But That’s How It Happened!

“You’d think that basing a novel on real-life people and real-life events would be easier than making it all up from scratch — but it isn’t. Strange but true, the fact that you knew at least some of these people makes it harder, not easier. You’ve got to bring them to life for the reader. To do this you might have to rearrange, fudge, or add details. You might have to make up some new characters. And that’s OK: this is fiction, after all. If you want to turn it into a novel, you’ve got to make effective use of the novelist’s tools: plot, characterization, point of view, narrative, dialogue, and all the rest of it.”

This past summer a client asked me to critique the current draft of his novel in progress. It was based on the life of a lifelong friend who died some time ago. The first-person narrator was clearly based on the author himself.

I opened my critique with the paragraph above. “But that’s how it happened!” is a common cry among novice writers. It’s not a bad place to start, but it’s never enough.

An early clue that this manuscript hadn’t jelled yet was the dialogue. It sprawled. My first question for dialogue, my own or any other writer’s, is “Would you sit still for this if it were played out onstage or onscreen?” Most of this dialogue would have had audience members nodding off or walking out. How long will you watch minor characters chat on and on about their daily routines without ever making an observation that’s important to the story?

Sometimes, however, these endless conversations yielded valuable nuggets, an insight into character or a memory of a past event. You know the writer’s mantra “Show, don’t tell”? Some telling is fine and necessary in any work of fiction or nonfiction, but some of what these characters were telling could be more effectively shown in a scene.

This is what early drafts do: give you clues about what needs to be developed further in the next draft. I do a lot of freewriting in early drafts, often letting characters talk on and on or ponder what they’re going to do next. Often it takes a while to get to the revelation or epiphany that reveals character and/or moves the plot. It’s your job as the writer to wait for it, recognize it, then prune all the verbiage away from it so your readers will see it too.

When characters don’t drive a story’s plot, the writer has to do it, often by conjuring a new character or an unexpected event out of the blue. New characters show up, of course, and unexpected events happen, but in this case the story was completely dependent on them: unbelievable successes, terrible accidents, a treacherous colleague, and a series of women too good to be true. Quite possibly all these things happened and all these people existed in real life, but unless they’re integrated into the story they come across as plot devices introduced to make up for the lack of momentum in the story.

Sitting in the center of this particular story is the main character’s mother. She’s horrible. We see her being horrible, everyone agrees she’s horrible; she’s so horrible that I couldn’t stop wondering how she got to be so horrible. We see her being cruel to her son, but we rarely see him or his best friend trying to come to terms with her cruelty. The horrible mother’s husband is suspiciously saintly, and so is her older sister . . .

Then, near the end of the ms., one character drops the bombshell that saintly husband and saintly older sister were having a long-term affair while the boys were growing up. Whoa! Saintly husband, it seems, had wanted to marry saintly older sister in the first place, but for implausible reasons had married the horrible mother instead. Now there’s a development that could help sustain a plot and deepen our understanding of all the main characters.

And here is the big challenge for writers who want to turn events they participated in or witnessed and people they knew into convincing fiction or memoir: You’ve got to achieve enough distance from the characters to see things from their various perspectives. That goes double for the character with your own name or the fictionalized version of you.  This can be scary: What if heroes aren’t as heroic and the villains not as villainous as they seemed when you were living the story the first time round?

If you’re driven to put all that work into writing draft after draft of a story, it may be because the story just won’t let you rest till you come to the heart of it. Writing the story will change you. You’ll probably see things and consider possibilities that you didn’t before. We write to understand the story, and ourselves, better. “But that’s how it happened” is just the beginning.

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P Is for Point of View

When you’re blogging A to Z about writing and editing, P, like C, offers a dizzying array of options: place, placement, paragraph, period, periodical, prose, poetry, parallelism, proofreading, page, point of view, parenthesis, person, persona, present tense, past tense, prize,  production, project, projection, picture, photograph, pronoun, pseudonym . . .

Gay Head Cliffs

This is what I see when I think “point of view”: a vantage point from which you can see a lot but there’s a lot you don’t know. These are the Gay Head Cliffs, where a crucial scene takes place late in my novel in progress.

I settled on point of view (POV) because it’s playing a significant role in Wolfie, my novel in progress. Wolfie has two POV characters: Shannon, an artist and graphic designer in her 50s; and Glory, an artistically gifted sixth-grader who loves dogs. I’m writing both in what’s called a limited or close third-person POV, meaning that each character’s scenes are shown through her eyes and first-person pronouns appear only in dialogue.

In omniscient third-person the usually disembodied narrator knows everything, including what’s going on in people’s heads. A couple of times while in Shannon’s head I’ve caught myself writing something that boils down to “Little did she know . . .” This suggests either some form of omniscience or that Shannon is looking back at these particular events from some point in the future.

In a previous draft I started to write Shannon’s first chapter as if she already knew what was going to happen, or at least most of it, but this didn’t ring true to me so I jettisoned this approach. In the novel, Shannon and eventually other characters are feeling their way toward a piece of knowledge — a secret or a mystery, if you will — and because of the nature of that knowledge they can’t afford to be wrong.

“Hindsight is always 20-20,” so the saying goes, and for Shannon to know too much too soon would undercut the uncertainty that is driving the story. The other thing is that I still don’t know how the story ends. If Shannon knows and is holding back on me, I’m going to be pissed.

Only one person knows the secret and he’s not speaking to me, Shannon, or Glory. What Glory knows is buried deep in her subconscious; she has no words for it. Shannon is growing uneasy, but in the absence of clear evidence she fears she is projecting from her own childhood experience and her work as an adult sheltering and advocating for abused women. So without words or clear evidence how do I figure it out and convey it all to my readers?

As it turns out, my two limited-POV characters were giving me clues before I caught on to what they were doing. In giving Glory an aptitude for drawing and an interest in web design, I was cleverer than I knew. Clues appear indirectly in the actions and occasionally words of the characters, but the most direct clues come in the form of images, some created by the characters and some drawn from the story. (For more about where images come from, see my 2014 blog post “Grow Your Images.”)

In writing it so often happens that limitations foster ingenuity. A length limit can impose focus on prose that wants to sprawl. The discipline of rhyme and meter forces the poet to pay attention to the sound and placement of each word, to make each word count. (Prose writers can learn a lot from writing and reading poetry.) And in Wolfie the limitations imposed by the incomplete knowledge of my two POV characters are stretching me as a writer and helping me find new ways to tell a story.

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.