25 March 2009

The scope of your novel and POV

The other day, my friend Ellen blogged about POV in the first chapter of her novel, and her horror when someone suggested she was writing in [third-person] omniscient when she thought she was writing in "intense third person" (or what I would call third-person intimate, or subjective or limited). And I've added the bit in the square brackets because there actually is also a first-person omniscient, but it's extremely rare as you would imagine.

I've read Ellen's opening chapters, and there's no way I would call them omniscient. For a start she has one person per scene, and she doesn't slip into anyone else's viewpoint, and writes firmly from inside her characters' heads.

K's justification of why Ellen's novel started in omniscient was to do with the characters thinking about their past in order to deliver backstory. K said that we don't often sit around thinking about our pasts in a coherent fashion, and she does have a point. But does that make the POV omniscient? I don't think so.

In an omniscient viewpoint, anything goes. The writer can move from head to head at will -- of course this should always be done for a reason, or the reader can end up dizzied or confused. But the reader *does* move heads throughout a scene. The author can jump in and give an insight that none of the characters know, for example: What none of the characters knew was that everything was about to change... 

Or the writer can jump forward into the future and point out something that would happen at a later date. The author can address the reader: Dear reader... This is called "authorial intrusion" and is a perfectly legitimate (if dated) device in an omniscient viewpoint, and one that I cannot stand! When I'm reading, I become the main character; I am in the story; I am experiencing it: all those terrible things happening to the main character -- well, they're happening to me. Authorial intrusion reminds me that I am not the main character, and in fact that I am the reader, and I'd better damn well stay on that side of the page! It completely interferes with my enjoyment of the story.

The other thing to say about all of this is that the way we represent thoughts on the page is not really how thoughts are in our head. I know sometimes mine are an almost incoherent jumble, as my thought-trains switch tracks, derail, get overtaken and stall. Thoughts on the page are a representation of what the character is thinking, and while K's representation may be closer to the truth, it's still a representation of how we think thoughts are -- just in the same way that dialogue is not the same as how we really speak -- it's more like how we think we speak.

Ellen saw what she'd done as a judgement error rather than POV error. I agree that it isn't a POV error. A POV error is when you slip into someone else's head when you shouldn't. Or when you move outside the perspective that you're writing in -- so if you are writing in an intimate viewpoint, where you are inside your character's head (as in third-person intimate, or first person), you can't say that your point-of-view character had a beatific smile on his face, because he can't see his own face. You could of course say that if he were looking in the mirror, but that's cheating. You can say he smiled. Or that he felt beatific -- even better, you can show it.

Ellen is writing a story with a big scope. She has parallel plots, so is tracking the journey of two main characters. If she were to use the type of very close POV that K favours, where thoughts are detailed and go on for paras, instead of a 120 k novel, she might end up with an extremely intimate account that spreads over 250 k and that is imminently unpublishable just because of its length. (Yes, publishers do occasionally publish books of this length, but rarely rarely rarely first time authors just because it's prohibitively expensive and the risk on a new author isn't worth it.)

The scope of our novels do, to a certain extent, dictate just how close our POV can be, as does whether a story is plot or character driven. If you're writing a literary short story where not much happens, you can afford to have pages and pages of thoughts -- in fact, stream of consciousness stories are exactly this. I can't say I particularly enjoy these, but it's horses for courses. Some people love them.

In the end, the labels we give things like POV don't really matter, but they are a way for us to check that what we does works, a way for us to understand why doing this particular thing (showing the beatific smile) doesn't work, and why we should change it.

22 March 2009

What we say and imply

Among my other reading, I'm currently reading a book on myths and legends, and the story I'm reading at the moment is called "Chimaera", though so far it's not really about the chimaera, but about Bellerophon and Pegasus, and his attempts to capture the winged horse. Now he has, and they're about to go fight the chimaera.

The story was going along nicely, when I came to a sentence that stated that they were flying so high that the earth looked to be about the same size as the moon. Now, I know this is a fanciful tale and doesn't involve anything scientific, but a comparison like that completely suspends disbelief for me. If it said they flew 10 or 20 km, even 100 km or 1,000 km (remembering Mt Everest is 8.85 km, and already the air there is thin enough to make breathing difficult), I could accept this. Sure, there would be no breathable air (a space shuttle flight often has an average altitude of 300 km), but having those numbers I wouldn't necessarily imagine them past the space shuttle's stalking ground. I'd just go, yep, okay, and move on. But even if I paused to think about the numbers, I'd still imagine them attached to the planet. (Mind you, this might be a sticking point for other members of society, particularly those more familiar with the numbers than I am.)

