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Posts Tagged ‘Point of View’

This unofficial NaNoWriMo has been an interesting experience. Apart from this, I don’t normally track my word count from day to day.

One thing I’ve noticed by doing that is that changes in POV slow me down. WAR OF MAGIC, like all of the DUAL MAGICS series, has several POV characters (five so far). POV only changes at chapter breaks, generally. And every time the POV changes, it’s like I have to build up momentum all over again. Or get into the new POV character’s head.

I’m not sure there’s much I can do about that for this story. Most, if not all, of those POV changes are necessary. But it is an interesting thing to note for the future.

WarMagicBlank

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Lately, I’ve been working mostly on rewriting THE IGNORED PROPHECY, which is the sequel to THE SHAMAN’S CURSE. Now, TIP is the second book I wrote (third, if you count that thing back in college, but let’s not talk about that one). I learned more from writing TIP than I ever did from the first version of TSC.

TIP is the book that made me into a modified discovery writer, because I managed to write the whole first version, over 100,000 words, without actually telling a story. I knew it wasn’t a story as I finished the last chapter of the first draft, but I didn’t know why. It took quite a few false starts and incorrect diagnoses before I figured it out. It was missing a central conflict–the thing that tells you that the story starts here (when the problem is first made clear) and ends there (when the conflict is resolved). The central conflict is the river current that pulls a story forward. Without it, you have characters doing things, other things happening to characters, but you don’t have a story.

Now, I will say that I’ve seen that particular problem in plenty of traditionally published sequels, even some popular ones. I call those bridge stories. The point of the middle book of a trilogy sometimes appears to be only to get the characters from the end of book one to the start of book two. And there are always those stories (think LORD OF THE RINGS) where no individual book is really meant to be a story. They have to be taken as a whole.

Still, I want the book of my series to be able to stand alone. And the first version of TIP didn’t. I believe I fixed that problem years ago. (In this case, it’s a mystery. Just why is my main character’s magic behaving so strangely?) Still, it won’t hurt to heighten that central problem as I go through the rewrite.

There are clearly a lot of things I hadn’t learned, yet, though. Quite apart from it being a sequel (which I’ve posted about before), there are many facets of this rewrite that are possibly harder than writing a first draft from scratch. And, of course, some things that are easier.

The easy, first. The characters and the plot are already set. While I will certainly add some scenes as I go, and I may delete others, the plot itself is already there.

The hard part. Well, there’s a lot to clean up. I clearly didn’t have a great understanding of dialog mechanics. I didn’t begin to know how to show emotions. And don’t get me started on the number of point-of-view violations I’m finding. In fact, point of view is going to be an issue I’ll need to tackle in a later draft. I’ll need to decide whether to give certain pov characters their own chapters, or just use scene breaks.

The hard truth is that even though I’m working through a completed draft, it’s going to take several passes to bring this manuscript up to my current standard. Well, that’s just another way to learn–and drive the lessons home for my future stories. And I will make TIP into the story it’s capable of being–eventually.

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I’ve had the opportunity to have a couple of people who are very good at seeing the big picture take a look at the beginning of my Weird Oz Story. With their help, I’m beginning to get a clearer picture of what went wrong and how to fix it.

This story started when I’d read one too many novels in a row that featured a supposed female protagonist who sat around and waited for some guy to show them what to do. If you haven’t noticed already, that’s a really, really big pet peeve of mine. So, I thought of dropping a new “Dorothy” into a much more dangerous Oz–basically, the Jurassic Park version of Oz.

But it’s not working. I knew that, though I was too close to it to really figure out why. Now I’m starting to get feedback that helps me to understand why.

