Point of View?

[Note: I've had an internet outage at home this week, and it's been difficult to even check email, much less get a blog post up! Luckily I'm back online and hopefully out of the dark ages...]

I remember from my long-ago English classes that there are several points of view available to a writer. Some of them are used more often than others, the most common among the books I read are 1st person and 3rd person limited. There are a few 3rd person omniscient books running around, but there aren’t a lot of other viewpoints used.

Perhaps it’s because 2nd person is too distracting for most of us. Maybe our feeble minds just can’t handle a story from 1st person or any plural perspective. I know a lot of writers out there who each have their own ideas about what makes a good point of view to tell the stories they’re pouring out of their hearts. I’m no different in that way and have a few that I prefer.

But do you ever stop and wonder what this story, this novel, would be like from a different point of view? When you switch from 1st to 3rd, what are you losing? Does it connect with more readers?  When you axe your main character and put her best friend in the spotlight; it completely changes the question. Changing by a character is much different than simply changing the point of view, but it actually isn’t less work to change point of view. It’s about the details and how much your message comes through to the audience. It’s not just changing a bunch of instances of “she” into “I”, but about how the entire thing comes across.

Plus you have to figure out which she you mean if there are other female characters involved.

So often I find myself writing a story as the character is telling me it happened. Sometimes it feels stronger in 1st, so I put him right where the action is. Other times it feels a little more distant and I put it in 3rd. I’m not one to write in omniscient viewpoint if I can help it, but I’ve been experimenting with it as I learn more about it. I learned this summer the difference between head-hopping and a real omniscient viewpoint and it made me really consider writing that way to understand it better.

One thing I did learn and was re-iterated from a book on point of view I read: There has to be a reason for invading a character’s head. It isn’t about understanding what the turtle sees on page 5 if the turtle is just a distraction. The reader doesn’t care about how the water is flowing in his world if the book is about the humans having a conversation on the other side of the river. That is, at best, a distraction. Even in omniscient viewpoint a writer needs to decide whether to enter the thoughts of a character to share it with the reader. Some of them, like the poor turtle, are sidelines to the real action.

Then I wonder why we enter that mind. What did we learn? What was so important to use that character instead of one already established with point of view? I’m still learning to ask the right questions to the other writers about this, and I think they don’t like it because they know I’m not a fan of omniscient viewpoint. I am improving by learning about it.

A story from a friend in writer group unfolded a fairy tale with a 3rd person plural viewpoint. At first I found myself waiting for a single character to catch the spotlight. It didn’t, and when it ended the story wrapped the loose ends in a way that left me satisfied. I enjoyed it, but it would take a special novel to keep me engaged throughout several hundred pages.

But I’m also really curious what all of you think about point of view. Do you write in 1st or 3rd? Do you consider omniscient or stick with limited or head-hop? [Please say no to head-hopping and leave the turtle alone.] Are all the stories you write in one strict point of view or do you mix it up to suit the characters in each story? What do you think when you read something that is in an alternate point of view?

Writing: Fast or Slow?

Do you ever wonder how fast you type? Usually it isn’t an issue, or is it?

Typing is a necessity for many of us, writers even more than most. Something about all those novels makes it hard to understand how you could manage at a slow pace. Do you do 120,000 words on a novel for how many revisions?

In the interest of keeping the writing time down, do you organize your thoughts? Do you wade through an outline or just start chugging from page one through to the end? Do you write longhand or do you sit at the keyboard for hours on end?

I love it when people get to study things like writers tend to be wordier when they do rough drafts at a keyboard instead of by hand. So what does it mean by wordier? Did they put the same writers side by side on the same topics and count words for each of the outpourings? I think it has to be difficult to make a really good comparison between writers. Especially when you consider that there gets to be a point where each writer makes a decision about the form that works better on an individual basis.

I’m one of those writers who logs hours in front of a keyboard. Perhaps less than some who transcribe their longhand so much slower than I type, but more than many if you consider all the other things I do in front of a monitor. Ha.