The moon is about a quarter of the earth's size (the mass is a lot less, but we're not concerned about that). So, for the earth to look a similar size to the moon, they'd need to be four times further from the earth than the moon is. (Admittedly, the story says "hardly bigger", but that is "hardly" an ameliorating condition.) For the size of the earth to be even four times the size of the moon, our adventurous couple would have to be the distance of the moon away! (Remember, it took the Apollo astronauts about eight minutes to leave the atmosphere, and three days to reach the moon.) Considering, Pegasus is doing this as a joy flight, he's one very fast winged horse! But we're actually talking four times further away. I don't think so.

Unfortunately, with a comparison like that, I am going to stop and think about it. Rip. I'm out of the story.

Funnily enough, I also had problems with the next sentence, which has a much more subtle problem for me. The next sentence talks about how they [Bellerophon and Pegasus] amazed people in far off lands, who thought that the pair "must have come down out of the sky". I immediately stopped and thought, but they did!

Although it doesn't say it, that sentence implies to me that they thought [mistakenly] that the pair had come from the sky. Maybe I'm reading more into this than other people would (and maybe you need to see the full context), but I had no doubt that that was what the writer was implying. If I'm wrong in the implication, then why would we need the sentence at all? Why state that the people thought they came from exactly where they did come from? What does that add to the story? In any case, it's another strike against the story, one as equally dangerous as suspension in disbelief, because like that one it shakes my faith in the writer.

As writers, we need to hold onto our reader's trust. We do this by setting up the rules of our story in the story opening (whether that's as simple as "this is the normal world, and the normal rules apply" -- done without our necessarily giving any conscious thought to what we are doing). We do this by then not violating those rules. So we can have a winged horse and strange creatures, but unless they have SRBs (sorry, Solid Rocket Boosters -- I love those NASA acronyms!) attached to their underbellies, chances are they're not going to go skipping from planet to planet -- unless we've set up this possibility.

We also do this by writing to a professional standard, employing a professional standard of spelling, punctuation and grammar because all of these things give the reader faith in the writing, faith that the writer knows what they are doing, faith that the writer is in control. And if there is one thing the writer must have, it's control over their own work! (And while some might argue that the editor can fix all of this, you must first convince an editor that you are a professional writer, professional in your approach and intent, and you can hardly do that if you don't approach your work professionally, if you don't embrace the rules of your own trade.)

21 March 2009

Best laid plans

This week, I'm having the week from hell as far as time goes. I have two lots of marking to do -- something I try to avoid as far as I can. And indeed I'd staggered these assessment tasks so that one was coming in last week, but then Higher Ed called a strike and, because they'd be picketing the gates, I pushed back the assessment task a week. Now that's the shortened version of the story, but close enough for the purposes of this blog as to why it was moved. 

Fine, I was going to have a big week marking. No problems. I'd finished my Ada Cambridge shortlisting, and was waiting for a manuscript I'm supposed to be editing for a small press publisher. All I had to do was be focused, not waste a second, mark, and I ought to be able to write as well.

Tuesday, I worked all day -- got home at ten thirty pm, only to find out I had to go to a funeral on Wednesday. Normally, I'd have writing group, so some of this time wouldn't have been spent marking anyway, but it did mean driving over the other side of town (an hour each way). But I'm not complaining. I had to go. I wanted to go. Sometimes these things happen, and part of living a writer's life is living a life, and that involves commitments and family time and all of that. (And, anyway, I had spent the morning marking.)

Thursday, though, I spend the day in hospital, taking my son to a fracture clinic. This involved several lots of waiting, casts being taken off and put back on, Xrays, the works, and by the time I got home in the late afternoon, I felt flat. What I didn't know was I was getting sick.

So, I spent Friday laid up. No, that's not exactly true. I spent the first couple of hours ferrying around my son, but that's a long and irrelevant story. Suffice to say, by the time I got home I had a fever and was aching all over, so that was really it for the day. I rarely have sick days, so shouldn't complain -- but couldn't it have been another week?

So, today, I'm marking like mad. Tomorrow too. Monday is class prep, perhaps workshopping. Perhaps more marking?

Somewhere in the next two days I might also need to hop back over to the other side of town, as another family member is desperately ill. And I don't use that adverb lightly.

And I have to do some writing. I have to squeeze it in somewhere. I could put it back a few more days -- I haven't done any since Monday, so what's the difference? The difference is that I'll rise further and further out of our story. I've just blogged about my writing process on our student blog and talked about how important immersion is for me. What I don't want is to emerge from the story, and I will if I don't get back in, quick smart.