  1. In the interests of having my “Dorothy” make her own choices, even in a strange and unfamiliar world, I set her down alone. That won’t work. L. Frank Baum introduced Dorothy’s first companion, the Scarecrow, in Chapter 3. My character needs someone to talk to, someone to help her recognize the “she’s not in Kansas anymore” sooner. But not somebody to take over and tell her what to do. Most of all, another character who can provide some additional conflict. I’m working on an appropriate character for this–something or someone a bit ADHD who will be as much a hindrance as a help–more conflict. 
scanned from 1900 Wizard of Oz book

scanned from 1900 Wizard of Oz book (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. The first few chapters were a bit too frenetic. The whole novel can’t be just bouncing from one threat to the next. There has to be time to lay plans, reconnoiter, and take deliberate action. There have to be try/fail cycles in which “Dorothy” fails before she finds her way out. I have to throw enough at her to make it clear she’s in trouble, but I also need to pace it better.
  2. Writing it in first-person is turning out to be somewhat problematic for two reasons. The longer it takes to convince “Dorothy” that this really is Oz, the longer I’m actually shutting the reader out of the truth, too. Because the reader has to experience everything through “Dorothy” in first person, even while “Dorothy” is in denial. Also, I haven’t really hit on a likeable voice for “Dorothy”, probably partly because of her denial. I haven’t made a decision on this yet. There may be a way I can fix “Dorothy’s” voice. On the other hand, third person frees me to let the reader in on things Dorothy hasn’t figured out yet and, if I want, even to jump to another character for a chapter. That might be the deciding factor.

At any rate, I’m getting closer to getting back to this story.

 

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There are a couple of reasons why I want to talk about first-person point of view today.

The first is that my Weird Oz Story is my first attempt at novel-length first person point of view. I don’t actually think that’s why I’m stuck on that one–at least not directly.

I’ve written a couple of short stories (novelettes, really)–“Heart of Oak” and “Becoming Lioness”–in first person, but never a novel. There’s a reason for that. The shorter stories could be told from a single point of view. “Heart of Oak” really had to be told in first person, so much of that story was internal. And I just started hearing “Becoming Lioness” in first person in my head–after the first draft had already been written–and I decided to go with it.

The main reason I’ve never written a novel in first person is that I usually write from more than one point of view. (MAGE STORM being the only completed exception to date.) In my young adult stories, specifically, I usually write at least from the points of view of the girl and her love interest. Sometimes, the antagonist, too. That’s hard to do in first person.

I’ve read several published novels with more than one first-person point of view character and almost universally I’ve been struck by one thing–all the characters sound the same. They don’t have individual voices that distinguish them from each other, sometimes even when the characters have wildly different backgrounds. They should speak and think differently from each other, but I have to check the top of the page to know which character is using the pronoun “I” in a particular chapter.

I don’t want to write like that, so for now I’m sticking with a (hopefully) invisible third-person narrator when I have more than one point of view character.

On a brighter note, I have finally read a story in which multiple first-person point of view characters actually sound like different characters. It’s Alchemy, by some fellow writers I “know” from Hatrack River Writers Workshop. That seems to be at least one key to doing this right–three different writers each writing a different character. It’s a really, really good story and only $0.99. You should check it out.

In other news, the Chimeria Omnibus edition (containing both BLOOD WILL TELL and BLOOD IS THICKER) is now available just about everywhere. For a limited time (but probably at least through Christmas), it’s the same price as either book alone.

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image10567743

Also, another chapter of BLOOD IS THICKER is available free on wattpad.

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Sometimes I feel like I have a split personality. I’m working on so many different things at the same time (well, not at the some minute, but you know what I mean). And that doesn’t even count, you know, my ordinary life.

Querying MAGE STORM, trying to promote both FIRE AND EARTH and BLOOD IS THICKER, getting feedback on DESERT ROSE (MAGIC AND POWER), and trying to write the first draft of my Weird Oz Story (no title, yet).

I wonder if that’s why I’m having a hard time getting started on Weird Oz. I’m only on Chapter 3. (Here’s a teaser, Chapter 3 is titled “Pixie Spiders”.)

Could be that, or it could be that this is a bit of a departure for me. It’s the first novel I’m attempteing in first-person point of view. I’ve written a couple of shorter pieces (“Heart of Oak” and “Becoming Lioness”) in first person, but never a novel. It’s also a very different story to what I’ve been writing recently.