When I’m warmed up and awake, I can type about 100 words per minute. That’s from a typing test, though, and it isn’t about how fast I can create the words in my head. Creating requires more attention to detail and sometimes the proper word doesn’t just sprout from the fingertips. At times you end up with a blue where you really need a cerulean or a navy.

For me, the first draft is about getting the ideas out. It’s all about the concept. It’s one reason I just let it all run out from my fingers like they’re on fire when the ideas come fast. When they come slow, it’s one word at a time. It’s all about continuing the stream. Sometimes I skip ahead and come back to the troublesome parts. I don’t like to stop where it gets slow; I jump ahead if I have momentum to keep things moving. The movement is how I finish things. Some projects languish when I lose the steam to keep things on track.

It’s one reason I like NaNoWriMo. Everyone’s about moving and keeping the words spilling onto the page without worry about the inner editors getting in the way with whether it ought to be a separate sentence or hooked together with a semicolon. It seems like a small distinction, but it impacts the finished project.

So instead of recording just how fast I type, I’ve been keeping tabs on how fast I can pour out ideas. It varies on topic and particular day for my energy, but it looks like I could finish a day’s worth of a NaNo requirement between 30 and 90 minutes. Big swing, so I’m working on it to see if I can narrow the gap.

What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

Yes, I’m serious. We all have our characters we come to love when we write. We have to in order to make it through an entire novel with them. Do you ever make it too easy on your main character?

In my writer’s group, one of the contributors is working on her first fiction project. She’s got a wonderful flair for description and the short bits she reads us are vivid. I’m sure it helps that she’s got a long history in nonfiction. One of the veterans asked her the question: “What’s the absolute worst thing that can happen to your protagonist? Do that and you’ll find your plot.”

It’s not always how I think of it, but it’s very good advice. Sometimes people try to go easy on their characters if they like them, though the best thing is to torture the poor protagonist until he wants to give up – except you never, ever let that happen. Even giving up is a choice and bad things can happen from it. Just like a juggler who throws all the balls in the air and then doesn’t try to catch them – one of them will turn into the brick to land on his head.

When was the last time you read a book where the worst thing didn’t happen? Did you get bored with reading it? The other extreme might be where believability hits. Did you put the book down because the events just couldn’t happen that way? Within each story world there are possibilities and consequences for every choice made.

Pretend you’re writing a young adult novel and Mom forbids the main character from talking on the phone for a week. The main character has two choices, to follow the restriction or to break it. Either choice has consequences. It seems very cut and dried, but what happens when you add the love interest who’s expecting a call that evening? What happens when you add the mother’s incessant checking of the phone logs? Then a father who allows it because he doesn’t know about the restriction? Does your character choose to follow the restriction even if it means the love interest will be upset? Does the character come clean to Dad about not being able to use the phone (and maybe even why)? Or is it just a one time thing that the character hopes won’t be noticed? Suddenly there’s a plot!

Might not be an epic plot right now, but the more consequences and reactions the writer adds to make the choices more tortured adds to the reader’s pleasure. Somehow George R. R. Martin gets named in protagonist-torturing crowd. Readers might get mad at him for killing off their beloved characters, but as far as I know they’re still reading. And making movies and a game out of the story line. I suppose we can’t all do it that way, but kudos to him for making it work well!

Next time you take a look at your plot, whether you’ve finished writing or if you outline beforehand, really dig in to see if you’ve made your protagonist’s life as troubled as you can. That’s when you know you’re writing a good story.

Note: This is not to say that writers love to torture people. We’re pretty much just aiming to get readers, and we can’t overdose on all the sugary fluffiness that it would require to make an entire novel out of things happening that aren’t bad. 

Where Do You Find Your Answers?

I find a challenge is best when looking to boost my creativity. Maybe I should say I’m finding that a challenge is best to really get the gears turning in my mind. This month’s challenge is prepping a novel, which may not seem like such a big deal when one considers that I’ve done this before. Often. But this one I’ve poured my heart into and it’s coming out my ears.