I still come back to hearing Robin Hobb speak at one of the SF conferences in Melbourne a few years ago, and she said that we would never have more time to write than we have now. It's a sobering thought, and a true one. Life is precious. And it's short. And as busy as Flinders Street Station. Whenever you have free time, you have a million things that want to fill it, that want to cram out every writing moment. At least I do. I listen with envy to people who say they are bored. How does anyone get time to be bored? I mean, really. Boredom -- what is that? A luxury, I say, to those who have computers and want to write.

16 March 2009

Missing brunch

Damn it! I missed our SuperNOVA brunch meeting this week. It was scheduled a week earlier than usual, for various reasons, and this suited me perfectly. On Tuesday I have assignments due for my novel class, and a test for my editing students, so I'm going to be busy marking next week. Plus I've just accepted a commission to edit a novel for a small press publisher, and it's on a rather short timeline. (I had thought I was going to be busy on it this weekend, but as things have turned out, I haven't received the manuscript yet. I do try not to take on editing jobs as editing time replaces writing time, but usually my jobs have been nonfiction, and fiction is where my heart lies, so I thought I should take this on. Plus it's good for me to keep my hand in. I like to do at least a job a year, and I didn't do one last year, so it was time.)

Instead of brunch, I spent the day sitting in a hospital waiting room with my son. He'd hurt his arm the previous Thursday, but hadn't been too fussed by it. It was nicely bandaged up, but I was getting suspicious by the fact that a few spots were tender, but most movement was okay, so I didn't think it was a sprain, but perhaps a fracture. Sure enough, a bone is broken, and he's now sporting a cast, and I'm feeling like a heel for not having it attended to earlier. But I suppose I walked around on a fractured pelvis for three days too, till I told my mum it was hurting badly enough to warrant a trip to the doctor's.)

Instead of talking writing with my SuperNOVA friends, I got to do some reading, some people watching and thinking about issues (mainly to do with hospitals, funnily enough). Perhaps it was important to my son that I gave up my brunch (which he knows I value) for him. Too often he makes the accusation that I put my work (whether it's my teaching or my writing) before him. This time he was first. It's often a matter of priorities. If I have to have student papers marked, I have to have them done, and I'll stay home to do them rather than attend the family picnic. It's just the way I've been brought up to be: my dad's working class work ethics: work hard and never take a day off sick unless you're nearly dying. But family is important too. We have to make time for them. 

When I was early on my journey of taking my writing seriously and with small children, some of my friends would tell me to always put my family first, that I'd never regret it. My impatience didn't allow me to always do this. But I've never put it so far in front that it sidelines my family either. Both are important to me. I don't always strike the right balance, but I try. That's all any of us can do, really.

15 March 2009

Currently reading

1. Poetrix submissions
2. Ada Cambridge entries (biographical writing) for shortlisting judging with my Novel 2 class
3. Student first chapters and synopses
4. Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk) -- within a few pages of the end
5. Life of Pi (Yann Martel) -- about 1/3 way in and stalled because I can't find the book
6. Love in the time of cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) -- about 1/4 way in and stalled because I can't find the book
7. The secret river (Kate Grenville) -- read this before, but am teaching it so am rereading it with my class. About 1/4 way through, currently.
8. The enchanted wood (Enid Blyton) -- it was around. I couldn't resist -- can never resist a book with Dick and Fanny as the main characters. (And of course that's far funnier in Australia than it is in the US.)
9. Emotional structure: creating the story beneath the plot: a guide for screenwriters (Peter Dunne). All right, I'm not a screenwriter and have no aspirations to be one -- I like my narrative too much -- but there are a lot of great books on how to write screenplays that have heaps of useful info for novel writers too.

And you have to love a book that has this on its opening page: ". . . you can only be a writer on the days you write. On the other days, the days you decide not to write, you will be something else. However, there is a caveat. On the days you decide to be a writer and you write, even if it's for only an hour, you get to be a writer for the other twenty-three hours, too. Pretty good, huh?"

I love it. Love the voice. Love what he's saying. I'm there. In for the long haul. Although, rather than read from beginning to end, I'll probably dip in and out, which I do with all my writing books. I'm constantly trawling through them. (And having done my tax the other day, I realised I'd spent over $700 on writing books in the last financial year. Eek! Husband is not happy. Admittedly, I did teach a new subject so was busy acquiring both textbooks and also compilations (of poetry) to draw on for my reader, especially given that Fair Trading means I'm quite restricted in how much I can use.)

