Be Brave

Writing does take courage.

blank paper

The challenge of the blank page

It takes courage to sit down (or stand up, if you use one of those newfangled standing desks) expecting words to appear on the screen or sheet of paper in front of you, hoping that those words will be worth keeping or will lead to something that is.

It takes courage to set out on a journey not knowing whether it’s worth making (probably yes, though maybe not in the ways you expect) and whether you’re equal to the task (probably not, but if you keep going you will very likely become so).

Revision is a key to this process, especially for those of us who don’t plan everything out in advance, and for those of us who do but are willing to go along when the material has other ideas. (More about planners, seat-of-the-pantsers, and improvisation in “Whatever Works,” “Notes and More Notes,” and “Backstory Happens.”)

With nonfiction, I usually know where I’m going at the start but often I don’t end up in quite that place. With fiction, my usual is to put a few actors onstage, give them a task, and see what they do with it. I write it all down and sometimes give direction, which sometimes the actors ignore.

In “When Chitchat Takes the Wheel” I blogged about critiques I did recently of two first-novel manuscripts. Both were full of promise — vivid settings, interesting characters — but both bogged down in dialogue that went on forever and didn’t develop the characters or move the plot forward.

In one case, several characters held differing views about issues crucial to them and to the plot, but they never discussed them with each other. You and I both know how that works, right? When you strenuously disagree with someone you want to get along with, you skirt the contested territory and talk about other things. This makes for amiable relations but it does not make for interesting fiction. Be brave, I told the writer. Let them go at it and see what happens.

In the other case, the endless chitchat had a different cause: the protagonist had no memories from before her mid-teens, but her traumatic early years were key to the plot. Survivors of traumatic events do repress their memories,  but giving this character complete amnesia about her upbringing did not serve the novel well. Other people remembered what she did not, so (1) she was a sitting duck for the villain, and (2) she didn’t know enough to go in search of her own past. Be brave, I told this writer too. Let your protagonist have some of her life back.

I just finished reading a novel with a promising premise: a family’s determination to avoid dealing with a tragic event leads to problems down the road. This premise is common for good reason: it often happens in real life, and there’s so much a writer can do with it. But this writer made choice after choice that kept the tragic event at arm’s length, both for the characters and for the reader. For instance —

  • Everyone affected by the event is warned not to talk about it, ostensibly to protect the one who is supposedly too fragile to handle it.
  • They actually obey the warning.
  • The novel’s sole point-of-view (POV) character is fearful and not given to thinking too hard about the past or anything else.
  • The characters rarely interact on any but the most superficial level.

As a result, the characters don’t develop and neither does the plot. Each character has a shtick, and the dialogue is often clever, but the novel came across more as sitcom than as family drama. Not surprisingly, the writer had to resort to melodrama and last-minute surprises to tie everything together. The result is less than satisfying.

What would I have said if I’d been hired to critique this novel as a second or third draft? Let your characters have their memories and their voices back. Instead of one POV character, try it with three: the three who experience the tragic event as children and then grow up with the memories, the questions, and the silences. And don’t lock them in their closets, impervious to the world and each other. Challenge them! Challenge yourself!

Be brave.

Point of View

If you go web-surfing or pick up a couple of how-to-write books, you can learn almost everything you need to know — and a great deal more — about point of view (POV).

What you have to figure out for yourself is what works best for whatever you’re working on.

First off, a short lecture: Everything created by humans has a point of view. Even the formal, scholarly stuff that pretends it doesn’t. Even the photographs that are supposedly worth a thousand words because you’re supposedly seeing the real thing, not someone’s possibly inaccurate, incomplete, or biased description of it. What you’re seeing is what the photographer saw and wants you to see. This was true long before Photoshop, and it’s true now.

Visual images have a literal point of view: a place where the viewer is standing, sitting, hovering in space. This affects what you see. You can’t see the dark side of the moon from Earth. You can’t see the backside of whatever the photographer’s showing you the front of. You can’t see what’s above or below, to the right or left of it either.

Here, though, we’re talking about writing, particularly fiction writing.

Fron Cover MockupMy #1 goal for my first novel, The Mud of the Place, was to show how the place I live in works. I live on Martha’s Vineyard. Martha’s Vineyard is in the news a lot, especially in the summer, especially when the president comes to visit. If you see Martha’s Vineyard on the news, you generally see what the reporters see: the summer resort, the quaint tourist attractions, the celebrities. I wanted to show what goes on backstage. The reporters and the summer people rarely see this stuff, and when they see it, they don’t really understand what’s going on.

In short, I wanted to tell stories about people who aren’t considered newsworthy. How to do it?

Mud wanted to be an ensemble piece. So it’s all in third person, with several POV characters. (Yes, I know they all sprang from my first-person mind, but bear with me here.)

Each scene has a single POV. Sometimes an interaction or a conversation can be glimpsed from both sides, but there’s always a scene break where the POV shifts. I learned a lot about each character from seeing him or her through other characters’ eyes. Sometimes a sequence of events remained out-of-focus because the POV character involved didn’t think or say anything about it, and the other POV characters didn’t know what had happened. I liked that a lot.

At one point in my first draft, a non-viewpoint character told my protagonist something my protagonist hadn’t suspected. I didn’t like that so much. In fact, it scared the hell out of me, because I had to drastically overhaul the plot and I was already afraid I’d never finish the thing. But I did, and Mud was much the better for the overhaul. I’d thought I was writing a tragedy. Turns out I was writing a comedy, in which nearly everyone is better off at the end than they were at the beginning.

Moral of story: Non-POV characters have a way of getting their perspectives into the tale. Don’t discount them just because you’re not watching the action through their eyes.

Wolfie talks a lot, but he isn't telling the story.

Wolfie talks a lot, but he isn’t telling the story.

Wolfie, my novel in progress, is set on that same island, but it’s not an ensemble piece. Like Mud, it’s all in third person, but it’s got a tighter focus. At present it’s got two viewpoint characters. One is a woman in her mid-fifties — Shannon from Mud of the Place, if you’ve read novel #1. The other is an 11-year-old girl. The title character is a dog. No scenes are told from his POV, but he’s as essential to the story as the woman and the girl.

The big challenge is the girl. She’s smart and observant, but what’s going on in her family is key, and she can’t see or understand a lot of it. More, she doesn’t have conscious access to some of her own memories. So in first draft her POV sections are being told in third person, present tense. I’m not a big present-tense fan, so this is a challenge. I also have to work out ways to weave this girl’s backstory into the novel. She doesn’t remember a lot of it, and the one character who does isn’t telling.

Come to think of it, the girl isn’t the biggest challenge. The biggest challenge is the character who knows but doesn’t tell. I hate him. I don’t understand how a person could do what he almost certainly did, and is probably going to do again, and still look himself in the mirror. But plenty of people manage, and if/when their monstrosity is revealed, a popular reaction is disbelief. Creating believable villains is hard. I had a couple of villainous characters in Mud of the Place, but I managed to keep them at arm’s length. I can’t do it with this guy.

There’s also a somewhat mysterious fellow hovering in the wings. I know who he is. He’s important. Is he a POV character? I’m not sure yet. A key scene’s coming up that involves him and another non-POV character. One of them has to become a POV character or I’ve got to figure out another way to get that scene into the story.

This is what I love about using just a few viewpoint characters, none of whom has the whole picture. It challenges me as a writer. I have to plumb those characters more deeply than I would otherwise. I have to come up with incidents that will prompt them to say or think things that readers will need to know. Sometimes they say or think things that even I didn’t suspect. That’s how I know I’m tapping into the deep place that the stories worth writing come from.