I have a protagonist that has an interesting voice. I have a couple antagonists, one obvious that is simply annoying and a potentially more difficult one who seems friendly mixed in with a lovely set of background events and characters who promise to make life difficult for the main character. I found a big question that my novel is probably answering.

The big challenge today was finding the question. The answer has not yet presented itself, but I’m still working. It’s silly because I wasn’t looking for that particular question. It just popped out of the free-writing exercise like it belonged right in the center of attention. So now, when I think my mind might be quiet, I hear that question whispering through my mind.

Like right before that yoga class I teach, I heard it. Luckily I didn’t repeat it out loud – I replaced it with ‘inhale’ and ‘exhale’ and some movements for my students to follow along. I’ve been thinking about it on and off all day, but it just isn’t clear what the best -or worst- thing to happen is.

I know some people don’t write with all this kind of preparation. A few people can dig right into the novel and write from Once Upon a Time and go until The End and have a story when they finish. Often it has to be dusted out of the wreckage of several drafts, but that’s the fun of writing, isn’t it?

I’m curious what you do to find your answers to those questions when you’re writing or when you’re planning a big project. Do you wait for inspiration to strike, or do you hunt down the answers to those questions with single-minded ferocity?

Criticism or Ridicule?

Free speech is a beautiful thing. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and has the ability to express it.

But, sometimes, I wonder what the point of expressing an opinion in a certain way is. I love to read. I love to write. I love this form of expression – and many of you who follow me on Google+ or Facebook will have noticed the YouTube video Words Are My Sandbox.

I learned from reviewing other authors and from working in critique groups that often it’s good to sandwich the bad stuff inside the good things you find about the piece. There are some where it can be difficult to find something nice. There are also venues with spoken-only reading and critique where it is easy to focus on just one flaw and miss all the rest of the beauty of that segment. Many groups implement rules about how to treat other writers and others try to focus on how professional the advice may be – but nearly all of them are not about tearing down an amateur. I know I never would want to be the reason someone decides to stop expressing opinions through words.

How does that change when someone becomes a big name professional? Why is it that I hear conversations where people discuss only the bad aspects of some series and trash the author for it? There are so many examples, but here are two:

1. Stephenie Meyer‘s Twilight series seems to take a bad rap from a lot of people. I know many who love the novels and read them again and again. I read them and enjoyed them, but they’re not something that will draw me to read them 50 million times. I’ve heard people call them nothing but a teenage romance and think it’s awful for a 110 year old man (or however old Edward’s character was at the time of publication) to be after a 17 year old girl. Whatever else you say about them, didn’t Meyer make some interesting characters?

2. J. K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter series has throwbacks to the British boarding school novels. Sure. I’m sure there were other critics, possibly about the whole good versus evil thing. But there were rich things in the story, too, that some of the amateur people won’t admit.

Maybe it boils down to jealousy or something else I can’t easily name. I don’t think a single novel will fit every reader out there – which is why we have so many different genres and subgenres and points of view on everything. I wonder if that’s how you know you’re successful – that there are people out there trying to trash your accomplishment. Perhaps I’m just too thin-skinned and I worry what people will say about my work if it’s out there more. It hasn’t stopped me from pursuing publishing yet, and it isn’t likely to in the future.

I can acknowledge that many of the authors I read and enjoy have flaws. Some of them take much less flack than others, but some are much better known than the rest, too. It doesn’t make anyone more discerning to burn another in effigy.

Next time you want to stomp all over someone else’s expressed art, think to yourself- did I even try to see the good in it? What is it about this that so many people find fascinating? We don’t have to “agree to disagree” (don’t get me started on the wrongness of this phrase) or agree on anything at all, but it might be nice to acknowledge that not everyone who disagrees with you is completely wrong. And, also, that the tired, worn-out, dog-eared copy of whatever your favorite novel is has its own baggage. Peace!