What I'm looking forward to reading next:

World without end (Ken Follett). I bought myself this for my husband to give me for Christmas. I loved Pillars of the earth: so rich, so gripping, that I had to have the sequel.

The series beginning with Kushiel's dart (Jacqueline Carey), which comes to me highly recommended as fantasy that's completely different. I have perused it -- looks like it's going to be a -- er -- let's say racy read!

The Farseer Trilogy (Robin Hobb). Truth be told, I've dipped into this once before -- after I'd read the follow-up series The Liveship Traders, which I absolutely loved. I found I just didn't want to slip into first person -- and where were Althea and Brashen? -- but it was a cursory look that no doubt didn't do the series justice.

The time traveler's wife (Audrey Niffenegger), which was highly recommended by a student of mine. The concept sounds intriguing, and I've just been watching the rather funny "Lost in Austen" about a modern day girl who crosses through a time and I guess dimension (to do with the real and fictional worlds) portal into Pride and prejudice, so I'm ready for something in this vein.

I've always felt like I haven't read enough of the classics, but I've been focussing on addressing this a little over the last few years to the detriment of my genre reading. Now it's time to get back to some of the stuff that I love to read. (Though I've loved many of the classics too.)

04 March 2009

Casting my novel/Computer games

One thing I've sometimes talked about with my writing group friends is who we'd cast if we were in a position of casting the screenplays of our novels. For me, it's particularly important because I'm not visual. I don't carry an image in my head of what my characters look like; I carry the ideas of them, and so it is really important to see the embodiment of these ideas.

I know I've had this discussion with several groups of friends, and we get excited when we see an actor who fills the part. I first saw Arinka, the protagonist of my novel, when I was going to a poetry reading at Montsalvat. I don't know who he was -- he wasn't an actor -- he was just someone in the crowd, someone whose looks stopped me in my tracks because I thought: that's him. That's Arinka. 

Well, okay, obviously it wasn't him. But it was the right look. The right hair colour, the right eyes, the right shaped face, the build, a certain way of moving. 

In my one storyline, I have three characters I've always wanted to cast: Arinka, his sidekick, Millyon, and the thorn in his side, Lieselle.

Arinka has been through a series of actors since I first saw that unknown young man. First was Keanu Reeves, but then I spent too long writing and rewriting and he became too old. Then, for a while I thought about James Franco, more as he appeared in Tristan and Isolde than in Spiderman. But he was a bit too sulky in the film, and a bit too well built. Then I thought about Ben Barnes (Prince Caspian), but he was too good looking. Finally, I've settled on Tom Ward ("Silent witness"), and he's just got the best voice...

Millyon has been easier: Rupert Penry-Jones ("Spooks" and Persuasion), though he should have hazel eyes, not blue. No-one is ever quite perfect for their roles -- and how funny that I'm assembling a cast of BBC actors.

Lieselle. Hmm? Who? Jennifer Connelly is too old, but is the right sort of look.

Then the other day, I was watching You Tube videos of various songs my daughter wants to sing, including clips of "Don't cry for me Argentina", when I noticed a Karen Carpenter version. As most versions were sopranos, and she has a rich, dark voice, I thought it might be an interesting contrast. How strange then to find myself watching an anime film clip from a computer game called Final Fantasy VIII. How much stranger to find Lieselle there -- as the character of Rinoa. And, even, in a way Arinka in Rinoa's lover Squall. Well, Squall has the wrong eye colour and is too good looking, but the build's right -- the comparison to her is right. And funnily a photo of a real person, modelling a Squall outfit could be Arinka. I'll have to get the game! (Though it's disturbing that in this game is a dance sequence that could come out of my second book. Still, there's still a rewrite of that one coming up...)

Actually, buying the game could be disastrous. I do remember my addiction to The Sims, and how I made it much worse by buying an expansion pack (Living Large) that allowed me to build castles. Then I modelled my sims on my characters, and that was the worst thing, as all I wanted to do was play with them all day, and playing is not writing. 

I've had students who've told me they can't write because they're busy playing World of Warcraft. For days on end. Or friends who distract themselves with Solitaire. I do still play computer games, but more the Solitaire-type that aren't too addictive. I'll play them when I'm blocked, a game or two, no more, and then return to the white page. While I'm playing, I'm thinking. What I won't do is spend hours playing, days. Such distractions do not help me as a writer.

In the meantime, I now have printouts of my newest cast members -- something to look at, to inspire me -- and they will inspire me much more successfully than any computer game ever will. Computer games are stalling tactics, nothing more.