Maybe it’s because I haven’t completely built this world in my own mind yet. I’m a discovery writer (somewhat modified), so I’m generally okay with that. I can fix anything in revision (except the empty page I’m staring at right now). And sometimes the only way the ideas will start to come is when I start to write.

It’s also occurred to me that this may turn out to be a middle grade story instead of young adult, as I’ve currently envisioned. Well, I can fix that, too. But only if I get the story down first.

Well, once I get it well and truly started, hopefully it will start flowing better. Forward, ho!

In other news: Check out Clean Romance Reviews on Tuesday, September 10th for my first ever author interview. I’ll try to post a direct link on Wednesday. She did a very nice review of FIRE AND EARTH.Fire And Earth Cover (Provisional)

Also, a new chapter of BLOOD IS THICKER is up on wattpad. Or, you could just buy the book.

Blood Is Thicker Cover

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Voice in writing is very hard to describe, except to point to examples that illustrate it. It’s also something that develops over time–one of the reasons that many of us have to write a few unpublishable things before we reach that magical level. Sometimes, it’s the thing that allows you to recognize the work of one author over another.

But voice is more than just authorial voice. There’s also the voice of a story (a fable should sound different than an adventure story) and the voices of characters.

There’s no doubt that voice is important, especially in young adult stories, but it’s not more important than the story. In my opinion, nothing is. And the voice has to match the story.

A story told in first person is almost always going to have a stronger voice than one told in third person. In fact, in my opinion, it should, since in essence it purports to be the character telling the story. Done right, it should sound like that character. I’ve seen several novels that used first person without making it sound substantially different than a narrator’s voice.

In contrast, a story told in third person is mainly going to be in a narrator’s voice (and probably a lot closer to the author’s voice). Even in third person, though, the closer the story is to the point-of-view character, the stronger the voice.

But, that doesn’t mean that in order to have stronger voice, every story should be told in first person or even close limited third person. That depends on the demands of the story.

For example, stories that have two (or more) point of view characters can be difficult to pull off in first person. First, it’s confusing to read if both characters are written in first person. Who “I” is changes from chapter to chapter or even from scene to scene. Second, two first-person point of view characters probably ought to sound different from each other–which is probably pretty difficult to pull off. I say that, because I haven’t yet seen an example that really did pull it off.

I’ve written a couple of short stories in first person.–one because the subject just seemed to demand that closeness to the character and the other because I just started hearing the story in first person in my head and decided not to fight it. I haven’t–yet–written a whole novel in first person. I probably will some day, when a story tells me that’s what it needs.

In the meantime, I think of all the great stories I would have missed if I’d demanded that everything I read had the kind of voice found in a first-person narrative.

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My recent reading–some good, some bad–has made me think more about this. It occurs to me that there are two separate parts of the craft of writing.

One part is unquestionably the writing itself, learning the techniques of making our stories come alive for readers. This encompasses most of the “rules” you’ll run into in books and critiques. Show vs. Tell (and both have their place), dialog tags and beats, avoiding adverbs, sticking to a single point of view at a time. There are whole books written just on these techniques. They’re the mechanics of how to get your story out, but they are not the story.

Of course, we all aspire to write eloquently. But it is possible to write competently and tell a rousing story. Some of these even become best sellers. And it is also possible to write well and not be able to tell a story. All the mastery of technique in the world is wasted without a good story.

Telling a story is also a craft. There are more things to learn, here–foreshadowing, plotting, pacing, characterization, character arcs, and weaving in subplots. And pitfalls to learn to avoid, like deus ex machina endings and withholding. Even a good story can be ruined by clumsy handling. I have, unfortunately, read a couple of those lately.

A really, really good writer has both sets of tools at their disposal–a mastery of the are of telling a story and the techniques to make the story come to life seamlessly. Sometimes that means an invisible narrator, who just keeps out of the way as the story unfolds. Sometimes it means a distinctive voice that draws the reader in. But neither one will work if the story isn’t right in the first place.

Anyway, that’s my opinion.

