuff that is farther along (pages 540-560 of one manuscript that I last saw many pages back). Some of the writers are veterans of this little workshop, others are fresh meat. This loooks like fun.

So I'm looking forward to a week of nothing but writing and critiquing. Well, along with a few drinks in the evening. And heaving myself into swimming pools to try to dump some of the heat.

"But it's a dry heat," the apologists all say. Yeah, well it's still 110 frigging Farenheit. And with all the golf courses in the area (this is right next to Palm Springs), it ain't really that dry anymore, either.

But it's a dry heat. Yeah, Satan probably says that about Hell, too.