Deep Thoughts

Often I get magazines for one thing or another, and I like to read them when I have a moment. Recently I got a copy of Working Mother. The magazine had a special edition about the 100 best companies to work for from the perspective of working mothers.

One thing keeps sticking with me. There are three developed countries who do not require companies to offer paid maternity leave: Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and the United States.

Back up. Wait. Really? Why don’t we learn that in other places like we would learn about the Family Medical Leave Act? Do we really want to think about the fact that until 1993 we didn’t even really have something from the government to protect women while they take time off to have children?

At this point, that act guarantees only 12 weeks unpaid leave. Many families can’t afford that. Yet we think about how much time we can take off in terms of how long we can be gone from our positions. Americans must be workaholics. We’re not thinking about taking time off in terms of putting our family together on a schedule. Not considering the changes that will occur when the new bundle arrives. Not planning on discovering how their lives have to flex and going from there. No – it’s all about how much time you can afford to be out of your job.

Right- this shouldn’t be my rant. I stay at home. I don’t want to miss so many things about my children. I don’t have jobs that would pay me to be off since they’re based on my attendance and the students’. Then again, I have friends and acquaintances who tried or were expected to return to a full time schedule a mere two weeks after childbirth.

Why do we think this is acceptable? A woman hasn’t really recovered from the birth at that point. She definitely hasn’t had time to adjust to having a new life dependent on her. Many infants aren’t even close to having a schedule to allow either parent to have slept enough to be functional.

Sometimes I wonder if we know how much we’re missing. A friend of mine told me last night how she considers staying home. She knows there are more challenges with that – she and I speak often about how our lives are progressing. But she and her husband were on vacation with their young toddler and she realized how much she wanted to be part of her son’s daily life. Not that she isn’t – she spends quality time with him every day. She’s a great parent and so is her husband. Like many companies, however, she doesn’t have the flexibility to make her schedule less daunting. Some positions are like that. Many companies make them that way even if they don’t need to be.

Is it the workaholic nature of our culture that we feel this way about working and revolve everything else around that? Or is it that we don’t really value this part of our society except on an individual level? Our schools are falling farther behind and one look at Facebook will tell you how many adults can’t – or won’t – use anything close to proper English among “peers.”

Maybe I forgot we live in a capitalistic society. We follow the money – and right now it’s leading out of here because we’re not the best educated, not the most creative, not the ones to set the bar anymore. Do you ever wonder – what happened?

Does the World Need Another Fill-in-the-Blank?

I’m looking at writing an urban fantasy novel for NaNoWriMo. One of the challenges is to understand the market where I think this book would be placed. How often do you think about the market you’re going to be in before you write the book? I can’t say I do it often, though it is somewhere in the back of my mind when I’m thinking about a project.

Part of the trouble is that it’s difficult to imagine my book alongside the ones I take home and read. Not that I won’t be thrilled when that happens, it’s just difficult to picture ahead of time. Sometimes the closer I get, the farther it feels to the eventual goal. I have a published book out there, though it isn’t on the physical shelves of the bookstore. Some days that is hard to remember.

Today I was asking friends about urban fantasy novels they enjoyed. I know I’ve read a few, but I’m curious what draws in others who read that genre. I’ll also be making a trip to the bookstore this week to see what I haven’t read on the shelves that might be interesting or in the same market segment. The tough part might be keeping that list up to date by the time I get this manuscript ready to put in front of someone who can do something about the book-on-physical-shelf thing.

My answer to the title question is yes. It doesn’t matter how many urban fantasy genre books there are – mine will still be different. It’s like so many other things that take time and effort and seem to be a dime a dozen (bloggers and novelists can both fit in this category). If you want to make it work, do it. If you’re going to allow yourself to be daunted by the established names in the field, you’re toast. I’m working toward my goals and I won’t be afraid of failing. The only thing to be afraid of is not trying.

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