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In those moments when I need to take a short break from my YA alternate history, THE BARD’S GIFT, I’ve started reading through another one of my projects, MAGE STORM.

MAGE STORM is a middle grade fantasy. It’s also a boy adventure story, something that I see several agents/editors saying that they want. I queried it last year to some interest but no offers. Now, I’ve given it a couple of months to cool off and I’m taking a fresh look at it. I’ve already identified one place where I think I could do a bit better and I’m halfway through a new scene to do that.

But, one of the things I’m considering is whether or not to rewrite the whole thing in first-person. It’s currently close limited third person. Everything in the story is filtered through the main characters perceptions already.

Still, changing it to first person would be a rewrite. Done right, in my opinion, it can’t just be changing the pronouns and the conjugations of the verbs. It’s a lot more involved than that–or it should be. First person point of view invites the reader to live inside that character’s skin. It’s a lot more intimate than even close limited third person.

I’ve written first person before, but only in a couple of novelettes. (Shameles plug: “Heart of Oak”, which is currently free on Smashwords and all the places Smashwords distributed it to, is one of those.) In both cases, it was because I “heard” the story in my own head that way. I’ve never written first person just because it’s the popular thing right now.

Just a quick survey of recent novels in both young adult and middle grade makes it impossible to deny that first person is strongly in favor right now. Is that reason to rewrite this in first person? I haven’t decided yet. After all, I really do want to see this published.

So far, I still “hear” this story in third person, although I could easily see it done in first person. Nearly all of the character’s emotions are already there, and quite a few of his thoughts. While there are a number of action/fight scenes in which, eventually, he comes out as the hero, he’s nearly always frightened enough during the action that he wouldn’t come off as bragging. That can be one of the downfalls of first person.

Another consideration, though, is that this story can be the first in a series. I already know, in a general way, what the next two books in this series would be about. I think I need to consider whether first person would also serve those stories as well as third person.

So, for this pass, I’m just going to concentrate on the sorts of things I’m working on now. When I get through this read-through/revision, I’ll make a decision on whether to make the change or not.

Now, I’m going to get back to work on that improved scene.

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Fair warning: today’s post is going to be something of a rant.

I believe firmly that every story should be told with as much skill and passion as the story teller possesses, no matter who the intended audience is. The author disrepects and does a disservice to the readers if this isn’t true. That’s my position and I’m sticking to it.

The reason this comes up is the last two middle grade/young adult books that I’ve read. No, I won’t give the titles here. That’s against my policy on this blog. As my grandmother taught me, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” My only exception to that rule is that I think that sometimes there’s something to be learned by talking and thinking about what doesn’t work–or at least what doesn’t work for me.

So, the two bad habits of today’s topic are deus ex machina endings and withholding.

Deus ex machina: Literally “god from the machine”, this is a reference to ancient Greek plays in which the fallible mortals would royally mess things up for two hours and at the end an actor portraying a god was lowered to the stage by a machine. The “god” then performed a bit of handwavium and set everything right–except, of course, for the characters who had died. 

In more modern stories, this might be accomplished by some new ability, device, or character that was never foreshadowed in the story up to this point. It’s contrived and it’s cheating. It often violates the internal logic of the story and tests the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief.

Worse, it’s unsatisfactory.  In general, stories are much more satisfying when the ending is earned by the main character through a series of struggles and try/fail cycles. We root for characters that surmount their past failures to win through at the end. We feel cheated when some agency other than the main character steps in and solves the problem. Think about it, would Lord of the Rings have worked if Gandalf magically transported Frodo to the Cracks of Doom? (If you think so, check this out on youtube.) When the solution isn’t the result of the protagonist’s struggle, then what was the whole point of the struggle–or the story for that matter.

Withholding: When a story is told in close limited third person or, even worse, in first person, and the point-of-view character knows something that he or she does not share with the reader, that’s withholding. The character can–and often should–withhold information from other characters. But if the reader is privy to the character’s thoughts and emotions–as they should be in either close limited third person or first person–then it’s a cheat not to let the reader know what the character reasonably should be thinking about.  Just like deus ex machina, withholding is sometimes used to suddenly reveal the solution that’s been there all along. But, it tends to make the reader feel cheated, and justly so. 

Withholding is one of the main reasons that the Sherlock Holmes stories are told from Dr. Watson’s point of view. Holmes often knows the solution to the mystery early on. He’s just trying to prove it. Watson doesn’t know and so it’s not withholding for him not to tell the reader. Also, think about Harry Potter. The reader didn’t know until almost the end of the seventh book which side Snape was really on. But neither did Harry, so we didn’t feel cheated.

Now, I’m not saying that withholding, at least, can’t be used successfully by a master. But that’s the point. It takes a deft hand, almost like a stage magician, to keep the readers’ eyes diverted so they don’t notice the trick. If the author can’t pull that off, they shouldn’t attempt withholding.

Sometines, I wonder if authors who try to use these tricks think it’s okay because they got the reader to read all the way–or nearly all the way–to the end. That misses the point. They’re not–or they shouldn’t be–trying just to sell this book. They should be trying to make the reader want to read the next one and the next. And, for me at least, they fail completely. If I lose faith in your ability as a story teller, I’m not likely to pick up the next book.

That’s the lesson I’m taking away from two less-than-stellar reading experiences.

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First, another little announcement. I’ve been playing around with creating a book trailer. This is my effort so far.

Now, I’ve been thinking about point of view and tense lately, largely because of my reading. First person present tense is really big right now, especially in young adult books. Mostly, I think this is because of THE HUNGER GAMES, where it actually works very well. In fact, THE HUNGER GAMES is the only book I can think of in which first person present tense didn’t bother me.  

The book I’m currently reading is written this way. Actually, I think it always was in first person, but I suspect the present tense was a later revision. I say this because I’ve caught a couple of places where the verbs are still past tense, like they got missed in the revision. Sadly, it’s not the only place where the text could have used a thorough copy editor.

I have actually written a couple of short stories in first person: “Heart of Oak” and “Becoming Lioness”. The first because the story really did demand to be that intimate and the second because I just started “hearing” the voice of the story that way.

I think the key to successful use of first person is a closeness to a single character. It has to be intimate, because you’re asking the reader to be the character. It’s much more than just changing pronouns and verb conjugations.

Not every story can or should be told in first person. For one thing, it can get downright confusing if you have two or more point of view characters, all written in first person. I’ve read a couple of stories like that. If the chapter headings hadn’t told me who “I” was at any given moment, I’d have been completely lost.

Another reason to avoid first person is because it is–or should be–impossible to withhold information known to the character from the reader. Conversely, it’s also impossible to let the reader know anything that the first person character doesn’t know. Sometimes, you want to do this so the reader can (silently) shout “Don’t open that door!” or something similar. And it can be darn tricky to make a heroic first-person character not come off as arrogant or a braggart. Also, in those cases where a protagonist is indecisive or not proactive (which I hate anyway), first person isn’t going to make the reader feel any more motivated to continue the story than the main character is. Sometimes, too, you just do need a little more narrative distance from the main character.

Present tense is a trickier question for me. I confess, I just don’t really like it. The only time it hasn’t bothered me, even a little, was in THE HUNGER GAMES. Part of that, of course, is that it was handled truly skilfully there. Skill and mastery of the craft will always make a difference. (Something I think debut authors do well to bear in mind.)

But that’s not all of it. Present tense worked so well in THE HUNGER GAMES, I think, because Katniss was rarely thinking very far ahead or, after the first couple of chapters, very much about the past. She was living in and just trying to survive the moment. And so present tense worked.

This particular young adult novel that I’m reading now almost fits into that same mold, at least in large sections. Just not quite enough to really pull it off. Or maybe it’s the difference between a veteran and a debut author.

Decisions of point of view and tense shouldn’t be taken lightly or leaped into just because it’s the latest thing. Those choices should only be made because they serve the story best, in my opinion.

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